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The Call to Enter the Kingdom, Part 2: False Prophets

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 5, 1997

Matthew 7:15-23

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If you would turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew chapter 7.  We will continue our study in the Sermon the Mount.  The concluding section of this great sermon last begins in 7:13-14, where  we found there an urgent exhortation for all of us to enter into the kingdom.  Jesus didn’t simply want people to stand around and admire the beautiful vision of the Christian life that He had sketched for them in this sermon.  He didn’t want them to say, “What an exalted teacher Jesus is.  He is a better teacher than any of the Pharisees that I have ever heard preach.”  He didn’t want them to stand on the sidelines.  He wanted them to participate in the life and in the blessings of the kingdom.  And so He sends out an urgent call to enter into the kingdom.  And today, we are going to see a passage in which He warns us that there will be people who claim to be preaching about His kingdom, but who, in fact, are preaching falsehood.  And He warns us to be on guard for them.  He says that just as we must be warned to enter into the kingdom the right way, through the narrow way, the way of faith and repentance, the way of trusting in Christ alone for our salvation, resting on Him, and walking on that narrow way, that way that requires us to walk in holiness and obedience by the grace of God, so also, we must be careful not to listen to the influence of those who would pull us away from the truth.  Let’s hear God’s holy word, beginning in Matthew chapter 7, verse 15.

       "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? "Even 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 tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" So then, you will know them by their fruits. "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?'  "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'” 

Thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word.  May He add His blessing to it.  Let’s look to Him again in prayer. 

Our Father, we ask for spiritual enlightenment as we read Your word.  The Lord Jesus’ words are hard.  Not so hard to understand as hard to swallow.  He is direct and His words strike at our hearts.  But we know that these are the words of the one who loves our souls.  And so He does not speak them without cause.  We pray that we would be able to understand what He says to us and more important to embrace this truth with our hearts and lives.  To that end, we ask the aid, the assistance of the Spirit today.  That we might read and hear spiritually and walk in accordance with faith.  For we ask it all in Jesus’ name.  Amen.      

I.  We must be on guard against false teachers.
The Lord Jesus Christ tells us that we must enter the kingdom or destruction awaits.  But He also tells us that we must be on guard for those who claim to be showing us the right way to the kingdom and yet who are sending us the way of the broad gate and the broad way.  And so we learn in this passage, first of all, that we must be on guard for those who profess to be true teachers and yet who contort the truth in their teaching.  The Lord Jesus calls us here to be on guard against false teachers.  Those who claim to be true teachers of His kingdom.  And yet, who contradict that truth in their words and in their lives.  He says in verse 15, “Beware of the false prophets who come into you, in sheep’s clothing.  But inwardly, they are ravenous wolves.”  The Lord Jesus’ warning against false teachers is based on two realities.  The first reality is that truth matters.  The Lord Jesus wouldn’t be wasting His time telling you to be aware, be on guard against those who distort the truth, if the truth itself didn’t matter.  If it didn’t matter what we believed, the Lord Jesus surely would not have wasted His breath telling us to be careful about those who tell you how to believe wrongly.  The Lord Jesus makes it clear that truth matters.  What you believe can send you to hell, according to the Lord Jesus.  What you believe, believing rightly, is necessary in order to attain His glory, His kingdom, and the blessings which are entailed in it.  The Lord reminds us in this very first phrase that truth matters. 

The second thing that is behind the Lord’s warning here is that false prophets exist.  Truth matters, and false prophets exist.  The Lord Jesus wouldn’t be telling you about false prophets if that wasn’t a real problem.  It is amazing how often false prophets, the subject of false prophets, comes up on the pages of the New Testament.  Paul is constantly warning his people to be on guard from false prophets.  And in that poignant meeting with his elders, as he speaks to the elders of the church of Ephesus, he says, “I tell you that there are going to wolves that come up from within your own flock to lead away the people of God.” 

False prophecy is a real concern of Christ and His prophets.  And the Lord Jesus’ warnings are based both on the reality that truth matters and that there are people who may be called false prophets.  We may not like to think that.  We may not think it is a very nice thing to call people heretics.  And it is certainly not an enjoyable thing to do.  This passage is not the Lord Jesus’ attempt to encourage the sport of heresy hunting.  But it is, in fact, a warning to God’s people, that we must be on guard that we drink in the truth, because falsehood will lead us astray.  And the Lord Jesus knows that and cares about us, and so He tells us that we must be on guard.  Jesus’ charge for us to be aware and on guard against false prophets also presupposes that there is an objective standard of truth whereby we can distinguish true teaching, true Gospel teaching, and false teaching. 

Again, that is not a very popular idea.  Today, people say, “Well you can believe this, or you can believe that.”  And it doesn’t matter whether that contradicts this, they are both true.  The Lord Jesus never subscribed to such illogic.  He said you can believe the truth, or you can believe the lie, but you can’t believe both.  And it matters greatly that you believe the truth.  Eternal, eternal destinies hang in the balance of it. 

Jesus, in this passage, warns us that false prophets are both dangerous, He calls them ravenous wolves, precisely because they are dangerous, and He warns us that they are deceptive.  They are ravenous wolves, but they are in sheep’s clothing.  They appear to be what they are not.  And therefore, because they are both dangerous and deceptive,  He warns us to be on guard against them.  He offers tests by which we may discern whether a teacher is true or false.  Interesting isn’t again, that in this passage that Jesus is opened with the words, do not judge.  He is asking us once more to discern. We are not to judge in the sense of being hypercritical, but we are to discern, to discern true prophets from false prophets, discern true gospel teaching from false gospel teaching.  Christ’s whole message to us is a call to discernment.   

II.False prophets may be discerned by their fruits.
And He tells us in verses 16-20 that the way we may see a false prophet is through fruits.  Fruits of various sorts.  He says you will know them by their fruits, “Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they?”   Notice first of all, that He says the type of tree will determine the kind of fruit that it produces.  Grapes do not grow on apple trees.  Apples do not grow on grape vines.  So the type of fruit will tell you the character of the tree. 

He goes on to say in verse 17, so every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit in.  There again, He notes that the condition of the fruit is another sign of a true or of a false prophet. 

And finally He says in verse 19, that “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  He warns that fruitlessness in good, fruitlessness in righteousness will lead to judgment and condemnation.  So Jesus speaks of the kind of the fruit and He speaks of the condition of the fruit as ways that we can see a true and a false prophet. Notice in particular that Christ’s test of fruits has at least two or three aspects. 

First of all, there is the fruit of doctrine.  We may distinguish the false prophet from the true teacher of God’s word by the doctrine that he teaches.  Is his teaching in accordance with the Bible?  Is it in accordance with the sound doctrine which has been received and believed in the church down through the ages?  Or, does he claim to be revealing some new truth which no one has ever heard of before?  We may be sure that when someone is claiming to tell us that they have found a truth that no one else has understood, that they are a false prophet.  We note the words of Jesus  in Matthew chapter 12 verse 33, this same thing:  “Either make the tree good, and it fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.”  He goes on to say to the Pharisees in verse 37, “For by your words, you shall be justified.  And by your words, you shall be condemned.”  He is saying to these false teachers, by your doctrine, by the words that you preach, you will stand or fall.  If you speak falsehood, you will be judged.  If you speak truth, you will be justified.  The Lord Jesus is reminding that the teaching which is not in accordance with the Bible, is false teaching and it abounds today.  There are all manner of people who, in the name of Christ, speak that which is positively contradictory to His words.  They are, according to the Lord Jesus, false prophets and they will be condemned.  It doesn’t matter how sincere they are, it doesn’t matter how apparently successful they are.  They will be condemned, if they do not speak in accordance with the word. 

The second aspect of this test of fruit is the test of character.  The Lord Jesus makes it clear that the true prophet has his life in accordance with the true teaching of His lips.  If he speaks the word of truth, you must also look at his life.  Does he live a life of godliness?  Does his life display the fruit of the Spirit?  Or, does it display the works of the flesh?  Does his life show that he is under the lordship of Christ?  Or does he claim to be a follower of Christ, whereas his life shows signs of ungodliness.  In this passage, Jesus’ words about the fruit of the tree is directly refers to the condition of our lives before the Lord.  The false teacher does not display the fruit of the Spirit.  He does not walk in the counsel of the Lord. 

There is a third aspect of this test.  And that is the fruit of the teaching of the prophet in the life of his hearers, of his followers.  What happens in the lives of the followers of this prophet?  Does his teaching promote godliness, or does it insight them to ungodliness?  Does his teaching exalt the Lord Jesus Christ, in their lives and hearts, or does it make the Lord Jesus Christ less significant than He is in the scriptures?  Does their teaching upset their faith?  Or, does the teaching of the prophet build up their faith?  Does the teaching of the prophet cause ungodly divisions in the body of Christ, or does it promote a healthy biblical and spiritual unity? 

All of these are tests which the apostle Paul speaks of in the pastoral epistles in II Timothy, chapter 2, verses 18 and 16, and also I Timothy chapter 6, verse 4.  Paul over and again speaks about the impact of the teaching of false prophets on their hearers.  And so, by their doctrine, by their character and by the fruit of their teaching in their followers, we may test the teaching of those who claim to be preachers of the Word.  Jesus, after teaching us and calling us to be prepared to test the spirits, repeats again the test in verse 20.  “So then, you will know them by their fruits.”  The Lord Jesus is making it clear the character reveals itself. 

Calvin once said that "Nothing is more difficult than to counterfeit virtue.  If it is not there, it will sooner or later show itself."  If the grace of the Holy Spirit is not operative in a man’s life, sooner or later it will show itself if the people of God are looking for the right thing. 

And that brings us to the application of this great truth.  The Lord Jesus calls His people to be zealous for the truth.  Everyone of us needs to care about sound teaching.  Everyone of us needs to care that we are under the sound preaching of the word.  I John 4:1, the beloved apostle, the beloved disciple says, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirit to see whether they are from God.  Because many false prophets have gone out into the world."  But before we can test the spirits, we must know the truth.  Do you know the truth?  Do you make it your business to study the truth?  Do you love the word of God, do you love the theology of that word, do you long to become better equipped, better grounded in the teaching of the Scriptures, and to study at every opportunity the Lord gives you, public and private, personal and corporate?  Do you eat the Word daily?  Do you long to grow in its teachings.  If you don’t know the teaching of the word, you can’t test the spirits.  If you don’t know the truth, you won’t know the falsehood when you see it. 

And so the first thing we lean from this passage is that we Christians must be passionate about the truth itself.  We live in a day and age where everything in this age is telling us, “Don’t be concerned with truth.  Nobody believes in truth anymore.  Isn’t it a little bit narrow-minded and bigoted and mean, biased and arrogant to believe that you have the truth?”   Well, Jesus’ answer is “No.”  Without the truth, you cannot be set free.  You must know the truth, because it is by the truth that the Lord God sanctifies us.  You remember that the Lord Jesus in His priestly prayer prayed that God would sanctify us by truth.  If we do not know it, the spirit will not be working effectually in our lives for godliness. 

We must also remember that false prophets are deceivers.  When God warns us against false prophets, He is not just saying, be on guard for those charlattans who are trying to take your money.  Be on guard for those people who are out to manipulate the people of God, and they know that they are out to manipulate Him.  He is not just saying be on guard for those unscrupulous tele-evangelists that are always trying to bilk you out of money.  He is saying, you be on guard even for those people who are the most sincere people that you ever met, but who are sincerely wrong.  Most people wouldn’t describe themselves as ravenous wolves.  But the Lord Jesus describes these false prophets in precisely those terms.  Just because one doesn’t think that one is a ravenous wolf does not mean that one is not a ravenous wolf.  The Lord Jesus knows that there are people who are self deceived, who are also leading His people into deception.  With pure motives, the road to destruction is paved with good intentions.  Sincerity means nothing, if it is not accompanied by the truth of God. 

One reason, by the way, that we have elders, is to protect us from false prophets.  We Calvinists are brilliant and cheerful fellows, aren’t we?  But we believe in total depravity.  And we believe that the truth is too important to be entrusted into the hands of one man.  And so we believe in elders.  We believe in mutual accountability.   We believe in elders who watch after the spiritual interest of the flocks to protect them from unbelief and false teaching.  And that is a task that our elders take very seriously, so that if I should speak out of accordance with the word of God, they would check that, because  they intend to protect the flock from false teaching.  No one is above the word of God.  And no one is above the accountability of the elders to teach that word of truth. 

What kind of things are false prophets saying today?  There are so many things that false prophets are saying today that we could never catalogue them all.  But you have heard some of the sayings of the false prophets.   They are saying things like "Oh, hell, oh that is a myth.  Hell is a myth.  Surely that is a belief which, its time is gone.  We need to move on.  That is just a figure of speech in Scripture."  They are saying, things like "God will not punish anyone everlastingly.  He is too loving."  They are saying things like "Satan isn’t a real being.  He doesn’t exist.  That is a myth."  They are saying things like "There is no such thing as absolute truth.  Why, people who claim to be absolute, to believe in absolute truth are zealots and bigots, and we need to exterminate them from our society."  They are saying things like well, "Doctrine doesn’t matter, we just need to be sincere and love one another.  And it doesn’t matter what you believe."  They are saying things like, "Well Jesus is one way for some people, but surely, you can’t believe that He is the only way."  That is what the false prophets are saying today.  They are saying things like that and more. 

And we need to be ready to stand against that type of false teaching.  We must look for piety, true Holy Spirit grace, wrought godliness in those who teach the Word, and we need to look for orthodoxy, true adherence to the teaching of the scriptures.  We shouldn’t be looking for personality, we shouldn’t be looking for worldly accomplishments or status.  That is how the false prophets get their foothold.  They get the people of God, looking at what a fine personality they have.  They get the people of God looking at how sincere they are, how zealous they are.  What extraordinary deeds they are able to perform.  They get the people of God looking at how impressive they are, how many academic accomplishments they have.  What a wonderful title they have, instead of looking at their character and their teaching.  And the Lord Jesus says, don’t be faked out.  You look at the character of the man.  You look at the teaching of the man.  And you see if those are in accordance with the truth.  We must be on guard against those who profess to be true teachers, but who contort the truth.  In other words, we need to be on guard against those who would deceive us.       

III.Christians must take care that we do not deceive ourselves.  
But the Lord Jesus in this passage, also teaches that we must be on guard that we don’t deceive ourselves.  Not only must we be on guard against those who would lead us into deception, we must take care that we do not deceive ourselves.  He teaches in verses 21-23 that we  must take care that our verbal profession of faith is accompanied by practical obedience in our lives.  

Notice His words in verse 21, "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but He who does the will of My Father, who is heaven, will enter."  Jesus is warning against a merely verbal profession of faith in Christ.   He is warning against those who rely on what they say to the Lord, what they say about the Lord, and yet have no reality of the Lord’s lordship in their own lives.  A verbal profession is important, don’t get me wrong.  A verbal profession is orthodox.  It is an orthodox thing to do.  It may be done fervently.  You may profess in perfect orthodoxy that Jesus is Lord.  You may profess it with great fervency that Jesus is Lord, you may profess it publicly that Jesus is Lord.  You profess it in a spectacular way, calling others to saving knowledge of Christ, and still be professing Him falsely.  For the Lord Jesus is saying that those who truly profess Him, are not simply those who profess Him verbally, but professed Him in their lives.  He is looking not only for a verbal profession, He is looking for a moral profession.  He is looking for a change of character.  Our saying and our doing must go together, because grace changes our hearts and lives.  Grace not only saves us from the penalty of sin, it changes our hearts and lives. 

And so the apostle Paul can say in II Timothy chapter 2, verse 19, let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity, because grace changes our lives.  Jesus, in verses 22 and 23, issues a terrifying promise.  He says that there are going to be people in the last day, who claim to have prophesied in His name, who have cast out demons in His name, to perform miracles in His name, and they are going to say, Lord, Lord, we did all these things in Your name, and He is going to say to them, these terrifying words:  I never knew you.  Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.  See what Jesus is saying?  He is saying the reason that He will reject them is because their lives did not reflect the reality of the grace of the gospel.  They did extraordinary things.  He doesn’t argue with them about that.  Maybe you did, but your lives weren’t changed by the grace of the gospel.  Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.  Your lives contradict your claim to be my disciples. 

Notice, especially this connection between the Lord Jesus’ stress on our profession of Him with our lips and our obedience to Him with our lives.  We are saved by grace, we are saved by grace through faith.  There is no obedience that we can render that can save us.  But having been saved by grace through faith, the Holy Spirit works in us, obedience and so there is both grace and obedience as part of what God is doing in us in our salvation.  And two of the particular messages that false prophets always give is, it is all grace and no obedience, while others will give a message that is all obedience and no grace.  And we as believers must know the difference between that.  Some will say grace, grace, grace, and they will never call people to holiness, never call people to consecration, never call people to self denial, and there will be others who will say, well you know your obedience is part of the way that you are saved, and if you will just obey then you will find the grace of God.  Or somehow God’s grace and your obedience combines together in order to justify you before Him. 

Both of those teachings are wrong.  We must understand that grace saves.  We are saved by grace alone, by Christ alone.  We receive it by faith alone, but that grace reigns in righteousness and so grace in obedience goes together.  Our profession and our light goes together.  Grace brings transformation.  And so true faith is always accompanied by a change of life.  Now let me ask you this question.  Is your profession nominal or is it real?  Jesus says, look at your life, are you living under His lordship?  Does the fruit of the Spirit reign in your life?  Is the bent of your life a kingdom bent?  This teaching my friends, doesn’t contradict the glorious truth of salvation by grace.  It just reminds us that Christ has to save hypocrites just like He has to save other sinners.  And if we come before Him today trusting in our own righteousness and we find that we have none, it is time to turn to Him.  Because as we are going to sing in a few moments, He is a Savior who delights in saving sinners.  He is a friend of sinners.  And so we can sing, Hallelujah, what a Savior.  We don’t sing, Hallelujah, what a Savior because we just need a little bit of salvation.  We sing hallelujah what a Savior, because we need a lot of salvation.  We are undone without Him.

And so I ask you to answer His call to come into the kingdom and to reject the false prophets.   And to reject a profession which is merely verbal with the word, yes.  Say yes to Christ, and find in Him your Savior.  Let’s look to Him in prayer. 

Our heavenly Father, we ask that You would enable us to respond in faith to the teaching of Your Word.  And we give you the praise and the glory.  For we ask it in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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