This teaching is labeled “A Tree and Its Fruit” (NIV-SB). Jesus began with “watch out for false prophets” (Matthew 7:15). Then, he told the crowds the reason for his warning: false prophets were ferocious wolfs that acted like gentle sheep. The good news was that people could recognize false prophets by their fruit – by looking at both their words and their actions. Just as a woman cannot pick grapes from thorn bushes or a man pick figs from a thistle, neither can a false prophet produce good fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Although false prophets could appear humble and mild like Christ or even blunt and rough like John the Baptist, their words are full of lies.
When Christ compared the words of false prophets to thorn bushes and thistles he was still teaching in Galilee. Primarily his listeners were from rural areas and small towns who had experience growing and picking grapes and figs. They knew about good and bad vines and productive and non-productive trees. These listeners weren’t surprised when Jesus said that trees that do not bear good fruit are cut down and thrown into the fire. The sooner bad trees were uprooted and destroyed the better. Although newly planted trees take 3-4 years to grow, they have the potential to produce good fruit; with bad trees there was no hope for a good crop. When Christ noted that bad trees were cut down, he was not implying that the people should kill false prophets. Rather, he was saying that the correct response to a false prophet is to stop listening to them.
The plant associated with the thistle in Matthew 7:15-20 is the Centaurea iberica, known as the Spanish thistle or Iberian star thistle. The Spanish thistle is native to India, the Middle East, and southeastern Europe. Often the thistle is found in disturbed areas including over-grazed lands and construction sites. Seeds are spread by livestock, vehicles, equipment, and contaminated hay and seed crop. Seeds can be transported on clothing. The Spanish thistle grows throughout Israel from the northern Golan and Hermon areas, through the central mountains and plains including the Mediterranean coast to the Northern Negev Desert area. Spanish star thistle is an invasive plant that displaces valuable forage species and space in pasture lands. The plants sharp spines deter grazing animals, impede recreational use, and restrict access for wildlife.
Symbolism: Recognize, Recognition
Christ told his disciple that plants and prophets could be recognized by what they produce. When we recognize someone, we are familiar with them, distinguish them from others, and comprehend what they do and say. God gave some guiding principles to differentiate between a true versus a false prophet.
First, a true prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ is the son of God in the flesh (1 John 4:3). In contrast, a false prophet does not acknowledge Jesus as God. When prophets, pastors, or theologians say that it is not important whether Christ was truly God or in some way deny the deity of Christ, they are false prophets.
Second, false prophets can be recognized by how they respond to and preach the word of God. True prophets read and obey God’s word (1 John 4:6). They preach the Bible, because it contains God’s truths for personal salvation and for successful everyday life. In today’s society, the norm is to “spin” information. “Spin” is a form of propaganda that provides an interpretation of an event in order to persuade opinion for or against it. Often spin is disingenuous, deceptive, or manipulative. False prophets spin God’s truths. Believers need to discerningly read the scriptures so they do not get taken in by the words of false prophets.
Third, false prophets can be recognized by sin in their lives. One way to recognize sin is to compare a prophet’s life with The Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments identify sins, e.g., coveting, lying, and putting career achievement before God. A prophet who breaks God’s Commandments consistently and without repentance is a false prophet.
Finally, in the Sermon on the Mountain, Jesus outlined expectations for followers. False prophets have said that these standards are unrealistic, e.g., so high that people cannot meet them. False prophets argued that the moral-ethical standards that Christ described in the Sermon on the Mount will only be achieved when Christ returns to earth the second time. Prophets or pastors who advocate this view are denying Christ’s words. In the Sermon on the Mountain, Christ outlined how individuals should live now, not in the new heaven and the new earth. False prophets sin when they distort God’s word and they provide an instantaneous way for Christians to recognize them.
Reflection. Do you know the Bible well enough to recognize when it is being preached truthfully? If you answered “No,” what are some options?
I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/
Copyright May 27, 2013; Carolyn A. Roth