A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 7:15-20. A Christian’s relationships: To false prophets. (con’t).
Having noted the assumptions Jesus made and the warnings he gave, we are now ready to look at the test or tests he told us to apply. He changed his metaphor from sheep and wolves to trees and their fruit, from the sheep’s clothing which a wolf may wear to the fruit which a tree must bear. In so doing he moved from the risk of non-recognition to the means of recognition. Although you may indeed sometimes mistake a wolf for a sheep, he seems to say, you cannot make the same mistake with a tree. No tree can hide its identity for long. Sooner or later it betrays itself – by its fruit. A wolf may disguise itself; a tree cannot. Noxious weeds like thorns and thistles simply cannot produce edible fruit like grapes and figs. Not only is the character of the fruit determined by the tree (a fig tree bearing figs and a vine grapes), but its condition too (*every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit,* 17). Indeed, *a sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit* (18). And the day of judgement will finalise the difference, as when non-fruitbearing trees are cut down and burnt (19). Therefore (for this is the conclusion which Jesus emphasizes twice) *you will know them by their fruits* (16,20). What are these fruits?
The first kind of ‘fruit’ by which false prophets reveal their true identity is in the realm of character and conduct. In Jesus’ own allegory of the vine fruitfulness evidently means Christlikeness, in fact what Paul later termed ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. This being so, whenever we see in a teacher the meekness and gentleness of Christ, his love, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control, we have reason to believe him to be true, not false. On the other hand, whenever these qualities are missing, and ‘the works of the flesh’ are more apparent than ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ – especially enmity, impurity, jealousy and self-indulgence – we are justified in suspecting that the prophet is an impostor, however pretentious his claims and specious his teaching.
But a prophet’s ‘fruits’ are not only his character and manner of life. Indeed, interpreters ‘who confine them to the life are, in my opinion, mistaken’ wrote Calvin. A second ‘fruit’ is the man’s actual teaching. This is strongly suggested by the other use Jesus made of the same fruit-tree metaphor: ‘The tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! how can you speak good when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgement men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Mt.12:33-37; cf. Lk.6:45). So then, if a person’s heart is revealed in his words, as a tree is known by its fruit, we have a responsibility to test a teacher by his teaching. The apostle John gives us an example of this, for the Asian churches to which he wrote had been invaded by false teachers. Like Jesus he warned them not to be deceived, but rather to ‘test the spirits (i.e. teachers claiming inspiration) to see whether they are of God’ (1 Jn.2:26; 4:1). He encouraged them to look for righteousness and love in their teachers and to reject as spurious both the unrighteous and the unloving. But to these moral tests he added a doctrinal one. In general this was whether the teachers’ message was in accord with the original apostolic instruction, (e.g. 1 Jn.2:24; 4:6) and in particular whether it confessed Jesus as the Christ come in the flesh, thus acknowledging his divine-human person. (1 Jn.2:22,23; 4:2,3; 2 Jn.7-9).
Tomorrow: Matthew 7:13-20. The peril of false teachers c). Tests (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.