Baptized saints in our Lord Jesus Christ:
When God told Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, there were no hidden messages or playful eye-winks. What God said was the Truth. They were allowed to eat fruit from every other tree in the Garden but that one. Unlike the other trees, this one would be harmful to them. One bite from the fruit of that tree would send Adam and Eve to their deaths.
Adam and Eve faithfully heeded that command, that is, until the Deceiver began to plant seeds of doubt in their hearts. Perhaps it was not quite as harmful as God had said. “You will not surely die,” said the serpent. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be open, and you will be like Him knowing good and evil.” All it took was a simple suggestion from the Devil. One little lie, one little drop of his verbal poison, and they were his.
Dear Christians, God has also planted a tree in the midst of the Garden of the Church. It is a good tree that bears good fruit. It is the Office of the Holy Ministry. For is not every faithful pastor like a good tree that bears good fruit, so that hungry souls may feed on the fruit of his lips, which is the wholesome word of God? And does this fruit not give eternal life to the one who hears and believes just as the Tree of Life gave to Adam and Eve?
But remember that in the Garden of Eden there was also that other tree, the one that was harmful to Adam and Eve, the one about which God said: “Do not eat of it, for on the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” Just as surely as every faithful minister of Christ is like the Tree of Life, filling souls that are hungry and thirsty for righteousness with Life, so also is every false prophet, every false teacher like that tree of Death, for their words do not give Life to the one who hears but only death.
For these false prophets and teachers, deceivers themselves, tell lies about God. They speak visions of their own hearts like those false prophets in the days of Jeremiah. God did not send them, yet they ran. That is to say, they preached without God’s call or command, and without His Word on their lips. And so they led people astray. They said “Peace! Peace! when there was no peace.” And to those who were living contrary to God’s Word, they said: “No trouble will come upon you.” They saw people headed for a waterfall and said: “There is no danger!”
They were bad trees that bore bad fruit, and those who ate of their fruit, those who listened to their false words and lies and believed them, suffered the same fate as Adam and Eve—they died. The danger still exists for us today. That is why Jesus says: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every bad tree bears bad fruit and every good tree bears good fruit.”
But where are these false prophets today? Where are these liars and deceivers who mislead the people of God? Are they on the street corners? Do they look any different than a faithful minister and pastor of God’s flock? No. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are clothed in innocence. With the guise of sincerity and good intentions, they sneak into the Garden of the Church, and plant themselves right next to the good trees. Remember that the fruit of the Forbidden Tree in the Garden was not unsightly, but pleasing to the eye. It was attractive, perhaps even more so than the tree of Life itself. So also do false preachers and pastors often appear more inviting than true ones.
The troublesome thing about these false prophets is that not everything they say is wrong. There is just enough truth mixed in with their lies to make them seem genuine. Just look at the Joel Osteens of the world, or the Billy Grahams, or the Joyce Meyers. They seem nice enough. There is no way they could be called “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” They talk about Jesus. They might even talk about His suffering and death and resurrection.
But the Joel Osteens and Joyce Meyers add something that is not Scriptural. They teach that if you just have enough faith your life will be good. You will be healthy, wealthy, and wise. The Billy Grahams often have a decent message about the grace of God, and then they add that you must give your life over to Jesus and pray the sinners’ prayer to accept Christ into your heart. Instead of the Lord’s Supper they have an altar call. Instead of baptism with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, they have a commitment to Christ. False prophets. Lies about God. And the people buy into it.
People see that their fruit is pleasing to the eye and profitable for gaining wisdom and they take a bite. And the devil is right there with them, planting seeds of doubt in their hearts just as he did to Adam and Eve. “You will not surely die. Not everything they say is bad. C’mon, try a little bit. Taste and see that their fruit is good.”
The devil deceives us into thinking that it’s not quite as harmful as God says it is. And those who would say anything to the contrary are labeled as divisive and accused of making mountains out of molehills. We warn people to stay away from them, to avoid them and not to listen to them, but it is to no avail. Our warnings fall on deaf ears. Because when it comes down to it, most people are not looking for a pastor that faithfully teaches them God’s Word. Instead they are looking for one who seems nice, and who makes them feel good about themselves.
Besides that, most people think that we pastors are all the same. They cannot tell the difference between a good tree and a bad tree. They look at the Tree of Life and the Tree of Death and they say, “What’s the difference? Both of them talk about Jesus.” Either they think that we Lutherans are just another form of Catholicism or that we are just another Protestant Denomination. Even our own people think that.
This is simply not true. But you would not know that if you were not well grounded in the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ. You will think that every church, every pastor, every religion is the same and you belong to this church simply because that’s the one your parents and grandparents belonged to. You think that we are just one among many ways to heaven, that all churches have an equal claim on the Truth. And you are wrong.
Those who have taken the time to dig deeper have discovered not only that we are not just another form of Protestantism or Catholicism, but that we are in fact the same Church that was founded by Jesus Christ and served by Sts. Peter and Paul, James and John and the rest of the Apostles and Martyrs. If we are anything different than that, then I will be the first to leave.
Can those who deny the power of baptism, or the bodily presence of Christ in Holy Communion, or who teach that man is justified before God by their works, or that sinful man can cooperate with God in his conversion say the same thing? I think it is self-evident. They cannot.
And yet we do not teach that all those who are served by false prophets are headed for damnation. On the contrary, we believe that where God’s Word is taught, even where it is mingled with error, the Holy Spirit can work faith in those who hear the Gospel and believe it. We also believe that even where the Word of God is taught faithfully and purely, not everyone who hears it believes it and they are condemned by their unbelief.
But those who teach falsely beware. You may not fare so well on the Day of Judgment. For Christ says that those who teach will receive a stricter judgment. This is the meaning of the last part of the Gospel today. We learn from these words of Jesus that some teachers will think that they are in the Kingdom but are really not.
(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.”
Jesus is a Good Shepherd. He would not warn you about false prophets if He did not care about you or love you. He does not want to see any of you devoured by the ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing, who claim to speak for God but are really serving the will of the devil. So He has told you how to recognize them. “By their fruits you will know them.”
Where Christ has planted His Tree of Life in the Garden of the Church, there you will find fruit that may not always be pleasing to the eye and may not appear to be profitable for gaining wisdom, but it is pleasing to the hearts and souls of sinners. For this fruit is none other than the fruit of Christ’s suffering and death for your sins. It promises forgiveness and eternal life to all who eat of it. Here the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit, the meek inherit the earth, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are filled. Amen.