A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 7:15-20. A Christian’s relationships: To false prophets.
After noting these assumptions of Jesus (that there are false prophets, and that there is a truth from which they deviate) we must now consider his warning more precisely: *Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves* (15). We learn from this metaphor that pseudo-prophets are both dangerous and deceptive.
Their danger is that in reality they are *wolves*. Now in first century Palestine the wolf was the natural enemy of the sheep, which were entirely defenceless against it. Hence a good shepherd, as Jesus was to teach later, was always on the look-out for wolves in order to protect his sheep, whereas the hired labourer (who, not being the sheep-owner did not care about them) would abandon them at the sight of a wolf and run away, leaving it to attack and scatter the flock. (Jn.10:11-13). Just so Christ’s flock is at the mercy of either good shepherds or paid labourers or wolves. The good pastor feeds his flock with truth, the false teacher like a wolf divides it by error, while the time-serving professional does nothing to protect it but abandons it to false teachers. ‘I know’, said Paul to the Ephesian elders, ‘that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert …’ (Acts. 20:29-30).
What are these ‘perverse things’ which are a disturbance and a danger to the church? One of the major characteristics of false prophets in the Old Testament was their amoral optimism, their denial that God was a God of judgement as well as of steadfast love and mercy. They were guilty, Jeremiah said to the people, of ‘filling you with vain hopes … They say continually to those who despise the name of the Lord, “It shall be well with you”; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart they say, “No evil shall come upon you.”’ (Jer. 23:16,17). Similarly, God explains: ‘They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.” (8:11). Such talk was, to say the least, a grave disservice to the people of God. It gave them a false sense of security. It lulled them to sleep in their sins. It failed to warn them of the impending judgement of God or tell them how to escape it.
It is surely not an accident, therefore, that Jesus’ warning about false prophets in the Sermon on the Mount immediately follows his teaching about the two gates, ways, crowds and destinations. For false prophets are adept at blurring the issue of salvation. Some so muddle or distort the gospel that they make it hard for the seekers to find the narrow gate. Others try to make out that the narrow way is really much broader than Jesus implied, and that to walk it requires little if any restriction on one’s belief or behaviour. Yet others, perhaps the most pernicious of all, dare to contradict Jesus and to assert that the broad road does not lead to destruction, but that as a matter of fact all roads lead to God, and that even the broad and the narrow roads, although they lead off in the opposite directions, ultimately both end in life. No wonder Jesus likened such false teachers to *ravenous wolves*, not so much because they are greedy for gain, prestige or power (though they often are), but because they are ‘ferocious’ (NIV), that is, extremely dangerous. They are responsible for leading some people to the very destruction which they say does not exist.
They are more than dangerous; they are also deceptive. The ‘dogs’ and the ‘pigs’ of verse 6, because of their dirty habits, are easy to recognize. But not the ‘wolves, for they sneak into the flock in the disguise of sheep. As a result, the unwary actually mistake them for sheep and give them an unsuspecting welcome. Their true character is not discovered until too late and the damage has been done.
In other words, a false teacher does not announce and advertise himself as a purveyor of lies; on the contrary he claims to be a teacher of the truth. Knowing that Christians are credulous people, he conceals his dark purpose beneath the cloak of Christian piety, hoping that his innocuous disguise will avert detection.’. Not only does he feign piety, but he often uses the language of historical orthodoxy, in order to win acceptance from the gullible, while meaning by it something quite different, something destructive of the very truth he pretends to hold. He also hides behind the cover of high-sounding titles and impressive academic degrees.
So, ‘Beware!’ Jesus warns. We must be on our guard, pray for discernment, use our critical faculties and never relax our vigilance. We must not be dazzled by a person’s outward clothing – his charm, learning, doctorates and ecclesiastical honours. We must not be so naive as to suppose that because he is a PhD or a DD or a professor or a bishop he *must* be a true and orthodox ambassador of Christ. We must look beneath the appearance to the reality. What lives under the fleece: a sheep or a wolf?
Tomorrow: Matthew 7:15-20. The peril of false prophets. c). Tests.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.