33. Recognizing False Teachers (Matthew 7:15-20)Related Media
“Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.
Matthew 7:15-20 (NET)
How can we recognize false teachers?
Previously, in Matthew 7:13-14, Christ called his listeners to decide which path they would follow. Would they follow the broad path that leads to destruction or the narrow path that leads to life? He challenges his hearers to not simply listen to the Sermon on the Mount and marvel. They must decide whether to follow his words and enter the kingdom of heaven or not.
Here in Matthew 7:15-20, he describes why some will not enter the narrow road. They will not enter because of false prophets. False prophets will usher them off the narrow road onto the broad path of destruction. He calls all listening to beware of them.
In the context, this must specifically apply to the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Since Matthew 5:20, Christ warned his hearers to not be like them. He said, “If your righteousness does not surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (paraphrase). The prominent religious leaders of Israel were on the broad path leading to destruction, and they were ushering others that way as well.
This means that false teachers will not only come from recognized cults but often they will come from the prominent religious establishment. The truth, even in popular religious circles, will often be hard to find. It is easy to end up on the broad path if we don’t have a discerning heart.
In this study, we will consider false teachers and their characteristics so we can recognize them and not be led astray by their teachings.
Big Question: According to Matthew 7:15-20, how can we recognize false teachers—what are their characteristics?
To Recognize False Teachers, We Must Know They Will Come
“Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves.
Interpretation Question: What does Christ mean by the metaphor of wolves in sheep’s clothing?
When Christ calls for his disciples to be careful of false prophets, he describes them as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Christ probably wasn’t saying that the wolves were pretending to be sheep; the illustration probably refers to their pretending to be shepherds. In those days, shepherds typically wore woolen clothing which came from the sheep they cared for.1 False prophets pretend to be shepherds who care for the flock, but really are wolves that destroy the flock. They feast on unstable and immature believers—those not trained in and obedient to Scripture (Eph 4:14, 2 Tim 3:6).
In fact, sometimes false prophets mimicked the clothes of true prophets. In the Old Testament, prophets were known by their simple, uncomfortable clothing, which symbolized their forsaking the comforts of the world for the cause of God.2 Like Elijah, they often wore animal clothes. Therefore, false prophets would wear similar clothes to deceive others. Zechariah 13:4 says, “‘Therefore, on that day each prophet will be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies and will no longer wear the hairy garment of a prophet to deceive the people.” They were wolves in shepherds’ clothing seeking to deceive others. No doubt, many of them even deceived themselves about their true intentions.
In the same way, false prophets are no different today. They often come in popular evangelical clothing. They went to prestigious seminaries, use orthodox lingo (like Gospel! Trinity! Kingdom living! etc.) and even appear godly. They often know Scripture well, for even the devil quoted Scripture when tempting Christ (Matt 4). However, their outward persona does not match their inward one—they are ferocious wolves who will hurt the flock.
In John 10, Christ used a similar shepherding metaphor when describing pastoral ministry. He talked about the good shepherd, the hireling, and the wolf. When the wolf comes, the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep—he protects them at all cost. However, the hireling runs when the wolf comes because he is only there for pay. Likewise, in churches there are good shepherds who aim to care for the sheep. They feed them the truth of God’s Word and aim to protect them by doing this. Hirelings are professional clergymen who see ministry primarily from a career stand point. They bounce from church to church seeking higher pay and better weather. They are in ministry only for the benefits. Therefore, they neglect the sheep and don’t really teach the Word of God—ultimately endangering the flock. Wolves destroy the flock by teaching error. Also, they tend to manipulate the flock for gain (cf. 1 Tim 6:3-5).
Christ warned of these false prophets because they were already present in Israel and had been there throughout Israel’s history. Jeremiah 23:6 says:
The Lord who rules over all says to the people of Jerusalem: “Do not listen to what those prophets are saying to you. They are filling you with false hopes. They are reporting visions of their own imaginations, not something the Lord has given them to say.
Christ taught that in the last days false prophets would increase in number and lead many believers away from God. In Matthew 24:11, he said, “And many false prophets will appear and deceive many.” The last days began at Christ’s death and will continue until his second coming. False prophets have come and will continue to increase. There is a new Christian cult that begins essentially every day, and people are continually lured from the narrow way to the broad way by them. In fact, the majority of New Testament epistles were written to combat false teachers that were tearing the church apart. Consider what Paul said to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:29-31:
I know that after I am gone fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Even from among your own group men will arise, teaching perversions of the truth to draw the disciples away after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears.
Paul warned of these false teachers, and they eventually came. Even from the original elders of that congregation, men rose up and divided the flock. In his letters to Timothy, Paul challenged Timothy to warn the false teachers and to faithfully preach the Word in spite of them (1 Tim 1:3, 4:1-16).
Therefore, we must be warned as well—false teachers will come. They will arise from among us, and if we are not careful, we may be led astray by them, or even worse, become one of them, even as the Ephesian elders did.
In God’s sovereignty, these attacks on the church have been used by God to make the church focus on and clearly define truth.3 Their attacks raised a need to define what books were in the Canon, as many false books began to circulate. Their attacks provoked a need to clearly define the doctrines of Scripture such as: the Trinity, the hypostatic union of Christ (the union of his humanity and deity), the inerrancy of Scripture, etc. In the same way, being confronted by error has made many individual believers study God’s Word in a deeper manner, which kept them from being swept away into lies.
To recognize false teachers, we must recognize they are coming. They may already be among us. If we don’t recognize this reality, we will be unprepared and possibly led astray.
Application Question: What experience do you have with false teachers? Why are they so deceptive?
To Recognize False Teachers, We Must Know Their Fruit
You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.
Because false prophets put on the clothes of a true shepherd, they are hard to detect; however, Christ says their fruit will ultimately manifest. A tree always produces fruit in line with its character. An apple tree produces apples—not grapes. In the same way, a minister’s fruit will eventually manifest. It may not be clear initially. It may require a lengthy and intimate inspection, but eventually the fruit will manifest—establishing whether the person is a true teacher or a false one.
Paul says something similar when warning Timothy about not ordaining people hastily. Consider 1 Timothy 5:22 and 24-25:
Do not lay hands on anyone hastily and so identify with the sins of others. Keep yourself pure…. The sins of some people are obvious, going before them into judgment, but for others, they show up later. Similarly good works are also obvious, and the ones that are not cannot remain hidden.
Paul essentially calls for a diligent inspection of someone being considered for eldership—lest the wrong person be chosen, and we share in his sins. For some, their inadequacy for ministry is clear—they have the wrong temperament, unorthodox doctrine, a disorderly family life, etc. For others it’s not so apparent—their lack of fitness appears slowly. Similarly, with others, their good works are obvious—everyone would declare, “This person should be an elder!” And yet with others, their suitableness for ministry only becomes clear later in the inspection process. Either way, their fruit will eventually become apparent.
Likewise, this is true with false prophets. Their fruit will become apparent. Therefore, we must not hastily accept or reject someone. We must patiently inspect his or her fruit.
Interpretation Question: What types of fruits will identify a false teacher?
1. False teachers are identified by the fruit of their character.
In Scripture, fruit often refers to character. In Galatians 5:21-22, Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, self-control, humility, etc. False prophets will lack these fruits. They will often be identified by pride, anger, lust for money, discord, etc. Second Peter 2:3 says, “And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words.” Their teaching and ministry will primarily be about making more money and filling their pockets. In addition, they will commonly be identified by their abusive leadership. Second Timothy 3:6 (NIV) says, “They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires.” They will seek to control people’s time, money, and relationships. Often, they will become abusive when others make their own decisions. They often claim, or at least act, as though they are the medium between God and their people, as if people can’t discern God’s voice and make their own decisions. Furthermore, they often are identified by their lusts—sexual harassment and multiple affairs, among other vile acts, tend to follow them. False prophets will be identified by their character or lack thereof.
2. False teachers are identified by the fruit of their teaching.
Second Peter 2:1 says,
But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them. As a result, they will bring swift destruction on themselves.
They will be known by their destructive heresies, which not only destroy them but others.
Application Question: What are some examples of their destructive teaching?
- False teachers tend to have unbalanced teaching.
Balanced teaching speaks about both God’s love and judgment. However, false teachers tend to focus on one or the other. When they focus on love alone, it creates an undisciplined people who don’t fear God or hate sin. One of the most popular teachers in the U.S. said that he wouldn’t speak on sin because his people needed to hear about God’s comfort more. The problem is without understanding sin and God’s judgment, nobody can be saved. It is a crucial part of the gospel. One cannot accept the good news without first understanding the bad news. In Jeremiah 6:14, God described false prophets this way: “They offer only superficial help for the harm my people have suffered. They say, ‘Everything will be all right!’ But everything is not all right!” Some versions say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” These prophets focused on God’s love and blessing but neglected other aspects of his character.
Others only teach about God’s wrath, often creating a fear in people, which allows them to be controlled and manipulated. Teaching about God’s wrath apart from his love and grace ultimately fosters a works-based salvation and turns people into Pharisees who condemn and judge one another.
- False teachers often have a heretical view of the doctrine of salvation.
This is implied by the immediate context of choosing between the broad road and the narrow road (Matt 7:13-14). The narrow road leads to life, while the broad road leads to destruction. (1) Some lead people down the broad road by teaching belief in Christ without repentance, Lordship, or taking up one’s cross. People can live any way they want (antinomianism). As long as they profess Christ, it is OK. Jude 1:4 says they turn “the grace of our God into a license for evil.” Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace”—a grace that doesn’t change us. Some even teach that one can take Christ as savior first and Lord later. Again, the road has been broadened. Christ said that nobody could be his disciple without hating mother, father, brother, sister, and even one’s own life. Whoever does not take up his cross cannot be Christ’s disciple (Lk 14:26-27 paraphrase). (2) Some teach the broad road of works salvation—one needs to be baptized to be saved, practice the Lord’s Supper, or do some other work. Every religion teaches the need of works for salvation accept true Christianity. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith, and that not of ourselves. It is a gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast (Eph 2:8-9). With that said, true faith will always produce godly works (Eph 2:10). But we are not saved by these works. (3) Others teach the broad road of universal salvation. Christ is the way to heaven, but only one out of many ways. Buddha, Muhammad, and others all speak of the same god and heaven. However, Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6 paraphrase).
- False teachers often have a heretical view of the doctrine of Christ.
In warning the Ephesian church about false teachers, John said:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses Jesus as the Christ who has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God, and this is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world.
1 John 4:1-3
The cult attacking Ephesus twisted the doctrine of Christ—denying either his humanity or deity. Modern cults do the same thing. Prominent ones often teach that Christ was a created being and is not God or not eternally God. Some even say Christ was an angel. Beware of unorthodox teachings about Christ; they are the fruit of false teachers.
- False teachers often undermine the authority of Scripture itself.
Like Satan in the Garden of Eden, they challenge others with, “Did God really say?” They teach that one can’t believe everything the Bible says. One can’t believe the historicity and/or ethical requirements of the Bible. When Scripture is removed as the only basis for doctrine and living, other foundations can be established. The teacher himself can become the standard by which all things are tested. Beware of teachers who undermine the authority of God’s Word. When they do this, it is simply an opportunity to establish some other authority—including their own.
3. False teachers are identified by the fruit of their influence.
Second Peter 1:2 says, “And many will follow their debauched lifestyles. Because of these false teachers, the way of truth will be slandered.” The influence of a false teacher’s life and teaching will bear bad fruit in his or her converts. Paul said their “message will spread its infection like gangrene” (2 Tim 2:17). Like cancer, it rots beliefs, then character, and ultimately pulls people away from Christ and his church. False teachers will be known by their ungodly influence on others.
Application Question: What types of false teaching are spreading rapidly around the world and what are the effects of these false doctrines? How should the church respond to the rampant spread of false doctrine?
Application Question: What applications can we take from the reality of false teachers and their destructive influence on the church?
1. Because of false teachers and their destructive influence, believers must constantly test the teachings they hear with Scripture.
Church members must be like the Bereans. Acts 17:11 said this about them, “they eagerly received the message, examining the scriptures carefully every day to see if these things were so.” God honors them in Scripture because they tested everything that Paul said to make sure it lined up with God’s Word. Each church must develop a culture of opening their Bible to test the teachings they hear, and not just accepting them. If the sermon is void of Scripture or not primarily based on Scripture, there is a problem. Our spiritual leaders must be held accountable for accurately preaching the Word. Good shepherds will appreciate this and encourage it. It means they are developing Bereans in their congregations!
2. Because of false teachers and their destructive influence, believers must be discerning without being judgmental.
In Matthew 7:1, Christ taught that his followers must not judge lest they be judged. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t call out sin and false doctrine. It means we must call it out in ourselves first. We must take the plank out of our own eye before we take the speck out of another’s (Matt 7:3-5). Also, we must be careful of our attitudes. A judgmental attitude takes joy in the failures of others. It’s a way of exalting ourselves by pulling others down. Though Christ calls us to be discerning, he doesn’t give us freedom to become heresy hunters—attacking every doctrinal (or moral) failure of others. All of us have some doctrinal error. Personal sin affects our ability to always properly understand God’s Word (cf. John 7:17). Therefore, we must be gracious when others fail doctrinally and help them come to the truth. However, we must not tolerate heretical doctrinal errors that ultimately can be damning. When it came to the gospel, Paul said that anybody who taught another gospel should be accursed—condemned to hell (Gal 1:9).
3. Because of false teachers and their destructive influence, believers must become mature to protect themselves through deeply studying and knowing God’s Word.
Scripture describes those who are commonly led astray by false teachers and doctrinal error as spiritual children “tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes” (Eph 4:14). The spiritual child stage is a dangerous stage of life because like regular children, spiritual children lack wisdom and commonly endanger themselves because of it. This can lead them into various false doctrines that stay with them throughout their lives and potentially lead them away from Christ all together. Whatever we learn in our early childhood often stays with us and that is true with spiritual adults. Many of us have corrupt areas of doctrine that are hard to root out, which were planted during our spiritual childhood. When Paul warned the Ephesian elders that some of them would become wolves that taught false doctrine, he closed that teaching with this:
Therefore be alert, remembering that night and day for three years I did not stop warning each one of you with tears. And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
God’s message will protect us as we study it deeply. Are you aiming to deeply study God’s Word?
4. Because of false teachers and their destructive influence, believers must not only become mature to protect themselves, but also so they can protect others.
Though we all bear the responsibility to protect ourselves through deeply studying Scripture, God has specifically called spiritual leaders to protect the flock (Eph 4:11-14). Few of us will do this from the office of an elder, but many of us will do this from the role of a spiritual mother or father, or older brother or sister (1 John 2:12-14). If we never mature in Christ, we will never effectively protect others or deliver them when they are caught in sin. That is primarily what many of Paul’s letters do. They are written to combat false doctrine, equip those fighting it, and deliver those caught in it. We must all develop Paul’s pastoral affection and skill to effectively help others. During spiritual infancy, we primarily care about ourselves and our welfare. During spiritual adulthood, we become consumed with others and their spiritual welfare. Jude said this in calling us to minister to those caught in false doctrine: “And have mercy on those who waver; save others by snatching them out of the fire; have mercy on others, coupled with a fear of God, hating even the clothes stained by the flesh” (Jude 1:22-23).
Are you willing to minister to those struggling with sin and false doctrine?
Application Question: What experience do you have with helping someone caught in false doctrine? Is there anybody God currently has on your heart to help?
Many are heading down the broad road to destruction, unawares, because of false teachers and their teachings—ones they met at a Christian university, seminary, church, or ministry. False teachers are dangerous, and therefore, Scripture commonly warns us about them. Their appearance and influence are inevitable. Can you recognize them and their fruits? Being able to recognize them will protect you and others from their destructive influence.
Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown
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1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 465). Chicago: Moody Press.
2 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 465). Chicago: Moody Press.
3 Stott, J. R. W., & Stott, J. R. W. (1985). The message of the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian counter-culture (p. 197). Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.