If you’re anything like me, when I read the bible, I sometimes find a passage that makes me very uncomfortable. Perhaps I don’t like what it says, or I don’t agree with it. And it’s like there’s a temptation to tear the page out; to edit the bible to make it more palatable.
Of course, it’s quite normal for Christians to find things that makes them uncomfortable—even in the bible. But the idea is that we should use these experiences, not to edit our bibles, but so that we can grow in the faith.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Indeed there are some people who don’t just find the odd thing with which they are uncomfortable, they find whole sections. And the end result is that they are tempted to not just tear the odd page out, but to virtually demolish the book.
And something like that situation is what is described in this gospel passage. Because Jesus describes a group of people, who have no problem making a profession of faith. Indeed, they make all the appearance of being faithful followers, even to the point of leading and teaching others. But in reality, it’s all a show. They’ve either not made any commitment, or they’ve torn out so many pages, that by their actions, they show no commitment to Jesus whatsoever.
As a consequence, what we have is some advice from Jesus: “Steer clear of these sorts of people. Do not be taken in.”
Because the first thing he suggests is that we should look out for such people, because they are false teachers (15). The only thing they can be relied upon is to lead us astray. They present themselves as harmless, but their real interest is their own profit. And they will try to further their own interests at the expense of others within the church. And we don’t have to go far to find them, because they will come to us. They are wolves (ravenous wolves), in sheep’s clothing. They may claim divine inspiration, but they do not speak on behalf of God at all.
Secondly, he suggests, they can easily be recognised. Not by their outward appearance or what they say, but by the things they do (16-18). Their lifestyle will not match up to their profession of faith. Their quality of thinking, and the manner in which they live their lives, will betray them for who they really are. So if we take note of what these people do, and refuse to be charmed by their false words, we will recognise the people for what they really are.
And, thirdly, he says that the fate of these people has already been sealed (19-21). Discipleship means more than just religious activity. And if all they have is a profession of faith, which cannot be backed up by being productive members of God’s kingdom, then they face condemnation by God.
In other words, a profession of faith is not enough on its own. And in the terminology of Jesus, these bad trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire. They will not inherit eternal life with him in heaven.
Now just by way of a comment here. Jesus was not advocating a salvation by works, i.e. having to do things in order be saved. But he was advocating the need for a profession of faith with an appropriate way of life. Jesus’s argument is that if someone really trusts in him for their salvation, then that will have an inevitable effect on their lives. Indeed, their lives will become less self-centred and will increasingly reflect Jesus’s teaching. But those who simply profess a faith, and who continue to be arrogant and live self-centred lives . . . Well, all they really demonstrate is that they have no real commitment of faith. And consequently their words or just a mockery.
So what’s in this all for us today?
Well, firstly, we need to heed the warning of Jesus to be on our toes. It’s not just the New Testament church that had problems with false teachers and false prophets. Indeed, the same situation is (sadly) alive and well and in the church today.
Secondly, we shouldn’t be naïve. No matter how presentable or charismatic a person can appear to be—regarding matters of faith at least—we should not allow their personality to cloud our judgement. Indeed, we should try to see if what they say is consistent with the way they live. In other words we should test to see if people claiming to be teachers are genuine or not.
And thirdly, we should take comfort in the fact that God already knows who these people are. It’s not up to us to judge them, that is already in hand. We may want to distance ourselves from them, particularly from their teaching, but their fate has already been decided and we need do no more.
As a consequence, within our churches and without we will find a variety of responses to Jesus. From those who have a problem with one page of the bible, to those who want to tear most, if not all of it out. But Jesus’s warning, is to take heed of those who profess the faith but by their actions show that they really aren’t believers at all. People who use their profession of faith to deceive others, thus gaining some benefit from themselves.
Some sound advice. But maybe also a reality check. After all, how many pages have we torn out to make the bible more palatable for ourselves?
Posted 21st November 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis