Be on your guard against false prophets; they come to you looking like sheep on the outside, but on the inside they are really like wild wolves. You will know them by what they do. Thorn bushes do not bear grapes, and briers do not bear figs.
A healthy tree bears good fruit, but a poor tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a poor tree cannot bear good fruit. And any tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire. So then, you will know the false prophets by what they do.
As he nears the end of his Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns his disciples about false prophets, people who claim to have divine knowledge that comes directly from God. Back in Jesus’ day there were many people who called themselves prophets and made their living as consultants, somewhat like a cross between today’s consultants and fortune tellers. Jesus wants his disciples to steer clear of any charismatic rogues who might try to ensnare his disciples and subvert their ministry.
The rest of the scripture is a bit of an enigma because you have to define what “grapes” and “good fruit” are.
Today we really don’t have career prophets. In the Christian world, the closest thing is probably the “pastor”, who is like a cross between a prophet, a Jewish rabbi, and a corporate CEO. If pastors are the prophets of our day, then how do we know if they are speaking the word of God? The traditional test of a Biblical prophet was whether or not his prophecy came true. Today we tend to judge pastors based on their success and effectiveness. So is a pastor’s ministry his fruit? Does it mean that a pastor is a real prophet if he has a big church or one that does a lot of good works?
This scripture says otherwise. A successful ministry is not the true test of a prophet. Jesus says you can tell a true prophet from a false one by what he does, how he lives his life. Jesus says, “You will know the false prophets by what they do.” You should not look at their results. In the Bible there are false prophets who perform miracles and have lots of disciples. Jesus says you should look at the man (or woman) – their whole life, not just their ministry. If God is in the person’s ear and has control over his heart, it will show in the person’s actions.
He tells his disciple to be careful, sit back, watch, and wait. See how the person treats other people. See how he treats those he respects, and those who are in need. See how he treats his family, his friends. See how he treats those who agree with him, and those with whom he has disputes. See how he treats those with whom he has business dealings. Is he a loving person? Is he a person of integrity? Is he an honest person? Is he emotionally balanced? Is he an encourager? Is he hopeful?
My husband is a retired pastor. In my opinion he is a prophet, one of the good ones. He never had a huge church and he isn’t famous but he’s a prophet nevertheless. There is a strong call on his life for the promotion of world peace in all its manifestations, including social justice, inclusiveness, ecumenism, and interfaith cooperation. He is also called to expressive and creative worship. He is passionate about these things, even after more than 50 years. He has never wavered on his principles relative to these issues. He never stops reading and learning.
John’s call to be a peacemaker came as a young person in Cuba, and he became a conscientious objector during his college years. This made him a social outcast. Later as a young pastor he demonstrated against the Vietnam War and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This got him kicked out of a suburban church. He is an intercultural person. When his church in Chicago became multi-ethnic and multi-cultural there was a lot of resistance and many of the white people left. John was saddened but undeterred. He personally experiences deep emotional pain whenever violence breaks out at the personal, community, national, or international level. He is against war, weapons, and aggression of any sort with absolutely no exceptions. When you are a prophet you are compelled to stand your ground because God is leading you on, even if you are a voice the wilderness.
For about 28 years I have watched what he does. John harbors no grudges. When someone hurts him, he lets it go almost immediately. He automatically forgives, and even more stunning is how he literally forgets all of the bad things that people have done to him. He remembers only the good. Even those people who for one reason or another have abandoned or rejected him eventually reconcile with him. He never lets the past stand in the way of the future. That’s how it is when you have the heart of a peacemaker. There’s no wolfishness in him. And even when he gets on the wrong track about something, I have learned to have faith that he will figure it out because he is absolutely committed to doing the right thing. About everything. He will make it right if he can.
Over the years John has taught me about theology and church history. I think I’ve taught him a little about spirituality. Together we have experienced exponential spiritual growth. We spend time every day talking about and debating the things of God. When I first met him I thought he was too forgiving, too idealistic, too liberal. The test of time has proven me wrong. During the course of watching him for a couple of decades I have grown to appreciate the degree to which he is enlightened. God is in his ear and Jesus is in his bones.
When someone claims to speak for God, Jesus tells us all to be very careful. We need to take our time, get to know them, and watch what they do and how they live their lives. Ultimately we can only know the measure of a prophet by becoming a bit of a prophet ourselves. We all have to learn to listen to God rather than expecting someone else to do it for us. It’s good to hear what others have to say, but you have to be your own prophet. The true test is intuitive; you have to listen to God yourself. Everyone has to be his own prophet.
One more thing about good fruit – it’s always sweet. There’s always some sweetness when God’s involved. Look for sweetness because it must be in there somewhere if the person’s a prophet. Even Amos, the angriest of the Old Testament prophets, offers a vision for a better future. True prophets always offer hope.
What does this scripture say to you?