What does Matthew 7:15 mean?
ESV: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
NIV: Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
NASB: Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
CSB: "Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves.
NLT: Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves.
KJV: Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1–2) has already provided several phrases now common in western culture. This verse provides another: the idea of a wolf in sheep's clothing. In previous verses, Jesus warned His followers they must enter the narrow gate and walk the hard road that leads to life (Matthew 7:13–14). Most people, He said, enter the wide gate and walk the easy path to destruction. Christ, Himself, is the narrow gate (John 10:9; 14:6) and the only way of salvation (Acts 4:12). The life of inner righteousness is harder than the shallow, performance-based hypocrisy modeled by so many (Matthew 5:20).
Here Jesus tells His followers to beware of false prophets. This can refer specifically to those who claim to be literal "prophets," or leaders. It also applies, in general, to those who make false religious claims. Such people may put on the appearance of innocence or brotherhood. In truth, they are as deceptive and dangerous as hungry wolves wearing sheep skins. Jewish people of Jesus' era would have grown up hearing stern warnings about listening to false prophets.
In this statement, Jesus is pointedly identifying those who oppose Him—those who lead people along the wide path of destruction—as false prophets hungry to devour an easily-led people. The most prominent examples of these, for Jesus' original audience, were the religious leaders of Israel. Those men will end up accusing Jesus of falseness and blasphemy. He is warning His listeners ahead of time that those men are the false prophets. They "devour" in the sense that they rely on the continued fear-driven submission of the Jewish people to maintain their own power and position (John 10:10).
This is the first half of a two-part lesson. After explaining how it's possible to be fooled by others, Jesus will go on to warn about the danger of fooling ourselves (Matthew 7:21).
Matthew 7:15–23 contains a two-sided warning about false believers. A religious leader may appear respectable and wise, but you must look at the fruit of his life in order to know if he truly represents God. In the same way, it's possible for a person to claim to follow Jesus, referring to Him as "Lord," when they are not true believers. Only those who do the will of the Father will be allowed into the kingdom of heaven—which Jesus defines as beginning with true belief (John 6:28–29). Our good works might fool other people, and might even fool ourselves, but they cannot fool God.
Matthew 7 is the last of three chapters that record what is now known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus commands His hearers not to pronounce shallow or hypocritical judgment. He describes God as a generous Father eager to give good things to His children when they ask. He commands His followers to enter the narrow gate and walk the hard road to life. False prophets can be recognized by their fruit, meaning their actions and choices. At the same time, good deeds are not absolute proof that someone has true faith. To live by Jesus' teaching is like building the house of your life on a solid foundation instead of shifting sand.
Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5, discussing the Beatitudes and the idea that inner thoughts are very much part of sin and righteousness. Chapter 6 denounced hypocrisy, modeled prayer, and opposed anxiety. Chapter 7 discusses the proper manner of judgment, including how to gauge the teachings of others. Jesus also warns against spiritual self-deception. He concludes with an analogy about foundations and storms. The crowd's amazement at Christ's teachings leads into the miracles and encounters of chapters 8 and 9.
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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