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Looking past looks

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 7:15-20

A little horse named “Seabiscuit” is the most famous animal in the world these days. It’s an amazing and inspiring true story; when we saw the movie, the audience broke out in applause at the end. The little horse who took on the world and won proves that appearances are deceiving. They always have been.

As Jesus nears the end of the most famous sermon ever preached, he tells us how to separate appearance from reality, how to measure true success and false. We need to know, for one day the ones being measured will be us. Each one of us.

Look past looks (vs. 15-18)

Our Lord begins with an imperative: “Watch out.” “Beware”—be on your guard, pay attention. This is in the present tense: “Keep watching out for this….” It is an imperative, a command, with no options. This must be a real problem, or the Lord would not warn us of its existence.

Watch out for “false prophets.”

“Prophet” signifies one who “speaks forth” under divine influence, as the ambassador of God to men. God’s spokesperson.

“False” translates the Greek word “pseudo,” one who appears to be genuine but is not. Those who pretended to speak the word of the Lord but did not were a problem all through the Bible. Moses warned his people about them (Deuteronomy 13:5), as did Jeremiah (Jeremiah 23:31). Jesus warned his followers repeatedly that “false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). Paul, Barnabas, John, and Peter all met false prophets and condemned their deception (Acts 13:6; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Galatians 1:7; Acts 20:29-32; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1-3; Revelation 2:20-23).

Such false teachers “come to you”—they take the initiative to attack the people of God.

Their appearances are deceiving in the extreme:

They wear “sheep’s clothing”—shepherds wore sheepskins, with the fleece against their skin.

But “inwardly they are ferocious wolves,” in places we cannot see with our eyes. Wolves are the deadliest enemies of sheep. Four times the Bible condemns false spokesmen for God as such “wolves” (Ezekiel 22.27; Zephaniah 3:3; Acts 20:29; John 10:12).

So how are we to tell who they are, if appearances cannot be trusted? “By their fruit you will recognize them” (v. 16).

A wolf can disguise himself, but a tree cannot. It must be what it is by nature. An apple tree must grow like one, be the size of one, have the trunk and bark and leaves and roots of one, and produce apples. It cannot help it. The way to tell what someone is by nature is to examine what they do, the results of their way of life.

We bear good fruit through our relationship with Jesus: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Then our character exhibits the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Our lives lead others to our Lord. We reproduce spiritually by helping people follow Jesus, as a tree reproduces physically through the fruit it bears.

And we glorify God as a result: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8).

Such living evidence is proof of who we really are, in our souls. Thorns don’t produce grapes, or thistles figs. A healthy tree must make healthy fruit; a sick or diseased tree cannot. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

So look past looks. Success is not how we appear, but who we really are. Our communion with God, connected to him as a branch to its vine. Our character as we demonstrate the Spirit at work in our lives. Our ministry and witness, as we produce disciples who follow us to Christ. This is success with God. This is what matters to him, and should to us.

Get ready for your final exam

Now, why is this definition of success so urgent? Keep reading: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 19). What is this “fire”? Let’s review briefly the word of God on the subject.

A judgment day is coming for every person who has ever lived and ever will: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

Who will judge us? “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

When will this “final exam” occur? “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:31-32), and he will judge them.

What will happen? Revelation 20:11-15 is the setting. Here, first our relationship with Christ will be judged from the “book of life” (v. 12a).

Moses said to God: “Please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” The Lord replied, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book” (Exodus. 32:32-33).

God has your name in his book, and must “blot it out” if you choose to reject his free salvation in Christ. When you die without Christ, God is forced to remove your name from his book of life, and you’ll be “thrown into the lake of fire.”

Scripture is very clear: “Nothing impure will ever enter [heaven], nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation. 21:27).

But if you have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, your name will be there forever. Jesus said to his disciples, “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10.20). Paul addressed the Philippian Christians as “my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3).

Then the other book is opened, the “book of works,” and we are judged according to what we have done (v. 12b). Here, all unconfessed sin is judged by God.

Secret sins will be judged: “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes. 12:14). Jesus confirms it: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12.2-3).

Our words will be judged: “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” (Matthew. 12:36-37).

After listing all sorts of unconfessed sin, Peter declared that those who do such things “will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:5).

What will happen to them? “His work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work…If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:13, 15).

Ungodly, unconfessed sins, thoughts, or words will be revealed at the judgment and burned away. Because heaven is perfect, these things cannot enter in; they must be burned off, destroyed. Sin is forgiven, but reward is lost.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: the “good fruit,” all work done for the glory of God, will be recognized by heaven and rewarded by God.

When we pay a price to follow Jesus, we receive the “crown of life”: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). Jesus said, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).

When we share our faith, we receive the “soul-winner’s crown”: “What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).

When we stay faithful to God for a lifetime, we receive the “crown of righteousness”: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

When we lead others faithfully we receive the “crown of glory”: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:2-4).

Enduring temptation; winning souls; staying faithful to God’s purpose; serving God’s people in love—these lead to rewards which will last forever. They can be yours. But you must choose them now.

Conclusion

It comes to this: we can live for earth or for heaven, for time or for eternity, for now or forever. One day every one of us will stand before Jesus Christ to be judged. If you have not made him your Savior and Lord, your eternity will be determined solely by your works. And unless you are sinless and perfect, you will be assigned a permanent place in hell. If you are his, you will spend eternity with him in his paradise.

But you are not done. Your works will then be judged, your “fruit” inspected. Unconfessed sin will be purged. Faithful service, witness, and obedience will be rewarded for eternity. Wherever and whenever Jesus was Lord, the One you served with unconditional courage and devotion, he was watching. And waiting to reward you. He’s watching now, this moment.

Tenor Luciano Pavarotti said that his father, a baker, introduced him to music and urged him to work hard to develop his voice. A professional tenor in his hometown of Modena, Italy, took him as a pupil. He also enrolled in a teachers college. After graduation, he asked his father, “Shall I be a teacher or a singer?” Luciano,” his father replied, “if you try to sit on two chairs, you will fall between them. For life, you must choose one chair.”

Pavarotti adds, “I chose one. It took seven years of study and frustration before I made my first professional appearance. It took another seven to reach the Metropolitan Opera. And now I think whether it’s laying bricks, writing a book—whatever we choose—we should give ourselves to it. Commitment, that’s the key. Choose one chair.”

Well?