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Christian Litmus Test #2

In my last commentary, I shared some thoughts on 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and how it has been misinterpreted and misapplied. I would like to do this again, except this time I would like to do it with Matthew 7:15-16. So let's get right to it. The passage reads as follows...

Matthew 7:15-16 (NIV) "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. ..."

We've probably all heard this scripture on a number of occasions, and maybe even quoted it ourselves. Of course, when this passage is cited, often all that is conveyed is the last little bit: "By their fruit you will recognize them" or some close approximation. Which is fine for the most part, however, in doing so, sometimes we can lose some perspective.

The fact is, it's easy to offhandedly toss out short scriptural quotes at a moment's notice. It becomes even easier when a passage seems to reinforces a particular narrative most people accept. However, if we are not careful, this kind of use can lead to scripture being more parroted than understood, causing our understanding of scripture can become superficial.

Unfortunately, many scriptures have been turned into what amount to sound bites overshadowed by human viewpoints and human understanding. This can lead us very far away from the original intent of God's word, and cause us to go down a completely different, and even wrong path.

For example, some believe that "money is the root of all evil" and "judge not" are sound doctrine. In reality they are nothing of the sort. The Bible in no way teaches these beliefs as they are often interpreted by many individuals, yet the belief still persists. What has been done with Matthew 7:15-16 is no exception.

Just as 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Matthew 7:15-16 is sometimes used as a weapon by Christians against other Christians. Some of us even go so far as to judge a person's salvation and their standing with God according to our idea of what a person's "fruit" should be. While those who do this may be well meaning, to do so isn't even close to keeping Jesus' original intent -- allow me to explain.

The first thing I want to note is that people (all of us) tend to skip over things we don't understand, or that just don't fit with our thinking. I wish I could say I don't do this, but on occasion, usually without knowing it, I do. It's a human trait, and it's one of those things we all have to deal with -- that is, should choose to do so.

In this passage, the part that most of us tend to skip over is the first sentence: "Watch out for false prophets." We often read this and think to ourselves "Okay, good advice" and we move on. However, Jesus didn't say this without reason, nor was it a non-sequitur. Nevertheless, as we continue, we almost instantly forget that Jesus was speaking about, you guessed it, false prophets, and not necessarily about everyone. As such, we've made the mistake to apply what He said to everyone, everywhere, at any given time, and even do so in the way of our choosing.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the principle Jesus was demonstrating here isn't sound enough to apply to non-prophets. In fact, I think it is, but I also think we have to keep it in the proper perspective.

You see, prophets (and apostles) are special cases. Both of these tend to go through some times of heavy trials and tribulations for the purpose of making them vessels fit for God's use. That's not to say other people don't go through trials for God's purpose, it just happens to be a given for these particular ministerial positions.

Going through these trials is not easy to say the least, and by the time the person comes out the other side, their fruit is often much more in line with what God would have it to be. This is no accident, it's part of the purpose of refinement. No, they aren't perfect, but often there is a vast improvement on who they once were.

Jesus knew this. He also knew that false prophets didn't go through God's refinement process, so their heart, and therefore their fruit, was more likely to be, well, corrupt. So with this understanding, the contrast between true and false prophets becomes clear to the discerning. It makes true prophets and false prophets as different as night and day.

However, if we apply this same principle to the average Christian -- one who has not gone through the fire of God's refinement process, and who has not had the benefit of everything in their world completely crumbling around them -- then this isn't necessarily a fair assessment. It's kinda like testing someone on how to perform brain surgery without giving them the benefit of going through medical school.

Yes, it's reasonable to say that most Christians should have an amount of fruit in their lives, but I think it is important that we keep what Jesus is saying in perspective. There are many factors involved when inspecting someone's fruit. For example, a new Christian isn't going to have the development of fruit that a seasoned Christian will have. Does this mean that new Christians aren't real Christians? Of course not; but to some, should they have a mind to do so, a test of their "fruit" would determine they weren't.

Nevertheless, this isn't the most significant place we go awry; this is just something to keep in mind. Where we go awry most often is in the next sentence. "They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves." Many of us have misunderstood this portion in one very fundamental way.

Let me ask you, what is it that wolves put on in order to fool the rest of the sheep? What is this "sheep's clothing" Jesus was referring to? It's the outward appearance, is it not? That's part of what clothes do after all; they cover up what is beneath, and display a certain appearance to the onlooker, which is in keeping with the way Jesus described false prophets.

So the sheep's clothing Jesus spoke of are all the Christian-like things we can see on the surface. It's people's actions. It's what they do and say. It's even what they don't do or don't say. And, believe it or not, in some cases it can even be their literal clothing. (Ever heard of a Christian being denounced because of their attire? I know I have.)

So tell me, if wolves masquerade as sheep by covering themselves in sheep's clothing -- by appearing to be a Christian who has it all together -- then why is it that when some people examine someone's "fruit" they look at what they can see on the outside?

Do they come to church regularly? Do they volunteer their time at Church? Do they go to the right church? Do they say all the right things? Do they shout "amen" when the preacher says something inspiring? Do they worship God with obvious passion? Do they condemn those who are living sinful lives? Are they a "good Christian" and keep all the rules?

Does any of this sound familiar?

The mistake we have made is confusing the clothing for the fruit. Many of us believe we are looking at a person's fruit when in reality we are looking at their cloths. If they were the same thing then Jesus would not have gone to the trouble to draw a clear distinction between the two -- the cloths, which is what we can see on the outside, and the fruit, which comes from the heart.

We can examine a person's clothes all we like, but we will never truly know what is in a person's heart by looking at what's on the outside. Even if we do happen to discern correctly by looking at a person's clothes alone, then our assessment is nothing more than an accident. Jesus warned us about behaving like this, saying...

John 7:24 (NIV) "Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly."

But we have been doing exactly what the Lord warned us not to do. We've been judging by the things that can be taken up or put down at a moment's notice. We've been judging by the things that false prophets, and yes, even false disciples, put on to fool the rest of us. And what's worse, some of us have used these false indicators as yet another litmus test to determine who is Christian and who is not -- something Jesus never intended.

So this naturally leads us to a question. What exactly is the fruit by which we are supposed to judge? Well, I think it's a pretty safe bet that the fruit of the Spirit plays a significant role. As it says in Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV) "...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. ..." I think there are some more cues we can take when we are seasoned enough to do so, however, the fruit of the Spirit is more than enough to start.

The true mark of a Christian isn't whether or not they are doing everything to man's satisfaction. (Note that I didn't say "the mark of a true Christian.") The true mark of a Christian is whether or not the Holy Spirit is manifesting through them.

Again, no, this isn't a be-all and end-all litmus test, it's just an indicator. Because as we know, we are all human with human frailties. There are times when we just don't feel very loving. There are times when we are frustrated, or angry, or simply fail to do what is right. We all get tired, and we all succumb to these things on occasion. However, this does not merit us being labeled as false Christians as some would do.

A true test of people's fruit is to see where a person's heart resides over an adequate period of time. Anyone can be pleasant for an hour on Sunday. Anyone can express love, peace, kindness, etc. for a short period of time to keep up appearances when necessary. But not everyone walks in these daily. That is the true test of a person's fruit.

But again, we must remember to account for circumstances they may be weathering. We also have to account for general human frailties, and the level of development of fruit in that person. And we even have to account for a person's held beliefs, and their intent in doing something. Some people do things we completely disagree with, yet, their heart can still be right before the Lord because their intentions are pure.

Not only that, but the observer has to have clear eyes to see correctly, and a right heart to discern a person for who they really are. We must not make the same mistakes and judge by mere appearances, because, what seems to be love may not be love. What seems to be hate may not be hate. What seems to be honesty may not be honesty. What seems to be dishonesty may not be dishonesty. What seems to be kindness may not be kindness. And what seems to be unkind may not be unkind at all.

If you don't believe that then let me tell you the story of a man who turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple and drove them out with a whip. (John 2:13-16) Or a man who insulted the leaders of His day by calling them hypocrites, snakes, and a brood of vipers. (Matthew 23:27-28,33) Or a man who seemingly ignored the earnest pleas of a sister to help a dying friend. (John 11:1-44) Or a man who told people to eat His flesh and drink His blood. (John 6:54) Not one of us would dare accuse Jesus of not bearing the fruit of the Spirit, however, if it were anyone else doing these things, more often than not, they would be judged by mere appearances.

Unfortunately, the world at large has gone far from understanding issues of character, and many of us are traveling down the same path. To be able to judge correctly, as Jesus said in John 7:24, we have to truly know someone and be led by the Spirit. We must also have a true grasp of what each of these fruits are, rather than having a worldly view of them.

Perhaps you're saying to yourself "Well, that doesn't make it very easy to judge someone." Yes, exactly! That's the point. We judge far too quickly, and do so with very little or no information. This is why Jesus exhorted us in the beginning of Matthew chapter 7 to refrain from judging until we have the clarity of sight to do so correctly. (Matthew 7:1-5) And even then, we should do so only when necessary.

What does it benefit us, much less other people, for us to make knee-jerk judgments about someone, particularly if there is no need? Do we really believe that God looks upon us favorably when we do?

May each of us stop judging by mere appearance, and judge correctly when necessary. And may each of us allow the Holy Spirit to live in us and develop the fruit in us that God desires, as we extend grace to others.

1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV) "The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."

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May God bless you richly!

Mark Moyers

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