Watch out for the fake prophets.

Look past their messages. What fruit do they produce?

Matthew 7.15-20, 12.33-35 • Luke 6.43-45

Right after Jesus’s teaching about the narrow gate, Jesus gives this warning about people who are pretending be prophets, but aren’t.

What, there are fake prophets? Of course there are. You’ve met a few. A prophet hears from God and shares what God’s said. A fake prophet heard nothing, but acts as if God told ’em stuff, and fakes it as best they can.

Sometimes they didn’t really hear God at all (and if they’re cessationist they’re entirely sure nobody can hear him). But they think they count as real prophets, ’cause they quote bible, which is stuff God told people. Just not recently, and to entirely different people, but still: They’re repeating God’s words, and doesn’t that count as prophecy? Well no. That’s teaching. It’s what I usually do; it’s what most preachers and scholars do. It can have a prophetic element when we’re actively listening to the Holy Spirit as we research. But prophecy is repeating what God’s individually told us; teaching is studying and explaining the scriptures. Even if teachers do just as Old Testament prophets did—denounce sin, correct a wayward culture, encourage holiness, and point to God—still not prophecy. And if self-exalting teachers wanna insist they’re prophets anyway, I would point out the Spirit’s not gonna misinterpret his own bible anywhere near as often as they. (There’s one free tip on one way to identify a fake prophet.)

Sometimes they don’t actually hear God. I occasionally run into mentalists who think they’re prophets. They’ve learned tricks, and think their tricks are how we hear God. They messages sound a lot like things God might say; bible-y language and Jesus-y statements. They encourage people, and isn’t encouragement the same as prophecy? They make people feel good, make ’em positive and happy, and isn’t that fruitful? Except their track record is about the same as any carnival mindreader, and encouragement becomes discouragement once the prophecies come to nothing.

Sometimes they totally know they’re frauds. But they’ve convinced themselves they’re doing it for a greater purpose—to spread Jesus’s kingdom, by hook or by crook. They’re pointing people on the narrow path Jesus wants us on. They’re invoking faith, ’cause now people believe God talks through them—and isn’t faith a good thing? So what if this “faith” is based on rubbish?

Or they’re frauds, know it, are totally in it for selfish reasons, and don’t care.

Doesn’t matter their motives. All of this is evil. It’s lies and hypocrisy; it’s tricking people into thinking God speaks through them. You do realize people regularly make major life changes based on prophecies, right? ’Cause supposedly God told them what to do. So they do it! But since God really didn’t… it’s never gonna go well.

Anyway, another of Jesus’s tips for identifying these guys is how their lifestyle doesn’t jibe with who they claim to be.

Matthew 7.15-20 KWL
15 “Watch out for the fake prophets, who come to all of you dressed as sheep,
but underneath they’re greedy wolves. 16 You’ll recognize them by their fruits.
People don’t pluck grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles, do they?
17 So every good tree grows good fruits, and a rotten tree grows bad fruits.
18 A good tree doesn’t grow bad fruits, nor a rotten tree grow good fruits.
19 Every tree not growing good fruit is cut down and thrown into fire.
20 It’s precisely by their fruits that you’ll recognize them.”

If you’re a prophet, it means you listen to the Holy Spirit. If you listen to the Spirit, you’re inevitably gonna produce fruit of the Spirit. His personality tends to create a serious impact on our personalities: We start to act like him. More love, joy, peace, blah blah blah… I mean patience. And the rest Paul listed in Galatians, Ga 5.22-23 and the various godly traits we see mentioned in the New Testament, like grace.

If you’re a fake prophet, y’might be able to fake the prophecies, but you’re not gonna succeed at faking the fruit. Much as you’ll try.

Fakes in general.

There are two other passages which’re kinda parallel to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount teaching about fake prophets. They have to do with fruitless Christians in general. They’re found elsewhere in Matthew, and in Luke.

Matthew 12.33-35 KWL
33 “Either grow the tree and its fruit right, or grow the tree and its fruit rotten:
From the fruit, you know the tree.
34 You viper-children, how can you speak good yet be evil?
From the mind’s overflow, the mouth speaks.
35 The good person throws up good things from a good treasury.
The evil person throws up evil things from an evil treasury.”
Luke 6.43-45 KWL
43 “For a good tree doesn’t grow rotten fruit, nor a rotten tree grow good fruit:
44 Each tree is known by its own fruit.
You don’t gather figs from thistles. You don’t reap grape bunches from thornbushes.
45 The good person brings up good things from the good treasury of a good mind.
The evil brings up evil things out of an evil mind.
From the mind’s overflow, their mouth speaks.”

Nonetheless we know there are a lot of fruitless Christians out there. One of their more popular clichés is, “I’m not perfect; I’m just forgiven.” Which should be a statement about how awesome God’s grace is; how he saves us despite what screw-ups we are. Trouble is, fruitless Christians turn it into their mission statement. They’re forgiven. So not only needn’t they be perfect; they’re not even gonna try. (Supposedly if we try, it’s works-righteousness.)

This is why we have Christianists, people who call themselves Christian, and like the trappings of Christianity, but don’t follow Jesus any. They’ll quote loads of bible, but won’t follow any of it. They claim to follow “biblical principles,” but really these “principles” are twists of scripture which support the very same opinions and prejudices they had back when they were pagan. Lots of hypocrisy. Little fruit.

Nope, they don’t have fruit either. No kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, nor self-control. When they quote bible, there’s hostility behind it. Sometimes passive-aggressive; sometimes just plain aggressive. There’s anger, envy, jealousy; they want people to conform to their standards, biblical or not. There’s selfish ambition: They wanna be our spiritual authorities or masters. There’s fights, feuds, grudges, dissension, church splits; pastors get fired, Christians get excommunicated.

There’s even sorcery: They wield bible verses like they’re magic spells, and think their words have secret, hidden powers—which God never gave ’em. There’s idolatry: Instead of following Jesus as he is, they follow Jesus as they’ve reimagined him (and no surprise, he thinks just like they do); or they have a close personal relationship with their bibles instead of the Holy Spirit. And sometimes, behind the façade of holiness they put up, there’s sexual immorality, impurity, lust, drunkenness, wild parties…

Yeah, basically all the things on Paul’s list of works of the flesh. Ga 5.19-21 and the rest of the things on Paul’s list. Either disguised as zeal for the things of God, or just plain hidden. Either way, these people aren’t inheriting the kingdom. Ga 5.21 They’re fooling themselves, but don’t you be fooled.

Notice it’s not a matter of “being all talk” with no action. There’s plenty of action: These folks get the people of their churches to behave, conform, and even minister to the needy like Christians oughta. But don’t look at that; look for the Spirit’s fruit. Is it there? More love, joy, peace, kindness, forgiveness, grace? Do any of their actions look like the Holy Spirit is overflowing in their lives?

And I haven’t even got to the prophets. Bad enough that ministers act this way, but we shouldn’t see this degree of fruitlessness in ordinary Christians. Even newbies start to change in character once the Spirit gets ahold of them. Yet I’ve known self-described longtime Christians who act like the very worst of the Pharisees in the gospels who fought Jesus. All loopholes or legalism. No love.

Jesus compares these folks to literal fruit. Can we get figs from thistles? Grapes from thornbushes? Mt 7.16, Lk 6.44 No and no. I suppose some scientist could splice these plants together if they really wanted. But Jesus’s point is we’re pretty good at identifying which plants are useful, and which are weeds. We oughta be just as good at separating humans who resemble wheat and weeds. Mt 13.24-29 These folks think their pious talk and religious activities make ’em Christian. They don’t realize their fruitlessness exposes them for the loathsome frauds they really are.

Back to the prophets.

Paul’s requirements for elders, for mature Christians whom we can put into leadership positions, all have to do with character. Don’t put fruitless Christians in charge! Don’t let fruitless Christians anywhere near real authority.

Problem is, Christians break this rule all the time because we’re suckers for charm, strength, and what appears to be supernatural ability. Somebody claims to be a prophet, says a few things which sound profound or positive, and suddenly everybody’s doing whatever he tells ’em, and are even willing to go with him to Guyana and drink his Kool-Aid.

These leaders’ real allegiance—to themselves and their schemes, not Jesus—are easily detected when we look at their fruit. But we don’t. We look at what the rest of humanity does. We’re impressed by the smokescreen. We’re led astray by the light show.

God talks to everybody, so anyone who listens to him can become a prophet. But in the hands of a fruitless Christian, God’s message will be warped. It’ll be used to manipulate, control, tear down, and tear apart. What God means to strengthen, encourage, and comfort, 1Co 14.3 fake prophets use as weapons to knock people down and steal their wallets. Even their hearts.

So pay particular attention to fake prophets. And watch out lest you become a fake prophet yourself. Work on developing the Spirit’s fruit! Watch out for those who won’t.