This article, which has been slightly edited and revised, was published originally under the title “Contextual Fallacies: Matthew 7:16,” in the Quarterly Journal of the Irenaeus Foundation Vol. 2, Issue 4 (Fall 1997): 18-20.
By D. Scott Henderson
“A text out of context is a pretext.” Most of us have heard this maxim. Yet how often do we consistently abide by it? One of the texts most often taken out of context is Matt 7:16:
“You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles?”
You’ve heard it quoted many times: “You will know them by their fruits.” These words of our Lord are often thought to convey some sort of test so that we may determine by outward appearances who is saved and who is not. It is widely assumed that the “fruits” in this passage refers to ” the fruit [note singular] of the Spirit” of Gal 5:22-23. Others believe that the fruits refers to the kind of “works” that one may be evidencing in his or her life. At any rate, this verse is thought to convey the idea that by an outward manifestation in the form of behavior a person’s eternal destiny may be discovered. But as we shall see, in context this understanding misses the mark entirely.
We find this statement in the midst of a warning by our Lord concerning the need to beware of false prophets. The Lord Jesus warned in v 15:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.”
If there is one thing that is made certain by our Lord’s words, it is that false prophets look and act like true prophets. They wear sheep’s clothing, we are told. Yet beneath their sheepskins lies their true identity-they are ravenous wolves! The problem for the Christian is how to see through the deception and discover the true identity of the wolves in sheep’s clothing. And since Christ warns us of this problem we should be prepared for the reality that false prophets will continue to arise.
Verse 16 provides the answer: “You will know them by their fruits.” Upon reflection we should see that the reference to “fruits” can have nothing to do with outward appearances. The Lord has just told us that they look just like sheep! But He goes on to say that “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (v 17). Therefore, it becomes obvious that it can only be by these “fruits” that we can ascertain a false prophet from a true one.
We are helped by our Lord’s words in another context where He uses similar imagery. In Matt 12:33-35 we read:
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.”
It becomes clear that the “fruits” refer to what comes out of a person’s mouth (the message) that reveals the heart. Hence, a false prophet is known to be false by his false message. Look the wolf in the mouth! But how do we know whether the message is false? Quite simply: We have to know the truth!
It should be no surprise to discover that these words from Jesus echo to the letter the test God provided Moses in Deut 13:1-4. The people of Israel were told to observe what a prophet says and see if it aligns with what God says, regardless of any signs the prophet might perform with his prophesying.
“If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder of which he spoke to you comes to pass, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods which you have not known, and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice, and you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him.”
Surely some would be surprised to know that it makes no difference whether signs or wonders accompany a prophet’s message! If his message does not agree with what God has said, that prophet is to be recognized as a false prophet.
Again Isaiah gives this same test concerning spiritists and mediums:
And when they say to you, “Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,” should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.
The true test for discovering a false prophet or teacher is to compare his or her message with God’s. This, after all, has always been the test for discovering who speaks for God and who does not.
Not much thought has to be given to see that it makes sense that it should be this way. God cannot possibly contradict Himself (Num 23:19). Furthermore, His Word stands forever (Isa 40:8). If indeed we have something that solid—and we do—we should use it as a touchstone to test everything that is said by anyone claiming to be a messenger of God. For in doing this, we are not only living in obedience to God’s Word, but we also will be able to know those who are His spokesmen and those who are not.
Scott Henderson, a graduate of Florida Bible College and Southern Evangelical Seminary, is the founder of The Irenaeus Foundation, a Christian apologetics ministry. He and his wife Kathy live in Charlotte, NC with their 2 children, Alex and Ian.