16 Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. 17 They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’ ”
18 For who among them has stood in the council of the LORD to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened? 19 Behold, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. 20 The
anger of the LORD will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his heart. In the latter days you will understand it clearly. 21 “I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. 22 But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.
23 “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God afar off? 24 Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD. 25 I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ 26 How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, 27 who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? 28 Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the LORD. 29 Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? (ESV)
15 [Jesus said:] “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 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.
21 “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.’” (ESV)
Our text is verse 16 from today’s Old Testament lesson (Jeremiah 23:16): Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. (ESV)
and also these words of our Lord from today’s Gospel (Matthew 7:15–16): [Jesus said:] “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. (ESV)
Happy anniversary, Trinity! Sixty-four years ago this past Wednesday, Trinity held her first service. And today, you have lots to celebrate, for you are members of a struggling church. Now, I do not mean just Trinity or even Lutheran Church-Canada. I mean the one holy catholic (with a small “c”, meaning universal) and apostolic church of Christ. God’s Church on earth is and always has been a militant Church. The Church has always been oppressed and persecuted by the world and its might. Even from within the Church herself have continually risen prophets and preachers who have spread false doctrine and who often obtain quite a following. Sadly, there will always be heretics who harass the Church, causing division and offense.
In Jeremiah’s day, there were false prophets who persuaded the Israelites to despise the Lord’s Word. Instead of calling the people to repentance, these heretics preached a lie, saying It shall be well with you…No disaster shall come upon you. And lulled to sleep by these deceitful prophets, the people forgot the Lord’s Name and they followed after Baal, the god of the world. And in their own lifetime, disaster came upon them. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, all because they rejected the Lord’s Word calling them to turn from their evil ways.
And so it continues today! Wherever the pure Gospel is preached, there will be found false prophets, preachers of false doctrine. You see, Satan can never allow the Church to possess her heavenly treasures in peace. And so the Church on earth must remain militant; the Church must continually use the Word of God not only as the green pastures and still waters that feed our soul and quench our thirst for salvation but also as a weapon with which to battle unceasingly against false teachers.
We often wish that the Church’s enemies would just leave her in peace, but that cannot be! For if the Church ceases struggling, she can no longer remain the Church. Here is how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians: for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized (11:19). If the pure doctrine were never attacked, then Christians would soon become lazy and complacent. But when heretics and false teachings multiply in Christ’s Church, then we are driven to study Scripture earnestly so that we may know that we are holding fast to the true doctrine. Perhaps you have experienced a family member or neighbour or colleague questioning or ridiculing your faith, and you are suddenly thrust into a struggle to hold on to the faith. But that struggle is a good thing, and even necessary, for the faith of every Christian must be tested in order to be proved true and genuine. St. Peter writes of the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—[…resulting] in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:7).
God knows how to turn evil into good, and so He even makes false teachers serve to our benefit. The great Lutheran theologian and first president of the Missouri Synod, C.F. W. Walther, wrote that Heretics are nothing else than the whetstone of the Church, whereby she learns to use the sword of the Spirit with increasing expertness (Gospel Sermons, Volume 2, Eight Sunday after Trinity (1842) ). I remember as a child my father teaching me how to use a whetstone to sharpen knives. Walther is saying that the heretics and their false teachings actually sharpen the Church in her study and use of God’s Word. As Walther says: The more false teachers attack an honest teacher of God’s Word, the more exactly he must carefully search [the Scriptures], and the more he grows in divine knowledge and certainty.
God knows how to turn evil into good, and so He uses heretics to keep the Church from becoming lazy and complacent and to sharpen the Church in her study of God’s Word. Heretics force the Church to give a response to their heresies and to give a defense of the faith. Faced with false teaching, the Church becomes more diligent in her study of Scripture, and the end result is that the Church grows in divine knowledge and certainty. False teachers certainly do much damage—they persuade some to abandon the faith and they cause division and offense in the Church. But in spite of and even through them, God is working to strengthen His Church on earth.
Heretics are the whetstone of the Church, whereby her study of Scripture is sharpened. At times, though, the teachers of false doctrine become the means whereby God also executes His severest judgments upon His Church. You see, when the Church grows complacent, then the Gospel becomes as rare as a passing rain shower. Here is how Walther explains it: [God] may give a land or a church faithful servants for a long time. If they think little of their pure preaching, if they don’t thank God for it, if they think more highly of earthly treasures than the pure Word and Sacrament, if they are ashamed of the pure doctrine, if they want to do nothing to maintain the office of the pure ministry, if they hear God’s Word with a sleepy heart and finally learn to despise it completely, God then allows such thankless scholars to lose the heavenly treasure. They who had despised the bread of the divine Word should now be fed with the stone of the powerless doctrine of men.
In Luther’s day, the Gospel bore abundant fruit through the work of faithful pastors and lay people, who prized the Gospel above their own lives. But even then, Luther saw how many of his fellow Germans were failing to appreciate the pure Gospel, and he said that the day would come when the land would be overrun again by false teachers. The Church despising the Gospel and then being overrun by false teachers—that is a pattern that has been repeated throughout history, and it is a pattern that will intensify in the latter days. As St. Paul says in 2 Thessalonians, when people refuse to love the truth and so be saved, God then sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false (see 2:10-11).
God have mercy on us and help us all in our desperate need. For we are inclined to think little of the pure Word of God. We do not thank God for the great gift of having the Bible in our homes to read each day and for the privilege of hearing God’s Word preached each and every Sunday. We value our homes and possessions more than we treasure the pure Word and Sacraments. We read and hear God’s Word with sleepy, distracted hearts. And we do not like to get hung up about doctrine. In fact, we sometimes are embarrassed by the true doctrine of Holy Scripture, for what we are supposed to believe makes us so out-of-sync with today’s culture.
There is only one true God, and He is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus is true God and true Man, who died to save sinners. Those who are baptized, confessing the Trinity and Jesus as God-in-the-flesh, they go to heaven; those who do not believe go to hell. Baptism saves. The pastor’s absolution is really Christ’s absolution. The bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper are the Lord’s true Body and Blood. On the Last Day, the body will be raised and glorified for all eternity. And concerning today’s burning issues: the universe was created by God and death came about only after Adam and Eve fell into sin; unborn children are fully human beings who should not be robbed of their lives; people are created either male or female and not genderless; sex is God’s gift to a man and woman within the boundaries of marriage, and human beings have no God-given right to commit or to assist in committing suicide. Just you try writing a letter to the editor of the Niagara Advance about any one of these Christian beliefs and the responses will show you just how out-of-sync you are with today’s culture.
We live in an age in which Christians are tempted to be embarrassed by what they believe and to think little of true doctrine. And so, God is calling His Church to repent. God is calling Trinity congregation to repent—not just you, but also me, your pastor. “O Lord, for all the ways we have neglected Your pure doctrine and have prized our lives and possessions above your Holy Word and Sacraments, please forgive us, please refresh us with Your Holy Spirit. May we so treasure the Gospel of Jesus that it may remain with us always and keep us faithful unto death.”
We live in times when the Church is struggling to confess God’s pure doctrine. But then, the Church has always struggled and will continue to struggle to remain faithful. Until our Lord’s return, there will be prophets and preachers who spread false doctrine and who cause division and offense within Christ’s Church. And so we must pay heed to our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel: Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.
There are many outside of Christ’s Church who are seeking to undermine the faith of Christians. However, we are not surprised when unbelievers openly attack our faith. But false prophets come from within Christ’s Church and their attacks often catch us off-guard. False prophets may be clergy or lay people, men or women, highly educated or high school dropouts. But what all false prophets have in common is their intention to harass and divide and destroy the Church, like ravenous wolves bent on decimating a flock of sheep.
False prophets come from within the Church; outwardly, these prophets seem to be followers of Jesus, but their goal is to devour the sheep. And so our Lord Jesus tells us to beware. In other words, be on your guard, be alert, so that you are not deceived. Our Lord then tells us how to recognize false prophets: you will recognize them by their fruits. In this passage, the word fruits does not refer to good deeds but to what is being preached and taught. And this is why it is necessary for you to be a good student of Holy Scripture. You cannot always identify false prophets by their behaviour, for these prophets can be pious and successful and greatly admired. But you are to judge these prophets by their fruit, by what they preach and teach, especially by what they teach about the person and mission of Jesus.
In fact, your calling is to judge all preaching and teaching, even that of your own pastor. As Walther puts it: Someday everyone will have to justify his own faith and life before God. He [or she] will not be able to fall back on some man and say, “So and so taught me this, and I believed and followed him.”. Now, with all my heart I pray that I am a faithful servant of the Word. But I do not want you to follow me blindly. Rather, I want you to exercise the responsibility God gives you to judge whether what I preach is in accord with God’s Word. And you also bear the obligation to judge your own confession, to see whether it agrees with Scripture.
Which means you must have a love and passion for God’s Word. You see, to be able to distinguish false prophets from the true preachers and teachers of God’s Word, you yourself have to know the pure doctrine of Scripture and be certain of it. Now, you will never master the entire content of the Bible. But, as Luther says, You must hold on to the chief part, the summary, of Christian teaching and accept nothing else: That God has sent and given Christ, His Son, and that only through Him does He forgive us all our sins, justify and save us (AE 21:254). To help you with your study of pure doctrine, Luther wrote the Small Catechism. The Catechism is meant to be read and prayed daily. Include the Catechism every day in your devotions, and I promise that you will never exhaust the riches of pure doctrine to be found within its pages. And as you read and pray Scripture and the Catechism, pray God to preserve you from all false prophets who would take away your trust for salvation in Christ alone.
The Church of Christ is sorely afflicted and oppressed, harassed from the outside and from within. Nonetheless, the welfare of Christ’s Church is entrusted to God Himself. In spite of all the false prophets and false doctrine, in spite of all the Christians being martyred for the faith, in spite of the frail faith of weak Christians like me and like you, we, the Church, the Body and the Bride of Christ, we are being built up and sustained by God and His Word of grace. His grace is His love which we do not deserve, His holding us in His high favour because Jesus, God’s Son, suffered and died, to make us all sons of God, so that we may receive the inheritance of heaven. We are baptized into Christ, and so we have been made holy, sanctified, through faith in Christ alone. And today, we have again heard the Word of grace, that God forgives us all our sins and keeps us in the inheritance of heaven won for us by Christ.
Did you notice that at the start of my sermon, I said something rather odd? I said: “today, you have lots to celebrate, for you are members of a struggling church”. Perhaps you think it odd that being members of a struggling church should be a cause for celebration. But think about it: Christ’s Church on earth is the Church militant, the Church fighting against false doctrine and unbelief. We can celebrate because we do not fight alone. Yes, on this the 64th anniversary of Trinity’s first service, we can celebrate that the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has been faithful to our congregation all these years and He renews us and keeps us clinging steadfast to His Holy Word. Oh, we’ve had our struggles and our failures over the years; and yet, we celebrate that the Lord is faithful and that the Word of the Lord endures forevers and keeps us faithful until we die and are received into the Church Triumphant!
The psalmist writes: [O Lord] I rejoice at Your word as one who finds great treasure (Psalm 119:162). And so you rejoice over God’s Word of grace in Christ. Treat it like the treasure it is and study and meditate upon it your whole life long. For that Word of God is powerful and will overturn all the lies of the evil one and also build you up in the pure doctrine of Christ, so that you may be certain of and rejoice in your salvation. Thanks be to God! Amen.