Fruit, Sheep, and False Prophets: A Primer on Learning to Discern

Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit. (Matthew 7:15-20)

For Jesus’ early followers, this warning had an especially urgent character. Jesus was born at the close of a long window of time in which there had been a “famine of the word of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). After the era of the judges, kings, and prophets, Israel ceased to receive revelation from God for roughly four hundred years. During this period there was no new Scripture and no prophecy.

So it comes like a thunderbolt out of the blue when Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, encounters an angel in the temple who prophesies the birth of a son. It breaks four hundred years of silence when “the word of God came to John in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2) and he begins to declare the kingdom of God. And it turns the world upside down when Jesus is born and declared to be not merely another prophet, but the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God.

Thunderbolts invite irony. Jesus and John were both accused of being false prophets. And right on their heels came an outpouring of prophecy, a tidal wave of words from the Lord.

Some of it true.

Some of it false.

The need to tell the difference was suddenly urgent.

High-Stakes Heralds

Stakes were high in the first century. Under the oppression of Rome, Israel was aware that they were living in the era of Daniel’s “fourth beast”—-which meant the coming of the Messiah, the Son of Man who would receive the kingdom of God and give it to the saints forever, was imminent (Daniel 7). Messiah claimants were beginning to crop up from multiple quarters. Various religious groups and sects were claiming “God’s special people” status for themselves, from the isolationist Essenes at Qumran to the legalistic Pharisees of the Sanhedrin.

It was fairly clear to pretty much everyone that just being Jewish wasn’t enough. You had to figure out who the REAL people of God were, the insiders with the correct claims and the true line to God’s favour and support. On top of that, the Old Testament pattern gave a clear warning: wherever and whenever God summons his people, false prophets will try to draw them away.

What Is a False Prophet?

In the simplest terms, a false prophet is one who claims to speak for God but does not. It’s important to note that “prophecy” is not merely (or even primarily) future oriented. It is any claim to speak on God’s behalf, to extemporaneously express what God is saying.

In the Old Testament prophecy was limited to a few special individuals, but in the church, it’s a different story. Prophecy is the most prominent spiritual gift in the church, open to everyone, and we are told to “eagerly desire” and pursue it (1 Cor 14:1, Acts 2:17-18). This is one of the clearest marks of God’s New Covenant people.

But this makes things a little trickier than they may initially seem. First Thessalonians 5:20-22 tells us to test and discern all things and reject what is evil in the context of prophetic words given to the church, by the church. At times a true prophet may be in error (this was true even in the Old Testament—see 2 Kings 13 or Numbers 20 for examples). True prophets are still sinners and fallible human beings.

The confrontation between Paul and Peter is a good example of this. Peter had a significant prophetic role in the church, but when he failed to live up to the gospel, Paul called him out as a hypocrite—but not as a false prophet (see Galatians 2:11-14). Apollos in Acts 18 preached an incomplete gospel in Ephesus, but rather than being treated as a false prophet, he was taken under wing and mentored by Paul and his companions Priscilla and Aquila.

Jesus’ talk of “fruit” hints at something like this. Fruit isn’t bad because it’s immature, and a tree isn’t bad because the occasional apple has a worm in it. We need to look at a bigger picture.

Thistles and Thorns

Just as a true prophet may sometimes speak in error or do something sinful, so a false prophet may actually speak true things or even give true predictions. In fact, the ability of false prophets to “do signs and wonders” (among them predicting events accurately) is one of the reasons they are so dangerous.

Again, this phenomenon was addressed in the Old Testament, along with the reason God allows it:

If a prophet or someone who has dreams arises among you and proclaims a sign or wonder to you, and that sign or wonder he has promised you comes about, but he says, ‘Let us follow other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us worship them,’ do not listen to that prophet’s words or to that dreamer. For the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul. You must follow the Lord your God and fear Him. You must keep His commands and listen to His voice; you must worship Him and remain faithful to Him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he has urged rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the place of slavery, to turn you from the way the Lord your God has commanded you to walk. You must purge the evil from you. (Deuteronomy 13:1-5)

The real test of a true or false prophet is not whether the prophet is sometimes right in what he says. It is whether he (or she) leads the people into loyalty to God or not. In the New Covenant era this will specifically mean loyalty to God in Christ. In an interesting twist, Paul treated the “Judaizers,” who taught loyalty to God by means of the Old Covenant, as false prophets and ravaging wolves in the church (Acts 20:29, Galatians 5:7-12).

A false prophet leads the people away from loyalty to God and toward loyalty to idols or false gods. False prophets are not (usually, anyway) just misguided true believers with idiosyncratic understandings of a few doctrines. A false prophet claims to belong to the flock but does not. The false prophet is not just deluded; he is a deceiver and a wolf, and he has come to bring destruction and scatter God’s sheep. Elsewhere Jesus connects “wolves” to the work of the devil (John 10:12).

Interestingly, in Matthew the false prophet doesn’t just bring forth sour or bitter fruit, he brings forth thorns and thistles. I think Jesus is deliberately referring to the original curse on creation, where Adam, who had listened to the deceiving voice of the serpent, is told that from now on his labor will bring forth thorns and thistles in the world outside the garden and away from the presence of God (Genesis 3:18). We who are part of the new creation are back in relationship with God, and our labor should bring forth good—not harmful or poisonous—fruit.

Pray that You May Discern

In a world where true and false matter so deeply, it’s essential that we learn to discern. But how?

First, we need to become mature in the Word of God and in the spiritual life (1 Cor 2, 3:1-4; 2 Cor 5:16). Maturity plays into this discussion in two ways.

First, prophets can’t always be judged immediately. Fruit may need to come to maturity before it can be judged as good or bad. At times it’s necessary to watch and wait.

Second, we ourselves need maturity in order to discern properly! We are not necessarily good judges of “good” and “bad.” The immature are particularly susceptible to being led astray by false prophets because they cannot necessarily discern between good and bad fruit.The writer of Hebrews puts this problem in strong terms:

Although by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the basic principles of God’s revelation again. You need milk, not solid food. Now everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced with the message about righteousness, because he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature—for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)

A deep and intimate knowledge of Scripture is a major help in discernment. So is the input of mature believers. Discernment is also a spiritual gift, given by the Holy Spirit. We should ask for it and be intentional about sharpening it. The more we live and walk “by the Spirit” and not “by the flesh” (Romans 8:4-9) the sharper our discernment will become, as we will be able to distinguish between the works of the flesh and the works of the Spirit more clearly.

It’s also important to notice that we will LOSE discernment if we allow idols in our lives. Throughout the Old Testament, those who worship idols are said to have eyes but be unable to see; to have ears but be unable to hear; to have mouths but be unable to speak (thanks to Professor G.K. Beale for pointing this out). If our discernment is dull, we may need to surrender our idols and ask God to purify us from their effect and revitalize our senses.

In the end, the litmus test is this: Does this person lead others to loyal devotion to God in Christ? Or do they lead them into apostasy and idolatry? Are they growing food, or are they growing thistles?

By this, ultimately, we will know them.


(This is Part 92 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)

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