People desire to be at peace. This is universal to man. No one loves strife, no one loves a guilty conscience, no one loves unrest. Occasionally you’ll meet someone who delights in destruction and seems to thrive on chaos. We can agree that while such people exist, their malfunction doesn’t overthrow the truth of the matter, just as a blind man doesn’t disprove that God made man to see. Man wants peace. He wants to live without conflict or trouble in the world: no war, no feud, no storm, no disaster. We could call that external peace. Man also wants peace within himself: no guilt, no shame. We could call that internal peace. Man desires both kinds of peace, the external and the internal, and this desire is good. Peace is a good thing.
But there are right ways and wrong ways to get peace, or to put it another way, there is true peace and false peace. Settling a fight with someone by confessing your sin and seeking forgiveness is a good way to make peace. Of such Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mt. 5:9). But seeking to avoid strife with the world by approving its sins, or seeking to avoid a bad conscience by approving one’s own sins—these are not things that make for peace. Of this the Lord says, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Is. 5:20). The result of contradicting the Word of God is never ultimately peace. There may be a momentary relief of strife and a false peace in denying the Word of God. Jesus does say, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn. 15:19). So you could have false external peace by approving the world’s sins. And the Apostle Paul writes, “the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith...having their own conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:1-2). You could have a false internal peace by making your conscience insensible to the truth of God’s Word. But approving sin leads only to false peace, to a delusion, and ultimately to judgment and wrath.
As Christians we must clearly distinguish between true peace and false peace. True peace comes from the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone, as it says in Romans, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). And in Colossians, “For it pleased the Father...by [His Son] to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Col. 1:19-20). The Gospel of Jesus Christ alone gives true peace.
But true peace can mean some uncomfortable things, and for that reason, our sinful flesh doesn’t care for it. For the flesh, true peace isn’t worth it. I have to admit that I’m a poor, miserable sinner in order to receive peace? True peace brings with it the world’s mocking and scorn, and maybe worse? The flesh isn’t interested in true peace. It’s not willing to bear the hostility of the world. It’s not willing to bear the conviction of a guilty conscience. In short, the flesh is lazy and weak and shortsighted. It would rather have a cheap, failing knockoff of peace, not bothering to think that it will be damned eternally in the end, than have to bear something hard in order to have the real thing, even though it would be relieved of all trouble and grief forever.
The new man in Christ knows the truth of the matter. The new man knows that it’s worth having pangs of guilt in the conscience, confessing sin, and receiving absolution for the sake of Christ, just as when your body is in a desperate state it’s worth having the surgeon cut you open in order to heal you. You don’t despise the scalpel, but welcome it, because you know that it means to do other than what it seems. It comes not to hurt, but to help. So the new man welcomes the Law of God. He welcomes being cut to the heart, so that the heart of stone will be removed and he will receive a heart of flesh. The new man knows that it’s worth bearing the scorn of the world, if only he can have Christ. After all, what’s the opinion of the world worth? The world is full of the blind leading the blind, full of pompous men who think to puff themselves up to heaven, full of weapons aimed against the servants of Christ, but weapons that ultimately trace back to Satan, who has already suffered defeat. The new man pities the world. He does not fear it. He does not accommodate himself to its abominations. The new man would rather suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from his Lord who saved him. The spirit is indeed willing. But the flesh is weak.
Now what does this have to do with today’s Gospel reading? Jesus understands the weakness of the flesh. He understands that the flesh will take the easy out: that it will seek false peace with the world rather than true peace with Him, that it will seek the false peace of a seared conscience rather than the true peace of a cleansed conscience. The Gospel reading for today came at the end of the Sermon the Mount. Jesus concluded His sermon by warning against false prophets. He ends this way because He wants to safeguard His Christians against the preaching of false peace, because that’s what false prophets preach: false peace. That was the case in the days of Jeremiah the prophet, from whose prophecy our Old Testament reading came. Earlier in Jeremiah the Lord condemns the false prophets, the peace-preachers, saying, “They have also healed the hurt of My people slightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace!’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). The false prophets were merely confirming the Israelites in their sin and false belief, rather than speaking the Word of God faithfully.
Jesus warns us against peace-preachers because He knows how readily our sinful nature listens to them. The flesh says, “There’s got to be an easier way to have peace than to admit I’m a sinner or bear the assaults of the world.” And there stands a peace-preacher, saying, “There is an easier way. Simply call evil good and good evil. Then you will have peace.” Peace, peace! And yet there is no peace.
So “Beware,” Jesus says. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt. 7:15). There are several very important things to note about these words. First, Jesus says, “Beware,” that is, “Be on your guard, look out.” You cannot pretend that you’re not susceptible to false teaching. Your sinful flesh wants to hear it and believe it. Therefore, you cannot live life heedless of the doctrine that is entering your ears. “But I belong to a good congregation. Surely I don’t have to worry about false prophets.” I likewise thank God for this church, and to the best of my knowledge, neither Pastor Preus nor I has taught you anything false.
Nevertheless (and this is the second point from Jesus’ words), to whom does Jesus say false prophets will come? He says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you.” This doesn’t mean that your pastors are liars. It does mean that even if you have faithful pastors, false words are still going to come to your ears from others. For example, you’re well aware of what pastors in other church bodies teach concerning the Word of God or marriage. And you don’t know this merely because your pastors warn you about them, but because you’ve actually heard out in the world what sorts of things people are claiming about so-called contradictions in the Bible or what defines marriage. So beware of false prophets, because, as Jesus says, they do come to you.
Third, Jesus says that false prophets come to you “in sheep’s clothing.” This means that they look like gentle lambs, sheep of the Good Shepherd. They look like they belong among the flock of God. False prophets know how to use Bible language. They’ll speak of words like “love” and “justice,” words that are all over the place in the Bible. But false prophets misdefine them. They’ll talk about God and Jesus. But false prophets misuse the name of the Lord and speak lies in His name. In short, false prophets can be difficult to recognize, because they can talk like they’re Christians. It’s not safe to listen to a radio station just because it claims to be a Christian radio station. It’s not safe to watch a television channel simply because it claims to be a Christian television channel. It’s not safe to get your theology from the internet simply because people sound like they’re talking Bible.
And what’s the danger here? The danger is that you won’t be on your guard, and your flesh will hear something it likes, and you will believe it simply because it resonates with your desires, even if it contradicts the Word of God. Let me give some examples. The sinful nature does not want to keep the Law of God. A false prophet says, “That’s fine. You don’t have to worry about commandments because Jesus is about the Gospel, not the Law.” Meanwhile Jesus has just said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:19). The sinful nature wants to lust. A false prophet says like a Pharisee, “That’s fine. It’s not adultery. You can look as long as you don’t touch.” Meanwhile Jesus has just said in His sermon, “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt. 5:28). The sinful nature wants to accumulate mammon, wants to hold a grudge, wants to neglect prayer. False prophets twist the Scriptures and justify these sins, saying, “There’s no sin in being well off. It’s righteous anger. God knows what you need whether you ask Him or not.”
It’s so easy to listen to these lies, because our nature is corrupt, and thus it loves to hear corruption. Note in each of these cases that knowledge of the pure, unadulterated Word of God is the safeguard against being deceived and believing a lie. You stay on guard by listening to and reading the Scriptures, and heeding only those who teach according to that truth. If you’re not on your guard, if you don’t beware, you will find yourself believing the lies of peace-preachers who give you permission to avoid conflict, avoid having to change, avoid facing the truth.
Those peace-preachers end up in hell, as Jesus emphasized in the Gospel reading, saying, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” False prophets go to hell, and they bring with them those who have believed them. Now Jesus warns so strongly and threatens so severely because He loves you. The Lord did the same thing with the Israelites after He brought them out of the land of Egypt. The Lord pronounced blessings for listening to His Word and curses for refusing to heed His Word, and went into great detail about both. And the Lord did not threaten because He wanted to make an end of His people. He’s the one who delivered them from slavery and took them to Himself to be His people! But He gives the reason for telling all the bad things that would happen if His people would not listen to His Word: “so it may not happen, when [a man] hears the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall have peace, even though I walk in the imagination of my heart’” (Dt. 29:19). The Lord threatens so that we would not fool ourselves in our hearts and think we have peace when we don’t. Jesus does the same thing in today’s reading. He warns so strongly against false preachers and threatens hell so severely because He doesn’t want you to be deluded. He doesn’t want you forfeiting the real, actual peace that He came to bring and going after a mockery of peace that lands you in hell.
Peace is a good thing. So desire the real thing and not the counterfeit. Welcome the Law of God when it cuts you to the heart, and never go after some voice that’s going to teach you to call evil good and good evil. The One who wields the Law is the same One who brought Himself under it and suffered all its consequences, even unto death. Jesus has taken the deadly stab of the Law so that He can use it more gently with you, not demanding that you fulfill it in order to be righteous before Him, for He alone has fulfilled the Law, and He counts His righteousness as yours. But He wields the Law graciously, to cause terror of conscience over those things that would land you in hell if you persisted in them. And Christ never leaves off with the Law when it comes to repentant sinners. He always has mercy and forgives, as it says in Romans 5, “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Rom. 5:20). And in that is peace! Peace is in the free forgiveness of sins that Christ alone can give. This is true internal peace, peace of a conscience cleansed from all sin. Don’t accept any substitutes.
And with such internal peace from the comfort of the Gospel, external peace with the world in a sense ceases to matter. You know that the Word of God is life and brings true peace. If the world wants to cause strife because you’re a Christian, well, you don’t need false peace from the world. Which, after all is the better peace? An external peace that could change at any minute as the world’s opinion changes or as God changes the world’s situation, or the peace that isn’t at all dependent on the external circumstances, the peace that surpasses all understanding? Certainly the inner peace of the Gospel is far superior to any outward peace. Yet there is such thing as true external peace in this life as well, though you won’t find it with the world. You’ll find it right here with your fellow Christians. Here you can enjoy peace with those around you, which is not the false peace of condoning sin, but the true peace of a shared confession of Christ, the true peace of uniting around sound doctrine.
It is good to desire peace, both internal and external. True internal peace is a conscience at rest in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and true external peace is the communion of saints united around that Gospel. You have this perfect peace in your Lord Jesus, and as the psalmist says, “Great peace have those who love Your law, and nothing causes them to stumble.” (Ps. 119:165)