These posts are rough summaries of the Sunday messages.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognise them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, 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 recognise them by their fruits.
As a preacher, you don’t exactly jump at the opportunity to preach on passages like this because of the negative tone. It can feel uncomfortable to both speaker and listener, and there’s an underlying fear that it will reinforce the image of Christians (especially evangelical Christians) as dogmatic and narrow. But with a moment’s reflection we can see that this passage is profoundly important.
Consider this: what are the most powerful forces in the world? The answer is not governments with their soldiers, guns, and bombs. Surely the answer is ideas. They cannot be killed and they spread like viruses, motivating all kinds actions, good and bad, industry and conflict. As Cobb observes in Inception:
What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient. Highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood, that sticks — right in there somewhere [pointing to his head].
The New Testament speaks of the danger of bad ideas, likening them to gangrene; an infection that necessitates lopping off body parts in order to stop it spreading (see 2 Timothy 2.17).
Speaking personally, God has called me to be a pastor (which means shepherd) and that entails me speaking against certain things from time to time. In the NT times, a pastor would occasionally have to protect their sheep from wild animals like wolves using their staff as a weapon. A hireling would most likely run away — it’s hardly worth risking your life for someone else’s sheep. But a true shepherd fights because of love. That’s why Paul gives the Ephesian elders (i.e. pastors) these instructions:
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. (Acts 20.29-31)
What exactly are we dealing with here, then? Jesus speaks of ‘false prophets’, language that does not immediately resonate with us these days. What are they? Put simply, a prophet is anyone with a message that seeks to relay revelation about life. If we take this in a narrow sense, every preacher standing up on Sunday in a pulpit is acting in the capacity of prophet (and many are false). But if we take a broader view we have all kinds of prophets in the culture around us: philosophers, artists, filmmakers, songwriters, culture shapers. In fact, it is often the creators of pop-culture that are most likely to influence us. As Carl Trueman has pointed out, ‘When the history books on homosexuality are written, Will & Grace will be seen as greater influence than any argument.’
In summary, we are being bombarded with messages from prophets all of the time, and the need to pay attention to what Jesus is saying has never been more real.
What do you believe?
What you believe matters because ideas have consequences. Jesus says, ‘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’ (v.17-18).
This is true on the big scale. At this moment we are in the middle of a protracted conflict between two different worldviews: Western liberal democracy versus a particular stripe of radical Islam. One ideology has given birth to rich cultural diversity and an appreciation for technological advancement. The other ideology has given birth to violence and oppression. Each tree has a very different kind of fruit.
Ideas also have consequences at the very small scale of you as an individual. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones expressed it:
That which a man is ultimately in the depths is always going to reveal and manifest itself, and it does so in belief and life. The two things are indissolubly linked together. As a man thinks, so eventually he is. As a man thinks, so he does. In other words, we inevitably proclaim what we are and what we believe. It does not matter how careful we are, it is bound to come out. Nature must express itself.
Therefore, how you answer the big questions of life (the questions that orientate you in a storyline) affects so much about you. Questions like: What are you? Why are you here? Where did you come from? Where are you going?
The predominant narrative of the culture we live in (the story that’s communicated by our contemporary prophets) is that Chance is the god who created us. This belief system is the explanation for the society we live in. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Consumerism is rampant, and it flows from this godless view of the universe. If there is nothing bigger than us or beyond us, and if the material world is all there is, then it follows that you might as well acquire as much as you can and enjoy it while it lasts.
Sex is cheapened because instead of seeing sex as a spiritual (dare I say it, transcendent) act with the power to bind souls—which is the Christian view—it is rather a physical animalistic act with no power at all except the power to excite pleasure. No wonder we have such a low view of sex these days. I could cite many more examples of how our modern way of life has been shaped by our answers to the big questions.
The result is that life has been rendered meaningless. And when there is a vacuum for meaning and transcendence it seems that we will grab at anything to fill that void. This is why we see such widespread confusion all around us. Steve Turner described this so well in his satirical poem, Creed:
We believe there’s something in horoscopes,
UFO’s and bent spoons;
Jesus was a good man just like Buddha
Mohammed and ourselves.
He was a good moral teacher although we think
his good morals were bad.
And he goes on:
We believe that each man must find the truth
that is right for him.
Reality will adapt accordingly.
The universe will readjust. History will alter.
We believe that there is no absolute truth
excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.
He concludes with a postscript:
If chance be the Father of all flesh,
disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
and when you hear
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!
It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.
The trouble is that we have bought into the messages of a thousand false prophets and the consequences of these ideas have been tragic and destructive. The gods we now worship are set up as a vain attempt to find meaning, but they are gods that rape our culture and leave it bleeding on the floor. I am speaking of gods like money, sex, academic achievement, and looks.
Now contrast this with the truth as the Bible tells it. It says that you are created, loved, of more worth than you imagine, with purpose and dignity invested in your nature. It tells you that God sent his Son to save you, to rescue you from guilt and reconcile you to himself. This is not a therapeutic message of self-esteem because the Bible tells you how deeply flawed you are. But it is a message of life-changing potency because, despite your flaws, God loves you and wants you to know him. Ideas like this have consequences too.
Who do you believe?
Credibility in any field is a precious and hard-won thing. Whether a person is considered an expert in the law, in art, in science, or some other field, we know that they have won that credibility at great expense.
Now when it comes to spiritual matters, the deep truths, the question is who do we believe? Who has the credibility to speak with authority? I think many people are searching for answers but they don’t know who to turn to.
Jesus is showing us here that the who must precede the what. In other words, it’s more important to decide who you should listen to before you decide whether you like their message or not. And how do you decide? ‘You will recognise them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?’ (v.16).
Many people claim to be speaking the truth on the big issues of morality, life, God, future, and so on. The one test that always works in discerning who is speaking the truth is the test of fruit.
You can ask, what is the fruit of their character? If beliefs must find expression, then how have their beliefs found expression in them? It’s bizarre that we listen to all kinds of voices (in opinion pieces and sitcoms and chat shows) whilst knowing next to nothing about them as people! Are they kind, generous, loving, selfless, faithful?
You can ask, what is the fruit of their work and life? What have they done? Do their beliefs work out in ways that are attractive and good in terms of their output?
And you can ask, what is the fruit of their influence? When their teachings take root in a community, what do they produce?
Do you believe Jesus?
Jesus would not offer these tests if he were not willing to be subjected to them himself. We can scrutinise him and see whether the fruit of his life and teaching points to a healthy tree or a bad tree.
What is the fruit of his character? Every time I read the gospels I find a man I want to know better, who is endlessly fascinating and inspiring and admirable. The disciples who walked and ate and lived with him for years were not disappointed in him (as anyone would be in me if they were to spend more than a few hours in my company). On the contrary, they became worshippers. John speaks of that ‘which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we look upon and have touched with our hands’ (1 John 1.1). He underlines the gritty, earthy reality of being an eyewitness. These disciples were not held at arms length, they were up close and personal with Jesus. And yet they did not grow disillusioned with him but rather they grew to love and adore him.
What is the fruit of his work? Take a walk with Jesus and you find a man who is constantly showing compassion, healing, speaking words of comfort to those around him. His work is to mend lives, and it culminates in offering his own life up on the cross.
What is the fruit of his influence? In short: the church. Despite all of her imperfections and flaws and mistakes, the church still stands as the most important influence in history for bringing about love, justice, and the positive transformation of society. When the church has failed it is always because she stopped paying attention to passages like this one, and allowed bad teaching to creep in. But wherever Christians have come back to Jesus and sought to be true disciples the results have been phenomenal: the birth of science, just government, hospitals, schooling for all, and on and on and on.
I am a Christian because I trust Jesus. I see one who more than excels in the tests he lays out here. I am also a Christian because it works. Jesus’ teaching does good to us.
When we are examining truth claims I believe that Jesus should be the touchstone. Every other prophet should be lined up next to him to see how they compare. And I think the conclusion we come to will always be the same as Peter’s: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God’ (John 6.68-69).