Open Matthew 7:15-20.
Matthew 7:15-20 (my translation)
15 Watch out for those who claim to speak for God but don’t. They present themselves as sheep following God, but they’re viscous wolves inside. 16 You’ll recognize them by what they produce. People can’t get grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles. 17 Every good tree makes good fruit; but a worthless tree makes degenerate fruit. 18 A good tree cannot make degenerate fruit, and a worthless tree cannot make good fruit.
19 Every tree that doesn’t make good fruit is cut down for firewood. 20 You can certainly recognize them by their fruit.
What does this have to do with Jesus’ kingdom message? Because we treat religion and politics as unrelated categories, we miss what Jesus meant about false prophets. Jesus’ kingdom message is a threat to those who want power. Conversely, those who want power want to conscript God to affirm their leadership. False prophets are those who affirm false powers — rulers other than Jesus.
The most basic truth about prophecy is that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Down with Jesus!” Conversely, no one can declare Jesus as the Lord of heaven and earth without speaking in partnership with the Holy Spirit because that’s the Spirit’s core message (1 Corinthians 12:3).
False prophets, therefore, are people who declare an alternative kingdom politic — proclaiming that other rulers are God’s appointed people in place of Jesus. These rulers and those who claim divine authority for them dress like sheep as if they are following our heavenly Shepherd, but what they really want is power. Once they have power, you’ll see what they are really like: wolves who tear the sheep apart.
History is full of such people. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia promised power to the people, but once the wolves gained power they killed tens of millions of people. Following Germany’s humiliation after World War I, Hitler promised to make Germany great again, and most of the church in Germany failed to recognize him as a wolf. Dictators still present themselves as the saviour of their people in many places today.
Democracy isn’t exempt. The most recent US presidential election saw some Christian leaders acting as false prophets — proclaiming Donald Trump as God’s appointed ruler (a title that belongs to Jesus). Trump is not the saviour of the world, not even the saviour of America. Just look at how he rules. What happens when the head of the FBI tries to investigate the fruit of his rule? Bad fruit exposes a bad ruler. It also exposes the false prophets who proclaimed him.
In the beginning, our heavenly sovereign reserved the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for himself. Humans tried to grasp his power for themselves, believing it would make them like God with the capacity to decide good and evil for themselves (Genesis 3:5). Instead, grasping power produced conflict and struggle, thorns and thistles (Genesis 3:18). Thornbushes cannot produce grapes; thistles cannot give you figs. Playing God corrupted our humanity.
Don’t be fooled by the false prophets who proclaim that good things come from sinful rulers. Jesus calls us all back under God’s kingship, the kingdom of God. It’s the only way earth will ever have the harvest God intended it to produce.
So don’t follow the spokesmen who promise the restoration of humanity through politicians. Check out what they produce, the way they use their power. They won’t last. Like a bad tree, they’ll eventually be cut down. It’s obvious in what they actually produce, the fruit of their reign.
In his day, Jesus himself was cut down by those in power. He used his power for his people, not to defend himself. He produced a harvest that no one can argue with. You recognize a real leader by what they produce.
What others are saying
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 76–77:
The trouble with false prophets is of course that they seem very nice, very reasonable, very trustworthy. No wolf is going to let you see his claws and teeth if he can dress himself up as a harmless sheep — and that’s what they will do.
David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 219:
One’s spiritual identity is determined not by what one says but by what one does, because what one does inexorably reveals one’s heart. The truism holds: actions speak louder than words. The latter are empty and hypocritical when the former are missing. What one does reveals who one is.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 290:
For wolves as a metaphor for those who abuse their position of leadership among God’s people cf. Ezek 23:27–28; Zeph 3:3–4, in each case in association with false prophets.
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