What does Matthew 7:20 mean?
ESV: Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
NIV: Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
NASB: So then, you will know them by their fruits.
CSB: So you'll recognize them by their fruit.
NLT: Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.
KJV: Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
Verse Commentary:
This sums up Christ's warning to His followers about false prophets (Matthew 7:15–19). This is part of Matthew's continuing record of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1–2). This alert against false teachers applies across all of history, and is part of the Bible's encouragement towards wisdom and truthfulness (Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1). For His initial audience, Jesus is specifically warning against the leadership of some of Israel's religious teachers. Jesus does not make a blanket statement that all Pharisees or Sadducees or priests are false. Rather, Christ extols a form of cautious skepticism: see what comes out of their lives beyond just their words.

That spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22–24) may include a leader's character as revealed in the way they treat others, their honesty, their humility, their commitment to living with inner righteousness, as well as external obedience. Their fruit may also include the lives and attitudes of their own followers and disciples.

Jesus has also been clear that those who most fully fall under the category of "false prophets" are not simply wrong about what they believe. The worst and most dangerous of the wolves in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15) are intentionally deceptive. They lie, to promote their own position and power. Look closely at their teachings, and what they create, commands Jesus.

This concludes the first half of a two-part warning. After speaking about those who would fool others, Jesus will warn against fooling ourselves (Matthew 7:21).
Verse Context:
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.
Chapter Summary:
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.
Chapter Context:
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.
Book Summary:
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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