The idea of a wolf in sheep's clothing–how we would currently understand the saying–originates from Matthew 7:15-20 and not Aesop. Jesus said the following in the Sermon on the Mount:
It turns out that this passage is another one of those passages (see Noah and Abraham for other examples) that has been shaped by our culture. I remember watching "Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog" cartoons as a part of the Bugs Bunny show when I was young. The premise of these cartoons was that Ralph the Wolf was always trying to steal a sheep by using various plots which often included using a disguise. A key part of the plot was that both Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog were obviously aware that Ralph was a wolf using disguises. Ralph might have been using a disguise but he still acted like a wolf.
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits."
The thought that I had this past Sunday was how subtle–but substantial–errors can create bigger problems for solid theology than outright and obvious attacks. I don't think that Jesus was talking about a situation like what we see with Ralph the Wolf. Jesus was talking about something far more subtle which is evident by the comparison to fruit trees. I don't have a lot of experience with fruit trees but we did have an apple tree in our back yard when I was a kid. I remember when we planted it. It was a small tree but I still expected it to produce apples right away. It took years and years before it finally produced apples. It took so long that I started to think that there were the apple trees that produced apples and there were the apple trees that didn't produce apples. What I didn't realize was just how long it took for an apple tree to start producing apples.
I think that the same is true for any wolf that comes disguised in sheepskin. It might take a while to really tell that they are a wolf. In fact the wolf might even buy into their own disguise. These are the types of wolves that are really dangerous. I really think that these subtle–but substantial–errors do not come from people that are intentionally and actively trying to deceive people but come from people that are deceived. I really think that this is what Jesus had in mind when he warned us about wolves in sheep's clothing as evidenced by what he said next in Matthew 7:21-23:
We can't just assume that we will recognize Ralph the Wolf because he will be obviously trying to trick us. No, seeing the wolf will be difficult. It will require a lot of attention to detail along with a good and accurate understanding of the Bible. If we don't put out the effort we may not realize that we have a wolf in our midst until it is entirely too late.
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'"
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Art by Dave Armstrong. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.