In the previous verses Jesus has pictured the way of the believer and that of the unbeliever. The believer’s road of life is pictured as narrow and straitened. Our Lord now warns the believer against false prophets as he proceeds upon his way of life.
The Bible gives warning against false prophets from beginning to end. During the Old Testament dispensation false prophets led the people astray again and again. They were, in no small measure, the reason for the captivity of Judah and Israel. God’s people must not think that it will be better in New Testament times. More than once Jesus warns the people against false prophets. He states that things will become worse as the end of time approaches. Paul too warns against them. Peter urges the believers to be on the alert in order that they may not be led astray by these false teachers.
When Jesus warns his disciples in this passage against false prophets, he does not mean those who foretell the future; these prophets are teachers. Again, he does not warn specifically against the Pharisees, but against all false teachers. When the New Testament mentions prophets, it usually means those who teach, those who bring the Word of God. These teachers are false prophets. They come disguised as sheep, but arc really wolves. That is usually Satan’s method of attack. He does not unmask himself until he is sure of his prey. If he does not disguise himself his intended victim will be on the defensive. He would frighten people by showing himself as he really is. This would defeat his purpose. He comes as an angel of light. His helpers are taught the same methods. No one knows him or his tactics better than Jesus. False prophets come in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
The nature of these prophets is not changed by their outward appearance. The believer must recognize them as wolves. They are seeking the destruction of the church of Christ. That is the one purpose Satan has in mind in sending out his prophets. They come in sheep’s clothing and their actions may also seem innocent, corresponding wit h their appearance. Jesus has informed his followers that the road of the believer is narrow and straitened. False prophets will preach a wider gate and a broader way. This will have its appeal. Therefore, beware of false prophetsI Toward the end of time their teaching will be so appealing that, if this were possible, they would lead even the elect astray. Surely, this is not an idle warning. Not only the outward appearance of these false prophets but even the form of their teaching will seem harmless. By sowing the seeds of falsehood they seek to accomplish their purpose.
How successful Satan has been with these tactics is clearly shown in the history of the church. The true prophets of God have warned the people throughout the ages. The trouble is that when the prophets prophesy falsely and the priests bear rule by their means, “my people love to have it so” (Jeremiah 5:31).
This warning of Jesus is for all time. The many cults, sects, and isms of our day should make us realize the importance of his warning. These are growing in number. Virtually all of them have enough truth mixed with their falsehoods to lead the unwary completely astray.
The mere sounding of a warning is not sufficient to prevent the false prophets from making their inroads. Since it is not easy to recognize them as such and we cannot read their hearts, Jesus gives us a clear and unmistakable test to enable us to know them.
“By their fruits ye shall know them.” By these fruits he does not mean primarily their deeds. They look and act like sheep. The Pharisees, for example, lived a blameless life outwardly. This may be true of many false prophets. By these “fruits” Jesus refers primarily to their teaching—their creed. The believer must judge that teaching. The doctrine of a prophet must be in harmony with the teaching given by our Lord! It must agree with the Word of God. Those whose teaching does not agree with the revelation of God are false prophets. This may not be immediately evident. They will often quote the Word of God with approval, but their falsehoods will, sooner or later, become apparent.
The illustration which Jesus uses to show that they will be known by their fruits is a clear-cut law of nature. Grapes simply are not gathered from thorns, nor are figs gathered from thistles. A tree or plant will produce fruit after its kind. Although you may not have the knowledge of plants or trees that enables you to identify them by their foliage, you will know their identity when the fruit appears. Thorns and thistles together stand for all unwanted plants. These do not bring forth good fruits. Nor can a good tree bring forth evil fruit. Each will bring forth according to its nature.
This test can be applied by everyone. Although false prophets may deceive the people for a time, let us look for their fruit. Their character will then be unmistakable. The one essential for the application of this test is knowledge of the Word of God! The false prophets, and even the true prophets (I John 4:1), are to be judged in its light. Those who are not familiar with the teaching of Scripture will not be able to recognize a false prophet. Knowledge of the Scriptures is the first essential for the purity of the church!
The wide gate and the broad way lead to destruction. The way of the false prophet also leads to destruction. These do not only desire to walk that road themselves; they are also seeking to lead others astray. In the natural world the unfruitful tree is cast into the fire. This will be the lot of every false prophet. Their punishment will be severe and final.
At the close of this section our Lord repeats the words spoken before, “Therefore, by their fruits ye shall know them.” As their prophecy or teaching is an evil fruit, so the fruit of their life will be evil. Their end is destruction. Therefore let God’s people be on their guard. Much is at stake. Try the spirits whether they be from God.
Questions For Discussion
1. What appeal do false prophets have?
2. Many today are loath to condemn any sect or ism on the ground that there is still so much good in them. How does this attitude square with the teaching of Jesus in these verses?
3. Why do many of the sects grow much faster than the true church? Is this an indication that we are approaching the end of time?
4. Is persecution as dangerous as false prophets?
5. How do the “fruits” of false prophets come to light?
6. What can be done to increase our knowledge of the truth?