Matthew 7:15-20 (20)
If Jesus had left this sermon at the narrow path, entered by the narrow gate, then he would not have faithfully completed his task. It is said ‘to be forewarned is to be forearmed’ and since the alternative to the narrow path leads to destruction then, in this case, it is absolutely vital. As the ‘Good Shepherd,’ who cares for the sheep, he knew that to finish without giving a warning would leave the sheep vulnerable to attacks from predators. As if the road, being narrow and difficult, for the kingdom citizen, is not hard enough! Yet there are more insidious dangers to be faced.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep`s clothing but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorns bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.” (Matt 7:15-20)
Although God warned Israel, through Moses, to beware of ‘false prophets’ their history shows how often they ignored him and were lead astray. Israel was told how to recognise false prophets and their teaching, which tended to go down one of two paths. Firstly: God said he would judge sin, in Israel`s case not obeying the law, and sent true prophets calling them to repent. The false prophets came and rather than proclaim judgement they said God would bless them (sound familiar?). ‘They have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.’ (Jer 8:11) Secondly: if God didn`t seem to be answering their prayers, instead of finding out the reason, probably sin (yet again), the false prophet would say, ‘Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them.’ (Deut 13:2) The punishment in Israel for prophets like this was death. We were on holiday in Sienna, Italy, and we saw how the people, when God didn`t seem to answer their prayer, regarding a plague, had placed images of false gods in the cathedral, which are now hidden under door mats.
If we imagine that because that was the old covenant the problem does not affect us then we will be easy prey. There are many prophets followed today, for example Joseph Smith and the Mormons, and the Jehovah`s Witnesses, but are these the ones Jesus is talking about here? This is what Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, ‘The greatest enemies of the true Christian faith are not those who are right out in the world militantly persecuting Christianity, or flagrantly ignoring its teaching; but rather those who have a false and spurious Christianity. They are the people who will receive the condemnation which out Lord pronounces here on the false prophet. If you look at the history of the Church throughout the centuries you will find that this has always proved to be the case. It is a false and counterfeit Christianity that has always been a hindrance to, and the greatest enemy of, true spirituality.’
In his discourse on End times (Matthew 24 and 25) Jesus again emphasises that one of the greatest enemies will be deception. ‘See to it that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name and say, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will deceive many people.’ (Matt 24:4-5) So as Jesus draws the Sermon on the Mount to a conclusion, he gives us a warning and guidelines to enable us to recognise the false prophet.
There are two schools of thought on this subject: some say it relates to what a person says, the prophetic; and others to how a person acts – the fruit. From how Matthew records it, it is obvious that Jesus intended us to include both, words and fruit, to enable us to make a true assessment of whether someone is a true or false prophet. Here we need the gifting of the Holy Spirit, ‘the ability to distinguish between spirits;’ discernment, to know a false prophet.
Why would Jesus give us this warning here? Remember he has just said that the gate and path of the kingdom is narrow and difficult and he knows that some will come along and say that it is not so. The characteristic of a false prophet never changes in that they will subtly try to draw us back onto that broad path. They will tell us that: we don`t have to be born again; we don`t have to repent and turn away from sin; that our good deeds can earn us salvation; that there is no such place as Hell; that all ways lead to heaven. However, they will not be upfront about these things. They might use all the right Christian jargon and probably have more supposed ‘words’ from God than Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel put together. To the unwary it is like putting a crab in cold water and gradually bringing it to the boil, by the time it has realised that there is something wrong it is too late.
Jesus description, ‘wolves in sheep`s clothing,’ reveals that they are not easy to spot. They don`t have ‘I am a false prophet’ stamped on their forehead. They will look like sheep, in other words they will seem like every other kingdom citizen at first glance. We must realise that although they are false this does not mean that everything they say will be untrue otherwise they could be easily spotted. Their doctrine, however, will not be in line with scripture; they will either add to or take away from it. One of the saddest comments I have heard from ‘Church goers’ when the JW`s called was ‘They seemed to believe the same as us.’ Or of the Mormons, ‘They were such nice young men’. People use the wrong guidelines when discerning true or false prophets. The reason is obvious. ‘It is neglect of the Bible which makes so many a prey to the first false teacher they hear.’ (J C Ryle)
Paul told the Ephesians’ elders, ‘For I know that after my departure, vicious wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Men will arise from among your own selves, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.’ (Acts 20:29-30) John said, ‘Beloved, don’t believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.’ (1 John 4:1) They are like food laced with poison with not enough to taste but sufficient to kill.
If it is still hard to discern whether or not someone is a false prophet then we must apply Jesus second criteria – the fruit test. They might seem to be saying all the right things but is their life manifesting ‘good fruit?’ Jesus, in the beatitudes, gave us the characteristics of the kingdom citizen and it is in the light of these that we should look at a ‘prophets’ lifestyle. As fruit depends on the root so the Christian lifestyle depends on the heart. Jesus said, ‘The things which come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.’ (Matt 15:18-19) Michael Green comments, ‘The question is not only ‘Have you entered in?’ but ‘Is there real change?’ There should be no hint of hypocrisy in the lives of anyone who professes to represent or speak for God. They should be like a stick of seaside rock with the Christ`s name written throughout their entire being. Any glorification of self is a sure sign of a false prophet. The kingdom citizen, having been born again by the Spirit of the living God, is no longer ruled by sin but rather the Holy Spirit who manifests His beautiful fruit of ‘love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control’ (Gal 5:22-23) through their life. We are not looking for perfect people but rather those whose are ‘abiding in the vine’ (John 15:4) and bearing fruit, not for themselves but to the glory of God.
Having applied the tests, if the ‘prophet’ is found to have failed then you can answer Jesus’ rhetorical question, ‘Do people pick grapes from thorns bushes, or figs from thistles?’ with a resounding No! Then have nothing to do with them or follow them for they have not heard from God!