July 22, 2018
When I was a young boy, maybe six-years-old, my mother dressed my sister and me snug in our winter wear, so snug hardly an inch of skin was showing on our entire bodies and the snow pants and coats were so bulky that we could hardly bend our knees and elbows, but rather had to waddle like penguins to school. Although we lived just two blocks from St. John’s Lutheran School in Racine, WI, it was a treacherous journey for two children with the combined age of maybe eleven as the wind blew snow so forcefully into our faces that we had to hold on to the chain-link fence of the school playground to guide our way. When we were just a block away from the school a mini-van pulled up next to us and a nice lady kindly invited us to get in and she would drive us the rest of the way. My little sister immediately ran toward the van, but I grabbed her by the hood of her winter coat and shouted, “No!”, and we walked the rest of the way.
“Don’t talk to strangers!” This slogan had been drilled into our heads at school for the past couple weeks. We would watch videos in class about how to act if a stranger talked to us and how to recognize danger and avoid getting abducted. We even gathered in the school library for “Officer Friendly” to warn us against talking to strangers. The lady, who offered to give us a ride, I later learned, was my friend’s mom. My classmate was sitting just in the back seat. She apologized to my mom for scaring us and my mom told my six-year-old self that she was proud of me for following the instructions we learned in school: “Don’t talk to strangers or get into their vehicles even if they seem friendly.”
This isn’t a novel concept. We teach our children how to recognize danger in order to protect them. And this isn’t just for elementary school children, who lack the ability to make good judgments on their own. We prepare our children when they go to high school and college, so that they do not hang out with trouble makers, to protect them against predators, and to defend them against harmful teachings that they will be taught in public schools and universities. We tell them what type of behavior is not okay, so that they can defend themselves or seek help if a person of trust turns out not to be trusted. We warn them against the teachings of evolution, atheism, and materialism. And thank God my parents taught me the meaning of the Sixth Commandment or I would not have been able to distinguish good from evil when the sex-ed curriculum at my public high school taught ungodly behavior.
False prophets come to you in sheep’s clothing, Jesus warns us. This means that they look nice! They look like they can be trusted. They look like they just want to help you. So, how can you defend yourself against them? “You will know them by their fruits,” Jesus tells us. Just as we prepare our children for danger they will inevitably encounter, Jesus prepares us for false prophets by telling us to look at their fruits.
The fruits of false prophets are their teachings. False prophets may be very nice and good looking. You might have a lot in common with them. They may be impressive. They might even be members of the LCMS. You won’t be able to identify them as false prophets by any of these signs. You need to look at their fruit: what do they teach.
But to identify their bad fruit, that is, their false teaching, you need to know what good fruit is. Good fruit is the teaching of Jesus. You find the unadulterated teaching of Jesus in the holy Scriptures. St. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” and St. Peter writes, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21)
And how does God distinguish between the prophets, who prophecy lies in his name and the true prophets? The false prophets “speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:16) And so, you need to know what is from the mouth of the LORD and from the mouth of some dreamer, of whom there are too many to count.
Jesus says, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” And so, we need to be built on the rock, not just our little children, but we ourselves, no matter how old we get. We learn Luther’s Small Catechism in our youth not because Luther was such a great guy, but because they sum up the clear teachings of Scripture. The Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, the Office of the Keys, and the Sacrament of the Altar: these are all teachings of holy Scripture. If you are familiar with these teachings, you will be able to identify bad fruit from a bad tree, whether you are six or 106-years-old. And this means that you should be a student of the catechism no matter how old you get.
When you are familiar with the teachings of Scripture and your Catechism you will be able to recognize the bad fruit of false prophets. When preachers teach contrary to Scripture, whether that has to do with teachings concerning creation, marriage, or salvation itself, you know that they are false prophets. They’ll try to tell you that Scripture isn’t clear in this or that passage. Don’t believe them. Scripture is clear and profitable to the one who pays attention to it. Or they’ll say that Scripture doesn’t necessarily tell us what God says, but what men once wrote. This too is false. God caused the Scriptures to be written and he has preserved them for us.
If you look at old paintings of the fall into sin you might notice a peculiar detail. In many paintings, especially those from the renaissance period, the serpent through whom Satan speaks has a human head. And not just a human head, often times a feminine human head, one, who looks peculiarly like Eve. Now, why would so many artists paint the serpent to look like Eve? Didn’t they know what snakes looked like? They did it to make a theological point. How did the serpent deceive Eve? He said, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The serpent tempted Eve with desires he placed in her heart. Eve looked at the fruit and she liked what Satan said. And so, it is important for us to recognize that the fruit Jesus warns us against might look good to our eyes.
Bad fruit is bad, because it contradicts the pure teaching of Jesus. It’s not bad, because it smells putrid in our nostrils or looks rotten to our eyes. The most popular bad fruits are those that feed our inborne desires, as St. Paul warns, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4) You can’t just rely on yourself to identify good and bad fruit. What you like; what makes you feel good, may very well be bad fruit, as Jesus says, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts...” A preacher may preach a sermon, which touches on every single one of your pet peeves and turn his pulpit into your soap box, so that you exclaim, “That was the best sermon I ever heard.”, yet the preacher failed to speak a word about Jesus. Just because you like what a sermon says, does not mean that it is good fruit.
Holy Scripture is clear. Otherwise it wouldn’t be profitable for teaching. The reason Christians support women pastors, evolution, and homosexuality is not because the Bible is unclear on these topics. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” This isn’t unclear. Anyone with the reading comprehension of a second grader knows what it says. Christians don’t believe it, because they don’t like what God says. Likewise, what Moses writes in Exodus 20 is clear, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day.” And St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6, “Do not be deceived: neither sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” These passages and many others from Scripture are crystal clear. But their meanings are rejected, because they go against our feelings. When Jesus warns against false prophets, he warns against the desires of our hearts.
There are also many, who say that these are side issues that are not very important. All that matters is that we believe in and love Jesus. This is called “Gospel-reductionism.” It is a false teaching from the devil. All Scripture is God breathed and profitable, not just that which directly relates to Jesus. If we only believe the parts of the Bible that relate to Jesus, we will deny that passages we don’t like pertain to Jesus. For this reason, churches that embrace women pastors, homosexuality, and evolution also soon embrace teachings that Jesus is not the only way to heaven, denial of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s vicarious atonement for sin. This is why Jesus warns against all false teaching, not just some false teaching.
You might like a preacher’s personality, you might not. But you don’t judge the preacher’s preaching based on that. You judge it based on whether it is faithful to God’s Word, preaches the Law and the Gospel faithfully, and points to Jesus as the only way to salvation. This doesn’t mean that you can’t like your pastor. In Acts chapter 20 the Ephesians were most sorrowful that St. Paul said that they would never see his face again. They loved him, because he did not shrink from preaching to them the full council of God. Whether you like your pastor’s personality or not is not important, but rather that he preaches the full council of God faithfully.
Bad fruit can be really tempting. It looks good. It tastes good. It’s like it’s manufactured perfectly for you. So, what’s the harm in it? Well, it doesn’t give you eternal life. Only the good fruit does that, as St. Peter said to Jesus after many of his disciples left him to look after tastier fruit, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The fruit Jesus gives you was ripened on his cross, where he shed his blood for you. All Scripture culminates around the event of Jesus’ crucifixion for the sins of all people. This is the moment of salvation on which our salvation hinges. It is through feasting on this fruit that we attain eternal life, as St. Paul preached to the Ephesians in Acts chapter 20, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among those who are sanctified.” False teaching that makes you feel good does not give you this inheritance, only the precious blood of Jesus, which was shed for you and for which the entire Scriptures were written can make you an heir of eternal life.
Why do you spend so much time equipping your children, so that they are safe even after they move out of your home? Because you want them to live long and happy lives and be able to enjoy that life with you. Why does Jesus tell you to beware of false prophets? Because those false prophets can’t offer you anything good. False teaching kills saving faith. But the good fruit Jesus feeds you gives you eternal life with him. Nothing else can do that.
The best way to beware of false prophets is to cling to Jesus’ words, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them. Receive Christ’s word and sacraments for what they are: good fruit from a good tree, which is indeed the tree of life. No other food will do. Amen.