“Fruit Trees and False Prophets”
15Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20, ESV).
After instructing his disciples in gate selection, Jesus gives them a warning against false prophets. We find such warnings throughout the Bible. Moses wrote in Deuteronomy,
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deuteronomy 13:1-5, ESV).
The Biblical prophets regularly call out the false prophets in Israel with words similar to those used by Jeremiah,
Then I said: “Ah, Lord GOD, behold, the prophets say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.’” And the LORD said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds. Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who prophesy in my name although I did not send them, and who say, ‘Sword and famine shall not come upon this land’: By sword and famine those prophets shall be consumed” (Jeremiah 14:13-15, ESV).
We learn from the Lord’s words to Ezekiel what a prophet was to do.
So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul (Ezekiel 33:7-9, ESV).
A prophet was to faithfully communicate the Word of God to the people of God for the glory of God and the good of the people. Prophets could go wrong by message or by motive. They could preach something false, such as calling the people of Yahweh to follow other gods, or promising peace and blessing when there was no peace and blessing. They could preach for their own gain and not for the people’s salvation and good. Often the false prophets did both, they preached false messages that they knew would please the people, and they did so for their own gain.
The people of God were to be looking for and listening to God’s prophets. The people needed God’s Word. They needed to hear from God through his prophets. They had promises in their Torah of a prophet like Moses who would come, as we see in Deuteronomy 18.
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him (Deuteronomy 18:15-22, ESV).
While the people of Israel were to be waiting for and looking forward to a prophet who would come and speak a better word than Moses, God had instructed them to pay attention because he knew false prophets also would come. There were natural checks and balances built in to the system of God revealing himself to his people through his prophets. On the one hand the prophets were to be faithful to proclaim what Yahweh revealed. On the other hand the people of God were to listen with discernment and reject those prophets who lead the people of God away from Yahweh no matter how enticing their message of present blessing may have been.
But I want us to notice something about this passage in Deuteronomy 18. The people of Israel were not just waiting for any prophet, there were waiting for a prophet like Moses who would intercede for them with God. Notice that the Lord says, in response to their wanting someone to go before God for them, “They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.” God had promised a prophet who would reveal God’s will for salvation, the way of life, to his people, and he says they were right to not try to come before God on their own. The people needed this ultimate mediator prophet, and they needed to not be fooled by false prophets claiming to be him. Hebrews chapter 3 tells us explicitly that Jesus is the One who is better than Moses. The whole book of Hebrews shows us over and over again how Jesus is a better Mediator of a better covenant. Jesus told his followers, in John chapter 5 that he acts and speaks as commanded by and with the authority of his Father, God. Notice the blatant fulfilment we have of Deuteronomy 18 in the New Testament. The promised prophet who would reveal God’s life giving Word is Jesus.
Now, let’s go back to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says to the congregation gathered there with him, “Beware of false prophets.” Why is he saying this? Because he knows, he is the one they have been waiting on, and if they lack discernment and follow a false prophet they will miss the One they have been waiting on. Jesus knows that if his followers listen to false prophets they will miss him. Jesus is warning his disciples not to get led astray by false prophets and miss the true prophet standing right before them. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV). Don’t miss Jesus.
And so with Jesus standing right before them, we have to ask, How could they miss him? How could they be so foolish as to follow a false prophet? They’re literally listening to Jesus preach. Well, look at Jesus’ description of these false prophets. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15, ESV). False prophets don’t come with horns growing out of their head and a tattoo across their forehead that says “False Prophet.” False prophets don’t come spewing hatred of God and daring people on the internet to take the blasphemy challenge. False prophets don’t come with any of that. They come in sheep’s clothing.
False prophets come in white dress shirts and black ties knocking on your door asking if you’re prepared for Jehovah’s return or talking a big game about family values leaving literature full of pictures of happy, smiling people to infect our minds and hearts over time.
False prophets come with great hair and a disarming Texas draw and a never-ending smile promising you your best life now and questioning your faith if you’re not blessed with what you believe God for.
False prophets come with stellar reputations of piety and an inability to live long with other believers because no one else ever quite measures up.
False prophets come with an inspiring gospel message but can’t cope with any call to holiness because their gospel isn’t actually transformative.
False prophets come to town with profound personality and gifts of communication on private jets they crowd funded.
False prophets come with a message of love that excludes any possibility of ever telling anyone they are in sin if they are acting in sincerity with how they feel they were created.
False prophets come picketing funerals with signs that say “God hates fags” as if they are taking some grand stand for the glory of the triune of God.
False prophets come, not rejecting the Bible but reinterpreting it to fit contemporary demands.
False prophets come with a thousand demands for great social causes that you dare not question unless you desire to have your own faith questioned and be buried in an avalanche of proof texts for their cause.
False prophets come with values but no hope.
False prophets come questioning your salvation based on how you dress and vote and educate and eat and drink and pray and study and save and spend and work and sleep and breathe,
but Jesus, Jesus comes and looks you right in the eye and says, Oh, you sinner. You great and terrible sinner. You doubting and struggling sinner. Oh, you tired and pathetic sinner. Look. Here are the holes in my hands and feet. Here are the scars on my back and head. Here is the gaping wound in my side where water and blood flowed out. Here is the cross where I breathed my last as I suffered the awesome wrath of God poured out on me for your sin. Here is the grave where my body lay for three days, kept by the power of death, before I rose in victory. Here I am. Come with me, and I will give you rest.
See the false prophets about whom Jesus warned his disciples and us come looking like us. They come with the smiles we wish we had, doing the things we wish we could do, saying the things we wish we could say, and we so desperately want to prove to God and everybody else who we have convinced ourselves are watching that God made a good choice when he chose us that we listen to these false prophets and try to mimic them instead of listening to Jesus and following him. These false prophets come looking just enough like us that they’re able to coax us away from the flock, away from the Shepherd, before we realize they’re actually a wolf.
Paul was aware of these folks and their deceptive ways. He wrote to the Galatians, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9, ESV).
And he wrote to Timothy,
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:1-5, ESV).
So how can we recognize the false prophets before they have our necks in their jaws? Jesus says, “You will recognize them by their fruits.” Then Jesus explains this analogy in two ways. In the first explanation, in verse 16, Jesus simply points out that a tree bears fruit according to its kind. You don’t get grapes from thorn bushes. In the second explanation, in verses 17-18, Jesus points out that a tree bears fruit according to its quality. Healthy tree? Healthy fruit. Sick tree? Sick fruit. The analogy is simple enough, but what is the fruit? There is one line of thinking that says the fruit is good works, but there are a number of problems with this line of thinking.
The first problem with thinking the fruit is good works is Matthew 7:21-23.
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:21-23, ESV).
If the was good works, surely prophesying in Jesus’ name, and casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and doing many mighty works in Jesus’ name qualifies. But, Jesus explicitly says it doesn’t. What then is the will of his Father in heaven that they are supposed to do? John records Jesus’ answer to that very question for us.
For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day (John 6:38-40, ESV).
Doing the Father’s will begins with believing in Jesus whereby we are made a new creation in Christ Jesus, in whom we were created for good works. We can’t circumvent that first crucial step as the false prophets attempt to do. Apparent good works not carried out by faith, even apparent good works done in Jesus’ name but not by faith, are not good works at all and merit nothing and at the end of the day prove nothing.
The second problem with seeing the fruits of Matthew 7:16-20 is that to which the analogy refers. The analogy is referring to prophets. If this analogy were on a standardized test it would say something like, “Trees are to fruit as prophets are to ______.” And there would be the answers: A) Words; B) Priests; C) Works; and D) Miracles. And we would all be tempted to pick C because when in doubt choose C and we’ve been told that is what this analogy is about anyway. But let’s think about this for a second. Trees were called by God to give fruit, so what were prophets called by God to give? Words. That’s the prophet’s job. The tree’s job is to give the fruit. The prophet’s job is to give the Word.
So how do you test a prophet to see if he is a true prophet or a false prophet? By his words. Are his words God’s Word. Or are his words God’s words distorted. That was the issue with the false prophets in the Old Testament that the Lord warned Israel of, their words would lead you away from Yahweh. That is the issue in the New Testament when we are warned against false teachers, their words lead us away from Jesus. That is the issue we have already said was at the heart of Jesus’ warning. Jesus was warning his disciples against false prophets because the false prophets would lead them away from him. Recall the words from Deuteronomy 18:20-22 we read earlier.
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him (Deuteronomy 18:20-22, ESV).
What is the test the Lord gives his people? Are the prophet’s words true? If they are? Listen to him. If not? “You need not be afraid of him.” Don’t sweat him. Jesus is the One whose words came true. He said he would die, he died. He said he would rise, he rose. Any prophet, no matter how compelling his or her words may be, who leads you to rest in anything other than Christ for standing, security, hope, identity, forgiveness, mercy, grace, justification, or anything else promised freely in Jesus Christ is a false prophet. Period. Don’t be fooled. And just like the prophets of the Old Testament would be put to death, so too these false prophets of whom Jesus warns us will be cut down and thrown into the fire in their time.
Now, when we come to the book of Acts, we find this brief story of some believers from a town called Berea who I believe had taken the many biblical warnings to watch out for false prophets to heart. Listen to what they did when the apostles came to town.
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men (Acts 17:10-12, ESV).
Note two things.
First, they checked Paul and Silas’ words against God’s word.
Second, the result was that they believed.
There are many true prophets who teach us God’s Word faithfully. There will be false prophets who seek to lead us astray. When we take the words of those claiming to be from God back to the text, they will either be confirmed by the text, causing our faith to be strengthened, or they will be revealed for what they truly are and we will be spared the bite of their ravenous wolf jaws. We should heed our Lord’s warning to beware false prophets and rejoice at those he gives us whose words drive us to Jesus and to spur us on to love and good deeds prepared for us in Christ. And we should boldly reject those who lead us anywhere else, no matter how well groomed that hellish destination appears to be. Let us pray.