We have always had false prophets in the world. So when Jesus tells His followers to be wary of them, He isn’t saying anything new. The Old Testament is full of examples. But what is the difference between a false prophet and one who speaks truly for God? Let us examine this morning’s text and see how Jesus says we can tell the difference.
Exposition of the Text
This section of the Sermon of the Mount comes near the end of the sermon. So Jesus is summing up here what he has taught previously. Just like there are two ways, the one which leads to life which does not look promising at first and the way which looks promising but leads to damnation. So here Jesus warns us to beware of the false prophets.
The first characteristic of a false prophet is that they come in the disguise of a true prophet. So from surface appearances, they look genuine. They look like the genuine sheep of God. They clothe themselves in lambskins and enter among the flock. This means the place one should expect to find a false prophet is in church. Jude warns of these false teachers who sneak in unawares. This brings us to a second characteristic. A false prophet is not satisfied to remain quiet among the sheep, but tries to rise to a position of trust and authority in the church from which it becomes easier to pray on the flock.
Another characteristic of a false prophet is that they have an insatiable desire to devour the flock of God. But even here, they are careful not to openly prey upon the believers, but consume them a little at a time. Wolves are known when pursuing their prey to chase the flock to find the weakest animal to separate them from the herd. Then they start by nipping at the legs of their prey to weaken it further. Soon exhaustion and loss of blood drops the prey which the wolves start to devour while the animal is still alive. This is a truly ugly picture that Jesus chooses for the false prophet.
Jesus tells us to examine the prophets in the church. But what is a prophet? Some think that a prophet is a fortune teller or someone who can tell the future. This can be misleading, because even though the prophets of the Scripture did prophesy of future events, they also addressed the current audience to which they were sent. A better definition of a prophet is one who claims to speak a message in God’s name. In other words, we could rightly call preachers and teachers in the churches prophets in a sense, even though in a different sense than Amos or Isaiah. The preacher might not have a vision or have God speak directly to him, but nevertheless, they are in a position in the church to preach the Word of God to people. The same is true of teachers.
The Pharisees and Scribes in Jesus’ day served a function among the Jews which was similar to that of our preachers and teachers today. They were recognized authorities of the Scripture, at least in the eyes of the people. The opinions they rendered were held to be authoritative. So in a sense, they were prophets claiming to be bringing the Word of God to their listeners. The question is whether they were true or false prophets.
We can already surmise from what we have already covered in the Sermon on the Mount that they did not speak truly for God. In their own authority of their human wisdom, they had taken it upon themselves to reinterpret the Scripture to suit what they think the Scripture of old would say if they had spoken in their day. What resulted was a gross distortion of the Scripture itself. Whenever this is done, the written document no longer has any authority of itself. Rather it is given authority by the teachers themselves who then prooftext the Scripture to suit their doctrine. We can see the horrific damage which has been done to the US Constitution following the same line of reasoning. If five people decide that the first amendment means that the moon is made of green cheese, then that is what is says. By this, the Constitution has been taken away from the people and put into the hands of “experts” and “lawyers”. The Constitution was written as a document for the people and supposed to be understood by the people in plain language. If it needed to be updated, it was to be by amendment, not by reinterpretation.
Of course when dealing with the Word of God, it is unchangeable and not subject to human amendment or reinterpretation. Even Jesus Himself was bound to every jot and tittle of the Scripture. As God the Son, He could speak on equal authority to the Scripture because as the Son in the Divine Trinity, He is the ultimate author of both. But Jesus could only speak what was already perfectly compatible with the intent of the Old Testament Scripture.
Because Jesus has already set up the deficiency of the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees in His sermon, it seems that the Scribes and Pharisees provide an excellent example of the false prophet. So when we start to examine the fruit of the false prophet which Jesus is talking about here, we can get a pretty clear picture of one.
What has to be realized about fruit is that it takes time for the fruit to appear. First the plant or the tree has to sprout and come to maturity. Until then, they only have leaves and branches. This is true of both trees which produce good fruit and those which produce poisonous fruit. Like wheat and tares, they may even look alike until it is time for the fruit to appear. This is probably why the Bible is careful to say not to make a novice a teacher or preacher in the church.
Sometimes, the tree which produces evil fruit looks even more luxuriant than the one which produces good fruit. In the wilderness areas around Israel which is desert grows a tree called the Sodom Apple. The Sodom Apple would look like a dream come true to one who was caught out in the desert thirsty and hungry. It’s luxuriant green leaves would attract the unwitting wayfarer. Upon coming closer, one would see what appears to be large fruit hanging on the tree. Summoning one’s strength, that person would come up to the tree and pick one of the fruits, expecting to find relief from thirst and hunger. But a bitter surprise awaits. The fruit of the Sodom Apple is hollow inside. And the skin is filled with bitter poison. What a horrific deception! This is the bitter fruit of the false prophet.
Jesus also says that little bit of common sense needs to be used as well. One does not pick grapes from thistles. The works of a false prophet should be obvious to anyone who will take the time to critically examine things. The first step in critical examination is to know the facts for one’s self. If one does not know where grapes come from, they could be deceived into going to a thistle bush to gather them if someone they believed was in the know told them.
This is why it is so important for God’s sheep to read and prayerfully examine the word of God for themselves, and not just to take what the preacher and teacher says about Scripture for granted. It would unfortunately be an understatement to say that there are a few false prophets in our churches today. In fact, the church is infested with their poisonous teaching. Some of them like the Jim Jones’ of the world or David Koreshs’ are more obvious examples, especially after the fact. But there are subtler forms of false prophecy in the church today.
The forms of false doctrine in the church comes from all angles. In some circles of the church, it shows up as liberation theology which makes Jesus the advocate of violent overthrow of the privileged and the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat. In other forms, Christianity can be hijacked by people like Hitler to establish a master race and to substitute patriotism to a state for obedience to God. But one thing is always common about false prophets. They prey on the ignorance of God’s word among the flock. Then they claim to have the true interpretation of the Scripture. They claim like the Pharisees to have high regard for the Bible and will even misquote it when convenient. By this, they use the Scripture to buttress their own authority. How many of you have received visits from the Jehovah’s Witnesses? They even have their own “translation” of the Scripture which they train their people to prooftext when they come to your door. If you cannot reasonably answer them, then you are a potential prey for their teaching.
We must also be careful of ecclesial authority as well. Just because the preacher has been “ordained” or approved for ministry by some religious authority is no guarantee that he is a true prophet. Seminary degrees are no guarantee either. The common people in Israel had been hoodwinked by many of their own Rabbi’s. The situation in the church today is just as confusing.
Let me say at this point that there are true prophets in the church as well, or else we should all despair. Their good fruit will appear in time as well. Jesus is the perfect example of the good prophet. Jesus did not speak His own words, but truly the words of the Father which had sent Him. The works that He did were the ones which God sent Him to do, when one realizes as God the Son, He had the absolute right to speak and teach on His own authority as equal part of the Trinity. Yet He submitted Himself to the authority of the Father. It is important to say that we do not possess equal authority to the Father as Jesus. What I am saying is that even Jesus, who did have this authority, submitted Himself.
The true prophet who rightly preaches and teaches the Word of God places himself under the authority of Scripture which is God’s Word and not above it as its interpreter. It is handling Scripture itself as “Thus saith the Lord” and not to question God’s word like Satan did when He told Eve “Did god really say?” We in the Reformed tradition believe that Scripture is generally clear enough to be understood by common means and people. The Scripture is not the property of the educated and church authorities. What one needs to understand the Scriptures sufficiently is the Scripture itself and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, not even the most educated person on earth can understand it correctly. With the Hold Spirit, even the plowboy with the Scripture can rightly understand it.
I need to warn us at this point that there are many who claim that their interpretation of Scripture is from the Holy Spirit. Just because the claim is made, does not make it true. But what I am saying is that the Holy Spirit must illuminate the Scripture for it to be truly understood. Neither am I saying that one should not consult commentaries or the opinions of others concerning Scripture. Truly there is much good to be learned from the faithful. But we need to pray for discernment here, because not all commentaries are equal. If what one teaches or preaches does not fully uphold the authority, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture as the inspired Word of God, then beware.
May God give us the light of the Holy Spirit to distinguish the true from the false prophets. Amen.