In Matthew 5:11-16, Jesus sets forth the marks of a true disciple—specifically, the qualities which characterize faithful disciples of Jesus as they interact with the world at large. A true disciple moves into the world to light its darkness, to purify its corruption, and to preserve what is good. In consequence, those who are walking “the Jesus way” (as Eugene Peterson put it) face resistance from the world, which erupts in slander, insults, and even active persecution. The closer we draw to him and the more we seek his face, the more we learn to rejoice in the face of such attacks, because we recognize them as signs that we’re faithfully representing Jesus to the world.
Note what isn’t there: great works or great success. Those are in the text we just read. I said last week that in this section of the Sermon, Jesus is drawing a distinction between two groups of people who are following him because there are in fact two groups—the disciples, who are following him for his own sake, and the crowds, which are following him for their own sake. In our passage this morning, he tells us how to recognize the difference. He’s not talking about people who are obviously godless and worldly; he’s talking about people who address him as Lord and claim to be prophets of God. They aren’t on the narrow way, they’re on the broad, easy way—but they’ll tell you they’re following Jesus, and they believe it. They’d probably be insulted if you didn’t take them at their word; but Jesus doesn’t.
That’s a radical position to take, these days. If you stand up today and declare that someone isn’t really a Christian because they’re disobeying God and defying his word, you’ll see folks popping up all over to denounce you as divisive and judgmental and—irony alert—non-Christian, because Jesus would never do anything like that. Jesus is loving and inclusive and welcomes everybody and so on and so forth. I know this from experience, because I’ve been lambasted merely for questioning a colleague’s theology, never mind their salvation. The idea seems to be that if anyone decides they’re following Jesus, whatever they may be doing, that’s good enough for Jesus, and so it ought to be good enough for us. Except—again—it isn’t good enough for Jesus.
Instead, he tells us not just to take people at their word, and not just to take them at face value. More than that, he tells us not to be too impressed by what people do. Jesus isn’t promising here that we’ll always be able to tell whether someone’s saved or not; that’s not his concern, though if anything, his words should tell us that making that judgment is beyond our ability. Jesus is warning us to be careful whom we follow.
Pastors and teachers and other church leaders will come along with impressive résumés who aren’t true disciples of Christ; their preaching may be powerful and dynamic, and they may even work miracles, but at the core, they won’t be proclaiming the truth of God. They may claim to be prophets, declaring, “Thus says the Lord,” and they may convince many that they speak with the mouth of God, but they will be false at heart: wolves in wool suits, come not to feed the Lord’s sheep but to devour them from within.
The problem is, we’re used to evaluating leaders by their résumés. It’s been over twelve years since I first sent my ministry profile off to a church looking for a pastor, and I’ve been through the process with hundreds of churches since; none was looking specifically for prophecies and miracles (this is the wrong tradition for that), but they all wanted lists of accomplishments and reasons to be impressed. Granted, some churches make an effort to go beyond that, but many really don’t. In truth, it’s hard to blame them too much; let’s face it, trying to figure out another person is hard enough when you’re around them every week, but at a distance? Pray hard, and good luck.
At the very least, though, when it comes to people, we need to learn the lesson that the map is not the territory. The reputation, the résumé, the public face, is not the man, or the woman. So what if someone claims to be a prophet? I see a number of folks go by on my Facebook feed who say they’re prophets—mostly what I see out of them is boilerplate positive-thinking stuff. I had colleagues in Denver who liked to say they were speaking prophetically, as they were promoting the straight-line Democratic Party agenda. Whatever you think of either party, I don’t see a single true prophet in Scripture who fit comfortably with any agenda. That’s a characteristic of false prophets, not true ones.
The Devil knows how to counterfeit prophecy, and he knows how to do miracles; he knows how to build résumés, and if you believe Dilbert, he pretty much runs most corporate HR departments. Just look at 2 Corinthians, where Paul is combating false teachers in the church in Corinth—and he’s struggling, because the false teachers look a lot more impressive than he does. He finally resorts to boasting in chapter 11, in perhaps the strangest boasting in recorded history; but before that, he writes, “Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” The most powerful lie is the one that looks the most like truth, and the Devil is a master at that.
So what, then, do we do? Look past the luxurious growth of the leaves, and don’t be taken in by the flashiness of the flower. One of the prettiest flowers I’ve ever seen around my house blooms on an absolute weed. The plant’s pretty ratty, but I might have put up with it for the sake of the flowers. It was only when I saw the fruit—a huge, ugly, inedible, spiny seed-pod—that I knew I didn’t want that plant around. It was the fruit that was the true measure of the plant. So it is with people, and especially with leaders.
We need to identify those whose works are not from God, and who are proclaiming a message to the church which is not from God—not in order to condemn them, or to deny the value of their works in and of themselves, but so that we know not to follow them where they want to lead us. To do that, Jesus says, we need to look at the fruit of their message, and the fruit of their lives. That might make you think of the fruit of the Spirit which Paul lists in Galatians—love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; as we are to let Scripture interpret Scripture, that’s good. More immediately, though, look up the page; look at what has come before this in the Sermon on the Mount. These are things the Devil will not fake, and cannot.
Someone is proclaiming a message to the church; is it from God? Well, are they calling the church to greater trust in God, or are they cultivating fear? Do they speak with humility and grace, confessing their own sins before calling out the sins of another? What do they value most—the things of the kingdom of God, or the things of this world? Do they inspire us to prayer? If they are asking the church to follow where they lead, we must ask whether they are a faithful and mature disciple following where Christ leads. Do they love their enemies and show grace to those who hurt them? Do they indulge their desires, or do they surrender them to the Father? Do they hang on to their anger and hold grudges, or do they forgive others and work for reconciliation? Is their greatest desire to do the will of God and be the man or woman he wants them to be, or not?
The true measure of a leader in the church of God isn’t whether they’ve grown their church to thousands of members, or whether they’ve been a member for decades. It isn’t whether they’ve written books or held a prestigious position, and it isn’t whether they’ve made a lot of money in business or through investments. It isn’t in their ability to boast of their accomplishments and strengths, but rather in their willingness to boast in their sufferings and weakness, as Paul did. The true measure of a leader among the disciples of Jesus is this: when you look at the fruit of their lives, how much does it look like the Sermon on the Mount? And where it doesn’t—for certainly, none of us is even all that close to perfect—do you see the humility to confess that and repent of it, and the desire to change and grow? Do they want their own way, or Jesus’ way? This is the measure for all of us who would lead, because it’s the measure for all of us who follow.