The threat of false prophets to which Jesus alludes in this passage was nothing new for the people of God. Speaking through Jeremiah, God said: “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority; and My people love it so!” (5:30-31). Again, “Then the Lord said to me [Jeremiah], ‘the prophets are prophesying falsehood in My name. I have neither sent them nor commanded them nor spoken to them; they are prophesying to you a false vision, divination, futility and the deception of their own minds’” (14:14). Although spoken in the 6th century b.c., these words ring all too true in our own day.
The NT had its fair share of false prophets, false teachers, pseudo-apostles, and the like. See especially Acts 20:29-31; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; 2 Peter 2:1-3; Jude 4. But perhaps never before in church history have we witnessed such a proliferation of spurious preachers and teachers and prophets as we see today. Jesus’ warning in vv. 15-23 is, therefore, uniquely appropriate to the church at the close of the 20th century.
Here Jesus speaks of two trees in vv. 15-20 and two testimonies in vv. 21-23.
A. The Two Trees – 7:15-20
Jesus focuses on three things concerning these false prophets: their deception, their danger, and their disclosure.
1. their deception
This is what Jesus has in mind when he describes them in v. 15 as coming to us “in sheep’s clothing.” The bald-faced, openly heretical lie is of little concern to me. There aren’t many Christians who are likely to be taken in or duped by the vocal heretic or the theological anarchist. The church usually responds well to frontal assaults. But Jesus has in mind the sort of attack that sneaks in secretly, a doctrinal or ethical Trojan horse, so to speak.
The most dangerous and deceptive individuals, ideas and activities often make their entry into the church with all the trappings of religiosity and piety. They come clothed in clerical robes, touting academic degrees from prestigious universities and seminaries, using the best and most sophisticated theological vocabulary, and usually with personality traits that make it extremely difficult not to like them (e.g., Garner Ted Armstrong). These people are not like the “dogs” or “swine” of 7:6 who are openly obnoxious and repulsive and therefore easy to detect and reject. These “false prophets” who come “in sheep’s clothing” rarely if ever advertise themselves as those who deny historical, biblical orthodoxy. As McConnell notes,
“those who preach different gospels want their deception to sound like such a perfect recording of the orthodox gospel that the believer is left scratching his head wondering, ‘Is it live? . . . Or is it Memorex?’”
2. their danger
They may come in sheep’s clothing, but as Jesus says, “inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” This was an especially relevant and meaningful metaphor in the first century insofar as many were shepherds. See also John 10:11-13; Ezek. 22:27-28.
3. their disclosure
Contrast this with 7:1ff. This call to “test” and “try” and “examine” is not unusual. See 1 John and the three-fold test of authentic Christianity: the moral test (2:3-4), the social test (2:9-11), and the doctrinal test (2:18-23).
The imagery Jesus uses in these verses would mean more to his original audience than to us. In Palestine there was a certain thornbush called the buckhorn which had little black berries that from a distance closely resembled grapes. There was also a thistle which had a flower that from a distance might be mistaken for a fig. The point is that there may be a superficial resemblance between the true and the false, but on close inspection you discover that a buckhorn cannot yield grapes nor a thistle yield figs. Given enough time, people will be true to their inner nature. The rotten tree will eventually produce rotten fruit.
The “fruit” which Jesus has in mind = their doctrine and especially their deeds.
Doctrine Perhaps he has in mind their denial of the gospel of the narrow gate just described in vv. 13-14. There is good reason why Jesus warns us about false gospels. Just as there is a misleading gate and a misleading way, there are also misleading teachers and prophets who point to that gate and promote that way. These are, as it were, tour guides who stand outside the broad gate coaxing and encouraging unwary travelers to follow its easy and wide path.
“There is nothing in their preaching which fosters poverty of spirit, nothing which searches the conscience and makes me cry to God for mercy; nothing which excoriates all forms of religious hypocrisy (it isn’t that they encourage it; they simply ignore it); nothing which prompts such righteousness of conduct and attitude that some persecution is inevitable” (Carson, 127-28).
In fact, it isn’t necessary that these false prophets ever utter a falsehood. It is more what they don’t say: the half-truths, the use of our vocabulary but with different definitions, etc. Stott points to their “amoral optimism,” i.e., their extreme emphasis on divine love to the exclusion of holiness and wrath. Their preaching is intentionally vague and overly general. They rarely speak of specific doctrines and their moral implications. Sin isn’t denied; it is just de-emphasized.
Deeds – Although for a time they may get away with mimicking the morality of the Bible, it will eventually catch up with them. Given enough time their true motivation will be revealed: self-interest. They are often in the ministry for a) money; b) prestige (contrast Paul: “we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord” 2 Cor. 4:5); or c) pride (often concocting novel ideas and doctrines to stoke the fires of his inflated sense of importance).
B. The Two Testimonies – 7:21-23
We learn here that a confession of faith is only as good as the heart from which it arises.
There are several conclusions we must be careful not to draw from what Jesus says:
· Jesus does not mean we can dispense with professions of faith, creeds, testimonies. See Rom. 10:9-10.
· We are not being told that addressing Jesus as “Lord” is wrong.
· We are not being told that works justify or earn entrance into heaven. We are not saved by works but we are saved for works. Sola fides iustificat, sed non fides quae est sola (“Faith alone justifies, but not the faith which is alone”).
Note several remarkable things about these who testify and profess that they are saved:
· They are both fervent and zealous: “Lord, Lord!” In fact, they are not ashamed of the name of Christ. Three times (!) they appeal to the fact that all their “works” were done “in Your name.”
It should be noted that in Jesus’ day the designation “Lord” need mean no more than “teacher” or “sir”. It was not necessarily a confession of spiritual allegiance and faith. However, in the post-resurrection church, from which context Matthew is writing, “it becomes an appellation of worship and a confession of Jesus’ deity” (Carson, 192).
· They are probably convinced they are really saved. They will be astonished at the judgment seat. Why? Because their assurance of salvation is grounded solely in their profession, not their practice. Granted, they have “works” to which they may appeal, but not the kind which qualify as being “the Father’s will.” What are the “works” that are the Father’s will? Poverty of spirit, mourning for sin, meekness, hunger for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, truth-telling, self-sacrifice, love for one’s enemies that goes beyond the call of duty, etc.
· How did they come to be so deceived? Carson explains:
“It is not so much that the false claimant lulls himself into spiritual apathy, as that he mistakes loud profession and supernatural, almost magical formulations and experiences, for true spirituality and genuine godliness. Obedience is neglected. The pressure of the spectacular has excluded the stability of growing conformity to the Father’s will. Because he seems to be getting results, immediate results, spectacular results, he feels he is close to the center of true religion. His success indices are soaring: God must be blessing him. Surely God will understand and sympathize if there is not always enough time for prayer, self-examination, or conscious repentance. The results are the important thing. If the truth gets a trifle bent, it’s only because the supporters need to hear certain things. And is it wise to run the risk of driving off such supporters by talking about the narrow way? Just as Nixon’s closest aides could talk themselves into believing that their cause was more important than their ethics, so these religious extroverts convince themselves that their success-oriented spectacular victories are more important than the nitty-gritty of consistent discipleship” (131).
· Those who have the greatest and most spectacular ministries are not necessarily the ones who bring an approving smile to the face of God. As important as the power of God in ministry may be, nothing can compare with purity of heart, humility, and a soul that craves to be filled with the righteousness of Christ.
· If these are unbelievers, as Jesus’ words would indicate, how is it that they perform miracles? (1) Perhaps through the common enabling grace of God. Cf. Balaam. (2) Perhaps they did these deeds through the power of Satan. Cf. Acts 19:13-16. (3) Perhaps their claims are spurious: their miracles were false, faked, contrived. Both (1) and (2) seem likely.
· It is frightening to think that what some people regard as supernatural ministry: prophecy, deliverance, miracle-working power, will one day prove to be nothing more than “lawlessness” (v. 23)! It is also frightening to think how close to spiritual reality one may come while knowing nothing of its true essence (consider Judas Iscariot).
· “That day” is the day of final judgment (see Mt. 25:31-46; Luke 10:12; 2 Thess. 1:7-10; 2 Tim. 1:12; 4:8; Rev. 16:14).
· What, then, is the essential characteristic of the true believer, the one who truly follows Jesus? “It is not loud profession, nor spectacular spiritual triumphs, nor protestations of great spiritual experience. Rather, his chief characteristic is obedience. . . . The Father’s will is not simply admired, discussed, praised, debated [or exegeted!]; it is done” (Carson, 130).
· What does this passage contribute to the on-going debate known as the “Lordship Salvation” controversy?
The concluding declaration in v. 23 is startling: Jesus says, “I don’t care about your miracles if you have no mercy. I don’t care about your works of power if there is no purity in your heart. I don’t care about your exorcisms if there is no encouragement for others. I have never known you in a saving way. You are strangers to me. All your activity, all your deeds that you paraded before others as righteousness, are lawless and therefore loathsome to my heavenly Father. Depart from me!”