Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Eighth Sunday after Trinity + July 22, 2018
Text: Acts 20:27-38
It’s a virtue to find the best in everyone’s intentions. Indeed even the catechism, when teaching us about our neighbor’s reputation says that we should “put the best construction on everything.”
On the other hand, we can’t deny that there are those whose intentions are harmful, and in a spiritual sense, even evil intentions. When St. Paul was preparing to leave the church at Ephesus, he called together all the pastors of the churches (the New Testament uses the term elder or presbyter, not in the sense of laymen who assist the pastor, but as one who is called and ordained by the Holy Spirit to “keep watch over God’s flock”). His message to them seems very foreboding:
“28Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31Therefore be alert…” (Acts 20:28–31)
What of peace and joy in the Holy Spirit? What about love and showing hospitality? Yes, there is definitely need for that, and that belongs to the “whole counsel of God.” But this message is also quite necessary.
In East Oakland, California, there are many neighborhoods that are plagued by crime. One of the most effective deterrents is having a dog. But the people there want a dog that’s going to be imposing. So, behind chain link fences, you see pit bulls, mastiffs, and German shepherds. If you live in the ghetto, and you wanted your home safe, you wouldn’t get a Chihuahua or a Bichon Frise.
It would be wonderful if the Christian Church lived in a good neighborhood. But if you believe what the Scriptures say, it sounds like there are a lot of enemies set on robbing us of our faith: “15“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15) “6Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” (Mark 13:6) “8Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
It’s dangerous out there, and how much more so if Christians cover their eyes and pretend the danger doesn’t exist. The reason we must be so vigilant is because those who belong to Christ are under attack by the devil and his hordes. Christ who saved us was threatened with death, tempted, lied about, and mocked. Since none of those attacks prevented Him from ransoming us with His death and resurrection, now Satan goes after the Church. This is how Revelation 12 depicts this: “Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (v. 12)
To defend His flock against these constant assaults, God appoints pastors to keep watch over your souls. “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) A major part of their charge from the Lord is to keep on guard against false teaching and teachers, some of whom “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things.”
What a priceless and holy work pastors have! They are appointed as stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1), they feed the Lord’s sheep, bringing insight, correction, and divine comfort! It’s the aspiration to do this which draws men to the seminary to be formed as pastors.
Yet even in this, the devil doesn’t leave us alone. All three readings today deal with the problem of false prophets. Through Jeremiah, a true prophet, the Lord said: “16Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’ ”” (Jeremiah 23:16–17) Still, in the Gospel, the Lord Jesus warns us, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15)
One of the biggest headaches of this work actually isn’t ministering to broken, sinful people. It’s cleaning up the mess made by false prophets. The trouble is that the false prophets have all the trappings of true prophets. They use convincing-sounding words, they dress like any other teacher of the Church, and the worst ones even use a Bible and get some things right. Underneath their veneer of truth are the lies of Satan, who seeks to rob you of your confidence, spiritual peace, concord, and ultimately your saving faith. We shouldn’t be surprised at this, however. St. Paul explains to the Corinthians:
“13For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” (2 Corinthians 11:13–15)
These false prophets give the true prophets a bad reputation. A true prophet admits some but keeps back others from Communion. Closed communion is our Lord’s will because it means exercising careful spiritual care of the congregation. But then false prophets allow everyone on the basis of their affirmation of a bulletin statement, or sometimes without any examination at all. Then, someone comes to a congregation where a true prophet is exercising this authority, and they get in a tizzy and call that man unloving and too dogmatic.
True prophets pay careful attention to the worship service, and make sure that nothing contrary to good doctrine enters the sanctuary of God. That is why the pastor picks the hymns and songs, going over them to ensure that they will build up and not confuse. Although he does his best with the musical elements of musicality, his primary concern is that the words which we are singing confess and give voice to the Christian faith. Even if a song might be popular, and people like to sing it, it’s ultimately the pastor’s job to exercise oversight.
In these ways, the pastor is a spiritual father. Fathers want what is best for their household, and it’s a joy to do that. However, there are times when there’s a strong craving for too much of an unhealthy thing like chocolate cake. Other times, it’s a matter of correcting error or reforming bad practice. But it’s best when the people of God recognize this and receive their good things from the Lord through their pastor, as Hebrews 13:17 admonishes us: “17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
God the Holy Spirit helps us in the Church, because we always have His Holy Word to guide us in all truth. In Jeremiah, the problem was that false prophets stood up next to the true prophets and said a counterfeit message. In our day, however, we are blessed because we have God’s inspired, infallible Word recorded for our learning. St. John instructs us, “Beloved, test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” (1 John 4:1) Our way of testing the prophets is the pure teaching of Scripture.
The Church has also found it useful to explain doctrinal controversies from God’s Word. The shorthand name for these is symbols, which reflect what the Holy Scriptures say on a particular question. That’s where the Creeds come from, because they answer questions about how God reveals Himself in Scripture in the face of those who oppose the truth. At other points, faithful Christians have written down other confessions, as the Lutheran churches did. The Augsburg Confession gives a clear explanation about God, Christ’s work, the pastoral office, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and many more. The Small Catechism is another example of this, because instead of plopping a Bible in front of someone, it highlights the most important things which the Bible teaches us that we might know our Savior.
God has truly blessed His Church, preserving her against the assaults of the devil and giving us the truth when so many claim to have it. May God the Holy Spirit, who has entrusted your souls to the care of a pastor, bless this work. May He give us receptive hears to His Word and strength and dedication to His servants. To that end, we now sing and pray, “Send, O Lord, Your Holy Spirit.” Amen.