Beware Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
Beware Wolves in Sheep's Clothing
St. Matthew 7:15-20
by William Klock
Anyone here remember “Mr. Yuck”? When I was in school they’d send us home with these, so that mom or dad could put them on everything poisonous in the house as a warning for us kids to keep away. Well, I’m going to be Mr. Yuck this morning.
Last week we heard Jesus warning us that there are two ways in life: one that’s wide and easy and that we’re all naturally on by birth – it leads strait to hell. The other way is hard and narrow, but if you choose to follow it, it’ll lead you to Christ, who himself is the Way – and the only way – to heaven and eternal life. Knowing that the way to life is difficult and narrow leads us to the next part of Jesus’ sermon. The danger of following a hard and narrow path is that sometimes it’s hard to tell the sidetracks for the real thing. Sometimes the sidetracks may even deceive us into thinking they’re the way we want to go. So Jesus warns us now: “Beware the sidetracks!” In the verse that follow Jesus posts a divine Mr. Yuck stamp of disapproval on everything that isn’t the narrow path. Look at Matthew 7:15 with me.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. (Matthew 7:15)
It’s a serious warning. You don’t put a “Beware of Dog” sign on the fence if all you’ve got are a goldfish and a budgie! Jesus warns us about false prophets because they really are out there, like the Pharisees. He called them “blind leaders of the blind.” Jesus later warned his disciples in Matthew 24:11, saying, “Many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.” Almost every letter of the New Testament has some mention of false prophets, teachers, or gospels. They’re called “pseudo-prophets”, “pseudo-apostles”, “pseudo-teachers” or even “pseudo-Christs”. But in every case, they were all “pseudo” – the Greek word for a lie. And history shows us how these lying prophets, preachers, and their false gospels have been with us throughout history and how they’re still with us today. Their mission is to lead people away from the narrow gate. They disguise the wide gate to make it look attractive, they deny that the narrow gate is the only way, or sometimes they’re more subtle and simply distract the followers of Christ from the divine mission we’ve been given.
And that’s just it. Notice that Jesus warns us, describing these false prophets as coming to us in sheep’s clothing, but inside they’re actually ravenous wolves. There are some false prophets and teachers who have come and openly preached against Christ and against the Gospel. They’ve got figurative horns on their heads and they don’t pretend to disguise them. We need to be wary of those guys, but Jesus’ main concern here is for the wolves who come disguised as sheep. Think of the liberal mainline churches where it’s the norm to deny things like the divinity of Christ. They’re full of wolves who don’t even bother with a disguise anymore. But it didn’t start out that way. Heresy came subtly – little aberrations in doctrine that didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time and their teachers had all sorts of seemingly good intentions.
Remember the old cartoon with the wolf and the sheepdog? They’d punch the timeclock and the sheepdog would get to work watching the sheep while the wolf got to work trying to steal one for his lunch. Now, does that wolf have any interest in the welfare of the sheep? No, his only interest is in devouring them. And yet if he were to charge into the herd, the sheep would recognise him as an enemy and run away and the shepherd would attack. So the wolf puts on the skin of a sheep, he makes his way into the herd. He looks like them, he smells like them, he even pretends to bleat like them. Sheep are born followers, and so if the wolf is smart and gets the sheep to recognise him, he can lead them astray and away from the shepherd. Christ’s flock isn’t that different. Either a good shepherd feeds them the truth or the false teacher, like the wolf, divides it by error. St. Paul warned the Ephesians, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert” (Acts 20:29-31).
The Old Testament is full of examples. In Israel false prophets were known for distorting the people’s understanding of God. They created a false god who was all about love and mercy and blessings and abundance, and who had nothing to do with judgement or holiness. Jeremiah said they were guilty of “filling you with vain hopes… They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’ (Jeremiah 20:29-30). God complained about them saying, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:11).
That’s the kind of “prophecy” that makes people complacent. They’re walking the wide way that leads, as Jesus says, to destruction, all the while having false shepherds encouraging them to keep on walking down that path to hell, deceiving them into thinking that their sins don’t matter: “God is a god of love. He doesn’t judge. Sin isn’t that big of a deal. God just wants to bless you. God just wants to love you. You’re okay.” That’s the kind of teaching that lulls people to sleep and leaves them unprepared when God’s judgement does come. And that’s why this is such a serious issue. In the Old Testament the penalty for being a false prophet – for claiming to speak for God, while leading the people astray – was death. It was serious business then, and even though we now live under grace and not law, it’s just as serious today. Friends, we’re talking about heaven and hell – about the eternal destiny of souls.
And we’re talking about that, because false prophets are really good at blurring the issue of salvation. Some of them muddle and distort the Gospel so much that they make it hard for people to even find the narrow gate. Others will make out that the narrow way is actually a lot wider than Jesus said it is, and that you can walk it without changing your beliefs or your behaviour or making any kind of serious commitment. Some are really bold, even bold enough to contradict Jesus and claim that the wide and easy way doesn’t really lead to hell, but that all roads, even as they go off in different directions, ultimately lead to God. So I don’t think it’s any wonder that Jesus describes these false prophets as ravenous wolves. They’re responsible for leading people to the very destruction that they claim doesn’t exist.
But these guys are more than just dangerous, they’re also deceptive. Jesus talked about dogs and pigs back in verse six, but at least the dogs and pigs are easy to see for what they are. These wolves, though, come disguised as sheep, and because of that the undiscerning and the incautious mistake them for fellow sheep and welcome them in. They aren’t found out until the damage has been done.
Like I said, sheep are born followers. As Christians we want to think the best of those who come to us in the name of Christ. And so someone comes to us sounding very pious, but history shows that that’s how most false prophets come to the orthodox. They fake piety to gain acceptance and we’re often gullible enough to give it. We’re hungry for God and for the knowledge of God, and so when someone comes claiming to speak for him, we’re ready to eat it up. But Jesus warns that we have to be discerning. Our critical faculties are required. Jesus is telling us not to be afraid to look under the sheepskin to make sure there’s really a sheep under there. In fact, that’s exactly what he wants us to do.
So the question is then, how can you tell? How do you know if it’s really a sheep or a wolf in disguise? Jesus tells us. He switches metaphors. Instead of sheep and wolves, now he talks about trees and fruit. Look at verses 16-20:
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
You might mistake a cleverly disguised wolf, but we can’t mistake a tree the same way. No tree can hide its identify for long. Sooner or later it betrays itself by its fruit. Thornbushes and thistles will never produce grapes or figs. Only a fig tree produce figs and only grapevines produce grapes, but even more, the condition of the tree is important. A sound and healthy tree will produce good fruit, but a sick and diseased tree either isn’t going to produce or it’s going to produce sick, diseased, or wimpy fruit. And when it comes to the final reckoning, Jesus says, those diseased trees are going to be cut down and thrown into the fire.
The first kind of fruit we need to be looking for is character or conduct – the way the teacher or prophet lives his life. Just like any Christian, if he’s grafted into the vine – into Christ – then he’s going to be like the vine – he’ll be Christlike in his character. He’ll bear what St. Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit – and he can’t help but bear them because if he’s grafted into Christ, he’s going to be full of Christ’s Spirit. If you see a teacher who shows the meekness and gentleness of Jesus, his love, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control, then you have good reason to think he’s the real deal. On the other hand, though, whenever that fruit is missing and “the works of the flesh” are more visible than the “fruit of the Spirit” – especially enmity, impurity, jealousy, and self-indulgence – we’re justified in suspecting that we’re dealing with an impostor, no matter how good his words sound.
But fruit goes beyond just the way they live – it also includes their teaching. Jesus talks about fruit in terms of teaching in Matthew 12:33-37. He says, “The tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” A man’s heart is revealed by his words, just as a tree is revealed by its fruit. In making the distinction, Jesus is charging us with the duty of testing teachers by their teaching. St. John gives a good example of this in his address to the Asian churches. They’d been invaded by false teachers and lots of people were falling into belief in a false gospel. Just as Jesus warns us in Matthew, John, in his first epistle, warns those people not to be deceived , but instead he tells them, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). He encouraged them to look for righteousness and love in their teachers and to reject as false those who were unrighteous and those who were unloving.
But St. John goes even further. In 1 John 2:24 he tells them, “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.” I think this is the easiest test, but it also means that we have to be prepared in advance. John says that we need to test everything we hear against the gold standard of Holy Scripture. This is God’s direct revelation to humanity. Here the Holy Spirit spoke through men. This is inerrant and the Spirit is never going to tell someone today something that contradicts what he gave us in Scripture. But that also serves as a warning to us that we need to know what the Bible says. We need to have its message locked in our hearts and minds so that when we hear a false prophet or teacher or a false gospel we can immediately know it for what it is.
And when it comes to doctrine, John especially stresses in 4:6 the person of Christ: that Jesus was God incarnate, not just a man inspired by God. That’s one of the most basic messages of Christianity. If you don’t have that, everything else is worthless. That’s why most heresies, if you trace them back, almost always have their root in some error in doctrine having to do with the Trinity or they deny the divinity of Christ. If anyone claims to be from God and they deny the real divinity of Christ or if they muddle the doctrine of the Trinity, you know you’re dealing with a false teacher. As Christians we can have differences in doctrine on some things, but the Trinity and the person of Christ are two areas where we can never leave the slightest, tiny bit of wiggle room. This isn’t a place for experimentation or for playing with language. This is the core. This is what determines whether we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ or not. This is where we worship the God of Scripture or an idol of our own making. That’s what makes books like The Shack so dangerous and insidious. The slightest variation here has direconsequences. We never mess around with the doctrine of the Trinity or the person and divinity of Jesus.
Again, Holy Scripture is the standard. When the mediaeval Church accused the Reformers of heresy, they appealed to Scripture and made the point that their teaching wasn’t new, but a recovery of what had been taught always and everywhere in the Church before things got mucked up in the Middle Ages. Luther cried out, “Cling to the pure word of God, for then you will be able to ‘recognise the judge’ who is right.” And Calvin said, “All doctrines must be brought from the Word of God as the standard,” for “in judging of false prophets the rule of faith [and by that he meant Scripture] holds the chief place.” Calvin also pointed out that we need to look at the manner of teaching. Does the teacher exemplify Christ’s model? Jesus came not to seek his own glory, but the glory of God the Father who sent him (John 7:18).
Bishop Ryle puts it this way: “Sound doctrine and holy living are the marks of true prophets.” Some today don’t like to talk about doctrine. “Doctrine divides,” they say. Yes, it can and sometimes does, but sometimes it must. Sound doctrine binds true Christians together and at the same time it also keeps out the wolves. The key is to understand at what point doctrine must divide. We need to understand the difference between what is primary and what is secondary. We need to understand the difference between disagreeing over fundamentals, like the Trinity and the Gospel, and differences over secondary things, like church governance or the nature of the Sacraments.
The fourth thing we need to look at in a teacher or prophet is their influence. What effect does their teaching have on their followers? Sometimes the teacher looks okay, but when we look at their followers, we see people who are walking in the wrong direction. This is exactly what St. Paul was talking about when he wrote to St. Timothy about error’s tendency to “spread like gangrene” (2 Timothy 2:17). Error’s gangrenous spread is seen when it upsets people’s faith, when it promotes ungodliness and when it causes bitter divisions in the Body. Sometimes error is more subtle. Sometimes it truly does come like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Enemy knows that no one can snatch the Lord’s elect from his hand. He’s too late to keep us from entering the narrow gate, but he does know that if he feeds us enough error, he can sidetrack us from the Gospel mission – that he can damage or remove the witness we ought to have. The mission Christ gave us is to become more like him and to spread the Good News as we make disciples, but the enemy often comes and distracts us with other stuff – often with things that are good in and of themselves, but that aren’t are primary mission.
Social justice is a good thing for Christians to be interested in, the pro-life cause is a good thing for us to be involved with, helping the needy in our community is a good thing to do – but none of those is the Gospel and none of those is our primary mission. When working for social justice, helping at the soup kitchen, or being part of the March for Life start sidetracking us from holy living, the proclamation of the Gospel message, and making disciples, the enemy has done his work. It’s not that we did anything bad or that we shouldn’t have done, but that we let good things distract us from our primary mission. In the end, we did good things, but we ignored the one thing we’re supposed to do.
Sometimes, as he did in Galatia, the Enemy will bring false teachers who shift the emphasis of the Gospel. One of the most popular heresies of our day – and it’s popular because it appeals to our basest greed – is the “Name-It, Claim-It Gospel” or “Prosperity Gospel” (or as its followers sadly call it “Faith Theology”). We had a prime example is this rotten fruit this past February when a guy named Graham Cooke came to town. He took Isaiah 61:1-3, which talks about “the favourable year of the Lord.” The passage foretells the coming of Jesus as Messiah and describes the spiritual blessings he will bring to the people. And this “prophet” twisted that Gospel message into one of earthly, temporal prosperity. There wasn’t the slightest mention in his “prophecy” about holiness or about spreading the Good News of new life in Christ. His message twisted the Gospel from one of spiritual life in Christ, into a message of health and wealth and called on the church to go out into the community to spread, not the message that men and women are sinful, under the judgement of God, and in need of a Redeemer, but instead to spread the message that God wants to heal your body and grow your business. Jesus appeals to us to “lay not up for ourselves treasures on earth, but to lay up treasures in heaven. This guy’s teaching the exact opposite – even that God wants us to spend our time laying up earthly treasures. And what’s the fruit been in the churches that are following him? They’ve all but abandoned the Gospel message and instead are going out to pray for financial blessings on businesses in the community! As I said, the Enemy knows he can’t take the believer out of God’s hand, but he also knows that with the right message, he can turn the believer away from his real mission. Even if he only turns us a few degrees off course, we’re still off course and Jesus is no longer the centre of our focus.
Jesus gives us an obligation to test what we hear. But we also have to be cautious about becoming suspicious of everybody. Jesus’ warning isn’t a call to take up the hobby of “heresy-hunting.” He’s giving us a solemn reminder that there are false teachers in the church and that we need to be on our guard. Truth really does matter. It’s God’s truth and it’s by that truth that his Church is built up. Error and falsehood are Satanic and tear the Church apart. If we care for God’s truth and for God’s Church, we have to take Jesus’ warning very seriously. Jesus and the Apostles place a big part of the responsibility for the Church’s doctrinal purity on her leaders and teachers, but especially too on each congregation. The local church has a lot more power than I think it often realises or uses as it decides which teachers it will listen to. We’re seeing that today as events unfold in our own Anglican world. If the church had listened to this warning and applied these tests in the first place, it wouldn’t be in the current state of doctrinal decline and moral confusion she’s in today!
We need to be on our guard. Scripture calls us to mature, so that we’re not tossed to and fro by every wave and wind of doctrine that comes along. First and foremost, we need to be paying attention. We need to be inspecting fruit, and when the fruit isn’t right, we need to pass on it. Let me be clear. Truth is important. When error and false doctrine come along and you see the rotten fruit, don’t nibble around the edges at the good parts. Throw it away. Remember, this was a big enough deal in the Old Testament that the penalty was death. Error is something that comes from the Enemy. Don’t play with it! Think of it this way. We all know Mohammed was a false prophet, but not everything in the Quran is bad. Just like the Bible, it says that things like murder, stealing, and dishonesty are wrong. In fact I used to have a commercial client who owned an investment firm. He was a Muslim and ran his investment business in accord with the Quran, which meant he never invested in any company that didn’t produce some kind of tangible product. He’s one of the few investor I know of right now who is actually doing well. Good advice…from a false prophet. Does that mean we should be studying the Quran for enlightenment? Of course not! Beware anything with the Mr. Yuck stamp of disapproval on it! Or take the Book of Mormon, written by another false prophet. There’s some good stuff here. In fact, Joseph Smith in some places lifted whole portions right from the Bible. Does that mean we should look for nourishment here and just spit out the bones we find? No! More Mr. Yuck! And the same goes for any teacher or prophet whose message doesn’t accord with Scripture – for anyone who proclaims God’s love, but ignores our sin or points us away from holiness and the Great Commission.
If it’s bad fruit, throw it away. It’s a waste of your time to try to salvage it. False teaching doesn’t come from God, it comes from the Enemy and those who make a habit of trying to feed off the little good that is there inevitably end up eating the rotten fruit too. Look for the good fruit on the good tree – the fruit that doesn’t require that you nibble around the bad parts. Like St. Peter wrote, long for the “pure milk” of the Gospel.
But let me say, this is for all of us, I think first and foremost, a call to know the Truth that God has given us in his Word. Bank tellers spend time studying counterfeits so they know the tricks that are out there, but they spend a lot more time getting to know the real thing, because if you know and are familiar with the real thing, you won’t be taken in by the fake. It’s no surprise that the churches that have historically failed to emphasise the importance of knowing Scripture and that have failed to encourage young Christians to mature, are also the churches that lose large numbers to cults and false teaching. If you are a Christian and think that coming to church on Sunday morning and listening to a sermon (even when they get a little long like this one) is all the Bible you need, you need to realise that you’re not going to grow as much or as quickly as God wants you to. You’re also are putting yourself at extreme risk. Dear friends, if you don’t know Scripture, if you don’t know God’s Truth, inside and out, backward and forward, if you aren’t regularly (hopefully daily) getting to know the Word and if you aren’t steeping yourself in the teaching and wisdom of Godly teachers, you’re making yourself a mark and an easy target for the Enemy.
Remember, St. Paul said, that the Devil prowls around like a lion looking for those he can devour. His false prophets and teachers are out there too: ravenous wolves disguised as sheep. The good news is that we have a defence in the Word of God. We just need to study it and know it. Jesus calls us to a big task, but he also promises that his Spirit will walk alongside us as our Helper.
Please pray with me: Almighty God and Father, you sent your Son as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to you except through him. Father, we ask that you would implant this truth in us, that we might always see the danger of false prophets, teachers, and gospels that will lead us astray from Christ and the mission he has given us. You have given us your Word as a standard against which we can measure everything, and you have filled us each with your Spirit to assist our understanding and discernment. Give us a passion for your Truth, we ask, and keep us always vigilant. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.