How to Identify False Prophets
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave a grave warning to those who were listening that day. In Matthew 7:15, Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”
This was a prophetic statement from the Lord, as in His omniscience, He knew exactly what false prophets would come in the future. He also knew that when the time came, the Apostles and those who would be saved by their teaching all the way down to the present day , would need to know how to identify these “false prophets.”
In no uncertain terms, Jesus did not begin with the profession that false prophets would make, by claiming their fidelity to the Word of God, but rather he chose first to deal with the “fruit” that would be the natural outcome of their character.
In Matthew 7:16-17, Jesus stated, “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.”
Defining Their Fruit
The question that we must then answer is what did Jesus mean by “fruit?” Well, to give us indication of what this “fruit” is, we need to compare scripture to scripture to come up with a Biblical definition.
Just a few chapters earlier, in Matthew 3, we see the introduction of the ministry of John the Baptist. His message was both direct and simple, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
In verse 7, the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John’s baptismal service, and he said to them, “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7b). He then leveled the same message at these religious leaders, demanding that they prove their sincerity, saying, “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance.” (Matthew 3:8).
In a parallel passage to this story, in Luke 3, we see the people’s response to hearing the warnings of John the Baptist, both to them and the religious leaders. After hearing John say they needed to bring forth fruits “worthy” of repentance, three distinct groups of people asked him, “What shall we do?” These groups were the general populace, followed by the publicans, and at last, the soldiers.
He told the people, “He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise.” He was commanding them to not be consumed with their own needs, but to generously give to meet the needs of others. Generosity is what was expected in the place of selfishness.
To the publicans, who were often hated for their practice of charging more taxes than the government said was due, simply to line their own pockets and store up wealth for themselves, John said “Exact no more than that what is appointed you.” He was telling them to replace their greed for integrity.
Lastly, his command to the soldiers was to “Do violence to no man, neither accuse falsely; and be content with your wages.” He was telling them to lay aside their violent ways, and exchange them for peace, honesty and contentment.
In each of these instances, the fruits “meet” or “worthy” of repentance were evidences in their lives that God had truly changed them by His grace. The fruit was the direct evidence in their lives that they truly knew God.
Identifying Their Fruit
Using this definition of fruit, it enables us to fully comprehend what Jesus meant when he said, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” False prophets would be ones who would come preaching, teaching and professing the truth, but denying the truth in their failure to apply it to their everyday lives. In other words, they would talk a good talk, but not have the walk to match it.
Jesus intensified his warning in Matthew 7:21, “Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”
To counter this, Jesus showed the reasons that this group of false believers would give that day to try to prove they should be allowed into the kingdom, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?” Jesus then reveals their true identity: “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7:23).
These were people who were not producing the true “fruits” of repentance, but instead were still living lives of “iniquity,” or sin. They thought instead that they could cover up their sin by being busy doing “kingdom” things, while failing to realize that God knows the thoughts and intents of the heart, and is aware of the sin they commit, both openly and behind closed doors.
Now, for the sake of explanation, iniquity here carries the idea of “lawlessness.” In other words, iniquity involves committing sin in such a way where people think they will not be held accountable. Thus, Jesus was not referring to the “traditions of men,” including all of the rabbinical laws of the Pharisees which had literally added layer upon layer of human teaching on top of the law of God. (He soundly condemned the Pharisees for this in Mark 7:7). Jesus was referring to was the breaking of the clear and obvious moral law of God found in the scriptures. These were not areas of “preference;” these were real and unarguable acts of sin, or lawlessness.
Naming Them by Their Fruit
False prophets can be identified then as those who preach what seems to be a true gospel and correct doctrine, but who live lives of iniquity, while trying to excuse themselves by outwardly serving God.
We have all heard the stories of so many preachers and teachers who have for years hid their sin from the lives of the people to which they preached week after week, only one day for people to find out that they were living in direct contradiction to the truths they taught.
This is why we must always be vigilant about identifying false prophets. We must not let them deceive us into outwardly professing the truth, but in actual living to deny it, and at worst, excusing it underneath guise of “serving God.”