What Did Jesus Say About False Prophets?


If you’ve ever traveled, you know that a map or a detailed, reliable set of directions is essential for reaching your destination. I love Internet maps, but I’ve also been frustrated when a set of directions I printed sent me across town from where I intended to go. It’s far more serious to be directed off the “narrow” way onto the “broad” way by a pseudo-Christian teacher.

It’s common to read Jesus’ warning against false prophets as referring to heretics who change or deny the Christian faith. Such an understanding certainly has some validity, but Christ is referring to a less obvious – and therefore even greater – danger: false teachers who arise within the Church. His reference to coming in “sheep’s clothing” while being “ravenous wolves” (7:15) tells us that such individuals will appear to be faithful teachers and leaders, but they nonetheless are impostors who will spiritually harm Christians. Such false prophets, Martin Luther says, “grow up among you, bear and boast of your name”…but they cunningly reach after the doctrine, that they may take the treasure itself out of my heart, namely, the dear word.” He even adds that false prophets can be found among ordained pastors, warning that they can be “irreproachable and outwardly indistinguishable from genuine preachers”…hav(ing) the valid office, and in addition they give such a beautiful impression and appearance.”

This makes the situation particularly tricky: it’s easy to discern when someone is obviously outside the Church and determinedly attacking it, but how can we tell when someone inside the Church is a false prophet? Jesus answers by telling us to look at the teacher’s fruit (7:16-20). But what are these fruit?

Commentators generally recognize two types of fruit being alluded to in this passage: the fruit borne by teaching, and the fruit borne by character. Regarding the fruit of true teaching, Luther says Christians – and certainly pastors and teachers – “must hold on to the chief part, the summary of Christian teaching and accept nothing else: That God has sent and given Christ, His Son, and that only through him does he forgive us all our sins, justify and save us.” Augustine says about the fruit of character that the “bad fruit” borne by false prophets are the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21), while the “good fruit” of true Christian teachers is the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). David Scaer adds, “In the light of the Sermon, these fruits are love of the neighbor, reconciliation with the enemy, and performing good to all people indiscriminately.” John Chrysostom points out that it’s impossible for a pseudo-Christian to pretend for long to have these virtues, saying, “It is possible to find some virtuous persons living among heretics. But among the corrupted of whom I speak it is in no way possible. “˜So what difference does it make,’ Jesus says in effect, “˜if even among these false prophets some do put on a hypocritical show of virtue? Certainly they will soon be detected easily.'”

This leads directly to Jesus’ next point: those who engage in ministry in order to call attention to themselves fail to do the Father’s will (even if the works they perform are themselves good), and such people will ultimately be condemned (7:21-23). The mere ability to perform tremendous works in itself signifies nothing – Jesus elsewhere warns that false christs and prophets will use mighty works to deceive Christians (Matthew 24:24), Paul says that the Lawless One will work miracles (2 Thessalonians 2:9), and the apostle even exhorts against listening to spirits who teach false doctrine (Galatians 1:8). This is why Luther teaches regarding miracles, “I will first see to it what the miracles tend to, and will carefully examine whether they really serve to strengthen my faith in the word, namely, that Christ died for me, that I through him may before God become pious and be saved; then, that I may pursue my calling and faithfully attend to the same.”