Matthew 7:15-23: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Wolf in Sheep's Clothing (610x351)“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” That’s what one of my seminary professors taught me. But there is a problem with that statement. It can be misleading. Oh, it is true in this way: In our fallen natures, we may not care how much someone knows until we know how much he cares. That’s one way how sin may reveal itself in our lives.

But here’s the kicker: Jesus never said anything like that. And when you think about it, you know why. For such an understanding can pit what someone knows (such as the content of the Faith) against what he does (how he cares). When that happens, you separate what someone believes, the faith, from what he does.

Jesus never does that. He never separates the love we are to have for someone else from knowing how we are to express that love. Listen to what Jesus says: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

Did you get that? Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so also are to love one another.” So, how did Jesus love you? He died for you. The love that Christ Jesus has for you shapes the love that you have for others. That love of Christ for you is even the core of the Gospel, even the beating heart of Christian doctrine.

So, if you want to love others, you need to know how Jesus loved you. You need to know that He died for you to give you His righteousness and eternal life. Without that knowledge, without that truth, you have an unanchored love that could even express itself in sinful, ungodly ways.

So, to care about others is to care about the truth of God’s love shown to us fallen and wayward beings. And to care about the truth, is to care about others. Faith and works go together, with works being born from the faith given us. The truth of who Jesus is and the love we have for others are so intertwined that’s it like a tree bearing fruit.

It’s impossible for a Christian to love his neighbor apart from Christ. Apart from Christ, you don’t know God’s love, or even what it is. And so true Christian love agrees with the truth, the truth of God’s love shown to us in Jesus. True Christian love never opposes God’s truth. To do that would be to express a love that isn’t Christian love.

To disparage the pureness of Truth shown to us in Christ is to despise Him. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). And if the truth—the truth of Jesus, the Truth that is even Jesus—sets you free, then to despise the truth of Jesus is to embrace the slavery of a lie.

In other words, if you spurn the truth of God, you do not, and cannot, love as Christ has loved you. For the love of Christ that you show to others can only exist when it is rooted—and grows from—Jesus’ love for you.

What if we were to say that we should care more about loving others than about Jesus’ love for us? We would then be saying that our love, the love we show others is more important than Christ’s love for us. Can you not see the danger of separating the content of the faith, knowing how Jesus loved us, from living the faith, how we live out Christ’s love to others?

And so we learn that even the love we want to share with others can become an idol in our lives. It becomes that when the love we wish to show others overrides the content, the truth, the source of why and how we are to love others. We must never separate Christ’s love for us from the truth of how Jesus loves us!

And so we arrive at Jesus’ word in our Gospel reading: “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are savage wolves” (Matthew 7:15). A prophet is someone speaks God’s Word. So, a false prophet is someone who looks like he’s the real deal but isn’t. He walks like a duck and talks like a duck, but is anything but a duck. He looks and sounds like a real prophet, but isn’t.

And if Jesus warns us against false prophets, then He must take doctrine seriously. Otherwise, why bother with such a warning? I mean, if someone is speaking something other than God’s Word, and it doesn’t matter, then why would Jesus even bother giving such a warning? He wouldn’t!

So, if a prophet is someone who’s supposed to speak God’s Word, then a false prophet is someone who looks like he’s speaking God’s Word, but isn’t. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He then lets us know how we can tell if someone is a false prophet. Jesus goes on to say, “You will recognize them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16).

So, what’s the “fruit” of a prophet? It’s what he says. Remember, a prophet is someone who speaks God’s Word, so his “fruit” is what he says. A false prophet, then, preaches and teaches something other than God’s Word, something that isn’t true but sounds that way. That’s why false prophets “come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are savage wolves.” They look pious and holy, but what they preach and teach will eat you alive—that’s the “wolf” part of the warning.

Now, to whom did Jesus say, “Beware of false prophets”?   Did Jesus say that only to His Apostles, the first pastors in the Church? No, Jesus spoke those words of warning to “the crowds” (Matthew 5:1), the rank and file. So, what does that mean? It means that you—not someone else—is to be wary of false prophets. If you shuck this responsibility off to someone else, then you are unfaithful to Jesus’ words.

“Beware of false prophets!” But how do you know if someone is a false prophet? How do you know if I’m not a false prophet? I wear pastor’s clothing. I preach sermons. How do you know if I’m not speaking harmful words to you, like a savage wolf who looks like a harmless sheep?

Jesus didn’t command you to disciple others by baptizing and teaching, as He did the Eleven, His Apostles. Jesus didn’t command you to forgive and retain sins, as He did His Apostles. Jesus didn’t command you to administer the Lord’s Supper as He did His Apostles, to celebrate and distribute it in His Church. But Jesus did command “the crowds,” everyone in His Church, to beware of false prophets. That’s Jesus’ command to you—and it’s not a suggestion.

Now, you’re in a pickle. For how do you know if I’m a false prophet or not? You know what you know based on your experiences. But your experiences could be wrong. Does your life experiences solely qualify you to judge if I’m a false prophet. No! For I’m supposed to deliver to you what Jesus gave to His Apostles (Ephesians 2:20, Jude 1:3), whether that’s been part of your experience of not.

So, you don’t figure out if I’m a false prophet based on your experiences. And neither do you know if I’m a false prophet based on your preferences. For its Christ’s Church, not yours. So, the only preferences that matter in Christ’s Church are His preferences.

And so you’re still stuck. How, then can you do what Jesus commands you to do? How can you be wary of false prophets? You can only do what Christ commands of you—to beware of false prophets—if you know the content of the faith. Is the prophet speaking God’s Word, yes or no? You can only know that if you know God’s Word.

No preacher, no synod, and no pope may keep you, or deny you, from being wary of false prophets. That’s true because Jesus commands the rank and file, “the crowd,” to be able to distinguish a false prophet from a real one.

The only way you can do that is to be in the Word. The only way you can do that is if you know the Scriptures. For if you don’t know the content of the Faith, which God has revealed to us in His Word, you can’t be faithful to what Jesus has commanded you.

“Beware of false prophets!” We fail in doing what Jesus gives us to do because we don’t know the faith well enough. And to make it worse, we’re lazy. We think we know enough. We don’t want bother learning more. I don’t need Sunday School. I learned all I needed to know in confirmation. And so we’ve become smug, even complacent. Who cares?

Jesus cares! Repent, beware of false prophets! And if you want to be lazy, and decide if someone is a false prophet based on your experiences, feelings, or preferences, repent! For when you do that, you then become Lord over the Church based on what you think or feel. That’s wrong! God’s revealed Word for His Church is the standard to know if someone is a false prophet.

It’s not over until it’s over. Until God throws in the towel for you, until He calls you home to eternity, you are to be in God’s Word like a bear drawn to honey. For it’s then that you begin to know enough to recognize if someone is a false prophet. That’s also when the truth of who Jesus is becomes so entrenched in you that you begin to understand—in your bones—how Jesus loved you. And it’s then that you love others in a fuller way, just as Christ has loved you.

It all ties together. Lies hurt, especially lies about God. The truth heals, especially the truth of Jesus, the truth that is Jesus. That’s why you—not someone else, you—must heed Jesus’ command to “beware of false prophets.”

Jesus loves you. He died for you. He gives you His body and blood for your salvation. He’s the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life to protect His sheep. When you watch out for and keep away from false prophets who would entice you from the truth, the Spirit of truth, whom Jesus has sent, is guiding you. That Spirit keeps you safe and secure in Christ Jesus, who is the Truth.  Amen.