Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruits.
Jesus teaches an important principle in this section of the Sermon on the Mount: do not judge by appearances but by the results of a ministry or teaching. The context is the danger posed by false prophets and false teachers. In every age such figures have appeared to try and lead the faithful astray, and the very end of the age is marked by the worst kind of spiritual deception (vide Matt. 24:24-27; Rev. 13:11-15).
This principle has allowed the Church to assess the efficacy of various ministries and to reconsider their doctrinal and methodological foundations. When we see cases of trauma or relapse or misunderstanding, according to this principle, we should re-examine the process and the practitioner that claimed to have effected a transformation.
Deception can be a very difficult thing to spot: if it were not so Christ and His Apostles would not have been concerned to warn us about it. Consider the following passage:
For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)
The context in this passage is the threat posed by Judaizers to the early Church. Their words seemed full of wisdom because the Church had been taught to revere the Word of God in the Old Testament and to recognize the place of Israel in salvation history. Moreover, it was clear from the teaching of the Apostles that God cared about morality: our sins were forgiven in Christ, but that did not mean that sin had been declared good.
Paul exhorted the Church of Corinth to be watchful and to exercise discernment. Falsehood is at war with the Truth, and it seeks to lead people away from Jesus, who is the Truth. The harsh language used by Paul was meant as a wake-up call to this fact of life. He used serious language because our souls are at stake and because we will face persecution for Jesus’ sake.
I said, therefore, to you, that you will die in your sins: for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins. (John 8:24)
And you will be hated by all men for My name’s sake: but the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:22)
The Jews and Christians of Arabia were persecuted because they would not compromise the truth. They recognized that this new “revelation” was not from God, that it contradicted the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, they could see the fruit of this new teaching in the lives of its adherents: violence, theft, rape, murder, idolatry, and other forms of licentiousness. This was not the Way.
That new teaching has gone through a variety of changes over the years to make itself palatable to the West, but its core remains the same, and its fruits continue to manifest. The work of ISIS has convinced many in the Middle East that this religion, though it was delivered by one like an angel of light, cannot be from God. In rejecting the false prophet, they have found the Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Deception is always around: examine the fruits.