False Prophets:  Yesterday and Today

False prophets have always infiltrated the hearts and minds of those interested in knowing the will of God.  In contrast, those who speaks on behalf of God would miraculously receive God's message in their hearts and then be directed to speak to a specific audience. 

Just as much as we can read about the true prophets of God throughout the Bible, we can also read about false prophets.  These are individuals who claim to speak on behalf of God, but they say things that God has never said.  God, Himself, warns us saying, "I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran.  I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied"  (Jer. 23.21).  Later God confronts these prophets, "Have you not seen a futile vision, and have you not spoken false divination?  You say, 'The Lord says,' but I have not spoken"  (Ezek. 13.7).  

False Prophets Described

As a point of fact, false prophets were a common problem in Bible times.   In Acts 13, we find the apostle Paul with Barnabas arriving on an island called Cyprus.  On the western end of the island was a city called Paphos, not to be confused with the island of Patmos where the apostle John received his revelation  (Rev. 1.9).

While in the city of Paphos, Paul and Barnabas preached the good news of Jesus Christ to a proconsul named Serguis Paulus.  With him was a man described as a “false prophet” (Acts 13.6), who is named “Elymas the sorcerer”  (Acts 13.8).  What was his intention?  “to turn the proconsul away from the faith”  (Acts 13.8).  Notice how Paul, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, describes Elymas the sorcerer. 

Acts 13.10:  “O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?”

According to this passage, false prophets are “full of all deceit and all fraud.”  It is their intention to keep “perverting the straight ways of the Lord.”   He claims to be from God, but in reality is only seeking to turn you away from the faith.

In the Old Testament, false prophets were a common problem.  For example, God told the prophet Ezekiel to speak against “those who prophecy out of their own heart”  (Ezek. 13.2).  In context, God had spoken through the prophets saying that Jerusalem would be destroyed and the Israelites would be taken as slaves to Babylon.  However, there were false prophets saying that this coming destruction would never happen. 

God warned that these false prophets...

  • “have seduced My people, saying ‘Peace!’, when there is no peace”  (Ezek. 13.10).  
  • They “follow their own spirit and have seen nothing!”  (Ezek. 13.3).  
  • They claim to speak the words of God, “But the Lord has not sent them”  (Ezek. 13.6).  
  • They say, “’The Lord says,’ but I have not spoken”  (Ezek. 13.7). 

Often false prophets were sought after.  Why?  People were looking for someone to tell them what they wanted to hear.  Consider a passage from 1 Kings 22.  It was a time when the kingdom of Israel had been divided into the Northern Kingdom known as Israel and the Southern Kingdom known as Judah.

King Jehoshaphat of Judah went to see the King of Israel to discuss plans of retaking the city Ramoth that had been captured by Syria.  As they were discussing these plans, they decided to seek counsel from God by asking a prophet if they should follow through with their plans. 

The King of Israel gathered all his prophets together (about 400 of them) and asked, “Shall I go against Ramoth Gilead to fight, or shall I refrain?”  (1 Kings 22.6).  The prophets all responded, “Go up, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king”  (1 Kings 22.7).  Why did these prophets say such things?  They told the king exactly what he wanted to hear.  How do we know this?  Keep reading.

1 Kings 22.7,8:  “And Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there not still a prophet of the Lord here, that we may inquire of Him?’  So the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘There is still one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may inquire of the Lord; but I hate him, because he does not prophesy good concerning me, but evil.’  And Jehoshaphat said, ‘Let not the king say such things!’”

The king of Israel asked if there was a legitimate prophet that they could ask.  King Ahab said that there is a prophet name Micaiah, but he never tells the king what he wants to hear.  

Is that not unlike today?  If you have a particular belief, you are sure to find someone who will tell you what you want to hear.  The apostle Paul even warned about those who “because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables”  (2 Tim. 4.3,4). 

These false prophets told the king what he wanted to hear.  And so it is with false prophets.  They turn you away from God, and they tickle your ears by telling you things that are pleasant to hear rather than the truth.

How Can You Know False Prophets?

You may be wondering how people can know the difference between one who legitimately speaks the message of God that has been miraculously made known to him and one who claims to be a prophet, but only speaks from his own imagination and not from God.

God has provided two ways to distinguish a true prophet from a false prophet.

1.  First of all, the words of a true prophet will always come to pass.  This is exactly what Saul and his servant observed in 1 Samuel.  They took confidence in this prophet because “all that he says surely comes to pass”  (1 Sam. 9.6). 

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses instructed the children of Israel to listen to and obey the prophets because they speak on behalf of God.  The question was asked, “How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?”  (Deut. 18.21).  In other words, how can we know if someone is a false prophet?  Listen to how God answered.

Deuteronomy 18.22:  “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.”

How many prophecies need to come to pass in order for him to be considered a true prophet?  Should it be at least half of his prophecies?  Would 75% be enough for us to consider him as speaking for God?  How often is God wrong?  If one claims to be a prophet and his 100% of his prophecies do not come to pass, then he is not a true prophet.  Isn't that simple?

2.  Secondly, God has always given prophets the ability to perform miracles as a way of confirming that God is speaking through them.  When Moses, a prophet, was told to demand the release of God’s people from Pharaoh, Moses asked, “But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice”  (Ex. 4.1). 

God responded by giving Moses the ability to turn a stick into a snake and the snake back into a stick.  God made it so that when Moses put his hand into his robe and brought it out, it would be leprous.  He could then put it back into his robe, and when he took his hand out again it would be cured of leprosy  (Ex. 4.2-7).

Exodus 4.8:  "Then it will be, if they do not believe you, nor heed the message of the first sign, that they may believe the message of the latter sign.”

What about today?  The Bible tells us that “whether there are prophecies, they will fail”  (1 Cor. 13.8).  The time would come when there would no longer be prophecy.  That time came shortly after the close of the first century. 

However, there are still people today who claim to speak the word of God, but are only speaking out of their own imagination.  How can we tell the difference?  Notice this passage from the apostle John.

1 John 4.1:  “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

How do we test the spirits today?  How can we know if someone is speaking the word of God or is just making things up?  Take what he says and compare it to what the Bible says.  If they match up, then you know he is speaking the truth.  If what he says contradicts what the Bible says, then you know he is either willfully or unintentionally mistaken. 

The bottom line:  Let the Bible be the standard by which we live and know the will of God. 

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