MEDITATIONS ON JESUS’ SERMON ON THE MOUNT:
MATTHEW CHAPTERS FIVE THROUGH SEVEN
“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.” (Matthew 7:15-20, NIV 1984)
“…Many false prophets will appear and deceive many people” (Matthew 24:11).
Jesus issued such warnings to His disciples in response to a question they had asked about signs that would usher in His return at the end of the world. He informed them that as the time of His second coming drew near, the number of prophets claiming to speak for Him–but promoting their own ideas–would grow and would succeed in misleading many.
Here in His mountaintop sermon the Savior issued a similar warning. And since He knew that the proponents of destructive human doctrines would seem harmless, He gave His disciples instructions on how to recognize them.
He did so by using an illustration from agriculture. When someone walks into an orchard, he can tell from the fruit whether it’s a good tree or a bad one, a tree to pick fruit from or to avoid. Similarly, a person who wants to harvest grapes in a vineyard can tell by the fruit whether a particular vine is a good one or is as worthless as a thorn bush.
So the method Jesus teaches us to use to tell true prophets from false ones is: Look at their “fruit.” Check what they are producing in their teaching. If it is in agreement with God’s Word, you know the prophet is true, someone to listen to and to receive spiritual instruction from. If, on the other hand, what a prophet says contradicts what the Bible says, you’ll know by this “bad fruit” that he’s a false prophet to avoid.
Here are some examples of how one might apply the principle Jesus here enunciates.
- You’re listening to a religious teacher who says that baptism saves you and that God wants babies baptized because they are born sinful and need His forgiveness. He says the Holy Spirit possesses the marvelous ability to work faith in the hearts of little ones by the power of the Word. Babies need to be reborn spiritually to enter God’s kingdom just as much as adults do.
You compare what the teacher says with Scripture—passages such as 1 Peter 3:21, Psalm 51:5, Mark 9:42, John 3:5—and you discover the man’s teachings are wholly in line with what is written there. So you know that the teacher is a prophet of God whom you can listen to and learn from with confidence.
- Then there’s another teacher who says that baptism does not save you. He presents baptism as an act of obedience that we do for God. Little children don’t need to be baptized, he says, because they aren’t capable of moral action and so they aren’t guilty of sin. According to this teacher, baptism must be administered by immersion to those capable of making the conscious choice of dedicating themselves to God.
Comparing these teachings on baptism with Holy Scripture, you discover that they aren’t in agreement with what is written there. So you know the teacher is a false prophet whom you don’t want to listen to.
- A pastor is preaching about Jesus’ return at the end of the age. He says that the Lord will come unexpectedly as a thief in the night. On that last day He will resurrect everyone in an instant and take those who cling in faith to Him as their Savior into their heavenly home and then consign unbelievers to hell.
You compare this teaching to what Scripture says—Mark 13:32, Mark 16:16, Hebrews 7:28-29—and you find that it is written there just as the teacher said. You gladly listen to that pastor, knowing that he’s a true prophet of God.
- A certain television evangelist claims he is able to predict the exact date of Christ’s return. And he adds that when Jesus does come back, He will set up a kingdom on planet Earth for a thousand years. Some, the teacher says, will be raptured away by the Lord, while others will be left behind till some point in the future.
In comparing such teachings with the Bible, you soon recognize them as “bad fruits” (doctrines not found in the Bible), and you know the preacher is a false prophet.
Those are just a few examples. In the Bible Jesus instructs us to be sure to test whatever teaching a pastor, church, or synod presents. And He has shown us that this testing is to be done by checking the “fruit”—comparing what is being taught with what is written in God’s holy Word.
In our day such testing isn’t thought to be important or in place. Some think it is unloving to label certain teachings false and certain prophets false. Yet Scripture shows it is the loving thing to do. Every false teaching originates from the great deceiver, Satan, who uses unscriptural teachings of false prophets to undermine faith in Jesus with the hope of misleading and finally even destroying precious souls for whom the Savior died.
May our comfort be that as we use the Bible to test religious teachers, our Good Shepherd will help us recognize His voice and strengthen us to follow Him in faith. He will answer our prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide,
For round us falls the eventide;
Nor let Thy Word, that heavenly light,
For us be ever veiled in night.
The haughty spirits, Lord, restrain
Who o’er Thy Church with might would reign
And always set forth something new,
Devised to change Thy doctrine true
Oh, grant that in Thy holy Word
We here may live and die, dear Lord;
And when our journey endeth here,
Receive us into glory there.