Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognise them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them.
The more I study this sermon, the more I feel that it is about the family life of the Father in heaven with his children. Jesus said at one point that whoever has seen him has seen the Father, and that he only does what he sees the Father is doing. So it could be said that this Sermon is the advice of a Father to His children.
I think we all go through that stage as children when a parent is wanting to speak to us and advise us about things, but we really don’t want to listen. If we are at a particularly rebellious stage, maybe we even storm out of the room in disgust at this. But I am old enough to be without my parents and I can say that not a day goes by without missing them, and without wondering what advice they would give for my life now.
Some advice is simply to give wisdom that will help to protect from dangers. And that is the nature of the passage of scripture that we are looking at in this study.
There are many idiomatic phrases that are commonly used in the English language, and a well-known example is to call someone a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This passage of scripture is the source. It is also the source of an over-used quote: ‘by their fruits you will know them.’ These words are also used in Luke’s gospel and it is interesting to compare the two passages of scripture.
These words, ‘by their fruits’, are often used as an excuse for judging other people. But in Luke, the words are taken from the part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus asks the question, ‘how can you take the speck out of your brother’s eye when you can’t see because of the big plank in your own eye?’ In other words, this phrase when taken in context has to be considered as part of a passage of instruction that tells us we are NOT to judge others! Here in today’s text in Matthew we have a more specific application. The context is about false prophets. And so, rather than judging the prophet directly, we are told to examine the fruit.
Let me be clear here – the words ‘by their fruits…’ does not scripturally give you permission to judge people. The church is too full of judges and has too few witnesses. Choose to be a witness and to spread the gospel and the love, rather than choosing to be a judge.
The context of this passage is specifically about prophets. Prophecy is referred to both as a ministry and as a gift of the Holy Spirit. The passage about the gifts of the Spirit, in First Corinthians chapter 12, uses language to suggest that gifts should be evident in a believer over time, but not necessarily all of them. Maybe different gifts on different occasions. In Ephesians Paul talks of the five ministries given to the church, and the second that he mentions is that of prophet. I would assume (but there is no actual direct scriptural authority for this) that a ministry is different from the use of a gift occasionally in a meeting. If it is a ministry, then maybe it is something more akin to the prophets of the Old Testament, but ministering in the New Covenant that is ours as Christians.
The Old Testament has strict laws and warnings about prophets and prophecy. To open your mouth or to write this way was to risk your life! One thing was clear: this ministry was to be taken with the greatest seriousness, and the words given were to be seriously considered. So God certainly does not want people to be misled by false prophecy.
But what is it that a prophet actually does?
These days, when we hear about a prophecy, we often assume that the words are a foretelling of something that will happen in the future. In the year 2012 it was hard to escape the doomsday scenarios that people were talking about with regard to the Mayan prophecy. Most of the words were false prophecies, because this was not about a prophecy at all, but about the Mayan calendar – which operates a little like a clock with circular movement.
On our clocks, the two (or three, if there is a second hand) pointers both are in the same ‘zero’ point twice each day. But the world does not end twice each day! The Mayan calendar has more circular ‘gears’, but by the nature of things there will be times when all of these are at their ‘zero point.’ It just so happens that this will be much more rarely than with our clocks, and be hundreds or thousands of years. But as with our clocks, time moved on and the world did not end. The gears continued to turn.
So, during that year, we had many examples of false prophecy. People who spoke of drastic things to happen during December 2012. And history shows that the prophecies were wrong.
But biblical prophecy is much more than this. It is only sometimes about the future. Most often it was about the present time – at the time that the words were given to the prophet. For instance, Jonah was sent to Nineveh to tell them that judgement was coming because of the way they were behaving at that very time. It was an ‘I can see you and I know what you are doing. I am angry because of this and my judgement is coming.’
The prophet Nathan had a revelation about the sin of King David, and so bravely confronted the king about this. The prophet Samuel had a revelation of who was anointed by God to lead Israel.
So biblical prophecy can include telling about the future, but is mostly revealing what God says about what is happening now. So the prophet, in some ways, is acting as the mouthpiece of God.
One does not need to lead a perfect life to be a prophet. Just study the prophets in the Old Testament and you will soon see that often they were less than perfect. But their words had to be right. If any falseness was to be found in the words of prophecy, they could be stoned to death.
And this is what is required of the ministry of prophet in the New Testament church. These reveal the words and thoughts of God that speak into the present situation and into people’s lives. It is only very very rarely about telling the future. I confess to being slightly troubled when I see prayer with laying on of hands and then lots of words about the future for that person. I do not deny that the Holy Spirit can speak in this way, but I honestly think that people often speak out from their own hopes for the other person. Nothing wrong with holy thoughts that are spoken aloud – but this is not prophecy.
We have a plague of prophets in the church these days. OK, I know that Paul wrote to prefer prophecy to tongues, but there is the need to realise the sacred and holy thing it is to make yourself the mouthpiece of God. There are also those who call themselves prophets and declare wealth to people while preaching the so-called ‘prosperity gospel.’ Brothers and sisters, this is a false gospel. That does not mean that I believe the rather to stay poor. I certainly believe that the Lord can bless some with wealth. But these false prophets say that, if you give enough (quoting Luke 6 for this) then God is ‘duty bound’ to abide by His word and give you more than you gave Him – thus increasing your wealth.
I have a very big problem with this. The overall wealth of the congregations of these prophets does not increase, but the wealth of the pastor increases greatly. The size of the church building increases greatly. So they claim that the ministry is growing and needs more money and every meeting has a large portion of the time spent telling people that they must give, and by so doing they will reap the rewards. But in the congregation, the poor remain poor…
To follow Old Testament law, these prophets should be stoned to death, because their words were proven false in the everyday lives of the ordinary people in the congregation. Being able to attend a larger and wealthier church is not having your wealth increased. Seeing your pastor in a millionaire’s mansion is not having your personal wealth increased. Indeed some even become poorer because of the pressure of the teaching causing them to give more than they should.
If the words of these preachers and prophets were truly from God, we should be seeing many more Christians moving out of poverty and into wealth, or from wealth and into riches. This just is not happening. These preachers and teachers are certainly as wolves in sheep’s clothing. They enrich themselves at the expense of the congregation and call it the blessing of God. But what difference is there between this and the corrupt tax collector? Only the building that the corrupt practise takes place in.
The fruits of these false prophets can, on the one hand, be seen as personal wealth, but on the other be seen as the deceived congregation flocking for the chance to be rich like gamblers to the lottery, and with the same chance of success.
The most disgusting part of it is to see those who are in real need treated as though they must be in sin, or must have something wrong with their faith. The responsibility for their situation is placed 100% on their own shoulders, and they are weighed down even further by being made to feel that they lack faith, or that they do not give enough.
What a contrast to the early church where no-one was in need. And why was this? The wealthy sold all that they had and gave the proceeds at the apostle’s feet to be distributed to the needy. The church really lacks this today!
There is more than enough wealth in the membership of the church worldwide to make sure that no-one is homeless, or hungry, or thirsty, or lacking good clothes and shoes. And in the church there can be the pastoral care to take people out of their situation – to help them find work or gain new skills to find work in the future, or even to be employed by the church. So that the church itself can help people overcome the poverty trap and to cease being a burden on others.
What a contrast that would be compared with what we actually have today, with those claiming to belong to Christ dismissing all the poor as lazy scroungers. You want to show the love of Christ to the world? The opportunity may be closer to home than you think.
So this is one area where the fruits do indeed reveal the truth. That any should be blamed for their poverty and made to feel that their faith must be very weak if they remain poor… this is a very big sign of the false truth that is going on!
Where we have a church that is also blessed with a prophet, and that prophet is a true prophet, I would expect to see the love of Christ flowing more freely. I would expect there to be less gossip and almost no judging of each other. I would expect to see the poor and the needy being cared for in love. In other words, I would expect the church to be moving closer and closer to the New Testament church – because the words of God are as the words of the Father to help His children grow strong.