“Beware of False Prophets”
A Sermon by Rev. N. Bruce RogersPreached in the Phoenix on June 21, 1998
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)
In several places in the Old and New Testaments and Heavenly Doctrines, the Word either warns against or denounces false prophets. By false prophets are not meant necessarily people who claim to be prophets. Rather they are any and all who teach falsities as truths and who by means of them lead others away from genuine spiritual and moral good.(1) They may be people within the Church, and they may be people from outside the Church. What distinguishes them is their proclamation of ideas contrary to teachings of the Word. So, too, by false prophets are meant those ideas themselves, which, if not guarded against, seduce and lead astray.(2)
Therefore the Lord in His Sermon on the Mount warned the multitudes listening to Him, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.”(3) He said that they would come in sheep’s clothing, because false prophets put on the appearance of morality.(4) But inwardly, He said, they are ravening wolves, because they are predators, victimizing the unwary who succumb to their persuasions.(5)
The danger to the Church posed by false prophets and their beguilements is not a new one, nor was it a new one at the time of the Lord’s advent. In one of his last great addresses to the Israelites, as they camped on the Plains of Moab, ready to cross the Jordan into the promised land of Canaan, Moses admonished the people to take care not to serve the gods of the nations who lay before them and said,
“If there arises among you a prophet or dreamer of dreams…, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods…and serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer of dreams….
“If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ …you shall not consent to him or listen to him….
“If you hear someone in one of your cities…, saying, ‘Corrupt men have gone out from among you and enticed the inhabitants of their city, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods”…if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination was committed among you, you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword–utterly destroying it….(6)
So great was the danger to the Israelitish Church of false prophets who would entice the people to walk after other gods that the penalty prescribed for such prophets was death.(7)
Centuries later, after the division of the nation into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and the people were faced with the threat of the advancing Assyrian empire, false prophets did in fact arise, who promised a continued state of peace and security from the threat.(8) We can imagine how welcome to the ears of their listeners their assurances were; yet the final result was the fall of the northern kingdom, and the people were carried off into captivity and scattered, never to return.(9)
Toward the end of the next century, the kingdom of Judah was faced with a similar threat, this time from the Babylonian empire; and again false prophets arose to assure the people with empty promises.(10) The prophet Jeremiah especially denounced them, saying,
Behold, the prophets say…, “You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.” But the Lord said to me, “The prophets prophesy lies in My name. I have not sent them, commanded them, nor spoken to them; they prophesy to you a false vision, divination, a worthless thing, and the deceit of their heart.”(11)
“Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They make you worthless; they speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord.”(12)
Therefore do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers…, for they prophesy a lie to you….(13)
Even after the fall of Jerusalem, when many of the inhabitants of Judah were carried off into exile in Babylon, still, even in captivity, false prophets continued there to lie to the people.(14)
The danger to the church posed by false prophets did not end with the Lord’s advent. It was of this danger that the Lord in His Sermon on the Mount warned the multitudes, saying, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.”(15) And in predicting the consummation of the Christian Church, He said:
Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, “I am the Christ,” and will deceive many…. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold….
Then if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or “There!” do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.(16)
Similar warnings were repeated in the early Apostolic Church. The apostle Peter wrote to the faithful,
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction.(17)
The apostle John wrote,
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.(18)
And on the Isle of Patmos John was commanded to write to the angel of the church in Thyatira,
These things says the Son of God…, “I know your works, your love, service, and faith, and your patience…. Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality….”(19)
The Lord’s prediction that false prophets would arise at the time of the consummation of the Christian Church refers particularly to teachers of salvation by faith alone, a doctrine hatched in the 16th century by the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. These teachers are represented in the book of Revelation by the beast that John saw coming up out of the earth, a beast that is afterward in the same book called “the false prophet.”(20)
The appeal of the doctrine of faith alone lies in the fact that its espousal allows its unsophisticated adherents to profess a faith in God and the Lord and yet at the same time live as they please, whether it is in accord with the Word or not.(21) And it is a doctrine that has given rise to a number of other false ideas and derivative philosophies that continue in the world to this day. The Heavenly Doctrines therefore affirm the Lord’s warnings against false prophets–teachers of falsities who may feign themselves angels of light, but who promote ideas opposed to and even hostile to real goodness and genuine truth.(22)
It is difficult for many to discern the character of the promoters of such ideas and the nature of the ideas themselves, because the ideas may be couched in language that appears to be quite insightful, even wise. Since the intellect can be elevated apart from the will, even the wicked may appear to speak and write knowledgeably and intelligently so as to persuade the innocent and unwary.(23) Even moral and spiritual truths in the mouths of people who at heart deny the Lord and His Divinity are, by misinterpretation and misapplication, either without substance, or falsified, or justifications for evil.(24)
Now there are in the Church three kinds of people, we are told. The first are people who are enlightened by the Lord to see the truths in His Word because they love those truths and employ them in their lives. Their role and function is to draw doctrine from the Word by which to enter ever more deeply into its truth. The second kind are people who do not draw doctrine from the Word themselves, but who compare the doctrine taught by others to what the Word teaches, assenting to what accords with the Word, and rejecting what does not. And the third kind are all others, who do not have the leisure or the discernment either to draw doctrine for themselves or to weigh critically the doctrine taught by others.(25)
It is these last people who are especially vulnerable to being led astray by the persuasions of false prophets, and it is these who are especially to be warned.(26) How are they to guard themselves if they are unable either to draw doctrine for themselves or to weigh critically the doctrine taught by others? Their recourse is to rely on those who do,(27) and to be slow to accept opinions before they these can be examined and either corroborated or rejected in the light of Divinely revealed truth.
The warning is as apt today as ever, because to a large degree we are living in the midst of a spiritual wilderness, exposed to ideas that owe more to the counterculture of the 1960s than to the tenets of any established religion. These ideas pervade the media, and it is a challenge to avoid being infected by them.
It is widely held, for example, that the differences between the sexes are in the main physiological, but that spiritually, intellectually and emotionally there is no fundamental difference. It is a Divinely revealed truth, however, that “nothing in the two sexes is the same.”
Indeed, masculinity in the male is masculine in every part, even in the least part of his body, and also in every idea of his thought, and in every bit of his affection. So, too, with femininity in the female.(28)
It is vain, therefore, to speak of a man’s having a feminine side, or of a woman’s having a masculine side, since the affections and perceptions of the two are so different that they cannot exist together in the same person.(29)
Again, it is widely held that one must learn to love oneself before one can learn to love others. Yet it is a Divinely revealed truth that people are by nature prone to love themselves more than others, and to seek their own good before that of others.(30) The fact is that the more one loves himself, the less he loves others.(31) To teach self-love, therefore, is not to teach any heavenly love. Heavenly love consists in learning to love self less, in order to be able to love others more.(32)
Again, it is held by many that all capital punishment is murder, and that the state has no more right than any individual to take the life of another. Yet the Heavenly Doctrines number among the covenant laws commanded to Israel as one “altogether to be observed and done” the prescription of capital punishment for premeditated homicide.(33)
Again, it is held by many that a woman has a right to her own body, and that she therefore has a right to abort her unborn child as a form of reproductive control,(34) under the theory that the fetus is not yet a human being, but only a mass of tissue that may be removed like any other unwanted growth. Yet it is a Divinely revealed truth that “in every human fetus the Lord forms two recipient vessels, one a recipient vessel of Divine love and the other a recipient vessel of Divine wisdom–a recipient vessel of Divine love for the person’s future will, and a recipient vessel of Divine wisdom for his future intellect.”(35) Moreover, “the fetus, being yet in the womb,” we are told, “partakes more of the good of innocence than after it is born.”(36) Whatever else the fetus may be, it is not simply another mass of tissue.
Again, it is held by many that divorce may be permitted and even recommended for a variety of reasons. Generally accepted grounds are adultery, desertion, and cruelty, but the trend is toward broader grounds, such as irreconcilable differences and the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. Yet the Divinely revealed law declares that “marriages once contracted are to continue on to the end of life in the world,”(37) and though separations may be permitted for a variety of reasons,(38) the only Divinely sanctioned grounds for divorce are deliberate and purposeful adultery, extreme manifest obscenities, and malicious desertion that leads to adultery.(39)
We could cite as well the popular notion that truth is only relative, as if there were no absolute or universal truths; or the idea that values are only relative, as if there were no absolute or universal goods.
All of these ideas and more like them represent on the whole views and claims of present-day false prophets, who come in sheep’s clothing to deceive, if possible, even the elect.(40) Be warned, therefore, and consider–consider well–the ideas and notions that insinuate themselves regarding what constitutes a moral and spiritual life, ideas and notions that may originate not from any Divinely revealed precept, but from merely human opinion, formed in many instances to justify merely natural desires and ends or to gain some merely worldly benefit.
“See, I have told you beforehand,” said the Lord, which is an exhortation to prudence.(41) For in the consummation of the Christian Church, “many false prophets will rise up and deceive many,” He said, and “because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.”(42) But He also said that “he who endures to the end shall be saved.”(43)
To endure to the end is not to permit oneself to be led astray, not to succumb in times of trial or temptation to the preachings of falsity.(44) It requires fidelity to the Word, to Divinely revealed doctrine, and the knowledge to know what it teaches. For truth is not truth because it sounds reasonable, but because it is factually so and leads to the Lord and heaven. And good is not good because it is to one’s liking, but because it is angelic and embodies the Lord’s will and the life of heaven.
“He who has the ears to hear, let him hear!”(45)
True Christian Religion 590
“When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.
“If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’–which you have not known–‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice, and you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him….
“If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ …you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him….
“If you hear someone in one of your cities, which the Lord your God gives you to dwell in, saying, ‘Corrupt men have gone out from among you and enticed the inhabitants of their city, saying, “Let us go and serve other gods” ‘…then you shall inquire, search out, and ask diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination was committed among you, you shall surely strike the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword — utterly destroying it…, that the Lord may turn from the fierceness of His anger and show you mercy, have compassion on you and multiply you, just as He swore to your fathers, because you have listened to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep all His commandments which I command you today, to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord your God.”
Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us…, what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.
“Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. Therefore if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, He is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.”
True Christian Religion 590
But the character of the person whose intellect has been elevated, and not the will’s love by means of it, we will illustrate by comparisons. He is like an eagle flying on high, but which as soon as it sees edible prey below, such as hens, swans, even lambs, instantly swoops down and devours them. He is also like an adulterer who hides a harlot in a room below, and by turns ascends to the highest story of the house and there in the presence of his wife speaks wisely with their guests about chastity, and who from time to time steals away from the gatherings and satiates his lascivious lust below with the harlot. He is also like marsh flies which fly in a column over the head of a running horse, and when the horse stops, settle and immerse themselves in their marsh. Of such a character is the person who is in an elevated state as regards the intellect, but whose will’s love remains down below, immersed in the unclean attractions of nature and the libidinous appetites of the senses.
However, because people of such a character shine in respect to their intellect as though with wisdom, while their will is opposed to it, they may be likened also to serpents with shiny scales, and to beetles that glisten as though covered with gold, and likewise to will-o’-the-wisps in marshes, to luminescent pieces of rotting wood, and to phosphorescent substances.
Among them are some who are able to feign themselves angels of light, both in the company of people in the world and after death with angels in heaven; but after a brief examination they are stripped of their garments and cast down naked. The like cannot happen in the world, however, because their spirit is not exposed there, but covered with a mask, like that employed by comic actors on the stage. Their ability to feign themselves angels of light in countenance and speech is the reason, and also evidence, that they are able to elevate their intellect above their will’s love, as we said, almost to the level of angelic wisdom.
Now because a person’s internal and external character can run thus counter to each other, and because the body is cast off while the spirit remains, it follows that a dark spirit may reside behind a bright face, and a fiery one behind a bland mouth. Therefore, my friend, judge a person not by his mouth but by his heart, that is to say, not by his words but by his deeds. For the Lord says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. Judge them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15,16).
1. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 2534:5, 3010, 3488:5, 3900:2-4. The Last Judgment 59. The Apocalypse Explained 195:13, 624:5, 684:7.
2. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 3488:5.
4. The Apocalypse Explained 195:13.
5. Cf. The Apocalypse Explained 195:13.
7. Deuteronomy 13:5,9,10,15; 18:20.
10. Jeremiah 5:30,31; 6:13,14; 14:13,14; 23:16,17,21,25-27,30-32; 27:9,10,14-16; 28:28:15; 29:31,32. Lamentations 2:14.
16. Matthew 24:5,11,12,23-25. Cf. Mark 13:6,21-23; Luke 21:8,16.
20. Revelation 13:11-18, 16:13, 19:20, 20:10. The Apocalypse Revealed 567, 594-610, 701, 702, 834, 835, 864. See also Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 2534, 7351. The Apocalypse Explained 999. A Brief Exposition 76.
21. The Apocalypse Revealed 417, 442.
22. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 3900. True Christian Religion 590.
23. True Christian Religion 590.
24. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 8868.
25. The Doctrine of the New Church Regarding the Sacred Scripture 57, 59.
26. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 3900:3-5.
27. The Doctrine of the New Church Regarding the Sacred Scripture 59.
30. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 4317:5, 8549.
31. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 760.
32. True Christian Religion 394, 395.
33. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 9349:4, in reference to Exodus 21:12,14. See Exodus 21:12-14.
34. Consider the following statements: “The emphasis must be not on the right to abortion but on the right to privacy and reproductive control.” Ruth Bader Ginsberg (b. 1933), U.S. educator, Supreme Court justice. Quoted in: Ms. (New York, April 1974). “The compelled mother loves her child as the caged bird sings. The song does not justify the cage nor the love the enforcement.” Germaine Greer (b. 1939), Australian feminist writer. “Abortion,” in Sunday Times (London, 21 May 1972; repr. in The Madwoman’s Underclothes, 1986). “The one regret I have about my own abortions is that they cost money that might otherwise have been spent on something more pleasurable, like taking the kids to movies and theme parks.” Barbara Ehrenreich (b. 1941), U.S. author, columnist. The Worst Years of Our Lives, “Their Dilemma and Mine” (1991; first published 1989).
36. The Apocalypse Explained 710:1.
40. Matthew 7:15, 24:24. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 3900.
41. Matthew 24:25. Mark 13:23. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 3900:5.
43. Matthew 24:13. Mark 13:13.
44. Arcana Coelestia (The Secrets of Heaven) 3488:5,7.
45. Matthew 11:15, 13:9,43. Mark 4:9,23, 7:16. Luke 8:8, 14:35.