Matthew 7:15-20, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”
My four-year-old son is all about superheroes. One day, we were watching Superman and Batman take down the bad guys when I asked my son how he knew who the villains were. His response was, “The bad guys look evil.”
Unfortunately, in the real world, the ‘bad guys’ aren’t always that easy to identify. Jesus warned his audience that people are not always what they seem and we should be careful who we follow, especially when it comes to spiritual teachers.
Matthew 7:15 starts with the word ‘beware,’ meaning ‘to be cautious of.’* Jesus then identifies who we need to watch out for: false prophets. Why are false prophets such a big deal? First, they preach a false gospel that can not save. Second, they spread lies about who God is and what our response to him should be.
Recognizing false prophets would be easy if they all looked like the villains in an animated TV show. But Jesus cautions that they, “Come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). They look harmless, like one of us – just trying to serve God. But their motives are impure. False prophets want to lead people astray for their own reasons. Often money and power are the motivating factors, but they know how to look convincing and sound like they are following God. Before we despair of ever knowing who these false prophets might be, we see the key to identifying them: “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16a).
One of the things I love about the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus so often gives us an example or picture to help us see what he means and here is no different. After telling us to look for the fruits or good deeds of people to judge if they are false prophets, he brings an example into the equation that anyone can grasp.
“Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16b). This is a fun question to ask young children. The answer is always a resounding “No!” with plenty of giggles at the thought. Everyone knows a plant only bears the fruit or flowers that it is made to produce. In Galatians 5, Paul gives us a list of things that should not be in the life of a Christian, behaviors he calls the ‘works of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:19-21) and he ends with this: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21b). However, he does not stop there. Paul then gives us nine words, the Fruit of the Spirit, that he tells us should exemplify our lives if we are true believers and followers of Christ (Galatians 5:22-23). So here we have some ‘fruits’ and their negative counterparts to look for in a person’s life.
Now I’m not advocating that once we as Christians always have only these nine words in our lives and no sin. We will all still stumble and fall and need to seek repentance. But if we are true believers, we want these words to be evident in our lives and actions. Going back to the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus continues his fruit tree analogy by saying, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17).
A false prophet can be identified by his or her continual ‘bad fruit’ and persistence in teaching something other than the gospel. Their focus is not on advancing the kingdom of God but rather advancing their own interests, power, and wealth.
Jesus closes this analogy with a stern warning for those who would lead others from him (Matthew 7:19) and reminds his audience again to look at the fruits of those they would follow (Matthew 7:20). The application for our lives is powerful and important. We should follow the Bible first and foremost. There are many ‘Christian personalities’ in the world that we enjoy reading, following, and listening to. However, if what they say goes against the Bible, we are to stop listening and turn away from them. No good will come from following a false prophet.