Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing – Matthew 7:15-20

Jesus describes false prophets as “ravenous wolves” (7:15). The metaphor of wolves attacking sheep is drawn from the Old Testament. Ezekiel 22:7 describes wolves attacking on the poor and needy. The verb in Ezekiel 22:27 (טרף) is the same word used Jacob used to describe the fate of his son Joseph, he has been “torn apart by wild animals” (Gen 37:33). But these dangerous wolves are disguised as sheep. A wolf disguised as a sheep is trying to look and act like his prey, to lull them into a sense of safety before attacking them.

Paul uses this same metaphor in Acts 20:29-31 when he warns the Ephesian elders of false teachers who will appear within the church seeking to distort the truth and draw disciples away. In this case, the sheep are the members of the church under the care of these elders.

Who are these ravenous wolves? Commentators have suggested virtually every Second Temple period group as the false prophets in Matthew 7:15-23: the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Essenes, Bar Kokhba, Simon Magus, Gnostics, representatives of Pauline Christianity, a degenerate form of Pauline Christianity, antinomians, and Jewish legalists (Nolland, Matthew, 335). Urlich Luz says “In my judgment the intensive Matthean redaction is understandable only if the struggle with false prophets is an actual problem in his community.” “The community obviously knows of whom the text is speaking.” (Matthew, 376).

These false teachers appear to be followers of Jesus, but they are not true disciples at all. Although Matthew will describe the Pharisees with similar language in 16:6 and 23:23, “one should not immediately think of Pharisees or Sadducees at 7:15” (Nolland, Matthew, 337). Since the previous unit described people on a wide-path trying to enter the kingdom through the wide gate, these false disciples are the disciples on the easy path (and therefore not really going to the kingdom of heaven at all!)

In the context of this section of the Sermon on the Mount, these ravenous wolves are the false teachers who appear to be real disciples of Jesus, work false miracles in order to claim to be empowered by God, but are in fact trying to devour the true disciples and draw them away from the truth.

Since these false disciples appear to be genuine followers of Jesus, the only way to recognize them is by their fruit (Matthew 7:16-20).  A tree bearing fruit is another common metaphor in the New Testament. It is probably based on Psalm 1, the righteous person is like a tree bearing good fruit. In the context of Matthew, the one who claims to be a disciple of Jesus but does not care for the poor is not a true disciple. Again, the parallel in Matthew 25 makes this point, the goats do not enter the kingdom because they did not care for the “least of these.”

What is remarkable here is the false prophet is also like a tree, but they bear bad fruit. This is a common metaphor in the Old Testament (Isa 3:10; Jer 17:10; Prov 1:31). In Matthew, there are a number of parables which describe the judgment prior to the Kingdom as a harvest, wheat goes into the barn and the weeds are burned on the fire (Matt 13:24-30). In that parable, the owner of the field specifically says the wheat and the weeds cannot be separated until the harvest.

The ravenous wolves think they are disciples of Jesus, but they have fooled themselves and others by disguising their true nature. In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus said some people try to enter the kingdom of heaven via the broad path and through a wide gate. But this way does not lead to the kingdom, but rather to destruction.

To me, this is a chilling warning from Jesus. Not all those who claim to be flowers of Jesus are actually true disciples of Jesus. We know that not all of the disciples will remain until the end. Judas will betray Jesus and Peter will deny him, the rest of the disciples scatter when Jesus is arrested. Some in the crowds who hailed him as a king at the Triumphal Entry also shouted for him to be crucified only a few days later.

It seems to me this is instructive for those who look at the whole of the modern American Christianity and assume everyone who claims to be a Christian is a real disciple of Jesus. I am quite confident many who claim to be Christians are not bearing fruit expected from the true disciple, and there are many ravenous wolves disguised as sheep in the flock today.

15 thoughts on “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing – Matthew 7:15-20

  1. Yes, good read. This is actually the subject of the book I’m currently writing. As I began researching the Scriptures I was shocked to discover how much related material there is on the matter in both Testaments.

    • This kind of defining “who is in or out” is common in the Second Temple Period. The Qumran community did not consider everyone who was Jewish to be proper Jews (you had to be part of their particular form if you were going to survive the coming of the Messiah). Paul says more or less the same thing in Romans 9. I imagine the Pharisees were not too happy with Herodians or Sadducees.

  2. This is very common in today’s world. Many people say they are Christians, but underneath they are bearing bad fruit. I also believe this happens in the church. People come into the church with a disguise on trying to serve and get people to like them, then they slowing get into things and then break them apart. An instance similar to this has happened in my church in the past. Those who are disguised as sheep truly believe they are disciples of Jesus. “Jesus teaches his followers observe their fruits so they can discern true from false” (McKnight, pg. 268). We need to be aware of these wolves who try and tear God’s work apart. We also need to look at ourselves and make sure we do not have a disguise on. This is a warning for us to look out for and be aware of. Those of us who are true disciples of God will see the good fruit and the bad fruit and those who are in a disguise.

    • I think its good to keep in mind how also many people will come and also claim to be a prophet or even Jesus himself. And realizing that many people are not who they say they are and especially with this generation it is easy to disguise yourself or even become something you are not. Our job as true Christians and followers of Jesus Is to be able to decipher the difference and be able to follow God whole heartedly. If you follow God and his word determining what is real and what is not can become a lot easier.

  3. I agree, it is hard to notice if someone is truly a Christian or if they are acting as one. But it is also not our job to judge whether or not someone is or not. The only thing we can base it off is their actions and how they display Christ. To keep them accountable, we need to shine light on their sin so it comes into the darkness, rather than making them feel judged by us. We need to be aware of false people because we need to pour in each other but we also need positive people to pour into us rather than negative people and falling into bad habits. It is also bad for someone to claim as a Christian and not really be one, but their bad habits show other nonbelievers that all Christians may act that way and it would give Christians a bad image as a whole

  4. Unfortunately, like Maddie said, this is very common today. Many people appear like good Christians but are in fact the exact opposite. Jesus said in the New Testament that He would rather us be hot or cold and not look-warm. It’s better to be sold to one side completely than to be split and pretending to be apart of both sides. However, our job is not to judge those who are appearing to be both but to instead watch out for them and warn against them. The Bible warns about false teachers, false witnesses and false prophets because they seem good but are simply out to destroy and turn us away from God and His Word. It’s a difficult issue to deal with but if we can witness to them and show them what they are doing we can point them to Jesus Christ and He can change their life. Bad habits are hard to brake but so are good ones, so if we can help those who are testifying against Jesus Christ and point them back to Him we can turn them into witnesses for Christ. Black sheep are never a good thing — and Jesus can wash us white as snow. As Christians we must be pointing people back to Jesus Christ by our words and actions because everything that we do should be honoring and glorifying Him.

  5. Although, there are false prophets, throughout the history of the world. At what point do you think the church should get themselves involve in the dethroning these type of people. Jim Jones is a grand example of the people who led many people in believing in a false gospel. Drink the Kool-aide, I believe that false prophets are taking advantage of the fact that people are attracted to the pretty things in life versus the reality of their life when they are involve in sin. Jones had “not been attracted to the service by profound religious confidence, but since it served his objective of accomplishing social change through Marxism. Jim utilized religion to attempt to get a few people out of the sedative of religion,” she stated, including that he had once pummeled a Book of scriptures on a table and stated, “I must demolish this paper symbol!” In a recorded meeting Jones stated, “I chose, how I might exhibit my Marxism? The contemplation was, penetrate the congregation.” It was in discussing socialism with a Methodist administrator that Jones got his first church. “He said I need you to take a congregation,” Jones guaranteed. “I stated, you giving me a congregation. I don’t think anything. I’m a progressive furthermore, he selected me, a Socialist, to a congregation, and I didn’t meet him through the gathering, I met him in a utilized vehicle parcel. This was in 1953. Therefore, this can show you that people are willing to sugarcoat God’s truth to get people to follow them. God is not about this business and we as people must be equipped to the word and know what God expect from us.

  6. Jesus is using a metaphor here in this passage to share a very important truth. If we are new creations in Him, we should not be producing “bad fruit” as we were in our past lives, but “good fruit” as we have changed our lives in light of the gospel and have been filled with the Holy Spirit. This verse challenges me as I have many family members who seem to think that they can get to Heaven through the wide gate. They seem to do good, but once you get to know them more, you see that they are no different than the rest of the world. Saying this, I believe this passage is a reminder for those who have accepted God’s grace, to actually live like it so that those around us do not even have to question who we belong to. People judge by what they see, and if you claim truth and act against it people are not going to respect you and you will be “chopped down”. This is why many people are turned away from the church. We tell the world how to behave, but we do not obey the “rules” ourselves and do not live any differently or treat people better than the rest of the world. McKnight suggests that the “fruit” in this text is representative of obedience to Jesus (270). This is important to distinguish in this text, as this passage could be easily warped into a prosperity message in that if the fruit is representative of success, those who have bad fruit are not actually saved. Instead, when fruit is equivalent to obedience to Jesus, we are called to live the life we preach about.

  7. This passage is a good warning that we need to be on the lookout for wolves in sheep’s clothing. This is a statement that I have heard many times, I think that it is not something that we should take lightly, and I think that it something that we need to be very aware of in the church. I like the point that you made when you were talking about when you were saying that the people that the author is warning against are sadusies, and the Pharisees, I think that today we need to know that we really don’t deal with those kind of people anymore, however, we do have a people in our churches with false teachers in our church today, and that is most definitely something that we need to keep an eye on so that it would not happen.

  8. This blog post reminds me of a few things. The first thing is a news story on local TV that I saw a few years ago. There was a man in Florida who was pasturing a church for many years. However, after he had gained a large and loyal following, this pastor proclaimed that he was the returning Jesus. The congregation believed him and bought him many things, such as a multi-million dollar house, sports cars, exquisite food and nice clothes. I have no idea if this man is still alive, if he is still proclaiming to be Jesus or if he has gone to the fires of hell. What I do know is that this man was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. When looking at the fruit that this man bore, self-control, forbearance, humility and meekness were not any of his fruits. Unlike many of this man’s followers, I would confidently say that honesty was not one of his fruits either. The second thing that this post reminds me of is the story of the magicians in Exodus 7. Towards the end of this chapter, the first plague on Egypt is given. This is where God turns the Nile River into blood. However, Pharaoh’s magicians are able to also turn water into blood using “their secret arts” (Exodus 7:22). These false prophets were able to produce false miracles, however, they were not able to reenact all the miracles and plagues that God and Moses sent upon Israel.
    McKnight describes a false prophet perfectly and simply by stating, “…a false prophet is one who stands between God and God’s people falsely and deceitfully” (p. 266). These false prophets may have deceived themselves, but at a certain point they must have known that what they are teaching is not true. It is important to notice that those who suffer greatly from mental illness and delusions along with people from other denominations are not in the category of false prophets. There are people who suffer greatly from mental illness that believe they are people who they are not. Some of these characters are Superman, the Pope, Abraham Lincoln and of course Jesus. However, these delusions are more related to people believing that they are able to commit acts that they are not able to do, such as flying, performing miracles, and being able to lead the country. These people may believe that they are someone else, but they should not be considered false prophets. Through therapy and correct medication, this can be resolved and the person will no longer have that identity. Also, these people do not have followers. When looking at someone from another denomination, they should not be considered false prophets. Members of the Catholic faith could be looked and by Evangelicals and they could proclaim that Catholics are false prophets. However, this is simply not true. There are many Catholics that could be considered Christians with extra traditions. However, it could be considered that leaders of other religions are false prophets, such as John Smith and Muhammad.

  9. In Mcknight it says “To enter the kingdom we must enter through the one and only gate. If the common view that Jesus is the gate is correct, we are called to focus on Jesus we are to respond to Jesus and to summon other to respond to Jesus.” (Mcknight pg. 260-261). In today’s world, many people can say whatever they like for example say they are a Christian but not following the word of Jesus. Many people think they are Christians but they do not tend to act like a Christian. Which will eventually show because it is not who they truly are they just act like it.

    • Alicia, you raise a really good point. There are many Christians that pretend to be one but they truly are not. I think this is also a wake up call to ourselves and to evaluate our own faith. I think we ought to look at ourselves and see if we are producing fruit. “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Matt. 7:16.

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