When Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness, he preaches God’s Word back to Jesus. Satan thinks it fair game to pay Christ back with Scripture since Jesus responds to Satan with Scripture. Satan hates Scripture. Even his use of Scripture judges and chastises him as he preaches it, albeit falsely. This is not a new tactic. Satan used it in the Garden of Eden against Adam and Eve. Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”? For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
Even today Satan has not given up this use of the Word. As it was then, so it is now. Satan uses false teachers to preach false teaching to Christians using Scripture. False teaching is an extremely dangerous subtlety of the devil. We know how subtle it is because we hear it come from our lips, although we may not realize it. For example:
- “Aw, come on, Pastor! Why are you so critical! At least he mentioned God when he said that everyone is going to heaven whether or not they believe in Jesus!”
- “It’s so nice to see all those pastors from all those different churches and even different religions (!) pray together. See, we all believe the same thing!”
- “It doesn’t matter what anyone believes as long as you love God.”
- “That pastor is such a fuddy-duddy. He won’t let us sing that nice country song about people dying and becoming angels. Everyone likes that song. Why does he have to be so stubborn?”
- “I make a motion that we no longer talk about sin or death or hell in this church. Mentioning those words will scare prospective members away.”
- “All Christians believe the same thing and I don’t care if I’m wrong because, in my heart, I know I’m right.”
The wolves are already at your door, but you don’t know it. You’re too busy wanting everyone to get along. What the Bible says is irrelevant, unless it’s about the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule. A wolf is after the life of a person or an animal. They don’t care what you look like. They do care what you believe. The same goes for the wolves, by the way. We’re not concerned with their appearance. We’re concerned with what comes out of their mouths, hearts, and lives.
The pure spiritual milk of the Word brings eternal life. Poisoning the spiritual milk brings the death of the soul in both time and eternity. Wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing poison spiritual milk. They cloak themselves this way to look like honest, upright sheep that care about your soul. They quote Bible passages perhaps better than any doctor of theology. They pray more fervently than anyone. They will remind you of their good intentions. They will lead a more than upright life, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power as Saint Paul tells Saint Timothy.
False prophets are like thorns and thistles. When you pick raspberries or roses, you have to deal with getting pricked. When you want good pasture for cows, you have to take care of thistles, usually with weed killer. If you let thorns and thistles grow up alongside good fruit, it’s only a matter of time before the straggly weeds get the upper hand and make everything unusable.
The same can be said about false teaching. Letting the lie stand next to the truth and letting everyone figure out what is right and wrong only causes damage and accelerates the destruction of good pasture. Consider the fact that churches who have already given up caring about preaching Christ crucified continue to grow, while congregations that stick to preaching Christ crucified continue to shrink.
Jesus refers to good and bad trees, and good and bad fruit. A rotten tree is only destructive. The land on which is stands becomes bad. The tree infects other things with its rottenness. Its fruit is not good to eat. Jesus uses this image to show how the truth and the lie cannot stand to be together. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. False teaching displaces and destroys the truth. It damages the soul that enjoys it, even if the soul thinks it good for them.
“But pastor, at least the false teacher says ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’.” Our Lord answers in kind. 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. 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?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
So how will you know what is truth and what is a lie, especially when there are so many truth tellers and liars standing side-by-side in the Christian faith? Martin Luther had a simple dictum: Was Christum treibet? “What promotes Christ?” True doctrine drawn from Sacred Scripture preaches Christ, the whole Christ, the living Christ, the loving Christ, the forgiving Christ, perhaps even the offensive Christ, especially if the truth offends you. There will be those who consider the truth as an individual’s personal opinion, especially these days when your personal truth is the only truth that is true, if you even believe there is objective truth.
Consider that before Jesus warns about false prophets He preaches perhaps the greatest sermon ever heard. The heart and soul of the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus Christ comes among us in the flesh, in the fullness of time, to fulfill the Law and the prophets. Both the Law and the prophets proclaim our sinfulness, our inability to be good and worthy enough for God. We have no personal power to change this relationship. Only Jesus saves by God’s unmerited grace, for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
There is no other Gospel. Saint Paul warns the Galatian Christians, and we in turn, if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. Test every word that comes from this pulpit against Holy Scripture. If a preacher consistently flatters your inner goodness and worthiness, sets human deeds in place of faith in Jesus Christ, or lays emphasis on human institutions instead of Jesus Christ, you’re hearing a false teacher.
None of us will be rid of wolves in sheep’s clothing until Christ’s return. Like Vito Corleone, though, we keep our friends close and our enemies closer. Yet we don’t get so close that the siren calls of false teaching sway us to fall asleep in paying attention to what is taught from the pulpit. The prophet Jeremiah says, Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts. Eat the words that declare you free from sin, a new creation, and blessed by God in Jesus Christ, and you have joy, for your heart’s delight dwells among you.
“Lord, grant while worlds endure, we keep its [God’s Word’s] teachings pure throughout all generations.”