“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing ..." (Matthew 7:15-20)

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them." (Matthew 7:15-20)

Who are the 'false prophets' Jesus is referring to?

This has been interpreted variously over the centuries - ironically, some by the very type of people Jesus is describing here.

Unfortunately, Jesus' statement can directly be applied to many of today's institutions and their teachers that claim to follow Jesus.

Anyone who reads the news will know of the 'bad fruit' of these institutions. We have seen instances of those in authority among these institutions taking advantage of, and even harming their followers as well as non-followers. We have heard of innocent children being sexually assaulted. We have heard of monies being misused and misappropriated. And in previous centuries, we have heard of entire cultures being slaughtered by those who considered peaceful people to be "heathens."

What more in the way of bad fruit do we need to see to recognize these institutions for what they are?

Leaders and teachers within some of these institutions have abused their influence, and have offended Jesus by using his life and teachings to mislead and harm others. 

In short, these are the acts of "ferocious wolves" in "sheep's clothing." They are today's "false prophets," whom Jesus also called, "blind guides." Just consider, for example, a few of the "false prophets" who predicted the end of the world.

What are their 'fruits'?

As Jesus indicates here, these fruits are symptoms of a larger, deeper problem. While we are in no position to judge, we must heed Jesus' instructions as we consider who to follow, and what teachings we should be following. Should we be following the interpretations of those institutions and teachers that exhibit these bad fruits?

Certainly, we should always be ready to forgive someone who has harmed us personally. That is an act we are obligated to do because the Supreme Being forgives each of us for our offensive behavior.

However, it is not our right to forgive someone for an indecent or immoral act upon someone else. In this case, our responsibility is to help protect others from future harm by informing others about the abuse.

In a criminal matter, this means prosecution under the law. Why are some of these institutions trying to protect their priests from criminal prosecution? Are they saying their priests are somehow above the law?

No one but the Supreme Being is above the law.

At the very least, we can help protect our children and other innocent people from such an institution and its teachers: By discontinuing attendance or donations; and being vocal about anything we have seen or experienced.

Do we need to go into an institution built by thieves and liars in order for Him to hear us? Does God not hear us when we worship Him in private?

To this end we can consider this statement by Jesus:
"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Matthew 6:6-7)

How do these 'false prophets' get into positions of authority?

Those Jesus was referring to as 'false prophets' were typically appointed or elected by the institutional temple system, headed up by the High Priest. Appointing a Rabbi was a political process. This means the Rabbi or Pharisee would be chosen based upon how they appealed to the High Priest and those other temple officials. The

It is surely wonderful to congregate to share praising God. But selecting a teacher should be done with discretion.

To accept a preacher or priest who is chosen by election - by a council or even appointed by a single person - we are accepting that political process as representing God. Are we sure they represent God?

Such councils are politically motivated. Their interest is in their institution. They want to be sure the leader will sustain the institution in their eyes. This may or may not have anything to do with the Supreme Being.

Only the Supreme Being selects His representative. This is an absolute in spiritual life. To consider otherwise is to not accept the Supreme Being's ultimate authority.

This is also illustrated throughout the scriptures. In the Old Testament, we see repeatedly that each prophet - after having accepted a teacher - established a personal relationship with the Supreme Being. They were empowered by the Supreme Being, which was reflected in their teachings.

But their teachings also reflected those before them. They did not make up a new philosophy.

Ultimately, only God chooses who He wants to represent Him. And this will not be a person chosen by a council. Why? Because the Supreme Being doesn't empower those who have accepted the empowerment of others.

If a person accepts the empowerment of others they have - as stated by Jesus above - already received their reward. Their focus is the authority - not in the pleasure of the Supreme Being.

Thus a true representative of God will always avoid the politics relating to authority. They will follow what pleases God rather than what pleases other people. 

This occurred over and over in the life of Jesus, the life of John the Baptist, the life of Moses and others as they were met with institutional resistance.

This is because the Supreme Being wants our personal love and service. He doesn’t want a groupthink situation, because this is not a sincere relationship. We each need to develop our own personal relationship with the Supreme Being - not with a group.

This anti-groupthink was reflected by Jesus as he chastised Peter when he was curious about another disciple's fate:
"...what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22)
We should carefully examine our prospective teacher before we follow that person. We must truly understand they represent God before we commit to their philosophy.

How do we distinguish between a 'false prophet' and a bonafide spiritual teacher?

As stated, a clear sign of a bonafide teacher is that they did not make up their teachings. They are passing down those teachings handed down by elevated teachers before them.

This means they were a student before they became a teacher.

A person who makes up their own philosophy should not be trusted. Rather, only a person whose teachings are steeped in, and consistent with, the teachings of not only other bonafide teachers but the scriptures, should be accepted as a spiritual teacher.

Sometimes a teacher will form an institution or organization to help further their teachings. This does not mean they made up their teachings. This may be to further the dissemination of those teachings received and passed on.

The handing down of knowledge from teacher to student is a time-honored and sacred practice supported by scripture. The symbolic process of baptism or anointing (as documented in the Old Testament) is founded upon this practice.

The ceremony itself is not important. Such a ceremony - if it occurs - symbolizes the student accepting the teachings of the teacher.

It is for this reason that Jesus conducted baptism, but also commanded all his followers to pass on the teachings he had given them. They were instructed to receive his teachings, practice them, and then pass them on.

We can see this as Jesus instructed his students:
"As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven is near.'" (Matthew 10:5)
This is the same thing Jesus was teaching:
From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."(Matthew 4:17)
And this is also what Jesus' teacher John the Baptist taught:
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matt. 3:1-2)
This is the model for the passing of knowledge that composes a good tree with good fruit. And what is that good fruit? The good fruit is not measured in materialistic quantities. The ultimate good fruit is re-establishing our personal loving relationship with the Supreme Being, and helping others to do the same.

This good fruit is the accomplishment of Jesus' first and foremost commandment:
" 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' "And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"" (Matt. 22:37-39)