Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. (16) You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? (17) Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. (18) A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. (19) Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (20) Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Matthew 7:15-20
In this morning’s text Jesus issues a serious warning to beware of false prophets. Sadly this warning is more needed today than ever before! Jesus said in Matthew 24:11 & 24 that in the last days there would be more and more false prophets. Paul warned the elders of the church of Ephesus in Acts 20:28-31 to be on guard because after his departure “salvage wolves” would come among them not sparing the flock. A few years later the apostle Peter warns in 2 Peter 2:1-3,
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. (2) And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. (3) By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.
The apostle John likewise warns at the end of the 1st century in 1 John 4:1-3,
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (2) By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, (3) and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.
What Jesus, Paul, and Peter warned of, John declared had already occurred before the end of the 1st century! How much more are John’s words that “many false prophets have gone out into the world” true today! Therefore I have a special responsibility as a shepherd of God’s sheep to resound the warning first made by Jesus in Matthew 7:15-20.
I. Beware of False Prophets because of their Deadly Deceitfulness, v. 15.
False prophets do not introduce themselves as such. They don’t wear name tags. They don’t go by the title Rev. Wolf. This is what makes false teachers so dangerous! They come as wolves dressed as sheep. The most ravenous of animals disguised as the most harmless of animals. This is the deceitfulness of the false prophets.
Jesus may have had a specific practice of the false prophets of his day in mind. During the 400 silent years between the Old and New Testaments in which no prophetic word from God was heard, many pretenders arose claiming to be prophets with a word from God. This continued into the first century. They would attempt to dress in animal skins as the prophets of old often had. Jesus may be saying here that all those who try to mimic the attire of a prophet are not prophets. Instead underneath their costume, for that’s all it is, they are ravenous wolves!
But false prophets were not just a problem in the 1st century, we have our share today and they still use the same tactic: trying to pass themselves off as the real thing by disguising their true nature.
Islam – who has its own false prophet in Mohammed, claims to have the same God, speaks well of Jesus, but claims Jesus is merely one of the prophets, not the eternally begotten Son of God. They also teach a salvation by works as opposed to a salvation by grace.
Mormonism – who has its own succession of false prophets beginning with Joseph Smith. Uses the same lingo, sings the same hymns, family friendly, passes itself off as another Christian church, but denies the uniqueness of Jesus as the eternal Son of God.
Jehovah’s Witnesses – Use same lingo, talk about Jesus, use the Bible, but affirm the ancient Arian heresy that there was a time when the Son was not which denies the deity of Jesus.
Word of Faith Movement (The TBN gang of Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Robert Tilton, Marilyn Hickey, Frederick K. C. Price, Paul and Jan Crouch)- talk a lot about faith and use the Scripture, but they declare that the purpose of Jesus was to deliver us from sickness and poverty in this present age.
Joel Osteen – Looks good, always smiling, large church, bestselling books in Christian bookstores, but no sin, no judgment, no gospel.
T. D. Jakes – Sounds good, knows how to preach, emotional, sweats a lot, but denies that God has always existed in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
These are all false prophets who preach a false God, a false Christ, and a false gospel. As Paul describe them in Philippians 3:18-19,
For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: (19) Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things.
I understand that these words may sound harsh to your ears, but this is serious business. Eternal destinies are at stake. I share a fear that was expressed by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:3-4,
But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. (4) For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him.
There is such a thing as another Jesus, another spirit, and another gospel and we must be on guard that we be not deceived!
II. Beware of False Prophets because of their Devilish Deeds, vv. 16-18.
In verses 16-18 Jesus describes how a false prophet can be recognized: by their devilish deeds. These three verses provide an excellent counter-balance to the first five verses of this chapter. Those verses’ famous injunction to judge not is often taken as a command to excuse any kind of behavior and to forbid any kind of evaluation of the actions of another. That is clearly not what those verses mean in light of the context of verses 16-18. Here Jesus says that we should be fruit inspectors. The actions/lifestyles of false prophets tell on them.
This truth is stated to begin verse 16 and is then illustrated by the question of verse 16: “Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?” The obvious answer to this rhetorical question is “NO! Of course not.” Good trees bear good fruit. Bad trees bear bad fruit. This is a very simple horticultural principle that all of us can understand. This is then extrapolated from to form a conclusion: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit (v. 18). It is impossible! Therefore if you see bad fruit, you intuitively know “bad tree.” If you see good fruit, you intuitively know “good tree.”
What is the implication here? False prophets are known by their bad deeds. They may be able to hide their deadliness temporarily under a coat of sheep skin, but eventually they will be exposed for what they are. Because no matter how much they look like sheep, they will always still behave like wolves!
I don’t need to recap the events of the past twenty years detailing the wicked deeds of many televangelists, pastors, and other supposedly Christian leaders for you to understand what I mean. And, there is no telling how many more will be revealed as charlatans during our lifetimes. But the greatest test of a false prophet is his/her teaching. Does it line up with the consistent teaching of the Word of God? If not, it is false. This means we must know our Bibles ourselves. The best defense against a counterfeit is to know the original. I am told that this is the way banks train their employees to recognize counterfeit money. They expose them to the real thing so much that the false is immediately apparent. That is the kind of people that we need to be. This is what we are called to be as Christians. This is part of my responsibility is to teach you the Word of God so thoroughly that you would be able to recognize the false teachers. A mature Christian shouldn’t need a master list of all the good teachers and all of the bad teachers. You should be able to recognize them if I’ve done my job and you’ve applied yourself to the study of God’s Word! By their fruits you will know them!
III. Beware of False Prophets because of their Destructive Destiny, v. 19.
There is a final reason to avoid false prophets in these words by Jesus. It is that they have a destiny of destruction. Verse 19 says, that “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
In 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 the apostle Paul describes those who preach another Jesus as:
For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. (14) And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. (15) Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.
These false apostles have preached words that lead to damnation and that’s exactly what their destiny shall be. Peter says in 2 Peter 3:16 that those who twist Scripture do so “to their own destruction.” James warns in the first verse of the third chapter of his epistle, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.”
The warning is clear: Don’t be a false teacher and don’t associate with them, lest you share in their destructive destiny.
The reason that this matters so much is that there is a true gospel about the True Prophet. Moses prophesied that a Prophet greater than he would come (Deut. 18:15) and the apostle Peter declared Jesus to be that Prophet (Acts 3). Therefore the existence of false prophets is an attack upon Him! All messages of hope of deliverance apart from faith in Christ are all false gospels of a false salvation declared by false prophets. Forsake whatever it is that you are clinging to and run to Jesus. Flee the wrath to come!