October 29, 1995
by J. David Hoke
Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but
inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes
are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are
they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears
bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree
produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down
and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.
Some people have concluded that trying to discern what is the truth is an
exercise in futility. It seems that we have bought into the notion that
truth is a relative concept. In other words, truth depends on how you
define it. What is true for you may not be true for me. What is true today
may not be true tomorrow. The idea that there is absolute truth is
becoming increasingly foreign to our society.
There have always been questions about the nature of truth. Philosophers
have speculated about truth for centuries. Pilate, in the process of
questioning Jesus, asked a very pointed and pertinent question. He asked,
"What is truth?" Many are still asking that same question today.
And when people come along purporting to
be a vessel chosen by God to teach the truth, how are we to know what to
believe about them? There are many of those voices today. Indeed, all
around us we find those claiming to have a prophetic word concerning
issues that impact our lives. In the Christian community, there are many
preaching messages that not only differ in minor details but also differ
in fundamental content. Who is right? Who do we follow? How do we know?
Why would people fall for a David Koresh?
How could people be taken in by a Jim Jones? One writer observed, "The
greater tragedy of Jonestown was not that nearly a thousand people died,
but that they died believing they were serving God."
Jesus Himself warned us that "false
Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, as
so to mislead, if possible, even the elect" (Matthew 24:24). His
words have certainly proved correct over the years. And because they are
true, we must develop a capacity to discern the true from the false
prophet. It is to this issue that the Scripture speaks today.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus
has been telling us how we should live our lives. Now He applies the same
principles to those who come in God's name. And He gives us a method by
which we can more accurately and effectively determine who is true and who
What is the key? How can we be sure? What
is the method by which we may discern who is true and who is false? Well,
in the first place, He indicates that we discern prophets . . .
Not By Appearance
Beware of the false prophets, who come
to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.
Before we can determine who is true and who is false, we must understand a
fundamental principle. It is that we cannot make a determination based
simply on outward appearance. If we simply look at externals, we may be
I am sure this is what happened in both
the case of David Koresh and Jim Jones. In fact, in the case of Jim Jones
we have a striking illustration of this truth. Mel White in his book
Deceived, gives us an interesting picture of Jones.
He knew how to inspire hope. He
was committed to people in need; He counseled prisoners and juvenile
delinquents. He started a job placement center; He opened rest homes and
homes for the retarded; He had a health clinic; He organized a vocational
training center; He provided free legal aid; He founded a community
center; He preached about God. He even claimed to cast out demons, do
miracles and heal.
There is no doubt that if someone looked
at Jim Jones and his ministry that they would conclude that he was a true
minister of God. In fact, countless church leaders, governors, senators,
congressmen, and even the President of the United States recognized him
for the great work he was doing. Little did they know.
The same can be said for David Koresh.
Shortly after the Waco tragedy, I was asked by the English periodical
Evangelicals Now to write a short article about Koresh. In my
research, I came across a piece written by Steven R. Reed for the
Houston Chronicle in which he said, "The beginning was innocent
enough. A charismatic young man named Vernon Howell embraced God's word,
sought God's will and worshipped God's Son." This kind of an observation
only reveals to us how hard it is to look at outward appearances and judge
what is really going on in the heart. Outwardly, Koresh may have seemed
like he was a man seeking the truth. The truth, however, is not where
Koresh ended up. Reed goes on to conclude, "Called to serve Christ,
Howell-Koresh instead had tried to supplant Him." Tragically for many,
what appeared to be a man seeking to serve God was instead a man deceived
and deceiving others.
If we evaluate things based on
appearances, we will make a serious mistake. We may be in danger of being
deceived ourselves. Did Jesus say that in the end times these false
prophets would show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if
possible, even the elect? If we were to only look at the outward
manifestation of supernatural power, we might be deceived. Satan is a
supernatural being too.
Jesus said that these false prophets
would come to you in sheep's clothing. Think about it. The perfect
disguise for a wolf seeking to have a lamb chop for dinner would be a
sheep suit. He might look like a sheep, but on the inside he would still
be a hungry, vicious wolf. You see, the old saying that "if it walks like
a duck and quacks like a duck, it is probably a duck" is not necessarily
true. In fact, we all walk like and quack like a lot of things we are not.
The strategy of Satan is not to show up in a red suit and horns, pointed
tail, and a pitchfork. He comes as an angel of light. A strategy of Satan
is to appear to be something he is not.
So if a false prophet appears to be a
true prophet and a true prophet appears to be a true prophet, how are we
to know the difference? If we cannot rely upon outward appearances, upon
what should we rely? The key is looking deeper. The key is seeing past the
outward appearance. The key is to unzip the sheep's suit. Jesus tells us
that we will know the true prophet from the false prophet, not by
appearances . . .
But By Fruit
You will know them by their
fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles,
are they? Even so, every good tree bears fruit; but the bad tree bears bad
fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce
good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and
thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.
The true test of a true or false prophet
has to do with the kind and character of their fruit. Appearances can be
deceiving. But taking the time to inspect the fruit will give a more
certain indication of the nature of the tree.
Suppose you are not skilled in picking
out trees by the appearance of their foliage. If you were to come upon a
orchard of trees that had yet borne no fruit that season, there would be
no way for you to tell what kind of trees they were. You would simply have
to wait until the fruit began to come. As the fruit started to appear, all
doubt would be erased as to the kind of tree it was. If you saw apples,
you would conclude that it was an apple tree. If you saw oranges, you
would conclude that it was an orange tree. If you saw pears, you would
conclude that it was a pear tree. You would know - you would know by the
This is precisely the point that Jesus is
making here. He says that a good tree bears good fruit. Conversely,
the bad tree bears bad fruit. It is impossible, for instance, for a
thorn bush to produce grapes. They must be produced from a
grape vine. And figs come from fig trees, not thistles.
Inspecting the fruit is the key to discerning the true prophet from the
Now we might ask ourselves just what kind
of fruit reveals the nature of the prophet. What are the marks of a true
prophet? What are the marks of a false prophet?
One area in which Jesus expects us to
bear good fruit is the area of our character. Here we are talking about
who we are on the inside. What are your motives? What are your attitudes?
What are your ambitions? Jesus said in John 15:8, "By this is my
Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my
disciples." Paul in Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that "the
fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." In other words, if we are
walking in the power of the Spirit then we will be displaying the fruit of
the Spirit in our lives. If what we are manifesting in our lives is
something other than the fruit of the Spirit described in Galatians, then
we may conclude that we are not being lead by the Spirit.
When you are trying to evaluate one who
speaks in the name of the Lord, first look to the inner character of the
individual. Look inside. Look at the heart. Take the time to get to know
the person well enough to find out what is on the inside.
Incidentally, this is one of the reasons
why it is so important to be connected to a local church. You can't simply
watch someone on television or listen to someone on radio and evaluate
what is on the inside. You never really get a chance to see them long
enough to get any idea of that. It is only when you live with people and
get to know them that you can catch a glimpse of what is on the inside.
Another kind of fruit that Jesus
emphasizes is what we may call the fruit of good works, or action fruit.
In Colossians 1:10, Paul exhorts us to "walk in a manner worthy of
the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work
and increasing in the knowledge of God." A true prophet will be
involved in doing the work of the Lord in a selfless way. He will not be
in it for his own glory. He will not be in it for profit. He will be a
servant of God seeking to serve others.
Another area of good fruit has to do with
sound doctrine. We are exhorted in the Scriptures to give attention to
sound doctrine, or proper scriptural teaching. A false prophet will subtly
pervert the teaching of Scripture. He will give it in a slightly twisted
way in order to serve his own ends. That is why it is so important for us
to get into the Bible for ourselves, in order not to be deceived by those
who twist Scripture. Had the followers of David Koresh or Jim Jones been
Biblically grounded they would have probably never fallen for their
So when you hear the many voices claiming
to speak for God, be careful. Notice that I did not say be skeptical. Far
too many people close themselves off to God because they are afraid of
being deceived. The fact that there are false prophets means that there
are true prophets. So don't be skeptical - be careful. Evaluate what you
hear by the Word of God. Look at the character of the person's life. Look
at the goal of the person's ministry. If what you see lines up with the
Word of God, then rejoice. If there is something not right, then beware.
Beware of the false prophets, who come
to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will
know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15)
Copyright (C) 1995 J. David Hoke. This
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