A few years ago I cut down one of my apple trees. For the first couple of years after we moved to our place in the country that tree was too young to produce apples. One year it did produce a few apples but they weren’t good at all. They had a bland woody taste instead of being sweet or tart. Maybe it was just a bad year I thought. The tree produced fruit the next year with the same bland results. I asked the previous owner about the tree. It turns out that he grew it from the seed of one of his favorite store-bought hybrids. That usually doesn’t work well and explained why the fruit was bad.
Jesus warned His followers, ““Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “So then, you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15–20, NASB95) The world is filled with voices proclaiming that such and such is the way to God, the way to happiness, the way to life, the way to health, the way to prosperity. Some proclaim that they are speaking for God or from a place of enlightenment. Some even look like God’s people and have a similar ethic. How do we tell them apart? Who is really presenting the words of life and who is presenting fruitless, distracting, and poisonous words of death
When it comes to fruit there are a variety of things to consider. In our humanness we often examine or judge others based on externals, are they dressed well, do they speak well, are they interesting or funny, are they successful, do they speak the things that I want to hear. All of those are knowing the tree by its bark instead of its fruit. Let me suggest a different way to examine the many voices that claim to be speaking for God.
Normally we think of the Armor of God presented in Ephesians 6:13-17 from the perspective of being the wearer. And that is right and good. But what if we use those same attributes to test the fruit as Jesus commanded? A few thoughts before we get started. Remember, these are suggested ways to discern whether a teacher, preacher, prophet or writer is a lamb of God or a wolf. Also, keep in mind that one failure does not make a wolf. We all sin, we all have a few bad apples on our tree.
The Helmet of Salvation – Helmets not only protect but also declare who the wearer belongs to. Does the voice declare they are a sinner in need of a savior? Do they witness to their salvation through Jesus Christ? Do they teach that Jesus is the only way for men and women to be saved?
The Breastplate of Righteousness – What is the source of their right standing with God? Heritage? Special revelation or anointing? Good works? The testimony of healings and miracles? Perfection in keeping the law? Or do they accept that their own righteousness is worthless and right standing with God is a gift of grace through Jesus Christ?
The Belt of Truth – Liars, especially the good ones, will make you believe they are being truthful. So we need to look beyond a feeling that someone is truthful to that of observation. Do they walk with integrity? Do they keep their word and their promises? Do they put into practice what they are encouraging or proclaiming? Do they speak the truth even when it puts them in a bad light? Do they leave out vital information in order to achieve their goals? Do they respect and encourage truth in others? Is Jesus their truth?
The Shoes of the Preparation of the Gospel of Peace – Do they preach and encourage division or reconciliation? Do they see others as enemies or as lost souls? Is there a constant drumbeat of “us vs them”. There is a natural division that occurs as we walk in the light of Jesus. Darkness doesn’t like light but light seeks to penetrate and dispel darkness. Are they ready, are their shoes on, to engage in Christlike peacemaking and reconciliation at all times, with anybody, no matter the cost?
The Shield of Faith – Faith in this context is about trusting God’s protection rather than getting something from God. When challenged or rightfully corrected do they become defensive, even to the point of turning on the other person? Are they more concerned about their reputation or God’s? Even if someone is wrong about their accusation, do they extinguish the fiery accusations or fling them back? Everyone will fail at times, how that failure is handled reveals much about whether their fruit is good or bad.
The Sword of the Spirit; the Word of God – Is their proclamation Word based? Does their success come from the art of persuasion or the power of the Word? Do they teach the Word of God in context or proof-text in order to authorize their opinion? Are they honest, humble, respectful, and accurate with God’s Word? Do they elevate personal inspiration, experiences, or pet doctrines above the Word of God? Do they proclaim the Word to divide people from people or to divide people from sin? Do they proclaim the Word for personal gain or to release the captives?
Every apple tree will have a few bad apples, those are areas of our lives that God is still working on. But given enough bad apples and you have to really wonder about the tree. My hope is that these attributes will help you discern what voices to tune out and what voices to turn up. I even invite you to put lambchow to the test, as you should anything that is published be it on paper or through the Internet. We are to discern whether something is fruitful and life-giving or fruitless and poisonous. We must be careful however to leave the axe in God’s hands, it is up to God to cut down the tree and throw it in the fire when He is ready.
A quick note on doctrine and division: There are matters of faith in Christ that are non-negotiable such as mankind’s sinfulness; the facts of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection; and the divinity of Christ, among others. There are also doctrines and practices that Christians can disagree on in good faith. God’s command is that we walk in the light as He is in the light. Let’s not needlessly divide but walk in grace and guard the light which we have been given.