“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits."
Hearing Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:15-20, we tend to obsess over one of two things – false prophets or fruit. We might read this section of the Sermon on the Mount and fixate only on “false prophets,” asking: Who are they? How will we know who they are? How will we prove who they are? How will we make sure we are not deceived ourselves? Or we might focus on fruit, wondering: What is fruit? How do we produce fruit? What constitutes “bad fruit” or “good fruit?” While some of these are good questions, they can easily lead us to fixate on recognizing false prophets and fruit—knowing them—and lead us to forsake our primary purpose—knowing Him. We must ask, are we captivated by Him, or by them?
This passage comes near the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where He describes what evidence demonstrates members of His Kingdom: those who “enter by the narrow gate”—enter by Him, those who bear fruit, those who “do the will of [His] Father” and are known by Him, and those who build their house on the Rock – who hear and obey. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus consistently pushes past outward behavior to the heart, but He returns to outward behavior as a window to the heart. Members of Christ’s Kingdom are revealed by what they do. This is good news because, likewise, those who are not of Christ’s Kingdom, in this case false prophets who seek to obscure the truth of the gospel and lead others astray, are also revealed by their actions.
Jesus calls us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” not ignorant of the truth that there are those in our midst, “in sheep’s clothing,” who seek to twist and use the truth to their own selfish ends (Matthew 10:16). Therefore, He calls us to “beware,” but also to fear not, because we “will recognize them by their fruits.” False prophets are dangerous, but they cannot truly disguise what they are. Often, fearing false prophets, we become preoccupied pointing to others rather than to Christ, the one true Prophet, who did not simply proclaim but in fact was the very Word of God. By knowing Him, we will know them, but we must never confuse the order. False prophets will be revealed by their actions. As Paul says, “they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all” (2 Timothy 3:9).
Now, Jesus’ words here should also lead us to consider our own lives and actions. If we are honest, we all try to justify our own sinful actions and condemn those of others. This is exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and we must repent (Romans 1).
However, praise be to God that Jesus’ words here are not a template for spiritual performance, or a “how to” manual for entering the Kingdom of heaven! Jesus is not saying “bear fruit,” and then you will be a “healthy tree,” and you will enter the Kingdom of heaven. Life is about knowing Him and the inevitable result of a life in Christ, the Vine full of living water, is fruit! It is not our fruit, but the inevitably born fruit of the Spirit. It is only by knowing the true Prophet that we can discern false prophets and fruit, for apart from Him we can do nothing (Galatians 5:22; John 15:5).
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:23)