True or False Prophets
This article has an overview of prophets in the Bible and 7 tests for true or false prophets.
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For simplicity of language, I have referred to male prophets in this article. The comments also apply to female prophets (prophetesses).
Prophets in the Bible
Prophets are important throughout the Bible as the prophetic gift continues from Old Testament to New Testament. Only God can enable a prophet to receive his revelation. A Prophet hears from God through revelation, visions, dreams etc. (Num 12:6) and then transmits this message to others through speech, writing, actions or drama. Here is a brief summary of Old and New Testament prophets.
1) Prophets in the Old Testament
- There are so many prophets in the Old Testament including Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Miriam, Deborah, Samuel, David, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, Huldah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel etc.
- They had many and varied functions - they led nations, advised kings, exposed sin, warned of God's judgment, called to repentance, proclaimed justice and mercy, brought hope and comfort, spoke blessings and curses, received laws, predicted the future, had visions and dreams, interpreted dreams, acted out prophecies, encouraged people, interceded for nations and individuals, performed miracles and signs, anointed leaders, operated alone or as teams, worshipped God, were persecuted, travelled, wrote books and prophecies, revealed the purposes of God for Israel, nations, the world and the coming Messiah!
2) Prophets in the New Testament
- Some prophets connected with the birth of Jesus bridged the Old and New Testaments - Zachariah, Simeon, Anna and John the Baptist.
- At that time the Jews were expecting three characters to appear - a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15, 18), a Messiah (Christ) descended from David (Jer 23:5) and Elijah (Mal 4:5). They wondered if John the Baptist or Jesus was one of these (John 1:20-21, Luke 9:18, 19-20). Jesus said that John was the fulfilment of Elijah (Matt 11:13-15). Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration showing that all of these were fulfilled in the coming of the Son of God (Matt 17:2-3, 5).
- Jesus was aware that he was a prophet (Matt 10:40-41, 13:57-58) and he was recognised as a prophet by his words and miracles (Matt 21:10-11, 45-46, Luke 7:15-16, 24:19, John 4:19, 6:14, 7:40-41, 9:17). Jesus was the ultimate fulfilment of the prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15, 17-18, John 1:45, 8:28, 12:49) as well as being the Messiah and the Son of God (Rom 1:3-4).
- There were more prophets in the early church - a travelling group of prophets from Jerusalem (Acts 11:27), Agabus acted and predicted (Acts 11:27-28, 21:10-11), prophets and teachers in Antioch were worshipping and fasting (Acts 13:1-2), Judas and Silas carried a letter from Jerusalem (Acts 15:22, 27, 32), the daughters of Philip the evangelist prophesied (Acts 21:8-9), and John wrote Revelation (Rev 1:1). Silas the prophet (also called Silvanus) travelled on missionary journeys with Paul and Timothy and also co-authored letters with them (Acts 15:32, 16:25, 17:4, 14, 18:5, 2 Cor 1:19, 1Thess 1:1, 2 Thess 1:1).
- Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that there may be prophets in the church today. They believe that now we have the Bible, we no longer need prophets to hear from God. Also, unfortunately, there are many examples of false religions, sects and cults which have been started by people believing that they have a special personal revelation from God!
- The Bible does, of course, contain the teachings of Jesus and the apostles and we do not need any new doctrines! It is the task of teachers to explain, clarify and convey these doctrines accurately.
- The continuing task of the prophet in the church is well described by Paul "the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" (1 Cor 14:3).
- There is no suggestion that spiritual gifts were only given for the early days of the church and then they would fizzle out! The big news about Jesus was that he would baptise in the Holy Spirit and this is clearly what happened on the day of Pentecost and other occasions (Matt 3:11, Acts 1:5, 2:4, 17, 18, 19:6) - the gift of prophecy is expected to be widespread in the church with other spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14:26). The controlled use of this gift and accountability is also described (1 Cor 14:29-32, 37, 1 Thess 5:19-21, 1 John 4:1).
Tests for True or False Prophets
Here are 7 tests to help distinguish between true and false prophets - you may need to apply all these tests.
1) Character Test
What is the character and morality of this prophet?
- Jesus warns about false prophets who come in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves! A healthy tree will bear good fruit and an unhealthy tree bad fruit. Prophets will be recognised by their fruits. (Matt 7:15-20) They will speak out of the good or evil treasure of their hearts (Matt 12:33-37, Luke 6:43-45, Mark 7:20-23, 1 Cor 13:2). Our words and actions reveal what is in our hearts.
- Jeremiah was aware of sexual immorality by false prophets who spoke lying words and committed adultery (Jer 23:14, 29:21, 23). In Jesus' letter to Thyatira a false prophetess referred to as Jezebel seduced people to sexual immorality (Rev 2:20-23). Sometimes prophets are held in high regard giving them influence and power and the opportunity to abuse people in many ways including sexually. This is an area where we all need to be vigilant in a world obsessed with sexual pleasure.
- The true prophets in the Bible were primarily interested in listening to God and speaking his word - they were not concerned with material things. Many were poor and persecuted for their message. False prophets were greedy for gain and tailored their prophecy to gain popularity and wealth (Jer 6:13, Micah 3:5-8, 11, Luke 6:26). We need to be suspicious of prophets who regularly ask for money and who become rich by using their prophetic gift.
- Conclusion - In assessing a prophet, it is important to look at their morality and manner of life.
2) Call and Gift Test
Who called and appointed this prophet?
- Prophets were called and gifted by God and often they were given a specific task by God (Exodus 3:4, 10, 1 Sam 3:10, Isaiah 6:8-9, Jer 1:4-5, 10, Ezek 2:1, 3, Hosea 1:1, Amos 7:14-15, Jonah 1:1-2). Obviously, it is not essential for every prophet to have heard the audible voice of God or seen a vision, but there should be clear evidence of call and gift.
- God's gifts cannot be manufactured or taught by people. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are God's gifts to the church (Eph 4:11-12). Training is only effective when people are actually gifted by God. However long you go to Bible College, you will only become an authentic teacher, pastor or evangelist if God has given you the gift! This is particularly true of prophecy which is a gift of the Spirit (1 Cor 12: 4-11) and it is dangerous to encourage people to try to prophesy if they are not gifted in this way - they will probably produce something from their own mind which is a false prophecy! We should not trivialise prophecy.
- There is always a danger that people will fake the gift of prophecy for various reasons (Jer 14:14, 23:16).
- Conclusion - A true prophet is only called, appointed and gifted by God. A prophet cannot appoint himself or be appointed by other people.
3) Source Test
Where does this prophet get his revelation and power from?
- It is very important that a prophet or someone with a gift of prophecy gets their message from God! Prophets describe standing before God or in the council of God to see and hear his word (1 Kings 17:1-2, 18:15, Jer 23:18, 22). Occasionally prophets actually have a vision of God's throne (1 Kings 22:19, Isaiah 6:1, Ezek 1:26-28, Rev 4:2) but the word of the LORD can come to a prophet in many ways. The Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7, Gen 18:17-21).
- God did not send the false prophets but they still prophesied (Jer 23:21). Their visions and dreams came from their own minds not from the mouth of the LORD (Jer 23:16, 25-26, 32, Ezek 13:3, 6) - these prophecies were lies (Jer 14:14, 29:8-9)!
- People involved in Word of Faith believe that the words they speak are creative and that they have power to make things happen by saying the word. This may be confused with prophecy. Prophecy does not originate with men - it always originates with God (2 Peter 1:21).
- Another possible source of prophetic-like powers is from the devil or demons (Acts 16:16-18). There are a variety of occult methods which seem similar to prophecy but which are satanic, counterfeit and deceptive (Lev 19:31, Deut 18:10-12, 14, Jer 27:9, Daniel 2:27-28, 1 John 4:1).
- Conclusion - True prophecy comes from God but false prophecy can originate in the minds of men or from the devil or demons. We need to pray to God for discernment!
4) Theological Test
What does this prophet believe and preach? What is his theology?
- Beware of prophet who accurately foretells the future and gives signs but who teaches other things about God (Deut 13:1-3). Bringing false prophecies was a serious matter in the Old Testament (Deut 18:20). There are many warnings about false teachers and prophets in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:1-3).
- "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev 19:10). A true prophet will speak a message in line with the Bible regarding Jesus, his nature, ministry, death, resurrection, return and judgment. He will also preach a true gospel of repentance, faith, discipleship, baptism and the power of the Holy Spirit.
- "For many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God." (1 John 4:1-6). There have always been problems with false prophets and teachers teaching heresy regarding the person of Jesus. It is so important to maintain that Jesus was always fully God and fully man. (Matt 1:23, Luke 2:11, John 1:1-2, 14, Rom 1:3-4, Gal 4:4, Phil 2:6-7, Heb 1:2-3, 2 John 1:7 etc.) Beware of prophets who diverge on this issue - it has been the beginning of many new religions and cults!
- Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). As well as what a prophet believes about Jesus, it is important to see how he honours Jesus. Does he love, worship and serve Jesus. This will be revealed by the way he speaks (John 8:42, 14:21, 23, Rom 10:9-10).
- A word of caution - demons can recognise Jesus, God and servants of God (Mark 5:7, Luke 8:28, Acts 16:17)!
- Conclusion - Do not just be impressed by the prophecies, revelations, miracles and signs of a prophet - listen carefully to the gospel he preaches, what he believes and his attitude to Jesus.
5) Prediction Test
Does this prophet predict the future accurately?
- Predicting the future is a significant part of the ministry of prophets in the Bible. Short term predictions and long-term predictions are made throughout the Old Testament and sometimes even the same prophecy can be fulfilled in more than one way at different times. Prediction was a large part of the prophetic work of Jesus as he predicted his death and resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit, his return and the events of the end-times (Matt 16:27, 19:28, 20:18-19, 24:1-44, 25:31-46, Mark 9:12, 31, 10:33-34, Luke 17:24-25, John 14:26, 16:13, 16-17 etc.). And of course, there is the book of Revelation (Rev 1:1-2)!
- It is pretty obvious that if what is predicted does not come to pass that it was a false prophecy (Deut 18:21-22)! You may also draw the conclusion that the prophet is false. There are, however, instances in the Bible where a prophecy is conditional and does not come to pass because of the actions of people. This was the case with the prophecy of Jonah to Nineveh (Jonah 3:4) where the repentance of the people of Nineveh averted the judgment of God (Jonah 3:6-9, 10). Jeremiah describes this process working both ways (Jer 18:7-10)
- Notice that the converse is not true. If something does come to pass which is prophesied, it does not prove that the prophet is true! False prophets can be quite good at prediction, some by guesswork, others by occult methods (Deut 13:1-3)!
- Conclusion - If the predictions of a prophet does not come true, it was a false prophecy. An exception may be when there is a condition attached to the prophecy. You cannot draw strong conclusions about a prophet if his predictions come to pass.
6) False Comfort Test
What type of message does this prophet bring?
- Jeremiah lived when Jerusalem and Judah were under threat by the Babylonians. Jeremiah prophesied that the Babylonians would prevail and that they should submit to them (Jer 21:9, 10, 27:14-15, 34:2, 3, 38:17, 18, 23). This was an unpopular message so the false prophets prophesied that the Babylonians would be defeated (Jer 14:15, 23:16, 17, 28:11, 15). These prophets brought a false message of comfort and prophesied "Peace when there was no peace" (Jer 6:14, 8:11, Ezek 13:10, 22:28).
- True prophets bring different prophecies, some with comforting words which reassure people but at other times exposure of sin and warnings or judgment. It is easier and more acceptable for a false prophet to bring comforting words - it may also mean that he will be appreciated more and remunerated for his ministry! Words of rebuke and correction are an important part of the message of preacher and prophet (2 Tim 4:2, 3, Titus 2:11-12, 15) - without this some churches and individuals will never move on (Zech 10:2).
- There is a danger of preaching a soft gospel which only concentrates on God's love for us but misses out on the wickedness of sin, its dire consequences and the need for repentance!
- Beware of false prophets who seek popularity and fame (Luke 6:26, John 15:19, 1 John 4:1, 5)!
- Conclusion - A true prophet will not be afraid of bringing an unpopular message and will be primarily concerned to bring the word of God accurately.
7) Miracles, Signs and Wonders Test
Does this prophet perform miracles, signs and wonders? Is this important?
- In the Bible, miracles, signs and wonders cluster around the lives of Moses, Elijah/Elisha and Jesus. They were performed to achieve God's purposes, to help people, and to show the awesome power of God.
- The fact that a prophet performs miracles does not mean that he is a true prophet (Deut 13:1-3). Jesus warned us that in the last days there would be false prophets performing signs and wonders (Matt 24:24, Mark 13:22). In the book of Revelation, the second beast at the end time (Rev 13:11-12) is capable of great deceptive signs (Rev 13:13-14) and is identified with the false prophet (Rev 16:13-14, 19:20, 20:10). The power to perform miracles can be given by the devil as well as by God. Pharoah's magicians were also able to make their staffs into snakes and turn water into blood (Exodus 7:11-12, 22). Egypt and Babylon both had their share of false prophets and magicians who contrast with the true prophets Joseph and Daniel.
- Jesus warned that merely using his name was no proof that people are true prophets or even that they were saved (Matt 7:21-23). When Paul was in Ephesus, he performed some extraordinary miracles of healing and deliverance (Act 19:11-12). Some Jewish exorcists attempted to copy Paul and deliver people of evil spirits by the name of the Lord Jesus, but they came to grief because they were not true believers (Acts 19:13-17).
- Workers of miracles are evident in many cultures and religions and are often associated with occult methods. People are strongly impressed by those who can perform miracles producing awe and fear. People with supernatural gifts of knowledge, healing etc. are able to exercise considerable power and influence over others and this can result in various kinds of abuse. Prophets with these gifts need to be honest, humble and careful.
- Apparent miracles can also be the result of magic tricks which are much easier to present with modern technology. Unscrupulous false prophets may resort to these methods!
- Conclusion - Miracles, signs and wonders can originate from God, from human trickery or from the devil. True prophets with these genuine gifts need to be careful how they use them.