RE 3 Nephi 6:10:
Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns? Or figs of thistles? Even so, every good tree bringeth forth good fruit, but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. Wherefore, by their fruits ye shall know them.Christ says to beware of false prophets who are dressed in clothing or have the outward appearance (Church calling, bibliography, religious mantle...etc.) of sheep but inwardly are not sheep at all. Sheep are what Christ often calls his followers. Wolves not so much. The one the enemy of the other. What strikes me is Christ says disguises are going to confront all of us. We all have to choose.
This topic reminded me of the Disney movie Zootopia. It's a movie based in a modern mammal metropolis called Zootopia comprised of all animals. Predators and prey live together in somewhat utopia peace. (Spoiler alert) The primary antagonist is hilariously a sheep, who holds civil office, and some degree of authority, and aspires to hold more power. No one suspects this kind looking sheep to end up being a villain. Her name is Bellwether, which is also a word referring to a sheep that leads a herd with a bell. Her fellow villain cohorts she leads are also of the sheep family. It's entertaining where these themes of inward wolves posing as sheep show up.
Anyway, back to the scripture, this teaching from Christ does not ask or teach people to assess the wolf or sheep themselves directly. It doesn't ask them to pray to God and ask for God to tell them whether the thing that looks like a sheep really is a sheep. Instead it asks you to look at the fruits, and by those fruits will come the answer as to the actual character of the thing in question. Whether sheep or wolf. Seems God wants us to grow and search and learn and not just sit back with a quick answer having learned nothing. Good fruit in the context of Christ teachings no doubt has to do with salvation, saved souls being the good fruit God desires. So the fruit of a prophet should link in some way to salvation.
Praying about the person sounds like a reasonable idea right? If you can get God to tell you who's a prophet and who's not you can be truly confident right? And yet that can easily distract you from looking at and examining the fruits. Not to mention it ignores that people can go awry and become corrupt on the one hand, or repent on the other hand, say Alma the Younger for example. And everyone has flaws, so praying about the personality doesn't seem to really get to the truth. It asks God to give an answer without half the equation. This approach to finding who's a prophet is often done in a way that strongly suggests and implies the answer you should receive about that person.
That all seems like a shady shortcut. I don't know that shortcuts are advisable when attempting to know who is and isn't a true prophet. But, I suspect we should not be surprised if we see a message implying "The answer can be yours for the easy price of asking a question I fed you using information I gave you". "You too can know". "Oh, and be sure not to listen to those who got any other answer". As opposed to seeking light, truth, and intelligence, or the Glory of God.
So what of fruits? How can you assess a fruit you have taken no time or thought or effort to examine or taste? Is a quick glance enough? Or is some time and study merited? What kind of time frame seems reasonable? Seems to me Christ's teaching that by their fruits we shall know them implies some action, effort, and study our part. Reasoning and examining of the fruits put before us. But just accepting something because a person is in a position of religious authority, and then calling that acceptance "faith".... how is that faith going to save you? It won't.
It has to go deeper than taking no thought but to ask God if what looks like a sheep is what it proposes. If that is all we do, and only accept what's given to us by the very party we're trying to discern, then even in Disney movies we'd get it wrong a lot of the time. Even as an adult, if you watched Zootopia and asked yourself if the sheep-villain had good fruits, you would have said yes for most of the movie. But inwardly this character and her ram-folk assistants were wolves.
Problem with ravening wolves is assuming they are all bad, visibly evil, and the only place you'll find one are in bad places.
Don't wolves do good things sometimes? I mean look at their cooperative pack. They take care of each other, protect each other, they take care of their wolf pups. Look how important they are to the larger ecosystem! I saw a video the other day on the devastating effects a lack of wolves had on an ecosystem in Yellowstone National Park and what happened when wolves were reintroduced. Link. It affected the entire landscape when there weren't enough wolves. Aren't those good fruits? Taking the analogy back into the human sphere we can't just assume anyone who does good things in some arena isn't also wolf in the context of Christ's teaching.
When Christ says beware of inwardly ravening wolves but who look like sheep, I don't think the analogy is a test of outward status or something like profession. Whether you can write better software code in less time than any other person, or if you can do one of those quadruple toe loop things on ice skates is not a fruit evidencing what Christ is talking about. The context of Christ's teaching, as I read it, is one of prophetic authenticity, not profession or worldly identity.
What also strikes me is history has identified inwardly ravening wolves who were not thought of that way in their day. They weren't always in prison for being awful law-breaking criminals. They may have held authority, been rich, and done many wonderful works in Christ's name. Of them Christ responds that they never knew Him despite what they claimed were wonderful fruits/works done in His name. (RE Matthew 3:47)
So what is the fruit then that reveals a prophet is true or false? Claims aren't fruit. Platitudes or regurgitating basic Christian ideas isn’t prophetic fruit either. A physical fruit is something you can see, hold and taste. It's got substance. So I believe a prophetic fruit is something likewise available to test. Does the message come from God? Does the message expound scripture and teach you how to come to Christ? Or does it just tell you who not to listen to, and assure you that you can safely rely on them?
According to Christ many will claim to do remarkable things in His name but yet the fruits are no good. So the fruit is the presence of something Godly. Is God the author and originator of the message, given as He asked? Does the message enable saving faith? Or, by contrast does the speaker just have all the right mood lighting, the right cameras and PR staff, and a sufficiently large mega arenas to instill awe and respect to themselves or a substitute for Christ?
Whatever else that person does or doesn't do may only be a distraction. It's possible to forget to even look at the fruits if all we do is pray and ask God if the person is what they claim. Seems inconsistent for God to spoon feed an answer to someone who could have done what Christ said and evaluated the fruits with an open mind. I do not think God has made the test so overly difficult we cannot pass it. We just need to do what He said. But there is a test for sure. For me it merits caution, and humility.
A passage from Romans frequently comes to my mind which is that "Faith comes by hearing the word of God", (RE Romans 49) not hearing the word of a man that God had no part in. One bears fruit, the other does not.
The Book of Mormon has a well-known promise near the end (RE Moroni 10:2) teaching the reader how to obtain an answer from God about its contents through the Holy Ghost. It doesn't tell you to ask if Moroni or Mormon is a true prophet nor do they point to themselves and ask you to pray about them. It asks you to consider the fruits and if you follow the steps and get an answer from God, then who the true vs false prophets are will take care of itself. And you'll have had contact with God which is the whole point.
That's the real fruit. Contact with God. The false prophets fruits don't lead you to that. They contradict God's word, lie, lead to darkness, distort God's nature, and pacify people with false security leaving the audience without God's word, thus without faith, relying on men and erroneous teachings. Resulting in them looking to men or institutions if they were God. Idolatry.
On this topic of asking God whether someone is a true prophet, there was a talk recently about policies, revelation, love, and asking God if the leaders of the Church are true prophets. See what you think from the Official Church Newsroom: here.
A final thought from Joseph Smith which gives me pause. When he says they were banished from their society, I wonder if it was banishment from the religious society.
“The world always mistook false prophets for true ones, and those that were sent of God, they considered to be false prophets, and hence they killed, stoned, punished and imprisoned the true prophets, and these had to hide themselves ‘in deserts and dens, and caves of the earth’ (Heb. 11: 38), and though the most honorable men of the earth, they banished them from their society as vagabonds, whilst they cherished, honored and supported knaves, vagabonds, hypocrites, impostors, and the basest of men.” (DHC 4: 574.)