Summer School

Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount- Discourse 12 - A Devotional Paraphrase

(Sermon 32 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley)
By: Michael Roberts

Matthew 7:15-20

“True and False Prophets, Good and Evil Fruit”

So many run to destruction and death because they would not be persuaded to walk in the narrow way. The lights of the easy and popular way shine so brightly and people rush towards them. To warn against this deadly contagion, God has raised up prophets and priests to point to the narrow way. But, what if the leaders themselves fall into the snare against which they warn others? What if their own prophesy deceives? What if they lead others on the way of death and call it the way of life? How do we know?

Is this an uncommon thing? Sadly, it is not. We find it in every age. Therefore, our Lord includes this warning in his great sermon: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” First of all, remember that the word “prophet” means to “speak for God.” Prophecy is not fortune telling or predicting the future. Rather, it is a call to follow the ways of God. Prophets teach the way of heaven as the narrow way. False prophets thus teach the wide way.

In the previous sermon, it was made clear that the narrow way is the way of lowliness, mourning, meekness, gentleness, patience, love of God and neighbor, doing good, and suffering evil. To teach any other way is to lead others into falsehood rather than truth, darkness rather than light, death rather than life. These leaders and teachers may use the words of repentance, good works, faith, obedience, and a host of other good words, but twist them into the wide way that leads only to fear and death -- through the instruments of pride, passion, love of pleasure more than God, unkindness to the neighbor or alien in our midst, and unconcern for good works.

Why would they teach this way? Because it is easy. It wins affection to tell people what they want to hear – to encourage their pride, their passions, their love for the pleasure, to excuse the harmful and unkind ways, to preach an easy forgiveness and cheap grace. By proclaiming this easy way, false prophets continually populate the realm of night.

As Jesus says, false prophets tend to come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. On the outside, they appear harmless. They illicit trust and seem to do good. They are good at making you believe they have your best interest at heart. They are likely to come with the “appearance of religion.” They claim to represent God and to have God’s backing, all out of love for you and your good. Out of this so-called love, they want to protect you from being deluded into enthusiasm or “being righteous over much.” They like to advise others to keep still, “in the plain middle way,” and not to “hurry into any extreme.” Note that all of this is good language, used to help renew the image of God within us – faith, blessings, love, the middle way that empowers us to love all and to grow in the virtues of patience, kindness, temperance, and the like. It is the language of true religion, but used to keep you dependent and from growing on your own. It is used to keep you lukewarm and away from the revelation of God.

Our Lord gives us a plain rule for discerning a false prophet in our midst. “You shall know them by their fruits.” First of all, what is the fruit in their own lives? Are they holy in all things? Are they meek, patient, lovers of God and all people, and zealous for good works? Secondly, what are the fruits of those who hear them – though not in all, for even the Apostles did not convert all who heard them, for many may not have been ready. But, on the whole, we can ask: Are those under their care bearing the fruits of the Spirit, growing in love and service to God? If so, it is manifest proof that God has not sent them. True prophets bring the proud, the passionate, the unmerciful into the transforming grace of God where they become humble and kind lovers of god and humankind. They bear the good fruits of holiness.

False prophets, on the other hand, come in sheep’s clothing but are wolves in disguise. They destroy and devour the flock, for their own gain. They divide with self-righteousness, love for their own comfort, and are passionate to maintain the purity of their own perspective. The fruits that come are fruits of division, self-righteousness, and fear – all in the name of holiness.

So, we must ask, what if we think we are being deceived by a false teacher? How do we make the judgment without falling into the same trap? Do we continue to go to church and listen to them or not? My first inclination is to tell you to avoid them, but on deeper reflection, I read where Jesus talks about the scribes and Pharisees who sit in Moses’ seat and teach the people. Jesus tells the people to listen for the word of God in what they say and to follow it, even if they “say but don’t do.” (see Matthew 23:1-3). I also thought about how these same teachers, in our day, administer the sacrament of holy communion. If I were to direct people away from the churches they serve, we might be, in effect, cutting them off from this ordinance of God. I dare not do this, trusting that the validity of the sacrament does not depend on the goodness of the one administering it, but only on the faithfulness of the one who ordained it.

Thus, my council is to wait upon God by humble and earnest prayer, and then act according to the best light you have. In this action, take care that you do not judge rashly or that you do not lightly think any to be a false prophet. If they challenge you or make you uncomfortable, that well could be a sign of their true calling from God. If they are leading the church into judgment rather than mercy, into self-righteousness rather than lifting up the love of Christ, then you have cause for concern. Even then, however, make sure there is no anger or contempt in your heart. You may decide to quietly seek out another who will help you grow in spiritual health. Or, for the sake of the church, you may stick it out, deciding that this leader might even make you stronger by motivating you to more reflection and study. If you do continue to listen to them, be cautious. Hear with fear and trembling lest you be deceived and be tempted by their strong delusion. We all are called into this struggle.

I cannot conclude without addressing those of whom we speak. To all false prophets, pastors, priests, preachers, hear the word of the Lord. How long will you lie in the name of God? How long will you pervert the right ways of the Lord, putting darkness for light? How long will you teach the ways of death and call it the way of life? Have you so given into the delusion that you actually believe it? Can you not see the fruits you are producing?

Dear colleagues, open your eyes before it is too late. Humble yourself before God. Cry out to him out of the dust, that he may awaken your soul and give you the faith that works by love, the faith that is lowly and meek, pure and merciful, zealous for good works, rejoicing in tribulation, in reproach, in distress, in persecution for righteousness sake. May you then do the work of the evangelist, and bear the fruit of ministry. May the word of the Lord be a hammer that breaks the hardened heart, and opens the way for the true blessings of God. Having then, by God’s grace, turned many to righteousness, may you “shine as the stars for ever and ever.” Amen.