People often erroneously apply these words of Jesus to Christians who do not “toe the line.” We call ourselves fruit inspectors saying that we are evaluating others to see if they are giving evidence of the Christian life. Then we use our list to discern whether or not one is, or ever was, a true believer in Christ. The problem is that each denomination has its own standard of what is the accepted fruit.
That was not the context of this passage. In context Jesus was speaking of false prophets. Jesus said in Matthew 7: “15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. 16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” What is the fruit of a prophet? A prophecy. What is the fruit of a false prophet? A false prophecy.
Jesus warned “many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.” (Matthew 24: 11) Further he said, “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (verse 24). In the latter days he warned us to be on the look out for false prophets. Knowing that they are coming, we should be prepared. How do we recognize false prophets?
Israel faced a similar dilemma when God told them through Moses that he would send another prophet like Moses. In Deuteronomy 18:18-20 God said, “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him. But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.”
Notice the penalty for being a false prophet: “that prophet shall die.” God is serious when it comes to prophecy, when someone claims to speak for him. So how do we recognize the fruit of a prophet? The Israelites asked the same question. Verses 21, 22 “And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.” The answer is that if a prophet makes even one false prophecy, he or she was to be put to death! If it does not happen, it was not from God.
How many times does it take for a person to lose his or her virginity? Just once. How many false prophecies does one have to make to be a false prophet? Just one!
A while back a man I work with asked me what I thought about the LDS church’s new prophet. “Did he pass the prophet’s test?” I asked. “He must have,” he said, “He got past the Twelve Apostles.” “No, I mean the biblical prophet’s test,” I said, “Even Joseph Smith didn’t pass that one!” –Silence.
After a moment he said, “That’s the trouble with you Baptists; you always bring that up.” A legitimate point, one that was never answered.
In August 2000 two young men in white shirts and black ties sat in my living room trying to convince me that they represented the one true church. The restored church of the New Testament that had been lost until their prophet came along. I took the Bible they had given me and asked if they accepted it as authoritative. So far as it is “properly interpreted,” they said. I turned to the Deuteronomy passage quoted above and read it to them. Then I turned to the Doctrine and Covenants and showed them two prophecies that Smith had made in the name of the Lord, prophecies which have long since been proven invalid. Their response was, “We still believe Joseph Smith is a true prophet of God!” He failed the biblical test.
In 1 John 4:1 we have the additional warning: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” The biblical way to be wary of false prophets is to try them against the standard of Scripture. We dare not trust every person who claims to be a prophet or has a vision from God or has a word of wisdom. People who make such claims need to be made aware of how dangerous such statements are.
Many years ago when I was a pastor in south Texas, a young woman came by the church and “prophesied.” People then asked the same questions. “What if she is a real prophet?” Then what she prophesied must come to pass without fail.
One Sunday I awoke with severe stomach pain. I tried my best to go to church. I made it to the office and lay on my couch during Sunday School. When church time rolled around, I could not stand without aid. I told the Chairman of Deacons, “Well it’s up to you today. I am too sick to preach.” With that I went home. (That is the only time I have ever been too sick to preach on a Sunday!) During that service, I later found out, that young woman came and sat on the front pew. (That right there should tell you she was not Baptist ; ) The college students told me that she rocked back and forth during the service and muttered under her breath. (An apt description of Old Testament False Prophets: Isaiah 8: 19 “And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?”)
This young woman prophesied in the name of the Lord that I would be back in the pulpit that evening for church to preach the word of God. That is an easy enough prophecy to interpret clearly, without ambiguity. That evening at church time instead of being in the pulpit I was in the bathroom. That proved to be a false prophecy.
When she showed up on the Saturday before Easter Sunday with a message from God that he wanted me to preach, I politely took the paper she gave me and put it in the trash. She had proved to be a false prophetess. What is the penalty for false prophets? Read Deuteronomy 18:20 again.
Years later I was leading a Bible study at a mobile home park in Laredo, Texas. A woman had been seen wandering around the city going into churches telling everyone that she was Jesus Christ come back in the flesh. One day she wandered into the mobile home park. She told the manager, who was Jewish, that she was Jesus Christ. While discussing this with the manager, she asked me honestly, “How do you know that she is not Jesus Christ come back to earth?” I took the New Testament from my shirt pocket and turned to Matthew 24:4, 5, “Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.” And verse 11: “And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.” Then I went on to verses 26, 27, “Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.”
“When Jesus comes back, no one will be in doubt,” I reassured her. “That’s how I know she is not Jesus. She is a false Messiah. Jesus warned us beforehand.”
So if someone claiming to be Christ, an Apostle or Prophet comes along with a “word of wisdom” or a “new revelation” or “vision” that does not agree with the Bible, remember Isaiah 8:20, “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” False prophets and false teachers walk in darkness because they have no light in them. They are the “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14). If you follow a false prophet, you will wind up in the same ditch.
If a person claims to be a prophet, check his or her credentials. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 2:21).