Wolf in sheep's clothing - unknown

During Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, after telling his followers they must decide which road they choose to follow, he said:

“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ferocious wolves. By their fruit, you will be able to recognize them.”

“Do you pick grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? Likewise, you know a good tree bears good fruit and a rotten tree bears rotten fruit. In fact, a good tree is incapable of producing bad fruit and a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus by their fruit (actions), you will recognize them.”

“Understand that not everyone who says they believe in God will enter the kingdom of heaven but only the ones who do the will of God will enter. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and perform miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Get away from me Evil One!”

What the story means to us today

By their fruit you will recognize them

Cover of Lupus excoriatus (the wolf stripped of its skin), printed in 1591. ‘Calvinist wolves of discord’ dressed in monks’ habits and devouring a sheep labelled ‘concordia’. The sheep represents the Concordia Wittenbergensis..Although the general message here points out that people can appear to be one thing but may be something else, Jesus specifically applies this assessment to “prophets” or religious teachers. The implication is clear – false prophets, who are akin to a poison in the Christian church, may be distinguished by their deeds just as righteous persons can be identified by their good deeds (“by their fruit you will recognize them”).

Demonstrating God’s will is a reflection of our obedience to God.  Merely saying you believe in God is meaningless.  You must demonstrate God’s will, just as Jesus did throughout his life. To those who do not, Jesus will simply say, “I never knew you”.

Actions speak louder than words

It is important to recognize that righteous people are not recognizable by what they say, but by what they do. With this understanding, a Christian cannot be misled by presuming a person is “good” solely from the words that come out of their mouth.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Actions do speak louder than words – but even actions are not the final determinant of a person’s character

The people hearing Jesus’ words must have wondered about the religious leaders of their day. Those leaders may have been prophesying, driving out demons, and performing miracles but they were not truly doing God’s work and thus, were considered “false prophets”. This is an important lesson for modern-day readers too. It’s the person’s actions that indicate his true character but you must be careful to not misinterpret those actions. In other words, just because a person performs miracles does not necessarily mean that are doing it for good.

Wolves in sheep’s clothing

The meaning of “wolves in sheep’s clothing” presents two subtle aspects. Firstly, it may refer to the person’s exterior appearance of meekness, mildness, and goodness. The person may appear to be a “sheep” while truly encompassing evil and sin. Secondly, the reference to “sheep” can infer the profession of Christianity in particular (which is often epitomized using references to sheep, flocks, and shepherds).

The science and history behind the story

Grapes, thistles, and trees

Jesus uses images from horticulture to illustrate his point. These images would have resonated with his audience as first-century Palestine was primarily an agrarian society.

Notes on Biblical translation

“I never knew you”

Jesus says false prophets and false disciples who plead with God on the day of judgement will be met with the response, “I never knew you”. This possibly relates to a common phrase used by Jewish rabbis in ancient times. It communicates disassociation with the person.

“Evildoers”

Jesus calls the false disciples “evildoers” which translates to wicked, bad, and malignant. Literally it means “workers of lawlessness”.

Bible Text

Wolf in sheep's clothing - unknownNIV

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

“Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.

21–23 “Knowing the correct password—saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance—isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

The NET Bible

7:15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 7:16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 7:17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 7:18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 7:19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 7:20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.

7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 7:22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ 7:23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

15 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. 16 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. 19 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. 20 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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