"Wolves in Sheepskins"
(Delivered Sunday, May 29, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
I can't imagine that anyone would consider this morning's passage to be one of their favorites. It comes from our Savior's beloved Sermon on The Mount; but it's not one is considered "beloved". It's not one that we hear quoted very much. Rarely do we ever hear a sermon preached from it.
But at the same time, there are few things more important to hear than the warning Jesus gives us in Matthew 7:15-20. He begins with the word "Beware . . ."; and we should always take it very seriously whenever our Lord tells us to "beware" of something. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the thing our Lord seeks to protect us from in this passage is the most dangerous thing in the world.
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People would place a variety of things in the category of "the most dangerous thing in the world". I suspect that, currently, most people would say that terrorism is the most dangerous thing in the world today. Certainly, we have extended a great deal of effort into combating it. Others, I'm sure, would insist that the threat of the use of nuclear weapons between hostile nations is the most dangerous thing in the world today. Some would certainly suggest that the terrible epidemic of AIDs is the most dangerous thing in the world. But as dangerous as these things and other things like them are, I would argue that none of them are as dangerous as the thing that truly is the most dangerous thing in the world.
It is my conviction that the most dangerous thing in the world is false doctrine. You see; all of those other things are dangerous because they take so many human lives. And of course, that makes them truly and very gravely dangerous things. But from the perspective of our God - who sees beyond time and into eternity - something that can take our lives is only dangerous in a temporal sense, but not in an ultimate and eternal sense.
Consider what our Lord Jesus has told His followers;
"And do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell" (Matthew 10:28).
In these words, Jesus teaches us that true, ultimate danger is found in that which may result in our being destroyed in hell. Whatever may result in that horrible destiny truly IS more dangerous than things that can only take away our physical lives.
The ultimate danger, then, is in that which prevents us from being delivered from God's wrath for sin through through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. It lies in that which would cause us to remain unconverted from the path to eternal destruction and loss. And on the basis of THAT perspective, I submit to you that the most dangerous thing in the world is false doctrine - anything form of teaching, or system of philosophy, or body of propositions that is contrary to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that calls us away from a simple trust in Him as the Bible has presented Him to us.
And along with this, I would submit that the most dangerous people in the world are those who spread the most dangerous thing in the world. The most dangerous people in the world are those who present themselves as teachers of the truth of God; but who, in reality, persuade people to believe false doctrine - false teachers who lead people away from the saving truth of the gospel, and who encourage them to follow a course that will lead them to ultimate destruction. They are, in an ultimate sense, instruments of the devil and the enemies of humanity. They truly deserve to be considered the most dangerous people on the face of the earth.
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Now; I realize that what I've just said sounds very harsh. Many people living our pluralistic culture would be deeply offended by what I just said. Many would consider it "narrow". But please consider what our Savior says in the verses just prior to this morning's passage. You find them in Matthew 7:13-14:
"Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
There is a gate that leads to eternal life; but as our Lord here tells us, it is a narrow gate, and it leads to a difficult way. It's not a very attractive way to go, and many people simply refuse to take it. There is also a gate that leads to destruction; and it is a much more "wide" gate, and the way that leads from it is much more "broad". It's much more attractive, and most people prefer to take it.
Every man and every woman must make a choice. They must choose the narrow gate to life or the wide gate to destruction. Jesus urges us to choose the narrow gate of faith in His sacrifice on the cross for us, and the difficult way of discipleship as one of His obedient followers; for that choice alone is what will lead us to eternal life.
But this leads us to this morning's passage. Jesus warns that there will be some who will come along and proclaim the exact opposite of what He says. They will insist that you don't have to be so "narrow" as to go through the narrow gate. They will argue that Jesus is A way; but that He is not the ONLY way. They will declare that the gospel message about Him in the Bible is not exclusively true; and that there are actually many, many paths that lead to life. They will make a convincing case for choosing the "wide" gate and the "broad" way - and they will thus lead many, without their realizing it, down the path to eternal destruction.
And so; to those of us who hear His words, Jesus says, "Beware!" That's the first word in this morning's passage. In the original language, it's in a tense of the verb that calls for continuous action - that is, we are to always be alert, and always on our guard. He tells us to beware, so that we will not be fooled; and that we will stay on the path that leads to eternal life. He tells us to watch out, so that we will not become victims to the most dangerous thing on earth.
In this morning's passage, our Savior says;
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them" (Matthew 7:15-20).
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Let's consider these words carefully. And let's begin by hearing the implication of Jesus' words; that . . .
1. FALSE PROPHETS WILL ARISE (v. 15a).
Even if you don't know anything about New Testament Greek, I believe you will still very easily understand the meaning of the Greek word that is used here: pseudoprophętęs. It's one word made from two very easily recognizable Greek words.
The first word is pseudos; which means "false". Our English suffix "pseudo-" comes from this. A pseudonym, for example, is a fictitious name used by an author; or to say that something is "pseudo-scientific" means that it only pretends to be scientific.
And the second word is the word prophętęs; which, of course, means "a prophet" - someone who speaks forth a message given to him or her by God. And so a pseudoprophętęs is a "false prophet" - someone who presents himself or herself as God's spokesman, and who pretends to speak a message from God; but who, in fact, is a deceiver.
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If you are a student of the Bible at all, you'll agree with me: One of the most repeated warnings God gives His people in the Bible is that false prophets will arise. In fact, its amazing how often God warns us of this in the Bible. Clearly, its a warning we need to be reminded of again and again.
But let's be very careful. In speaking of these repeated warnings, we're not talking here of people who are simply in error in what they believe. When someone believes in false doctrine and is mistaken concerning the truths of the faith, we need to be very tender with them. Folks who simply fail to understand the truths presented to us in God's word, or who are caught in the grips of doctrinal error, need to be gently corrected and set on the right path. We need to lovingly help such a person come to terms with God's revealed truth. We need to, as the Bible says, take such a person aside and explain to him the way of God more accurately (Acts 18:26).
But that's not the kind of person we're talking about. What we're speaking of here are those individuals who intentionally raise themselves up as "teachers" and as "spokesmen" for God, and who propose to speak forth ultimate truth; but who, in fact, preach false doctrine and lead people astray. God calls such a person "the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods" (Deut. 18:20). Of such "prophets", the Lord says, "The prophets prophesy lies in My name. I have not sent them, commanded them, nor spoken to them; they prophesy to you a false vision, divination, a worthless thing, and the deceit of their heart" (Jeremiah 14:14).
And throughout the Bible, God's people are repeatedly warned to be on the alert against such false prophets and false teachers. Even we - who live in the New Testament era - are sternly warned against them. Jesus once spoke to His disciples regarding the last days, and told them ". . . False christs and false prophets will rise and show signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. But take heed; see, I have told you all things beforehand" (Mark 13:22-23). The apostle Paul once spoke to a group of pastors gathered together from Ephesus; and he was probably thinking of our passage this morning when he told them, "Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch . . ." (Acts 20:28-31). Do you see how often the warning is attached - "Beware"? "Take heed"? "Watch"?
Paul once wrote to pastor Timothy and said, "Now the Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron" (1 Timothy 4:1-2). And he later warned him to preach God's word carefully to the people under his care; because ". . . the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned to fables" (2 Timothy 4:3-4). The apostle Peter warned, "But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed" (2 Peter 2:1-2).
Listen carefully to this warning from the apostle John;
For many deceivers have gone out into the world who do not confess Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist. Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward. Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds (2 John 7-11).
How many times does God have to tell us a thing? Once should be enough! But here, we see that God warns us repeatedly to "Beware!" "Take heed!" "Look to yourselves!" Clearly this is a serious matter; and we need to pay attention to this warning from our Lord.
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Now; I thank God for the many, many great Bible teachers and preachers that God has given us today. We live in a wonderful time of an abundance of great teaching from the Bible. Many of the teachers and preachers we hear in various churches, on the radio or television, or that we read in print or over the internet, are very sound and trustworthy. A good preacher of the word is a blessing to the world; and in this respect, our land is blessed by God many times over. Wouldn't you agree?
But at the same time, I would suggest to you that it is a very foolish and reckless and dangerous thing to expose one's self to the teaching of just anybody who appears on television or on the radio, or who publishes a book, or sells tapes and CDs, or holds conferences and seminars, or even in a church pulpit. John tells us, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).
This leads us, secondly, to notice something else about these false prophets; that . . .
2. THEY ARE VERY DANGEROUS (v. 15b).
Our Lord hints at the danger when He tells us to "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves."
This saying of our Lord, of course, has almost become proverbial in our own day; hasn't it? We often speak of "wolves in sheep's clothing". And think of the picture it presents! It would almost be funny, if it wasn't so horribly serious! Imagine a fold of sheep - the most innocent and gentle and naive creatures on earth - peacefully and innocently grazing. But there, in the midst of the grazing sheep is the mortal enemy of the sheep itself - the creature that presents the greatest possible danger to them - a wolf. Somehow, he snuck into their midst. And they are utterly ignorant of his presence, because he is dressed up in the skin of one of their own. He looks to them just like a sheep - but inwardly, he is a wolf. And he's not just any wolf; he is a particularly ravenous wolf - ready to pounce on any one of them and fill his stomach with their flesh at the first possible opportunity. What a picture of danger this presents!
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And think of what a picture it presents us of the dangerous character of false prophets. First of all, they are terribly deceiving, because they appear to be followers of Christ. That's one of the things that makes them so dangerous.
They fool other believers because they talk just like Christians. They know how to speak what I often call good "Christian-ese". They pepper their talk with phrases like "Praise the Lord, brother!" and "Hallelujah!" and "Glory to God!" They quote Bible verses - and even seem to know the Bible better than most. They talk in theological terms and use theological phrases. But very often, if you ask them what they mean, you find that the meaning they give to those terms and phrases is different from what is meant by those who stand firm in the truth. They may speak of "Christ"; but they mean a different Jesus than is found in the Bible. They may speak of His "resurrection"; but they don't mean what the apostles meant by it. They may talk about "salvation"; but they don't mean salvation in the biblical sense at all. But unless you asked, you'd never know the difference!
Sometimes, they fool other believers because they look just like Christians. They aren't going to walk around wearing a big red sign that says, "Warning: I am a false prophet!" On a superficial level, you can't tell them from a genuine believer. They often appear to be living very decent lives. They may go to church. They may even be involved in the ministry of a church. They may even be in the leadership of a church. They may even be in the leadership of a denomination! They may wear a clerical collar. They may have a theological education; and may have earned a prestigious theological degree. They may have an impressive title after their name. And yet, they are not what they appear. You can't always tell just by looking on the surface.
Sometimes, they fool others by their winning manner. They have pleasant personalities; and appear to be very sincere and caring. They impress people because they have a large following. Perhaps they have a successful television or radio program; or because they have a best-seller out on the market. Very often, they are gifted speakers; and are very funny or emotionally moving. Most people like to hear them. They are often extremely popular. Their message is very pleasant. They speak, as someone has suggested, of 'a God without wrath, who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment, through a Christ without a cross'. Now who could be offended by that?
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They look for all the world like sheep! But the whole time long, inwardly, they are nothing in the world but ravenous wolves. They are very dangerous. And you would never know otherwise; because you can't tell by simply looking on the surface. You have to dig a little deeper; and then you discover the truth!
Do you want to find out if you're dealing with a wolf in sheep's clothing? Just try confronting that person about a matter of sin; or ask them about a questionable practice or a problem you see in their private life. Confront them with a question you have about a erroneous doctrine that they've been teaching; or about the way they may be mishandling God's word. Or try to ask them about why they don't teach from the Bible at all. Or just try to place a hand on their cash box! Ask for some accountability in their accounting!
Try any of these things; and you'll find out pretty quickly the truth of what you're dealing with! Many of us in the body of Christ have learned this from personal experience! We've extended a correcting hand to what we thought - at first - was another member of the sheep-fold . . . and were surprised when we nearly got that hand bit off by a snarling wolf!
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Now; before we go another step further, I want to urge that we deal with this whole matter very carefully. Jesus is giving us a warning to be on the alert. He's letting us know that false prophets will creep into the church; and that they are very dangerous. He's letting us know that we need to be on our guard, and keep on the defensive against them.
But I don't believe that this should be taken as a call to go out on the offensive, and hunt down the heretics among us. I don't believe we should run right out and go on "wolf-hunts". We should be on the alert; but we shouldn't walk around in paranoia - looking for false prophets under every rock! If we are alert, and if we do the things that Jesus tells us to do, we wont have to go on hunts for them. They will make themselves known.
In fact, I take great comfort in the ongoing ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit. He cares continually for the body of Christ; and He will reveal the truth to us - if we are listening to Him. The apostle John spoke of Him in the context of being on the alert against false teachers and false prophets; and he said;
But the anointing which you have received from Him [that is, the Holy Spirit sent to us by Christ Himself] abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him (1 John 2:27).
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And this leads us to a final point in Jesus' teaching about false prophets; that . . .
3. WE WILL KNOW THEM BY THEIR "FRUITS" (vv. 16-20).
Jesus is the Master/Teacher. He desires to get the truth into us; and He's certainly not afraid to use a mixture of metaphors in order to do so. (He clearly didn't have the English teachers I had in school!) He switches from the metaphor of sheep and wolves, to trees and the fruit they produce. You will know these 'wolves in sheepskins', He says, "by their fruits."
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I have found it helpful to consider these verses in terms of the different principles of "spiritual horticulture" Jesus presents to us. The first principle I see is that one's true nature determines the kind of "fruit" he will bear. Jesus asks, "Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?" (v. 16).
Apparently, in Jesus' day, there was a certain thistle called "the buckthorn"; and it bore black berries that looked very much like grapes. And there was also a certain thistle that had a flower; and that flower, from a distance, looked like a fig. But one bite from this berry would prove that it certainly wasn't a grape; and a closer look at this flower would prove that it certainly wasn't a fig. A man may. at first, mistakenly look for grapes from such thornbushes or figs from such thistle flowers; but if, after he discovered the truth, he kept going there to look for grapes and figs anyway, he would be a fool!
Once you've determined that the thornbush isn't a grapevine, and that the thistle isn't a fig tree, you might as well become resolved to the fact that it will never find grapes or figs from them - no matter how many times you look. It is only in the nature of grapevines to produce grapes, and in fig trees to produce figs. The true nature of a tree determines what its fruit will be. Jesus says, "Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" (v. 17).
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Many people believe that becoming a "Christian" is a matter of externals: that is, you agree to a certain standard of doctrine, you attend a church, you do charitable deeds, and you behave in a moral way. But really, becoming a Christian involves a "radical" transformation - "radical" in the formal sense of "down to the root". A Christian is someone who has become a completely different person on the inside. A Christian, in the final analysis, is someone in whom Jesus Christ dwells through the Person of His indwelling Holy Spirit; and all the changes and behavior in a Christian's life are produced by the indwelling Holy Spirit of Christ from the inside out - and not the other way around.
This leads us to a second principle: that one cannot produce fruit contrary to true nature. Jesus goes on to say, "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit." A false teacher can never produce good fruit. He or she simply cannot! The only fruit, in the end, that he will produce is bad fruit; because that's the nature of a false prophet.
When it comes to the question of what constitutes "good fruit", I believe a good, biblical answer is found in Galatians 5:22-23, where we read of the fruit of the Spirit: the fruit of "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law."
The fruit of the Spirit is a picture of Jesus Himself; and the fruit of the Spirit is a matter of Him living His life out through us. And so, when someone is examined as to whether or not they're a genuine teacher of God's truth, you 'll find the Lord Jesus displaying His characteristics - the fruit of the Spirit - in that person's life. Such a person will display genuine and active sacrificial love, an attitude of joy that prevails over the circumstances, a peace within and a desire to seek peace with others, a patient and longsuffering manner toward others in error, an active kindness and a desire to see goodness prevail in the lives of those around him, a good record of being faithful and honest, a humble gentleness toward those who are in opposition, and personal conduct characterized by self-control.
By contrast, a false prophet would be characterized by what Paul referred to as "the works of the flesh": "adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contention, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambition, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21).
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Those last words of Paul lead us to a third principle of "spiritual horticulture": that that which does not produce good fruit is removed. Their fruit proves that Christ is not in them. And such will not inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus says, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
You may be surprised to discover that these words are the very same words that John the Baptist spoke before Jesus' public ministry began. He spoke to the hypocritical Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for a sham baptism; and he rebuked them strongly, saying, ". . . Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and throne into the fire" (Matthew 3:9).
And clearly, such lack of good fruit in someone's life is meant to prove that they do not have a relationship with Christ by faith, and that He was not dwelling in them; because Jesus - on another occasion - said, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned" (John 15:5-6).
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One's true nature determines the kind of fruit they will produce. No one produces fruit contrary to their true nature. And what's more, everyone who does not produce good fruit is doomed to be removed from the scene. And so, when it comes to false prophets, Jesus tells us, "Therefore by their fruits you will know them" (v. 20). In fact, He tells us this twice in this passage. It's something He clearly wants us to know.
May God help us to heed Jesus warning. It concerns the most dangerous thing in the world. May he help us to "Beware" of wolves in sheepskins.
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