Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
This passage brings us to the last but one of the great typical admonitions of this primaeval discourse in Christian ethics. Typical they must surely be regarded. Nor, as we scan them with ever so jealous eye, do we find it at all easy to make comparisons as to any imagined relative temporariness of application belonging to them, or the reverse. But if, on the contrary, we suffered ourselves for a moment to be the victims of mere plausible impression, and to court illusion therein, then, perhaps, we might be tempted to rule that this present admonition, though it should be the only one, was the one the importance of which had dwindled in the growth of time, however real it had once been. The impression cannot vindicate itself, but it might serve to convict us of the extent - the depth and breadth - to which the evil has spread which it fancied was not existent. And we come round to the persuasion that this last but one of the series of admonitions is not behind any other whatsoever in testifying to the foresight of Christ, to his forecast of the character of the history of untold Christian generations, and to his measured, faithful, emphatic warning of his Church respecting them. In language that cannot be mistaken, the passage certifies to us -
I. THE BRAND THAT CHRIST SETS UPON FALSE RELIGIOUS TEACHERS. They are ravening wolves, covered over with sheep's clothing. It may be that through the centuries of Christendom the name of these has been truly enough legion many times multiplied. And it may be that because of this our vexed thought blankly refuses to face the deadly field of slaughter, the widespread, disastrous havoc the ravening wolves have wrought! But on our wearied ear may not then these words of Christ fall, with all their original forcible simplicity, to waken a more natural conscience, graciously to exorcise its callous indifference, and to freshen young faith? E.g.:
1. They suggest how Christ would guard, and does guard, the springs and the rudiments and the inspirations of our higher life.
2. They give us to infer the genuine honour in which Christ holds our real teachers, though they be still only human teachers.
3. They caution us, if for the hundredth time, against deserting well-assured principles in favour of appearance, of soft voices, of smooth vestures, of complaisant manner. These all are but other versions of sheep's clothing, disguising the ravening wolf. Christ strengthens our faith in the sure landmarks of matter, of reality, of plain sincerity, howsoever plain.
II. THE CRITERION ACCORDING- TO WHICH THEY ARE TO BE JUDGED. The "fruits of false prophets," of false teachers, who invest themselves with the abused title of "religious," are both those fruits which appear in their own manner of life, and those which appear in their work, their ill work, among and in others. The false prophet often denounces himself in the utter incoherence of his doctrines, and in the inconsistency and impurity of his life. But whereas he is also a "ravening wolf," on the highest authority, it is because of the dissensions, divisions, malice, and schism that his path is strewed with; and because of the falseness of his creed - erring now by defect, now by invention and addition, and now by contradiction of the Word and the Spirit. Not all the hostile forces that array themselves from without against the Church compare for a moment, in the disastrous, ravening havoc that follow in their track, with the cunning, dissembling, subtle havoc of the ravening wolves - a widespread foe, that haunt the fold within - in the fleece of the flock that belong to it. And, lastly, it is to be remembered that, whereas it is not always of design, nor always of ill intention and pure malice towards souls, that false prophets work the havoc of ravening wolves, for this very reason - the criterion of their works, or "fruits," is the one given to men. For charity's sake we may not make ourselves judges by any assumed superiority of our own knowledge or wisdom; yet less may we arrogate the authority of the only omniscient, unerring Judge, nor offer to do the angels' work prematurely, and presume to separate the tares from the wheat; but, says Christ, "by their fruits ye shall know them." Let intention be what it may, if the fruit is bad, that prophet is a false prophet. Some of the less crew of ill quality, vanity, conceit of superior illumination - that worst ignorance that is so ignorant that it has not a suspicion of it - irresistible or certainly unresisted loquacity, presumptuousness, - these may have the dominion that effectually make the self-sent prophet, the false prophet. He wears the clothing of the sheep, and did not don it for the conscious purposes of deceiving; but he is deceived himself, and in nothing would be more individually surprised and mortified, if that could be brought home to him - than which nothing is more certain - that he is doing the odious work of the ravening wolf. Who can count the number of these deceived and deceivers, and the number of grievous wounds and rendings of limbs which these have made in the body of Christ in this one current half-century? We are entitled to say it, we are compelled to bewail it - "because of their fruits." And in the seething multitude of those who name the Name of Christ now, one warning, one merciful, gracious caution, needs to be uttered aloud and to be listened to, "Beware of false prophets!" - B.
Parallel VersesKJV: Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.