The Lord Jesus, the true Prophet, here addresses his disciples concerning the ongoing problem of false prophets. In order to see the seriousness of these words of Jesus, we must remind ourselves of the role of a true prophet. Often we regard the role of a prophet as foretelling the future. This function was part of his role in the Bible, but not his ordinary one. A prophet did not make predictions about the future every day, but he did pass on a message from God very frequently, a message that was usually based on God’s requirements revealed in his Word. Jesus here is concerned mainly with this function of communicating God’s message to his people.
I also suspect that Jesus here was not referring to the prophets of other religions. They are false prophets, but they are not likely to have an influence over God’s people. Such do not claim to speak on behalf of the Christian God. Further, I don’t think Jesus has in mind preachers who proclaim one of the varied kinds of liberal Christianity. Again such preachers are not usually a danger to Christians – for example, the vast majority of Christians would ignore a person who denies that the Bible is God’s Word. Nor do I think that Jesus is describing a teacher who gives up the faith because he no longer believes it; such a person may be influenced by philosophy or science and decide that the Christian message is not true. Yet his change of direction is not usually a time of danger to Christians.
In contrast to each of the types of person just described, the false prophets referred to by Jesus claim to speak the message of the true God, they boast of being energetic in his service, they have access to spiritual power, and therefore they are very dangerous as far as true disciples are concerned.
The first point to note is how seriously Jesus expected his followers to regard the baneful influences of false prophets. He did not expect his disciples to enter into a dialogue with false prophets, looking for areas of common interest. Instead he clearly stated that false prophets would always be a danger and instead of interacting with them his followers were to beware of them.
It would be naïve for us to imagine that there are not any false prophets today. Yet the Saviour has not left us in the dark regarding how we can identify such dangerous people. Therefore, the second detail that concerns us is the recognition of false prophets.
Jesus points out that they will be dressed in sheep’s clothing. In other words, they will appear as harmless. But they will be revealed by their fruits, which I suspect is a description of the effects they will have on Christ’s church. Those negative fruits will include teaching false doctrine, causing sinful divisions, and allowing wrong practices. When we see such fruits we should move away from such teachers and have nothing to do with them.