As far as we know, Jesus only once used the expression, “wolves in sheep’s clothing”—near the close of His Sermon on the Mount. To best understand what He meant by that expression, it would seem wise to consider it within its context.
In the same sentence (Matt. 7:15), Jesus revealed that wolves in sheep’s clothing are “false prophets.” Fundamentally, false prophets are those who claim to be speaking on behalf of God, but who actually are not. That being so, the primary way to determine if someone is a false prophet is to listen to what he says and ask the simple question, “Does what he says agree with what I’m certain God has already said?” And since we are certain the Sermon on the Mount was spoken by God in the flesh, we would be wise to ask of any teaching that we hear, “Does it agree with what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount?”
By using the expression, “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” it is clear Jesus wanted His followers to understand that false prophets do their best to blend in with the sheep. They are not outside cult leaders who try to lure the sheep away from the fold. Rather, they infiltrate the flock, pretending to be sheep, but they are not sheep themselves. Similarly, Jude warned of “certain persons who have crept in unnoticed” (Jude 4), and Peter warned of “false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1).
As part of their disguise, wolves in sheep’s clothing claim to be sheep themselves. That is, they claim to be born again, and they might even believe they are born again, but they are not. And that is why Jesus said it is possible to identify them “by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16). Born-again people act differently than non-born-again people, primarily because their inward natures are different. Good trees, Jesus said, produce good fruit. Bad trees, He said, produce bad fruit (Matt. 7:17-18). People who are indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit live differently than people who are not indwelt by God’s Holy Spirit.
Jesus solemnly warned in His next breath: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:19), a clear reference to hell. So (read slowly) we can be 100% certain that anyone who is teaching that good fruit is not necessary to escape hell is a false prophet, because their message contradicts what Jesus taught. So we ought to beware of anyone who downplays holiness or obedience in regard to salvation. They disagree with Jesus. And how much more should we stay clear of those who say it is heretical to proclaim that holiness is an essential component of salvation! Such people call Jesus, who said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” a heretic.
But Jesus didn’t stop there in warning His followers about false prophets and their dangerous false message. He continued:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matt. 7:21).
How much plainer could it be? The people who enter heaven will be those who obey God. Yet we hear pastors, preachers and teachers today who say otherwise, and they even go so far as to say that anyone who does not agree with them (which would include Jesus) is a heretic or a legalist!
Jesus still wasn’t finished. He made His solemn message even more clear:
“Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS” (Matt. 7:22-23).
There is the same message again. Lawless people—even so-called ministers who in Jesus’ name prophesy, cast out demons, and perform miracles—will be turned away from Jesus at their judgment and cast into hell. And as we inspect the fruit of spiritual leaders to determine if they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, the fruit we should be looking for are words that agree with what Jesus taught and lives that reflect obedience to His commandments, and not the “fruit” of supernatural power.
Jesus ended His most-famous sermon with an illustration that summarized the entire message. He contrasted two men, one who wisely obeyed Him and one who foolishly didn’t. The former man metaphorically “built his house on the rock” while the latter man “built his house on the sand” (Matt. 7:24-26). Both houses served their builders well for a while, but one was not prepared for what was coming. “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall” (Matt. 7:27).
Although this passage is often ripped from its context and twisted into nothing more than a recommendation to prepare for the “storms of life” by “building your life on the rock, who is Jesus,” that is not what Jesus meant. Rather, it is one more warning about the future peril of those who are not obeying Him. One who is not doing what Jesus commanded is unprepared for what is inevitably coming. It may not be obvious now, but it will be obvious then. And anyone who says otherwise is a wolf in sheep’s clothing who contradicts Christ.
There is much more that could be said to show how perfectly the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount harmonizes with the beginning and middle. It is so obvious only a theologian could miss it. Jesus’ sermon wasn’t a lecture at a seminary; it was delivered to common, uneducated folks who had been misled all their lives by the twisted teaching and corrupt example of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus told the crowd early on: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). The obvious implication of that statement is that their respected religious leaders were all on the road to hell.
The apostle Jude certainly agreed with Jesus on this topic of wolves in sheep’s clothing. He wrote a letter for one primary purpose, and that was to warn of infiltrating wolves who had “crept in unnoticed.” They were “turning the grace of our God into licentiousness and denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4). Obviously, if they had been verbally denying Jesus, they could not have “crept in unnoticed.” Rather, it was by their false teaching—teaching that “turned the grace of God into a license to sin”—that they effectively denied Him. Take note Jude did not just say that they denied Jesus, but they denied “our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” Their heretical message of false grace was actually a veiled denial of Christ’s Lordship. What could be worse than that?
Peter also warned the early Christians about wolves in sheep’s clothing: “There will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them,” (2 Pet. 2:1). Again, it would be impossible for those false teachers to secretly introduce a heresy if they verbally denied Jesus. No, they publicly called Him “Lord,” but “by their deeds [and by their teaching] they denied Him” (Tit. 1:6).
Finally, although Jesus used the phrase “your Father” eighteen times in His Sermon on the Mount, He apparently felt it was appropriate to repeatedly and solemnly warn people whose Father is God of false teachers who might mislead them into thinking that obedience was not essential. Why was that? Why did Jesus tell people whom He considered to be God’s children everything we’ve just been considering? Why did He tell them, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14)? Didn’t Jesus know that God’s grace is unconditional and that if God is your Father, salvation is “in the bag”?
Why did Jesus say to His followers—God’s children—”If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for YOU to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:29-30)? Didn’t He know that if someone is a child of a father that can never change?
Why did Jesus warn His followers—whose Father was God—”For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matt. 6:14-15). Didn’t Jesus know that He was going to die for everyone’s past, present and future sins, and thus there is nothing we could ever do to prevent God from forgiving us?
I could go on and on and on, but I think you get the idea.
If the professing church would acknowledge these clear, biblical facts, it would result in a massive repentance on a scale the world has never seen. Tragically, that isn’t going to happen, and Scripture foretold that “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires” (2 Tim. 4:3). It seems we are living in that time. False believers love false prophets, and God, in fact, actually uses false prophets to test people:
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is TESTING to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul (Deut. 13:1-3).
It is no exaggeration to say that the false prophets who have infiltrated the church are enticing people to follow another god, a god they’ve invented, a god who spoke words He didn’t mean, a god who died so people could continue in their rebellion without fear—a god who actually does not exist. And in all of that, hearts are being revealed.
May God have mercy!