“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” – Matthew 7:15-20 ESV
Jesus has just discussed the narrow gate and the difficult path that provides access to the kingdom of God. And the numbers of those who choose that way are going to be few. But because the kingdom way is not a literal path, but a spiritual one, it will sometimes be difficult to tell who is actually walking along beside you. So, Jesus warns that there will be fakers and posers, even dangerous charlatans, whose sole motive will be to deceive and destroy those who have been approved by God. In the gospel of John, we have recorded the words of Jesus reiterating His claim to be the door or the narrow gate. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:7-9 ESV). Not only had there been false Messiahs before Jesus arrived, there had been deceptive religious leaders who offered up a different form of salvation. And Jesus makes it clear that all these individuals had been motivated by Satan himself. Whether they realized it or not, these people were driven by demonic desires, not divine ones. Jesus went on to say, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). Those who preach another form of salvation or a different means of achieving a right standing with God are essentially deceivers who will end up destroying all those who listen to their lies.
And here in His sermon on the mount, Jesus warns against “false prophets” who will attempt to disguise themselves as sheep in order to infiltrate the ranks of those who have been approved by God. They will appear to be fellow sojourners on the kingdom way, but will actually be out to do harm, not good. Jesus describes them as ravenous wolves, hungry predators with one thing in mind, feeding their own insatiable desires. So, how are we supposed to spot these dangerous deceivers? If they look like us and appear to be on the same path we are traveling, how will we be able to expose them? Jesus gives us a very simple way of knowing whether our fellow travelers are legitimate or not: Their fruit. He says, “You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act” (Matthew 7:16 NLT). But wait a minute! If they are out to deceive, won’t they be disguising their true motives by emulating the right kind of behavior? Won’t they be smart enough to act just like sheep? The answer is, yes. Jesus will even address that issue in the very next verses. These people will act the part, but the key will be whether their fruit is in keeping with the will of God. We must always keep in mind that God sees our hearts. He knows what motivates our behavior. But we don’t have that capacity. We aren’t able to see into the heart of another human being. So, what are we to do? How are we to discern whether someone is truly a believer? Again, Jesus would tell us to look at their fruit. What is in the heart will ultimately show up as fruit. Jesus makes that perfectly clear later on in the book of Matthew.
“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.” – Matthew 15:19 NLT
And here, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus comapres these false prophets to thorn bushes, thistles and diseased trees. They are incapable of producing true fruit. And the fruit we should be looking for is described for us in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… – Galatians 5:22-23 ESV
Thorn bushes don’t produce grapes. Thistles don’t bear figs. And you don’t get healthy fruit from a diseased tree. Ultimately, their true nature will become evident. The true condition of their hearts will be exposed. And in the book of Jeremiah, we read how God describes those who would deceive His children.
“Do not listen to these prophets when they prophesy to you,
filling you with futile hopes.
They are making up everything they say.
They do not speak for the Lord!
They keep saying to those who despise my word,
‘Don’t worry! The Lord says you will have peace!’
And to those who stubbornly follow their own desires,
they say, ‘No harm will come your way!’” – Jeremiah 23:16-17 NLT
As we walk the Kingdom path, there will always be those who appear to be with us but who will actually be against us. They will attempt to deceive and distract us. They will be the ones who question why we take things so seriously and why we worry so much about spirituality. They will claim to love the Lord as much as we do, but will display a love for the world that reveals their true nature. Their commitment to the will of God will be minimal. Their reliance upon the Word of God will be spotty at best. They will do good deeds, but for the wrong motives. And, ultimately, their influence on the church will be harmful, not helpful. In the book of Jude, we read his warnings to a local congregation regarding these false prophets or teachers who had infiltrated their fellowship.
Dear friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people. I say this because some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. – Jude 1:3-4 NLT
Jude goes on to describe their behavior in less-than-flattering terms:
In the same way, these people—who claim authority from their dreams—live immoral lives, defy authority, and scoff at supernatural beings. – Jude 1:8 NLT
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he describes their sad state and even worse outcome:
But these people scoff at things they do not understand. Like unthinking animals, they do whatever their instincts tell them, and so they bring about their own destruction. What sorrow awaits them! – Jude 1:10-11 NLT
Jesus has already told us that “the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14 ESV). The Kingdom life is not an easy one. It will have its moments of trials and difficulties. It will have its dark valleys. Even in the famous 23rd Psalm, we read David’s words describing the life of those who are led by the Shepherd:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 ESV
It will not always be green pastures and still waters. There will be moments of sadness and seasons of despair. But God will be with us, guiding and comforting us. And Jesus would have us know that there will be so-called companions on our life’s journey who will not be what they appear. So, we must be discerning. Jesus would later give His disciples some invaluable advice as He prepared to send them out on their own.
Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. – Matthew 10:16 NLT
When all is said and done, the only way we have of discerning the true nature of those who claim to be fellow followers of Christ is to look at their fruit. And that means we must judge their behavior. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to sin or refuse to evaluate the true intentions of those who claim to be on our side. The risks are too great. The dangers are real. We must always remember that the thief intends to steal, kill and destroy. The false sheep have false motives. The fake followers have sinister plans. They will attempt to lead the sheep astray. They will try to undermine the gospel. They will minimize the will of God and replace it with the will of men. So, we must constantly evaluate one another based on the fruit of the Spirit. This kind of fruit can’t be replicated. It can be mimicked, but not manufactured. It can be faked, but not fabricated. And eventually, fake fruit will be exposed as what it is: unhealthy and undesirable.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.