“By their fruit you will know them.”

Jesus on how to know good and bad religious leaders

Brian Jimenez

Preparing to Read Matthew 7:15-23

Jesus’ most scary teaching yet. It starts with a warning: watch out for false prophets! But how do we know one when we see one? Jesus shows us how.

First, look for wool suits. Uh, literally? Well, Jesus says false prophets come in sheep’s clothing, but they are really wolves underneath. Prophets have always been prickly about other prophets who are false (Jeremiah 23:16:18).

Basically Jeremiah and Jesus agree (Jeremiah 23:16-18; Luke 6:26; Matthew 24:24): when everyone likes you, something’s wrong. That doesn’t mean we try to be jerks–it just means we need to watch how easy it is to reverse two questions, according to Kyle Idleman: As church leaders or in any capacity, we often wonder, What do people want me to say? but the right question is, What does God want me to say? Then we wonder, How can we get God to do for us what we want? When we should be asking, How does God want us to respond to what He says?

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False prophets are church leaders doing theological malpractice. They’ve lost grip on reality: what Jesus says is important. They’ve lost grip on who they are: they always play a role rather than being a sinner saved by grace. They’re closed to others: not confessional but people pleasers. Finally but most importantly, they are closed off to God: the One relationship most needed is squeezed out for church activity.

So Jesus gives an example: “Many will say we did the following in your name: prophesied, drove out demons, and performed miracles!” Now, if we were giving out Sheep Points, we’d surely give points to those who cast out demons, do miracles, and the prophets who can tell us the future! But Jesus gives those guys Wolf Points instead! Jesus keeps score differently. Often those activities Jesus points to are done to impress.

OK, so here’s the scary part. In verse 23, Jesus says to these religious folk, “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers!’”

Imagine hearing Jesus say, “I never knew you.”

So, how do we recognize a false teacher/person and avoid being one ourselves? Get ready, because Jesus switches the metaphor on us.

To review, the first metaphor is the Sheep/Wolf controversy that describes the problem and results in Jesus saying, “I never knew you.”

Then with second metaphor Jesus shows us how to recognize a false teacher. The section between 7:16 and 7:20 is bracketed by the same phrase: “You will know them by their fruit.”

Often you can tell when you drive through a town if there’s good leadership or bad leadership by the condition of the town. Leadership may not be the only factor, but it certain contributes to the flourishing of people or the destruction of people.

What bad fruit does Jesus want to get rid of in your life? In our church?

The first thing you can get rid of is a church’s desire to be important, known and mentioned in the newspaper, influential. Produce good fruit and let all those things take care of themselves.

Second, Craig Groeschel said to me on phone a few years ago: “If you take credit for decline in your church, then someday you’ll take credit for the increase.” Fruit producing is Holy Spirit work. I’m done with Messiah complex and taking on my shoulders decline or increase.

Third, administration or Shape of the Fruit. I’ve gotten sucked into doing things in the church that I’m not called to do, like overseeing finances. Preacher after preacher has gotten sucked into that world, influencing building projects, overseeing funds. After a few years of that, in 2013 I told the church, “I’m out of the business of church business!”  

What good fruit does Jesus want to produce in your life? In your church?

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The Father, Son, The Holy Spirit want to produce good fruit in you. You and I have to focus on being good trees. So what good fruit does Jesus want to produce in you? Again, I’ll give you a few examples from my own life and hope you’ll apply these to yours.

First, as a prof of mine in seminary said, “When God calls you to a church, your first responsibility is to pray for and with them.” My first calling is prayer. That’s how God is making me a good tree and a good lamb.

Second, I believe Jesus is calling me to dwell in the word, to enflesh it by living it and proclaiming it powerfully among you.

Third, I believe God wants good fruit from my life by giving Spiritual direction. Simple definition. Spiritual direction POINTS people to God. Spiritual malpractice, by contrast, tries to impress people with how smart I am.

Fourth, I believe God wants me to produce good fruit by proclaiming the gospel in many ways: Kyle Idleman: “What does God want me to say?” and “How will people respond?” The wolfish nature gets these reversed, more interested in people pleasing/response than word from God.


Lord, help me not be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Help me produce good fruit. I want to be free of debt. I want to be a person of integrity. I want to be a person who loves and prays for my enemies. I want to be a genuine presence of God in my neighborhood, in my family, and in my workplace. Lord, Is there fruit that you want in my life? Is there bad fruit you want out?


What if you spent your life doing things that really are not important to Jesus? Identify three things really important to Jesus in Sermon on the Mount and learn how to live these out, asking God, “How do you want me to live out these truths?”

  • Why is it wrong for a preacher to say what people want him/her to say rather than for the preacher to say what God wants him/her to say?

  • What are some things (fruit) that assure you that The Journey is not led by false prophets?

  • Is it just preachers, or could you be guilty of being a false prophet? Explain.


Greg Taylor

Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg’s wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.


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