“Jesus’ Warning Against False Religion” (Matthew 7:15-20 sermon)

Last Monday, WWOK tv in West Virginia reported a scam that has been going on in Kanawha Country, in which someone posing as a local deputy calls and demands a fine to be paid over the phone. The county said this is a total scam; that their deputies never make calls to collect fines, and their fines are only paid in court, and never over the phone.
Of course, there are SO many scams like that going on; you just have to be very careful, and very wary all the time.

But we also need to realize that the biggest dangers we face are not from scams over the telephone, or even on the computer; the biggest dangers we face are from spiritual imposters. Because false religion will not merely hurt your pocketbook, but can send you to hell for eternity.

As Jesus begins to bring the greatest sermon ever preached to a close, He issues a series of warnings to His followers: first, He tells us to avoid false WAYS, (which we looked at a couple of weeks ago; He said there is only one way, and that is through Him); then He tells us to beware of false prophets (which we will look at today) and then next week, we will see how He warns us against false professions of faith. But today our focus is on false prophets of religion. Jesus warned:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 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.”


I. The Warning Against False Religion

:15 “Beware of false prophets …”

This Bible word here for “beware” (prosecho) means “pay attention to, guard yourself against.” It is the same word He used at the beginning of Matthew 6, when He said “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men.” Jesus knew that it is so easy for hypocrisy to creep into our religion, so He told us to watch out for it. And in the same way, He knew that false prophets and teachers would come and try to steer us away from the true path, so He commands us to “beware” of them; be on guard against them. You’ve got to be aware that there are false prophets in the world, that Satan will use to lead you in the wrong direction.

I think this is hard for many of us, because we WANT to believe people; we want to believe that everyone is who they say they are, and that they have a good heart, and that they are teaching and doing good and godly things. But unfortunately, that is just not reality. Just like it’s a sad reality that we have to teach our kids that there are people in this world who will appear to be nice, but who really want to hurt them — the same thing is true spiritually. We might wish that everyone who held up a Bible and said “Thus says the Lord” would really be a person sent from God, but we just cannot do that. The sad truth is, there ARE false prophets and teachers in this world who will not only kill your body, but who would lead you astray spiritually and destroy your SOUL! You must be on guard against them.

And listen, this is not a “rare” thing either: In Matthew 24:11, Jesus said “Many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many.” In I John 4:1 John the Apostle warned: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Did you hear the repeated use of that word, “many”? “MANY” false prophets will arise; not few; “MANY.” And they will mislead not a few, but “MANY”! So we must beware:

— You cannot just listen to every preacher or teacher on television
— You can’t just read every book that comes along promising you spiritual growth
— You can’t just go to any church, or any meeting, or listen to every kind of music that claims to be Christian.

MANY false prophets and teachers are in this world, and Jesus commands us as His followers to “beware” of them.

Now I know that sometimes people think of me and other pastors like me as “negative Nellys”: because we don’t like this devotional, or don’t approve that pastor or speaker; or preach against certain ministers and doctrines. But you have to understand, the word “pastor” means “shepherd;” it our responsibility to guard the flock; and there are MANY false teachers in this world who are seeking to lead the sheep of this pasture astray.

This is why, for example, I don’t just have a crowd of speakers coming through our church left and right. And when someone does come in, I check them out first. For example, I knew that Greg Frizzell had been with the Baptist Convention of Oklahoma for over 20 years; and I knew that he had spoken at Trinity Baptist, our home church in Norman, which is one of the most solid churches theologically in the country. And even then, I listened to every one of his messages on their podcast beforehand to make certain what he was going to be teaching. I try to take seriously my responsibility as the undershepherd of this church. I know that there are many false teachers, and false teachings, and it is my responsibility to guard this flock from it.

But it is also NOT only my responsibility; it is also YOURS as well. As individual Christians, we must learn to exercise discernment. And discernment is a lost skill, by and large, among Christians in America today. As long as someone seems to be nice, or has a great story, and sells a lot of books, and will bring in a large crowd, we jump on the bandwagon, whether they are really biblically sound or not. Folks, we must NOT do that. We cannot just read every book even that’s in the Christian bookstore; we can’t watch every movie, or bring in every popular speaker. We must learn to exercise discernment, and heed the warning of the word of God that MANY false prophets have gone out into the world. Jesus said: “Beware of the false prophets”!


II. The Disguise of False Religion

And here’s the thing: not only do false prophets and teachers exist, and exist in great number, they also DISGUISE themselves. Jesus said here they “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” In other words, these people are going to LOOK and SEEM like good, godly people, but they are not. This is an important lesson for us to learn: false religion DISGUISES itself; it rarely appears to be evil.

I love the old “Lord of the Rings” movies; they are very symbolic, and there are some great spiritual lessons in them, as J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the series, was a Christian, who basically led C.S. Lewis to the Lord when they were associates at Oxford university in England. But if you have ever seen these movies, you know that one thing about them that differs vastly from real life is the appearance of evil characters. MANY of the characters in “Lord of the Rings” who are evil, are very evident from the beginning: for example, when a slimy-looking character with greasy hair and a deathly white face appears, and his name is “Grema Wormtongue,” you pretty much know: this is NOT a good guy, right?! You can just tell the second he appears: this is a bad guy!

But what we have to realize is that in real life, it is NOT usually that way. Now it is true that sometimes you can tell from a person’s countenance something about their character, but many times you can’t. Jesus said here that is true of the false prophets: He said they will “come to you in sheep’s clothing.” In other words, they are going to look like good guys. They are going to be the kind of people you’d look at and think, “This is a good person.” They are attractive; they are well-spoken; they come across well. But as Jesus said, “inwardly they are ravenous wolves.” They are NOT who and what they seem to be.

We’ve got to realize that false religion often disguises itself.
In II Corinthians 11 the Apostle Paul spoke of “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” He says these men don’t come in saying, “I am a messenger of Satan.” They don’t walk into your church or onto your tv screen and say, “Hi, I’m Grema Wormtongue” in a creepy voice! No, Paul says they will tell you they are apostles, and Bible teachers, and Spirit-inspired people — but he says they are FALSE. And he says in :14, “No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.”

So we need to get this in our minds: Satan is not going to appear to you with horns and a red cape! His messengers are not to come looking like Grema Wormtongue; they’re going to be attractive, well-dressed, with a nice smile and a great personality. They are going to be “New York Times bestsellers.” They’re going to have large followings and big churches and teach exciting things, and be very popular — and you are going to be tempted to follow them — but Jesus says you must NOT! You must “beware” of them, because they will come to you, disguised!

So how can you tell about them? Jesus tells us in the next verse:


III. The Fruit of False Religion

:16 “You will know them by their fruits.”

He says you will know false teachers by their fruits. And He uses this example in :16-20: “Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? 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.”

Jesus is very practical; and He gives us a very practical example here. There may be a few of us in attendance today who are really experts regarding trees, and you can tell just by looking at the bark and leaves, what kind of tree it is. But a lot of us, myself included, don’t have that kind of knowledge. But even the most ignorant of us when it comes to trees can at least tell a tree by its fruit.

I remember several years ago, when we were driving down to Orlando, Florida to go to Disney World. We were all excited, on the final stretch, on I-4 heading south down towards Orlando, when all of the sudden, I looked and off to my right, there were all these trees, and they looked like they were all covered with little orange Christmas ornaments. Of course I immediately shouted out to Cheryl & the kids: “Look! Orange trees!” Now I am NO kind of expert when it comes to trees — I can barely point out an oak tree, or a weeping willow — but that’s about it — UNLESS they have fruit on them. THEN it is easy to tell: if it has an orange on it, it’s an orange tree. If it has an apple; it’s an apple tree. You know what kind of tree it is, by the fruit that it bears.

And this is exactly what Jesus tells us about spiritual discernment. You can tell false preachers and teachers by the fruit that they bear. Now “fruit” can mean a couple of things:

— First of all, there is the “fruit” of one’s doctrine or teaching:

False teachers are not faithful to the full counsel of the word of God. They will depart from solid, orthodox, Biblical teaching, like the “5 Solas” of Reformation teaching we looked at last week: that God’s word alone is our ultimate authority, and that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. That is a solid framework for Biblical teaching.

As Southern Baptists, we have another solid Biblical document, the Baptist Faith & Message, which is our official church statement of faith. Each of our new members gets a copy of this. If you don’t have one, you can get one from me, or just look online on our website and there is a link to it. It’s a great study, and there are hundreds of verses listed in it that you can look up.

As Christians, the Bible alone is our ultimate authority; but we need to be careful, because even the devil twists scripture for his own purposes. Just because someone quotes scripture or uses the Bible in some way does not mean they are not a false teacher. We need to make sure they are teaching within the framework of orthodox, Biblical teaching which Christians have believed for the last 2000 years.

— So when someone comes along and says “God approves and blesses loving, same-sex relationships”, and they try to twist scriptures in a way which have not been taught for the last 2000 years in order to justify it, you can know that is false teaching. They have departed from the historic faith.

— When a Benny Hinn comes along and says not only is there a Father, a Son, and Holy Spirit, but that each of them has a trinity in themselves so that he said “there are 9 of them.” And he said, “if you say, ‘I never heard that’; do you think you are in church to hear things you’ve heard for the last 50 years?”! Folks, when you hear something you haven’t heard for the last 50 years, you can be pretty sure it is FALSE teaching.

But see, this is just the problem with American Christianity today. Tish Warren says “evangelicalism (today) tends to focus on excitement, passion, and … the kind of worship that gives you a rush.” Eugene Peterson says “there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue” that comes from daily and weekly disciplines of God’s word and prayer. We want something “new”; we want something “exciting;” but we are setting ourselves up for false teachers who will give us something “new and exciting” — and WRONG! — instead of the steady diet of the word of God which we really need.

This has been happening in America for some years. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer visited our country just before the Second World War, he was dismayed at the preaching he heard here. He wrote: “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. … In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life.” (Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, p. 106)

Bonhoeffer wrote that in the late 1930’s, but unfortunately it is still the same way today. In an attempt to be “creative” and “relevant,” preachers and teachers are deserting the exposition of the word of God and are basing their sermons on more “exciting” things like other books and movies. A professor friend of mine was on vacation a couple of weeks ago, and saw a church sign, advertising a sermon based on the musical “Aladdin.”

I think part of the problem we have today is that we have seen SO many advances in technology in our lifetime; so many things are “new”, that we have come to expect novelty. Every year there is going to be a new computer; every year there is going to be a better smart phone. And some of this has inevitably drifted over into our religion as well. We expect something besides “the same old thing;” we want something “new” and “creative.” The problem with that is, just like Benny Hinn’s teaching,if it is “new”, after over 2000 years of Christianity, you can be pretty certain it is WRONG! Novelty when it comes to a computer or a phone may be good; novelty when it comes to the doctrines and practice of the Christian faith is HERESY! We need be careful that we do not become like the Israelites who grew tired of “the same old manna” day after day and longed for “something new” to eat. That “something new” ended up poisoning them — and “something new” will poison us spiritually. We need to be careful about following “new and exciting” trends in worship and theology.

Listen: the shallowness of doctrine in American churches and our constant desire for something “new and creative” is setting people up for the Antichrist. When he comes, he is not going to look like the devil; he will be attractive and persuasive; he will have exciting teaching that appeals to people; Jesus said he will even show “signs and wonders to mislead, if possible, even the elect”. And millions will go right after him, because it is what we have training people to do all along: go for something new and exciting, instead of the consistent, solid teaching of the historic truths of the word of God.

Jesus said you will know false teachers, first of all, by the fruit of their teaching. They will depart from historic, Biblical doctrine.


— Second, Jesus said you will know false teachers by the “fruit” of their LIFE.

I just read Galatians 5 in my quiet time, where it talks about “the fruit of the Spirit” — a lot of us are familiar with those verses. But if you read it in context, it actually gives that fruit as a TEST of whether or not the Holy Spirit is in a person’s life.
Paul says in :19 that “the deeds of the flesh are evident: immorality, impurity, sensuality … factions, drunkenness, carousing … of which I forewarn you … that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” So Paul says the person who has that kind of “fruit” in their life is not saved.
And it is THEN that he says in :22, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Just like Jesus said here in Matthew 7, “You will know them by their fruits”, Paul says this “fruit of the Spirit” in a person’s life tells you whether the Holy Spirit is in their life, and whether they are really His or not.

And Jesus tells us here in Matthew 7 that we are especially to apply this test to religious prophets and teachers. What does the fruit of their life show? Is there immorality, drunkenness, strife, outbursts of anger? Or are their lives characterized by love, joy, peace, patience and the other fruit of the Holy Spirit?

Several years ago, Mars Hill church in Seattle, Washington was the #3 fastest growing church in the country, led by dynamic pastor Mark Driscoll. They were running over 13,000 in attendance, and had spawned a number of video satellite churches. Books and videos were being sold all over the country. But all that dissolved in 2014 when Pastor Driscoll resigned. As an Atlantic magazine investigation reported:

“Unlike the notorious televangelist scandals of the 1980’s however, there was no single disgrace or crime that brought Driscoll down. Instead, it was a series of accusations: of plagiarism, crudeness, a bullying management style, unseemly consolidation of power, and squishy book-promotion ethics, to name a few.” (atlantic.com, Nov. 7, 2014)

These things are what Galatians 5 would call a lack of “the fruit of the Spirit.” It doesn’t show itself only in “big” ways like adultery; but also in a person’s temper, their personal ethics, their business dealings, and personal relationships. People around that pastor ignored those things for a while, because they were being so “successful” and were “growing;” but finally his elders and those who worked with him held him to account. Of course all the people across the country who watched his videos and bought his books, had no knowledge about all of these personal shortcomings.

And this is actually part of the problem with the “celebrity Christianity” that so many people get caught up in today. You don’t know the fruit of that “celebrity’s” personal life. You can’t know how a person that you only watch on television is living; you don’t know what they do with their money; you don’t know how they treat their family, or the people behind the scenes. What is their temperament? How do they treat the sound crew? Are they respectful and kind; or are they demanding, and selfish, and egotistic? These things are important. I agree with an author I read recently who said that the way a person treats their spouse behind closed doors is as important as the Kingdom work they do out on the streets (“Liturgy of the Ordinary,” p. 85). But the thing is, you can’t evaluate this very important fruit of a person’s life when you don’t even know them personally. Which is one of the inherent problems with the “media Christianity” that is so popular today. You don’t really know these people. You see only what they carefully plan for you to see of them, but you don’t really know the fruit of their life.

This is why I think the trend of “video churches” with multiple sites, and a pastor who preaches on a tv screen to churches in different places, is not a good one. We don’t need more “tv preachers” today who don’t know the thousands of people they are preaching to. We need more local pastors, who know their flock, and their flock knows them, and the people can test the real fruit of their life, because they are with them every week.

Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits”: that means both the fruit of their teaching, and the fruit of their personal life.


But listen: the most important question for you today is not whether some pastor, or some tv preacher is really saved or not; the most important question for YOU is, are YOU really saved or not? Have you ever come to a time in your life when you turned back from your rebellion against God, trusted Jesus’ death on the cross to forgive your sins, and turned to follow Jesus as your Lord & Savior?
— and if you say you have, remember that Jesus said here: “You will know them by their fruits.” That’s true not only of false teachers, but of US as well. So what does YOUR fruit say about your claim to be a Christian?
Does the way that you live, your holiness, and the way that you treat other people, show that the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ is really in you?

Can someone look at your life, the way I looked at that orchard on I-4 that day, and say: I know what they are, by the fruit they are producing in their life?! We know false prophets by their fruit — and we know true Christians by their fruit as well. What does the fruit of YOUR life, say about what you really are?



About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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