The Code of Truth: Wolves In Sheep’s Clothing

The “way” to eternal life is, according to Jesus, narrow. And certainly it must be, for it has one aim: to become “perfect, as you heavenly father is perfect” (5.48). There can be no deviation from this path, for any straying would lead us away from His nature, and thus away from Him. Thus, truth is of the utmost importance. Knowing truth, following truth and teaching truth (5.19; 7.24) will take us where we long to be. However, if only truth can lead us to eternal life, then we must always be on our guard against that which is false. Thus, immediately following His urging us to choose the right path (7.13-14), our Lord counsels us to “beware of false prophets” (7.15-20).

Jesus’ words in this passage fly in the face of the accepted principle of “pluralism” in modern society. Most reject the notion of concrete truth, preferring the lie that “each man’s truth” is what should guide Him. Christians, those who long to be with the Father in life eternal, must reject the lie that “all can be equally right”, in favor of the truth that He IS right (John 14.6).

15 “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 17 “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 “So then, you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7.15-20)

Why False Prophets Are So Dangerous:

Both old and new testaments are filled with warnings regarding false teachers (see Deut. 13.1-3; Acts 20.29-31; 2Peter 2.1-3,17-22; 2Cor. 2.13-15; etc.) These frequent warnings occur because God has always urged His people to walk in His steps, to be holy like Him (Lev. 11.44-45; 1Peter 1.15-16), but these false prophets and teachers would lead the people away from Him. They are wolves because their message is not the complete will of God, thus it does not lead to God, but to destruction. “The greatest threat to those who are earnestly seeking to enter the strait gate is that gaggle of deceivers who always seem to be hovering around where issues of life and death are being deliberated. These false disciples are masters at making unclear what is eminently obvious—the difference between God’s will and man’s, the distinction between the broad and narrow way.” (Paul Earnhart)

The danger of false prophets is that they have the appearance of righteousness, but it’s only a facade; they are wolves in sheep’s clothing. The apostle Paul would later warn disciples about false teachers who “disguise themselves as apostles of Christ” (2Cor. 11.13), successfully use current philosophy and arguments (Colossians 2.8),  and are experts in flattery (Romans 16.17-18). “Disciples of Jesus Christ are not very susceptible to open invitations to sin. They are not likely to be taken in by the teacher/preacher who advocates raw hedonism, anarchy, or various forms of unbelief. The problem will lie with the preacher who seems pious, who prays, who at first glance seems to have all the marks of the Christian.” (D.A. Carson)

What Makes A False Prophet?

We must “beware of false prophets”, but what makes someone a false prophet? Is Jesus warning against everyone who might be wrong or mistaken about a point of doctrine? Sadly, throughout the centuries some Christians have taken Jesus’ words to mean just that, fancying themselves to be heresy hunters and seeing all others as dangerous heretics. “The fear of pseudo-disciples has moved some Christians to paranoia. They sense false teachers behind every bush and are constantly in a questioning and investigative mood. But there is nothing in Jesus’ words to make His disciples constitutionally suspicious, even cynical, toward all their brethren.” (Earnhart) Rather than view other disciples as dangerous wolves, our Lord would have us emulate the example of Priscilla and Aquila in helping those who are honestly mistaken: “they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18.26).

Jesus was not warning against the honest disciple who may be mistaken about a point of doctrine. His concern is that disciples listen and follow those teachers who knowing the truth of God, do not follow or teach it. “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)

How to identify a false prophet:

Jesus has warned about false teachers, but how can disciples know who is false? First, disciples must know truth. The “narrow” way can only be taken when we follow the will of God (5.19), when we both know and do the teachings of Jesus (7.24). Those who know truth can easily distinguish what is false. “The best defense against these deceivers is to love the Lord supremely and cherish His word. Those who are earnestly seeking the narrow way and strait gate will not be drawn away by these self-serving hypocrites.” (Earnhart)

Second, we must not only look for blatant lies, but for the absence of complete truth. Most false doctrines begin with a true premise and emphasize many truths found in Scripture. What makes them false is the absence of other truths, truths necessary for us to be perfect like God. “There is nothing in their preaching which fosters poverty of spirit, nothing which searches the conscience and makes men cry to God for mercy, nothing which excoriates all forms of religious hypocrisy, nothing which prompts such righteousness of conduct and attitude that some persecution is inevitable. It is even possible in some instances that everything these false prophets say is true; but because they leave out the difficult bits, they do not tell the whole truth, and their total message is false.” (Carson)

Jesus gives the final test for a false prophet in vss. 16-20: look at their fruit. Right doctrine will produce good fruit; following the teachings of Jesus will mold us into the Father’s image (5.48). But false prophets do not proclaim the complete will of God, thus if they follow their own teaching they will not produce the correct fruit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22–23)  Beware if those fruits are absent from the life of the teacher!

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