Be careful who you follow
Sermon on the Mount – Part 20
Matthew 7:15-20 ~ March 11, 2018
Imagine a missionary going into a town to tell people about Christ. Some people would be attracted to the missionary’s message while others would not be. Now, imagine that those who do not like the missionary’s message respond by inciting a mob of people to terrorize the city and hunt down the missionary. When they can’t find him, they round up those who sponsored his ministry and drag them before the authorities who force them to pay enormous amounts for bail as they launch an investigation into the actions of the missionary and his sponsors. Meanwhile, the missionary and his assistant, with the help of friends, escape under cover of darkness to another city only to have the troublemakers come to that city and stir up trouble again.
This isn’t a story I made up to open this sermon. It’s what happened to Paul and Silas in the Greek city of Thessalonica. They escaped under cover of darkness and found refuge for a very short time in the city of Berea. (You can read about it in Acts 17.)
Within in the context of that story, we come across a single verse that helps set the stage for this morning’s message: the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11, NIV).
Now, let’s look at the next section of the Sermon on the Mount and then I’ll tie it into Paul’s experience before we move on.
Matthew 7:15-20 (NIV84)
15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit, you will recognize them.
When Paul went to the city of Berea, the Jews eagerly listened to his message, but they also examined the Scripture to see if what he said was true. This is a great example for us…better yet, it’s a great example for you.
I stand before you week after week and do my best to responsibly teach God’s word. I want you to believe me because I’m telling you the truth about God’s word. Oddly enough though, I also want to say, don’t take my word for it. In fact, let me go so far as to say that as followers of Christ in a local church, your job is only half done when you’ve listened to me. I may give you homework from time to time, but truth be told, you have homework every week—to examine Scripture to see if what I’m teaching you is true.
The standard by which you are to judge me is not opinion; it’s not tradition, and it’s not personal preference. The standard is God’s word.
Let’s keep that in mind as we examine Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus told his audience to watch out for false prophets. He was saying, watch out for a certain type of spiritual leader. He was not speaking hypothetically. He told them to watch out because these kinds of leaders already existed. Who did Jesus have in mind?
It seems certain that he included many of the religious leaders of his day because earlier in this sermon he told his listeners that their righteousness had to surpass that of the Pharisees. He also used the word hypocrite to describe folks who did what many religious leaders of his day were known for doing:
- turning charitable giving into a show to get attention and stroke egos
- making a spectacle out of prayer for the same reasons
- drawing attention to faux spirituality while fasting
In these ways, Jesus already said, don’t be like them. Now, he says to watch out for such leaders. And it’s easy to understand why: Leaders lead, and followers follow. False prophets (false leaders) lead people in the wrong direction.
Let’s look at Jesus’ words a little more deeply. The moniker “false prophets” is an interesting sounding word in Greek. I want to share it with you because…
- I think you’ll immediately recognize how it came into English and
- because I think you’ll recognize that the beginning of the word carries a certain meaning in English that we are readily familiar with.
In Greek, false prophets
Jesus was telling his followers to watch out for lying prophets (lying leaders). Leaders who say one thing but mean something else. He was vivid in his description of them—they come in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. They are pretending, playing a part. They look harmless, but they are dangerous.
It is not an accident…that Jesus’ warning about false prophets immediately follows his teaching about the two gates, two ways, two crowds, and two destinations. False prophets are skilled at blurring the issue of salvation.
- Some distort the gospel so much that they make it hard for people to find the narrow gate.
- Others try to tell us that the narrow way is really much broader than Jesus implied and that to walk it requires little if any restriction on one’s beliefs or behaviors.
- Others contradict Jesus and teach that the broad road does not lead to destruction and that all roads lead to God.
- No wonder Jesus compared such false teachers to ferocious wolves! They are responsible for leading some people to the very destruction which they say does not exist.
If that all sounds a little scary, that’s because it is! So, what can we do in the face of such danger? We can follow Jesus’ teaching here: Pay attention to the fruit of their lives and the fruit of their teaching. He explained in terms we readily understand:
- You don’t pick grapes from thorn bushes.
- You don’t pick figs from thistles.
We might say…
- You don’t pick apples from cherry trees.
- You don’t pick strawberries from apple trees.
- You don’t pick cucumbers from tomato plants.
- You don’t pick watermelon from pear trees.
We could go on and on, but you get the picture. Jesus was saying that if you know what kind of tree or plant you have, then you know what kind of fruit to expect. Likewise, if you know what kind of fruit is growing, then you know what kind of tree or plant you have. It’s the same with false teachers. Don’t get enamored with words or methods, look at the fruit—the fruit of their own lives and the fruit of their teaching.
What kind of fruit should we be looking for? While Jesus doesn’t elaborate on that point, I think there are a few conclusions we can draw.
- False teachers will not live up to the beliefs and behaviors Jesus has outlined in the Sermon on the Mount.
- False teachers will not live up to the fruit of the Spirit we find in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
- False teachers will not live up to the list we find in 2 Peter 1: faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, love.
- Peter adds an interesting post-script to his list-- 8 The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But those who fail to develop in this way are shortsighted or blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their old sins (2 Peter 1:8-9).
Unfortunately, there will always be those who try to further their own interests at the expense of God’s people. We cannot be ignorant of their ways; we must be on guard so that we can recognize them. How do we do that?
- You must know the word for yourself.
- Remember the people from Berea? They examined the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true.
- Can we do any less?
- There is a saying that pastors sometimes hear from disgruntled church folks. Maybe you’ve heard it: “I need to go to another church because I don’t feel like I’m being fed here.”
- Those words drive me nuts…but maybe not for the reason you might expect.
- At the risk of sounding uncaring, I’ve learned children learn to feed themselves as they grow and mature.
- If the only exposure you have to the reading and study of God’s word is on Sunday morning, then you are neglecting your own spiritual health and you can’t expect a Sunday morning at the buffet to meet your spiritual nutritional needs for the rest of the week.
- You must put the word into practice.
- Jesus’ brother James wrote these words: 22 But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. 23 For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. 24 You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. 25 But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it (James 1:22-25, NLT).
When you and I are doing these things in our lives, we put ourselves in a position to properly discern and judge the fruit of others. You put yourself in a position to properly discern and judge the fruit of my ministry…and that of other teachers and leaders.
Remember, the standards aren’t opinion, tradition, or personal preference. The only standard is the Word of God!
- Read it
- study it
- know it
- live it
- that is your best defense!
 pseudo. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/pseudo(accessed: March 11, 2018).
 Stott, John. The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (The Bible Speaks Today Series) (pp. 198-99). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
Over the course of three chapters in Matthew (5-7), we read some of Jesus' most challenging teaching. This series will exam this "Sermon on the Mount" section by section to see what we can learn.