“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.”
— Matthew 7:15-20
In keeping with a major theme of His Sermon on the Mount–what’s on the inside is more important than what’s on the outside–Jesus here teaches about the danger of false prophets.
This is not the first mention of false prophets. These guys have been problematic from the beginning. They are strong, devout, humanitarian people who, by wielding their great influence, win over the fearful and weak. They coerce and entice countless admirers with their technique. They are liars, deceivers, people-pleasers, and flatterers, appealing to the masses with their eloquence and magic. They seek to build their sphere of influence. They desire, but do not serve. They mislead the hapless souls who follow them to their own destruction.
When God’s patience with His rebellious people had reached its end, it was the false prophets who assuaged the people’s fears with claims of “peace, peace” instead of helping them change their wicked ways into good so as to be saved (Jeremiah 14:13-16).
You should be wary of false prophets.
False prophets are alive and well today. They will be with us until the last days. They come in many forms. We hear them every morning on talk shows. We see them in the movies. We hear their voices in songs. We bump into them in the hallways. Influential and attractive people with strong, often imperceptible powers of persuasion. Their appealing and influential lifestyles and teachings are self-serving and inaccurate…and dangerous for you to buy into.
How do you recognize them? Jesus says you will know them by their fruit.
Fruit is not outward appearance, like the sheep’s wool. Fruit is the inward attitudes and traits you see over time, through a few trials and storms. Like a cup of water, you can’t see what’s inside until you shake the cup a little, let a little water some spill out the sides. Then you see what’s truly inside a person.
The type of fruit depends on the stock of the plant, its quality. Thorns and thistles can never produce good fruit, whereas a well-bred apple tree yields plenty of ripe, delicious apples in its season. Over time, good stock, good planting, and good nourishment will yield good fruit. Thorns will never do so. Here again we see one of my favorite imageries of God as a gardner–the imagery that motivates me to get out and spend time with my hostas and perennials each spring. God plants with the intent of harvest. He doesn’t plant without reason. He expects production. Any plant that doesn’t produce is disappointing to Him, especially weeds. They are repulsive, worth nothing except to fuel a fire. I get that. I hate flowers that don’t bloom, weeds that choke the flowerbed. That’s not the effect I was looking for.
You need to understand the stock of the tree, the character of the one speaking to us, before accepting and following the message.
The good news is, there are only two stocks to choose from.
In Galatians 5:19-23, the Apostle Paul clearly defines two types of stock possessed by people–that of Spirit and that of flesh. The flesh is the natural self in every one of us. It reasons, thinks, feels, and reacts. The Spirit, of course, is the Holy Spirit of God. Many of us are unfamiliar with Him. Which is too bad–the Spirit is a major discriminator separating Christianity from all other religions. The Spirit communes with and empowers the human spirit, and provides the motivation for good we so sorely lack.
It may offend you to know, according to Paul, the flesh is monstrous manufacturer of detestable things. Some of the putrid “fruits” we can expect from our flesh include immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, angry outbursts, disputes, dissention, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these (Galatians 5:19-21). Look hard enough and I’m sure you can detect the presence of at least one of these vices in your soul at any given time. Same goes for me. Same goes for everyone. It is a sobering thought that many popular, convincing speakers we listen to may be motivated by such a corrupt source.
These are not the droids, er, fruits, you are looking for.
On the other hand, the Spirit’s productivity list includes such virtues as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). These are great qualities. They are the fruits you are looking for. The one who yields to God’s authority and influence, obediently allowing Him to fill and consume the soul, will see these fruits evidenced in their lives over time. The trick is to stay in the state of submission, which is impossible. That’s why we see so-called Christians falling off the deep end from time to time. Life for a Christian is all about learning to cling to the Holy Spirit, so that over time, good fruits will come..
The lesson here is about discerning the quality of the stock. Do those people who are telling you how to live have good stock? Are they worth listening to? You will know them by their fruits.
You need to be aware that there are ravenous wolves who want to consume you, who want to pull you in to their web of influence, for their own satisfaction. Before you let someone tell you how to live, get to know them over time. Don’t just trust the outward appearance. See them go through the trials and storms of life. How do they react?
You can tell the people who have surrendered themselves to the authority and influence of the Holy Spirit. These people are genuinely concerned about you. They actually serve you from time to time. They seem to be content, even in difficult times. Things don’t get them all riled up. They are thoughtful, considerate of your needs when you least expect it. They don’t seem to need stuff this world offers in order to be happy. They seem to be living for something beyond themselves, looking forward to something that comes later. They are not harsh or overbearing. When they make a mistake, they apologize. They don’t act unbecomingly to draw attention to themselves. They don’t force themselves on you. They don’t need you to be their follower. They are content to let you be free.
These are the people who are sold out to Jesus Christ, who have yielded to His influence and control in their soul and mind. I pray that Jesus will lead each of my children to people such as these, to good friends who are genuine sheep, not wolves. I pray that I myself might be rid of the evil desire to influence and woo people to my sphere of control, for my own gain. I pray that instead I will yield to the Spirit of the Good Shepherd who cares for His sheep and guards them diligently against the wolves.