THE PROLIFERATION OF FALSE PROPHETS
6/8/2012 9:43:38 PM -
"Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.
Every three that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits" (NASB).
Noted in a newspaper personal advertisement 'Yesterday in this space I predicted that the world would come to an end. It did not. However, I regret any inconvenience this may have caused.'
Some years ago, insurance sales personnel had to go from house to house and place to place, to enroll clients. Two insurance agents went to a neighborhood where an evangelist was holding a crusade. That day they could not enroll many clients. It happened that they came to the crusade at a time when people were giving love offering to the evangelist.
When one of the insurance sales men saw how much money the people were giving to the evangelist, he told his partner, I am giving up this insurance work to become an evangelist. The rest is history. The name of this evangelist is a household word in the United States, if I were to mention it to you.
As we continue our series on the theme, 'Back to the Basics' I would like us to continue from where we ended last week. The title of today's message, however, is 'The Proliferation of False Prophets.'
I. THE WARNING CONCERNING FALSE PROPHETS V. 15
We learned from Jesus last Sunday in His Sermon on the Mount that there are two ways, the 'broad way' and the 'narrow way.' Jesus says that you are to choose the narrow way because it leads to life. Now, Jesus warns you and me that there are some false prophets who operate in disguise to divert us from following the narrow way. Therefore, in verse 15, Jesus says 'Beware of false prophets.' The verb beware is an imperative, a command. That word means, 'watch out,' 'be alert,' 'be on your guard.' Jesus obviously assumes that there are false prophets. There is no sense in putting on your garden gate the notice 'Beware of the dog' if all that you have at home is a couple of cats. No, you do not do that. Jesus warned His disciples of false prophets because they already existed. Jesus regarded the Pharisees and the Sadducees in that light. He called them 'Blind leaders of the blind.'
In warning us, to 'beware of false prophets' Jesus held that truth and falsehood excluded one another, and that those who proclaim lies in God's name are false prophets, of whom His followers must be on their guard.
From Jesus' teaching here, we learn that false prophets are both dangerous and deceptive. The danger is that in reality they are wolves. In the first century Israel, the wolf was the natural enemy of sheep, which were entirely defenseless against it. Therefore, a good shepherd was always on the look out for wolves in order to protect his sheep. In the same vein, the church is at the mercy of a good shepherd or wolves. The good pastor or teacher feeds the flock of Christ with truth. The false teacher like a wolf divides the flock of Christ by error (Acts 20:29-30). One of the major characteristics of the false prophets of the Old Testament was their amoral optimism, their denial that God was the God of judgment as well as steadfast love and mercy. Every true pastor, teacher, or evangelist must balance God's love and mercy with His judgment. The danger is that if a preacher or teacher on one hand teaches exclusively about God's love and mercy, he encourages moral laxity or loose life. On the other hand, if he teaches only the judgment of God he becomes a legalist.
In the Old Testament, no prophet had a harder time with false prophets than Jeremiah. Jeremiah spoke to the people of the Southern Kingdom about the false prophets: '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 evil shall come upon you'' (Jer. 23:16-17). Similarly, God indicts the false prophets: 'They have healed the wound of My people lightly, saying 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace' (Jer. 8:11). We have such talk going on in many Christian circles today where the people are not living right. However, such talk, to say the least is a great disservice to the people of God. It gave the Israelites a false sense of security. It lulled them to sleep in their sins. It failed to warn them of the impending judgment of God or tell them how to escape it.
It is not an accident that Jesus' warning about false prophets follows immediately His teaching about the two gates, ways, and destinations. One of the things false prophets are good at is to blur the message of salvation. Some so muddle or distort the gospel that they make it hard for seekers to find the narrow gate. Others also teach that the narrow way is in reality broader than Jesus implied, and that to walk it requires little if any restriction on one's belief or behavior. Perhaps the most insidious and pernicious of all, dare to contradict Jesus and to assert that the broad road does not lead to destruction, but that in fact all roads lead to God. These false prophets claim that although the broad and narrow roads, lead off in opposite directions, ultimately both ends in life. No wonder Jesus likens such false teachers to ravenous wolves. They are ravenous wolves because not only are they greedy for gain, prestige or power but also because they are ferocious, that is extremely dangerous. They are responsible for leading some people to the very destruction, which they say, does not exist.
False prophets are more than dangerous; they are also deceptive. In chapter seven verse six, the dogs and the pigs, because of their dirty habits, are easy to recognize. But not the wolves, for they sneak into the flock in the disguise of sheep with the intention to devour the sheep. Consequently, the unwary actually mistake them for sheep and give them unsuspecting welcome. Their true character is not detected until it is too late and the damage has been done.
Have you seen a false teacher who carries a signboard, advertising that he/she is a false one? A false teacher does not announce and advertise that he is a preacher or teacher of lies; on the contrary, he claims to be a teacher of the truth. Every false teacher knowing that Christians are credible people conceals his dark purpose beneath the cloak of Christian piety, hoping that his disguise will avert detection. Therefore, the false prophet feigns piety, and uses the language of historic orthodoxy, in order to win acceptance from the gullible, while meaning by it something quite different, something destructive of the very truth he pretends to hold. Some of these false prophets hide behind the cover of high-sounding titles and impressive academic degrees. Some of them can say impressive prayers that would move you to do anything they ask you to do.
Therefore, Jesus warns, 'Beware.' You must be on the alert, on your guard, pray for discernment, use your critical faculties and never relax your vigilance. I like the name of Dr. Ravi Zacharias' ministry: 'Let My people think.' The fact that you are a Christian does not mean that you have to commit intellectual suicide. Christians are thoughtful people. The Bible nowhere teaches us to leave our brains home when we come to God's sanctuary to worship Him. When the Bible teaches us to empty ourselves, it does not say we have to throw away our mind. In fact, the Bible commands Christians to think constructively and challenges us to renew our minds on daily basis. You should not allow a person's outward appearance such as his/her clothes, charm, learning, doctorates and ecclesiastical honors to deceive you. You must look beneath the appearance to the reality. What lives under the fleece: a sheep or a wolf? One area that you need to be on your guard is that of prophecy today. Some people today state that their words are a direct revelation from God, but this is an incredible affront to God. It is a subtle deception, which you should beware. The priesthood of believers is an essential and safeguard doctrine for the Christian community. God's word says, 'For there is one God and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus' (1 Timothy 2:5).
II. THE TESTS OF FALSE PROPHETS VV.16-20
Having warned us about the rapid increase of false prophets, Jesus does not leave us in the dark. He sheds light on how we can detect false prophets. In this section, Jesus changes His metaphors from sheep and wolves to trees and their fruit, from the sheep's clothing, which a wolf may wear to the fruit, which a tree must bear. Jesus does this because sometimes you and I may mistake a wolf for a sheep, we cannot make the same mistake with a tree. No tree can hide its identity for long. Eventually it betrays itselfby its fruit. A wolf may disguise itself; a tree cannot. Some of you, who have gardens at you backyards, let us say you planted tomato seeds and they sprouted. There is a certain weed whose leaves are just like tomato leaves. However, you can detect that the other plant is weed when the time of harvest comes. The tomatoes will bear tomato fruits, while the weed will bear nothing. Therefore, Jesus is saying that weeds like thorns and thistles simply cannot produce edible fruit like grapes and figs. Grapes and figs were common in the land of Israel in the days of Jesus. Therefore, the tree and its condition determine the character of the fruit. 'Every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit' (v. 17). Indeed, 'a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit' (v. 18). The day of God's judgment will finalize the difference, as when non-fruit-bearing trees are cut down and burnt (v. 19). Jesus then, draws His conclusion: 'You will know them by their fruits.' What are the fruits Jesus is talking about?
The first kind of fruit by which false prophets reveal their true identity is in the realm of character and conduct. Do not follow anyone who tells you that character and conduct do not matter. On the contrary, character and conduct matter to God. Whenever the fruit of the Spirit is conspicuously absent in a pastor, teacher, prophet, evangelist, but the works of the flesh are more apparent in him/her, you are justified in suspecting that the prophet is an impostor.
However, you are not to confine your test to only a prophet's character and conduct. A second fruit is the person's actual teaching. 'The tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 12:33-37; cf. Luke 6:45). Therefore, if a person's heart is revealed in his/her words, as a tree is known by its fruit, we have a responsibility to test a teacher by his teaching. Some preachers have double tongue. This is an attention getter because the Apostle Paul warned the Galatian Church: 'But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, let him be accursed' (Gal. 1:9). The Apostle John also provides us with another example because the Asian churches to which he wrote his epistle had been invaded by false teachers (1 John 2:26; 4:1).
The sixteenth century reformers, led by Martin Luther were accused by the Church of Rome of being innovators and false teachers, defended themselves by this doctrinal test. They appealed to Scripture and maintained that their teaching was not something new but the recovery of something old, namely the original gospel of Christ and His apostles. It was rather the medieval Catholics who had departed from the faith into error. Martin Luther said, 'Cling to the pure Word of God, for then you will be able to recognize the judge' who is right. John Calvin made a similar emphasis: 'All doctrines must be brought to the Word of God as the standard, for in judging of false prophets the rule of faith holds the chief place.'
Thank God, for the Reformers because God used them to recover the Scriptures for us at a time when lay people were prohibited from reading and studying the Scripture. God has given us His inerrant word, which is the Bible and His inward witness the Holy Spirit to guide us discern false prophets.
Jesus went a step further in drawing attention to the motives of false teachers in addition to the substance of their teaching (John 7:18). Therefore, in examining a teacher's credentials, then, we have to examine both his character and his message. 'Sound doctrine and holy living are the marks of true prophets." The third test, which you must apply to false teachers and prophets, is their influence (2 Tim. 2:17-18). The influence of false prophets is determined when their teaching like gangrene upsets people's faith, promotes ungodliness and causes bitter divisions (2 Tim. 2:16; 1 Tim. 6:4-5; 2 Tim. 2:23; Titus 1:11; 3:9). Sound teaching by contrast produces faith, love and godliness (1 Tim. 1:4-5; 4:7; 6:3).
To make a proper application of this test to a teacher or prophet, what is needed is not superficial estimate of his teaching in the church, but a close and critical scrutiny of his character, conduct, message, motives and influence. However, this warning of Jesus does not give you the license to be suspicious of everybody or to hunt for false prophets. Rather it is solemn reminder that there are false teachers in the church and that we are to be on our guard. Truth matters; for it is God's truth and it builds up God's church, whereas error is devilish and destructive. If you care for God's truth and for God's church, you must take Christ's warning seriously. God places the doctrinal purity of church on a pastor's shoulders as the spiritual leader. At the same time, God places the same responsibility upon you as the congregation. Therefore, the Christian community should watch out for these false prophets and teachers because they are many today.
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