Matthew 7:15-20

THE FALSE PROPHETS

Matt. 7:15-20

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but who within are rapacious wolves. You will recognize them from their fruits. Surely men do not gather grapes from thorns, and figs from thistles? So every good tree produces fine fruit; but every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree produce fine fruit. Every tree which does not produce fine fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then you will recognize them from their fruits.

Almost every phrase and word in this section would ring an answering bell in the minds of the Jews who heard it for the first time.

The Jews knew all about false prophets. Jeremiah, for instance, had his conflict with the prophets who said “Peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer.6:14; Jer.8:11). Wolves was the very name by which false rulers and false prophets were called. In the bad days Ezekiel had said, “Her princes in the midst of her are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood and destroying lives, to get dishonest gain” (Eze.22:27). Zephaniah drew a grim picture of the state of things in Israel, when, “Her officials within her are roaring lions; her judges are evening wolves that leave nothing till the morning. Her prophets are wanton, faithless men” (Zeph.3:3). When Paul was warning the elders of Ephesus of dangers to come, as he took a last farewell of them, he said, “Fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Ac.20:29). Jesus said that he was sending out his disciples as sheep in the midst of wolves (Matt. 10:16); and he told of the Good Shepherd who protected the flock from the wolves with his life (Jn.10:12). Here indeed was a picture which everyone could recognize and understand.

He said that the false prophets were like wolves in sheep’s clothing. When the shepherd watched his flocks upon the hillside, his garment was a sheepskin, worn with the skin outside and the fleece inside. But a man might wear a shepherd’s dress and still not be a shepherd. The prophets had acquired a conventional dress. Elijah had a mantle (1Kgs.19:13,19), and that mantle had been a hairy cloak (2Kgs.1:8). That sheepskin mantle had become the uniform of the prophets, just as the Greek philosophers had worn the philosopher’s robe. It was by that mantle that the prophet could be distinguished from other men. But sometimes that garb was worn by those who had no right to wear it, for Zechariah in his picture of the great days to come says, “He will not put on a hairy mantle in order to deceive” (Zech.13:4). There were those who wore a prophet”s cloak, but who lived anything but a prophet’s life.

There were false prophets in the ancient days, but there were also false prophets in New Testament times. Matthew was written about A.D. 85, and at that time prophets were still an institution in the Church. They were men with no fixed abode, men who had given up everything to wander throughout the country. bringing to the Churches a message which they believed to come direct from God.

At their best the prophets were the inspiration of the Church, for they were men who had abandoned everything to serve God and the Church of God. But the office of prophet was singularly liable to abuse. There were men who used it to gain prestige, and to impose on the generosity of local congregations, and so live a life of comfortable, and even pampered, idleness. The Didachi is the first order book of the Christian Church; it dates to about A.D. 100; and its regulations concerning these wandering prophets are very illuminating. A true prophet was to be held in the highest honour; he was to be welcomed; his word must never be disregarded, and his freedom must never be curtailed; but “He shall remain one day, and, if necessary, another day also; but if he remain three days, he is a false prophet.” He must never ask for anything but bread. “If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.” Prophets all claim to speak in the Spirit, but there is one acid test: “By their characters a true and a false prophet shall be known.” “Every prophet that teacheth the truth, if he do not what he teacheth, is a false prophet.” If a prophet, claiming to speak in the Spirit, orders a table and a meal to be set before him he is a false prophet. “Whosoever shall say in the Spirit: Give me money or any other things, ye shall not hear him; but if he tell you to give in the matter of others who have need, let no one judge him.” If a wanderer comes to a congregation, and wishes to settle there, if he has a trade, “let him work and eat.” If he has no trade, “consider in your wisdom how he may not live with you as a Christian in idleness…. But if he will not do this, he is a trafficker in Christ. Beware of such” (Didache chapters 11 and 12).

Past history and present events made the words of Jesus meaningful to those who heard them for the first time, and to those to whom Matthew transmitted them.

KNOWN BY THEIR FRUITS

Matt. 7:15-20 (continued)

The Jews, the Greeks and the Romans all used the idea that a tree is to be judged by its fruits. “Like root, like fruit,” ran the proverb. Epictetus was later to say, “How can a vine grow not like a vine but like an olive, or, how can an olive grow not like an olive but like a vine” (Epictetus, Discourses 2: 20). Seneca declared that good cannot grow from evil any more than a fig tree can from an olive.

But there is more in this than meets the eye. “Are grapes gathered from thorns?” asked Jesus. There was a certain thorn, the buckthorn, which had little black berries which closely resembled little grapes. “Or figs from thistles?” There was a certain thistle, which had a flower, which, at least at a distance, might well be taken for a fig.

The point is real, and relevant, and salutary. There may be a superficial resemblance between the true and the false prophet. The false prophet may wear the right clothes and use the right language; but you cannot sustain life with the berries of a buckthorn or the flowers of a thistle; and the life of the soul can never be sustained with the food which a false prophet offers. The real test of any teaching is: Does it strengthen a man to bear the burdens of life, and to walk in the way wherein he ought to go?

Let us then look at the false prophets and see their characteristics. If the way is difficult and the gate is so narrow that it is hard to find, then we must be very careful to get ourselves teachers who wit help us to find it, and not teachers who will lure us away from it.

The basic fault of the false prophet is self-interest. The true shepherd cares for the flock more than he cares for his life; the wolf cares for nothing but to satisfy his own gluttony and his own greed. The false prophet is in the business of teaching, not for what he can give to others, but for what he can get to himself.

The Jews were alive to this danger. The Rabbis were the Jewish teachers, but it was a cardinal principle of Jewish Law that a Rabbi must have a trade by which he earned his living, and must on no account accept any payment for teaching. Rabbi Zadok said, “Make the knowledge of the Law neither a crown wherewith to make a show, nor a spade wherewith to dig.” Hillel said, “He who uses the crown of the Law for external aims fades away.” The Jews knew all about the teacher who used his teaching self-interestedly, for no other reason than to make a profit for himself. There are three ways in which a teacher can be dominated by self interest.

(i) He may teach solely for gain. It is told that there was trouble in the Church at Ecclefechan, where Thomas Carlyle’s father was an elder. It was a dispute between the congregation and the minister on a matter of money and of salary. When much had been said on both sides, Carlyle’s father rose and uttered one devastating sentence: “Give the hireling his wages, and let him go.” No man can live on nothing, and few men can do their best work when the pressure of material things is too fiercely on them, but the great privilege of teaching is not the pay it offers, but the thrill of opening the minds of boys and girls, and young men and maidens, and men and women to the truth.

(ii) He may teach solely for prestige. A man may teach in order to help others, or he may teach to show how clever he is. Denney once said a savage thing: “No man can at one and the same time prove that he is clever and that Christ is wonderful.” Prestige is the last thing that the great teachers desire. J. P. Strutliers was a saint of God. He spent all his life in the service of the little Reformed Presbyterian Church when he could have occupied any pulpit in Britain. Men loved him, and the better they knew him the more they loved him. Two men were talking of him. One man knew all that Struthers had done, but did not know Struthers personally. Remembering Struthers’ saintly ministry, he said, “Struthers will have a front seat in the Kingdom of Heaven.” The other had known Struthers personally and his answer was: “Struthers would be miserable in a front seat anywhere.” There is a kind of teacher and preacher who uses his message as a setting for himself. The false prophet is interested in self-display; the true prophet desires self-obliteration.

(iii) He may teach solely to transmit his own ideas. The false prophet is out to disseminate his version of the truth; the true prophet is out to publish abroad God’s truth. It is quite true that every man must think things out for himself; but it was said of John Brown of Haddington that, when he preached, ever and again he used to pause “as if listening for a voice.” The true prophet listens to God before he speaks to men. He never forgets that he is nothing more than a voice to speak for God and a channel through which God’s grace can come to men. It is a teacher’s duty and a preacher’s duty to bring to men, not his private idea of the truth, but the truth as it is in Jesus Christ.

THE FRUITS OF FALSENESS

Matt. 7:15-20 (continued)

This passage has much to say about the evil fruits of the false prophets. What are the false effects, the evil fruits, which a false prophet may produce?

(i) Teaching is false if it produces a religion which consists solely or mainly in the observance of externals. That is what was wrong with the Scribes and Pharisees. To them religion consisted in the observance of the ceremonial law. If a man went through the correct procedure of handwashing, if on the Sabbath he never carried anything weighing more than two figs, if he never walked on the Sabbath farther than the prescribed distance, if he was meticulous in giving tithes of everything down to the herbs of his kitchen garden, then he was a good man.

It is easy to confuse religion with religious practices. It is possible–and indeed not uncommon–to teach that religion consists in going to Church, observing the Lord’s Day, fulfilling one’s financial obligations to the Church, reading one’s Bible. A man might do all these things and be far off from being a Christian, for Christianity is an attitude of the heart to God and to man.

(ii) Teaching is false if it produces a religion which consists in prohibitions. Any religion which is based on a series of “thou shalt not’s” is a false religion. There is a type of teacher who says to a person who has set out on the Christian way: “From now on you will no longer go to the cinema; from now on you will no longer dance; from now on you will no longer smoke or use make-up; from now on you will no longer read a novel or a Sunday newspaper; from now on you will never enter a theatre.”

If a man could become a Christian simply by abstaining from doing things Christianity would be a much easier religion than it is. But the whole essence of Christianity is that it does not consist in not doing things; it consists in doing things. A negative Christianity on our part can never answer the positive love of God.

(iii) Teaching is false if it produces an easy religion. There were false teachers in the days of Paul, an echo of whose teaching we can hear in Rom.6. They said to Paul: “You believe that God’s grace is the biggest thing in the universe?” “Yes.” “You believe that God’s grace is wide enough tO cover every sin?” “Yes.” “Well then, if that be so, let us go on sinning to our hearts’ content. God will forgive. And, after all, our sin is simply giving God’s wonderful grace an opportunity to operate.” A religion like that is a travesty of religion because it is an insult to the love of God.

Any teaching which takes the iron out of religion, any teaching which takes the Cross out of Christianity, any teaching which eliminates the threat from the voice of Christ, any teaching which pushes judgment into the background and makes men think lightly of sin, is false teaching.

(iv) Teaching is false if it divorces religion and life. Any teaching which removes the Christian from the life and activity of the world is false. That was the mistake the monks and the hermits made. It was their belief that to live the Christian life they must retire to a desert or to a monastery, that they must cut themselves off from the engrossing and tempting life of the world, that they could only be truly Christian by ceasing to live in the world. Jesus said, and he prayed for his disciples, “I do not pray that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one” (Jn.17:15). We have heard, for instance, of a journalist who found it hard to maintain her Christian principles in the life of a daily newspaper, and who left it to take up work on a purely religious journal.

No man can be a good soldier by running away, and the Christian is the soldier of Christ. How shall the leaven ever work if the leaven refuses to be inserted into the mass? What is witness worth unless it is witness to those who do not believe? Any teaching which encourages a man to take what John Mackay called “the balcony view of life” is wrong. The Christian is not a spectator from the balcony; he is involved in the warfare of life.

(v) Teaching is false if it produces a religion which is arrogant and separatist. Any teaching which encourages a man to withdraw into a narrow sect, and to regard the rest of the world as sinners, is false teaching. The function of religion is not to erect middle walls of partition but to tear them down. It is the dream of Jesus Christ that there shall be one flock and one shepherd (Jn.10:16). Exclusiveness is not a religious quality; it is an irreligious quality. Fosdick quotes four lines of doggerel:

“We are God’s chosen few, All others will be damned; There is no room in heaven for you; We can’t have heaven crammed.”

Religion is meant to bring men closer together, not to drive men apart. Religion is meant to gather men into one family, not to split them up into hostile groups. The teaching which declares that any Church or any sect has a monopoly of the grace of God is false teaching, for Christ is not the Christ who divides, he is the Christ who unites.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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