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MATTHEW vii. 1520.
" BEWARE OF FALSE PROPHETS, WHICH COME TO YOU IN
SHEEP'S CLOTHING, BUT INWARDLY THEY ARE RAVEN.
The Saviour having exhorted his hearers, that whatever it may cost them-however they may be deserted by the world—accused of affecting singularity-and charged with hypocrisy, they were, nevertheless, to give diligence to make their entrance sure into the way of life,—now proceeds to exhibit a species of character the most likely to prove their hindrance, and against which it was of the utmost importance they should be on their guard. In order to assist them in this important matter, He lays down a certain rule, which is of universal application,-" by their fruits ye shall know them.” The persons whom we are to avoid, and the test by which they are to be ascertained, are the two particulars to be illustrated.
I. OBSERVE THE PERSONS WHOM OUR LORD DIRECTS US TO SHUN:
“ Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheeps' clothing; but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
In some preceding parts of this divine sermon, the heavenly Teacher exposes the false glosses which the Scribes and Pharisees had put on many portions of the moral law, and likewise the highly improper way in which they performed their devotions. In the text, He turns from their principles and practice, to the men themselves, and gives us an unerring rule by which we are to judge of their character and doctrines. If they would not stand the test of an holy life, and of good fruits, it was impossible that they could be of God. The truth is light and power; and every one who is commissioned by the Great Head of the Church to preach it, has felt its influence, and is enlightend by its beams. A wicked man has nothing to do to declare the truth. He has received no command from God to enter “ the priest's office,” and every sermon he preaches will be a solemn indictment against himself at the last day.
“ Beware of false prophets.” The word prophet, in its primary sense, signifies a man under a divine inspiration to foretel future events in the name of the Lord. But in its common and general signification, it includes every faithful servant of God, who is qualified for the work of the ministry, and appointed to it. Among these there are doubtless many who were never introduced into the sacred office by a learned preparation, but whom He that commanded them to preach, hath, nevertheless, made eminently useful in the “ conversion of sinners from the error
of their ways, and saving souls from death." On the other hand, it is equally true, that many who have been educated for the distinct purpose of preaching the gospel, have proved themselves to be “ false prophets.” Such was the character of the men of whom the passage under consideration makes mention. They sat in the seat of Moses ; they had been legitimatized by official authority, and were the accredited guides of the people: but neither their learning, nor their appointment by the High Priest, could transform their errors into truth, nor duly qualify them for the instruction of the people. Error is error, and truth is truth, by whatever lips, or in whatever place it may be uttered. And no regular induction into the responsible situation of the Christian minister, will be a valid proof of a divine appointment to the work, if the individual be destitute of personal religion, or the victim of ignorance and error. “If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch ;” and no official sanction from the denomination to which they belong, can prevent the disaster. Nothing can be authority to any man to undertake the care of immortal souls, if his own heart and life be not“ as becometh the gospel of Christ:" and whoever values their eternal welfare, should " beware" of such guides as have not this mark of their divine consecration to the awful employment.
But the persons particularly referred to by our Lord, are further described by the deceitful arts they practice for the attainment of their unworthy object: “ they come in sheeps' clothing.” The meaning is, that they adopted every
artifice to make themselves appear humble, gentle, and amiable; that by the recommendation of these lovely qualities, they may the more easily succeed in the accomplishment of their base designs. As some may assume a tone and temper of mind, which are not natural to them, the better to effectuate an unworthy intention, so there are others who array themselves in the alluring garb of meek
ness and piety, for the sake of acquiring a reputation for holiness, to which in reality they have not the shadow of a claim. And this observation of the Saviour before us, will apply as much to the people as the pastor. Every individual, who clothes himself with the vesture of outward sanctity, that he might obtain the admiration of beholders, while his heart is the seat of all uncleanness, is included in this significant description. It is strictly applicable to all such as put on a great show of devotion, who pretend to much intimacy with God,
perhaps to inspiration itself, who love to make divisions, rather than heal them where they already exist; and who, for the sake of placing them. selves at the head of a party, will sow the rank weeds of discord and strife in the church of Christ. These men, wherever found, are “inwardly ravening wolves.” This is a strong and bold expression; but considering from whose lips it came, it must be perfectly just. The allusion seems to be, to the ferocity and subtility of that animal in seizing the unsuspicious sheep, and feasting its savage appetite with its life, regardless of its cries and sufferings. As it lurks “ but for to destroy,” and prowls forth in the evening for the work of plunder and spoliation, so these cruel and treacherous men would rob the body and destroy the soul of others, if they may thereby purchase to themselves a little present gratification. It is in accordance with this representation, that the apostle describes some of the earliest perverters of the way of truth. Addressing the church at Ephesus, he remarks ; “ For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your ownselves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” *
Harsh as the language may sound, and severe as it may seem to be towards some indi
• Acts. xx, 29, 30.
viduals, it is, nevertheless, but too applicable to many in the present day, who propagate doctrines wholly at variance with the peace and safety of the soul. A man may include some errors in his creed; for who is infallible? But when, with determined pertinacity, he opposes his own opinions, to the pure and obvious dictates of revelation, not because he cannot understand them, but because he bitterly hates them; and when, with perfect self-complacency, he will expunge or pervert every passage which does not countenance such opinions; and who, with unsparing freedom, will misinterpret whatever he may find serviceable, by an alteration, to their support; whatever be his character in private life, and however amiable in the domestic circle, he is a dangerous adversary to the cause of truth. False doctrines have operated on the church, like the pestilence and the plague on the face of society; or like the destructive lightning from heaven on the plants of the garden--they have scathed, and withered her to the very roots. .
Let us pause a moment to contemplate the fearful end of such false prophets. They are compared in one part of my text, to a tree that bringeth forth deadly fruit, and whose end is to be burned. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, is hewn down and cast into the fire." The husbandman will not allow it to stand to occupy the soil, and do injury by its productions. However men may plead for the innocence of error, provided it be embraced in “sweet sincerity,” the word of our Lord knows no such thing. Disobedience, it has been truly said, is disobedience; let it be towards whichever of the divine precepts it may. The violation of the injunction to “ believe in the Lord Jesus Christ,” is equally a transgression of the law of God, with the commission of murder or theft. He who commands us to " do justice, and love mercy,” hath also required us to “ hear his beloved Son." On this obvious