As you drive toward home, you and Aunt Loola continue to talk about Cravis and his strange garden.
“How did you get to know him?" you ask.
“We used to be—” Aunt Loola pauses. It’s rare for her to be at a loss for words. “Cravis and I used to be very close.”
"This was before you were born. I had taken a liking to him. I would bring him fresh produce, and we'd sit out under the summer stars and talk late into the night. I shared my love for all things botanical with him. I even convinced him to start his own garden. Before long, he had planted a row of berry bushes."
“Oh, so his garden wasn’t always packed with bull nettle?" you ask.
"It might as well have been," Loola says. "I had only been gardening a few years at that time, and so I didn't recognize the plant he had sown. No fruit had sprouted yet, so he pointed at the leaves of the little bushes. He said the bush was a blueberry bush."
“Was that true?"
"Well, it did look like a blueberry bush, but I’d been gardening long enough to know that you judge a tree by its fruit, not by its leaves and stem. I mean, there are a few things you can check, like if the sap is milky or the stem is bitter, but you never know until you can see the fruit."
“Did you explain that?"
“Honey, there ain’t no explaining nothing to that man. I did try, but he wouldn’t listen. He just kept talking about how magical gardening was.”
“I’m guessing they weren’t blueberries,” you say.
“Good guess. When the bush finally did start sprouting, the berries were red and hung in tight clusters.”
“Is that bad?"
“Only about half of red berries are edible, and a lot of times clustered berries are not good.”
“So what happened?”
"I got this call from Cravis one afternoon. He was practically hyperventilating. He was going on and on about the amazing benefits of the berries he was growing. He said he saw visions. I knew that there was a problem, so I grabbed my plant identification book, hoped in the car, and went over right away.
“When I got there, the first thing I saw was the visitors. There were a half dozen people in his garden. Cravis was plucking berries and handing them out to his neighbors. They were eating them by the handful.”
“Oh, no,” you say.
"Yeah, no kidding. Before I knew it, Cravis was trying to cram these bright red BBs in my mouth. I had to fight him off. He was telling me about the spiritual visions he was having after every bite."
“Spiritual visions?" you ask.
“Well, I knew right away what that meant. Some toxic berries make you hallucinate.”
“Oh my,” you respond. “He was eating toxic berries?”
"Not just eating them, but passing them out to his friends. I started trying to figure out how many people he had given the berries to, their names, and where they lived."
“Why?” you ask.
"Because a berry that makes you hallucinate isn't to be messed around with. I needed to let them know they had been poisoned and that they should see a doctor immediately. I plucked a handful, and laid my Edible Plants handbook on the hood of my car, and went to work. It didn't take long to find the crimson devils. Sure enough, he was eating and handing out little red poison pills."
“Did anyone die?" you ask.
“Thankfully, no. They cause intense vomiting. Almost everyone stopped eating them right away.”
“Almost everyone?" you ask. “Who would eat them after that?”
"Cravis T. Hollowbody, that's who. He convinced a few others too. He taught a few of his gardening disciples that if they ate only one at a time, then they could still get the hallucinogenic effect. Of course, even one will make you throw up, but as he put it, 'a little tummy trouble is worth the spiritual revelations.'"
“Are you serious?" you ask.
“Yep. We had a big fight over it, of course. Now he’s moved on to much more extravagant lunacy, as you saw.”
"It's amazing he hasn't poisoned himself to death or killed someone else,” you say as you turn the car onto Loola's street. "Why didn't people see through him? I mean, he was poisoning them. Why did they keep coming back for more?"
"I don't know. Some people just want to be fooled, I guess," Aunt Loola says.
"You're like a botanical superhero, you know," you say.
"I prefer garden ninja," she says with a giggle. "Though, there is a lesson in all this. You know what it is?"
"I'm about to; I think," you say.
"You can tell what's safe by examining the fruit. If any of Cravis' poor neighbors knew how to identify poison berries, then they would have saved themselves from a lot of vomiting. You got to look at the fruit."
“Look at the fruit,” you repeat as you pull up in front of Aunt Loola’s house.
Do you have a personal Bible? If you do, you are unique in comparison to most people in Christian history. It wasn’t until late, possibly the turn of the last century, that the practice of having a personal Bible arrived. Despite the fact that most of Christian History didn’t even have a concept of the personally owned Bible, the Apostles still expected Christians to take in God’s word in some way. It isn’t until modern history that someone could learn from the Word of God in private isolation. A person can take their own Bible and go try to figure it out alone.
In talking about some of the portions of the Bible which Paul wrote, Peter once said, “Paul has written to you according to the wisdom given to him… in all his letters. There are some things hard to understand in them. Untaught and unstable people will twist them to their own destruction, as they also do with the rest of the Scriptures.1
Do you realize that you might be doing something dangerous when you study your own personal Bible all by yourself? The Bible is for everyone, but there are things in the Bible that are hard to understand. To complicate things, no amount of mere human intelligence makes it possible to grasp what's in the Bible. There are things in the Bible that untaught people will twist. There is a danger in trying to understand the Bible alone. It's for this reason that I believe Scripture is intended to be studied together in a community of other trustworthy believers. It works best when we are being taught by reliable teachers and constantly praying for wisdom.
I'm reminded of a friend who became a believer when we were in high school. A few times, we got together to study the Bible. There were things that were obvious to me, probably because I had been taught by others. However, they were anything but obvious to him. I remember asking some questions about a verse that seemed to be as clear as the nose on my face. His answer made me crinkle that nose and look back at the verse. Were we talking about the same line? We need to be praying for understanding and wisdom, and we need teachers to teach us. However, choosing a trustworthy teacher comes with some serious risks.
I think that’s why Paul said to his star student, Timothy, what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.2 Notice that Paul taught in the presence of many witnesses. He didn't conduct backroom, secret society meetings. He taught where multiple people could hear, check, and verify what he was saying. In addition to that, the teaching of God's word wasn't to be entrusted to just anyone. The continuation of Paul's teaching was to be committed to faithful men.
If you are beginning to study God's word for the first time, or if you have been learning from the Bible for years, consider who you’re listening to. Are they reliable? Are they committed to teaching God's word accurately? Do they listen to others and teach in accordance with other witnesses, who also understand God’s word.
Jesus warned that there would be false teachers who might lead you astray. He said, beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves… by their fruits you will know them.3 Fortunately, while it is true that we can be led astray, Jesus explains that we are not without hope. We are able to identify false teachers. How? We can identify false teachers by their fruit.
Many have thought that this means we will be able to tell if someone is a false teacher by how they act, but that can’t be right. Remember, they have come in sheep’s clothing. They are wolves who wear wool. They have come playing the part. They act right on the outside. They put on a good show. They look like they are righteous. When Jesus talks about their fruit, He must mean something else. What is the fruit of a teacher?
The fruit that Jesus is talking about is the fruit of their mouth. He says, for a tree is known by its fruit… out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.4 It’s a Bible teacher’s words that we have to judge them by. You can recognize a false prophet by what he teaches. It means we better be listening closely.
It may seem overwhelming to try and discern a false teacher, but you have a tool that can help you determine who is reliable. For so many centuries, people simply trusted what the preacher, pastor, or parishioner said because copies of Scripture were hard to get ahold of. However, since so many people have a personal Bible today, the average person is able and responsible to consider the reliability of Bible teachers based on what they know of God's word.
I like how Luke puts it. He explains that when Paul went to Thessalonica, the people didn't accept his teaching. However, when he arrived in Beria, the people were eager to hear him, but they didn't just trust him without verification. Luke says, these were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.5
Even though Paul's message was accompanied by miracles, they didn't just listen and swallow anything they were taught by Him. They took their own responsibility seriously. They would have had a handwritten copy of the Old Testament in the synagogue. It wasn't easy to get it out, and it was extremely valuable. Nonetheless, they went to the trouble of checking what Paul was teaching against their copy of the Torah. That's how they determined that he was trustworthy.
One of the marks of a false teacher is a person who teaches that salvation comes by doing good deeds. You can see it in Jesus' discussion about the false teachers who are wolves in sheep’s clothing. He says that when those false teachers stand before the Lord, they will claim their good works make them worthy of salvation. They will say, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?6Jesus's silence on their question is deafening. He doesn't acknowledge that what they did were good works. Instead, he explains that what they did was evil. They are then denied entrance into Heaven.7 Those who believe and teach that salvation comes by doing good works will be denied entrance.
The sad aspect of Jesus' story is that those false teachers won't arrive alone. They will have a line behind them who have listened to them. Jesus makes it clear that each person has a responsibility to check what they are taught against Scripture. Don't be lead astray by a false teacher; it will mean that what you're growing isn't fruit. It could result, at the least, in a lack of abundant life. For many, though, the stakes are even higher than that.
If you are going to be a Christian who learns from God's word, you are going to need to pray for understanding, and study scripture as part of a community of faith, but also you will have to consider the teachers you listen to. In that pursuit, you must check what Bible teachers say against God's word.
There are thousands of false teachers throughout the world who are regularly robbing Christians of their abundant life and even their assurance of eternal life. If you've found yourself under the teaching of someone that regularly stirs up something other than love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the like, then it might be worth examining his or her teaching a little closer. When God's word is taught responsibly, the ultimate result will line up with your ultimate goal, which is abundant life.
1 2 Peter 3:14-16
2 2 Timothy 2:2 CSB
3 Matthew 7:15-20
4 Matthew 12:33-34
5 Acts 17:11 CSB
6 Matthew 7:22
7 Matthew 7:23