Matthew 7:15–20 (ESV) — 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
1) A WARNING
Jesus begins our text with a stern warning – “beware…”.
- The sense of “beware” here is to be “on guard” or “to be in a state of alert”.
- In other words, this is a deliberate posture that the Christian is to take.
- It is not an after thought.
- It is an intentional action.
We will see how this can be done shortly.
Jesus issues this warning numerous times in Matthew – Some Examples:
- Matthew 6:1 (ESV) — 1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
- Matthew 10:17 (ESV) — 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues,
- Matthew 16:6 (ESV) — 6 Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
In each case the warning is issued, it involves the threat persons, even our own pride, can be to the walk of a believer.
- The deliberate sense behind the word and the frequency with which Jesus issues this warning in Matthew indicates how important it is for us to protect our walk.
2) FALSE PROPHET
Jesus tells us that we are to “beware of false prophets”.
- The obvious question is, “what is a false prophet?”
- We will look at both an OT and a NT answer.
In the OT, God answers this question when speaking with Jeremiah.
- Jeremiah 23:16–18 & 22 (ESV) — 16 Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17 They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’ ” 18 For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear his word, or who has paid attention to his word and listened?… 22 But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds.
God tells Jeremiah that a false prophet:
- Speaks “words” that fill “you with vain hopes”
- “Speak visions” containing their visions – “not from the mouth of the Lord”
- “Say continually” words that reassure those that “despise the word of the Lord”
- “They say” no problems will come for one that “stubbornly follows his own heart”
God then gives a reason why they are false prophets – why they speak untruths.
- They are not in the presence of God “to see and to hear his word”.
God then contrasts the false prophet with the true prophet.
- The true prophet is in God’s presence.
- The true prophet proclaims God’s word.
- They turn people “from their evil way” and from the “evil of their deeds”.
BTW – A NT way of saying these same things is found in John 15.
- John 15:5 (ESV) — 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
- To be in God’s presence, speak His word and bring people to God is only possible for those abiding in Christ.
Not surprisingly, both Paul and Peter express a similar description of a false prophet.
- Romans 16:17–18 (ESV) — 17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
- 2 Peter 2:1 (ESV) — 1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.
In each example above, the false prophet/teacher, like those described in Jeremiah, is loose with the word of God.
- They teach “contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught”.
- Because they serve “their own appetites”.
- They “secretly bring in destructive heresies”.
In Galatians 1:6, Paul calls the content of this false teaching “a different gospel”.
False Prophets Infiltrate the Church:
In verse 15, Jesus warns us that false prophets, a.k.a. “ravenous wolves”, are disguised as sheep.
- In other words, they try to look and act like us and our teachers.
- This is a deliberate and deceptive action on their part.
And once they have access to us…
- Jeremiah says they have sway by filling us with “vain hopes”.
- Paul says they gain a hearing through “smooth talk and flattery”.
- In 2 Timothy 4:3, Paul says some in the church who have “itching ears” will seek out false prophets to “suit their own passions”.
3) BY THEIR FRUIT
How are we “to be on a state of alert” for false prophets that seek to smooth talk us into accepting a different gospel?
- Jesus asks us to be fruit inspectors.
- “You will recognize them by their fruits” – vs. 16 and 20.
So what are “their fruits”?
- The BDAG tells us when used metaphorically it is meant to convey “the product or outcome of something”.
- Interestingly, in the Jeremiah 23 text, God contrasts the “the product or outcome” of a prophet who is in God’s presence with the false prophet who is not.
The difference between the two…
- The “product” of a real prophet – proclamation of the word of God.
- The “product” of a false prophet – “visions of their own minds”.
- The “output” of a real prophet – turning people “from their evil way” and deeds.
- The “output” of a false prophet – “filling you with vain hopes” and false reassurances.
A.W. Pink put it as follows:
“There is nothing in [a false prophet’s] preaching which searches the conscience and renders the [hearer] uneasy, nothing which humbles and causes their hearers to mourn before God; but rather that which puffs up, makes them pleased with themselves and to rest content in a false assurance.”
BTW – It certainly also includes their character and actions.
- In an effort to be a wolf among the sheep, they (at least in the beginning) will look and act like sheep.
- However, their character and deeds will certainly betray them over time.
What are intentional things we can do to “be on alert” and discern the “bad fruit” of a false prophet?
(1) We must know what the word of God says.
- This requires effort, study and time – it is a costly pursuit.
- The FBI can spot a counterfeit bill because they are intimately aware what the real thing looks like.
- Knowing right doctrine is a hedge of protection from false prophets and our own sinful inclinations.
(2) We must know what our “vain hopes” are.
- We all have fleshy concerns or worries that make us vulnerable to false teaching.
- We all entertain “feelings” that can unduly influence the way we think.
- The prosperity Gospel thrives on peoples earthly concern for comfort.
(3) We must be aware of what scratches our “itching ears”.
- We might have a love of the “end times” or of the nature of “heaven” or any other doctrine.
- In our eagerness to take in all we can on such a doctrine, we might embrace teachings that are questionable.
- Or, be captured by a teacher who speaks truthfully on that subject yet leads us astray elsewhere.
(4) We must remember what Jesus said in Matthew 7:14.
- Matthew 7:14 (ESV) — 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
- “False prophets do not have disturbing doctrines in their messages, even though the true state of man demands it” – James Boice.
- “There has always been a large market for false prophets, because most people do not want to hear the truth.” – John MacArthur.
May we all become healthy trees bearing healthy fruit!