Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Matthew 7:15–20
As Jesus continued His closing exhortations, He warned against false prophets, those who attempt to turn people off the narrow road onto the broad road. Through all of history, God’s people have met with opposition from such false teachers. We should never fool ourselves into thinking that we are not vulnerable to deception today.
Warnings in the Bible
The Bible is full of warnings against false prophets. Jesus said, “Take heed that no one deceives you. Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (Matt. 24:4, 11). The context of this statement is the last days before Christ returns to the earth; Jesus was emphasizing that false prophets will multiply during that time. Paul, Peter, John, and Jude also warned us about the inevitability of false prophets rising up. (See warnings about false prophets from Paul, Peter, John, and Jude in 1 Timothy 4:1–2, 2 Peter 2:1–3, 1 John 4:1, and Jude 1:3–4.)
False prophets are well disguised. Jesus didn’t say, “Beware of false prophets who come with fangs and horns protruding.” No. He said that false prophets come “in sheep’s clothing” (7:15). In the early twentieth century, when liberalism invaded the churches, the scholars who brought this liberal theology insisted that they were Christians, although they denied all the essentials of the Christian faith. Sadly, much of the church believed them. When John Gresham Machen wrote a book declaring these people false teachers and stating unequivocally that they were not Christian, he was driven out of his denomination. This is what happens when people don’t take seriously the warning that false prophets will be well disguised.
False prophets are deadly. Jesus said that these men come “in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (7:15). That’s a serious picture. Ravenous wolves tear any living thing to shreds, and false prophets come to destroy people’s spiritual lives.
Jesus told us how to recognize false prophets: “Men don’t gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles. Every good tree bears good fruit. A bad tree bears bad fruit” (see 7:16–18).
True prophets bear good fruit: They hold fast to sound doctrine; they live holy lives; and they desire to glorify God rather than promote themselves. (See the marks of a true prophet [he holds to sound doctrine; he honors holy living; he is humble] in Titus 2:7, 1 Timothy 6:11, and 2 Corinthians 4:5.)
False prophets, on the other hand, handle the Word of God dishonestly and irreverently. They deny the authority of the Bible and put in its place the teachings of men. They deny or distort the great doctrines of the Christian faith: the deity of Christ, His virgin birth, His sinless life, His miracles, His atoning death, His bodily resurrection and ascension, and His second coming. They declare that all these things are myths borrowed from the religions of the surrounding nations to Israel.
Among the most dangerous false teachers today are those who downplay or reject the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Bible. Beware of them.
False prophets are alive and well today, gaining influence not only in the church but out in the world at large. Some have been written about in popular magazines and major newspapers, being hailed as the new generation of Christian leaders whom the world can work with. They are well spoken of by the cultural elite. They are the ones Jesus was referring to when He said, “Beware when all men speak well of you, for so they spoke of the false prophets” (see Luke 6:26).
If we want to avoid being led astray by false prophets, the best safeguard, beyond all question, is the regular study of the Word of God. God’s Word to Joshua long ago is the word for us today: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night. Then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8).