“15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.” Matthew 7:15-20
In continuing this week’s discussion on discernment (Discernment, Now and Discernment, Defined), it’s important next to look at how we can apply it in our lives, namely how we can sharpen our senses of discernment as we read in Hebrews 5:12-14 through studying the Word of God and then be able to put those senses into practice. Far too often in today’s Evangelical Church preachers, teachers, books, quotes, etc. are accepted simply on the basis of saying they are Christian or having the appearance of being “Christian”. The problem is we’ve sacrificed discernment for acceptance and knowledge for naivety. The Biblical truth is that all throughout Scripture, particularly the New Testament, we are warned of false teachers. In the passage above, from Matthew, Jesus is providing a test for identifying these false teachers. First, He tells us that they will take the appearance of being like one of the flock. John MacArthur’s study Bible provides an interesting note here that not only can they appear as a sheep, but wearing the “sheep’s clothing” was sign of a shepherd in ancient days, adding that these inwardly “ravenous wolves” may be either sheep or shepherds. In 2 Corinthians 11:13-15 we get additional insight into the tactics of deception employed by false teachers, “13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.”
Two key passages we’ve outlined so far that show false teachers are not those who attack from the outside, but instead those that take the appearance of truth and attack from within the church. This is how Satan works best; he disguises himself as an “angel of light”, namely a representative of truth, but secretly his goal is destruction of a church, group of people, or person. In Jude 4 we gain additional insight into the means and methods of deception that has infiltrated the Church, “4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” In this passage we begin to see how these false teachers have made their way in, “unnoticed”, meaning those who were supposed to be on guard, namely the Church, were asleep or distracted. Finally let’s look at Paul’s words from Acts 20:28-30, “28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Again we read the emphasis placed on false teachers arising from the inside, woven into the fabric of the church via pulpits, seminary’s, books, television, radio, etc.
Having now established that false teachers/preachers/prophets are among those of us who profess Christ and are disguised as one of us, taking the form of either sheep or shepherd within the church, let us continue in the passage from Matthew and our Lord’s warning. In verse 16 we read of how to identify these teachers, specifically by their fruits. We must first ask, what are these fruits so that we can then identify when something is contrary to them, or more importantly lacking all together. The word fruit here is the Greek word karpos, which refers to a work, act or deed. It is the kind of fruit described in John 15:8, “8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” Those who abide in Christ will bear much fruit, contrasted against those who bear no fruit, or bad fruit. In Philippians 1:11 we read of this same word in reference to producing “fruits of righteousness.” Similarly this same fruit is referred to in Hebrews 12:11 and both refer to virtue, honesty, morality or decency. Those false teachers that have crept in lack this fruit. This is verified by the passage from Jude 4 that we read earlier which refers to these ravenous wolves as “ungodly people” or by contrast unrighteous.
A second fruit can be found in Luke 3:8, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Here we have a fruit that is born forth from repentance which is defined as an agreement with God that the “bad things” in a person’s life are sin and therefore unpleasing to God. Subsequently, repentance is the turning away from those sins. So the fruit mentioned here is produced from the recognition and abandonment of sin. False teachers lack this fruit because again as Jude 4 states they “pervert the grace of our God into sensuality.” They pervert the grace of God, in that there is no repentance from them for their sins. They continue in their sinful, prideful manner “and many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed, and in their greed they will exploit you with false words.” 2 Peter 2:2-3 Later on in this same chapter of Peter it says, “they have their eyes full of adultery, insatiable sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed” and because of their licentious behavior they are unable to bear fruit in accordance with repentance.
A third bad fruit, or absence of good fruit, that we can use to recognize false teachers can again be found in Jude 4, “deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 2:1 corroborates this by saying these false teachers will “secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them.” Titus 1:16 makes reference to the defiled, empty talkers, and deceivers of the Church that “profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” In keeping with false teachers, to deny Christ is to be unwilling to recognize who He is and what He has done. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. John 1:1-2, Colossians 1:17 His incarnation was the fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah 7:14 He was born of a virgin. Matthew 1:23 He lived as both fully God and fully man. Colossians 1:19, 2:9 He is the only name which saves. Acts 4:13, Romans 10:13 He is the only way to God. John 14:6 He was beaten and crucified and took upon him the sins of all those who believe. Isaiah 53:5, John 3:16, Romans 4:25, Romans 5:6-8 He died, rose again, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father. Luke 23:46,52-53, Luke 24:6, Mark 16:19, Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 12:2 He will return for His people. Matthew 24:44 To deny any of these in part is to deny Christ in full and to live apart from the vine, incapable of producing fruit.
In concluding His warning on the presence of false teachers Jesus points out that these people will be “cut down and thrown into the fire.” He then gives us a second exhortation to examine them by their fruits. In part, what we’ve studied today are 3 characteristic fruits which these wolves lack, righteousness, repentance, and belief in the nature and work of Christ. This is in no way a comprehensive list, but instead should serve as a Biblical guide to recognizing those wolves that have crept in among the sheep. Make no mistake they are among us, they will continue, and their frequency will increase, but if we apply discernment in our personal lives it will translate to our churches, bible studies, and conversations, so that detection of these apostates and heretics will become more widespread.