Matthew chapter seven begins with the admonition to not judge our brothers. Verse one is commonly used to excuse all kinds of inappropriate behavior. But what then of verse sixteen? Isn’t it judgmental to say “Ye shall know them by their fruits?”
There are two reasons why the context of this verse is important. In the first case I would encourage you to look again back at verses 1-4. “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?” In reference to being non-judgmental, it’s specifically talking about spiritual family – “brother”. We are not to judge those within the family of God. The difference in verse 16, is actually seen in verses 13-15. “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Knowing others by their fruits is used in reference to knowing who the true believers are. Outwardly they have an appropriate Christian appearance but inwardly they were false. So you should judge whether there are those in your church who would injure it, and beware.
The other reason the context is important is that I believe we are incorrect in assuming that the fruits it’s speaking of in verse 16 are our personal actions, our outward behavior. Look in Matthew 12:32,33. “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come. Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit.” It is the Holy Spirit that makes the tree’s fruit good. Look back at the end of chapter 7, in verses 22 and 23. “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” These people had miraculous actions, outward behavior, but will still be rejected by Christ. He speaks directly to this with the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23. “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” It is the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22,23 that sets the true believers apart from those who simply act the part. Why?
You cannot give what you do not have.
Those without the Spirit cannot be consistently loving, selfless, joyous, gentle, peaceful or Spirit-controlled. This is what was meant when it says “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” You can clean the outside, but only God can clean the inside. Matthew 23:26-28-
“Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.”