“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, 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 recognize them. (verses 15-20)
Jesus warns his disciples in advance that in the coming days they will experience the arrival of false prophets who, if followed, will lead true followers astray.
He’s just told us to enter through the narrow gate and stay on the narrow path. Now he’s warning that there are some who will champion the pathway to destruction instead. Beware, Jesus says.
And he was right. It happened. After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, as the early church was growing and expanding, false prophets and teachers found a foothold in local churches, turning young believers away from the narrow path and into broad ways of distorted truth, delusion and dissension. Some taught that salvation was dependent on keeping the whole Jewish law, including circumcision and food regulations. Some urged lawlessness, claiming grace increased all the more to cover it. Others taught brutal treatment of the body to attain holiness, or abstention from sexual relations within marriage, or the worship of angels. Meanwhile, dissension and divisions were stirred up within Christ’s body.
And it didn’t stop back then. In the centuries that followed, both from outside the church and from within, false prophets have sought to establish position and authority in order to lead Jesus’ people in their own paths, rather than the narrow way of Christ.
Several things I notice from Jesus’ short statement:
(1) Jesus assumes such false prophets will indeed arise. We shouldn’t be surprised. Nor should we be naïve. Keep your eyes open – that’s the implication. Don’t simply swallow every new teaching that comes along. Be ready to exercise discernment.
(2) Don’t be fooled by purported spiritual power. The fact that these are “false prophets” implies they may operate with impressive spiritual gifting. Gifts are good. But don’t be swayed by the gifting alone. What looks like a sheep may be something much more ferocious. Beware.
(3) Discernment is indeed needed. Keep your eyes on the fruit. Good trees bear good fruit, and bad trees bad. Watch for the fruit – in every aspect. Is the teaching that comes out of these prophets’ mouths in alignment with scripture, or does it veer to the right or left, steering into unfounded conjecture, or promises beyond God’s own, or out and out error? How about the attitudes of their hearts – are they in line with the character of Jesus, or do they tend towards anger, discrimination, sensuality, money-loving, divisiveness, or worse? Do they live the love of Jesus, counting others better than themselves? Do they sacrifice for the good of those in need? Do their actions and behaviour bring glory to the Father? Watch. By their fruit you will know them.
Ultimately, it is Jesus himself who sees all things clearly, knowing that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” is truly his follower. So, keep eyes on him. Keep ears open to his promptings. Stay grounded in his word. Remain open-hearted to his Spirit. Pray for ongoing guidance. Walk in the narrow way.
Lord Jesus, I hear your warning. Keep my ears ever open to you. Keep my eyes focused on your path. Use me to uphold the truth of your word. To your glory.
Reflect: Commit afresh to praying the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13), especially noting “Your kingdom come, Your will be done” and “deliver us from evil.” Pray it daily.