As an auditor, I have to get 80 hours of continuing professional education every two years. Now, some of these are about as interesting as watching paint dry (Two words—GASB Updates. Trust me, it’s as boring as it sounds.) However, some of the fraud related classes I have had have been most interesting, particularly those related to interviewing. In those classes, the instructor gives examples of how to observe things to notice when a person is being deceptive. You see, you can hide some things but you can’t hide everything from someone who is willing to pay attention to what they see and hear. Jesus makes this same point related to false teachers. You can, as the saying goes, fool some of the people some of the time. However, these false teachers can’t fool God ever. By paying attention to their lives and their words, we can keep ourselves safe from false teachers and their destructive doctrine.
First of all, notice that Jesus states in verse 16 and 17 His thesis—this is the central point that He is making in these verses. He states in verse 16, first of all, the comforting fact that you and I “will know them”. In other words, if we are observant and pay attention to a man, what he says, and how he lives, we can know if what he’s saying is from God and if he is actually a true prophet by applying biblical discernment. Jesus uses the analogy between plants and their fruits to symbolize what he is talking about. Just as fruit bearing plants produce what they produce naturally, a persons words and actions are the natural outgrowth of what is on the inside of them. The fruit that is produced identifies the plant just as the teachings, words, and actions of a person identify the kind of person he really is in his heart. With this as a foundation, Jesus builds His thesis—“Every good tree bears good fruit but the bad tree bears bad fruit”. This simple, matter of fact statement reminds us as it reminded his listeners that the kind of spiritual transformation that is brought about by the Holy Spirit in the life of someone who is truly converted is something that is evident. You can tell an apple tree is an apple tree because, well, it has apples
However, someone might make the point “Well, aren’t there exceptions to every rule.” Could it be possible that a person might be falsely labeled a false prophet? Notice here, though, that Jesus doesn’t just make the statement that good trees bear good fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit. He states it negatively, thereby eliminating the possibility that someone could claim an exception. In verse 18, He states that it is not possible for a good tree to produce bad fruit or a bad tree to be found with good fruit hanging from its limbs. Therefore, the type of fruit produced is exclusive to the tree. This, of course, makes perfect sense given the point Jesus is making. Even if a man preaches bible exposition, taking years to go through a book, adheres to what appears to be sound biblical theology, if that man shows himself to be a false prophet through greed and a lack of integrity, the “fruit” he is producing will not have eternal benefit. It mike look like good, wholesome fruit on the outside but on the inside it will be rotten. Just as good trees are only capable of producing good fruit, bad trees can only produce bad fruit.
So, Jesus has stated in these verses not only his thesis but also the antithesis of His point. As we read verse 19 we find a terrifying picture of the torment awaiting these deceivers who lead others astray. Their doom is sure and even though it has not come today, you can be sure it will come. Jesus says the ultimate end of these bad trees that cannot produce good fruit but only produce bad fruit is that they are “thrown into the fire”. Now, sometimes in scripture fire is used to represent a purifying of something—like smelting an ore to refine it. However, that’s not what happens with wood. When you throw wood onto a fire, it is destroyed—burned up. It is reduced to ashes. These false teachers proudly stand in pulpits and mock God with their prideful words but one day they’re going to get what’s coming to them. As wood in a fire has nothing that can protect it from the flames, so these people will burn forever in a lake of fire, tormented for all eternity for their lies.
You and I can take comfort, however, that Jesus has promised in verse 20 that we “will know them by their fruits”. These men who refuse to be accountable and set themselves up as kings over their little kingdom depend on people who are willing to check their brains at the door. They prosper when people refuse to apply biblical discernment to examine them and their lives. However, Christians should apply such discernment in order to be good stewards of the faith and defend it from false teachers.