“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 7:15–19, NASB95)
A large portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was distinguishing between those who are encouraged to follow after God with their whole hearts and doing what they do with that same sincerity of heart by faith, and those who do so for their own gain. There have been numerous illustrations to this point of those who are hypocrites or people with false motives and hopes of immediate recognition and gain. In this portion of His message Jesus tells His hearers to be on the alert, and be on the alert specifically for those who are false prophets coming in disguise as the real deal.
Twisting God’s truth for personal benefit was not a new practice. It stems back to man first sinning, and it has been practiced ever since. Genesis chapter 3 starts off with, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1, NASB95) Satan asked about a broad web of restriction, I’m sure, knowing that the woman would respond with her understanding of the actual instruction to which she said, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” (Genesis 3:2–3, NASB95)
What God actually told Adam is recorded for us in Genesis 2:16-17, where we read, “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”” (Genesis 2:16–17, NASB95) It sounded like Eve had the instruction of God correct, but going back to the actual instruction we find that she had added something that God did not say and missed something that He did say. Satan, being crafty as he is, responded to the core of the punishment which Eve had stated, telling her that she surely would not die, but that God was trying to keep her from eating so that she would not gain something more enticing—“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5, NASB95)
Assured in the deception, Eve looked at the tree and found it very appealing, so she took of the fruit and ate it herself and then gave it to Adam who was with her at the time and he ate it also. Then things immediately changed and the fruit of the deception of Eve and the knowing disobedience of Adam were becoming more evident and leading to swift judgment. When God asked her what she had done, Eve responded, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
This is the danger of wolves who teach distortions of the truth. In speaking to the elders in the Ephesian churches Paul wrote, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” (Acts 20:28–31, NASB95) The apostle Paul had spent a great deal of time teaching truth to these men of God, and he was exhorting them to hold onto with great tenacity the truths that they had learned and to be careful to protect the church from those who would even rise up among them to twist it in some way. He said what they all knew that good fruit comes from good trees and bad fruit from bad ones.
It is pretty easy to distinguish glaring error once you have a basic understanding of truth, but the subtle things can slip in so easily and before you know it there might be a situation like the frog in the pot of cold water unaware that the temperature was slowing rising and the frog was slowly being cooked. A wolf does not come in appearing as a wolf, but as one who is like the rest and welcomed, but over time his wolf-ness begins to show and one of the obvious ways is through the destruction that comes along. His deceptive work will lead to destructive results and rotten fruit.
Jesus gives several illustrations to make the point clear. In an agrarian society it was a well-known fact that you don’t go pick grapes among thorns or figs from thistles. The simple truth is that good fruit does not come from a bad source. If you are seeing bad fruit—stop, look, and consider the source. And if you find that it is coming from wrong teaching—seek to instruct and correct the source. And if that source won’t be corrected get rid of it.
Jesus did not here speak of the part of correction, but He did elsewhere in passages such as Matthew “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15–17, NASB95) We see here this process of trying to correct, but in the event that correction is not received, and especially when it is known by more than just the one, then something more drastic has to happen leading to the individual even being cut out of the fellowship. The apostle Paul had to do this from a distance with one of the men in the Corinthian church who was arrogant in his sin (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). But then in 2 Corinthians 2 we read Paul writing to these same believers of a man who had repented and was to be received back into their fellowship (2 Corinthians 2:5-11).
While the situation of Corinthians might have been over something that we see as kind of obvious, the spiritual maturity of the Corinthian believers was so stinted that they did not respond to his open and blatantly flaunted sin as well as a number of other issues. Paul said to them that he would rather he had not to deal with them as he did in this first letter, but there was an even deeper issue which they had not dealt with that opened the door for all of the other issues. We read, “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?” (1 Corinthians 3:1–3, NASB95) This group of believers not only did not spot the wolves, they were not looking to their own maturity and seeking to follow after God and His truths. We can rejoice in having the letter of 2 Corinthians where we read that progress had happened and while they still had a ways to go, his content of this letter was more instructive of a church in need of growth and not of a group of people in need of rebuke and correction.
But in this Paul was still very concerned of the lack of maturity among the Corinthian believers and their lack of discernment concerning the potential for deceptive teaching. Paul wrote in chapter 11, “I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me. For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.” (2 Corinthians 11:1–4, NASB95) Paul even pointed in verses 7-9 that during his ministry to them he did so without depending on them for financial gain. In fact, his support came from other means. Clearly he was not there to pad his pockets, but ministered to them because of His love for them and His love for God. “Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!” (2 Corinthians 11:11, NASB95) Paul demonstrated to them the difference between a wolf and a sheep by his life and conduct, and he encouraged them to be on the watch for those who come with others motives knowing that they will indeed come.
Today things are not much different. There are a number of churches which have set aside the firm belief in the Word of God. They have turned from a statement of faith on the Scriptures such as, “The Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are the inspired Word of God without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for the salvation of mankind, and the divine and final authority for all Christian faith and life.” and have adopted ones such as, XXX Church “takes the Bible seriously, but not literally.” What kind of a stand is this second one? Who is man to determine what part of God’s Word is to be adhered to and what part isn’t? The simple reality of a statement such as this is to say (1) that either God’s Word is not really His Word or (2) that He does not have the desire or ability to defend it. This kind of view of Scripture denies the integrity of Scripture and opens the door for any form of belief which man might wish to adopt. In doing this there is no difference between those Jews who took the Scriptures and redrew their own lines.
The Word of God is either His Word which He is able to protect, or it isn’t. The apostle Peter took a very strong stand on this issue, writing, “for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:21, NASB95) And the apostle Paul wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;” (2 Timothy 3:16, NASB95). This word “inspired” is the Greek word ‘theopneustos’ which means ‘God-breathed,’ and that is to be the firm conviction of all who trust in the reliability of God's Word.
In Acts 17 we read of a group of Jews who knew and understood God’s Scriptures in this way. They were marked by taking what they heard back to the Scriptures (our Old Testament), and judging things according to their accuracy. Having established this practice we find that when many of them heard the news of the Messiah, finding it to match what God had said would happen, they then believed and were saved. “The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.” (Acts 17:10–12, NASB95) In searching for the truth they knew it when it was presented, and trusting they believed and were saved.
In Psalm 119 we read, “How blessed are those whose way is blameless, Who walk in the law of the Lord. How blessed are those who observe His testimonies, Who seek Him with all their heart. They also do no unrighteousness; They walk in His ways. You have ordained Your precepts, That we should keep them diligently. Oh that my ways may be established To keep Your statutes!” (Psalm 119:1–5, NASB95) To this the psalmist added, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, That I may not sin against You.” (Psalm 119:11, NASB95) His protection against the wolves was to learn and know the voice of the Shepherd.