“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
One doesn’t have to be an American History scholar or a Revolutionary War buff to recognize the name Benedict Arnold, he is in many ways a household name. Benedict Arnold is the most famous traitor in the history of the United States. Given the fort at West Point to command, Benedict Arnold secretly communicated with the British to surrender the fort without a fight. Luckily for the Colonies, his plot was discovered before it could be implemented, however, his name and deed has still gone down in history as a disgrace to the country. No one likes traitors.
Even though traitors are unpopular, most people assume that all countries, businesses, or entities will experience their own traitor at some point in time. While we all know that traitors will at times arise, we are shocked that they would ever enter the church. Yet Jesus warns us at the end of the Sermon on the Mount to beware of the false prophet who will try to destroy the flock. Like Wile E Coyote in the classic cartoons, the false prophet will sneak into the community pretending to be just another sheep, but inwardly, he is a ravenous wolf looking for those to devour. It strikes us as odd that this would ever happen. Traitors are working for the enemy, and why would any Christian ever work for the powers of darkness. But perhaps our idea of the false prophet is wrong. Perhaps the false prophet is not looking to make some grand surrender, but instead is seeking stealthier ways to disrupt the church.
The danger in the church is not of the false prophet who blatantly teaches false doctrine. Blatant false teaching (such as Jesus wasn’t really God, or Jesus didn’t really die) is easily rooted out and dismissed. The danger is instead the very subtle attacks on discipleship that slowly twist the message of Jesus into something it was never meant to be. It is subtle attacks that the church must be mindful of, because at the moment it may not seen like a big deal, but over time it will erode the very foundation of what it means to be a disciple.
One way this false teacher arises is through a fear of change or fear of the unknown; and a commitment to stick to tradition no matter what. Traditions are not wrong. Traditions brought me to faith, and help to pass on the faith to new generations. I personally enjoy traditions as a way to stay rooted in an every changing world. But when traditions become gospel, when there is a failure to embrace a new teaching, or an unwillingness to try something different in the assembly because its uncomfortable or will stop a long-held tradition, that is false teaching. That type of attitude, led by fear of breaking a tradition, will destroy the church just as quickly as some new fad not rooted in scripture.
Just as dangerous, if not more so, is the subtle desire to water down the call of discipleship into something that is easier to manage. It’s the constant struggle between what we claim is the ideal and what we actually live out on a daily basis. Sure, Jesus says to give your possessions to the poor, but he didn’t really mean all of us. That statement was directed to one particular person. As long as you don’t love your money you can keep whatever you want. Sure, Jesus says don’t kill and instead love your enemies, but that’s on a personal level. When it comes to war we need to support our country. We are fighting the enemies of the world, so it’s perfectly fine to hate and kill. Sure, Jesus says always keep your word, but no one reports all of their income to the IRS. While there are always extenuating circumstances, the false prophet will remind us that the extenuating circumstances are the norm, and there is a difference between private faith and public life. Slowly, the church will lose its voice, because it will be no different from the rest of the world.
Jesus says, the disciple who hears these words and puts them into practice is the wise one who builds their house on the rock. Beware of the false prophet who would settle for a lesser form of discipleship. Embrace the full gospel; the narrow road of the cross. It is a difficult path, and there are few who will follow, but it is the only path that leads to life.