Text: Matthew 7:15-23
Title: Is this for Real?
Theme:Since Jesus is a doer of God's will, therefore as His followers, we are to be obedient like Him.
In Hangzhou, you have 四季新. Beijing, 鬼市. Hongkong, 女人街. In Taipei, 沅林街. In these places, you can buy a pair of Nike shoes for $5, a Northstar Jacket for $2, a Ralph Lauren shirt for $2-$3. Not to mention the Windows XP with Microsoft hologram selling for $10. In some cities in China, you can even buy graduation certificate of famous universities and use them to apply for graduate schools in the US.
We regularly hear stories of individuals posing as policemen or contractors to take advantage of the innocent ones. Very often they can be so good that we have no idea they are imposters.
The passage before us is about imposters. The false prophets, teachers. We are also given guidelines as to how to flush them out. Let’s take a closer look at this passage.
I. The existence of absolute truth is the foundation of Jesus' teaching.
In vs.15, “Beware of false prophets….” Jesus is making a statement that there are false prophets. The presupposition under this is that there is an objective standard and truth; by which others can be measured.
In Washington DC is the Bureau of Standards. In this building are the standards by which we measure how long is one foot, how much is one lb, and how far is one meter. There is an atomic clock in Colorado which serves as the standard for all the time in US. We have a clock in the balcony that aligns with this clock in Co, therefore we know when to start and end the service instead of going by different individual’s watches.
The same is true in the spiritual realm. Towards the end of his teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was saying that what I have said till now is the standard against which all other teachings are to be measured. He is the Truth and therefore any teaching that contradicts his, is false teaching. Anyone who teaches such contradicting content is a false prophet, a false teacher.
This is a far cry from today’s society. In the name of pluralism and tolerance, we have rejected absolute standards and truth. Therefore there is no more false teachers or true teachers. They are just being different. Jesus tells us just the opposite. He is the standard against which all are measured.
II. Jesus teaches us the existence of false teachers in God's visible community on earth.
Vs15, “Beware of false prophets who come to you…..” Here Jesus is referring to his visible kingdom on earth, the community of those who follow him. Not only are there false prophets, teachers, but they can also be found in this visible community. Later on in Matthew 24:11 he further elaborates on this topic, “…and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.” In the days prior to Jesus' second coming, there will be many false prophets. In Paul’s parting speech to the elders of Ephesus, Acts 20:29-31, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert…., ” Peter in 2Pet 2:1, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.”
Jesus' teaching here and later his apostles’ teaching, clearly point out that there will be false prophets, and teachers in the Christian community. Don’t be surprised when they show up. There are some characteristics of such false teachers.
1. Hard to distinguish them from the rest.
15 b, “….will come to you in sheep’s clothing….” It will like one of us. They will use words, phrases that are familiar to us. Very often because they cover themselves up well, it is hard to recognize their true identity.
2. They are ferocious.
“….who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” Yes, they look like one of us, using words that are familiar, but they are really ferocious as wolves. They are fierce animals. Sometimes they come in with the evil intent. Other times, because of their teaching, the result is confusion, destroying the unity of faith and the Christian community, pulling people away from the church and from Christ.
Jesus is warning us that this will happen. So when we hear and see false teachers among the Christian community, don’t be shocked. Surprised, yes. Shocked? No. Be on the look out.
III. Jesus teaches us to distinguish the false from the real teachers.
It is not whether or not there will be false teachers among the Christian community. According to Jesus' teaching, and later elaborated and confirmed by the apostles, it is a issue of when. The false teachers will surface in the Christian church. Yes, it is difficult to tell them apart from the real ones, but not impossible. Jesus continued on to explain to us how to tell the false from the real teachers.
1. By their message.
So, how can we tell which is real? In the context of this passage, Jesus just finished teaching his followers about the narrow gate and the narrow road. In the OT book of Jeremiah, prior to the fall of Jerusalem, the false prophets were telling the Israelites, “Peace, Peace.” But in reality, there was no peace, but plenty of corruption, confusion and chaos in that country. The false prophets proclaimed what people wanted to hear. It was not a message of repentance and turned to the Lord.
Isn’t this also true today? Few people like to hear messages about commitment and dedication to the Lord. We like to hear messages telling us that when you believe in Jesus, all your problems will be gone. I still remember several years ago I heard a message saying that if you want Jesus to answer your prayers; come and believe him. Who doesn’t want a God who will give us what we want, promising health, wealth and prosperity?
However, the message of the narrow road is one of taking up your cross and follow Jesus. Daily we are to die to our sins and the old sinful nature. It is about sacrifice, putting God and others first. The message of the narrow road is rather exclusive. If you believe in Jesus you will enter into God's kingdom and have eternal life. If you don’t believe in him, then it is hell. No one likes to hear or talk about hell in this pluralistic world. It is so repulsive and exclusive. Yet, this is the narrow road.
Besides the immediate context, we also need to look at their message in the context of chapters 5-7. In these 3 chapters, Jesus is teaching us about righteous living before God and men. He teaches us how to live according to God's kingdom values. You see, we are citizens of God's kingdom, therefore we are to take our marching order from God, from his word.
When we listen to teachers and pastors, are they teaching us how to live a life that conforms to God's value and expectations? Or do they teach us how to go after certain mystical and religious experiences, one emotional high after another?
2. By their fruit.
We can distinguish the false from the real teachers by their message There is more to this. In vs 16-20, Jesus further tells us that we can tell them apart from their fruit, “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Grapes come from here (ppt), and not from the thornbushes (ppt). Figs come from this tree (ppt) and not from these thistles (ppt). How can we tell the false from the true teachers? Jesus says, look at the fruit.
What do we associate with fruit? The Chinese have a saying, “桃李滿天下”; meaning that this teacher is very fruitful, with students all over the world. We associate fruit with success and accomplishments. In the context of the church, we associate fruit with how big the church is, how many programs you have, (the church with the most programs wins) what the size of your annual budget is.
In the Bible, there are few occasions where being fruitful refers to our good work. But in general, the word fruit is associated with character. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is about personal, individual characters. So, what kinds of fruits are we to look for. DA Carson writes in his book that in the context of Matthew 5-7, here are some character traits we are to look for.
Is this individual growing in conformity to the Kingdom value? Is there righteousness in his dealing with people? Is there transparent humility, that his private and public life are consistent? Purity in thoughts and behavior? Trusting God in the good and bad times? Is there truthfulness in speech? Love and generosity in dealing with people? Is there the rejection of all hypocrisy?
Sometimes, and very often, wrong doctrines are very difficult to spot. In most of the false doctrines and teachings, there is always an element of truth. And this is why Jesus says the wolves come with sheep skin covering. However, character is easily detected. Sometimes, within several minutes into a conversation, one can have some idea of what this person is like.
3. Activities versus obedience. 21-23
We can tell the false from the true teachers by their messages and their characters. Now Jesus adds another dimension. vs.21-23, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
Jesus is drawing a picture of the final judgment. Many will come to him and say that they have prophesied in his name, cast out demons in his name, do many mighty works in his name. But Jesus says, I never know you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness, or evildoers.
What is happening here? How can this happen? These people prophesied in Jesus name. They taught and explained God's word to people. Many must have heard, and no doubt some have also entered into the kingdom. They have cast out demons in Jesus' name. It worked and because of their ministry, many must have been delivered form the bondage of the evil spirits. They also performed miracles in Jesus' name. They must have healed individuals of their sicknesses. Because of their work, ministry or activities, many lives were benefited and changed. These were very important activities, or we may call them the apostolic activities. They appear to be very fruitful and successful, and have done great things for the Lord.
What was Jesus' response? I don’t know you; depart from me, your evildoers. How can this be? Through these individuals, many have heard God's word; sicknesses were healed, demons being casting out. With many being benefited, with their work so “靈”, how can this be an imposter?
What did Jesus say? V21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Jesus is making a distinction between those apostolic activities and obedience to God. One can have all those apostolic activities. They could be very effective. Why? Because they are done in Jesus' name. Its Jesus'' name that has the power to convert sinners to him. It is his name that brings healings into life. It is his name that demons are cast out.
What is Jesus after? Obedience to his teaching, doing the Father’s will. One can do all the miracles, build the largest church on earth, endowed with great gifts and talents, but Jesus' criterion is: are you obedient to my teaching? The true teachers are the ones that not only teach God's word, but also obey God's word. They do what is pleasing to God. Only when we obey God, then we can teach what he wants us to teach, be what he wants us to become. Without obedience, there will be no true teaching, no true Christ-likeness. In 1 Peter 1:2, “chosen….to be obedient to Jesus Christ.” What is God's purpose in choosing us? To obey him and this is how we become Christ-like. To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to obey him.
Frank Abagnale, between the ages 15 through 20, obtained 2.5 million dollars in fraudulent checks in every state and 26 foreign countries. He posed as a pilot, a pediatrician, a resident supervisor at a hospital in Ga, a lawyer in the state attorney general’s office, and taught sociology in college. He was 20 when arrested. He was a master imposter, but the law eventually caught up with him.
The same is with the false teachers. Some times we recognize them by their message, character and behavior. Having exposed them, they would be asked to leave . However, some time they could be so skillful that no one will notice their falsehood. But Jesus teaches us that there is a judgment day, when all falsehood will be revealed.
Jesus' teaching is not to ask us to go into a witch hunt, putting teachers and pastors under the microscope, scrutinizing every sentence and every word. He wants us to be alert and discerning. He wants us to be students of God's word. So that when we listen to sermons and talks, our evaluation is not based on the person’s oratorical skill, charisma and accomplishments. Instead, we are to focus on the content of the message. Is the content compatible to the teaching in the Bible? How about the person’s character and behavior?
And moreover, Jesus is telling us what the basic kingdom values are. He is more concerned about his followers doing God's will, obeying him, manifesting the fruit of the Holy Spirit than their activities and accomplishments.
Finally, you know what? He teaches by his example. He tells his disciples that his food is to do his heavenly father’s will. Paul wrote that Jesus, was obedient unto death. Jesus was totally committed to do his Father’s will, even death on the cross. He is the doer of God's will; he obeys his heavenly father. And He wants his followers to do likewise.