Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
In this discourse, preached on a hillside near the Sea of Galilee, Jesus contrasts two types of people—the religious and the righteous. Jesus makes clear that they are very different groups of people. In Matthew 7, Jesus discusses the difference between the religious and the righteous when it comes to judging. The chapter is full of surface level contradictions, one sure to confuse and confound many readers, and too often believers.
In the first short section, verses 1–5, Jesus tells us not to judge—but only in a certain way. Then verse 6, which reads, “do not give dogs (i.e. Gentiles) what is holy and do not throw your pearls before pigs…” requires making a judgment, as does knowing what to ask for (vv. 7–11), choosing which gate and path to take (vv. 12–14), and the section on false prophets (vv. 15–20). If we are to distinguish between a false prophet and a true prophet, we must make judgments. So Jesus begins this chapter by telling us not to judge, and then proceeds to tell his followers they must make many kinds of judgments over the course of their Christian lives. Avoiding the egregious cultural sin of judging in order to be politically correct or to be “nice” won’t cut it for the righteous as Jesus describes them.
The fruit of a purported prophet’s life, Jesus says, reveals what type of prophet has come to us. But miracles and power aren’t the fruit or the evidence Jesus is looking for. The ability to perform miracles does not reveal the provenance of the prophet. Jesus tells some of these types of prophets that he “never knew” them.
In 1 John, a lot of space is given to figuring out how to judge people for who they really are; and it is there we find a clue to the kind of fruit that reveals the provenance of a true prophet—love for others (1 John 4:7). John focuses in on Jesus’ injunctions from the Upper Room Discourse and says repeatedly in this short letter that the best “test of life” (or in Matthew’s terminology, the revealing fruit) is that a true believer loves others in practical, tangible ways, and this love is the evidence that they belong to Christ. (1 John 1:1–3 has yet another test of life.)
These days, religious people avoid any and all judgments about others—at least they say they do. But Jesus calls his own, the righteous, to make many types of judgments, but to do so humbly, with a deep awareness that our righteousness is a gift and not earned.