Though we often think of the term, “false prophets,” in relation to those who claim to be preaching a message from God, the world, it is suggested, is filled with false prophets, not all of whom openly declare themselves to be of a religious persuasion.
The Serpent in the Garden was most manifestly a false teacher, though he never claimed to represent God and openly dismissed the claims of God.
Jesus wisely taught, concerning the prevalence of false prophets, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-20; ESV)”
There are several valid ways to apply Jesus’ admonition.
Practically, one can look at the end results of one’s work. If the work of a marital counselor resulted in all her clients getting a divorce, one might well conclude she was a poor counselor. If the result of an electrician’s work is that, at the end of the day, a house that once had electricity no longer has it, one might conclude he was a poor electrician. Likewise, if, as a result of following a particular person or doctrine, one loses one’s soul, one can know that the theology was poor.
Yet one does not have to wait for God’s judgment after death in order to examine the fruits of a “prophet.”
The fruit of the Spirit of God is love (cf. Galatians 5:22). If the preaching of a particular man enjoins hatred and strive, the Scriptures warn us that this is not a message of God. “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. (James 3:14-15; ESV)”
Likewise, God enjoins faithfulness in marriage, and devotion to one’s spouse. If a friend, minister, or counselor encourages one to be unfaithful, even adulterous, we can know that this is a “false” message, not from God. The same is true of all God teaches – honesty, kindness, generosity, not-murdering-people. What God says is true and good – any teaching which runs counter to it, producing a harvest of sin, is not a righteous and godly doctrine and those that promote such behaviors are most certainly false prophets.
Consider though, one more application. Consider those practices, or behaviors, which regularly produce a poor fruit. By way of illustration, in the past, certain doctors advocated smoking as being a healthy practice. While there might, admittedly, be a very small number of diseases that are inhibited by cigarettes, when we understand that half of all smokers die as a direct result of their habit, we understand the fruit of the tree is bad. Smoking is a net negative for your health.
Most people can understand this in relation to physical health, but of even greater concern are those behaviors which affect spiritual health, not to mention our relationship with others. Some might advocate the consumption of alcohol as having immediate benefits in their lives, but when we consider the long-term fruits including broken homes, addiction, and even death we are hard pressed to consider the tree good that produces such fruit. The promises of happiness through drunkenness are false promises from a false prophet.
The same could be said for many other vices. Drugs, sexual immorality, even the love of money (cf. 1 Timothy 6:10)… all these things produce sad fruit when the harvest comes. They are false prophets and those who follow after them are not wise, which is why God enjoins us to avoid such things.
The fruit of the word of God, and thus the fruit of the Spirit of God, is love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and in the end, eternal life (cf. Galatians 5:22-23; Romans 6:22). These are the fruits we should be seeking. It is the tree that produces such fruits that we should be eating of.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.