Following His call for us to pursue the narrow way that leads to salvation (Matt. 7:13–14), Jesus warns us to beware of false prophets in today’s passage (vv. 15–20). Just as there are two ways, one of salvation and another of damnation, so too are there only two kinds of teachers: true ones and false ones. Being able to distinguish these teachers from one another is vital if we want to promote our spiritual well-being. Otherwise, false prophets will lead us to destruction.
Recognizing prophetic impostors is not always easy, but Jesus says the fruit of their teaching helps us evaluate our instructors (vv. 15–16a). Some buckthorn bushes in Palestine produce black berries that look like grapes from a distance, and certain thistles have flowers that appear to be figs. However, a close inspection of both these fruits reveals them for what they really are — things unfit for consumption. Likewise, we must examine the fruits our teachers produce in order to determine the nature of the source from which they come (vv. 16b–18).
Since the church’s foundation has been laid (Eph. 2:19–21), no one today exercises the gift of prophecy as the prophets and apostles of old did. Yet the prophetic responsibility to explain God’s Word to the people remains, and teachers are obligated, like the prophets, to preach true doctrine (Deut. 13:1–5; Titus 2:1). Therefore, teachers who exhort us to live out Jesus’ rules for kingdom life bear good fruit. Sound teachers call us to repent (Matt. 5:3), live as salt and light (vv. 13–16), recognize our inability to keep God’s law under our own power (v. 20), and follow Christ wholeheartedly (6:19–24). True teachers never knowingly reject Scripture’s clear teaching (Gal. 1:8–9; 2 John 9). John Calvin comments, “All doctrines must be brought to the Word of God as the standard, and that, in judging of false prophets, the rule of faith holds the chief place.”
Good fruit also includes purity of character and life. This does not mean moral perfection, but general conformity to Christ. Those whom the Father calls to shepherd His flock must not live in debauchery (2 Peter 2). They must not preach and practice envy or divide over minor matters (1 Tim. 6:2b–5). By their holy conduct, they are to set a good example for God’s chosen people (4:12).
Though we are all responsible to evaluate our teachers by the fruit of their teaching and lives, it does not necessarily follow that this evaluation is solely an individual responsibility. In fact, we need other Christians who are grounded in the faith to help us do this. The study of church history, our church’s confessions, and membership in a good, local church is necessary to help us weed out the good teachers from the bad. Are you involved in such things?
For further study:
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