You could call the eight Sunday after Trinity “False Prophet Sunday.” The Old Testament brings up the classic statement on false prophecy, and the Gospel is Jesus’ foundational teaching on false prophets. To this point so far in the Trinity season, we have not been able to comment much on Gnosticism, which was one of the goals of this devotional. Sometimes the Gospel is so glorious you forget about error; also, while the nature of Gnosticism is to be opposed to all that is Gospel – and therefore each Gospel could have a Gnostic counterpoint – much of it would be redundant.
This week is an exception. It being about false prophecy, it will launch us into several analyses of Gnostic teaching. The Scriptural teaching on false doctrine, resonating with Jesus’ words this week, has several concepts that we will probe this week, about lawlessness, covetousness, the Self, the magical use of Christ’s name, the incarnation, the view of the world as evil, and so on. It should be an interesting week.
But lets begin with basics.
First, every Christian should grapple with the reality of false doctrine and false prophecy. St. Paul says, “there will be false teachers among you.” It’s a reality of the Christian. It tests us. It proves there is something profoundly spiritual going on. I have to shake my head when I see Christian pundits or commentators complain how Christians are treated differently than Muslims. Of course that would be the case. The devil is the prince of this world and going after Christians, and Jesus promised this would be the case. When it happens, why do we bristle? If anything, we should be thankful it hasn’t been far worse.
False doctrine is a thing. It’s a very real thing. Jesus doesn’t give His words so that we become heresy hunters – that itself is a particular form of false prophecy – but He also doesn’t give them so that we can become complacent and deem any discernment as “judgmentalism.”
Let’s do a quick review about some basic things the Bible teaches about false prophecy (that we will get more into throughout the week): (1) They teach lawlessness; (2) they perform false miracles to deceive; (3) their doctrines are rooted in covetousness – this is the “thorniness” of their teaching Jesus talked about; (4) they teach the world is evil and that only they (the false prophet or false christ) are the answer to the world’s evils; (5) they deny the incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity.
Second, our Gospel for this week emphasizes that no everyone who claims the name of Christ is therefore to be heard. In this devotions we’ve several times referenced the trick of taking what one believes, feels, or has a passion for, and then projecting it outward, and naming it “Christ.” That way one can sanctify ones own desires. This was the exact sin Jeremiah warned against in the Old Testament reading for this week, and it permeates all false prophecy. It’s a very subtle ploy we’ll get more into later this week.
Third, false prophets teach and preach lawlessness. That word comes up time and time again in dealings with false teaching. Jesus brings it up this week; He brings it up again when talking about the false prophecy in the end times; St. Paul brings it up as well. Jesus began His sermon warning against those who do not “do and teach” the Ten Commandments. He means it. But there’s a more sublime understanding of “lawlessness” going on that leads into a discussion of Gnosticism. We’ve dealt with this topic before but we’ll review it.
Fourth, the antidote to false teaching in the teaching of Jesus. The Jeremiah reading for this week described the Word of God as a hammer. The false prophets were those who tried to soften the blow of God’s Word, to prophecy “Peace! Peace!” when in fact judgement was right around the corner. If Jesus’ words are harsh, the solution is not to re-image them in a softer way that’s culturally or psychologically friendly. The solution is to receive it the way concrete receives the seed. The seed will grow and break up the concrete, like a hammer, but the seed must be received.
Fifth, in the context of the previous paragraph we need to remember the “Sermon on the Mount Cycle” that correlates to the “dying to old sins and rising to new life” we embrace as we take up the cross daily to follow Jesus. What is that cycle? It’s this: (1) As we hear Jesus’ teaching, we hear it in awe and reverence because Jesus is God – that itself is the “rock” foundation; (2) because it’s the Word of God and not man, we set it up as a standard, something we wish we could follow perfectly, because that is the right way to live; (3) because of the standard these teachings establish, we are humbled, feel ourselves spiritual poor, are sad because of this fact, and desire to live the way Christ teaches; (4) with that, Jesus has just caused us to become part of the first four beatitudes, particularly the fourth, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled; (5) Jesus fills us with His righteousness, the bread of everlasting life in Holy Communion; (6) having been filled with our righteousness, we return to Jesus’ teachings, ever striving to live up to what He teaches; return to point # 1.
How does this relate to false doctrine? Because the false teacher generally seeks to short-circuit this process, finding some way to whitewash Jesus’ teaching or the fulfillment of it. Ultimately the false teacher wants to undermine the power of the seed to do its work, to soften the blow of the hammer and the life that follows.
But the false teacher’s false heart will be exposed soon enough. He will be seen as a teacher not of Christ’s teaching, but a teacher of the Self. Like a person who comes across as nice at first, but after awhile is revealed to be “all about himself,” so is the false prophet. That is the thorn prick; that is where you extend your hand into his teaching, and it comes out bloody from all the thorn pricks.
Christ’s teaching is a rock, not shifting sand. It’s a rock upon which we build our houses. It’s a rock that carries authority, the authority of the Son of God. It’s a rock that hammers us hard, but leads to a fruit of righteousness. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”