15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.
16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?
17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.
19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them.
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.
22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’
23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’
The connection with the previous verses (vs. 13-14) is probably a warning against false prophets who lead people to the wide gate and broad path that leads to destruction.
Let us notice first of all that this warning has a special significance for the closing of the age, that is, the ending of this dispensation, the seven years of tribulation and sorrow in the earth. We only need to turn to the Olivet discourse (Matthew 24) in which our Lord answers the question of His disciples concerning the consummation of the age. When they asked about this ending of the age they surely meant nothing else but the Jewish age, for a a Christian age they knew nothing. In answer our Lord gives, describing the events which fall into the seventieth week of Daniel, He says: “And many false prophets shall arise.” These false prophets will make their appearance during the great tribulation, no doubt under the leadership of the false prophet, the Beast, so prominent in the book of Revelation. — Gaebelein, page 157.
He is not warning us against a man who does not exactly express truth in the terms with which we are familiar; but He is warning us against the wolf in sheep’s clothing; the teacher who affects the speech of orthodoxy, but lives a false life; not the man who holds a false doctrine, but the false prophet. His prophecy may be perfectly accurate, his preaching may be absolutely orthodox, but the man is false. That is the man who will lead farthest from the truth.
We cannot make any appeal against such repetition as this, in which our Lord by affirmation, negation, question, and by renewed affirmation, stating the case from every standpoint, asserted this great truth; that the test of the prophet is the prophet’s life. — Morgan, pages 78, 19
bad (vs. 17-18) = rotten, useless
that day (v.22) — That this has no reference to the Church is evident. The Church meets the Lord in the air, and every believer has in Christ’s day to appear before the judgment seat of Christ. But at that judgment seat no mere professors of Christ’s name will appear, and no “Depart from Me,” will be heard from the lips of the Lord, the Head of the Body. Nor does this word here in Matthew refer us to the great white throne. When our Lord says “in that day,” He means the day when the kingdom of the heavens is come by His return to the earth. Then many will be found but empty professors, who in spite of their works and using His name were none of His. — Gaebelein, page 163.
practice lawlessness (v.23) = continue to work iniquity
Many suppose that gifts of prophecy, casting out of demons and the “many wonderful works” referred to here are signs of spirituality, when in fact the carnal Corinthians wrought all these miracles and our Lord here, in the Sermon on the Mount, indicates that He will say to many who wrought these signs (when they were in order): “I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Dispensationally, it is significant that the miraculous signs which so mightily bore witness to the royal claims of Christ, are not even mentioned in the so-called prison epistles of Paul, those written after his imprisonment in Rome. Furthermore, even in Paul’s earlier epistles there is much evidence that these signs were being “done away” (1 Corinthians 13:8; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). — Stam, page 106.
I wish one of my commentaries had dug a little deeper into this passage, but I think Gaebelein’s and Stam’s quotes demonstrate clearly that the Lord was referring to the kingdom — as does the context, since that was the subject of the entire message. There will be false prophets in the Tribulation, and any Jews (the Church having been raptured by this point) led astray by them will not enter into the kingdom (v.14)
I think Morgan has a point when he says the evidence of a false prophet lies in his actions, although I think he should have taken it further and looked to the end results, the fruit. Perhaps the fruit of a false prophet is that people look to Him instead of to Christ. A prophet may look good and sound good, but if the end result doesn’t bring people to faith in Christ, he is a false prophet.
Those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom. The Father’s will is that the Jews trust Christ.
Attempts to make this fit us today run into problems. Take Ironside’s explanation, for example:
Mere lip profession is of no avail if the heart and life are not subject to the Word of God. We are not saved by our works, but good works are the test of reality … There may be much of outward show and apparently successful service coupled with a Christless profession. In the day of manifestation, nothing will avail but a personal faith in Him whom we profess to own as Lord. — Ironside, pages 81-82.
Just a few sentences apart, he says that “good works are the test of reality” but that “apparently successful service” doesn’t avail. Which is it? Are good works the proof of faith or not?
For us, no. We are saved by grace through faith apart from works. For the Jews of the kingdom, yes, works are evidence of faith because when they trust Christ, the law will be written on their hearts.
(Please don’t twist what I’ve said to mean that we aren’t supposed to produce fruit and live in obedience to God. Of course we are. Our obedience is to have faith in Christ. Our fruit is our response to who we then become in Christ and is produced through the Spirit who lives within us.)