Beware of False Prophets
9th Sunday after Pentecost
8th Sunday past Holy Trinity
by Reverend Adrian Richard Kelly
August 4, 1968
The Words of the Lord as recorded in our text are a warning which is not very popular among many of the Christians today. We are in the midst of a great ecumenical movement. This is a day of change, of understanding, and of tolerance. The over-riding tendency is to be liberal, big-hearted, to honor and give credence to religions opinions which are contrary to ours. Surely, we are told, no one who lays claim the Christian name could be a false prophet or a heretic. It is a good thing, some say, that we disagree on various doctrines, for this makes us think and keeps us on our toes. In fact, we have, it seems, reached that point where anyone who stands up against that which is false is the one who is branded. He becomes the one who causes divisions.
Now it is true that there are things on which Scripture is not clear, and it is true that the one who reads too much into what is not there is guilty as is the one who overlooks or changes what is written. Nevertheless the Lord's warning stands, "Beware of false prophets." If a Christian, and especially a Christian pastor is to fulfill his obligation, he must not only feed the flock entrusted to him, but also warn with a clarion voice against false prophets. If this be called a lack of Christian large-mindedness, then we must glory in being small-minded. There is no room among us for both truth and error. If just a little error is allowed, it soon endangers the whole of Christian doctrine. For, as St. Paul says of false doctrine, "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump." Even the least false doctrine, taking root in you as you listen to a false prophet, will eventually corrupt you entirely and overthrow the faith which is yours.
And yet we may be inclined to think that these words of our Savior were meant for others, but not for us. We have, so we feel, learned to follow the truth as it is in Jesus and avoid what is false. If Jesus were to ask us, as He did the Twelve, will ye also go away?" we would answer with Peter, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."
Perhaps we are surprised, then, to note that it was not just to the multitude that our Lord spoke these words, but also to the chosen few who said, "We believe and are sure that Thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God." Even they were not beyond the reach of the wolves in sheep's clothing. If it was necessary for those who walked and talked with the Savior to be warned thus, how much more must we heed the Master’s warning to beware of false prophets.
If this is to be done, it is necessary for every Christian to know with certainty just who are the false prophets. In today's Gospel our Lord has provided for us a description of these deceivers so that none of us should be misled. He has there told us of their general appearance and also indicated to us the special marks by which they are known.
Beware of false prophets, which came to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." Just as the wolf in the children's story of Little Red Riding Hood did not appear to be a wolf, neither do false prophets appear in the garb of wolves. That is, false prophets do not come to you and say, 'We are false prophets. It is our intention to lead you astray." Rather, they appear in sheep's clothing; that is, in outward appearance they cannot be distinguished from true prophets. Some may even be totally sincere in their teachings and consider themselves to be true prophets.
What is this sheep's clothing which they wear? Jesus says in His description of false prophets, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven." Very few of the pastors or religious workers will not call upon Jesus as Lord. But the fact that they use the name of Jesus does not make them true prophets. Certainly, a true prophet will extol always the Lord Jesus. But a man may have the name of Jesus on his lips, may speak highly of Him as a model, may even call Him the Son of God, and yet be a false prophet.
...Some groups readily speak of Jesus Christ, but upon questioning, admit that they do not believe that Jesus is God. They [may likely bring -ed.] up the verse John l4:28 where Jesus says, "The Father is greater than I." Now the only way you can answer a false prophet is with the Word of God, so when they come to you with this argument, you can readily answer that is true, because it speaks of the Savior's human nature. If they would use that verse, neither can they ignore other portions of Scripture which specifically speak of Jesus as being God. Use the very same book, John, chapter 1, which speaks about the Word and says the Word was God, and then in later verses identifies this Word as Christ, who came in the flesh. Point out that Jesus says, 'I and My Father are one." Your use of the Word will show them up for what they are....
This has indicated a second feature of their sheep's clothing. They often are good at using the Word of God. Again, every true prophet will consistently use the Scriptures; he will base his sermons on a scriptural text. But a man may talk Scripture and still be a false prophet, misinterpreting it and falsely quoting it in defense of his error as even the devil did when he tempted Christ in the wilderness.
Many false prophets are, in addition, to be found inside the Christian church. They may lead Christian congregations, but they do not confess that Jesus Christ is true God and true man. They devise for themselves their own doctrines of moral goodness and reject the scriptural doctrines which are the framework of the Christian religion. I'm sure you have all read or heard of recent surveys of ministers of various denominations which indicate that there are in¬deed many preachers who do not believe in the Bible doctrines of the resurrection of Christ, in the virgin birth, even in Christ's death on the cross for the redemption of sinners. They deny the Genesis account of creation, and some that Jesus is God.
Finally, in general appearance they cannot be told from true prophets as far as their success is concerned. False one, as well as true, may experience great success, they may perform deeds which border on the miraculous, and yet be among those of whom Christ says, "I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."
At this point we could say, "Well, then, how are we to know a true prophet from a false one? " We would not be able to, except that the Lord indicates special marks. He tells us that they come to us. They have no call from God, yet they would force themselves and their doctrines upon us. They come to us in person, over the radio waves, by means of television, through the printed page. They lay claim to be what they are not, as one I recently heard on the radio. He pointed out that Jesus said He would send the Comforter. And, he said, I am that comforter.
But you and I have a sure way of knowing them for what they are. "Ye shall know them by their fruits." Just as an apple tree will produce apples, and a thorn bush will bring forth thorns, so will a false prophet produce such fruit as is expected of him. What is this fruit? It has often been suggested that it is the false prophet's ungodly life. It is said that he does not make his life correspond to his teaching, does things unbecoming to a Christian, commits gross offenses. This is not correct. True it is that a minister, as anyone, is to lead a godly and holy life. That must be the fruit of his Christianity. But it is not the fruit of his prophecy. The fruit of a prophet is his prophecy, the fruit of a teacher, his teaching. The special mark of a false prophet is his false teaching.
The Lord tells us to preach His Word; proclaim His will. We are to preach Law and Gospel, to let all men know that they are sinners, and to urge them not to despair, but hold up to them Jesus Christ as the only Redeemer from sin, that they might look to and believe in Jesus, who bled and died for us all on the cross.
Now, if a person deviated from this Word of God, if he adds anything to it or takes anything from it; if he distorts Scripture to conform to his human reason; if he sets aside Christ's merits and teaches salvation by human righteousness, then he is a false prophet.
Now a question arises. Is every person who teaches some point of doctrine incorrectly to be classed as a false prophet in the sense of our text? The answer is in 1 John 4:2-3: "Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God; and every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God." One might preach Christ and still be guilty of misinterpreting some doctrine. But if he truly preaches Christ as the only Savior, he is not one of Satan's ravening wolves.
Nevertheless, if such a person is himself deceived by one of Satan's wolves so that in even one point he runs with them, he is serving as a decoy to lure other members of Christ's flock away from Him. Whether it be proclaimed by a false prophet or an erring Christian, we are at all times to beware of false doctrine. The originator of every untruth in religion is the devil himself, and we must be on guard whether we face one of the wolves or one who unwittingly assists them. If we, then, search the Scriptures, we shall be able to identify false prophets and their false teachings, and beware of them. For Jesus says, "If ye continue in My Word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth." Amen.