Wolf in sheep's clothing
Regarding the transformation into Jesus-likeness (metamorphosis), there are various stumbling blocks. One might say, "Yes, but this one says ... and that one says .... " Look at the way they live their lives. If the fruits of a life according to the Sermon on the Mount are not visible, such prophets have no authority for you. But it is not only a matter of caution, but also of personal insight. Am I a good tree with good fruit? We must not frantically try to bear good fruit, but strive to become a good tree.
In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus crosses the waters of the Sirens with his ship. These mythical creatures lured the sailors to the cliffs of their island with their beguiling songs in order to kill them. Odysseus ordered his crew to put wax in their ears. Only he himself wanted to hear the sirens' songs. But because he distrusted his own strength to resist, he had himself tied to the masts of his ship and ordered his men not to obey any of his commands. And indeed, when the sirens lured him with their song, their grand compliments and their flattery, he wanted nothing more than to yield to their voices. Had he not taken precautions, he would have run to his own doom, dragging his crew with him.
We can also hear the tempting voices of the sirens today. Jesus warns against them in the Sermon on the Mount: "Beware offalse prophets. They come along like harmless sheep, but in reality they are dangerous wolves who want to tear you to pieces. You recognise them by their behaviour, just as you recognise a tree by its fruit. Thorn bushes do not grow grapes, and thistles do not grow figs" (Matthew 7:15-16 NLB).
At all times there have been people who have appeared and spoken in the name of God. They can trigger an enormous fascination. Today we live in a huge market of offers, especially with regard to Christian speakers. Many a person runs a YouTube channel and shares his or her insights. But how can we know whether their music is from heaven or whether foreign rhythms are being drummed here? How can we protect ourselves from being taken in by "false prophets"?
So there are sirens in our waters too, trying to guide us to the wrong places. Jesus speaks to wolves who pretend to be harmless sheep. The expression "wolf in sheep's clothing" has its origin in this speech. The problem of such a wolf is that it disguises itself with sheep's clothing in order not to be recognised as a wolf. In ancient times, shepherds protected themselves against the cold with skins from the sheep. A "wolf in sheep's clothing" wants to confuse the sheep so that they no longer know whom to follow. Do we have to stuff wax into our ears like Odysseus' crew? How are we to recognise ravening wolves and false prophets when they disguise themselves with sheep's clothing, when they speak piously and reasonably, when they act friendly and helpful?
Jesus gives us a clear criterion for judgement: You can recognise a false prophet by their fruits. It is not great speeches in the name of God that establish their authority, but their way of life. Therefore, we must listen carefully and pay attention to their actions. Are they authentic, honest, truthful? Does what they claim to be the truth correspond to the truth that is called Jesus Christ and the truth of the Bible? Do they preach water and drink wine? Do they say A and do B? One usually pays quite close attention to this correspondence between word and deed; especially in the case of fellow human beings who are in the public eye. How many cars does the green transport politician have in his garage? How much does the husband of the finance politician who wants to push through tax relief for the wealthy earn? The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11), whereas a wolf takes the life of the sheep. Wherever we are promised life, but basically the callers' own profit is in the foreground, it smacks of "wolf in sheep's clothing".
To recognise a person by their fruits, you have to know them. Many of us listen to speakers on YouTube and have no idea about their life and character. When I was appointed as pastor by the regional leader here in 2007, he says that a pastor's family is in a glass house. People look at us, at our marriage, at our family, at how we treat people, at how we respond to praise and criticism, etc. Moreover, a church pastor has to answer for what he let out last Sunday or 10 years ago. Probably the local pastor is not the best rhetorician, nor the best Bible expositor, but you can watch him, touch him and talk to him. That's why I advocate giving more authority to your own pastor than to any speaker who doesn't give you a glimpse into his life. Even though it is of course true that even we pastors are not immune from speaking for our own glory and honour. The metamorphosis is not yet complete.
Let us beware of a misunderstanding: we must not confuse fruits of faith with success. It is not about how much external success someone has, how many people he attracts and inspires, how much donations he raises or even what spectacular healing miracles he performs. In these categories, false prophets can outshine true Christians, and this happens again and again. The fruits are not about external success, but only about whether a person lives truly and lovingly in word and deed. Or in other words, it is about the question of whether a person's attitudes and actions correspond more and more to the Sermon on the Mount.
Odysseus had himself tied to the mast of the ship because he did not want to mistakenly give in to the songs. Had he not taken precautions, he would have run to his own doom and taken his crew with him. Since it is also not easy for us to recognise "wolves in sheep's clothing", it might be helpful to ask someone's opinion before worshipping a speaker or forwarding his link.
People of character develop a sound eye in judging all kinds of prophets. They do not stumble in their personal metamorphosis by saying, "Yes, but this one says... and that one says...". "
Now we turn our gaze away from others and towards ourselves. We want to critically examine how our own fruits of faith are doing. Are my fruits such that I can say: I am a good tree - just as my heavenly Father wants me to be?
Jesus does not only speak of false prophets, but makes a generalisation: "A healthy tree bears good fruit, but a sick tree bears badfruit.A good tree does not grow bad fruit, just as a sick tree does not produce healthy fruit. Therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. You see, they are known by their fruit" (Matthew 7:17-20 NLB).
Each of us is recognised by the fruits. In this context, the question becomes urgent whether a metamorphosis is taking place in my life. Are my virtues and character becoming more and more like those of Jesus? People who let themselves be transformed by the heavenly Father are the best advertisement for the good news of Jesus. People who do not let themselves be changed are not neutral, but immunise against faith in Jesus Christ.
We would misunderstand Jesus if we resignedly said: I am and remain a bad tree, for my fruit is bad; there is still so much transgression and wrong. We need not despair of ourselves and think that God's grace has been in vain with us. Fruit takes time to ripen and is all small, green, bitter and sour to begin with, even if it is in itself good fruit from a good tree. The great preacher of repentance John the Baptist called out to the people: "Watch, bring forth righteous fruits of repentance" (Luke 3:8 LUT). Whoever allows himself to be called to repentance (=repentance) again and again by God's word, the good fruits will always ripen in him.
On my parents' farm we picked tons of apples and picked up the fallen fruit from the ground. In the midst of the best fruit, there was always the occasional rotten or dried apple. With gusto we threw these at the trunk so that it splashed on all sides. Bad fruit can be found on the best tree. Individual rotten fruits are not a sign that the tree is bad in and of itself! Bad fruit need not depress us, but lead us into dependence on Jesus.
Our confidence is the trust that God will not leave us alone with his demand for "righteous fruits of repentance". Repentance does not mean that we have to give ourselves a little more effort, pull ourselves together and exercise more self-discipline. Each of us can sing a little song with Paul: "When I want to do good, I don't do it. And when I try to avoid evil, I do it anyway" (Romans 7:19 NLB). Repentance means refocusing on Jesus Christ, surrendering to Him and trusting Him to bring about the transformation of our being.
"And do not conform to this course of the world, but be transformed [in your being] by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Romans 12:2 SLT). The fruit can only get better as the tree gets better. Our most important and basic request to God must be that He will be gracious to us and perform the miracle on us of turning bad trees into good trees. Our legitimate confidence is that God wants to transform us into good trees through metamorphosis. We must want this to happen to us. We express our intention by seeking the heavenly Father in prayer.
Now we are almost a year into our journey with the theme "Metamorphosis". What has become of it? Are we making any progress at all with a way of life according to the example of Jesus? It is a misunderstanding to believe that we must always clearly recognise our own fruits of faith. Jesus says: "By their fruits you will know them" (namely the others) and not: "By your fruits you shall knowyourselves. "And when Jesus later tells the parable of the Last Judgment, he makes the believers ask in amazement: "Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and give you food? When did we see you thirsty and give you drink? When were you a stranger and we gave you hospitality? Or when were you naked and we clothed you? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?" (Matthew 25:37-39 NLB). Only then will the Judge of the World open their eyes to the fruits of their faith.
One picture shows Jesus on the cross with a crown of thorns. As in a mirror image, one sees how these thorns and thistles awaken to new life and bear fruit. The cross is the turning point in world history: the new creation begins. Death becomes life. The transformation of a human being into the likeness of Jesus Christ is a supernatural miracle that has its origin on the cross. If you trust this Jesus, fruit can grow even when the tree seems dead. Metamorphosis is an expression of the new world of God!
Possible questions for the small groups
Read Bible text: Matthew 7:15-20; John 15:1-8
- What experience do you have with false prophets, or wolves in sheep's clothing? How do you check whether a prophet is true or false?
- Now to ourselves: Do our fruits indicate a good tree? What results do you see after one year of "metamorphosis"?
- If your fruits don't quite convince you, what is the starting point for a better result?
- A rotten tree is cut down and thrown into the fire. What does that mean?
- You don't see the fruits of faith so well yourself. Tell each other what fruits you see in each other!