Sermon on the Mount: Wolves & Fruit
Jesus gives his listeners a serious warning.
Good morning! We’re continuing our study in Matthew this morning. We are getting close to the end of chapter seven, which means we’re also almost done making our way through the Sermon on the Hill, this section of teaching from Jesus that spans three whole chapters! It’s pretty dense, and we’ve taken it pretty slowly to really ruminate in the words of Christ. Once we hit chapter 8, we’ll be going back to narrative, so that will be a little bit of a change of pace.
But we’re not going to rush out of chapter seven just yet! The concluding paragraphs of this sermon are pretty packed, so we’ve got a couple more weeks to go.
We’re picking up in verse 15 today, but it relates back to the last two verses which Mike covered last week. So I want to just briefly review what he covered last week.
In verses thirteen and fourteen, Jesus talks about gates and roads. He says that there are two roads, two gates, one narrow and one wide. The narrow one leads to life, the broad one leads to destruction. One leads into God’s kingdom, the other away from it.
And though he doesn’t say it here, he does make the explicit claim elsewhere that HE himself IS the road, and he IS the gate. He comes right out and says it:
John 14:6 CSB
6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
John 10:9 CSB
9 I am the gate. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.
The metaphor of a difficult and narrow road, of there being only one entrance to the kingdom, is a statement of exclusivity, a claim that Jesus is not just A way, but THE way. And it’s a warning not to expect that way to be all rainbows and butterflies all the time. Following Jesus is not a guarantee of comfort, or wealth, or happiness.
But while Jesus is exclusive in the sense that he is the only way to the Father, he is INCLUSIVE in that he says ANYONE who enters by me will be saved. The gate is open to ANYONE who is willing to enter.
It’s difficult in the sense that trusting Jesus requires faith, and following him requires sacrifice, but easy in that Jesus has done the work of redemption for us, he has fulfilled the law for us and taken on the penalty of sin for us, he has already fought for our release from captivity and WON! We can do nothing to save ourselves, but if we cling to Jesus we have already been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.
Jesus came to BE the way, BE the gate, and lead others into him. And he called his followers to go out and spread the good news and lead others through that gate, to show them the way, so that many others could be saved. So that those who wish to find it DO!
With all that in mind we come to verse 15, where Jesus is going to warn is listeners not to be led astray by people who would lead others astray, down the wrong path, through the wrong gate.
Let’s read together:
Matthew 7:15–20 CSB
15 “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 16 You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.
Matthew 7:21–23 CSB
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’
This passage begins with a warning: “Beware!” Be on guard, on the lookout for “false prophets.” People who claim to have a message from God, claim to be harbingers of truth, but in reality the truth is not in them. They are full of self-serving lies.
He compares them to “ravaging” or “ravenous,” hungry wolves.
How many of you have heard the phrase “wolf in sheep’s clothing” somewhere before, other than here?
It’s an extremely well-known phrase, isn’t it? Where do you think it comes from?
This metaphor actually predates Jesus by hundreds of years! In fact, it’s very possible that Jesus and his listeners were familiar with this phrase, and it’s yet another example of Jesus using a well-known principle or saying to make a point in his message while relating to the context and experience of his listeners.
The earliest recorded use of that phrase “Wolfe In Sheep’s Clothing” comes from The Fables of Aesop, attributed to the Greek slave Aesop, who lived five to six hundred years before Jesus.
Check it out; this is an English translation, of course, but here’s the original little story:
Once upon a time a Wolf resolved to disguise his appearance in order to secure food more easily. Encased in the skin of a sheep, he pastured with the flock deceiving the shepherd by his costume. In the evening he was shut up by the shepherd in the fold; the gate was closed, and the entrance made thoroughly secure. But the shepherd, returning to the fold during the night to obtain meat for the next day, mistakenly caught up the Wolf instead of a sheep, and killed him instantly.
In the time between when Aesop’s fables were written and Jesus was preaching, the influence of Greek culture had become pervasive throughout the Middle East and beyond. We don’t know for sure, but it’s certainly plausible that Jesus would have heard this story at some point growing up. And it’s in line with the pattern we can see of Jesus drawing on existing cultural elements of philosophy and wisdom in order to explain his message.
The point Jesus is making with this metaphor is of course different from the original fable but using this image of a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing is so effective because it’s poignant and memorable!
Like a compassionate, loving shepherd, concerned for safety of his flock, Jesus wants his disciples to understand how dangerous it is to allow wolves to roam among them in disguise. He wants them to be able to discern and identify such threats.
And that’s the crucial question: how do you identify a wolf in disguise?
He tells us how: you’ll recognize them by their fruit.
Yet another metaphor! This time he’s drawing on their agricultural context, using an image literally from the Earth, from nature, to explain his point.
Trees and plants are used as metaphors for people all throughout the Bible! We even think of people as plants in some ways still in our culture! I’d say it was an even more common, familiar metaphor in ancient Israel, but this still makes sense to us, doesn’t it?
The roots of a tree, the species of the plant, are what determine its fruit. What’s inside forms the results on the outside. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.
Paul talks about the importance of a pure heart being the source of teaching and instruction, and says that without a purity of heart being the source, then the discussion is “fruitless”
1 Timothy 1:5–7 CSB
5 Now the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. 6 Some have departed from these and turned aside to fruitless discussion. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, although they don’t understand what they are saying or what they are insisting on.
The “fruits” of a person’s life are their words, their actions, their behaviors, and reputation. These things reveal their heart, and their faith, whether it is pure and God-centered, or idolatrous and self-centered.
He goes on to point out, in verse 19, that when trees don’t produce good fruit, they are cut down and destroyed. In other words, those people are on the wrong path, don’t let them lead you through the gate to destruction. You must be able to identify and discern the truth, especially when it comes to religious leaders.
In any church, including this one, you ought to learn and follow, not blindly, but with eyes wide open to whether or not the message and teaching is faithful to what scripture says.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that any pastor or leader is perfect. It doesn’t mean we won’t ever make mistakes. But when you look at the big picture, what are the ongoing, fruits being produced by a person’s life?
Are they stirring up controversy through empty speculations like Paul warned about, again in 1 Timothy 1?
1 Timothy 1:3–4 CSB
3 As I urged you when I went to Macedonia, remain in Ephesus so that you may instruct certain people not to teach false doctrine 4 or to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies. These promote empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith.
Or by causing divisions, exploitation, and greed?
1 Timothy 6:3–10 CSB
3 If anyone teaches false doctrine and does not agree with the sound teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching that promotes godliness, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing, but has an unhealthy interest in disputes and arguments over words. From these come envy, quarreling, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant disagreement among people whose minds are depraved and deprived of the truth, who imagine that godliness is a way to material gain. 6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. 8 If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
Or the destruction of faith?
2 Timothy 2:18 CSB
18 They have departed from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and are ruining the faith of some.
Or even self-destruction by heresy?
2 Peter 2:1 CSB
1 There were indeed false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves.
Are they the things Paul tells us to “put off” when he talks about avoiding the path to destruction in Ephesians? In Ephesians chapter 5 Paul makes a reference to “fruitless works” which is another way of saying “bad fruit”
Ephesians 5:11 CSB
11 Don’t participate in the fruitless works of darkness, but instead expose them.
Back in chapter 4, he describes what that looks like with a list of bad fruits:
Lying, stealing, foul language, bitterness, anger, wrath, shouting, slander, malice, sexual immorality, impurity, greed, obscene, crude jokes.
In Galatians, he gives a similar list, and here we have a reminder that it’s all about access to the kingdom:
Galatians 5:19–21 CSB
19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I am warning you about these things—as I warned you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
It’s also in this passage in Galatians that we have probably the best known list of “good fruit.” After that list of “bad fruit” Paul gives us a list of “good fruit,” that is, the fruit of the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22–23 CSB
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things.
That’s a nice, concise list to grab onto and use as a gauge for discernment. There are some other passages that talk about this concept, though too:
Colossians 1:9–14 CSB
9 For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, 10 so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. 13 He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. 14 In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
In this case the fruit is referred to in the context of simply good works and the knowledge of God. And again, it’s about our inheritance and participation in the kingdom of light. The kingdom of Jesus. In HIM we have redemption. HE is the way, the truth, the light. HE is the gate that leads to life.
And he is also the key to producing good fruit. On our own, our hearts are corrupt. Our roots are diseased. We are incapable of producing good fruit. But through Jesus we have access to healing and redemption, light and unity, and the cleansing power of his blood he willingly allowed to be spilled for us.
1 John 1:7–9 CSB
7 If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
It is ONLY by a relationship with Jesus that we can produce good fruit. He makes this explicit in John chapter 15, again using the plant metaphor:
John 15 CSB
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me. 6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be my disciples. 9 “As the Father has loved me, I have also loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce fruit and that your fruit should remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. 17 “This is what I command you: Love one another. 18 “If the world hates you, understand that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. 20 Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they don’t know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 The one who hates me also hates my Father. 24 If I had not done the works among them that no one else has done, they would not be guilty of sin. Now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 But this happened so that the statement written in their law might be fulfilled: They hated me for no reason. 26 “When the Counselor comes, the one I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 You also will testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.
I wanted to read to the end because verse 26 is key!
Jesus has made it abundantly clear on multiple occasions that the key to “good fruit” or “righteousness” or “fulfilling the law” or “the way to life,” however you frame it, it always boils down to love. Loving God and loving each other. But he also makes it clear that because of our sin, we can only learn how to truly and properly love through him and through his example and through our relationship with him.
But the earthly presence of Jesus’s body, besides being limited by physical parameters of existence, was only on earth for a limited time. So, sure, he’s still alive, but if he’s up in the sky with the Father, how can we get to him?
That’s why he gave his disciples a promise: to send the Holy Spirit to indwell and unify believers throughout the whole world, unlimited by geography.
We see this promise at the beginning of Acts, right before his ascension:
Acts 1:8 CSB
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The Spirit decentralized, mobilized, and empowered the church to continue Christ’s work and get the good news of the kingdom out to every man, woman, and child in every community in the world.
At least, that’s the goal. That’s the mission. That’s our purpose, if we are willing to be active participants in God’s kingdom.
Because of the spirit, we can say that it no longer matters where we worship, or that God is only at work in Israel, or anywhere else, because WE, our bodies, are the new temple of the almighty God. And church is people, not buildings, not empires. And it’s ALL people, all humans, regardless of race or gender or geography, who choose to follow Jesus. To go through the narrow gate.
I see in this teaching, this warning from Jesus, to beware of ravenous wolves, a twofold application.
The first, most straightforward application is to take this as a call for outward discernment. That is, being so saturated in God’s word and attuned to leading of his Spirit in your heart, that you can discern and see wolves among the flock, and protect yourself, and others, from them.
The second application, which is more implied, but equally important, is that of inward reflection and conviction. To examine ourselves, our hearts and motives and ask whether we are motivated by love or by selfishness. Whether we are walking in the light and helping other people find it, or living in darkness and dragging others into it with us.
I think it’s verses 21-23 that kind of have a tendency to jar us into turning the spotlight inward, upon ourselves.
Verses 15-20 are more about protecting ourselves from others, whereas 21-23 have a tone of warning that invites us to question whether or not we can say that Jesus truly knows us, and that we know him, or if we simply toss his name around like a magic spell, or think that because we prayed a magic prayer once in our lives that we have a relationship with him.
In Luke, we find a passage that is very much parallel to this one, in which Jesus tells a parable-like story:
Luke 13:24–30 CSB
24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and won’t be able 25 once the homeowner gets up and shuts the door. Then you will stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up for us!’ He will answer you, ‘I don’t know you or where you’re from.’ 26 Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I don’t know you or where you’re from. Get away from me, all you evildoers!’ 28 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth in that place, when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves thrown out. 29 They will come from east and west, from north and south, to share the banquet in the kingdom of God. 30 Note this: Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last.”
In this story, the people had an opportunity to enter through the narrow door, that is, place their faith in Jesus. In this particular case, he was speaking to people who literally got to see Jesus physically present, preaching the gospel. But they rejected him. And once the door was closed, and the time came to separate the sheep from the wolves, the wheat from the chaff, the difference was not whether or not they could recognize Jesus, but whether they knew him. It’s not enough to simply have knowledge of Jesus’s social life or public ministry.
To be clear, what he’s NOT saying here is that if you aren’t good enough, you won’t be granted access to the kingdom.
What he’s saying is that the kingdom is given to those with a genuine relationship with him, not just by chanting his name or acknowledging he exists, or acknowledging his authority as God. Jesus welcomes ANY person who chooses to follow him, so for him to say “I never knew you” to someone reveals that they were never truly a disciple of him.
Even demons know God is real, and there are examples of demons recognizing Jesus as God! James points this out in his book:
James 2:18–19 CSB
18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one. Good! Even the demons believe—and they shudder.
In this passage, James also famously makes the bold statement “faith without works is dead.”
James, with his very blunt style, is very confrontational and controversial in his writing, but the point he’s making is the same as the point Jesus was making, and that Paul made many times in his writings.
That yes, it is only by the grace of God, the sacrifice of Christ, and the power of the Spirit that we are justified, sanctified, and redeemed. But that our true motives, desires, and condition of our heart, the sincerity of our faith, is made outwardly visible by our works, by our fruit.
As we prepare to celebrate and acknowledge what Christ did for us, as we partake in the elements of communion together, IF you have in fact placed your faith in Jesus, IF you claim to follow him, ask yourself “does the fruit of my life prove it?” Can others SEE the signs of an ACTIVE faith in my life?
If you partake in the crackers and juice that symbolize the body and blood of Jesus, you are making a claim, to yourself, to your church family, and to God, that his sacrifice means something to you. It’s not enough to simply acknowledge the fact that he did it. His sacrifice, and his message, the good news of the kingdom, demands a response. You much either choose to follow him, or to reject him.
If you haven’t made that decision yet, I’d love to talk to you about it, and so would anyone else here who has. It’s OK to have questions, it’s OK to have doubts! Remember, God wants us to keep asking, keep searching, keep knocking! He WANTS to let us in! We must simply be humble enough to enter.