Sunday, June 23, 2024

Wolves, Bad Fruit and Powerful Deception

Recently, we have looked at the verses where Jesus discusses the narrow gate, the wide gate and the road that leads out from it that will destroy those who travel it, and false prophets--those who would act like sheep but will attack the flock as soon as an opportunity presents itself.  

Everyone listening to Jesus that day would recognize the ferocity of wolves and its predations upon sheep.  They probably have seen, either first hand as shepherds, or through stories, the horrors of what wolves do to sheep. Then Jesus switches metaphors and uses fruit as a way to think about identifying if this person is a false prophet or not.  Because good trees bare good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit, looking at the lives of people is a good indicator of the nature of their hearts. 

In harmony with Jesus' earlier words about not judging others, due to our own moral failures, He doesn't say, "Well, look at the fruit and let 'em have it with words they need to hear due to their reprobate hearts!"  No. Fruit inspection is just that:  Looking and evaluating as opposed to judging.

What's the difference? Judging is taking a stance of distance from the person. Let's look at one parable where Jesus address this very problem: 

"To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Boom.  The Pharisee distanced himself from his fellow man, based on a self-imposed level of righteousness that the other man could never live up to!  

So, what is Jesus saying?  Judging is about disconnecting from each other, based on personal definitions of righteousness.  Notice that the Pharisee blathers on about what he does but the tax collector submits himself to God based on who he is, and he is all too aware he has fallen short of what God demands. The heart of this man echoes these words: "My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise." (Psalm 51:17). So, he prays, knowing God is there, despite his failings, and loves him deeply.

So, what is fruit inspection all about?  Discernment.  The people Jesus is warning us about those who style themselves as prophets, healers, teachers and whose motivation is to destroy you.  Maybe not literally, but whose deception and betrayal may cause you to walk away from God altogether, having been deeply wounded by someone claiming to be a teacher or healer, in God's service. 

Distancing yourself from people like this is wisdom, not condemnation. Jesus is not saying walk away and distance yourself from anyone who you suspect has moral failings; He is saying walk away from anyone who claims to be doing something for the Kingdom of God, but is actually doing it for the world's kingdom.  

Face the truth of what the fruit is showing you. 

Look at the next verses after the ones in Matthew 7:15-20, where identifying the fruit is a way to recognize what kind of person this is:  “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 who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Matt. 7:21-23)


These are people whose moral failings have so permeated who they are that they are not only living lives where they have deceived themselves, but they want to deceive others.  In fact, they are very persuasive--they even have a power that "verifies" their claims:  They prophesy, drive out demons and perform miracles--all honorable kingdom work, right?  But where is their power coming from?  You guessed it--not from the Kingdom of God's King, but from the prince of this world.  So, instead of humbly confessing their brokenness and need of a Savior, (like the tax collector in the parable) their pride has poisoned them.  They don't distance themselves from humanity; they prey on it.  

Earlier Jesus refers to such people as "dogs" and "pigs": “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." (Matt. 7: 6).  You are a pearl to God, and He wishes you to never be subjected to that kind of abuse, that kind of treatment.  Notice that Jesus is saying don't give the sacred to the unsacred.  Is that judging them?  No: because the fruit of their lives will reveal their canine or porcine nature and thus,  you are to avoid them.  

Let God do the judging in His own time. You, in the meantime, cut a wide berth from them as you pursue the life in the Kingdom of God. 

Let me illustrate this with a story.  I served in a small community church who was looking for a pastor, because the current one wanted to retire.  We had one man come and preach, but we were not impressed.  Then, one day, a man showed up and very quickly he became our pastor. We were so desperate to fill the position, we were not very discerning or asked the right questions and just let him jump in. (Red flag #1). 

The new pastor requested that the retiring pastor not be involved on the board, but he could attend the church. In other words, there would be no transition, no mentoring--just a quick removal from the position that the retiring pastor had held for years.  The new pastor even intimated that it might be best for this pastor not to attend the church for awhile, and come back in five months. (Red flag #2)

The old pastor was devastated but we soldiered on.

The new pastor had one good year in him and in that year he preached the Word with strength and conviction.  He lead a Bible study, but seemed to not like being asked questions--he just wanted to teach. (Red flag #3)  One of the couples who was hosting the study grew increasingly upset, but we soldiered on, despite some legitimate concern for his attitude.  

The new pastor stated he wanted to do a radio ministry, and at a board meeting, one of the elders asked him how much it would cost.  The anger in the pastor's eyes was very evident (at least to me) and he said that this is what God wanted him to do as well as the church. When I found out how much it would cost (and this was a little country church) the pastor still seemed undeterred and wanted to move forward. (Red flag #4) 

He didn't disclose to us when we hired him that he was a prosperity gospel adherent, and a fairly intense charismatic; for some, that wouldn't have been a problem, but this was a non-denominational church, so we were uncomfortable with his increasing insistence on this kind of theology. He accused us that our church was not growing because we didn't speak in tongues. (Red flag #5) There was already such a church in town, so the people who came weren't looking for that kind of church.  

But after one year, when all the sermons he had learned from other pastors had been preached, his preaching grew more erratic and not biblical. (Red flag #6)

He didn't visit the sick in our church and would dismiss their illnesses by saying, "I never get sick." (Red flag #7)

He didn't visit a family whose father attended out church and had passed away. (Red flag #8)

He wanted to just show up, preach and go home. (Red flag #9)

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.  The bad fruit was there, but because he was doing some good in our church with several people there, we ignored it, figuring we might be misinterpreting what we were seeing. 

By the time we found out that he had lied about a great many things, sold our sound equipment and pocketed the money and "borrowed" money from a struggling single mom, his fruit was painfully evident.  But the church closed its doors and he left. Sadly, we saw the wolf in sheep's clothing way too late. 

His good works were now tainted with all of his lies and manipulations.  Was an evil man?  No.  We learned a lot about the Word, but his fruit revealed a man who never should have been in leadership.

That, I believe, is what Jesus is getting at:  We can assist a fallen brother, but do so in a manner that does not involve judging him.  But we must not endanger ourselves either. But a broken brother (as this man was) who is prideful, (as this man was) not humble and who used the church for his own ends (as he did) should have never been a leader of any kind.  He had a lot of personal work to do, and yet, in our eagerness to have a pastor, we ignored the red flags and allowed him to guide us.

He hurt a lot of people along the way.  

He had been severely abused by his father, and had served in Viet Nam.  He was very intelligent, but he was also very manipulative and knew how to deceive people.   

He claimed that God had taken all the bad away and he was fine (Red flag #10). 

We are all on a journey of healing and being transformed into the likeness of Jesus, but that takes time. If someone is emotionally broken, the restoration process is not accomplished by one prayer in one moment. Naming and claiming a healing is not healing.  Healing is a process for most of us; God does deliver some people very quickly, to be sure, but they still have work to do, as we all do. I've seen that most people need time, love, care and accountability to others in order to heal.  

The key here is Jesus' words, "I never knew you. Away form Me, you evildoers!" (v. 23)  Do we truly know and serve Jesus with a humble heart or do we use His name for our own ends?  Do we allow accountability in our lives from trusted believers, or do we operated as a lone wolf, accountable only to ourselves and our claims of having a direct line to God?  

This pastor once told me that God told him what to do and he then told the church what to do. That is not biblical model.  We are a community of believers, loving, praying and confronting (if need be) our brother or sister in a spirt of  restoration.  

I am claiming this brother did not know Jesus?  No.  That would be judging him, for only God can truly know and see into our hearts. 

But, in light of what Jesus teaches here, the Kingdom of God must be lead by humble men and women, who want only the best for the body of Christ and are discerning because they are led by the Spirit. 

Those who follow them in the Kingdom of God must also be discerning because they are led by the Spirit.   

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