Sunday, May 20, 2018

On the Mount (31)

Here’s one of very few Greek words that are easily understood without consulting a concordance: pseudoprophētēs, meaning “false prophets”. To call something “pseudo” or “pseud” these days is to see right through it and recognize it as phony. The prophētēs part kind of translates itself.

But we live in a day when, as C.S. Lewis put it, “The dwarves are for the dwarves.” We pride ourselves on being sufficiently cynical to see through everything, to the point where many of us see nothing at all.

The Rare and Precious Prophetic Word

However, recognizing a false prophet is not necessarily a straightforward task. It is not straightforward today; the evidence being the large followings of dead pseudo-sages like Joseph Smith, who has deceived millions. And it was not straightforward two thousand years ago; not, as some think, because people in the first century Middle East were especially gullible, but because false prophecy is not infrequently associated with signs and wonders (or at least convincing magic tricks), gimmicks that might sell a prophet’s verbal shtick to an audience familiar with the prophetic word — it was, after all, the mechanism by which the Jews had received much of their Hebrew Old Testament — and willing to accept those who claimed to speak for God under certain conditions.

However, at the time of the Sermon on the Mount, legitimate prophecy appears to have been fairly rare. No new word from God had been had been added to the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, since Malachi’s prophecy over 400 years prior. The spate of prophetic utterances associated with the arrival of John the Baptist and, later, God’s promised Christ was the first new revelation in centuries. Genuine, God-given prophecies in the early first century had already come through Zechariah, Anna, John and others, including the Lord Jesus himself. However, at the time the Lord Jesus first brought his message to the Jewish people, these prophetic utterances had yet to be generally distributed or included in the word of God, and the value of the revelation they shared had yet to be widely recognized.

Beware of False Prophets

It is in this historical and spiritual context that the Lord tells his Jewish followers:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
You have probably often heard this passage appropriated, the word “prophets” swapped out for “teachers” and applied to Christian sermons preached from platforms all over the world today. That’s not an entirely invalid application (after all, false teachers are wolves too), but I don’t think it was the sort of thing the Lord had primarily in view when he said it, nor was it the way his Jewish audience would have heard and understood it. On the face of it, these verses have little to do with the spiritual gift of teaching, which had yet to be given, or with the church, which did not yet exist.

The Test of the False Teacher

Further, the later New Testament writings have no lack of explicit warnings about false teachers. False teaching need not be judged by the fruits it appears to produce; rather, we can judge Bible teachers by how they handle the written word of God. Is what they say consistent with the teaching of Christ? Is it consistent with the teaching of the apostles? While the “fruit” of any particular teaching remains indicative of its spiritual value, today we have no need to sit back and wait to see what sort of consequences may arise from a particular interpretation of scripture. We can nip religious frauds in the bud by crying foul whenever we hear the word of God mangled, misused, yanked out of context, misappropriated, distorted, lied about or otherwise mistreated.

Frankly, the sooner the better.

No, I think the Lord was giving his believing Jewish audience a useful, temporary method by which they could judge the spiritual worth of his own words, the words of his disciples, and the things said by anyone who claimed to represent him or to represent his Father until such time as prophetic utterance had ceased to be a common thing and his Church had in its hands the written word of God.

Baa Baa Fake Sheep

See, here’s the thing about sheep’s clothing: it’s a terrific disguise. It worked for false prophets, and it still works today for false teachers. The humble demeanor. The pious invocations of familiar religious phrases. The persistent appeals to our egos as they tell us they are “still learning” (they’re either not, or else they learn in only the most superficial way, never truly submitting themselves to God’s word). The claims they are “open” to our modification or correction (not a snowball’s chance there). The apparent concern for the poor and downtrodden that never actually changes their lot for the better. The twist on the gospel so slight you miss it at first. The suggestion that maybe those other teachers are being a little bit hard on you and there might be a way of looking at scripture that allows you to keep some of those bits of the world you like, and that other Christians are always encouraging you to give up.

Sheep’s clothing works a treat, and it attracts a lot more disciples than, say, thundering denunciations about obvious sin, or encouragements to greater faithfulness and obedience.

So how were the Lord’s followers to recognize false prophets from true, given that the disguise of the false prophets was so convincing? Well, false prophets might mimic outward piety, counterfeit signs and wonders and use comfortable religious jargon. What they couldn’t duplicate successfully were the results of obedience to God, either in their own lives or in anyone else’s.

Healthy Trees and Diseased Trees

Fruit grows in season. It does not pop up on demand. It comes on an annual schedule, all things being equal. Watch long enough and you will always be able to tell healthy trees from diseased trees. When John the Baptist told his audiences, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance,” the immediate response was “What then shall we do?” So John gave them these instructions:
“ ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’ ”
A genuine prophet was a watered, well-nourished tree that could not help but produce good fruit: sharing rather than hoarding; honesty rather than greed; contentment rather than lies, threats and violence. There was life in his words, and his own character and practice reflected the values he taught. Nobody accused John the Baptist of being after the big bucks. Anyone observing could see the difference his utterances had made in people’s lives. It might have taken a few weeks, months or even years for an onlooker to be completely convinced that his word was from God and that it was the real deal, but it would not take very long at all to notice a radical difference from what had gone before.

No Need to Wait for Harvest

The false prophet could offer none of that, since there was no spiritual power in his words. They were at best mere human ingenuity and force of will, and at worst the lies of the devil.

And yes, we can certainly agree that the false teaching of today fails in precisely the same way, assuming we are inclined to wait and observe until harvest time.

Happily, with the word of God in our hands, we have no need to do that.

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