And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.Matthew 24:11 (ESV)
Many Christians already have Matthew 24:11 at the back of their minds. They know to expect massive deception by myriads of false men of God in the last days. But for some reason, they cannot seem to identify any, let alone many, as Jesus clearly indicated would be the case in the last days.
And by “many” I am sure he meant that at virtually every turn, we would find supposed Prophets misleading people to some degree or another. By “many” I am sure he meant they would be all over the place. By “many” I am sure he meant we wouldn’t need binoculars or a Google search to find them. They would be everywhere we look – ubiquitous. They’d be on TV, all over the internet, in our neighborhoods and in our own church pulpits.
Yes, you may very well be following one.
Who or What exactly is a false prophet?
Ordinarily, before we get down to looking at what the bible says about identifying false prophets, we ought to get this out of the way first by properly defining what the term means. However, I think we’d best put it off until after we have examined what the bible has to say about identifying them. This way, our definition of false prophets is directly drawn from scripture and is also more easily and fully understood.
The First test – failed or presumptuous prophecies in the name of the Lord
There are three primary ways the bible gives us to identify false prophets. The first, which I consider as the most rudimentary of them all, appears in Deuteronomy 18: 20 (ESV):
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’– when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
In Deuteronomy 18, God, through Moses, informs the Israelites he will be sending another Prophet just like Moses, a Prophet to whom absolute obedience was required (verse 19). It is considered a general foundation for the office of the Prophet (for all who would come after Moses), but ultimately Messianic. The Christ would be the ultimate Prophet like Moses whom all the people must obey.
In pre-informing the people about the coming of prophets who would speak in the Lord’s name, he also warns them about the coming of false prophets who will claim to speak in the Lord’s name. Verse 20 tells us the punishment for falsely speaking in the Lord’s name was execution. This was not a casual conversation going on here.
In verse 22, we are given the first and most basic test of a Prophet’s claims – fulfilled prophecies. If a prophet prophesies but what he says does not happen, we know for a fact that God had not spoken through him, he had spoken on his own and needs not to be regarded.
The reason for this is very simple. When God speaks about the future, he does so from the vantage point of existing out of time and space. His predictions of future events are always 100% correct. Never 99.9999999% correct, but 100% – always, without exception. There is no margin of error.
This should be the same for any true prophet. For when a man claims to have heard from God and prophesies (about the future), the only way to tell he really did hear from God who cannot shoot and miss, is that what he says happens, just as he said it would. When a prophet speaks about the future, it is God’s name and reputation that is at stake, not his. This means when a true prophet utters 1,000,000 prophecies, all 1,000,000 of them must come to pass.
All the self-acclaimed, modern-day Prophets I know of have routinely failed this most foundational test with failed prophecy after failed prophecy, after failed prophecy, more failed prophecy, and then some more failed prophecy.
Yet it appears their followers, the likes of you and me, supposed believers with unfettered access to the Bible, continue to trudge along, hailing them as God’s messengers to our generation.
This, is spiritual suicide.
Building our definition
Based on this first test we have the very first element of our definition of what it means to be a false Prophet – one who claims to speak for God, but whose prophecies fail to materialize.
As we may already know, the “office” of the false prophet is a bit more advanced than this, but never more advanced than the Bible protects us from. Next is the second rudimentary test, which in my opinion, is even more crucial.
The Second test – loyalty to God and faithful teaching of his word
“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. – Deuteronomy 18: 1-4 (ESV)
Though profound, this test is just as simple as the first. It says if some Prophet or dreamer comes along and passes the first test by successfully prophesying or performs some miraculous sign or wonder, BUT then entices people away from God and his commandments, do not listen to him! Do not believe or follow him because God is only testing you!
This means that sometimes God allows false prophets to successfully foretell some future event or perform miracles or wonders. In such cases, we are to pay attention to their doctrine. Does it stand up to biblical scrutiny? Does it point us to God or away from him?
This also implies that signs and wonders are not a reliable means of discerning who a true messenger of God is from an impostor! In fact, false prophets and the deception they propagate are often closely associated with the display of impressive signs and wonders in the bible, hence multiple biblical warnings to keep us from falling for such a ruse.
For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. – Matthew 24: 24-25 (ESV)
Even the coming of the antichrist himself, the ultimate usurper and false prophet who will appear just before the return of Christ will be attended by a flurry of miracles:
The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. – 2 Thessalonians 2: 9-10 (ESV)
A major hallmark of this category of false religious leaders is destructive teaching which condemns those who believe and practice it. Both Peter and Paul warn of such men:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. – 2 Peter 2: 1-3 (ESV)
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. – Acts 20: 29-30(ESV)
The Third Test – By Their Fruits
“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. – Matthew 7: 15-20
In this passage, Jesus teaches that we can reliably identify false prophets and religious leaders by their ‘fruits,’ referring to their character. A false teacher may make accurate predictions and even perform miracles. Their teachings may seem biblical, sound, and sensible. Their public persona may seem as dignified and as likable as they come. But in their private lives, there is unmistakable evidence of habitual sinfulness.
We live in a world where scandals involving supposed church leaders are no longer news. Pastors getting intimately involved with their members, sometimes without consent, living large off the ever willing and undiscerning sheeple, and even getting convicted for physical abuse and murder.
So, Who Is A False Prophet?
We can now complete our definition of who a false prophet is with elements drawn from all three tests.
The first test is failed prophecies (or failed attempts to perform signs). The pseudo prophets in this class are perhaps the easiest to pick out. It should be a no-brainer. But for some reason, people continue to believe, trust, support and follow ‘men of God’ who have had marked ‘challenges’ in their prophetic or miracle-working career.
The second test is false doctrine. Even if a prophet correctly predicts the winners of elections, sports events, the weather, headlines or even your next credit alert, BUT his teachings do not correctly and consistently align with sound biblical doctrine, he’s also a false prophet, only a worse kind – the kind with the allure of miracles to draw and keep people ensnared.
The third test is ungodliness or unchristlikeness. In Jesus’ words, “you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Any one of these elements by themselves, are enough to firmly qualify anyone as a false prophet, let alone a combination of two or all three of them.
So, a false prophet is someone who claims to represent or speak for God. Often, his prophecies fail to come to pass. But even when they do, and or he is able to perform signs and wonders, his doctrine fails the test of sound biblical teaching. But even when his doctrines seem to line up with scripture, his private life is a moral mess.
So, which false prophets or teachers can you identify in your environment or the larger ‘Christian’ space? The Bible affirms the presence and continued activity of false prophets and leaders as a certainty, not a probability.
1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. – 2 Peter 2
Again, which counterfeit prophets and religious leaders can you spot? If you cannot identify any, it’s not because there are none around, it’s because you’re already taken in by their wiles.
The only other alternative is, you’re one.
All Bible references are from the English Standard Version (ESV) translation.