I have derived three points from my study of this text. First, we will see that Christians are on guard against false teachers. Second, we will see that Christians possess the fruit of the Spirit. And third, we will see that Christians are not condemned.
1. Christians are on guard against false teachers (v. 15-16).
Christ’s warning against false teachers is not a new warning to those who follow God. Rather, Christ is reminding Israel of their past and the covenant they have with God. Deuteronomy 13 and 18 are two places where God spoke his commandments for Israel concerning false prophets. Deuteronomy 13 presents the idea that if someone has a prophetic dream or proclamation that does not come to pass, the false prophet should be killed. Deuteronomy 18 promises that the Lord will raise up a prophet who will speak for him. With this, anyone who decides to speak on God’s behalf without his command to do so must die. These passages are frightening due to the authority that is associated with proclaiming a message from God. And yet, throughout the course of Israel’s history, false prophets still existed.
Around the time of Jeremiah false prophets were virtually everywhere. These false prophets declared that peace would come to reign in the land, yet no peace would actually come for them. See this passage from Jeremiah 23:21-22, 25-26, 32: “I did not send out these prophets, yet they ran. I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. If they had really stood in my council, they would have enabled my people to hear my words and would have turned them from their evil ways and their evil deeds. “I have heard what the prophets who prophesy a lie in my name have said: ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the minds of the prophets prophesying lies, prophets of the deceit of their own minds? I am against those who prophesy false dreams”—the Lord’s declaration—“telling them and leading my people astray with their reckless lies. It was not I who sent or commanded them, and they are of no benefit at all to these people”—this is the Lord’s declaration.”
These prophets had a message that was contrary to God’s message. They were not sent by the Lord. Contrast this with Jeremiah. He was called from birth to be a prophet, as testified to in Jeremiah 1. The Lord told him to declare the coming destruction of Judah if they did not repent. Sadly, Judah did not repent and destruction came upon them. Jeremiah’s word from the Lord came true. Jeremiah contrasts with the false prophets from the verses above: he was called by the Lord to proclaim his message and they were not, declaring falsehood and distorting God’s message.
False prophets still existed in Jesus’ time. They declared that the people needed to clean up their act and follow the Law outwardly. Jesus had to correct the work of false teachers in previous parts of the Sermon on the Mount. He often said, “You have heard it said...but I say to you...” This language signals that the people had heard false teaching.
False teachers are subtle and dangerous. That is why Jesus said they look like sheep; they are hard to recognize. It is easy to read, “You shall not murder,” and believe that you are fine if you do not murder. Yet Jesus reminds the listener that anger cast on a brother or sister deserves a judgment equal to murder. God has always been about the heart, never about outward appearances. False teachers fail to teach us what God has actually revealed. Wolves can proclaim, “God has commanded us to abstain from murdering,” but a sheep will proclaim that murder begins with the heart. They look like God’s sheep outwardly, but inwardly there is a wolf seeking the destruction of souls.
Jesus used this wolf imagery, rotten fruit, and thorns and thistles to depict false teachers. If you have not seen a thorn bush or a thistle, Google them now. A thorn bush is self-descriptive – a bush with tightly-grouped thorns on its branches. A thistle has a pretty, purple flower with a stem that is prickly. Jesus illustrated that good fruit does not come from places that harm you. Listening to a false teacher can be described as this: pursuing an attractive teaching while having your soul cut to pieces. It is dangerous and will leave you broken in the end.
Our current culture is a breeding ground for false teachers. Our culture encourages private faith, rather than public faith. People believe what they want and do not want others influencing their beliefs. This goes against the Christian perspective. Christians come together in community to build one another up in the faith. We have a standard outside of ourselves, the Word of God. The Word of God instructs us how to live according to godliness. We come alongside each other to speak the gospel into the lives of our fellow sisters and brothers. It looks like rebuking sin, fixing our gaze on Jesus, and living on mission. Yes, faith has private matters, but it is to be displayed in public. False teachers destroy this view of Christian community but, believers, I encourage you to be in pursuit of one another constantly proclaiming the gospel to one another.
Christian, although false teachers abound, there is good news. By the aid of the Spirit we will be on guard against false teachers. The Spirit will aid us by giving us discernment. We will be able to see the truth within the teachings we encounter. We have the Word of God, the fount of truth. We must know this Word, for without it we do not have a standard of truth to guard. The Spirit graciously gives us understanding of the Word of God and allows us to not be deceived by false teachers. You know a false teacher by their fruit and by their teachings. Often their teachings sound good, satisfying that which the flesh wants to hear. But the Spirit aides us in killing the flesh. We are dead to sin and our fleshly desires are subsided by the power of the Spirit working within us. This leads us to our second point.
2. Christians possess the fruit of the Spirit (v. 17-20).
The fundamental truth of this passage is that the fruit of our lives reveals our identity. The Christian’s fruit changes upon salvation. We begin to detest the things of the flesh. We are aware of our sin. We find joy in Christ. Inwardly, the Spirit takes residence and brings to life what once was dead. We are grafted in to the family of God.
Jesus is clearly warning against false teachers in the analogy about bad trees. He equated them to thorn bushes and thistles. False prophets produce bad fruit. There is no alternative. Jesus even says that good fruit cannot come from a bad tree. How often do you eat bad fruit? Hopefully never. In the same way, Jesus does not want us to partake in fruit that is bad. He wants us to enjoy good fruit. So why do we not exercise discernment in what we use to feed our soul? We often proclaim that the Word of God is our daily bread but how many of us are ruining our spirits by eating the rotten fruit of false teachers?
Galatians 5:19-26 is our friend in this regard. Jesus said we shall know false teachers by their fruit and Paul gives us a list of good fruit and bad fruit. He lists the bad fruit in 5:19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I am warning you about these things—as I warned you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
This is an all-inclusive list of private and public sins. Some sins in this list are corporate while others are individual. This is how we know false teachers. These are the works of the flesh and ravenous wolves practice these things. Jesus warned that every tree that does not produce good fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire. Paul mentioned that those who practice the works of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God. It is obvious then that false teachers are condemnable. Not only is their teaching condemnable, but they are condemned.
Jesus contrasts bad fruit and good fruit. Paul lists these in Galatians 5:22-26: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.”
It is important to notice that the fruit of the Spirit is a description of character and not of acts. That is because the Spirit changes us, making us into a new creation. These characteristics of believers direct our lives and our actions should be based on them. The good tree is Christ. When we are in Christ we produce good fruit and we look Christ-like. False teachers do not have these characteristic changes. Rather, they practice the works of the flesh because they are not truly believers. They are in step with the flesh, the bad tree that produces rotten fruit.
As Christians, we need to focus on practicing the good fruit. I want to mention here that this is not a “do better, try harder” message. I am not saying that if you just try more or try harder that you can produce good works. This is actually a common, yet subtle false teaching found in church culture today: work for your salvation. Many minds may go to Catholicism but this teaching even creeps into Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches. We are told that we must make an effort in our salvation by doing that which Christ has done. We must do good things for others, for the community, and for the world and then we will be saved. Many have tried this but still end up in Hell because those who work for their salvation will perish.
So, what does salvation look like? It looks like placing faith in the one that has died the death you could not, atoning for sin. We rest in the salvation he has provided for us. Rest, you may ask? Yes, rest. You might be thinking, but what about focusing and practicing the good fruit? Our faith is a rest in the finished work of Christ; we no longer work for our salvation for it is secure in Christ. Rather, we practice the good fruit because we possess the Spirit. When the Spirit of God lives within us we possess supernatural power. This supernatural power overrides the fleshly tendencies to do evil and malice. We do good works because we have faith in Jesus Christ. We do not have a performance-based faith, but a grace-based faith. This leads us to our third point.
3. Christians are not condemned (v. 21-23).
People are often terrified when they read these verses. Who wouldn’t be when they hear, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” But this is not the thrust of the text. Keep in mind we are still talking about false teachers. This becomes evident as we continue to read: “Did we not prophesy, drive out demons, and perform miracles in your name?” Clearly this is language associated with the false prophets. They thought they were doing great things for God and extending his name throughout the earth. But they were not, for God said, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”
Jesus showed another implied contrast here. The false prophet burns in the fire, but the Christian does not. Jesus said that those who do the will of his Father shall inherit the kingdom of God. I just unpacked what it means to do good works and produce good fruit as Christians. This is living in the will of the Father. There is no reason for those who are in Christ Jesus to fear death, to fear as if they might go to Hell. Scripture is full of promises that believers will be brought to the kingdom.
Make no mistake that anyone who places their faith in anyone or anything other than Christ is condemned. It was Christ that paved the way to salvation. It is Christ who is our joy in the midst of our suffering in this life. Anyone who says that this is your best life now is mistaken. The Christian’s best life is yet to come. An eternity of being with Christ is still to come for those who have placed their faith in him. A believer still has hope and joy even if they were to lose everything in this life. Our gaze should not be fixed on the things of earth or self, but rather on Jesus Christ. Ray Ortlund, a Nashville pastor, has a great quote, “Stare at the glory of God until you see it.”
With our eyes transfixed on Jesus we shall not waver when false teachers throw their deception at us. When we have seen the glory of God we are focused on accomplishing God’s will in our life. Christ holds on to us with a steadfast love. We will not perish. We shall live. With a gaze fixed on Christ we will not be looking for fire insurance, that is an escape from hell. We will desire to know and be known by Christ. For those in Christ, Romans 8:1 says, “There is no condemnation.” What a great Savior that he would rescue us from condemnation.
Four Ways to Keep Our Gaze Fixed on Christ
- Read the Word of God for without it you have no way of guarding against false teachers. God gave us his Word so we would know him. It is the way he has revealed himself, therefore, it makes no sense to never pick it up. If we never study the Bible we will not know the difference between false teachers and true teachers.
- Live in step with the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who conforms us to the image of Christ. With the Spirit we will produce good fruit and possess discernment. Study Galatians 5 further to learn how to live in step with the Spirit.
- Be part of a gospel-centered community with members from your church. Seek to live out your church covenant with one another and hold each other accountable. If one strays from biblical teaching, help them gain a biblical understanding again and do this with patience and kindness. It is the community of believers that will keep us from straying into false teaching. Walk alongside your fellow church members, encouraging them with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Read good books. Books help us see Christianity from a different perspective, not a wrong perspective. Reading books can help us understand God and his Word better. There are bad authors out there so talk to your pastor for recommendations.