Looking Past Looks
Dr. Jim Denison
A little horse named “Seabiscuit” is the most famous animal in the world these days. It’s an amazing and inspiring true story; when we saw the movie, the audience broke out in applause at the end. The little horse who took on the world and won proves that appearances are deceiving. They always have been.
As Jesus nears the end of the most famous sermon ever preached, he tells us how to separate appearance from reality, how to measure true success and false. We need to know, for one day the ones being measured will be us. Each one of us.
Look past looks (vs. 15-18)
Our Lord begins with an imperative: “Watch out.” “Beware”—be on your guard, pay attention. This is in the present tense: “Keep watching out for this….” It is an imperative, a command, with no options. This must be a real problem, or the Lord would not warn us of its existence.
Watch out for “false prophets.”
“Prophet” signifies one who “speaks forth” under divine influence, as the ambassador of God to men. God’s spokesperson.
“False” translates the Greek word “pseudo,” one who appears to be genuine but is not. Those who pretended to speak the word of the Lord but did not were a problem all through the Bible. Moses warned his people about them (Deuteronomy 13:5), as did Jeremiah (Jeremiah 23:31). Jesus warned his followers repeatedly that “false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). Paul, Barnabas, John, and Peter all met false prophets and condemned their deception (Acts 13:6; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Galatians 1:7; Acts 20:29-32; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1-3; Revelation 2:20-23).
Such false teachers “come to you”—they take the initiative to attack the people of God.
Their appearances are deceiving in the extreme:
They wear “sheep’s clothing”—shepherds wore sheepskins, with the fleece against their skin.
But “inwardly they are ferocious wolves,” in places we cannot see with our eyes. Wolves are the deadliest enemies of sheep. Four times the Bible condemns false spokesmen for God as such “wolves” (Ezekiel 22.27; Zephaniah 3:3; Acts 20:29; John 10:12).
So how are we to tell who they are, if appearances cannot be trusted? “By their fruit you will recognize them” (v. 16).
A wolf can disguise himself, but a tree cannot. It must be what it is by nature. An apple tree must grow like one, be the size of one, have the trunk and bark and leaves and roots of one, and produce apples. It cannot help it. The way to tell what someone is by nature is to examine what they do, the results of their way of life.
We bear good fruit through our relationship with Jesus: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Then our character exhibits the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
Our lives lead others to our Lord. We reproduce spiritually by helping people follow Jesus, as a tree reproduces physically through the fruit it bears.
And we glorify God as a result: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (John 15:8).
Such living evidence is proof of who we really are, in our souls. Thorns don’t produce grapes, or thistles figs. A healthy tree must make healthy fruit; a sick or diseased tree cannot. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
So look past looks. Success is not how we appear, but who we really are. Our communion with God, connected to him as a branch to its vine. Our character as we demonstrate the Spirit at work in our lives. Our ministry and witness, as we produce disciples who follow us to Christ. This is success with God. This is what matters to him, and should to us.
Get ready for your final exam
Now, why is this definition of success so urgent? Keep reading: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 19). What is this “fire”? Let’s review briefly the word of God on the subject.
A judgment day is coming for every person who has ever lived and ever will: “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Who will judge us? “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
When will this “final exam” occur? “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him” (Matthew 25:31-32), and he will judge them.
What will happen? Revelation 20:11-15 is the setting. Here, first our relationship with Christ will be judged from the “book of life” (v. 12a).
Moses said to God: “Please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” The Lord replied, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book” (Exodus. 32:32-33).
God has your name in his book, and must “blot it out” if you choose to reject his free salvation in Christ. When you die without Christ, God is forced to remove your name from his book of life, and you’ll be “thrown into the lake of fire.”
Scripture is very clear: “Nothing impure will ever enter [heaven], nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation. 21:27).
But if you have accepted Christ as Savior and Lord, your name will be there forever. Jesus said to his disciples, “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10.20). Paul addressed the Philippian Christians as “my fellow laborers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3).