We have here a caution against false prophets, to take heed that we be not deceived and imposed upon by them. Prophets are properly such as foretel things to come; there are some mentioned in the Old Testament, who pretended to that without warrant, and the event disproved their pretensions, as Zedekiah, 1 Kgs. 22:11; and another Zedekiah, Jer. 29:21. But prophets did also teach the people their duty, so that false prophets here are false teachers. Christ being a Prophet and a Teacher come from God, and designing to send abroad teachers under him, gives warning to all to take heed of counterfeits, who, instead of healing souls with wholesome doctrine, as they pretend, would poison them.
They are false teachers and false prophets, 1. Who produce false commissions, who pretend to have immediate warrant and direction from God to set up for prophets, and to be divinely inspired, when they are not so. Though their doctrine may be true, we are to beware of them as false prophets. False apostles are those who say they are apostles, and are not (Rev. 2:2); such are false prophets. “Take heed of those who pretend to revelation, and admit them not without sufficient proof, lest that one absurdity being admitted, a thousand follow.” 2. Who preach false doctrine in those things that are essential to religion; who teach that which is contrary to the truth as it is in Jesus, to the truth which is accordingly to godliness. The former seems to be the proper notion of pseudo-propheta, a false or pretending prophet, but commonly the latter falls in with it; for who would hang out false colours, but with design, under pretence of them, the more successfully to attack the truth. “Well, beware of them, suspect them, try them, and when you have discovered their falsehood, avoid them, have nothing to do with them. Stand upon your guard against this temptation, which commonly attends the days of reformation, and the breakings out of divine light in more than ordinary strength and splendour.” When God’s work is revived, Satan and his agents are most busy. Here is,
I. A good reason for this caution, Beware of them, for they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, Matt. 7:15.
1. We have need to be very cautious, because their pretences are very fair and plausible, and such as will deceive us, if we be not upon our guard. They come in sheep’s clothing, in the habit of prophets, which was plain and coarse, and unwrought; they wear a rough garment to deceive, Zech. 13:4. Elijah’s mantle the Septuagint calls he melote—a sheep-skin mantle. We must take heed of being imposed upon by men’s dress and garb, as by that of the scribes, who desire to walk in long robes, Luke 20:46. Or it may be taken figuratively; they pretend to be sheep, and outwardly appear so innocent, harmless, meek, useful, and all that is good, as to be excelled by none; they feign themselves to be just men, and for the sake of their clothing are admitted among the sheep, which gives them an opportunity of doing them a mischief ere they are aware. They and their errors are gilded with the specious pretences of sanctity and devotion. Satan turns himself into an angel of light, 2 Cor. 11:13, 14. The enemy has horns like a lamb (Rev. 13:11); faces of men, Rev. 9:7, 8. Seducers in language and carriage are soft as wool, Rom. 16:18; Isa. 30:10.
2. Because under these pretensions their designs are very malicious and mischievous; inwardly they are ravening wolves. Every hypocrite is a goat in sheep’s clothing; not only not a sheep, but the worst enemy the sheep has, that comes not but to tear and devour, to scatter the sheep (John 10:12), to drive them from God, and from one another, into crooked paths. Those that would cheat us of any truth, and possess us with error, whatever they pretend, design mischief to our souls. Paul calls them grievous wolves, Acts 20:29. They raven for themselves, serve their own belly (Rom. 16:18), make a prey of you, make a gain of you. Now since it is so easy a thing, and withal so dangerous, to be cheated, Beware of false prophets.
II. Here is a good rule to go by in this caution; we must prove all things (1 Thess. 5:21), try the spirits (1 John 4:1), and here we have a touchstone; ye shall know them by their fruits, Matt. 7:16-20. Observe,
1. The illustration of this comparison, of the fruit’s being the discovery of the tree. You cannot always distinguish them by their bark and leaves, nor by the spreading of their boughs, but by their fruits ye shall know them. The fruit is according to the tree. Men may, in their professions, put a force upon their nature, and contradict their inward principles, but the stream and bent of their practices will agree with them. Christ insists upon this, the agreeableness between the fruit and the tree, which is such as that, (1.) If you know what the tree is, you may know what fruit to expect. Never look to gather grapes from thorns, nor figs from thistles; it is not in their nature to produce such fruits. An apple may be stuck, or a bunch of grapes may hang, upon a thorn; so may a good truth, a good word or action, be found in a bad man, but you may be sure it never grew there. Note, [1.] Corrupt, vicious, unsanctified hearts are like thorns and thistles, which came in with sin, are worthless, vexing, and for the fire at last. [2.] Good works are good fruit, like grapes and figs, pleasing to God and profitable to men. [3.] This good fruit is never to be expected from bad men, and more than a clean thing out of an unclean: they want an influencing acceptable principle. Out of an evil treasure will be brought forth evil things. (2.) On the other hand, if you know what the fruit is, you may, by that, perceive what the tree is. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit; and a corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit, nay, it cannot but bring forth evil fruit. But then that must be reckoned the fruit of the tree which it brings forth naturally and which is its genuine product—which it brings forth plentifully and constantly and which is its usual product. Men are known, not by particular acts, but by the course and tenour of their conversation, and by the more frequent acts, especially those that appear to be free, and most their own, and least under the influence of external motives and inducements.
2. The application of this to the false prophets.
(1.) By way of terror and threatening (Matt. 7:19); Every tree that brings not forth good fruit is hewn down. This very saying John the Baptist had used, Matt. 3:10. Christ could have spoken the same sense in other words; could have altered it, or given it a new turn; but he thought it no disparagement to him to say the same that John had said before him; let not ministers be ambitious of coining new expressions, nor people’s ears itch for novelties; to write and speak the same things must not be grievous, for it is safe. Here is, [1.] The description of barren trees; they are trees that do not bring forth good fruit; though there be fruit, if it be not good fruit (though that be done, which for the matter of it is good, if it be not done well, in a right manner, and for a right end), the tree is accounted barren. [2.] The doom of barren trees; they are, that is, certainly they shall be, hewn down, and cast into the fire; God will deal with them as men use to deal with dry trees that cumber the ground: he will mark them by some signal tokens of his displeasure, he will bark them by stripping them of their parts and gifts, and will cut them down by death, and cast them into the fire of hell, a fire blown with the bellows of God’s wrath, and fed with the wood of barren trees. Compare this with Ezek. 31:12, 13; Dan. 4:14; John 15:6.
(2.) By way of trial; By their fruits ye shall know them.
[1.] By the fruits of their persons, their words and actions, and the course of their conversation. If you would know whether they be right or not, observe how they live; their works will testify for them or against them. The scribes and Pharisees sat in Moses’s chair, and taught the law, but they were proud, and covetous, and false, and oppressive, and therefore Christ warned him disciples to beware of them and of their leaven, Mark 12:38. If men pretend to be prophets and are immoral, that disproves their pretensions; those are no true friends to the cross of Christ, whatever they profess, whose God is their belly, and whose mind earthly things, Phil. 3:18, 19. Those are not taught nor sent of the holy God, whose lives evidence that they are led by the unclean spirit. God puts the treasure into earthen vessels, but not into such corrupt vessels: they may declare God’s statutes, but what have they to do to declare them?
[2.] By the fruits of their doctrine; their fruits as prophets: not that this is the only way, but it is one way, of trying doctrines, whether they be of God or not. What do they tend to do? What affections and practices will they lead those into, that embrace them? If the doctrine be of God, it will tend to promote serious piety, humility, charity, holiness, and love, with other Christian graces; but if, on the contrary, the doctrines these prophets preach have a manifest tendency to make people proud, worldly, and contentious, to make them loose and careless in their conversations, unjust or uncharitable, factious or disturbers of the public peace; if it indulge carnal liberty, and take people off from governing themselves and their families by the strict rules of the narrow way, we may conclude, that this persuasion comes not of him that calleth us, Gal. 5:8. This wisdom is from above, Jas. 3:15. Faith and a good conscience are held together, 1 Tim. 1:19; 3:9. Note, Doctrines of doubtful disputation must be tried by graces and duties of confessed certainty: those opinions come not from God that lead to sin: but if we cannot know them by their fruits, we must have recourse to the great touchstone, to the law, and to the testimony; do they speak according to that rule?