PART 27 OF THE SERIES OF REFLECTIONS ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT
‘Good tree’ = disciples of Christ, ‘Bad tree’ = false prophets
Special discernment needed to identify false prophets in ‘sheep’s clothing’
IN THIS passage Jesus used the metaphors of trees and fruits to help His disciples to discern genuine discipleship. There are two types of trees that bear two different types of fruits. “Bad tree” represents the false prophets, while “good tree” represents the disciples of Christ.
The passage begins with a serious warning to “watch out for false prophets”. That special discernment is needed to identify them is evinced by the statement that these prophets come “in sheep’s clothing” which camouflage their real intentions and disguise their true nature, namely, “ferocious wolves”.
These false prophets pretend to be part of the people of God and teachers of the truth, when in fact they are deceivers, whose purpose is to lead the people of God astray (Matt 24:24). They masquerade as teachers of the Word of God, claiming to have special and profound insights into the mind of God and the divine plan, when in fact they are merely presenting their own delusional ideas and ideals. They claim to be servants of the most-high God, when in fact they are slaves of their own insatiable egos.
While detection is made difficult because of their disguise in sheep’s clothing, it is not impossible. “By their fruit you will recognise them,” Jesus said.
“Fruit” refers to the conduct or behaviour of these prophets. False prophets may dazzle their audience with eloquence and profundity, but their behaviour will betray their real intentions and their true motivations. Like produces like, and evil comes from evil. The outside camouflage cannot for long disguise the true character of these prophets. What is inside will surface, for a false face cannot hide a false heart – at least, not for very long! “Fruit” therefore refers to the total life and character of a person.
Good fruit has to do with those Christ-like qualities like meekness, gentleness, love, patience, kindness, goodness, etc. When a prophet fails to exhibit these qualities, when he instead shows enmity, impurity, jealousy, self-indulgence and pride, there is justification to be suspicious of his intentions.
But “fruit” also has to do with the content of the prophet’s teaching. This, the Reformer John Calvin clearly saw, and judged that those who “confine them [fruits] to the life [conduct]” as being mistaken. Fruit here refers to the man’s actual teaching, the content of his doctrine, his theology. The fact that teaching can be false means that Christian doctrine is not some vacuous linguistic game, but that it has to do with the Truth. The Church has always held this, as the history of theology testifies.
Christian doctrine is not a matter of the opinion of individuals or a group of individuals. Neither is Christian doctrine merely the meaningful regulatory discourse of the Christian community. Christian doctrine deals with truths about God and the world that are made known by God’s revelation. The presence of heresies implies that these truths can be, and has been distorted, and corrupt and erroneous traditions can develop within the Church.
The demand of Christian discipleship has to do not only with right living, but also right thinking and right understanding. Jesus warned against “false prophets” because truth is objective, doctrine is not a matter of individual opinion and conviction, and doctrinal decisions cannot be made democratically. More important to obey God than to perform religious rituals
Theological relativism is alive and well in both liberal and evangelical sectors of the Protestant Church. In liberal circles, Christian doctrine is swallowed up by cultural relativism in which the changing cultural sensibilities will determine the way in which the tenets of the faith are interpreted.
In evangelical circles, especially those influenced by pietism, theological relativism comes through the idea of “conviction” that is shaped by individualism. “This is my conviction; this is my belief; this is what the Lord told me to do.” This understanding of conviction is utter subjective and relativistic, anchored not on the solid rock of God’s Word, but the shifting sands of our emotional and psychological states. In this concept of conviction, truth really plays second fiddle to feelings and preferences.
In this relativistic age, heresies and heretics have all but disappeared. Once truth is subjectivised, and a more accommodative spirit is encouraged, the Church’s sense of discernment is numbed and its organ for distinguishing truth from falsehood is impaired. The Church must take the warning of Jesus in these verses seriously if it is to be prevented from being deceived.
In his Olivet discourse, Jesus warned His hearers about the proliferation of false teachings in the “last days”. With their eloquence and charisma, these false teachers would deceive the masses. They would also perform great signs and miracles (Matt 24:24) which would bedazzle the less discerning Christians. They would have a pre-occupation with prophesies regarding the end of the age and the consummation of the Kingdom of God, and make predictions regarding the return of Christ.
There are many examples of such “prophets” in the history of the Church. These false prophets will continue to multiply in our time, especially in the wake of prevailing uncertainties and gloom. They will come from within the Church and will be of fundamentalist as well as liberal persuasions. They will come wearing glamorous and attractive outward clothing, to use the metaphor again, in their charming eloquence and with their academic and ecclesiastical credentials.
This passage reminds us that prophets are to be judged by their fruits – by their conduct and teaching – rather than by their academic and ecclesiastical accolades. This passage tells us that it is naïve to think that just because a person is a PhD or a DD, a professor, a clergy or a bishop, he or she is a true teacher of the Word of God.
Verses 21-23 are surely for some the most difficult in this passage. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven” — not even those who prophesy in the name of Lord, or those who exorcise in His Name, or perform many miracles in His Name. The rejected are not only people who confessed Christ, but also those who were endowed with charisma and were involved in spectacular ministries. They are evangelists, preachers and miracle workers. Yet confession and charisma will not guarantee their entry into the Kingdom of God.
What are we to make of this passage? What is the point that Jesus was trying to make here?
The emphasis of this passage is made clear in the contrastive clause in the second half of verse 21. Entry into the Kingdom of God is allowed only to those who do the will of the Father who is in heaven. It is the emphasis of the entire Sermon on the Mount that nothing is more important than obedience to God. Here, the stress is that obedience is far more important than verbal confessions and possessing certain charismata.
Like every passage in the Sermon, this passage forces us to go deeper than the surface, to penetrate into the heart of the matter, to the very seat of the motivations of man. To think that this passage is saying that confession is unimportant is to misunderstand. What it is saying is that without the commitment of obedience, such confession is vacuous. Similarly, this passage is not criticising charismatic activities, but warns that they can never replace obedience, and that if they are done because of selfish motivations, they have no self-contained importance.
Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.