Matthew 7:15-20

Our Lord Jesus uses this context of the disciples having enough to eat because their provisions come from the hand of God, and, since they’re in the family – in the household of God, and are children and joint heirs with the Only-begotten Son, then the Heavenly Father will feed them all with the best things from His Own hand – He uses this context to contrast this with the opposite kind of feeding – the feeding which comes from the hands of pseudo-prophets and teachers.

And, as you can see clearly in verse fifteen, Jesus puts the disciples on alert concerning these people.  And in doing so He puts the entire Church, for all times and for all occasions, on alert for the same thing.  And I’ll tell you right now that there has never been a period of time in the history of the Church when there were no false prophets.  I’ll even take you one step further – there’s never been a true Church of Jesus Christ – local Church – that didn’t have a false prophet in it at one time or another.

And very early in His Sermon on the Mount our Lord begins to warn His Own disciples, and us in the future, about these people who supposedly speak the will of God – who herald it, who announce it, who proclaim it, who exhort it, and who use it – and yet don’t speak for Him!

Later on in this Gospel, chapter twenty-four – Jesus speaks of false Christs.  And about thirty-five years later the apostle Peter, chapter two of his second letter, writes to the Churches about the false teachers.  Well, this Matthew seven is the warning before the warning.

And Jesus says “beware” – “be on guard against” pseudo-prophets.  “Have your mind set in such a way that you’re always watching for” pseudo-prophets.  Beware of them, for, though they come in sheep’s clothing, they’re rapacious wolves!

They might say “God told me!”  Or they might say “this is what the Bible says.”  But the pseudoprophet is a rapacious wolf in sheep’s clothing!  He may look as harmless as Jesus Christ the Lamb of God Himself.  He may have the exterior form of a minister of God, or an angel, or a teacher, or a helper.  He may have all of those things that people normally look for when they conceive of one who speaks for God.  He may look like a minister, he may sound like a minister, he may even open the Bible and read like a minister.  He might even love people like a minister, or a deacon or an elder!  And when he stands in the pulpit and preaches, there just might be no doubt in anybody’s mind that he’s a minister.

Jesus says, “Beware – be on guard – for rapacious wolves come in and they look harmless.  They look as harmless as the Sheep that God sent to slaughter.  They look as if they would harm no one.  They have the appearance of harmlessness.

But “inside” within, they are rapacious wolves.  That refers to their “real” nature that gives the lie to their appearance – their “real” nature which is inside, and which is covered up by the false appearance on the outside.

But I’m sure that this wolf is kin to the wolf mentioned by Jesus and recorded by the apostle John as he wrote in the tenth chapter of his Gospel.  That’s where Jesus tells the story of the hireling who flees when the wolf comes.  And the wolf scatters the real sheep.

And I’m sure we’re all familiar with all those warnings from the apostles about those who do great damage to the Church – chapter sixteen of Romans:  “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you have learned; and avoid them.”  And Ephesians chapter five, verse six:  “Let no man deceive you with vain words; for because of these things comes the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.”  And Colosians two verse four:  “And this I say, lest any man beguile you with enticing words….”

Now, what all this means is this – to say “God says this” when He doesn’t; or to say “God didn’t say that,” when He did, is false teaching and preaching – prophecy!  To stand in the pulpit and preach what isn’t true is false prophecy.  For one to utter “thus saith the Lord” – when God didn’t say it – he’s a false prophet!

And false prophets have to have an innocent appearance!  They have to!  It’s necessary – because if they revealed what they really are, then all the true disciples would flee from them!  But the innocent appearance of their person and their prophecy causes a lot of people to receive what they say!

So the appearance of sheep’s clothing – harmlessness – that looks to be in harmony with God and His Word, is, in reality, in conflict with both!  And this deviation from the Divine Word of God makes false prophets wolves.  And the nature of a wolf, as Jesus says here in our first verse – verse fifteen – is to be rapacious.  That comes from the word arpadzo, which means to seize or snatch away, and then to rend, tear, and kill.

It’s a drastic word for Jesus to use, but it’s obvious that He wants to relay to His disciples, and to us, the destructive effect of all false preaching.  It is so bad that it rips and tears like the filthy fangs of a wolf.  God, by His Own Word, has established preaching as the common means of bringing His Own to Himself – His elect from every nation – and to mature them in the faith.  (Romans ten)  And here Jesus Himself equates the false preacher with the worst thing that can happen!

And in spite of this affirmation by God as to the value of preaching, and in spite of this drastic language by our Lord, men persist in considering deviations from Biblical preaching as being “quite harmless!”  And yet, what man do you know who would walk right in to a den of wolves pulling their children and their wives behind them, yelling “here we are – tear us apart!”

And yet – with eternal life and death on the line – men drop themselves and their families right into the den where the “leaders of the packs” are with frightening regularity!  And there are really only two ways to take that:  either they run with the pack or they can’t recognize the wolves for what they are.

But in verse sixteen Jesus says, “From their fruits you shall recognize them!”  First Jesus says, “Beware of the pseudo-prophets,” or “Keep holding your mind set against the pseudo-prophets” – now He says we shall recognize them by their fruits.

Now, please be aware that every prophet appeals to the Word of God in some way.  That’s what makes him a prophet!  Prophetic activity is defined as “speaking for God!”  So these aren’t people outside the Church – they’re inside!  And Jesus says that we shall recognize them by their fruits!  And, after some metaphorical figures of speech about it, He comes back, in verse twenty and says, “So, indeed, by their fruits you shall recognize them!”  So what He says in between makes it even more evident that we shall recognize them by their fruits.

 But first we have to find out exactly what Jesus means by “their fruits.”  There are a lot of different opinions about what He means, but it’s really pretty simple.  First, there’s no way to even equate them with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians chapter six.  Here it’s the fruits, plural, of the false prophets, not the Spirit.  There in Galatians Paul lists nine things the Spirit of Christ brings to those who live in Christ.  Here the pseudo-prophets have these fruits by which they are recognizable.  That’s certainly different from the fruit, singular, given by the Holy Spirit!

And second, neither can this mean the personal work of the false prophet – his work isn’t the fruits by which he is ultimately recognizable as a false prophet!  In the first place it’s reasonable that, since every man is sinful, and that all prophets are men, that all prophets will exhibit sin in their lives.  And that sin may not ultimately disqualify them from being prophets; and sin certainly can not be the fruits by which the false prophet is recognizable!  If it were, then there would be no true prophets!

But even beyond the reasonableness of that argument, what does the Scripture say?  (When in doubt read the instructions!)  Jesus says, in Matthew chapter twenty-four, verse twenty-four, “For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.”

Jesus says that the false prophets will show great signs and wonders!  And if that’s the case – and it is, since Jesus said it, then the works accomplished isn’t the ultimate criteria for recognizing a false prophet, or any prophet, for that matter!  It is not what he does, and not what happens in his ministry!

Let me say that again so every body will be sure and get it:  If the false prophet will work great signs and wonders so as to even deceive the elect, then his works can’t be the fruits by which he is recognizable as false!  Do you see it?

So, what, then, does Jesus mean when He says, “From their fruits you shall recognize them?”  What are the fruits He’s talking about?  Let’s go back to the instructions manual to find out.


Isaiah eight, twenty:  “To the Law and to the testimony:  if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them.”

First John four, one:  “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”

Hebrews thirteen, nine:  “Be not carried about with different and strange doctrines.”

Second John nine, eleven:  “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God.  He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.”

And, in Matthew fifteen, Jesus quotes from the Older Testament concerning the same subject:  “But in vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the Commandments of men.”


So what this all means is that that by which a prophet is judged is that which he says!  And the issue is whether it corresponds with what God said!  Jesus is applying the word “fruit” to the prophet’s doctrine!  So, in effect, every prophet is to be judged as to his doctrine, and he is judged by the very Word to which he is constrained to appeal!  The prophet says, “This is what God says.”  And then what God says is the judge of whether the prophet is true when he says what God says!  And the doctrine the prophet preaches is his fruit.  That doctrine by which he ministers is his fruit.

Now, some might ask if a man is a pseudo-prophet if he doesn’t know if he’s wrong.  And I would answer that it is awful arrogance to preach something if you don’t know what it is you’re preaching!  And the falsehoods and half-truths are just as pernicious coming from ignorance as they are coming by design!  And men and women and children are just as savagely torn apart by false doctrine from ignorance as they are by false doctrine from an active deceiver.  Rapacious wolves don’t preach the doctrines of Christ – they preach the doctrines of men!  And the result doesn’t matter whether it’s by deceit or by design!

And these are the things that Jesus sets in concrete by the use of this metaphorical language which comes up next in the text.  And the issue, as you can readily see, is the food by which Christians grow strong and mature.  He says, last part of sixteen, “Are they gathering bunches of grapes from thornbushes – or figs from briars?”  Can a family walk right up to bushes filled with thorns and reach in and pull out clusters of grapes?  Or go up to a vine with briars on it and pull off some figs?  Of course the questions require an expected answer.  No!  “Every good tree…,” He says in seventeen, “Every good tree makes excellent fruit; but the corrupt tree makes evil fruit.”

Now, when you’re reading this, you have to understand that Jesus doesn’t have to abide by the rules of good English.  He can mix metaphors if He wants; and He can use words like “corrupt” in referring to trees if He wants; and words like “evil” in referring to fruit!  We all know that trees can’t be corrupt, and fruit can’t be evil!  But, at the same time we know those things, we must also know that Jesus isn’t really speaking of trees and fruit – He’s speaking of doctrines and their sources!  You see, a good source produces excellent doctrine!  And an evil source brings forth false doctrine!

“A good source…,” He says in verse eighteen, “isn’t able to bring forth false doctrine.  In other words, if God said it, then it isn’t able to be false!  But if the source is corrupt – such as the wisdom of men, then it isn’t able to bring forth excellent doctrine!

You can’t pick a fig from a thorn – and you can’t hear good, sound, doctrinal preaching and teaching (life) from a wolf!  The wolf is going to be preaching the wisdom of men (sometimes close); and since the tree is corrupt (wolf) then the fruit is evil.  And the Pharisees and hypocrisy and Jewish mysticism – all of it is going to be cut out and thrown into fire.  In other words, like a good husbandman, God will eventually take the corrupt tree down and burn it.  He did it to Israel in 70 A. D.. 

“So indeed by their fruits you shall recognize them…,” He says in verse twenty.  If you test the prophet by the Word of God then you shall recognize his fruits.  If you measure by that which cannot bring forth evil fruit, then you shall recognize his fruits.

It is actually impossible for a tree to bear fruit that’s contrary to its nature.  So, as we are able to tell whether a tree is good and worth keeping – or bad and fit only for firewood – so we are able to detect every false prophet and to keep away from him.  And it is, as we’ve already said, a critical issue, since we don’t want to be torn limb from spiritual limb – walking into den after den of rapacious wolves!

And don’t ever think that the average Church can’t tell the difference, because God has given His Church a Risen Savior – and, in Him, all the gifts for sanctification in His body.  And the wisdom that is required to see the difference between the true prophet and the false prophet is provided by Him.  And the final Judge of the word of the prophet is the Word of God, given by the Spirit of Christ!

And there are no harmless deviations.  And yet all through the Churches prophets are being accepted even though there are these “deviations.”  And the voracious “rending” of people continues all over the place.  The victory which is ours is being torn and eaten by wild animals.  By their fruits we shall recognize them and put them away from us.