7:13 “Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 7:14 But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
7:15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves.20 7:16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered21 from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 22 7:17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad23 tree bears bad fruit. 7:18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 7:19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 7:20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.
7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, '24 will enter into the kingdom of heaven - only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 7:22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn't we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do25 many powerful deeds?’ 7:23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!'26 Matthew 7:13-23(Net Bible)
So what is the difference between a false teacher/prophet and someone who is just wrong in certain areas of their beliefs/doctrine? In addressing the question, it is first important to consider two important points:
There is not one single person on the planet who knows all that there is to know about the Bible. However, the body of Christ collectively, has the truth it needs in order to walk in the “light" of God's truth. This simply means that we are all growing and maturing in our knowledge of God and the Bible, and at any given time, we are individually missing parts of the truth or growing in our understanding of it, yet others in the body of Christ understand the truth we are reaching to grasp.
Not everyone who is wrong in certain parts of their theology is a false prophet/teacher or a heretic and most false prophets, teachers and heretics are not wrong in all areas of their doctrine.
Who is and who isn't?
This is not always an easy task, because these people look and talk like authentic teachers and prophets, however, upon closer examination they are not. Jesus was addressing this issue in the above passage of scripture.
First he addresses the issue of whether or not they are genuine believers. He states that is it only those who enter the Kingdom through the allegorical “narrow gate" that are genuinely authentic. The narrow gate represents a conversion of one's own beliefs and values to that of Christ's and is evidenced by a new desire and determination to live out those values. This is in contrast to those who are entering through the broad gate. This is descriptive of those who are involved in the community of believers, yet in their hearts, there has been no real conversion to Christ's values. We would consider these false converts.
What makes false teachers and prophets so dangerous is that they have the appearance of sheep or they “wear sheep's clothing". This is the point where you really have to catch what Jesus is saying: the clothing or the outward isn't a true and reliable test of authenticity; it is only the examination of what a person produces inwardly. The proof is in the fruit! The question now begs to be asked, what does Jesus mean when he says we will recognize them by their fruit?
11:13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 11:14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 11:15 Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions. II Corinthians 11:13-15 (Net Bible)
Fruit can be a tricky thing to consider. Our natural inclination is to believe that religious speech or religious activities is proof of good fruit(insert your cult leader of choice here: Jim Jones, David Koresh, et al). It can become even more difficult because false prophets will often be accompanied by miracles, signs & wonders that look real, but are often deceptive. I believe it is at this point, many believers make the critical error. This is where we need to consider Jesus’ words in an earlier verse 21:
7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord, ’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven - only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 7:22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn't we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ 7:23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!'
So what's the point here? The point is that false prophets are often accompanied by religious works which can be unusual and spectacular and even done in the name of God. If there is one thing that we can learn about the enemy, is that he will willingly give glory to God if he is ultimately able to deceive people.
So what fruit should we be examining then? Personally, I believe it is important to look at the whole package and not just one single thing, but if I could pick the top three it would be:
1. What do they believe (doctrine)?
2. What do they teach (theology)?
3. How do they live (Character)?
Doctrine - What do they believe?
* Jeremiah 23:16-25, Ezekiel 13:2 - Do they speak from their own delusion or divine command?
* Jeremiah 23:17 - Do they deny God's word or defend it?
* Jeremiah 6:14; 28:17; Ezekiel 13:10 - Do they deny “unpleasant subjects" like a literal hell, the judgment seat of Christ, or Christ being the only way to salvation?
* Jeremiah 8:11 - Is the help they offer superficial and cliché'? Are they saying everything is alright when it really isn't?
* 1 Kings 22:8, 13:2, 2 Timothy 4:3-4 - Are they always telling people what they want to hear and not what they need to hear?
* 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:2-3 - Do they deny the substitutionary death of Christ as the only way to salvation?
Theology - What do they teach?
* Jeremiah 23:2, 14; 2 Peter 2:2 - What do you see in the wake of their teaching? Does it do violence to the scripture and cause others to reject sound doctrine? Is it leading others into sensual or indulgent lifestyles?
* Acts 13:8 - Does their teaching attempt to lead people away from the truth of the Gospel?
* 1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1 - Do they deny the essentials of the Christian faith or sound doctrine?
Character - How do they act?
* 2 Peter 2:10 - Are they full of pride or overly arrogant?
* Jeremiah 8:10, Titus 1:11; 2 peter 2:3, 14 - Are they greedy?
* 2 Peter 2:10, 12; 3:3 - Are they dominated by their flesh and sensual appetites?
* 2 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Peter 2: 13, 14 - Do they prey upon the guilt-ridden and emotionally vulnerable?
* 2 peter 2:10 - Do they submit to authority? This is a big one, they usual expect everyone to submit to their authority, while they themselves submit to no one.
Character - How do they live?
* 2 Peter 2:10 - Are they easily recognized by their arrogance or pride?
* Jeremiah 8:10; Titus 1:11; 2 Peter 2:3, 14 - Are they greedy, making constant appeals for money?
* Jeremiah 23:11, 14; 2 Peter 2:14 - Do they live immoral life-styles?
* 2 Peter 2:10, 12; 3:3 - Are they dominated by their flesh and appetites?
* 2 Timothy 3:6-7; 2 Peter 2:13-14 - do they prey upon the weak and the guild-ridden and emotionally vulnerable?
Finally, James 3:1 provides a great conclusion to this discussion:
3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly.