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.