Here’s a text that we need to keep in its context if we are to fully appreciate all that it has to say to us. Just imagine Jesus, itinerant preacher with his rag-tag group of disciples, the carpenter from Galilee who has done no formal study of the Torah (via a rabbi), standing up and taking on the religious establishment as He does in Matthew 5-7. Surely the thoughts of many/most would be something like this, “Well, this is some startling teaching we’re hearing but how could all of our religious leaders (i.e., the experts) be wrong and this man be right?” It’s human nature when confronted with something radical to weigh it against the status quo. It’s also human nature to usually choose the path of least resistance. What Jesus was saying was great but most would have serious reservations before they would follow. This is the occasion for the words that follow.
The gates of v. 13-14, open up to corresponding roads. The big, broad gate is easy to see and find. There are many people passing through it to gain access to the wide road (think of our multi-lane interstates). The other gate is different. It is small and perhaps out of the way. The road it opens up to is the similar to the gate and there are few people traveling down it. If you have to make a choice based solely on appearances, it looks very much like the people on this road are lost (or soon will be).
It’s this tyranny of appearances that Jesus is speaking against. Continuing with the theme of discernment introduced in 7:1ff, His point is that we should make our judgment about which road to travel based not on the appearance of the road or how many are traveling upon it but upon where it leads. Surprisingly, the broad road is the dead end as it leads to destruction while the narrow road leads to life. It doesn’t look that way but that’s the way it is.
If that’s the case, then why are there so many pointing others to the way of destruction? Jesus points to the danger of deceitful prophets. False prophets point others to the false way for their own predatory purposes. They are false in both their motivation as well as their teaching (compare 1 Timothy 1:3ff, 6:3ff, where Paul speaks of Christians teaching false doctrines). We would do well to keep this distinction in mind. Shifting metaphors, Jesus tell us that such prophets are not hard to spot because you can tell who they are by their fruit. Implicit in this picture are probably a couple of things.
First of all, He is continuing to point away from appearances. The false prophets might be charismatic and/or sweet sounding but the true test of the tree isn’t how it looks but if it bears fruit. Second, discerning people don’t make rash decisions but patiently weigh everything—they wait to see if fruit will come and whether it is good or rotten.
We might be tempted to understand this fruit as the qualities Paul speaks of when he discusses the Spirit’s fruit in Galatians 5:22ff and we’d be okay in doing so but we shouldn’t limit fruit to just deeds, it would also include words. That is, the false prophets’ words (no matter how stunningly delivered), were to weighed and evaluated against known truth (see Deuteronomy 18:20ff; 1 John 4:1,6). Words that didn’t come true or contradicted spokesmen of God were rotten fruit as much as any deeds of the flesh.
Whether it’s wonderful words (Lord, Lord) or spectacular deeds, the discerning disciple understands that nothing is a substitute for surrender to God.