Beware of False Prophets – Matthew 7:15-20
As we read these words of our Lord, we are immediately confronted with the stark difference of some of the basic assumptions of the Christian faith and our culture. In these words, Jesus tells his hearers to beware of false prophets. He has just finished exhorting them to enter into the strait gate and to tread the narrow way. And we saw last time that the narrow way is the way of discipleship, the life that has as its model the Sermon on the Mount. The reason he gives for the life of discipleship is that the strait gate and narrow way leads to life whereas the wide gate and broad way leads to destruction. So here you are contemplating these two gates. But outside these gates are people telling you it’s stupid to put yourself to the difficulty of living such a restrictive life and that you should go by the broad way. Jesus tells us that these people are false prophets. They claim to be giving you good advice, but they are not only leading you astray, they are leading you in a way that will lead to your ultimate destruction.
And there is the rub as far as modern man is concerned. According to current attitudes, Jesus has committed at least two evils here: he has put himself as the standard of truth (since those who oppose his teaching are false prophets), and he has told his audience that it matters what you believe (since we are to beware of false prophets). Both these positions are anathema to modern Western thought. We are told that the exclusive truth claims of Christianity inherent in the text are a straightjacket, and that they undermine community and personal freedom.
It is especially the perceived threat to personal freedom inherent in the Christian message that raises red flags for so many people. For many, freedom means that you create your own meaning in life, your own truth, and your own morality, and that anything else is simply too restrictive. In fact, modern man is not surprised that Jesus described that path of Christian obedience as a narrow path; what surprises them is that anyone would choose to live such a restrictive life.
The problem with such an attitude, as Tim Keller points out, is that this definition of freedom is oversimplified. To think of freedom simply in terms of living without boundaries is actually to undermine freedom. In fact, you can’t have freedom without boundaries (that is, without restriction) of some sort. A fish is free as long as it is restricted to water. Put it out of its native environment and it is not only not free, it will die. Some “freedoms” are destructive, not liberating. Nowhere is this clearer than in relationships. As Keller puts it, “Love is the most liberating freedom-loss of all.” The question is how we determine what those boundaries are that enable us to thrive.
When Jesus therefore tells us to enter into a strait gate, he is not necessarily saying something that is antithetical to freedom. Actually, he promises true freedom to those who follow him. The strait gate leads to life, and that is freedom. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free . . . if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” he tells us (Jn. 8:32, 36).
But what about the exclusivity of the truth claims of Jesus? Many claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth. But to make such a claim is to contradict oneself. If there is no absolute truth, then the very statement that there is no absolute truth must be false. The postmodern position that everything is relative or culturally conditioned is, as C. S. Lewis eloquently put it, like seeing through everything so that there is nothing to see. There has to be ultimate truth, so there is nothing inherently wrong with Jesus claiming to speak truth, or even to say that he is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 14:6).
It really comes down to who Jesus is. If he is the way, the truth, and the life – as he claimed and as we believe – then not only should we not be insulted by the exclusivity of his claims or the narrowness of his way, but we should gladly embrace it. For only he is the one who can really show us what the boundaries are that will lead to true freedom. Only someone with the omniscience and the love of the Son of God could be worthy of our confidence that he can show us where truth and freedom are to be found.
And his warnings are to be taken seriously. Like the one in our text. The threat of false prophets is no warning of a falling sky. It is real and it is serious. But what is Jesus referring to?
A prophet is someone who claims to speak for God. A false prophet is therefore someone who claims to speak for God but who really doesn’t. They are dangerous because they lead people astray, away from the path of obedience to God. The danger our Lord is referring to is that false prophets will lead you away from the strait gate and the narrow way. Thus, this is serious stuff, because these guys claim to be speaking for God and yet are leading people down a path that leads away from God. So not only are they hurting people but they are creating a false sense of assurance as they march to their end, making it that much harder to recover them from their mistaken allegiance. It is no wonder therefore that Jesus describes them as wolves who only want to devour the sheep.
The problem, however, is that these false prophets are not easy to detect. Jesus says that they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are in disguise. They get in among the sheep without being detected as the wolves that they are. That is partly what makes them so dangerous. In other words, it’s not the false prophets that are obvious and who teach obvious heresy that you have to be afraid of. It’s the false prophets who come in looking like true prophets speaking words of truth. To heed Jesus’ words, we need a lot of discernment when it comes to those who come to us claiming to speak for God.
For example, in the Law, Moses warned Israel about false prophets who would come and give a sign or a wonder, and then the sign or the wonder would come to pass. For many, this would be an obvious sign that the prophet was speaking the truth – after all, fulfilled prophesy was the gold standard in false-prophet detection. But the problem was that this prophet was encouraging the people to go after false gods. God tells Israel that even if the sign comes to pass, if he is encouraging idolatry, they should not listen to him: “for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 13:1-3). The danger lay in the fulfilled prophesy, making it easier for people to think the prophet was really speaking for God when he wasn’t. Of course, sometimes fulfilled prophesy was a good way to test a prophet (cf. Deut. 18:22). But this text shows that this was not always the case. There had to be discernment.
In the New Testament, the situation has not changed. There are still people who claim to speak for God but who are leading people astray, and it is not always obvious at first that they are false prophets. In fact, Jesus told his disciples that “there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Mt. 24:24). In other words, so convincing are the signs and wonders of the false prophets that only the intervention of God in behalf of his elect saves them from the deception. Elsewhere, the apostle Paul writes that “such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great things if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:13-15). False prophets don’t come heralding an antichristian gospel. Rather, they come in the name of Christ, as the ministers of righteousness. They claim to be speaking for Jesus, and they claim to be working for righteousness. And if this were true, this would be wonderful! But the problem is that it isn’t true. In fact, these are the ministers of Satan, who hates Christ and righteousness. And those who follow them will therefore only be led away from Christ and away from a life of righteousness.
In our Lord’s day, there were the Pharisees. Today, the word “Pharisee” only conjures up images of self-righteous narcissists. But in first century Judea, a Pharisee was precisely the kind of person everyone looked up to. They were devoted to the Law of God, and they were the defenders of orthodoxy. And yet, strangely, the Pharisees come in for more criticism from Jesus than did the more liberal and secular Sadducees. Jesus called them “blind leaders of the blind” who will both fall into the ditch (Mt. 15:14). People probably looked up to them because they seemed to be speaking truth. But our Lord says that the problem was that for all their devotion to the Law, they had replaced the commandments of God with the traditions of men (Mt. 15:9). People were fooled. The Pharisees came looking like sheep, but they really were wolves in sheep’s clothing.
In our day, the same holds true. The most dangerous people to the church are not out of the church but in it. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They come in the name of Jesus and claim to speak for him. And they fool thousands of people.
What are some of the signs of a false prophet? How do we detect them? First of all, from what we’ve already pointed out, it is not enough to check that they claim to be a follower of Jesus. There is a tendency in our day to want to embrace anyone as long as they claim to be Christian. The problem is that this is just a name and there are a lot of people who want to be called a Christian but who have no real allegiance to the Jesus of the Bible. The false apostles that Paul referred to in the Corinthian correspondence certainly came preaching Jesus; they claimed to be sent by him. But they were false, nonetheless. We have to be more careful than that.
Nor is it enough to check that they use orthodox language. In other words, a person may speak in glowing terms of the cross and atonement and new birth, but it does not therefore follow that they mean what the Bible means when it uses that language. One of the ways liberalism crept into the mainstream denominations at the close of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, was through the use of orthodox language by very unorthodox preachers. They would speak of the atonement and the central place it should hold, but their understanding of atonement was very different from the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus in the place of sinners that the New Testament speaks of. For them, the atonement was primarily an example to us, not a sacrifice for us. People didn’t discern the difference, and before long these denominations began to crumble under the weight of an unbiblical theology.
Nor is it enough to check that they are good people. Most false prophets are nice, and they are easy to like and get along with. How else could they get a following? False teachers are often dynamic speakers (this was certainly true of the false apostles that opposed Paul, cf. 2 Cor. 11:4-6) and inspiring leaders. They know how to generate and maintain a following. And to do this, they have to first get the confidence of the people. You don’t do this generally by being a bad guy. You don’t inspire the confidence of people by being angry and drunk and immoral. In other words, they come looking like sheep, not like wolves.
Nor is it enough to look at how successful he or she is in recruiting disciples. Many people seem to think that a successful church is necessarily a church with a lot of people, and that if you have a lot of people, this is a sure sign that God’s blessing is upon it. But God isn’t interesting in numbers, as such. There have been times when the false-prophets and their followers vastly outnumbered the faithful. In Elijah’s day, he was one of the few faithful prophets against hundreds of the prophets of Baal; there were only 7,000 men who had not bowed the knee to the image of Baal among all the tens of thousands in Israel. As our Lord put it in the previous verses, the road to life is narrow and those who travel it are few. A preacher with a large following is not necessarily a true prophet (although neither is he necessarily a false prophet!).
What then should we look at? Well, we should look at the man and the message. There is some disagreement as to what Jesus is referring to by “ye shall know them by their fruits” (16, 20). What are the fruits that we are to look at? Some say that Jesus is only referring to the deeds of the false prophet. Others say that the fruit is a reference to the teaching of the false prophet. The truth, however, is that both deeds and teaching are under consideration here. It refers to deeds, since when John the Baptist used this very language it is indisputable that we was referring to lifestyle: “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (Mt. 3:8). But it also refers to teaching, since in the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus follows up his illustration of good and bad fruit with these words: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45). Of course, as Jesus makes clear, both the man and the message go together because what you believe will inevitably affect how you live.
What can we say about the message of a false prophet? Well, as Lloyd-Jones pointed out, it is almost as necessary to look for what they don’t say as much as it is to look for what they do say. Look at the breadth of their teaching. Does it follow the contours of the Bible? Does it maintain a Biblical balance? Or is it fixated upon one thing?
One of the dead giveaways of a false prophet is that he does not preach the whole counsel of God. He may preach some of it, but he does not preach all of it. He preaches that part of God’s word that is popular and tones down on that which is not. What they do say may be alright as far as it goes, but their teaching is lacking the main thing. They may preach on how to have a good family life or a good marriage or how to be a successful person in this world. But if there is nothing of the gospel in their message, if the gospel is not in fact the main thing, then they have missed it. They are not helping their people, they are leading them astray. They are a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
A true prophet will center his ministry on Christ. Everything else is secondary; the whole point is to point people to Jesus as Lord and Savior, to invite people to embrace him and to hold him forth in the teaching so that he is magnified. The emphasis is not on how to have your best life now; it is on how to know Jesus Christ and to make him known. The teaching centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and he is wary about anything that leads people away from hearts and minds that are focused on him.
Not only so, but the teaching of a false prophet is unbalanced with respect to the character of God. In the Bible, God is revealed preeminently as holy; all other attributes (including love) find their orbit around the blazing center of the holiness of God. Often in the history of the church this unbalance has shown up in an overemphasis on love and a corresponding under emphasis upon God’s righteous judgment. Both need to be preached; to deny either is to wander into serious heresy.
Then there is unbalance with respect to the Scriptural view of man. In the Bible, man is not viewed as sort of sick but as dead; not as able to pull himself up by the bootstraps and save himself but as unable to save himself and in need of a Savior. In the Bible, sin is viewed not so much as a moral mess-up but as an act of treason against God which makes him worthy of everlasting punishment. In contrast, a false prophet is not likely to emphasize these things. As in most religions in the world, man is able to save himself; so with the Christian false-prophet. The cross is correspondingly diminished and the role that man plays in his own self-redemption is magnified.
Of course, we must also look at the man. A message which does not point to Christ will not make holy people. So we must always look for holiness of character. Now this is not the same thing as being nice or an inspiring leader. A holy prophet is a prophet who walks with God, who lives to please him and to glorify him. A false prophet, like Diotrephes (3 Jn. 9), wants to have the preeminence, but a true prophet, like John the Baptist, is okay with decreasing in importance as long as Christ increases. Just as his message is centered on Christ, so his life is centered on Christ. In other words, he is pointing people to Jesus with his lips and his life, by his words and works.
That doesn’t mean that the faithful prophet will be perfect. But God does not call unholy men to be his prophets. This is why when Paul tells Timothy the qualifications for an elder or overseer, he mentions character qualities rather than skills, except for aptness to teach (1 Tim. 3:1, ff). Spiritual leaders in the church are called to a high standard because an unholy man who is not living a God-centered life cannot lead those who follow his teaching along the narrow way that Christ calls all his disciples to tread. The disciple is not above his teacher. It’s why Paul told Timothy that when an elder sinned, he was to be rebuked before all; it is that serious. This is important to point out because in our day we have become so lax and accepting that sin is not really treated with the kind of seriousness with which it ought to be treated. Leaders sin and we don’t hold them accountable because it makes it easier for us to justify our sin. In many places this is the reality: “A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets prophesy falsely . . . and my people love to have it so” (Jer. 5:30-31).
What our Lord’s words do not allow us to do is to judge hearts and attitudes. You judge the fruit – the words and the deeds of the person. But this is good enough. For “a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt true bring forth good fruit” (18). We don’t have to try to peer into their heart to judge the truth or falseness of their ministry; the fruit of the man and message will be clear soon enough.
But of course this also applies to every one of us, doesn’t it? “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (20). It is not enough simply to say you follow Christ – do your works back up your words? Does your life demonstrate that you truly believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior? May the Holy Spirit enable us to examine ourselves first of all, to see whether or not we are in the faith!