Matthew 7:15-20 NET
15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.
Today’s actual command from Jesus is translated by the words “watch out” in the NET version. Other translations say “beware” or “be on your guard.” Jesus had used that word already in his sermon on the mount when he told his apostles to be careful not to display their righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise, they would have no reward with their Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1). In that passage, he was warning them that what they wanted to happen could be blocked if they did something with the wrong motive.
In this passage, Jesus warned his apostles that false prophets would come (15a).
I want to stop here and note that if Jesus is saying that false prophets would come, he is admitting that there would also be true prophets. If Jesus had meant to say that there would be no true prophets, then he would not have given his instruction this way. If he had intended to say that the Holy Spirit would cease revealing God’s will through prophets in the generation after he ascended, then his instruction to test the prophets would be useless.
What I am saying is that Jesus implied the ministry and function of prophecy would continue into the church age. He said himself that he had not come to abolish the prophets (Matthew 5:17). We need to stop and let that sink in because one of the ways people have misapplied Jesus’ words here is to essentially dismiss all prophecy as illegitimate. Jesus is saying the opposite. He’s saying that throughout the church age, there will be a mixture of both true and false prophets within the visible church community.
The Holy Spirit will continue to give believers in our congregations the gift of prophecy. Paul told the Corinthians “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things” (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). So, as long as the Holy Spirit stays down here with us, we can expect him to provide individuals within our congregations who have prophetic gifts.
Another thing that I have to note here is what a prophetic gift is. We are used to thinking of prophecy as foretelling the future. A person with a prophetic gift may reveal something about the future, but that is not his or her primary responsibility. Prophecy as defined by the Old Testament prophets is less about predicting the future, and more about revealing what God wants in the present. A prophet is a spokesperson for God.
We can also get help by comparing the function of a prophet with that of a priest. A priest serves as an intermediary between human beings and God. A prophet serves as an intermediary between God and human beings. The priest serves God on behalf of the people. A prophet communicates with the people on behalf of God.
So, a false prophet in today’s context is someone who claims to speak for God, yet says things that did not originate from heaven. That person is either deceived and passes along the deception without realizing it, or that person is intentionally misrepresenting his or her words as coming from God when they are not.
Last week I mentioned that these false prophets are leaders of the easy way. They look like genuine men and women of God. These false prophets are a problem because they will appear within the visible church. If they actually represented other religions, we would not be tempted to listen to them. But they will come to us in sheep’s clothing. Some will actually be convinced that they are true believers.
Jesus warned his apostles — and all of us who follow Christ after them — to watch out for those false prophets.
He warned them to look beyond outward appearance (15b).
Those false prophets will come to us in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are voracious wolves. Jesus warned us that we would not have to travel to Tibet and climb Mount Everest to find these false prophets. We won’t have to come to them, they will come to us. They will infiltrate our congregational meetings, our Bible studies, and our prayer meetings.
Also, they are not going to be wearing Nazi uniforms, or t-shirts that say “false prophet.” They are going to look like us. In our study of 1 John in Sunday School, we encountered this verse: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us, because if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But they went out from us to demonstrate that all of them do not belong to us” (1 John 2:19). John was speaking of an entire cult group that was at first part of the visible congregations of believers, but broke away from them and started their own separate groups. One of the purposes of false prophets is to do that: to teach false doctrine within a group of Christians and lead them astray so that they split from the true believers and start an alternative group.
Jesus is telling us to look beyond the visible appearance because that is not going to be proof as to whether someone is a true prophet or a false prophet. They will appear harmless like a sheep but inwardly they are voracious wolves. They will look like they want to just fit in and get along with everybody. But their purpose will be to divide and destroy.
In that context, Jesus told them to inspect the fruit the teaching produced (16-18).
He switched metaphors on us. He said we will recognize them by their fruit. Sheep and wolves don’t produce fruit, but trees do. The leaders of the easy way will look like any other tree of the orchard, but the fruit they bear will be bad. The lives of those they lead will be disobedient and ungodly. That is how they can be recognized. The promoters of the easy way will end in destruction – by fire. The people who follow them will suffer the same fate. They will have built their houses on the wrong foundation, and it is only a matter of time in a world of rain, floods, and winds before such shoddy workmanship will be revealed.
What I am hearing Jesus say is that we should be careful to assume that everyone who appears to be a Christian is actually a genuine Christian. Some who appear to be true will eventually prove themselves false. We will discover the false from the true by looking at the lives of their listeners.
Now, I have to admit that it’s very difficult to engage in that kind of fruit inspection, and it seems to me that very little of it is being done. It is much easier to choose to follow another person’s spiritual leadership based on criteria that are easier to recognize — like denominational loyalty, or the size of the last group they lead. It’s easier to judge them on the basis of how they appeal to you subjectively — like giving them the thumbs up because they appear young enough to be healthy or old enough to be mature. Or, maybe they look like a preacher you enjoyed before. Or, maybe they don’t.
But we have to go beyond the visible and the subjective. Jesus commands us to perform fruit inspection here. We have to choose to follow leaders who produce disciples of Jesus Christ. We have to ignore the attributes of the flesh and concentrate on evidence of the fruit of the Spirit. Paul taught that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Not one of those divine qualities can be identified by looking at a photograph. You have to look beyond the surface for good fruit.
This is another example of the fact that you have to realize what the context is, or else you might think Jesus is contradicting himself. Remember, that in the context of teaching us to love our enemies, Jesus told us not to judge them. But now he is talking about the false prophets who are going to appear among us, and he is telling us to judge them. He says we will recognize them by their fruit. That means we have to be on the lookout for signs of bad fruit. Bad fruit has rot spots. Bad fruit smells off. Bad fruit attracts fruit flies. Anyone working in the produce department at the grocery store is going to recognize that bad fruit and discard it.
In the same way, Jesus taught that we should endorse some teachers, and reject others (19-20).
He said that every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will recognize them by their fruit. It sounds like Jesus is talking about hell, here. I hope he is not. If he’s talking about hell, then we would have to wait for judgment day to find out who the false prophets are. That would not make sense, because Jesus has already told us that we would recognize them by their fruit. He didn’t say that we would recognize them on judgment day when he separates the sheep from the goats — or the wolves. No, I think Jesus is telling us that there will be a way for us to recognize the bad fruit and reject those teachers that produce it. Conversely, we will be able to recognize the good fruit and endorse those teachers that produce it.
In other words, our fruit inspection can work. Let me share with you two qualifications of an accurate fruit inspector. The first qualification is that a fruit inspector needs to be familiar with good fruit. A fruit inspector needs to know what makes fruit good, and what happens when it is bad. For you and me, that means we have to know the kind of fruit Jesus wants us to produce. We know this by focusing on the commands of Christ!
The second qualification is that a fruit inspector needs to know the environment that produces and keeps a crop of good fruit. When you open a package that is supposed to be grapes, but it’s raisins instead, you know that the fruit has been exposed to the wrong environment. For you and me, that means that we have to have a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit within us can help us to recognize the Holy Spirit’s fruit in others.
Jesus’ command for today is to WATCH OUT for false prophets. They are among us, and their disciples are among us. It is not always going to be easy to spot these false prophets by the things they say. We need to be sensitive to the bad fruit — the results of the false teachings. The best way to inspect someone else’s fruit is to be fully aware of what good fruit is like. To do that, we need to produce good fruit ourselves.