Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.
This verse speaks of the outside covering and inside motives of the false prophet. We’ll address both the outside and inside today and tomorrow. Today we cover the outside, the sheep’s clothing.
What is the meaning of the “sheep’s clothing”? What does it mean to appear “sheep-like”? Does the metaphor arise from Biblical themes on the lamb, so we should go back to the Passover Lamb and the sacrificial lambs? Or does the metaphor arise more from the nature of lambs themselves, to be harmless and innocent, like sheep led to the slaughter? Or finally, does the metaphor arise from its opposite, the wolf, meaning, whereas a wolf is ravenous and feasts on others, lambs are the opposite of that.
Let’s go with each possibility and see where it takes us.
If we go back to Biblical themes on the lamb, we would be working especially with the statement that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus fulfills the Passover Lamb and the sacrificial lamb. If that is the reference, then a wolf in sheep’s clothing would be someone claiming to be Christ while actually a devil. It would be the antichrist, the “in place of” Christ.
This interpretation would parallel the image given in the book of Revelation regarding the Antichrist. “Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon.”
The Antichrist claims to be Christ because he denies the flesh of Jesus. He sees “Christ” as more a cosmic archetype – a mantle certain special ones can assume – than an actually flesh and blood person. This is why understanding Gnosticism and its subtle ways is so important to understanding what the Antichrist is.
The antichristian spirit arises when there is a fuzzy line where God ends and man begins. In Christ, there are clear boundaries and borders in God – God ends where the flesh and blood of Jesus ends. (Of course, God is everywhere, but the point of Jesus is, in Him we have “God for us.”)
Once that fuzzy line enters the picture – and Jesus is seen less as the Word made flesh and more as some Cosmic Christ transcending flesh – that opens the door to anyone claiming the mantle of Christ, an antichrist. This happens all the time, and it usually happens hand in hand with an outlook of the world that sees it as still unsaved, or still unredeemed, or as evil.
So, the “ravenous” aspect of the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” (an antichrist) would be because he, a mere human with sin, is claiming to be Christ. Humans are by nature ravenous. Only one human was born without a ravenous nature, Christ. But if that line becomes fuzzy, then a ravenous human can cloak himself with Christ. How this plays out is the topic of our upcoming devotion on the ravenous inside of our image.
There is a lot of truth to mine out of this first interpretation of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, and we will, but several things argue against it. First, Jesus explicitly says He’s teaching about false prophets, not antichrists. They are not exactly the same. Second, when Jesus goes on to give examples of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, He describes how he speaks and does things “in his name.” The one doing and speaking “in the name” of another is a messenger.
Which leads to the second interpretation. If Jesus is speaking about the messengers He sends out, are there passages supporting them being compared to lambs or sheep? There are. Particularly when Jesus sends out the apostles on their “mini-mission,” and says He is sending them out as “sheep among wolves” (Matthew) or “lambs among wolves” (Luke). The theology by which He shares His own “metaphorical lamb’s clothing” with the apostles, is just as He says, “He who receives you receives Me,” and “He who hears you hears Me.”
As lambs sent by Christ, they too will be “sheep led to the slaughter,” as they themselves take up their crosses and share Jesus’ sufferings. They will conform to His sufferings and humility. This is how they are sheeplike. By contrast the wolf will fight and claw out of sufferings and humility, seeking his own advantage, avoiding the cross at all costs.
This interpretation aligns nicely with what Jesus says about His apostles being “sheep among wolves” when He sends them on their mini-mission in the Gospel of Matthew: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.”
If we go with this interpretation, the wolf would be something akin to the “health and wealth” Gospel, which is the opposite of the “take up the cross” theology. The wolf would be the one who, implicit in all his teaching, denies the reality of the cross. Yes, there are theologians who will spend their whole lives attempting to craft a “best life now” theology for this world. Such theologians look lamb-like and innocent, but are actually clawing their way into some security in this world.
The third interpretation asks, “What is a sheep? Not a wolf.” So, to understand a sheep we don’t go to the Scriptural background of sheep, or to their nature as innocent and slaughter-bound, but we look rather to the wolf. A wolf is ravenous because it feasts on others. The human parallel is the prophet who takes advantage of others or tries to get their money. In the early church, there was a rule that if a prophet came by, he could only stay for three days. If he stayed four days he was a false prophet. He was squatting.
This interpretation fits what Jesus says about the apostles when He sends them on their “mini-mission” in the Gospel of Luke. He says “behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves. Carry neither money bag, knapsack, nor sandals; and greet no one along the road. But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you.”
Those who received their message would provide food and clothing for them, for a worker is worthy of his wages. In turn the hearer would get gifts of grace and peace. The point is, the apostles presented themselves as prophets with no stakes in this world. No house, no clothes, no food. They lived by grace from God through others who provided for them. In their very persons they were re-calibrating human relations from transactional to grace-oriented. In Christ, He who had nothing gives everything; so also His messengers.
The wolf, by contrast, only continues the same-old, same-old, the human drive toward accumulation and security in this world. He did messenger-like things – preached in Christ’s name, miracles, casting out demons – but in the end these were just outer cloaking for his real motive, which was to secure his spot in this world.
True prophets are pilgrims, vagabonds, and wanderers. They’re all just passing through, here one day, there tomorrow; called here, called there.
Finally, whatever interpretation we run with, it has to align with Jesus’ statement that “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”
What is the will of the Father? Well, Jesus had just given His disciples a prayer in which we are to pray, “Thy will be done.” So, evidently, fulfillment of the Father’s will is something granted by the Father. Further, in Matthew’s Gospel, we have two specific instances where the Father’s will is revealed: (1) “[I]t is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” This Jesus taught in the parable of the man finding the lost sheep, after which He teaches forgiveness given through the keys. (2) “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Well, the Lord’s will, that Jesus would die for the sins of the world, was to be done.
If the will of the Father is forgiveness, and the Church administering that forgiveness, then the message from Christ is clear: a false prophet does not do the will of the Father, to pass on the gifts and benefits of Christ’s death. He may do miracles, preach in Christ’s name, or even have abilities to battle the dark powers of the human mind, all in the name of Christ. But if he doesn’t present the Lamb and His sacrifice in a lamb-like way, not seeking gain from his hearers but seeking what he can give, in humility and sacrifice, he is a false prophet.