I went through graduate school in the earliest days of personal computers, and literally had to tell one of my professors, “My computer ate my homework.” It was embarrassing but true.
Things have come a long way since then, and the improvements are hard to appreciate if you don’t remember how things used to be. One of things we take for granted now is software built on the principle of WYSIWYG, or “What you see is what you get.” As a writer, I’m grateful for this quantum leap forward. It used to be, for example, that if you wanted bold or italic text — or heaven forbid, both bold and italic at the same time — you had to insert special codes into the text, and you wouldn’t be able to see how it looked until you printed it out. WYSIWYG means that I can see a reasonably accurate version of the end result now, on the screen, as I’m writing and editing.
WYSIWYG is huge in the world of software.
If only we could make it true in the world of personal relationships, even and especially within the church.
. . .
Right from the start, Jesus thought it important to warn his followers against people who looked one way on the outside, but were something else on the inside:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. … Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matt 7:15-20, NRSV)
Jesus once called himself the “good shepherd” (John 10:11), drawing upon ancient imagery of God as the shepherd of his people (e.g., Ps 23:1; Ps 78:52; Isa 40:11), the one who leads and protects them. In the above passage, therefore, he warns his sheep: False prophets will come among you. They look like you; they seem friendly enough. But what you see is not what you get. Watch out, or you’ll end up as lunch. How can you tell the difference? Watch how they live. See what fruit their lives produce.
Jesus was not the only one to give such a warning. The apostle Paul had helped plant a church in Ephesus, leaving behind a group of elders/overseers who took on the responsibility of caring for the new and beleaguered flock. Calling the Ephesian elders to the city of Miletus to bid them a final farewell, Paul issued his own stern warning:
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified. (Acts 20:28-32)
The responsibility of the leaders, as shepherds, is to watch over the flock. Threats will come not only from without, but within: wolves in sheep’s clothing. These wolves don’t care about the sheep. They want something for themselves, something to feed their need for power or prominence.
This is the context in which Paul talks about the personal example he has set for them. In an earlier post, we considered how awkward it might be to hear Paul seeming to toot his own horn: You know my life of humility. You know how hard I’ve worked. You know I’ve never coveted anything for myself.
But these statements must be taken against the background of Paul’s concern for them: Watch out for the wolves! As Jesus said, you will know them by their fruit. You know how I’ve lived among you. You know my character: what I’ve suffered, how I’ve responded. So I beg of you: don’t be misled by fine sounding words that distort the truth. Look for the fruit!
. . .
May I add a coda here? I confess to some hesitancy in even writing a post like this, because some may use the image of wolves in sheep’s clothing as justification for hatred and exclusion: “See? That’s what I mean. Those people over there aren’t real Christians; they’re just trying to lead the faithful astray.”
Please don’t hear me as saying that anything goes, that the gospel is whatever someone wants to make of it, that doctrine doesn’t matter, etc. But what I am saying is those who see themselves as defenders of the faith must still follow Paul’s example of love — the kind of loving concern that moved him to tears.
We are not wolf-hunters.
What fruit does our life bear?