You will know them by their fruit; The words of Jesus in Matthew 7:16, are often quoted in isolation, and many times in a judgmental way when looking at the deeds and works of others… “Haven’t you seen everything that this guy is doing? Jesus said you will know them by their fruit!” is what is commonly said, when being critical of others.
This kind of judgmental examining of people’s performance is not what Jesus had in mind when he said these words, however. And as we examine the additional things He said along with verse 16, we can see this clearly.
So what I want to share with you today, is what the often misunderstood verse of scripture truly means, and by seeing it, we will see another amazing aspect of Jesus Christ.
Today we are looking at Jesus’ famous words of “You shall know them by their fruit”, an often quoted, and equally often misunderstood phrase that Jesus spoke in conjunction with false prophets. As stated, this verse is often used by people to justify their judgment of someone’s behavior. This comes from mostly a simple confusion that many people instinctively make: conflating fruit with works.
Many people interchange the two terms, when in-fact they are not interchangeable. Works are entirely different than fruit. One is an action or a deed that you perform, it is a work; while the other is something produced in you by the Spirit of Christ, it is a fruit.
And this leads us directly into our main scripture today, which is the verse in question, and the verses surrounding it for context. So let’s begin today by reading Matthew 7:15-20:
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit.
A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
Every tree that brings not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
Why by their fruits you shall know them.”
So we see here that Jesus begins in verse 15 with a warning about false prophets. And what He says right in the second-half of verse 15 immediately shatters our typical belief that you can successfully judge the veracity of a prophet by their outward appearance or works. He says that they will come to you in sheep’s clothing, they will look okay on the outside, but inwardly, on the inside, they are ravenous wolves. You see, it’s not their outward appearance that gives them away; in-fact on the outside they will look perfectly fine. But it’s the inside that reveals their true nature.
This is nothing new… because if you recall Jesus said the exact same thing about the Pharisees! In Matthew 23:27 Jesus tells the Pharisees that they do appear beautiful on the outside – the Pharisees had great works that were seen by all, but on the inside they were dead, open graves, filled with everything unclean.
What we can learn from all of this is that judging based on the outward appearance is not reliable in seeing the true person. What we have taken Jesus’ words to mean is not what He really meant.
Continuing on to verse 16, this is where the famous line of Jesus is uttered, and repeated in verse 20. In verse 16 He says:
“You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”
Now the first-half of this verse is what most people are familiar with. The first half is usually quoted in isolation – not even with the second-half of the verse! Yet, the second-half is very important, because it provides further insight into what Jesus actually meant.
The fruits of the Spirit are listed in Galatians 5:22-23:
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness, and self-control”
And as an interesting side-note, notice that even what we call “self-control” is really just another fruit of the Spirit of Christ.
However, what we can notice here is that the fruits listed are primarily internal. Love, joy and peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness (being full of faith), gentleness and self-control, all start on the inside. They are internal, far before any external evidence of them are ever seen.
And remember that these all are fruits produced by the Spirit of God in us. These are not works or deeds that we perform of our own strength; nor are they things for us to strive for and work towards within ourselves.
The reason why the fact that these are internal is important is because I could have amazing works, and always do good deeds; and to the other people looking on, I would appear to be a super-saint, just as the Pharisees were doing… but on the inside, I could be an absolute mess! I have known people like that who eventually completely burn out… because they are working all of the time, but it is not from a place of the Spirit’s supply, it is from themselves, and a works-based mentality – always feeling like they need to do something, never simply resting in Christ.
I have also known some people who have very few visible works or deeds but amazing fruit on the inside of them. What we tend to be the lesser, is many times actually the greater – and the reverse is also true, because what is actually of supreme importance, is not so much the fruit, but the kind of Tree that a person is.
Take another look at Matthew 7:16, as we let Jesus explain what He actually meant:
“You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”
You see, the way in which we will know a false-prophet by their fruit, is precisely what the second-half of the verse is pointing out… by what is being gathered.
Jesus said, you don’t gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles. That’s very specific; and as you may have heard me say before: There are no insignificant details in the Bible… especially when it comes to the words of Jesus!
The point that Jesus was making was that when you listen to the words of a false prophet, you won’t end-up with grapes (which for us today represent the rich wine of Christ). You won’t end up with a teaching that gives you love, joy peace, or any of the other fruits of the Spirit… instead all you will get is thorns (representing, worry, cares, stress, and condemnation leading to death).
That was the point of Jesus’ words. He’s warning against false prophets, and the effects that they produce with their false words. He’s warning not to try and gather spiritual food from such places, because instead of good grapes, and figs, you will end up with thorns and thistles if you do.
The words of a false prophet will burden the listener with works, load them down with guilt, and / or generally rob them of the benefits of Christ.
This is made even more clear in 1st John 4:2-3:
“Hereby know you the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
And every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof you have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.”
Now this isn’t about simply articulating the phrase “Jesus Christ came in the flesh”, but rather this is about what that phrase actually means and represents. I’ve said it before, but I am going to say it again today… remember, Christ is not just Jesus’ last name… it is a Title… in Hebrew, it is המשיח, the Promised Messiah, the Anointed One. And by acknowledging or
agreeing that He has come in the flesh, is to also acknowledge and agree that He accomplished His purpose, the redemption and salvation of all who believe.
There is a lot there in that statement. It is not vain words, nor is it empty. To acknowledge that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is to acknowledge that your sins have been completely judged on the cross and purged from your conscience (as we studied previously) – Hebrews 10:1-2.
To acknowledge that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is to acknowledge that your old identity of sin is gone and you are now a new creation in Him (and we have studied plenty of times before). – Romans 6:11.
To acknowledge that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is to acknowledge that you have been completely sanctified and made Holy by Him (you aren’t waiting for it or trying to get it yourself) and that you have His Spirit of Holiness living in you and quickening (making alive) your mortal body, right now. – Hebrews 10:10, Romans 8:11.
To acknowledge that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is to acknowledge that you are healed (including physically) by the sacrifice of Jesus, that He carried your sicknesses and pains in His own body, and that by His stripes you are already healed. – 1st Peter 2:24.
This is what it means to truly say that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, and so if you honestly look around today, you will not see much of this being proclaimed. But these things that I have just mentioned, are the mark of a true prophet, someone actually speaking the words of the Spirit of Christ – because they will be truly acknowledging His finished work on the cross.
So I hope this has helped you to understand and see that Jesus’ warning was about something much deeper than mere performance, but about His very words of life, and about His finished work for you.