Some time ago a person commented on the theme to which we now come in our studies, saying, “If you are going to place poison on a shelf where you have healing medicines, you had better label it clearly.” Someone was discussing the presence of false teaching and false teachers in the Church, and he was recognizing that if false teachers are going to be present in the Church, as the Bible teaches they will be, then they must be clearly identified before they do harm.
This is not just human wisdom, of course, for this is precisely the point of Christ’s teaching. In the last verses of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13-27), Jesus is warning against four things that can keep a person who has heard the Gospel from ultimately committing his life to the Lord. The first, which we studied last week, is the false idea that a person can drift into salvation without having to make a personal decision concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. The second, which we come to today, is the error of the man who would hear Christ, decide to become religious, and then spend all his time listening to every teacher he can find. Jesus warns this type of person that there are also false prophets in the world and that if he turns from Himself to such teachers, these teachers will actually lead him away from the truth and from the source of salvation.
Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:15-20).
The practice of describing the enemies of God’s people as wolves was certainly common enough in Christ’s day. For one thing, it was a natural image in a country where a large proportion of the people were either in the employ of herdsmen or were shepherds. Also, it was an image well known from the Scriptures. For instance, Ezekiel had written of Israel’s unrighteous rulers, “Her princes in her midst are like wolves ravening the prey, to shed blood, and to destroy souls, to get dishonest gain” (Ezek. 22:27). Zephaniah wrote, “Her princes within her are roaring lions, her judges are ravening wolves” (Zeph. 3:3). Later, after the founding of the Christian Church, Paul also warned the Christians at Ephesus in these same terms saying, “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:29- 30).
These ideas were well enough known, but in this particular text in the Sermon on the Mount we have a slight twist on them. And, of course, it is this that reveals the main thrust of Christ’s teaching. According to Jesus, the danger is not so much in the fact that there are going to be wolves in the world—though that is perfectly true—but that there are going to be wolves who have disguised themselves as sheep. In other words, the danger lies in the fact that there are going to be agents of the devil in the Church.