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. 
If you are going to place poison on a shelf with your medicines, you better label it clearly. Unfortunately in the Kingdom of God, there are no clear labels to distinguish false teaching and false teachers from those who preach the true medicine of the gospel. Also unfortunately, false teachers are going to be present in the church. They must be clearly identified before they do harm.
That’s not mere practical human wisdom. It is precisely the point of Christ’s teaching in this sermon. In the last verses of this sermon (Matthew 7:13-27), Jesus warns against four things that can keep a person who has heard the gospel from ultimately trusting the message. The first we looked at in our last study was the false idea that a person can drift into salvation without making a conscious choice concerning the person and work of Christ.
The second, which we come to this morning, is the error of the man who would hear Christ, decide to become religious, and then follow a poisonous teacher. Jesus warns that there are false prophets in the world and that if a person turns from Christ to such teachers, these teachers will actually lead the listener away from the truth and from the source of salvation.
Last week, Jesus described a narrow path, the entrance of which looks common and unimpressive. B.B.C television’s Dr. Who, a show about the exiled Timelord, has become a household name in the English-speaking world. The Doctor travels the universe of space and time in his spaceship, The Tardis. From the outside this spaceship looks like an old-fashioned British police box. But on the inside, the Tardis is spacious, comfortable, and the setting for a world of excitement and adventure.
The paradoxical nature of the Tardis is strikingly similar to what Jesus tells us about the Kingdom of God. Everything depends upon whether you experience the Kingdom from the outside or the inside. On the inside, we see that the road that first appeared so narrow is the only one that leads to life (7:14). Now Jesus warns us that outside the boundary of the narrow path wolves are prowling to lure unsuspecting travelers and feed off their souls.
Describing the enemies of God’s people as wolves was common in Christ’s day. In a country where a large proportion of the people were either in the employ of herdsmen or were shepherds, it was a natural image. It was well known from the scriptures themselves. Ezekiel wrote of Israel’s unrighteous rulers, “Her princes in her midst are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain. 28 And her prophets have smeared whitewash for them, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord God,’ when the Lord has not spoken.” 
Zephaniah proclaimed of Israel, “Her officials within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave nothing till the morning. 4Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men….” Paul used similar terms when he warned the elders of Ephesus, “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.” 
According to Jesus, and later to Paul, the danger is not so much in the fact that there are going to be wolves in the world – though that is certainly true – but there are going to be wolves who have disguised themselves as sheep. In other words, the danger lies in the fact that there are going to be agents of the devil in the church.
You might ask, “Do you mean to tell me that God will allow people who are influenced by Satan to become church members?” The answer is, “Yes, indeed!” Not only that, he also will allow them to become ministers and Sunday school teachers. That is the true meaning and context of 2nd Corinthians 11:14-15 which says, “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.” 
What is a “false profit”? We tend to associate prophecy with the foretelling of the future. But that was only a small part of the prophet’s ministry. The basic task of the prophet was to forth-tell God’s word. He was to explain and apply God’s truth to the lives of the people in his own day, as well as speak about the future.
The reason prophets spoke about the future was to influence the way that their listeners lived in the present. Simply put, a prophet was a person who spoke God’s words to the people. A “false prophet” is one who falsifies God’s word by either openly contradicting it, or, more likely, by twisting its meaning to appeal to listeners.
You who are studying Exodus in Sunday school can think of the example of Moses, the prophet of God. God told Moses he was sending him back to Egypt to lead his people out into Palestine. Moses complained that he was not a good speaker. So, God appointed Aaron, Moses’ brother, to speak for Moses. God told Moses, “You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you” (Exodus 4:14-16). Three chapters later, we read God saying to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet” (Exodus 7:1).
If you read the Old Testament, you will find that there were many false prophets who appeared to God’s people and pretended to speak for God when their teaching was really of the devil. These are the men spoken of by Jeremiah, through whom God said:
I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. 22 But if they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds. 
The church always has wolves in sheep’s clothing. We have them in the pews and in the pulpits. We have them in denominational structures, in seminaries, and in church-related colleges. Today we sometimes call an academic degree or diploma a “sheepskin,” since such degrees were originally printed on sheepskin. It’s amusing in light of our text. It’s also sad. Some professors and ministers clearly cover their intentions to speak for themselves (not for God) with the sheepskin.
Jesus was crystal-clear — false preachers have and will come. Our churches will be assaulted by false preachers, and even if they withstand them, they will be assaulted again and again. We need to be prepared. We need to pray for our churches, for their leadership, that we will not come under the spell of false leaders.
SEEING THROUGH THE SHEEPSKIN
All that brings us to the main point of Christ’s teaching. How can we recognize false prophets? How can we detect a wolf in sheep’s clothing? There are several answers.
First, we remember what we learned last week. For the false prophet, there is no “straight gate” and there is no “narrow way.” The words of this sermon are not arranged by accident. Nor are they random sayings collected in one jumbled series of thoughts. We are correct to see a connection between verses 13 and 14 and Christ’s warning about false prophets.
He is teaching that one of the ways you can recognize the false prophet is by noticing that, though he says many things that seem probable, he does not set forth the Lord Jesus Christ as the only solution to man’s need and the only door to salvation.
When you hear preaching or teaching, or read about religion in books, ask yourself this question: “Does this system of thought have the Lord Jesus Christ as its center?” If it does, then it is good. If it does not, then be on guard against it. If you do this, you will not be led away from the truth by appearances. You will not be taken in by a polished but false message. The first test of what is false or true teaching is whether or not the Lord Jesus Christ is proclaimed as the one and only way to God.
The appearance of sincerity is a poor test for wolves. Dark powers are mysteriously at work. Those powers send him into our midst. He may even be unconscious himself of what he is doing. The devil can give him every encouragement and at the same time keep him in the dark about his own motives.
Another means to identify false prophets is seen in the prophecies of Jeremiah. False prophets do not have disturbing doctrines in their messages, even though the true state of man demands it. Their message is one of false peace. God says through Jeremiah, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” God even made this point again through Jeremiah because it occurs in both Jeremiah 6:14 and 8:11.
There is nothing in their preaching which searches the conscience and renders the empty seeker uneasy, nothing which humbles and causes their hearers to mourn before God. They speak to that which puffs up, makes them pleased with themselves and to rest content in false assurances. Some do it by overemphasizing moralism and rules of behavior which they confuse for salvation. Most do it by removing moral requirements altogether and making people feel good about their various beloved sins. Either way, the power of Christ is not present in their message.
Jeremiah knew this situation in his time because he was sent to bring a message of judgment upon Jerusalem because of the people’s sins. Every time he preached it, there were false prophets saying Jeremiah’s words were untrue. They said God loved his people so much he would never let evil come upon them (Jeremiah 23:16-22). They were wrong, and Jeremiah was right. God sent the Babylonians to destroy the city.
True teaching and preaching involves the realities of man’s depravity and sin, God’s wrath and coming judgment, the need for repentance, and the answer to man’s sin in Christ’s vicarious atonement. Any teaching that omits these elements is dangerously wrong.
Wolves are identified by their attitude toward the people of God. They are not merely wolves, but “ferocious wolves.” They express their true nature by the way they devour the flock. They do not lay down their life for the sheep (as the Good Shepherd did, John 10:5). Instead, they use the sheep to serve their own interests. They use people to gather money, rather than using money to gather people to Christ.
One example would be Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9-10). Instead of guarding the flock of God entrusted to him as an elder and promoting its peace and unity, he destroyed it. And he destroyed it for the sake of his own reputation and power.
The false prophet is identified by the fruit of his teaching. Good trees bear good fruit; Bad trees bear bad fruit (v.18). In fact, Jesus considers this so important he says it in verses 16 and again in verse 20: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” People who possess the Holy Spirit produce good fruit. People who do not produce fruit that is bad.
Faithful men and false men reveal their true identity in two ways: in their own character and then the results of their teaching in the character of others. Are they Christlike? Do those who come under their influence increasingly share those Christlike qualities? Sometimes the fruit of a false prophet appears in sinister ways in the lives of his or her disciples. It can manifest itself in an exclusivism that is opposite the open-heartedness of Christ – which is exactly what happened in Corinth.
When we are unable to benefit from the ministry or teaching of anyone but one single teacher or a select group of them, and when that spirit is encouraged by the leadership, we are not far from bad fruit or false teaching. When this exclusivist spirit manifests itself by disrespecting other faithful teachers (whatever their gifts or inadequacies), then evil fruit has begun to appear (3 Jn. 9-10).
This influence of false teaching pervaded the church at Corinth. Some obviously preferred the ministry of Peter, or Paul, or the eloquent Apollos. The situation was ripe for the false apostles and false prophets who would soon dominate the church. Under their false ministries Paul, Peter, and Apollos would all be spoken of with cynical contempt.
Attention would be drawn to their present weaknesses or their past history. Paul was neither attractive nor eloquent. Peter had denied Jesus. Apollos had once been so shaky theologically that he needed a woman to instruct him (Acts 18:24-26) — something considered shameful in the patriarchal cultures of Greece and Rome. The wolves of Corinth brought the fruits of cynicism and strife. That fruit springs from a rotten tree. That tree needs to be cut down – and will be at the final judgment (v. 19).
Jesus’ illustrations of grapes, thorns, thistles, and figs had a special meaning to his listeners. They knew there was a certain thorn, the buckthorn, which had blackberries closely resembling small grapes. There was a particular thistle that, from a distance, flowered in the same way as a fig tree. Jesus was teaching there may be a superficial resemblance between the true and the false that can only be determined by close inspection.
The false prophets wear the right clothes and use the right language. But you cannot sustain life with the berries of a buckthorn or the flowers of a thistle. And the life of the soul can never be sustained with the food that a devouring false prophet offers. The real test of any teaching is: Does it strengthen a person to bear the burdens of life and to walk in the way they ought to go?
Finally, the false prophet is identified by his priorities. At the final judgment, when the bad fruit trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire, these false prophets will say to Jesus, “Did we not prophecy in your name… and drive out demons and perform many miracles?” But Jesus will reject their claims to him with a chilling answer: “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:22-23).
Why? Because they placed success before obedience (only those who do the will of the Father belong to the Father’s Kingdom, v. 21). They put their own position before their service. Most obviously, as we learned in 2nd Corinthians, they substituted outward gifts for inward grace.
It is possible for pastors and Bible teachers to exercise what appear to be spiritual gifts, such as prophecy, miracles, and exorcism of demons, yet to be total strangers themselves to God’s saving grace. The amazing things people can do in public are no certain indications of where they stand in private before the judgment of Jesus Christ.
What truly counts is how we are related to Christ himself. That is why the gospel has so much more to say about the power of Christ changing our characters than about the power of Christ changing the course of nature.
That distinction is a timely warning to our own generation. We are as easily mesmerized by people with unusual powers as was Christ’s generation. We are fascinated by “signs.” But Jesus is not a wonder-worker. He is the Savior. He delivers us from sin and transforms us morally to be like himself. That is the fruit of the true prophet of God. The true prophet is far more interested in grace than in gifts, both in his own life and in the lives of those to whom he ministers.
You may have chosen the gate through which you will go. Our hope is that you have chosen Christ who is the narrow gate. But as you travel that straight path, have you continued to expose your life to the influences that will keep you on the way to Christ? Or have you been sidetracked by false teaching and teachers, failing to recognize the sour and harmful fruit they will produce in your life?
Are you being fed the rotten worldly fruit of moral and political self-righteousness? If so, you will find yourself angry and agitated and satisfied in your self-righteous views. You will cut yourself off from your brothers and sisters in Christ because they lack your special knowledge and insights, so they are less advanced than you and have nothing to offer you.
But if you are feeding on the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, then the Holy Spirit will over the course of months, years, and decades produce in you his fruit. He will produce in you a hunger and thirst for righteousness and a constant poverty of spirit. He will turn your self-focus into others-focus. He alone will guide you down the narrow path and drive away the wolves. Seek earnestly after his discernment.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 7:15–20.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 253.
 Ferguson, 165.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eze 22:27–28.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Zep 3:3–4.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ac 20:29–30.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 11:14–15.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Je 23:21–22.
 Hughes, quoting Bonhoeffer.
 Boice, 257.