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Sermon on the Mount

Three Common Forms of Spiritual Deception

Matthew 7:13-27

Teaching t08364


Those of you who live on campus know that it's not an entirely safe place. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people down here who prey on unsuspecting people. You can get robbed, raped, etc. That doesn't mean you shouldn't live down here--there are many wonderful benefits--it just means that you need to be careful.

It's the same way when it comes to spiritual things. Spirituality is in today, but unfortunately many people think that anything spiritual must be good or safe. But according to the Bible, we do not live in a spiritually safe (or even neutral) environment. The main danger is not demon possession, but rather spiritual deception. That's why Jesus ends this teaching with a warning about spiritual deception. He mentions three forms of spiritual deception that can ruin your life unless you discern and avoid them.

1: "I can trust the opinion of the majority on spiritual matters."

Read 7:13-14. The first form of spiritual deception against which Jesus warns us is sheepism--the tendency to uncritically follow the herd we're a part of. People tend to arrive at their spiritual beliefs not so much by careful examination and deliberate choice as by osmosis from those around them. There is a subtle, but very strong pressure to conform to the majority ethos. While this is no big deal in some area (musical tastes, etc.), Jesus says there is great danger in doing this with spiritual beliefs--because at any given time in any given society, the majority is usually wrong about the nature of spiritual truth. Therefore, those who are truly on the right path are usually in the minority and moving against the herd.

The "narrow way" refers to the message of biblical revelation, fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

You can see this very clearly in Jesus' public ministry. The majority opinion on how to attain salvation centered around two beliefs: being Jewish and performing good works. Most rabbis taught that being born Jewish gave you the inside track to heaven, unless you committed some terrible sin (ABRAHAM AT GATES OF HELL). As long as you observed the rituals and rabbinic traditions and kept out of big trouble, you were in.

See Jesus' and John's warning against trusting the Jewish exemption clause (Matt. 3:9; Lk. 13:28-30). See Jesus' critique of works-righteousness (Matt. 5:20-48) and his amazing conclusion about the Pharisee and tax-gatherer (Lk. 18:14). It isn't your ethnic origin or your relative moral performance that determine where you spend eternity--it's your response to God's offer of grace: whether you humble yourself before the God of the Bible, admit that you need his forgiveness, and put your trust in his Son to pay for your sins and give you God's acceptance. For this message, Jesus and his followers were ostracized and marginalized and persecuted--but they were right!

When I was in college (25-30 years ago), the majority opinion was philosophical materialism (EXPLAIN) . . . 

What about today? What about your herd? The majority opinion in most American universities is religious relativism--the view that spiritual truth is relative to the individual, that all spiritual beliefs are valid ways to God, and that the notion that there is only one correct way to God is arrogant, intolerant, and bigoted. In a social group that supposedly prizes freedom of thought, there is remarkable conformity on this point (STREET INTERVIEWS). No matter that it is internally contradictory, no matter that it provides a convenient excuse not to investigate spiritual truth claims-- this is the new dogma, and you will feel the pressure if you dare to disagree with it.

Over against this, Jesus says that he is the narrow way (Jn. 14:6)--because he alone has lived the perfect life that we owe to God, he alone has died a substitutionary death that pays for our sins against God, he alone has fulfilled the many Old Testament prophecies concerning God's Savior/Messiah.

What are you going to do? Are you going to investigate his claims and the evidence for them--or are you going to stay in the herd?

What if you have decided that Jesus is the correct way to God/salvation? There are still two very dangerous forms of spiritual deception with which you must contend. Jesus informs us of the first of these in the next paragraph . . . 

2: "Whoever claims to be Jesus' spokesperson is probably trustworthy."

Read 7:15. "False prophets" refer to counterfeit Christian leaders. These are people who, like wolves disguised as sheep, pose as followers of/spokespersons for Jesus--but are actually deceivers who lead people astray. In fact, they are usually self-deceived (read 7:21-23). They call Jesus "Lord," they preach in his name and from his Word, some of them even perform miraculous deeds by what they claim is his power. Yet they do not belong to Jesus, and destroy his work.

Jesus predicted that the entire time between his two comings would be characterized by a steady stream of false prophets (Matt. 24:11)--and this prediction has been fulfilled in spades!

The first-century church saw an immediate outbreak of all kinds of false teachers. Virtually every New Testament letter warns against specific false teachings.

The study of church history is a study of one outbreak after another--from the Gnostics, to ritualistic legalism (2nd century, peaking in Middle Ages, still around today), to mainline denominational liberalism (JESUS SEMINAR), to wacky cult-leaders (RASPUTIN, JIM JONES, WACO GROUP), to healer-dealers, etc. They all claim to be spokesmen for Jesus, they all use the Bible--and they're all counterfeits who chew up people's spiritual lives.

In such a polluted environment, how can anyone avoid this? Jesus says it's not that difficult--just become a fruit-inspector (read 7:16-20). If you know what fruit to look for, and if you look carefully for it, you can avoid being taken in by false prophets. What fruit should we be inspecting? Jesus doesn't say specifically here, but the rest of the New Testament tells us about two main things to inspect:

Does the content of their teaching conform to biblical doctrine (7:13,14)? Read Titus 1:9-10. Do they affirm Jesus' full deity--or do they lower him to a wandering sage, one of many avatars, etc.? Do they affirm salvation is only through Jesus--or that he is one of many ways? Do they affirm that salvation is only by grace through faith alone--or do they add ritual-observance, good works, etc.? Do they hold a high view of scripture--or are they introducing other books or teachings as the ultimate standard?
Does the moral quality of their lifestyle conform to biblical requirements (7:23--"lawlessness")? Read Titus 1:6-8. Do they affirm and practice sexual purity--or are they cheating? Are they free from the love of money--or are they making tons of money and living high off the hog? Do they treat people with respect and gentleness (and are they accountable)--or are they tyrants? Are they fair and just in their decisions--or do they play favorites?
By the way, they need to pass both tests . . . 

You should be suspicious of any leader/teacher who resists accountability in these areas. I/we value your trust, but we don't want it because you have exempted us from this kind of fruit-inspection!

3: "Understanding and agreeing with Jesus' teaching is sufficient."

Let's hear Jesus out on one more form of spiritual deception. Read 7:24-27. This warning is for people who have avoided the first two deceptions. He says you can choose the narrow way of the Bible and Jesus, you can discern and reject the false prophets--and still wind up in complete spiritual ruin. How? By thinking that understanding and agreeing with his words is sufficient.

In other words, you can have the truth but be deceived about how you need to respond to that truth.

Most people know that the Bible says faith in Christ is required--but what kind of faith?

There is a kind of faith that stops at understanding and agreeing with what he teaches. Don't get me wrong--they are both important and necessary--they're just not enough. Jesus says that kind of response will not survive the storms of life or the judgment of God. James says that the demons have this kind of faith in God (Jas. 2:19)--but that kind of faith obviously doesn't save them. In the same way that understanding and agreeing that a medicine will cure you--but not actually swallowing it. In the same way that understanding and agreeing that food will rescue you from starving--yet not actually eating it.

For some of you here tonight, this is where you are with Jesus. You have been hearing the message of Christ over the past few/several weeks, and you now understand his offer. You have come to the point that you think this may be/probably is actually true. That's great! But there's one more step you need to take--the step of acting on his words--and if you don't take it, none of this truth will really profit you. You need to actually call out to him and ask him to forgive you through his death, to come into your heart and begin to lead your life, etc. When you do this, your life will become anchored to the bedrock of Christ himself, and no storm (no matter how terrible) will ever be able to separate you from him and the eternal life that he gives you. Why not take this action tonight?