Follower or Fraud?

How can you tell if a prophet is true or false? Jesus has a very simple solution: “By their fruits you can recognize them” (Matthew 7:15-20). False prophets deceive in appearance but inwardly are ferocious wolves. Fruit, Jesus says, is what enables us to discern them. And fruit has to do with behaviors.
Thornbushes don’t produce grapes; thistles don’t produce figs. Bad people don’t produce good works — so Jesus is saying. Good trees produce good fruit; bad trees produce bad fruit. So says Jesus. There is a correlation between heart and behavior.
Jesus is speaking here about folks who claim to be his followers, who are known for prophetic gifts and behaviors, but are frauds. And the way to know the fraud from the follower is by fruit. Plain and simple (and not that this solves everything), how one behaves tells alot.
Jesus’ point is that we are to recognize when leaders are not genuine and when they are “ferocious wolves” — that is, leaders who are intent on devouring others, using others, consuming others for their own advantage, for their own benefit — the picture seems clear to me. And Jesus is dealing here with clear stereotypes. Just wait, he says, the ravenous will soon be eating and devouring other folk.
It may take time; and we may find ourselves committed to them and listening to them and learning them but, eventually so it seems, character will win out and we will see them for who they are by the way they behave. As Dale Allison says, “False face cannot hide false heart forever.”
The text encourages two things: first, it exhorts to inspect ourselves and, second, it exhorts to watch and discern the ravenous from the shepherd who feeds his or her flock with God’s embracing grace.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.dorseymarshall.com dorsey

    If false prophets were dealt with today in the old testament manner, there would be far few folks running around saying,”Thus saith the Lord…”
    (I don’t advocate stoning anyone, and my comment was made with tongue-in-cheek, but still…heehee)

  • http://whatsbruin.net JoeBruin88

    Interesting. I always thought of the Matthew 7 passage to be referring to people who thought they were true believers, not specifically prophets or leaders. Is it incorrect to consider this passage in that light?

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    Joe,
    Since the opening line is about “false prophets” (7:15) and since 7:15b (on fruits) is repeated in 7:20, I would think it is most accurate to see it as dealing with false prophets. And 7:22 still lingers at that topic, while broadening it into those with charismatic gifts who are frauds.
    In a collection of teachings, such as this Sermon is, it is always important to be cautious about “narrative flow.” But, it could be suggested that false prophets become a concern because of the narrow/broad gate: there are those who offering broad and roomy paths.

  • Kandirose

    Hi. I was reading your thoughts and i have been taught that we are not to judge the person but the prophecy being given and the spirit behind them because poeple make mistakes and think they are in the right but are not. they are also Godly men and woman of God. I thought that you may want to look at this website of a dear friend of mine and an awsome teacher in God. I also Agree with you that by the fruit you will know them. Well here is the web site:
    http://www.jasongraham.net/study.htm
    Go in here and go to Christian Studies and click judging false prophecie. It is an awsome teaching and all of his teachings are.

  • http://whatsbruin.net JoeBruin88

    Scot,
    If we are to discern between false and true prophets by their fruit, is it also applicable to make the same discernment for those who are not prophets (i.e. discern whether or not they are true believers by their fruit)? the primary context of this passage would pertain to prophets, I agree. Is this correct thinking?
    **********
    Kandirose, I think we are definitely called to discern as Christians. Big difference.

  • Jpb

    I have always had difficulty with this passage. I have spent considerable time ministering to Mormons, and I must say, their fruits do not show them to be false prophets. If anything, their “fruit” appears more Christian than do actual Christian fruit (if that makes sense). Perhaps they hide this much better, but I admit that I doubt this principle in deciphering who is a legitimate prophet and who is not. Scot, I briefly saw you write about Mormonism, and assuming you have interacted even briefly with them, how would you apply this passage to the genuine, moral Mormon like Gordon B. Hinckley, the supposed modern-day prophet of the LDS religion? Do we mean they produce bad fruit such as lying, adultery – very explicit and negative fruit. Or could they produce fruit that appears real, yet is simply a shell with nothing inside? Hope that makes sense. Thanks.

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    Joe,
    In short, yes.

  • http://www.JesusCreed.org Scot McKnight

    Jpb,
    The “fruit test” is not the only test for a prophet, for there are tests on how long they stay (are they itinerants or are they milking the church) and a theology test (do they believe the gospel and orthodox faith).

  • http://www.robbymac.org robbymac

    Interesting to note that the emphasis is on what character (and goals) were present in the person called, or wanting to be called, “leader”.
    The bad fruit, I would like to suggest, is seen in the manner in which they go about their leadership; do they resemble Jesus as He washed the disciples’ feet (John 13), or do they more resemble the “rulers of the Gentiles” that Jesus told His apprentices to NOT imitate (Matthew 20)?
    Without wanting to create another firestorm, it’s also interesting that their doctrine (while important) wasn’t the issue: it was their manner of exercising leadership. “Ferocious wolves” are not that hard to spot: they may have tidy doctrine, but they tear people apart.

  • http://seekerotruth.blogspot.com/ James

    Hey all,
    One thing I have noticed is that we havent spent alot of time defining just what that “fruit” Jesus was refering to was.
    Consider this verse before you reply,
    Matthew 7:24-27 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.
    I submit that it is this point more than any that will define fruit, Paraphrase “Are you in agreement with Christ” and are you living it out in your lives.
    Jesus was in perfect agreement with the Father at all times, and we are being conformed to His image.
    Now we do often fail to fulfill this yet, does this mean our fruit is “bad”? No it means it has not reached maturity.
    I believe if a “leader” is found at anytime to contradict the revealed teachings of Christ then how trustworthy is his doctrine?
    2 Timothy 3:16 can be our litmus test when “judging” a teaching or prophecy.
    All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
    We can ask the following questions
    Is what is being taught in agreement with the Doctrine of Christ?
    Can we go to the scriptures as a whole to re-prove the doctrine or prophecy?
    If these test both pass then we can ask….
    Does it bring correction of inaccurate doctrinal positions?
    Does it help us to grow in righteousness (what is right)?
    These are the fruits that lead to maturity or perfection, we are to go from grace to grace and glory to glory always progressing toward the fulness of Christ.
    We are being brought to a place we have never been, and along the way we slip, mess up, have issues, sin, repent, sin again…need I go on. But in all of this we grow…every slip every issue every thing we go through “we have to go through”
    God is right there, he hasnt gone away and he is leading us to something we havent seen dreamed or even imagined.
    It is an awesome journey, and will truly test our faith …but we are called to overcome so let do that!!!
    Love in Christ
    Jimbo

  • Bryan Hodge

    Robbymac,
    I think doctrine is assumed in Matthew, since Christ is talking to the covenant community. There aren’t any statements about false prophets being judged by worshiping the devil and believing in UFO’s either, but we need to remember the context of Matthew’s purpose—his Gospel is to those who are already in the visible Kingdom and would already believe Biblical teachings, so everyone looks like wheat outwardly. The Gospel of Matthew deals with how one knows, within that community, whether they are a member of the invisible Kingdom (whether they are wheat or tares). So doctrine is assumed, but being a Christian takes more than doctrine (but not less).

  • http://getrad2.blogspot.com Ron McK

    Testing individual prophecies can often be difficult. What every Church needs is a prophet who has a proven track record, a person who is known for speaking the word of the Lord. It is easier to test prophets than individual prophecies. A prophet can be watched over time to see if his life is bearing fruit for the Lord (Matthew 7:15-20). Every church needs a proven prophet who can be trusted to bring a reliable word when one is required.( Testing Prophets).

  • http://www.robbymac.org robbymac

    Bryan,
    So, are we saying then, that Jesus wasn’t speaking a universal truth at this point, but only to the future audience of Matthew’s gospel? That presupposes a duplicity in Jesus’ teaching style that I think is erroneous.
    The Greek word that Jesus uses here is karpovß, which means “that which originates or comes from something, an effect, result” — so Jesus is clearly talking about the effect that these false apostles have on people, they are “ferocious wolves” who tear people apart. Doctrine may or may not be implied, but the fruit is seen in how they interact with the rest of the community.

  • Bryan Hodge

    Robbymac, I didn’t say that the fruit is talking about doctrine. I said that Matthew is to the covenant community and therefore doctrine is assumed and not the issue with which Matt is dealing. It is not dealing with unbelievers, but those who would already have made a commitment to certain doctrines of God, etc. To try to make an argument from Matt that Christ doesn’t really care about doctrine because He focusses on actions is erroneous. Doctrine is assumed by the audience. I’m not sure what you mean by future audience? The Jews had a set of doctrines just like Christians do. I place them all into the one covenant community. It’s clear from the NT that doctrine is an “IN or OUT” issue when it comes to those who deny what seems to be essential points of it, but that is not the issue here in Matt. Everyone here has a claim to be of the covenant community, they would believe the things of the covenant community already. I’m not sure how anyone reading the entire Gospel could not see that from Chapt 1 all the way to the end of the book. It’s everywhere. Wheat and tares, sheep and goats, trees that look the same, but don’t produce the same, the entire Sermon on the Mount, etc.
    That’s a little much to put into the one word karpos. It just means fruit. The context determines the extensions or limitations of it, so it would be dependent on the context to illustrate whether this is simply talking about how people are treated by these false prophets. It is clear that they are cast out because of their “lawlessness/disobedience (disregard for God’s instructions to them)” that is connected to not hearing and doing what Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount. I think the tearing apart in Matt is spiritual because of its application to Rabbinical teachings and ideas of covenant membership in the 1st Cent.

  • http://www.robbymac.org robbymac

    Bryan, I see where you’re coming from. Not sure I completely agree, as I would suggest that in the whole of the NT, there is sufficient warning of people arising from WITHIN the Body to draw people away after themselves. When I read this passage in Matthew, I think of those kind of wolves whose motivation is for people to follow them. “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30 NIV) So, yes, doctrine is a part of it, but the “fruit” is not necessarily the teaching itself as much as the fractious relational damage that it causes.
    As far as Matthew’s future audience, it sounded like you’re suggesting that — by recognizing Matthew’s purpose for compiling the his gospel in the way he did — Jesus’ words should be understood in light of Matthew’s future audience (there was a significant number of years between the Sermon on the Mount and the writing of Matthew’s gospel), and not in light of how His hearers would have understood those words right there at the Sermon on the Mount.


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