WATCH OUT: Jesus uses words here that are meant to tell people that this is not just a casual warning but a very serious one that if not heeded can lead to destruction of their lives spiritually. We have the responsibility to always check what is being taught to see if it lines up with scripture no matter who is preaching or book we are reading.
Romans 16:17-18 Watch out and avoid
Acts 20:29-31 Be Alert
Ephesians 5:6-7 Do not be deceived or Partner with them
Colossians 2:8 See to it your are not deceived
See also: Matthew 24:11, 2 Peter 2:1-3, 17-22, 2 Corinthians 2:13-15, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 2 Timothy 3:13, Jude 3-4
We all have an active role to take when it comes to discerning the teachings with those we listen to or read that are teaching as ones having spiritual authority.
When Jesus said they come in Sheep’s clothing, He was not saying they come dressed in a sheep’s costume and try and blend into the sheep. What Jesus was referring to was that shepherds of the day who would dress in wool from the sheep. So what makes these people so dangerous is that they come looking like a Shepherd who is to care, protect and feed the sheep but they only care about having their own needs met. They appear like a shepherd but eventually they will devour and destroy the flock not caring for them but only their own appetites. For Jesus to call them wolves was a serious accusation and also one that people of that time would have been aware of because it was the number one predator of sheep.
Jesus warning is clear, just because someone calls themselves a Pastor (Shepherd) does not mean they really are one. Throughout the Old Testament God warned people that some were speaking for Him that He did not send. (Jeremiah 5:30-31, 14:14, 23:14,16,21) The reason this is so crucial is that Jesus warns of their upcoming destruction and if people are following them they could possibly be destroyed as well.
What do we look for?
Grapes from Thorn Bushes: the buck thorn had little black berries that would be mistaken for grapes.
Figs from Thistles: Thistles had little white flowers that would be mistaken for figs.
In either case Jesus is saying that from a distance you might be fooled but when you inspect it you will see it for what it really is. Just like when these two plants were inspected closely, Jesus tells us we will recognize them by their fruit.
If we were to examine two orange trees that were not bearing any fruit we would not be able to tell them apart because they would have similar characteristics. The proof of whether or not an orange tree is good or not is proven when it is time to bear fruit. This is what Jesus had in mind about false prophets when He said you will know them by their fruit. Eventually, they will be shown for who they are when the time comes.
There are a few things we can look at to determine a false prophet or as Jesus would say, their fruit.
1) Their Teaching:
This passage of scripture has to be taken in context with the rest of the chapter of Matthew. Jesus was talking about the narrow way (restricted way) the passages before are all about how Jesus is the only way to heaven and that you have nothing to offer Him to recieve your salvation. j The Narrow way means you have to come with nothing in your hand to offer God and alone, because it is an individual decision.
In order to tell if someone is a false prophet you have to see if they are teaching the whole truth of scripture and not just the parts people like. For the Rich Young Ruler (See Matthew 10) Jesus showed Him the one area of his life and he walked away sad. For the woman at the well (See John 4) Jesus told her about all the areas of her life and she was excited. One thought they could earn their way to heaven the other knew they were not good enough. One was counting on his own righteousness and the other just thought they had no hope.
False prophets will not tell the Rich Young Ruler what he needs to do to inherit eternal life and will make sure that he is never upset because false prophets want a rich outstanding person in their congregation. The False Prophet will also accept the woman at the well but not so much for what she can do for his church, but he will accept her so that he can continue to keep the fake front that he or she is demonstrating. The false prophet will say he cares for both of these people but they will only use them for what he could gain from them. From one it will provide the financial gain he is truly seeking and the other is used to make people think he is truly a caring individual with others best interest in mind.
“False prophets talk much about the love of God but nothing of His holiness, much about people who are deprived but nothing about those who are depraved, much about God’s universal fatherhood of every human being but nothing about His unique fatherhood only of those who are His children through faith in His son, Jesus Christ, much about what God will give to us but nothing about obedience to Him, much about health and happiness but nothing about holiness and sacrifice. Their message is a message of gaps, the greatest gap of which leaves out the truth that saves.” John MacArthur
2) Their relationships
Just like counterfeit money is impossible to spot from an untrained person we must know the truth so well that we can spot the impostor. You also must wait for the fruit because you cannot judge these things too early. A False Prophet will not allow people to get to close and they will rotate people they spend time with to avoid being found out for who they really are. Just like the thorn bushes are found out once you get close enough to inspect them so false prophets are revealed if they allow people too close to their lives.
This is one of the reasons the religious leaders hated Jesus and even called Him a drunkard and glutton. (See Matthew 11:19) They could not stay with people all day every day without showing themselves for who they really were. Jesus was not concerned with spending so much time with the same people because He had nothing to hide in his life that might ruin the image He is trying to portray.
3) Their Lifestyle
The last thing we have to look for can only be examined over a period of time as well. This one is the hardest because as mentioned earlier a false prophet will do all they can to keep a person from seeing the real them.
If we go back to our Orange tree illustration even a bad orange tree will bear fruit that can only be determined it was bad after it was tasted. So you can see that a False Prophet can really look like the real thing for a long time and that is why Jesus said “You will recognize them”, which means a day will come when they will be found out. This gives a whole new meaning to “Taste and See the Lord is good” found in Psalm 34 because Jesus was willing for His life to be put out there for all to experience and see that what He taught, how He treated other and how He lived all matched one another.
Jesus treated people with love and respect and He came to serve and to lay down His life for them which is why He called Himself the True Shepherd. A Shepherd sent by God will do the same even at the cost of his own personal comfort and gain. Many people will be fooled by people in the pulpit that seem like the genuine thing but in the end those people are promised a judgement from God. We have to ‘Watch” or Carefully examine for a period of time, so that we are not fooled by those who claim to be true shepherds (Pastors). We cannot be fooled by their facades and we cannot allow one area of their lives to not match another area of their lives.
“A preacher can wow a congregation with rhetorical skill yet fail to live a life of obedience or exemplify the lifestyle of a true follower. It is as true today as then that people can get caught up with the charisma of gifted speakers and fail to look at their lives. “ (Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Matthew, pg 271-272 )
“It is easy to be captivated by a beautiful life and to argue that therefore what he teaches must be right.” Oswald Chambers
So we must examine all things about a persons life so that we will determine if they are truly a Shepherd from God or a false shepherd, dressed in sheep’s clothing. Time will tell but our responsibility is to know the truth so that we are not fooled or not fooled forever.