True and False Prophets
by K. Neill Foster, Ph.D
"Beware of False Prophets" is the English translation of "Gardez-Vous des Faux Prophetes" a message first published in French, later emerging as an appendix in Sorting Out the Supernatural and now posted here. A Spanish version is now available.
©2001 Christian Publications, used by permission
Beware of false prophets" (Matthew 7:15, KJV). These well-known words of Jesus immediately imply two things: there are false prophets - and they are dangerous.
The existence of true and false and the danger of deception in the Christian life were not limited to the life and times of Jesus Christ. Moses, before Him, also warned the people of Israel against false prophets (Deuteronomy 13 and 18). And there are false prophets today as well. Just a few years ago a young friend of mine, along with his wife, became infatuated with a false prophet. At the time they were living in a western community isolated from other Christians and so began to attend meetings in which the "prophet" unveiled "new" truth and "deeper" truth that, according to him, traditional churches and pastors were too dull to accept.
Some of my colleagues alerted the young man and his wife to their danger, repeatedly warning them to get out and not to follow "that man." I held my peace. But finally the day came. The two of us were in his place of business alone. He knelt to pray - and prayed in tongues.
After the prayer time was over, he asked, "Neill, what do you think?" It was my signal to give him the exhortation that had been building up in me. I told him that the man he was following was wrong, unfaithful to the Scriptures - and false. Since there were many prophecies in the movement, I told him that he would get prophecy upon prophecy, and when one was not fulfilled there would be another to explain why the first had failed. My exhortation was lengthy and vigorous.
The reader must not assume that I am against prophecies. Remember that Paul instructed us not to despise prophecies (1 Thessalonians 5:20). I seek to obey that injunction. Neither should the reader assume that I am against tongues-speaking. While I never promote tongues-speaking, the New Testament tells us not to forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39). In this case described above, however, both of these phenomena were threads in a web of deception. Had I understood then what I learned later about testing the validity of tongues and prophecy (1 John 4:1-3), I might have been able to help my friend escape his deception.
Although my words hammered him, and he seemed literally to reel before all that I was saying, he did not - seemingly could not - leave off following that false prophet. Still today, he and his wife continue to follow. The prophet was killed in a plane crash, but his tape recordings go on, and the evil powers that worked and still work through him hold their victims. As I write, I grieve for a brother so long deceived and for a friendship that could have been.
Two Kinds of False Prophets
Though a great many who are familiar with the Old and New Testaments are aware that there are false prophets, not as many realize that there are two major kinds of false prophets.
• The first, the lying false prophet, announces events or says things that do not come true. He is obviously a false prophet (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). The penalty in Old Testament times was death for false prophets (18:20). This kind of false prophet is the most easily recognized and least dangerous of the two.
• The second kind of false prophet is more deceptive (Deuteronomy 13:1-3). He is impeccable in his words at first. An exhortation comes to pass. No fault can be found with his speech. Nevertheless, over time he draws the hearts of the people away from the Lord God Almighty. Finally, he leads them off to serve other gods. This kind of person is very dangerous, indeed the more dangerous of the two.
Four Kinds of False Prophecy
Most of us are inclined to forget that there are false prophets. However, the frightening facts are these: there are at least two kinds of false prophets and four kinds of false prophecies. The details of these false prophecies are listed in Jeremiah 14:14.
• False Visions. These may come from the evil heart of the false prophet, or they may come from an evil spirit that controls him. The false visions are truly "seen" by the false prophet, but their source is devilish.
• Divinations. This is another form of false prophecy. Diviners may examine the entrails of animals or how rice floats in water. Or they may use a thousand other ways to divine. But their information is finally false even though some things may appear to be true, and entrapment of the simple is made easy. True prophets of God do not read palms or witch water.
• Idolatries. This breaking of the first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3) is the third form of false prophecy. Idols in themselves are nothing, nothing at all (Jeremiah 10:1-5). However, if they are seized by demons, then the idols reflect the power of the demons involved. The Ten Commandments explicitly forbid idols or graven images of any kind. When demons empower the idols, it is not long before prophecies emerge from the demons. We dare not have anything with such demons (1 Corinthians 10:21). Their prophecies are false.
• Delusions. These are the final kind of false prophecy - delusions of the mind. They are not necessarily from the devil; they may simply be fabricated by the persons themselves. They are still false, however, and very dangerous. And we recall again that false prophets were under severe judgment in the Old Testament. Jeremiah reminds us that even though false prophets prophesy and say all kinds of fascinating things, the Almighty is saying, "I did not send them" (Jeremiah 14:15).
One might even think that false prophets would have no power to attract at all. But the commentators, Keil and Delitzsch, observe in this Jeremiah passage that these willing listeners are under judgment just as severe as those who prophesy falsely: "They are not. . . excused because false prophets told them lies, for they have given credit to these lies."l
Four Characteristics of False Prophets
False ministers exhibit a number of peculiar characteristics. Though not every false prophet necessarily displays all of the traits mentioned here, these are common.
• The Love of Preeminence. They like to be important and to have others believe and follow them. Diotrephes is a case in point. He loved to have the preeminence, but his heart was wholly evil (3 John 9). If someone has an inordinate desire to be a leader, if he thrusts himself forward to gain ascendancy, ask yourself a very important question: Is that person a false prophet?
• The Love of Money. We know from Scripture that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). The early Christians wrote that if a man asked for money, he was surely a false prophet.2 Those writings did not get into the New Testament, and certainly godly pastors and evangelists should encourage God's people to give their tithes and offerings. However, if someone is always pressing for money and seems likely to benefit personally from that gift or offering - beware!
• The Love of Immorality. Adultery and fornication are never too far removed from the doors of most false prophets (Jude 4; Revelation 2:20). Some may appear to be holy, even sanctimonious, but their apparent "purity" does not negate the rule (2 Corinthians 11:15). If you have doubts about someone, watch that person's interpersonal behavior.
• The Love of Miracles and Spectacles. The God of the Bible is certainly a God of miracles. No one can read the New Testament and come to any other conclusion. Faithful preaching of the Word of God even today will be followed by miracles and deliverances (Hebrews 13:8). At the same time, Jesus clearly warned that the presence of miracles and the casting out of demons are not necessarily authentications of true prophets. Rather, some who do those things, according to Scripture, may be the ones who will hear Christ's words: "I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME" (7:23). He will say this even to those who have been using His name in the doing (Matthew 7:15-23, NASB).
As the return of Jesus Christ nears, we may expect an abundance of false prophets and ultimately the appearance of the Antichrist. He will be a man of lying signs and wonders (2 Thessalonians 2:9). We are not to be deceived.
The Fourfold Message of the False Prophet
False prophets never speak all lies. Rather, they speak mostly truth, but woven in and through the many true statements is a lie - probably a major lie. Paul was amazed that the Corinthian church had been taken in by pseudo-apostles (2 Corinthians 11:1-15). The message of the false apostle may demonstrate and/or be characterized by a number of things.
• He has his own gospel. Are you surprised at that? Don't be. If the prophet is false, and inspired by the devil, he will have a special message. It will make sense. It will have its own reasons and rationale. It is also likely to be accompanied by its own miracles, and providences. This was exactly the case among the Corinthians. But do not be deceived - it is a different gospel, a different message. Even though the Corinthians knew the Apostle Paul and had been taught by him, they loved the new gospel, and it went down smoothly (2 Corinthians 11:4; see also Galatians 1:6).
• He has his own Jesus. If a false prophet comes to a Christian, he will need a Jesus of some kind. He will never deceive any Christian unless he has a Jesus (2 Corinthians 11:4). There are many beings called Jesus in the world, just as there are many antichrists (1 John 2:18) and many false Christs (Matthew 24:24). I learned many years ago that when someone comes to me talking about Jesus, I must wait. I wait for the verbal use of His full title. I want to discover which Jesus is being talked about. Is he the Jesus of the New Testament, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? Is He the Jesus Christ described by the Apostle Paul? Did He come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3), and is he Lord of all (1 Corinthians 12:3)? Is He the Jesus we confess in the Apostles' Creed?
• He has his own spirit (2 Corinthians 11:4). There is a reason why Christians must never invite false prophets into their homes (2 John 10). It has to do with doctrine, yes, but it has much more to do with spirits and contagion. Evil power is contagious. Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses have another gospel, true. And they preach an alternate Jesus, true. But they are most dangerous because they have another spirit, an evil spirit which can do great damage in the life of a Christian. "So behind every prophet is a spirit, and behind each spirit either God or the devil."3 The apostle did not bother to say, "Do not believe every prophet." Rather he went straight to the point: "Do not believe every spirit." Dr. Stott, in looking further at this passage says, "There is an urgent need for discernment among Christians. We are often too gullible, and exhibit a naive readiness to credit messages and teachings which purport to come from the spirit-world. There is such a thing, however, as a misguided charity and tolerance toward false doctrine. Unbelief (believe not every spirit) can be as much a mark of spiritual maturity as belief."4
If Christians are discerning, they will have learned the habit of disbelieving all spirits. That, in fact, is what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he said, "Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, KJV).
• He has his own anointing. False prophets are sometimes very exciting and colorful. They speak with power. They may be interesting and dramatic. There is a reason for that; being false does not mean being without an anointing. He just has another kind of anointing, an alternate anointing (1 John 2:18-27). Antichrists in the New Testament are those who have substitute enduements. It is not just that they are against Jesus Christ - they are sometimes powerfully, dramatically and excitingly so. They have an alternate anointing that gives them power. The true prophet is supposed to have an anointing from the Holy Spirit of Almighty God. The false prophet has another kind of unction.
Four Favorite Doctrines of False Prophets
I may be exaggerating when I say that the following are the four favorite doctrines of false prophets. You be the judge.
• The Denial of the Deity of Jesus Christ. For false prophets, Jesus Christ may be "a" god but not the Creator, God incarnate, God Almighty. They may even allow that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but not God Almighty (John 1:1). Without exception, they find ways to diminish the integrity and deity of Jesus Christ. If these false prophets are inspired and empowered by Satan, as they are, we should not be surprised that they ultimately attack the Lord Jesus Christ. They do it because Satan is their father, and he has been a murderer and a liar from the beginning (8:44).
• The Denial of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. John makes this very clear. Every spirit that does not continually confess that Jesus Christ is come "in the flesh" is not of God (1 John 4:1-3). Why is the incarnation so essential? Because Jesus Christ was not truly man if He was not clothed with flesh. If Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh, who died on the cross? And what was torn if not His flesh? And what was shed if not His blood? The Apostle Paul preached Jesus Christ crucified. He preached the cross. Why was he so emphatic? Because it is on the cross that the enfleshment and incarnation of Jesus Christ are most clearly seen. Beware when there is no mention of the blood of Jesus Christ. Beware when there is no preaching about the cross of Jesus Christ. "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18, KJV). False prophets do not love the cross of Christ. They prefer rather not to mention it.
• The Denial of the Lostness of Man. The Scripture makes very clear that all men and women who have not believed in Jesus Christ are eternally lost (John 3:16,36). To question that there is a place called hell, and to suggest that eternity is not forever is a favorite device of false prophets. Jesus Christ was the most emphatic teacher of eternal punishment and the lostness of man in all of the Bible (Matthew 25:46; John 3:16, etc.). False prophets, moved and controlled by evil spirits, do not want to confess their own future since the lake of fire has been prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).
• The Denial of the Inspiration and Integrity of Scripture. The Bible teaches that God's Word has been inspired as holy men were moved by the Holy Spirit to write (2 Timothy 3:16). All that they have written are God's words (Romans 3:2). Every single word of the original texts has been given by God. Not even a tiny jot or tittle will pass away (Matthew 5:18). It is the practice of Satan to say, "Did God really say. . . ?" (Genesis 3:1). False prophets say the same thing because they are energized by the same spirit.
False prophets also like to have their own revelations and attack the adequacy and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures in order to introduce their own scriptures. If the prophet is adding new revelation to the Bible accepted by the Church for most of these 2,000 years, you can be sure that prophet is false.
Four Favorite Tactics of False Prophets
False prophets are involved in spiritual warfare - against the church and against the Lord Jesus Christ. In their wars on behalf of the counterkingdom ruled by Satan, they follow a number of common strategies.
• Invasion from the Outside. When Paul was bidding farewell to the Ephesian elders, he warned them that certain men would descend upon their church and cause havoc (Acts 20:29). This is one of the favorite tactics of the false prophet. Coming in from outside, he is unknown and, therefore, more easily able to deceive. The Church of the first century struggled mightily to distinguish between prophets false and true. Several of the criteria they emphasized in the Didache and other early writings have to do with distinguishing between those who come into the local assembly from the outside.
• Emergence from the Inside. Just as Paul warned the Ephesian elders about those coming from elsewhere, he proceeded to shock them further by insisting that even from among themselves false brethren would arise (Acts 20:30). We are not to be surprised by those who rise up and become false prophets. They come, still today, from among the faithful.
• Resistance to Authority. False prophets challenge the authority of the pastor and elders. If they are to be successful, they must challenge the existing leadership. The Scriptures teach that believers are to obey those who have the rule over them, those who oversee watch for their souls (Hebrews 13:17). If a true undershepherd, a true and godly pastor (1 Peter 5:1-4), is guarding his flock, his authority has to be overturned before the false prophet can rend and tear the sheep. It also must be admitted, unfortunately, that sometimes godly leaders become corrupt and end up as false prophets themselves, remaining in the places of authority all the while.
• Isolation of Victims. False prophets are rightly likened to wolves (Acts 20:29). All predators do one thing to their victims - they separate the one about to be destroyed from the protection of the flock or herd. Once the victim is separated from the rest, he becomes easy prey. The word "demon" means distributor and divider.5 If false prophets are controlled by demons, we should not be surprised when they divide the flock, isolating their victims before destroying them. And if the young, the infirm and the aged are beguiled, we should not be surprised. Young people are inexperienced and unfortunately curious. The weak and aged sometimes do not have the strength or clarity to escape.
Four Main Weapons against False Prophets
Fortunately, there are a number of powerful spiritual weapons that can and must be used in the Christian's struggle against the deception of false prophets (2 Corinthians 10:4-6).
• God's Word. The more one reads and studies the Bible, the more likely he is to recognize false prophets. Conversely, the less one knows about the Word of God, the more easily he will be deceived and led astray. Like Timothy of old, we should give attendance to reading (1 Timothy 4:13), and we should study to show ourselves approved unto God, not ashamed, but able to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
Familiarity with the Bible also needs some basic laws of interpretation to go along with it. One of the most helpful is this: If the literal sense makes common sense, seek no other sense. Another helpful rule of interpretation to remember is that the Bible is by far the best interpreter of itself.
• A Multitude of Counselors. In a multitude of spiritual counselors there is safety (Proverbs 11:14). God's servants are part of a body - the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16). Christians can be very helpful to one another. If pastors or elders or older brothers and sisters in the church warn you, listen! They are probably correct. Their wisdom is exceptionally valuable. Having seen various false prophets over the years, they have learned not to be taken in by them.
• Tough Truth (2 Timothy 4:2-3). False prophets tickle the ears of the people (4:3). They often pronounce that they have deeper truths to share (Revelation 2:24). Paul observed that those who wish to turn away from the Lord Jesus Christ will not "endure sound doctrine" (2 Timothy 4:3). The message that is very smooth and attractive probably has something wrong with it. Real truth has an edge; it has bite to it. It makes demands. It sometimes hurts when we hear it. One of the best understandings with which to protect oneself from following false teachers is this: Sound doctrine must be endured.
• Pursuit of Love (1 Corinthians 14:1). There are always those who wish to pursue miracles and spectacles. There are always those who wish to have their ears tickled. But love is preeminent. Miracles and martyrdom cannot compare with it (13:3). It is greater than faith and hope (13:13). Jesus Christ commanded His disciples to love one another (John 13:34-35). The great commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength (Mark 12:29-30). "By this all men will know that you are my disciples," Jesus said (John 13:35).
Paul's prayer for the Philippian church was that their love would abound more and more in order that they could discern (Philippians 1:9-10). The most discerning apostle was John. True, he wrote his Gospel, his epistles and the Revelation as he was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but he was the obvious choice among the apostles to write the Revelation - because he was the apostle of love, because he loved the Master so deeply (John 13:23). He saw more because he loved more.
In conclusion, I must recount the story of a false prophetess who lived in a Latin American city. The beginning of a movement that was called a revival was underway in that city. It featured a lot of falling under the power, being "slain in the Spirit." Eventually, the woman, along with her brother who was the pastor, withdrew from her home church with perhaps 200 others. Because the church leadership was wrong, and because they were not following the Holy Spirit, she said, it would soon become clear that she was to be a prophetess and would lead a great movement for God. To validate her calling and future status, she also announced that on a certain day her invalid husband would die. His death would demonstrate the rightness of her prophecies and launch her out into a wide prophetic ministry.
The predicted day arrived. The sick husband, a believer, dressed himself in his best finery. Many people gathered to witness the passing of this saint of God into the presence of the Lord. They waited the whole day and even partly into the next, but nothing happened. The husband did not die on the day appointed. The woman obviously was a false prophetess. To his credit, her brother who was pastor of the new group publicly rebuked her. The original church that had lost hundreds of people returned to evangelism and soulwinning. The congregation grew until once more the sanctuary was filled. But, in the meantime, the false prophetess had caused a great deal of trauma and pain.
One might assume after reading this appendix that discerning false prophets is a simple matter. If that impression has been conveyed, it is most assuredly wrong. I have been deceived more than once. The struggle to be discerning faces duplicity so great, Matthew says, that even the elect are barely able to discern (Matthew 24:24).
If you have a great concern about false prophets, my advice is ultimately twofold: 1) immerse yourself in the Scriptures (2 Timothy 2:l5), and 2) pursue love, so that it may abound on every side and bring you discernment in the end (Philippians 1:9).
Beware of false prophets.
1. C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), volume 8, 250.
2. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Anti-Nicene Christian Library (Edinburgh: T &. T Clark, 1916), volume 5,114.
3. John R.W. Stott, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960), 153.
5. W.E. Vine, The Expanded Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, edited by John R. Kohlenberger, III (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1984), 283.
Copyright 2001, Christian Publications, used by permission