Wolf in sheep’s clothing
In the sermon on the mount, there is a progression in Christ’s teaching about the Scribes and Pharisees.
They begin as standard-bearers for outward righteousness. If anyone is to enter the Kingdom, they must have a righteousness that exceeds the Scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Of course that means that these do-gooders are not themselves in the kingdom – which would have shocked Christ’s hearers. But it does mean that, in one sense, they “set the bar high.” They have a “form of godliness”.
As the sermon continues we see how false that form is. In chapter 6 Jesus refers to them as “hypocrites” – that is, masked actors (Matthew 6:2,5,16). In chapter 7 Jesus speaks first in comical terms: they have beams in their eyes (v3). Then he sticks in the knife: they are swine (v6). Unclean. Excluded. The lowest of the low.
But it gets even worse. Now in verse 15 Jesus says they are more dangerous than swine, they are wolves:
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)
To be sure, “false prophets” come from many religious groupings – not just “Pharisees.” But it’s sensible to assume that Jesus is referring to the same kind of “hypocrite” throughout the sermon. They might go by the name “Scribe”, they might go by the name “Pharisee”, they might go by the name “Evangelical” (as I do). But the name is not what’s important. The real problem is what they are “inwardly” – wolves. Ravening wolves.
And there’s nothing more dangerous to sheep than a ravening wolf. A prophet is meant to feed the sheep with the word of God. False prophets feed on the sheep, all the while masquerading as one of them.
This is the chilling truth about the church’s greatest earthly enemies. They come from within. The hypocrites wear a Christian mask. The wolves wear sheep’s clothing. They appear innocent. They appear to belong. Yet underneath there is devastating violence and murder.
Imagine a wolf luring another sheep to itself, mimicking its mother’s bleating. Imagine the sheep blissfully unaware of the danger. Now imagine the frenzy and blood of a vicious attack. What have we just witnessed? A Sunday sermon. A best-selling book. An archbishop’s address. A popular conference speaker. Simply the speaking of lies in God’s name. And the flock is torn apart.
How seriously do you take false teaching? Is it simply a doctrinal miscalculation? Merely damaging for the church’s credibility? No, it’s life or death. Because the word of Christ is life or death (v24-27).
Therefore, says Jesus, Beware!
Next time, we’ll see how to spot such wolves…