Warning: False Prophets Matt 7:15-20

“As far as children are concerned, a REAL WITCH is easily the most dangerous of all the living creatures on earth. What makes her doubly dangerous is the fact that she doesn’t look dangerous. Even when you know all the secrets (you will hear about those in a minute), you can still never be quite sure whether it is a witch you are gazing at or just a kind lady. If a tiger were able to make himself look like a large dog with a waggy tail, you would probably go up and pat him on the head. And that would be the end of you. It is the same with witches. They all look like nice ladies….

…Oh, if only there were a way of telling for sure whether a woman was a witch or not, then we could round them all up and put them in the meat–grinder. Unhappily, there is no such way. But there are a number of little signals you can look out for, little quirky habits that all witches have in common, and if you know about these, if you remember them always, then you might just possibly manage to escape from being squelched before you are very much older.”[1]

Read Matt 7:15-20

Watch out for them (15)

The warning that Jesus gives here about false prophets seems a bit odd to the 21st century ear but would have been perfectly normal for the Jesus’ hearers.  In the OT there were frequent warnings against false prophets.  The job of a prophet was not so much to foretell (predict the future) but rather to forth-tell the will of God (speak with the authority or voice of God about the present).  There were often false prophets who claimed to speak for God but were actually trying to gain popularity or position.

As you turn to the New Testament you find that there are few books in the NT that don’t have either an implicit or an explicit reference to false prophets (those who would speak with the authority or voice of God).  Jesus addressed the Pharisees and Sadducees as “Blind leaders of the blind”.  Further on in the NT there are repeated warnings in Acts, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Peter’s epistles, 1 John, and Revelation.  The question is not whether or not they will come, but how we are to watch out for them when they come. In verse 15 Jesus uses the illustration of wolf in sheep’s clothing to explain how a false prophet is deceptive and dangerous.

a.      Deceptive

You think: I’m a good Christian I would spot a heretic a mile off.  No, not a good heretic you wouldn’t!  That is the nature of the problem.  If they all had green hair, three fingers and one leg it would be easy.  But, they are more like the Witches of Roald Dahl.

They are wolves but they look like the member of the flock.  They go out of their way to hide their true identity.  On the outside they look legit – the right language, demeanour, wrote a book, or have a popular following.  It is an ongoing reality in the Christian church today.  Jesus is saying: beware of every book we pick up, every MP3 we download, every conference we attend, every preacher / teacher we listen to.  You won’t know the false teacher immediately!  I am not proposing false-teacher-heresy-hunting brigades.  But Jesus doesn’t give many warning – so we should listen carefully when he does.

b.     Dangerous

Secondly, they are truly dangerous – mortally – because despite their appearance they are actually wolves.  What is the natural enemy of the sheep?  Wolf.  They eat sheep.  They appear to bring you spiritual food, but you are actually their food!

If you were to go out to the Karoo and chat to a sheep farmer you would find that sheep are pretty stupid and gullible!  Not a very complimentary way to describe us Christians.  But that is the danger.  When you put the elements of faith, zeal and eternity together people are open to be lead into doing and believing stupid things.  People mistake faith for passion.  People get whipped up by a passionate leader / speaker who is using Christian language.  There is nothing wrong with passion!  Here me – they problem is the false teacher who misdirects the passion away from God and the gospel!

See through them (16-20)

Jesus changes from an animal metaphor to a metaphor about trees to explain how we can protect ourselves against this threat.  And if you have ever read Roald Dahl’s “Witches” you will know that the granny describes several ways that you can detect a witch (glove because of claws fingers; shoes because of no toes; blue saliva; wig because they are bald) – but she warns that their deception makes it difficult.  In the same way with false prophets – there are ways, but it requires a careful look.  In the metaphor Jesus gives us some tell-tale signs:

a.      Conduct of their lives

The fruit that comes from their lives reveals truly what kind of tree it is.

The ministry of the false prophet will have the sense that it is really about me.  For some godforsaken reason in recent Christian history people have ministries that are named after them. George Whitfield: “May the name of Whitfield perish but may the name of Christ last forever”.  You can’t control what people do with your name once you’re dead!  John the Baptist: let me decrease and let him (Jesus) increase.  Ministry is always self-denying, service, self-humbling and serving the people who God has given.

They set themselves apart because of their great giftedness and ability.  It is so easy to focus on gifts and abilities.  And this is why it is hard to spot a false prophet – because to know their character you have to know them.  Again, this is the problem of celebrity Christian teachers: most of their closest adherents don’t know their character at all.  You have to get up close and personal.

The fruit is the fruit of the Holy Spirt as given to us by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23.  Instead of these things you get the fruit of disunity, impurity, jealous, fear, self-indulgence, fighting,

And it is true financially.

b.     Content of their teaching

You can’t learn to speak differently, but when you are under pressure or in the middle of a heated argument, you speak in the way that you were bought up!  And so verse 17-18 tell us that you will know the false prophet by the quality of the fruit.  The good tree produces good fruit!

·        what they don’t say

There are too many well-known, world renowned preachers and teachers who have a huge following and have sold thousands and thousands of books, but you scarcely ever hear them talk about the centrality of the cross, the substitutionary death of Christ, the atonement.  That is the CENTRE of what Jesus came for but it seems to be a side issue for these false teachers.  Have you watch most of what comes on TBN and God.TV?  These guys never get to Jesus Christ.  The heart of the gospel is the cross.  Paul said, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Cor. 2:2).

There will not be a call to the “Sermon on the Mount” life – the narrow way of obedience, self-sacrifice, service, self-denial.  And there will certainly be a fudging of the clear distinctions between the small gate (I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except though me) and the wide gate where these “narrow” distinctions are that important.  The false prophet Is saying, “there are many of us so we must be right”[2]; “but there are so many people listening to him, buying his books”.

·        what they do say

As opposed to this they will be saying God wants you to be healthy, wealthy and happiness.  They will say, like the false prophets of Jeremiah’s time, “peace, peace” when there is no peace for those who choose to live at enmity with God.  The Christian life is a challenge, it is full of hardship and self-denial, there is a deep struggle with indwelling sin, there is a cost!  Glorious and joyful, YES!  But take up your cross and follow me!  Do you know the way that Christ’s life ended?  Paul?  Martyr.  The other 11 disciples? Martyrs.  What balanced interpretation of scripture can possibly give you the idea that God desires all Christians to be wealthy, healthy and happy.  Does the story of Job not exist in these false teacher’s bibles?  The story of Job: God will allow your health, wealth and happiness to fade from your life if it serves your good and his glory.

You may find their teaching centres on secret insights, new depths of truth plumbed especially when it is based largely on some little know Old Testament passage, when they make promises that Jesus simply never made.

Let me make this a bit more difficult: it can be true that there can be a teacher who has 90% of his theology right but because of his conduct and character, or because of the way he uses the bible he actually become a false prophet – if there is there is more law than Christ grace, more sin than grace or more command than there is enabling then that is a false ministry.

Look beyond them

  • The Bible alone is our rule of faith. This the only measure that we have to protect us against false prophets and teachers.  Scripture must be the measure for the teaching and character of any preacher.
  • Watch out for your own heart: we are apt to look to another human being as our guru (although we would never use that word). It happened in the NT too: I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas.  We are tempted to put another person on a pedestal, to elevate their words above to
  • In the end there is only one Shepherd who will never teach anything false, who will serve you with complete humility, who will sacrifice himself to save and protect the sheep. There is no wolf blood in him – no temptation to save and serve himself.


Sermon Questions

Please use / augment / discard these questions so that your group has a fruitful discussion

  1. Read Matt 7:15-20
  2. Can anyone share an account of how they were led astray by false teaching?  What was appealing about the teaching or the person?
  3. Jesus uses the illustration about a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  What do we learn about false prophets from this illustration?
  4. Jesus uses the illustration about a tree and its fruit.  What do we learn about how to discern a false prophet from this illustration?
    1. It is easy to know someone by their gifting and ability.  How should we know them?  How can we do this?
    2. Why should Jesus and the gospel message be the centre of all ministry?  What does that mean in practice?
    3. Two of the main “false gospels” are
  1. the gospel of works: you must earn your salvation by good works. Here there is an emphasis on sin, law and punishment.  The false prophet is characterised by teaching of fear and control.
  2. the gospel of prosperity: God just wants to give you health, wealth and happiness. There is a de-emphasis of sin and an over emphasis (distortion) of God’s love.  The false prophet is characterised by open acceptance of all and popularity.
  • QUESTION: how is the third way of the gospel different to both of the above?
  1. There is also a warning for us here: our hearts are apt to idolise popular teachers and preachers.  What is the danger of idolising a leader like this?
  2. How is Jesus the one true Good Shepherd?

[1] Roald Dahl, “The Witches”

[2] Sinclair Ferguson