Our text comes from the latter part of the famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’, which was addressed specifically to Jesus’ disciples, and by extension specifically to the church, those who have believed in Christ Jesus for salvation. As the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ draws to a close, i.e., as Jesus prepares His followers to descend into the world, He wants Believers to be able to identify false prophets (see Matthew 7:15) that would confront the ministry.
False prophets had long infiltrated Hebrew worship, turning the people away from God and into sin (e.g., see 1 Kings 13:11-29). And they would become a problem for the church too, therefore, it was crucial that Believers be adept at identifying them.
“But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” ~ 2 Peter 2:1
Fruit: the answer was fruit. False prophets could be determined easily by examining what they produced. Do they produce a harvest that glorified God? Or does their fruit dishonor Christ Jesus?
But there is more.
Grapes & Figs; Thorns & Thistles
At the end of the verse, Jesus asks the question: “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” To an audience from a farming community, this question might have been seen as rhetorical at best and just plain silly at worst. The answer would be “Of course not!”
But therein lies Jesus’ second message to Believers: It is not hard to distinguish false prophets from true Believers.
There is an innate assumption in the modern church that false prophets are hard to find. Often there is shock and even disillusionment when men/women who seemed to be so sincere, so “anointed”, turn out to be charlatans. However, Jesus makes it clear that Believers never have to be fooled. Because as easy as it is to know that grapes don’t come from thorns and figs don’t come from thistles, so it is easy to see the absence of good fruit from the ministry of false prophets among us.
However, as encouraging as this truth is, it also illuminates a problem.
If identifying false prophets is as easy as observing that figs are not harvested from thistles, why have so many been deceived by false prophets? Why are so many harvesting thistles?
The answer to this question is probably best captured in Jesus’ words to Peter, James, and John:
“Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” ~ Matthew 26:41
We fall prey to false prophets because of two reasons:
- We fail to be alert (we don’t “watch and pray”).
- We yield to our flesh, which is prone to evil suasion.
False prophets come into the church “unawares” (Jude 1:4, Galatians 2:4, 2 Timothy 3:6): they infiltrate the church when we are not looking, when we are not alert, when we fail to watch and pray.
And when false prophets come in they twist Scripture to appeal to our flesh, not to our spirit (Jude 1:4, Galatians 2:4, 2 Timothy 3:6). And sadly, many want to hear messages that appeal to fleshly desires.
Many want to hear that greed is good if you call it blessings. Many want to hear that extra/pre-marital sex is okay because God’s grace covers it. Many want to hear about casting out demons because they can blame demons for every sin in their life. Many want to hear about special knowledge that makes them superior to other Believers who don’t have it.
But all of these are heresies and not supported by Biblical doctrine. And all of these bear thorns and thistles, but no good fruit.
Harvest Good Fruit
On the other hand, Jesus’ question, “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”, has a second and quite encouraging implication: Believers know where to find good fruit.
As easy as it is to identify false prophets, we can also identify good prophets. But we must be willing to look at the fruit, not the flowers. Many thorns and thistles produce beautiful flowers but no good fruit. Let us not get distracted by flowery presentations of evil men. Let us examine the fruit of all men and determine which one is godly. It is easy to see because Believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit testifies of Christ:
“But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, He shall testify of me:” ~ John 15:26
God will show us who His servants are by their fruit.