Community Group Study Guide — False Prophets, Bad Apples
It really is amazing that fruit grows on trees. Stop and think about it. God set up a system where plants convert natural resources like sunlight, nutrients in the soil and water and those travel up roots, through the tree and slowly produce fruit. On a trip to a local Orchard, we were walking through the nectarine and peach trees and the owner of the orchard just grabbed a ripe nectarine and tossed it over to me. He told me to take a bite and let him know what I thought; it was the best tasting piece of fruit I’ve ever had. It is a simple thing, but also a wonderful thing… good trees bear good fruit.
Jesus uses this image to show us that the focus of your heart will determine what you do. The scripture tells us that our beliefs flow to our character which flow to our actions. It is why following Jesus begins with receiving a new heart. This need for a new heart was prophesied in Jeremiah and Ezekiel and actualized in Christ (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Ezekiel 36:25-27, Hebrews 8:8-13). The challenge though is that not everyone who professes Christ as Lord is really “in Christ”. In fact people who heard Jesus would often receive conflicting messages from the religious teachers of the day and the early church would face many challenges from false teachers. How can we tell if someone is a false prophet or a wolf in sheep’s clothing? How can one tell if someone is genuine or not? That is where Jesus turns out attention in Matthew 7:15-20.
Matthew 7:12-27 is the application section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus calls us to consider “so what?” In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus called his followers to a life of discipleship by entering through the narrow gate which put them onto a difficult path but that path leads to life. In this section, Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus calls us to consider our hearts and does so by giving us a warning that there will be false prophets and diseased trees producing bad fruit. Jesus main focus is to look at how to know if someone is a false prophet, but this passage also shows us the relationship between what we believe and what we do. How can one tell if someone is really a friend in the faith or a false prophet? And by extension, you may be wondering how you can know if you’re really following Christ or not. To answer those questions Jesus directs us to consider what kinds of actions are produced which can give us a hint to what kind of heart they have.
Notice three things Jesus mentions in Matthew 7:15-20.
First, we are warned that false prophets will be difficult to discover. False prophets will be difficult to discover and are therefore dangerous because they purpose to blend in. A prophet in this context is someone who declares something about God’s will and God’s ways. Jesus is the true and better Prophet and He reveals to us the character and nature of God (John 14:6, Hebrews 1:1-4). However, Jesus’ original audience, would have grown up looking up the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law as ones who were called to reveal truth about God. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus purposes to expose the false teaching of the Pharisees who used outward righteousness to exalt themselves and followed the letter of the Law of Moses but were not truly righteous from the inside out. They looked the part, but were dangerous to model one’s life after. The danger though is that those outward works of right behavior were deceiving. They looked like holy people who cared about God and loved God, yet we know that they did it for the praise of others (Matthew 6:1). This is why Jesus tells us that they will look like sheep but internally are wolves. A wolf is most dangerous when it looks most like a sheep; if you were able to clearly see that it was a wolf if would be less dangerous, however Jesus tells us here that their level of deceit will be difficult to discover. Yet this truth does not stop Jesus from commanding us to attempt to recognize these false prophets.
Second, you can recognize them by what they do life, however that make take a while. Jesus uses an agricultural example to make this point by talking about fruit trees. Fruit trees can take years to mature to the point where they produce fruit seasonally and then each season takes months for that fruit to ripen. This image of fruit is meant to communicate to us to examine someone’s actions. Matthew 7:16-18 tell us that we can recognize whether someone is inside the kingdom of God by what they do with their lives but we need to be patient. Fruit trees naturally produce fruit in keeping with the kind of tree it is. Oranges do not come from apple trees. But, more than this, the quality of fruits is determined by the health of the tree. A good tree will bear good fruit and a diseased tree will bear bad fruit. From the roots of the tree to the trunk to the branches, the health of the tree determines the quality of fruit produced. To extend the spiritual metaphor, one’s actions will be in keeping with their spiritual life. The tricky part is that fruit takes a long time to develop and Jesus has already warned us that it will be difficult to discern these false prophets. Their ability to deceive is exactly what makes them dangerous. Jesus admonition here though is to examine their fruit and to know that over the long run their actions will reveal who they are. Jesus elaborates on this in Matthew 12:33-37 where he specifically applies this metaphor to the Pharisees and warns us that our actions source from our heart. Likewise in Matthew 12:36 he even tells us that if these false prophets are not found out on this side of eternity they will be revealed on the day of judgment. Bearing good fruit is important because it is a mark of being a disciple of Jesus (John 15:8). This good fruit would be what Jesus has described as spiritual righteousness throughout the body of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:11). If a tree does not bear fruit it will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:19, John 15:6). The lesson here is, do not rush to judge someone, but we should consider not just what others say about God but also what they do to discern if they’re a false prophet, bad tree or a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Finally, for followers of Jesus, this is a reminder that what you believe forms your character and flows out to what you actually do. This section of the Sermon on the Mount is calling believers to consider what they believe about God and how that is lived out (Matthew 7:24). There are many similarities with what Jesus teaches here in Matthew 7:15-20 and what he teaches about himself in John 15:1-8. In that John 15, Jesus invites his disciples to abide in him so they can bear fruit. We should stop and consider here in this section of Matthew if and how we are following Christ and remember that a life connected to Jesus will bear fruit in holiness and good works and so prove that we are disciples (John 15:8). We will all go through seasons where we struggle against sin in our own lives, pride, anger, etc., but the trajectory of your life as you follow Christ will be one where your actions are changed and God is at work in your life to show himself to the world through your love, good works and faithfulness. A new heart will lead to transformed character over the long run and it will be lived out in changed actions. And even though fruit can take time to develop, pay attention to how the gospel is shaping your life as you follow Jesus’ call to abide in him and to walk in newness of life.
We are once again challenged by Jesus to consider what we do with the message of the Sermon on the Mount and who we listen to and follow. There will be false prophets out there who will look like followers of Jesus out the outside, but internally want to cause destruction. Jesus tells us that the long term fruit of their lives will give us a hint about who they are; and this is a reminder to all who trust in Christ that our faith will produce fruit as we walk with Jesus.
At your community group:
Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.
How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?
Read Matthew 7:15-20
Why would Jesus take this moment in the Sermon on the Mount to talk about the dangers of false prophets? Do you think he had a particular group in mind?
As a group, define what Jesus means by “fruit”. How can looking at the fruit of someone’s life give you a clue as to what they believe? Look at 1 Timothy 6:2-10, what kinds of examples of bad fruit are connected to false teachers there?
Matthew 7:15-20 addresses how bad fruit can point out false teachers. From a positive perspective, how is good fruit developed in the life of a follower of Jesus? Look at John 15:1-8. How does the gospel of Jesus make this kind of fruit bearing possible?