We come to the warning part of the church year. The next few weeks are warnings against false belief. We start out with a direct warning against false teachers. This is a second commandment issue. We learn in the second commandment that we must not curse, swear use satanic arts lie or deceive by God’s name. False teaching is lying in God’s name. True, the second commandment also covers lying under oath in a court of law. But the largest lie in God’s name is when people claim to speak for God and claim to teach his word, but do not. Jesus warns us against this again later in Matthew’s Gospel. He quotes the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” That’s what happens when someone teaches false doctrine. They speak a commandment from the heart of man as if it were actually from the mouth of God. Their worship is in vain. It does not honor God, it blasphemes him.
This is first of all a warning to pastors. Pastors must be careful that all they teach is the true word of God, and is not mixed with error. Pastors are to be shepherds, not ravening wolves. It’s why our church places such a high value on pastors being trained properly to read and interpret and teach the word faithfully. But it is also a warning to the flock. You must not listen to any teachers that teach falsely. They are not to be brought into the church, and if they are, you need to show them the door. To do this, you must be in the Word, constantly hearing and learning it, and you must also be watchful at all times. And when you hear the word preached to you, you must be like the Christians in Berea in the book of Acts. We are told that they were noble, because “They received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
This is the standard we follow. When someone brings you the word of God, you are to say, “Is this what the Word of God teaches? Or is it the invention of men?” If it really is the Word of God – you must hear it, learn it, stand by it – even be willing to die for it. If not, if it is really the commandment of man masquerading as the doctrines of God, then you must not listen to it, and you must be willing to fight against it with all you have. This may be as simple as saying, “That is not what the Word teaches.” But it may also be that you must give up even your life. Paul talks about this in our Epistle in Romans – comforting us with these words, “we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Our sufferings in this world are not worth being compared to the glory that is to come. So no matter what may happen as a result of our good confession, we willingly make that confession of faith. The Word of God is that important.
And if it were just that the Word were important on its own merits, that would be enough. God said it, he is the creator of the universe, he made us and still provides for us, and protects and defends us in order that we would thank and praise serve and obey him. So God saying it is certainly enough reason to fight and if necessary die for the truth.
But there is more to it than even that. Jesus also talks about the fruit of the teaching. False teaching bears bad fruit. The true doctrine bears good fruit. That’s another reason to be careful. Fresh fruit ready to be eaten is a wonderful thing. But how immediately disgusting if you find out the fruit has gone bad. And it isn’t ever just one piece. You know that bad fruit destroys the fruit around it. That’s why we must be careful. Because false teaching infects and destroys all it touches, and the bad teaching continues to spoil as it moves outward, turning more and more away from the word and promise of salvation given by our Lord Jesus Christ.
So how do we recognize the bad fruit of false teaching, before it destroys us? That’s the real challenge.
But here we are also helped by our Lord. The fruit of the prophet or preacher is those who follow. And where do they follow? Where does the teaching lead? To whom do they look for salvation? And what sort of salvation are they looking towards? Does it lead to human wisdom and human works, or to love of God and our neighbor – in that order.
Today there are a lot of prosperity preachers – if you just send me $10, then God will return it a hundred fold & you will have many dollars. But that’s just greed. Even if they were not just lying to get their grubby hands on your money, the fruit of their teaching is “more money for you!”. It’s turning you away from God to what you get for you. That’s not the love of God and your neighbor at all. That’s building an earthly kingdom of wealth – and wealth is quickly undone.
Back during the battle for the bible, the false teachers came with words we knew – freedom of theGospel,but they didn’t at all mean the same thing. They wanted to use freedom as freedom to decide what parts of God’s word to listen to, and what parts to ignore. That leads to self-regard and self-importance, not to love for God and his word. And that’s what Jesus means by “They come in sheeps clothing.” They come with words that sound familiar, but they use them differently. That’s why it’s important for us to be in the Word of God, to know our catechism. Because that pattern of speaking is important. And if others come – even if they come with words we recognize – but they come with a different way of using those words – that is not the pattern of sound words, it will not lead to the true fruit of the Gospel. It is a thornbush and a thistle. Bad fruit. It will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
We never know where the next wolf will try and sneak in. We can’t pick the battles. But we know the Lord is with us. This is also a great consolation. It is why we pray that God would give us the strength. We prayed, “We can not do anything that is good without you, so by your Spirit, may we be enabled to live according to your will.” We must turn to the strength which God gives us, not our own strength. That is the only way to win the battles against the ravening wolves and their false doctrines.
Remember the famous account of King David in 1 Samuel 17 – long before he was king he was a shepherd boy for his father. And he was given the task of watching the sheep. Simple enough. Until a bear came, and a lion came. And he killed them both with nothing but a slingshot. Not because he was so strong, but because he had been given strength by God to fulfill his task. His Father told him to watch the sheep. He obeyed, and so his work was pleasing to God. And when that lion and bear came, he trusted in God. So when Goliath was taunting the armies of Israel and no one dared to fight him, David saw it and was mad. He wasn’t a solider in the army. He was delivering food to his brothers – who were all bigger and stronger than him. But it was scrawny little David who said, “I’ll fight him.” He was too small to fit in armor, so he went up against the great giant in his shepherd’s outfit. No protection of any kind. One blow with Goliath’s sword, and he was done for. David wasn’t afraid. Because unlike the armies of Israel that looked at the might of the Philistines and the size of Goliath’s sword, David looked at the might of the Lord who was fighting for him. God gave him the victory over goliath. David had picked up five smooth stones. He only needed one. Goliath fell at the first shot, and David killed him with his own sword.
That’s the promise we have from God. That even though we are overmatched, we will not be overcome. Don’t take it as a promise of an easy life. Jesus says ravening wolves coming to destroy. Paul says “Suffer with him.” Jesus was crucified. But it was in his death – his total defeat – that he won the absolute victory. In his death, he won the forgiveness of sins for you. He beat back death, and broke its power. Even Satan and Hell are thrown down, and their reign is finished. That’s how it is for God’s people. We don’t win until we have been defeated. That’s when God gives the victory. Because that’s when we know that it was him, not our own efforts, that won it for us. And so we turn to the rock and refuge, the mighty fortress, instead of to ourselves. So that even if we forfeit our lives for the sake of the Gospel, we know there is a crown of life that awaits. We go from this shadow life to the real life of God in Christ Jesus. The more we are defeated, the more we win the victory.
And that’s why we must have the word preached purely. So that our victory in Christ Jesus is not turned to us and our own works. We can not win. Only Christ Jesus can do that.
In Luther’s day there were men who wandered about teaching and preaching their own thoughts. Luther called them “Infiltrating and clandestine” preachers. They brought their bibles along, and said a lot of the right things. They were impressive and dramatic and a lot of people were taken in. Luther writes and says, “Where is their call? Who called them to teach.” And he actually quotes the verse in our Old Testament lesson, “”I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.” That’s why the church still calls pastors today. The pastor says “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you your sins…” But why does he say that? Because in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, the church called him. It’s a Divine Call from God. Not from any one person. The congregation, advised by the District, and supported by the other pastors in the area all act together in God’s stead to get to point of calling a faithful pastor. No one person does it. That is also a great comfort – especially when congregations or pastors go through tough times. It means the pastor is God’s servant in your midst. He isn’t just setting up his own thoughts. So you can know that the forgiveness he brings is Christ’s forgiveness, not his own. That was the problem in Jeremiah’s day. Men coming claiming a vision and saying, “Everything will be fine.” Jeremiah came with the Word of God and said, “Jerusalem will be destroyed if you do not repent.” And the people didn’t like what he said, so they didn’t listen to him. And Jerusalem was destroyed, just as God had said through Jeremiah the prophet. In Luther’s day many came claiming a vision. Luther points to that word of Jeremiah. Did God send you?
This leads to another question – How can you know that your congregation teaches the truth? Today there are a lot of options out there – you can find a church that will tickle whatever fancy you have. Will say whatever you want to hear. But we are warned by Jesus to listen only to his word, and only to pay attention to those who speak that word, and to listen to no one else. That’s why we spend so much time making sure pastors are able to teach rightly, that they are properly called, and ordained and installed in accordance with God’s will.
The fruit of our Lord’s word is an eternal inheritance. The fruit of the false teachers is self-involvement, trusting in your own works, or merits or decisions. That leads finally to death and condemnation. We have such a great treasure from our Lord Jesus – forgiveness, life, and salvation in him. Let us not despise or neglect such a great treasure as this. Let us trust always in his death for the forgiveness of our sins, and not in our own works or merits.
In Jesus name.