“Watch out for the false prophets, the ones who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inside are ravenous wolves. (15).
You will know them by their fruits. People don’t gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles do they? (16)
Likewise, every good tree produces good fruit, and every bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree isn’t able to produce bad fruit, neither is a bad tree able to produce good fruit. (17, 18)
Every tree which doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.” (19, 20)
The above passage looks pretty relevant today. If I were leading a discussion on this passage and asked for suggestions for candidates, I would probably hear the following:· That preacher who said the world would end last week.
· The preacher in Florida who got all that publicity for threatening to burn a Koran.
· The people from that church in Kansas who picket servicemen’s funerals with their GOD DATES FAGS signs.
· That preacher up in Michigan who denies hell.
We could all probably come up with some more: preachers who say bizarre or crazy things; preachers whose own lives and behavior do not align with their moral pronouncements. These people give Christianity and Christ a bad name.
But are they all false prophets in the sense that Jesus meant? How can we be sure? What are our criteria for knowing?
I believe that while there are many preachers out there with whom I would disagree vehemently, I (we) must be very careful about judging them. Jesus has already warned of this danger (7:1-5). So before we name some specifically, we need to back up and look at this concept of false prophets. It did not originate on the lips of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
First, we need to define what a prophet is. The popular idea is that a prophet is one who predicts the future. Certainly that is true, but a prophet was much more than simply a predictor. The Greek word from which we get our English word, the word used here, is prophetes, which is made up of two Greek words, the prefix pro, which has the idea of precedence, “before” or “in front of,” and phemi, “speak.” The word has the basic meaning of “one who speaks forth” and in the New Testament is one who speaks for God (or a god). Prediction was only one aspect of the prophets’ work. The word in the Hebrew Old Testament is NABI, which has essentially the same meaning.
In Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah – the Mosaic Law, Moses gives two criteria for examining whether a prophet was a true or false prophet. The first, found in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 is, if a prophet – even if his prophecies come true – entices God’s people to worship other gods, he is a false prophet.
The second criterion, found in 18:20-22 is, if a prophet – even though he speaks in the name of the LORD – gives prophecies that don’t come true, he is a false prophet.
So the two criteria for judging a prophet were the truth of his statements and the truth of his worship or behavior. And if either proves him false, he was to be put to death.
Jesus now gives His hearers what appear to be new criteria: “fruit.” We understand that this word is an analogy. It stands for something, but what? The word is used frequently throughout the New Testament and usually seems to be speaking of the products of one’s life. For the believer the fruits are the tangible evidence of the life of Christ in the believer, the products of the Christian life. In the Gospels the word is found not only in Jesus’ speech but also that of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8-10). We find it also in the writings of Paul and James, as well as in the Book of Hebrews. In some passages it may also speak of converts (John 15:2-8; Romans 1:13). In Galatians 5:22, 23, Paul describes “the fruit of the Spirit” as the particular character traits produced by the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life.
The New Testament is full of similar warnings. Jesus Himself had much more to say. All the New Testament writers did. Paul even picked up Jesus’ analogy and warned that these people were not always outsiders, as he warned the elders of the church at Ephesus.
“I know that after my departure, fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and men will rise up from your own selves, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:19, 20).
In 7:1-5, Jesus had warned of the danger involved in judging a “brother.” He did not, however, condemn judging in the sense of discernment. He actually expects His hearers to discern and be concerned about restoring a sinning brother. And He also expects His hearers to know the difference between a brother and a “dog” or “pig” (verse 6). He expects His hearers – and us – to be able to distinguish the true from the false when it comes to those who claim to speak for God.
I believe the “fruits” we are to look for in anyone who claims to speak for God are similar to those two requirements of the Law – truth in statements and truth in worship or behavior.
We are responsible for evaluating the truth claims of those who claim to be proclaiming the truth. We have a standard – the Scripture – the written Word of God. We have a great example in the Bereans who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures every day to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). They had what could be called a healthy skepticism, even of the great apostle Paul.
And we should also examine the lifestyle of those who claim to be spokespersons for God. Does their life line up with what they speak? Are they living a life which would bring honor to Christ? Do they have a personal relationship with Him? These are valid questions.
However, there is a need for a few warnings:· This passage is speaking of “prophets,” and by extension, teachers. Jesus is not giving us a license to be “fruit inspectors” of our brothers and sisters in order to grade them or even fail them.
· Differences in doctrine do not make one a false prophet. We must remember that a person who disagrees with us is not necessarily disagreeing with God.
· We are not called on to judge a preacher or teacher’s motives (see 1 Corinthians 4:1-5). The word fruits applies to what can be seen. We cannot see what goes on in a person’s mind.