Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

67. False Teachers (Matthew 7:15-20; Luke 6:43-45)*

The danger of ending up on the broad way to destruction is not so great for the earnest well-intentioned disciple as for the heedless easygoing self-centred worldling. But this danger does exist-for a different reason. A man’s eagerness to ensure that he is following the way of truth may lead him to attach himself to any dogmatic teacher who recommends himself by his own self-assurance. Such have been known to appear among the faithful with all the trappings of dedicated zeal and specialised knowledge.

“Grievous wolves”

Paul foretold the phenomenon: “Grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise. speaking perverse things to draw away disciples offer them” (Acts. 20:29, 30). The apostle learned that term “wolves” from his Master. And the word he used for “grievous” suggests men who throw their weight about.

Jesus expressed the same idea when he bade his disicples “beware of false prophets”-men who rise up claiming falsely to speak with divine authority (cp. 1 Kgs. 13:11-32). He was to round off his ministry with a similar and even more pointed warning against these self-accredited teachers (Mt. 24:23-26).

Such men come “in sheep’s clothing”, soft and white-that is, with all the outward signs of being respectable and conformable members of the flock-but “inwardly they are ravening wolves”. But “sheep’s clothing” may mean more than “a sheep’s appearance”. Enduma means “a garment which is put on”. So it could be that this false prophet is pictured as a shepherd who fleeces or slays his sheep for his own comfort and well-being. The description: “ravening wolves” now follows very suitably. The picture could hardly be more accurate. When a wolf behaves as a wolf, it is not deliberately setting out to be fierce and predatory, it is simply behaving according to its nature. In the same way the false teacher leaves a trail of damage and ruin because this is his nature -- his old nature, unchanged by the influence of Christ.

The figure (used again by Jesus in his parable of the Good Shepherd; Jn. 10:12) is drawn from one of Ezekiel’s searing censures of evil men in his own generation, but (like Ezekiel’s other prophecies) with prophetic reference to later days also. Prophets, priests and princes are all bitterly condemned for “ravening the prey like wolves” (22:25-27).

Paul passed on his Lord’s warning as one urgently needed in the early church: “Grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts. 20:29.) It was one of the apostle’s characteristic understatements. They did much worse than that.

This basic characteristic of an unchanged nature is stressed yet again: “Do men gather a grape (even a single grape?) of thorns, or figs of thistles?” The fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23) do not grow on the least attractive of God’s plants.

Thorns and thistles, one of the curses of the Fall in Eden (Gen. 3:18), may still make their rank presence felt in the New Creation.

Needful Repetition

The principle that a leader in the church shall be judged by his fruits seems simple and obvious. Nevertheless the Lord’s insight into human nature led him to stress this truth again and again, both positively and negatively. It is as though he were teaching little children. Looking back over the years, who can say that the warning was unnecessary? To what extent has it been heeded? Perhaps there has been some uncertainty as to what Jesus meant by “their fruits”. The easy assumption that this describes a man’s personal righteousness is not adequate. The public act put on by the Pharisees had taken in an entire nation, and it would be strange indeed if there have not been more recent revivals of so successful a stage play.

Fruits - Judging Others

Yet in one respect this criterion is sound. In Luke’s gospel the advice to judge the quality of a tree by its fruits is closely linked with the beam and the mote - the denunciation of those who, heedless of their own short-comings, judge others with gusto. Faction leaders have ever shown a marked flair for disreputable activities of this kind.

Deceitful teachers may seek to add to this deceit by a show of good fruits. But the discerning will not be taken in. “A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit”. This is an achievement beyond the power of men. Only God can achieve it, and only in Messiah’s family, as the genealogy of Messiah’s family illustrates: “Coz begat Anub” - Thorn begat Grape (1 Chr. 4:8).

The apostle James appears to have given the Lord’s words the same sort of meaning. In a chapter which used the figure of the tongue for the influence of the teacher in the ecclesia he more than implies that a teacher who is capable of both “blessing and cursing...bitter envying and strife” (3:1 RV, 10, 14) is not fit to have disciples at all: “Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine figs?”. Does not each bear “offer his kind”? Yet, unwilling to lacerate his readers too much with the sharpness of his Lord’s figure, James seems deliberately to have modified the original saying.


Alternatively, it could be that the “fruits” Jesus alluded to are the actual teachings of these unworthy upstarts, but if so the figure loses some of its fitness, for fruits grow and ripen slowly. Again, and more probably, it is the quality of the disciples of these men to which the Lord pointed: ‘You can assess these prophets by the; kind of followers they gather round them’. In another place where the crop was recognized by its fruits-the parable of the tares - this seems; to be the main point: “When the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also” (Mt. 13:26). The sowing of the tares corresponds to the introduction of false teaching. The ripening in the ear suggests the kind of converts made by this introduction of error.

Fruits - Attitude to Christ

The Lord himself indicated yet another application of this mini-parable, in a later encounter with the Pharisees, when his wonderful miracles were being airily attributed to an alliance with the powers of evil, he bade these baneful adversaries apply his own simple test to himself: “Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit” (Mt. 12:33). But Jesus meant the test to be applied to these Pharisees also-and with what damning results?

So the Lord’s test of false prophets could have as its main point: “You are to judge these men by what they say about me”. (In Mt. the context has precisely this idea; see Study 75). All stand or fall by their attitude to Jesus Christ! This is the very test by which the apostle John proposed to sort out the true and the false among the crop of self-appointed teachers with which the early church found itself afflicted: “Many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God”. To this day there is no better single test of truth and error.


And if the teacher be found wanting, if the tree bear evil fruit, what then? Christ answers bluntly: “It is hewn down, and cast into the fire”. This is also the fate of the tree which bears no fruit: “Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?” (Lk. 13:7). Even in the present day such decisions are made by “the owner of the vineyard” through the Word that He has given to His servants. And so Paul excommunicated Hymenaeus and Alexander for the blasphemies of their erroneous teaching (1 Tim. 1:19-20); 2 Tim. 2:17, 18). If the mouths of harmful leaders cannot be stopped (Tit. 1:11), this is the only alternative.

Notes: Mt. 7:15-20

Beware of. By a neat choice of Greek preposition the Lord implies: ‘and shy away from’.
Grapes of thorns. A common OT figure; Pr. 22:5; Hos. 10:8; ls. 5:4 (Heb: stinkers); Mic. 7:l, 4 (a very fine Messianic prophecy); Jer. 2:21.
Cannot. A strong expression; a word often used in NT for divine action.

Good Tree...good fruit. Different adjectives here. A sound or wholesome tree producing beautiful fruit which in turn can be judged by its appearance.
Hewn John the Baptist’s metaphor; Mt. 3:10.
Wherefore. The Greek expression has a rather sardonic flavour.

By their fruits. Dt. 18:22 supplies yet another kind of test.

Luke 6:43-45

Corrupt fruits. The context here suggests that this might be the judging of others. But in Mt. 7 the reference is to false teachers. So here is another hallmark of the unworthy leader-his penchant for wholesale self-righteous censure of others. Luke’s details of the figure are different, but the idea is the same. Here is a clear example illustrating that Jesus used the same ideas in his teaching on more than one occasion.
Bringeth forth. This verb comes only here and in Pr. 10:13 LXX where the reading is: “He that brings forth wisdom (good fruit) from his lips smites the fool with a rod.” i.e. his wise utterance is in itself a censure of the ill-informed.

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