In this post (see intro to the series here) we take a step back to ask a broader question: what makes a teaching harmful or helpful for a Christian? If a teaching is determined to be biblically faithful, is that enough? Or does the legitimacy of a teaching come under suspicion when it creates hardship for those seeking to live according to it?
Matthew Vines uses Matthew 7:15-20 to suggest that any doctrine or teaching should be evaluated according to whether it harms or helps the person who tries to obey the doctrine. He claims that teachings that wound people by imposing relationally unhealthy restrictions on a person (and thus preventing human flourishing) are bad teachings, since they produce bad fruit. Apart from this being a very subjective measure for identifying truth (who defines “unhealthy” vs. “flourishing”?), it does not seem to do justice to the tree/fruit analogy in Matthew 7:15-20 either.
The context of the passage is the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). A parallel passage is found in Luke 6:43-44. Jesus is speaking to his disciples and the crowds (5:1; 7:28). The gist of the passage is that the people need to be on guard against false prophets, and there are ways of recognizing these false prophets.
Tree and fruit imagery
Jesus explains that disciples will recognize prophets by their fruits. The imagery of fruit is common throughout the Old and New Testaments. Most frequently good fruit describes good works, actions, and deeds that arise out of being faithful to God. Bad fruit is linked to disobedience and moral impurity.
In Matthew fruitfulness is “predominantly an ethical metaphor, based on the assumption that true loyalty to God will issue in appropriate behavior by his people” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 291). Matthew 3:8 and its parallel in Luke 3:8-14 establish the basic meaning of “fruit,” from John the Baptist’s preaching: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In Luke 3 John the Baptist provides specific examples of what this looks like: being generous to the needy, not cheating others financially, and not abusing power. This shows that “fruits” are actions that are congruent with a repentant heart.
The passage that follows the tree and fruit teaching (Matthew 7:21-23) confirms the idea that people’s actions must match the will of the God they claim to serve. People who claimed the name of the Lord and did works in his name would be rejected by God as workers of “lawlessness.” Why? Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to “the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
In Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus says this of the false prophets: “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16, repeated in 7:20). Then, in three different ways in Matthew 7:16-18, Jesus explains that trees never produce fruit that is contrary to the tree that produces it. So, in the analogy of the tree and the fruit, what is the tree? The tree is not the teaching being taught by the prophet, but the true nature of the prophet. Jesus is encouraging his hearers to discern the true nature of the prophet by examining the fruit the prophet produces. What fruit does Jesus have in mind? Let’s take a look at how false prophets are described elsewhere.
Matthew 7 uses the tree/fruit analogy as a test to measure the true nature of false prophets. What did Jesus mean to describe when he used the label “false prophet”?
In Matthew 12:33-35 the same tree/fruit imagery used against the Pharisees, who had just attributed the works of the Spirit (through Jesus) to Satan. In this case, the bad fruit consists of the words of the Pharisees (their resistance to Jesus and the Spirit’s work through him). They were condemned with warnings that such sin would not be forgiven. After the tree/fruit imagery, he again warns of judgment against arrogant words spoken against Christ and the Spirit. The key issue at this point in the Gospel is the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees. The Pharisees, in spite of their apparent good fruit (in the people’s eyes and in their own eyes – Matt 23:3, 23:28), were bad trees because of their words against God’s work through Jesus, and Jesus was exposing them as such. They were wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Elsewhere in Matthew (24:11, 24) false prophets in the last days lead people astray and deceive others through false signs (by turning them away from Christ). See also Mark 13:22. The same picture emerges in 2 Peter 2:1 and 1 John 4:1.
Note that in all of these passages the false prophets are not simply teaching wrong philosophies or doctrines, but are giving false information about how God is at work (specifically about whether he is or is not at work through Jesus). These false prophets, whether they are Jesus’ contemporaries (Pharisees) or prophets in the last days, are those who reject Jesus as the Christ and lead others astray.
Likewise, false prophets in the Old Testament deceived people about how God was working in their midst. The false prophets would often prophesy positive things when God wanted to proclaim judgment instead:
- Isaiah 30:9-10: “For these are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to the LORD’s instruction. They say to the seers, ‘See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!’”
- Lamentations 2:14: “The visions of your prophets were false and worthless; they did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity.”
- Ezekiel 13:9-10: “My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. . . . Because they lead my people astray, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace . . .”
- Luke 6:26: “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”
- See also 1 Kings 22:13, Jeremiah 14:13-15, Jeremiah 23:9-16, Ezekiel 22:28, and Micah 3:5-7.
These passages provide evidence that false prophets are guilty primarily of promoting a casual attitude towards obedience to God’s commands (in the Old Testament) or leading people away from Jesus as the Messiah (in the New Testament). They produce bad fruit by pointing people away from God’s perfect plans.
In Matthew 7:15 the false prophets are said to be ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing. The metaphor describes the true nature of the false prophet, despite outward appearance. It also indicates the ill intent of the prophet and the harm he causes. Could this language envision the destructive teachings Vines describes?
Wolf imagery surfaces in a similar context in Acts 20:29-30, where Paul says “fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
What is clear in Acts 20 is implied in Matthew 7, in conjunction with the description of false prophets elsewhere in the Gospels: wolves are dangerous because they deceive people into following them instead of Christ. The wolves subvert the heart of faith – devotion to Jesus as the Christ. There is no indication of their being ravenous through imposing restrictions that are seen to prevent human flourishing in general.
Matthew 7:15-20 uses tree/fruit imagery to warn against false prophets and their agendas.
The logic of the passage is that the tree (the true character of a prophet) is revealed by the fruit (the actions and teachings of the prophet – either acknowledging the identity and works of Jesus or opposing him). The tree is not the teaching of the prophet, and the fruit is not the perceived effects of that teaching.
False prophets can be recognized when their disobedient actions and opposition to Jesus do not match what would be expected from a “good tree.” Good trees live in harmony with revealed character, will, and work of Father, Son, and Spirit.
Though the prophets are characterized as “ravenous wolves,” it is not because they are placing unreasonable restrictions on the people (such as denying them the option of finding fulfillment in a relationship) but because they are leading people away from Jesus, the Christ.
A careful look at this passage supports the fundamental idea that God’s wisdom determines the beauty and goodness of a teaching, whether it is a teaching that immediately blesses us or whether it is an extremely challenging teaching that requires our wholehearted trust to carry it out (such as the call for someone with same-sex desires to either pursue chastity or cultivate a sexual relationship within a marriage with an opposite-gender spouse). God’s revealed truth in the Bible is the only sure way forward for how to live our lives. True prophets instruct others in God’s character, his teachings, and his Son. False prophets diminish people’s confidence in God’s character, his teachings, and his Son.