15 Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.
Matthew 7:15-17 ESV
Dear Church Family,
“Deepfake” is a new term coming from the realm of video technology. Essentially, it refers to the process of superimposing one person’s face onto the body of another. If you’ve ever wanted to see Nicolas Cage playing the role of Superman’s girlfriend, Lois Lane, then I’ve got a video for you! Some of these deepfakes are pretty funny, but there is a serious danger here when someone can be depicted in a video doing or saying something that they didn’t really do or say.
In Matthew 7, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus talked about recognizing fake people. On the one hand, Jesus’ solution seems fairly simple: “You will recognize them by their fruits,” he said in verse 16. This idea seems sound, and he said something similar about knowing his disciples by their love in John 13:35. Genuine Christians, no doubt, will live lives that reflect their genuine relationship with God.
On the other hand, if you read down through Matthew 7:23, it is clear that spotting fakes can be, well, tricky. Jesus even says that some people have fooled themselves about their true identities. According to verses 21-23, there are those who prophesy, exorcise demons, and do other good works in the name of Jesus, but Jesus will say to them at the judgment, “I never knew you.” The scene is similar to Matthew 25 (the “sheep and the goats”), where “the goats” are surprised that they will not be accepted into the kingdom of heaven. They were, well, deeply fake.
One of the key issues here is what counts as “fruit.” This was a major focus of the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon begins by noting that what the Jewish religious leaders counted as “righteousness” (i.e., fruit) is inadequate. Rather, Jesus explains that what God really wants from us is an obedience that includes our thoughts, our intentions, our hearts; external obedience to laws is not enough.
One conclusion seems pretty relevant for our day: the size of a pastor’s following doesn’t prove his genuineness; it just proves his popularity. Likewise, you can’t look at how “busy” a person is in church to determine the sincerity of his or her faith. If I were to bring into this conversation Paul’s “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5), I would say it this way: doing good must flow from God’s indwelling love—from his Spirit—if it is to count as fruit. I’m not saying any of this to make people doubt their own sincerity, but simply to emphasize that external “fruit” that does not come from a genuine relationship of love and trust—“obedience” that does not come from the heart—is not fruit in God’s eyes, no matter how real it looks. Obedience to God’s commands that flow from a relationship with God, however, are deeply genuine.