Identifying False Prophets- Matthew 7:15-20

As we continue in our examination of the conclusion of Jesus Sermon on the Mount, we next come upon a passage in which Jesus warns about false prophets. A prophet in one who speaks for God to His people, so a false prophet is one who professes to speak for God, but in actuality does not. Jesus begins here by telling us to “watch out” for them. The word “watch out” here is the present active imperative of prosecho, to guard against giving yourself over to them. His use of the present tense here tells us that this is something which we must be continually on our guard against, for these false prophets will always be among us. They will come in “sheep’s clothing”, appearing on the surface to be harmless, when in reality they are “ferocious wolves”, dangerous predators who would seek to devour the sheep rather than minister to them. Jesus then tells us exactly how we can recognize them, how we can distinguish them from the true prophets. The Greek word “recognize” here is epiginosko, to come to see things as they really are, to “see into” someone or something . Jesus then asks a rhetorical question, one whose obvious answer is no. Thorn bushes do not produce grapes, and thistles do not produce figs. Jesus here makes use of an analogy, which naturally brings about some level of difficulty in explaining, for all analogies at some level fall short. His analogy here is of a tree, and he uses the analogy to make one main point (much the same as He uses parables), and the details of the analogy cannot be pressed too far. He relies on real life experience to get a point across to His audience. Real life experience shows that fig trees produce figs and not apples. A tree produces fruit according to its nature, you can recognize what kind of tree it is by the fruit it produces. In the same way, you will be able to tell who are the false prophets by the “fruit” they produce. He explains that “good” trees produce good fruit, and “bad” trees produce bad fruit. This is the point at which the analogy cannot be pressed too far, for in real life experience, even a good tree will produce a little bad fruit, but Jesus point is that a good true will produce an overwhelming majority of good fruit, and a bad tree will produce an overwhelming majority of bad fruit. As we examine His words more closely here, we can see that Jesus applies this analogy of fruit to the lives of people, with fruit here used as a metaphor for someone’s lifestyle. When Jesus tells us here that a “good” tree bears “good” fruit, and a “bad” tree bears “bad” fruit, He uses different words for both good and bad in each of these expressions. The first use of good is the Greek agathos, inherently good. As Jesus Himself tells us “only God is good”, all good comes from God and anything that is good, God made that way. One who is good here is one who is made good by God, and it is used here to refer to true prophets. The first use of “bad” here is sapron, inherently corrupt. It refers to those who have no inherent goodness, who have not been made good by God, and is used to refer here to false prophets. The second use of “good” here is kalos, a word essentially meaning “useful”, as that which is useful and beneficial, and it speaks more of behavior than nature. The second use of “bad” here is poneros, literally evil or wicked, as that which is not useful or beneficial. It bears a strong ethical connotation, and also speaks more of behavior than nature. He uses the terms which refer to behavior in reference to the “fruit” here, so we can conclude that “fruit” here refers to behavior, to lifestyle. So then, false prophets are those who profess to speak for God but do not live as God tells them to, who do not live a life ordered around the truth of the Word of God. A lifestyle which is ordered more around the teaching of the world rather than around the Word of God is the “bad fruit” to which Jesus refers here. We can recognize bad trees by the bad fruit they produce, and we can also recognize false prophets by the “bad fruit” of a lifestyle lived as though the Word of God were not true or did not tell us how we are to live moment by moment and day by day. Jesus tells us here that we can recognize false prophets by looking not at what they say, but at what they do, by examining not their words but their lifestyle. If their lifestyle is not in line with the truth of the Word of God, we are to ignore their words. Jesus here tells us how to recognize them, but not to judge them (this is what verse 19 refers to), these types of trees will be “thrown into the fire”, God will judge them at the proper time. In the meantime, we are not to judge them, but rather ignore them and warn others about them, to guard ourselves and others against “giving ourselves over” to them, to protect our fellow sheep and keep them from falling prey to these ravenous wolves.

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