Sermon Title: Wolf in the Fold
Sermon Text: Acts 20:27-38 8th Sunday after Trinity
Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us hear the Word of God, as we find it written in Book of Acts, the 20th chapter, part of the 29th verse: savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.
Let us pray: and now let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today is the 8th Sunday after Trinity. On this day, let us recognize and meditate on the theme that permeates throughout the Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel lessons: False prophets, who come into our midst, dressed in sheep’s clothing but are, in fact wolves.
The prophet Jeremiah warns Israel of the false prophets who have not been sent by God. St. Paul in his farewell address to the Ephesians warns the elders of the wolves who will come to draw away the members of the Ephesian congregation. Christ Jesus Himself, the Son of God warns of the wolves that come dressed in sheep’s clothing, pretending to be doing the will of God, but are in fact doing the work of the devil. It truly must be a serious issue if not only through His prophets and apostles, but also through His Son, God warns you and me of the danger of these wolves.
The Church here on Earth, has always been a militant – that is to say, a struggling Church. The Church has never ceased to contend with those within and those without. She has always been oppressed and persecuted by the world; she has always been harassed within by those who spread false doctrine; causing division and offense. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther once put it this way, “Where our Lord God builds a church, there the devil builds a tavern nearby.”
The original wolf in God’s fold, Satan, with one little question: “Did God actually say?” (Gen. 3:1 ESV) tempted Adam and Eve to question the Word of God. That one little question has brought about many wolves that, by either commission or omission have made the Church struggle to adhere to what God actually did say. In Old Testament times there were wolves such as the self-righteous Cain; Ham, the son who despised his father; the mocking Ishmael; and the countless false prophets who preached and comforted the people by misleading them to idolatry. In the New Testament times, the Church had to contend in every direction that the Gospel was preached with heretics who caused splits and often destroyed whole flourishing congregations; and so it has continued to this day.
Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, there Satan tries his hardest to corrupt. He tries to sow his tares among the wheat to smother the wheat. Therefore the Church has continually used the Word of God not only as a pasture of peace, but also as a weapon with which to battle continuously against false prophets.
You may be asking yourself “Why would God allow such deception to arise? Why does God permit his flock not only to be tended to by shepherds, but also to be attacked by wolves, who disguise themselves as sheep? God is God. He could prevent these wolves from attacking, so why doesn’t he do it?”
Scripture mentions two reasons specifically for why God allows these false prophets, these savage wolves to enter into the fold. He permits them partly to test His children, and partly to punish the unthankful hearers of His Word. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes “For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you” (1 Cor. 11:19). These factions or heretical sects of whom St. Paul is speaking about are those who teach impure doctrine. Through these false teachers, it becomes clear who is faithful to the pure Word. God uses evil for good, and therefore as C.F.W. Walther, the first president of the Missouri Synod once said, “Heretics are nothing else than the [sharpening stone] of the Church, whereby she learns to use the Sword of the Spirit with increasing [expertise].”
God also executes his severest judgment through false prophets. It may be that God has blessed a Church with a fine preacher, yet the congregation does not thank God for this blessing. They may be more concerned with worldly treasures than with the pure Word and Sacraments. When a congregation becomes ashamed of the pure doctrine that Scripture teaches; when they want to do nothing to maintain the office of the pure ministry; when they hear God’s Word with a sleepy heart and finally learn to despise it completely, God then allows these secure sinners with sleepy hearts to be led away from the truth by the wolf in sheep’s clothing. As God has said through his servant St. Paul, “because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness” (2 Thess. 2:10-12).
Scripture clearly explains why it is that God allows these wolves into His fold. Yet He does not want us to give in to their treacherous ploys; for God desires that everyone shall be saved. Hence He gives us warning to beware of these savage wolves that come dressed in sheep’s clothing.
For a moment, let us focus our attention on the Gospel lesson for today. Here, in the Gospel account recorded by Matthew, Our Lord tells us very plainly: “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matt. 7:15). We are not left to the wolves as food, but given strict warning about them, and told to be wary of them.
So you may be asking yourselves “What exactly does Our Lord mean? Who are these wolves? When we hear St. Paul warning the Ephesian elders of these savage wolves, of whom is he referring to?” Dear Christian friends, we are not being warned here in these texts of those who blatantly deny the divinity of Christ. Those who believe in false gods and actively serve Satan through these idols are not the savage wolves that our Lord and St. Paul are warning you and I about. No, for these heretics, these followers of the devil are wolves in wolves clothing. Their treachery is plain, and thus easily recognizable.
What you and I are being warned about are more dangerous, for they appear to be harmless. The false teacher never professes to be a deceiver. He claims to come in the Lord’s name and to preach the Lord’s words. He comes not as a manifest wolf, but as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“How may we discern such a person,” you may be asking yourselves. “It is impossible to beware of false prophets without knowing them” So, let us again look to what our Lord tells us: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16).
To many, this may seem to be a case for a works-righteous attitude. If we only know a person by their fruits, then therefore we must pay attention to how a person lives, what he or she does. This is however, a misguided and anti-scriptural conclusion that is drawn up purely on the basis of our human desire to obtain by works, our salvation. Our Lord is not directing us to look to what our neighbor does in order that we may know them by their fruits.
These fruits of which Christ Jesus speaks of are the doctrines which [the prophets] preach. How one lives their life does not distinguish a true prophet from the false. A man may preach the truth and fail to show his sound doctrine by a God-pleasing life, but that does not render him a false prophet: it renders him a false Christian rather, though his teaching may be right. On the other hand, a man may preach error and still lead a life of seeming holiness. Such a man shows himself to be a false prophet, whatever may be thought of his personal piety. By his fruits we know him.
I It would be absurd to assume that the personal holiness or the earnest Christian life is to be the test of a prophet. If that was the criteria, we would never detect those who are false prophets. We cannot see into the hearts of men and cannot thus truly know who really loves and honors the Savior. Therefore neither pious pretensions nor piety, real or feigned, can be the mark by which we can distinguish true and false prophets. Nothing can be such a mark but the prophet’s fruits, which are his teachings. Whether he is a true or a false prophet, you will know only by comparing his teaching with the Word of God.
So in famous Lutheran tradition, we musk ask ourselves, “What does that mean?” It means, dear friends in Christ, that each and every one of you is charged with the study of Scripture in order to be armed with the knowledge to answer that question Satan put forth to our first parents. You and I are commanded to search the Scriptures to prove all things and hold fast that which is good, to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly in all wisdom and to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior. So when it is put to you: “Did God really say?” you may answer with either a definite yes or no, and not be deceived by the grand wolf and his pack.
You may be thinking, “But what if Scripture does not clearly answer the question that I have or that has arisen?” Dear Christian friends, remember what is truly at stake here; your salvation. Therefore, all that is absolutely necessary for you to know for your salvation is clearly defined in the simply stated catechism. From the first chief part you learn to know true God-pleasing works, from the second true saving faith, and from the third true prayer. From the fourth, fifth and sixth what are the true sacraments and the power of the Church. From the table of duties, true Christian conduct in your calling and vocation. Your catechism is a tool that has been designed to bring you to the “meat and potatoes” so to speak of your theology; the theology of the Cross; the only true theology, where Christ is at the center.
Dear Christian friends, there is no subject that approaches in importance that of the soul’s salvation. The world lies in wickedness and the sentence of death is upon all men. We must be wary of these savage wolves that creep into the fold and try and steal us away. There are those who would have you and I believe that this is not so serious a matter, and that not so much depends upon our faith or our life – that we can think what we please and do what we please, and all will come right at last. Such are these that they would lead you to the gates of hell. There is a mighty Savior, and we can by faith in Him live with Him in heaven throughout all eternity. He is the only way, and there is salvation in no other; and to Him we can come and in Him abide only through His revealed Word and Sacraments.
The world is not a happy place. There is crime and deceit all around. Some of those deceivers come dressed, not in sheep’s clothing but as manifest wolves; of these a Christian should be readily on guard against. There are those, however, that do come amidst the flock dressed in sheep’s clothing. We have been warned that this will happen, yet we are not left alone with just a warning. We have been given the tools to recognize these savage wolves – and much more.
Remember what the psalmist wrote in the 23rd psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23).
You see, dear Christian friends, we have not been left alone to discover and ward off these wolves, Our Lord and Savior is with us. He speaks to us in His Word. He marks us as one of his own in the Sacrament of Baptism. He comforts and strengthens us with His body and blood, of which we partake of at Our Lord’s Supper. He has sent the Holy Spirit to guide us to that which is necessary, and that is Christ. For Christ is: “[our] rock and [our] salvation” (Ps. 62:6).
Dear Christian friends, be on guard for the savage wolves that creep in among the flock. Understand that it is the love of our Lord that we have been given warning against false prophets; in love to your Lord and to the souls which He has purchased with the ultimate price, pay attention to these warnings. See that in the struggle against Satan and against sin you continue in the Lord’s Word. Avoid those who teach other than He teaches, for in Him is the only way to salvation. In Him, you and I shall find our rest, and our comfort. For He is the Good Shepherd who has defeated the savage wolf and removed his fangs of death. Amen
And now the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.