Beware the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves…” – Matthew 7:15

The last few years have seen an attack on Christianity. Violent mobs have stormed churches and destroyed all sorts of religious symbols like the Cross. People dedicated to liberalism have torn up Bibles. It has been vastly under reported, but hundreds of religious leaders have either been killed or forced out of their homes, and the government has made the few that remain swear allegiance to the Constitution. Are you wondering why you haven’t heard about this in the news? That’s because this all happened during the last few years of the 1700s during the French Revolution. In the centuries before the French Revolution started in 1789, the Catholic Church and the Monarchy had an iron grip on French society, dictating every aspect of life for Frenchmen. The Catholic church grew rich taking tithes from poor peasants, owning 10% of all land in France, while not paying a single livre in taxes. The French revolution sought to overthrow the old system of life (the Ancien Regime) and establish a republic built on the principles of the Enlightenment much like the United States had done just a couple of decades earlier.

For a devout French peasant in 1793, the attack on the church must have felt like the end times prophesied about in Scripture. Yet, it wasn’t the end times, it was merely the wheel of empire turning from one empire to another. These moments in time, periods of transition or instability for people of faith are often marked by two things: first, people of faith are worried or unsure about what is happening and seek help; second, wolves in sheep’s clothing come to prey on those insecurities to profit from steering God’s people away from the Faith and towards doomsday-like prophesies.

Christians fearing world events is nothing new. In fact, even Jesus’s earliest disciples were caught up in the Jewish struggle against the Roman Empire and went so far as to try and make him an earthly king so that he might overthrow the pagan Romans (John 6:14-15). Yet Jesus made clear to his disciples (including us) that our focus should not be on the things of this world, but rather on things above because we belong to a Kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). It should be noted that as soon as Jesus knew the crowd wanted to make him an earthly king, he withdrew into solitude. Also, during his trial he pointed out the false accusations of the Pharisees by noting that he didn’t lead a military rebellion with clubs and swords (Mathew 26:55-56). So then as Christians, what are we to do with “the world” if we are not a part of it?

As Christians it is far too easy to draw a dichotomy between “us” and “them” when in fact the barrier between the two is much more permeable than that. Where do we get new disciples if not from “the world”? Some of Jesus’s strongest disciples were from the dregs of the world in Matthew (a corrupt tax collector) and Mary Magdalene (a prostitute). Likewise, we are to use the things of this world to help further our mission without being consumed by them as Paul recommended to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 7:29-31). Our mission is to be disciple-making disciples for Jesus, and if we focus too much on the evil of this world then we lose focus for our mission. While the end times can be a fascinating topic of study, if you get caught up in that then you see Doomsday in every little crack on the street. The United States is a sinful nation…but not more so then the French Empire of the 1700s, or the Abbasid Caliphate of the 800s, or the Mali empire of the 1400s, etc., etc. Doomsday prophesies distract us from living out our daily mission for Jesus in the normal rhythms of our life.

Ideally, the barrier between “us” and “the world” should be a one-way street—that is people coming to Christ. Unfortunately, the barrier goes both ways, Christians becoming enraptured with the things of this world like money or power, and seizing on tumultuous times to lead Christians astray. False teachers are nothing new, and particularly false teachers about the coming of Jesus. Even Jesus himself warned about this in Matthew 24 saying that during times of distress false prophets will say “’look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and preform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect…” (Matt 24:23-28) Jesus, Paul, and many other New Testament writers warn about false teachers. The reason being false teachers are often very seductive. They rely on preaching of “new revelations” or things no one else knows and drawing parallels between contemporary times and Biblical times, making you forget about the 20 centuries that have taken place between then and now. The false teachers will also call out anyone and everyone in the world and label them with prophetic names like the antichrist, or the harbinger of the end times.

Yet, the people in the world cannot be false teachers. The world tells you exactly what it is, it doesn’t have to lie about it. For example, famous atheist Richard Dawkins does not claim to be anything but what he is, an atheist. No, a false teacher by definition must be someone claiming to be a Christian but teaching false doctrine. They seek to distort the Word of God for worldly pleasures like fame, riches, or power. The good news is you can tell if it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing by looking at their fruit because “by their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” Matthew 7:15-20.

So like Paul urged Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2-5 – I urge you, when you hear someone preaching about prophecy and the end times and you find yourself being persuaded, ask yourself if you are keeping your head and discerning the Spirit, or are you trying to find a way to scratch your itchy ear?

The Starting Five

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” – Ephesians 4:11-16

Paul brings out a group of five special folks in this passage to the church in Ephesus. What is so often missed here is the roles all the people mentioned are expected to play. This leadership isn’t meant to do all the heavy lifting. Rather, their job is to prepare and equip the church body to do the work of ministry. Based on Paul’s teaching here, if the whole body of saints doesn’t do their part, the church will not grow. They will not look more and more like Christ. They will not be a functioning body. They will fall apart.

In a way, those five could be looked at as the “starting five,” but they work with the whole team in a way to bring everyone else up with them.

One way (emphasis on one) the body practices this growth and unity is through regular worship gatherings. It’s in that typical Sunday setting that you may be familiar with another form of the “starting five.”

In a big church setting, in my previous experience, here are the starters: the opening prayer guy, the worship leader, the Scripture reader, the preacher, and the closing prayer guy. (Not sure if the announcements guy makes the cut?)

What does that make everyone else? At best, they’re on the bench, but they’re ready to go if a starter goes down. The team won’t miss a beat because all are equipped. At worst, they’re the spectators. Sure, they may sing with the worship leader, they listen to the preaching, and they participate in the prayers—but is that really more involvement than fans/spectators at a basketball game? In reality, it probably falls somewhere in the middle. And I know, there’s more going on behind the scenes, and the nature of a larger body means that not everyone gets a chance in every gathering to share. We see those kinds of necessary limitations in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 14:26-32. I think it still raises some critical questions: Does each one that’s gathered have something they want to share (1 Cor 14:26)? Does each one want the opportunity to contribute? Is each one equally encouraged to contribute? Is everyone being equipped for the work of ministry?

That’s why I believe it is better to be part of a smaller church community, so that each member of the church can be directly involved in equipping others, as well as being continually equipped themselves. However, this means we can’t afford for anyone to ride the bench all season. But to stretch the sports analogy a bit, who really wants to be a bench warmer anyway? No, if we’re on a team, we want to be involved. We want a role to play. We want to contribute. And for the church, the body needs all the parts to function properly (Ephesians 4:16). Be ready! Be engaged! Hustle back on defense, take those open three pointers, make the assists to your teammates. If you don’t play your part, we don’t have a backup supply. We don’t even have an audience we can coax a reluctant volunteer from. We are forced to play one man/woman down. Our team is then at a significant disadvantage. A family is only a strong as its weakest member, and we want to be in a position where we can strengthen each other and edify each other. That can’t happen if we’re not all committed to bringing our gifts fully to the table.

My encouragement to you: Whatever setting you find yourself in, get involved! There are situations where the starters sit on the bench to let others take the lead, which is actually a sign of a good and healthy team! But be an active contributor. Be available. Be willing. Be ready to go. And remember, it’s not you—it’s the Holy Spirit inside of you. Your adequacy is not in yourself. God makes you adequate (2 Corinthians 3:5-6). The rest of the team needs your gifts that the Spirit gave only to you.

This isn’t a legalistic mandate like “you must have perfect attendance at all church gatherings.” This isn’t about doing something that you’re “supposed to do.” This is an encourage to live out the truth of who you are. Believe that you are special part of the body, a part that God himself arranged exactly as He saw fit (1 Corinthians 12:18) and start functioning! And as I hinted at earlier, the church is supposed to function every day, not just on Sunday gatherings. Are you playing your role throughout the week?

“…For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Luke 6:45

What’s in your heart is revealed by how you live. Fill your heart with Jesus and you can’t help but follow Him (Acts 1:8).