Chuck Swindoll tells this story. Maybe some of you have heard it. These are his own words: “On one of my birthdays my sister gave me a full-face rubber mask…one of those crazy things you slip over your entire head. She told me she’d give me ten dollars if I’d wear in into the pulpit one Sunday (my kids raised to fifteen dollars), but I just couldn’t do it! One night I wore it to a speaking engagement. Without any explanation, I just stood up and began to speak on being authentic. There I stood pressing on, making one statement after another as the place came apart at the seams. Why? Anybody knows why! My mask canceled out everything I had to say, especially on that subject. It’s impossible to be very convincing while you wear a mask. I finally pulled the thing off and the place settled down almost immediately. As soon as it did, everybody got the point. It’s a funny thing, when we wear literal masks, nobody is fooled. But how easy it is to wear invisible ones and fake people out by the hundreds week after week. Did you know that the word hypocrite comes from the ancient Greek plays? An actor would place a large, grinning mask in front of his face and quote his comedy lines as the audience would roar with laughter. He would then slip backstage and grab a frowning, sad, oversized mask and come back quoting tragic lines as the audience would moan and weep. Guess what he was called. A hypocritos, one who wears a mask.”
In all honesty, this is a passage on which I would rather not have preached. I think any preacher would have difficulty on this passage. For it is a passage about false preachers. And every pastor should be thinking to himself, “Is this me? Am I a false prophet, or a false teacher?” It makes me very uncomfortable. Why? Because I am a sinner. I know that I do not always speak the whole truth of Scripture. I aim at it, but cannot achieve it. Furthermore, there are sins that I commit that many of you do not ever know about. This is truly a terrifying passage for me to preach. The fact is, though, that that is good. If this passage were easy to preach, that would mean that I had assumed already before I started preaching, that I was not a false teacher. Teachers and preachers need especially to be on guard, for they greatly influence other people’s souls, and point them in certain directions. But let’s take a look.
First, we must see what the context is telling us about these false teachers. Jesus has just told us about the two roads: the wide road leading to destruction, and the narrow road, leading to life. So the false teachers of verse 15 are obviously teaching that the broad way is better than the narrow way. It is definitely something about their teaching that is wrong.
Then we see a description of what they look like, and a description of what they really are. They look like sheep. False teachers will never advertise their identity as wolves. That would entirely defeat their purpose. They do not want the sheep to feel uncomfortable. Rather, they want the sheep to be lulled into sleepiness, so that they are not on their guard. That always results in fat, well-satisfied wolves, and no sheep. Now, we are not just talking about hypocrisy, although these false teachers certainly are hypocrites.
But the reality of who these teachers are is that they are ravenous wolves. Matthew Henry has this to say about them: “Every hypocrite is a goat in sheep’s clothing; but a false prophet is a wolf in sheep’s clothing; not only not a sheep, but the worst enemy the sheep has.” What do wolves do? They eat sheep. They use sheep for their own advantage, rather than spending themselves for the benefits of the sheep. You see, it was Jesus Christ who was willing (and did) lay down His life for the sheep. That is what the proper shepherd does. However, what wolves do is the exact opposite. Ezekiel 34 has this description of them: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. 6 My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them. 7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 10 Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. 11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD.” The shepherds, you see, were doing the very opposite of what they should have been doing. Shepherds feed the sheep, guard the sheep, lead the sheep. These shepherds of Israel were eating the sheep! The shepherds had shown themselves to be pure wolves. Obviously, they were not doing their job. Their fruit was destruction, not the keeping and feeding of sheep.
One of Jesus’ main points here is that it is not always easy to tell the difference between true and false teachers. The wolves don’t look like wolves, they probably don’t act like wolves (at least at first), and they probably don’t talk like wolves. However, there are at least three tests by which we, as normal Christians, can tell whether someone is a false teacher or not. The first test is what the person teaches. Do they preach Christ crucified, resurrected and ascended as the answer for our sin and the evil that is in the world? Do they even talk about sin? That is one of the primary things left out by false teachers: teaching about sin. Most false teachers want you to feel good about yourself. It is like a doctor who knows that his patient is dying, but says to the patient that the patient all right, and won’t he please sign over all his possessions to the doctor. That way, when the doctor inherits the patient’s goods after the patient’s death, the doctor can say “What a nice patient he was, and so appreciative of my efforts on his behalf!” Does the preacher talk about giving him money, or does he talk about Jesus and our sin problem? Does he teach any kind of a works salvation? Does he teach that mankind is basically good or basically bad? If he teaches that mankind is basically good, then he is a false teacher, since the Bible teaches that all mankind after the Fall of Adam are basically, fundamentally bad. Does the teacher say that the whole point of Jesus’ teaching and His death is that of being an example? Now, Jesus is an example in many ways. But His death and resurrection are not exemplary, but substitutionary. He died so that we might live, since He died in our place. Such things in Christ’s life are not primarily an example for us to follow, so much as truth to be believed. So that is the first test of a teacher: what does he teach?
The second test of a true teacher is his life. There are two main kinds of false teachers. There are those who teach what sounds right, and may even be right teaching, and yet their lives don’t match up to their teaching. The other kind of false teacher is the one whose life looks holy, but his teaching is utterly false. Jesus here warns us against both teachers. The second test has to do with the teacher’s life, as I said. This is what Jesus is saying by His statement about fruit. The fruit being talked about cannot be limited merely to teaching, though teaching is certainly included. The fruit must also include a life of integrity. This is where I tremble the most, since I know how far from being holy I am. A life of integrity means that the preacher’s life must match what he is preaching. He must be preaching to himself just as much as to his congregation. The question here is not whether the pastor is sinless. I hope we all realize that this is impossible. The question is: does he repent from his sin and turn away from it? The reason I say that it is important not to hold the pastor to sinlessness is that there are people in the congregation who make their job in life to be official hypocrisy and heresy hunters. You probably know some of these people. They are usually hypocrites themselves, since they are holding someone else to a standard to which they could not possibly hold themselves. That is not what Jesus is saying here. What He is saying is that we must be on our guard against false teachers. By the way, that carries with it this corresponding truth: if the teacher is a true teacher, then he must not only be heard, but obeyed. Sheep who do not listen to the voice of their true shepherd will not be blessed. The reason that true teachers must not only be heard, but obeyed, is because the message that the true teacher brings is not his own, but Jesus’ message. And He is the true and real Shepherd, to whom we must all listen, and more importantly, obey.
Jesus gives us an analogy, a word-picture, to help us understand what is going on here. It is important to understand that both of these fake plants actually bear a kind of flower or fruit that could be mistaken for the real thing, if it is not examined closely. The thorn bush bears a fruit that looks a little like a grape from a distance. The thistle bears a flower that could be mistaken for a fig from a distance. So, don’t keep at a distance from the plants. Examine them closely to see. You certainly won’t be fooled in the taste test. I assure that thorns do not have the same texture or flavor as a grapes. And figs do not taste like the flower of a thistle. That is the second test, the test of the teacher’s life.
The third test is the test of the result in the sheep. Are the sheep growing? Are the sheep coming to a greater unity in love? Are they starting to forgive one another and reconcile? Are they starting to love the Scriptures and starting to dig in the Scriptures? These are all good, healthy signs that the teacher is a good teacher.
Jesus gives us another analogy to help us understand, after which He gives us a warning. The analogy is that of trees and fruit. A dead tree cannot bear good fruit, and a healthy tree cannot help but bear good fruit. Jesus advises patience then, in determining who is a true teacher, and who is a false teacher. Be patient, and the truth will come out. The fruit will show whether the teacher be true or not.
Of course, all of these things are true of the believer as well. For we all teach others, do we not? We all teach our children, and oftentimes many other people as well. How do we measure up on these three tests? What is our teaching? What is our life? What is the effect that we have on other people? We all need to ask ourselves these questions.
The reason for that is the warning that Jesus gives us. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Notice that it is not enough merely to avoid bearing bad fruit. We must actively be bearing good fruit. It was for that reason that we were made in the first place. If you plant an apple tree, intending to get fruit out of it, but it doesn’t ever bear any fruit, what are you going to do with that tree, of you are growing apples for money? Will you not cut it down and plant a new, better tree? The same is true with us. We were made for good fruit, and good teaching. If we do not bear good fruit, then we will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So do we wear a mask? Are we able and willing to detect false teachers? How do we become able? That is by reading and studying God’s Word. There is no substitute for this. We all must study God’s Word, and, as Peter tells us, be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us.