part of the what is truth? series

The children of Israel were surrounded by prophets that claimed to be speaking for God but they were actually false prophets. In fact, by most accounts in the Old Testament, most “prophets” were false prophets and there were two kinds. First, there were prophets associated with other gods. For example, when Elijah is all alone in facing down the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah on Mount Carmel recorded in 1 Kings 18. They were not claiming to be from the God…therefore pretty easy to identify.

Our question is about the second type of false prophets – those that claimed to be prophets sent from God. This was a bit more challenging. How was a person to identify “God’s prophets” that were false?

how Scripture answers "How were false prophets identified?"

One way that false prophets were identified in Old Testament times was by waiting to see if what they said came to pass1. However, it wasn’t the only way, probably since this would have some very practical limitations as in the case of Jeremiah and Hananiah3. Someone couldn’t wait two or seventy years to see who was speaking the truth!

This “time delay” problem is further compounded by the fact that God could be testing you6. In this, a “prophet” may perform great signs but speak things contrary to God’s word. And it’s in this, along with other examples2,3, that we see a more fundamental rule emerge. We see the prophet’s message being measured against past messages from other proven, true prophets2 – that is, prophets speaking God’s word6. Testing the things prophesied was true in the early church as well5,7. In other words, the consistency of message is paramount (and why wouldn’t it be since God doesn’t change).

Note: A ‘tip-off’ for the hearer that a “prophet of God” was actually a false prophet was someone that is always preaching peace3 (“everything’s going to be okay”). The much more common message of God’s true prophets was one of judgement, condemnation for disobedience and a call to repent. True spokesmen for God are speaking His words/message4.

the answer above is based on and footnoted with the following Scripture Blocks
1

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.

When someone speaks for God, wait to see if what they say comes true to see if they are speaking for themselves (presumptuously) or truly speaking for God.

Moses is telling the people that God will raise up a prophet like himself that will speak for God. They will need to listen and obey the words of that prophet or they will be judged.

How does it inform?

It provides a good rule for determining a true or false prophet of God. However, it doesn’t resolve all scenarios. For example, when a prophet tells something that could only be tested after one’s lifetime or possibly gets lucky.

Does it apply? Yes

2

Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the Lord our God. And certain of the elders of the land arose and spoke to all the assembled people, saying, Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah, and said to all the people of Judah: Thus says the Lord of hosts, Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height. Did Hezekiah king of Judah and all Judah put him to death? Did he not fear the Lord and entreat the favor of the Lord, and did not the Lord relent of the disaster that he had pronounced against them? But we are about to bring great disaster upon ourselves.

Some officials are speaking up against Jeremiah’s death sentence saying he is speaking for God. They are comparing his message to that of Micah’s, another prophet that also prophesied of Jerusalem’s destruction. The action’s of King Hezekiah averted the destruction, but Micah’s message was no less from God.

Jeremiah has been declaring God’s word of Judah’s/Jerusalem’s destruction and captivity at the hands of Babylon and telling them not to resist. In this instance, the “priests and prophets” question his message from God and want him dead. Some other “officials” are stepping in to evaluate his message by comparing it to past prophets’ message – prophets that had proven to be true prophets of God – Micah (lived over 100 years earlier) and Uriah (a contemporary that fled to Egypt but was still executed).

How does it inform?

There are several important concepts demonstrated in this passage. First, the officials are acknowledging the uniformity of God’s message (even character). They understand that what God said in the past would still apply, and can therefore use it to evaluate Jeremiah’s message. Interestingly, they also understand that even though Micah’s prophesy did not come true (since Hezekiah repented and God therefore relented) he was still a true prophet of God.

Does it apply? Yes

3

The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.

Considering that past [true] prophets prophesied war [bad things], for the prophet who prophesies peace [good things], wait to see if it comes true.

Jeremiah has a direct confrontation with another prophet (Hananiah). Jeremiah has been saying that the captivity will last seventy years; Hananiah, claiming to be from God, is saying it will only last two years. (This is about eleven years after the episode in Jeremiah 26.)

How does it inform?

Jeremiah is reinforcing the continuity of God’s message by looking back and pointing out that true prophets spoke of war, famine, etc. — not pleasant things. Their message was generally that of condemnation and judgment on the people. He is adding a further qualifier to Moses’ instruction from Deut 18 that advises greater scrutiny for prophets preaching peace (opposite of past prophets).

Does it apply? Yes

4
I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

Jesus gave them [apostles] God’s word and the world has hated them as a result, just as they hated Jesus.

Jesus’ prayer before His crucifixion and ascension to Heaven.  The “words” are clarified earlier when Jesus prays, “I have revealed your name to the men you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have obeyed your word. Now they understand that everything you have given me comes from you, because I have given them the words you have given me. They accepted them and really understand that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.” (vss 6-8)
How does it inform?

Jesus, as the ultimate true prophet of God, spoke only the words given to him by the Father.

Does it apply? Yes

5
Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.
Don’t disregard prophecies, but test them and keep what is proven true.

The closing admonitions of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.

How does it inform?

In the first century church, Christians were to test those things that were prophesied.

Does it apply? Yes

6
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.

If a prophet (a dreamer of dreams) rises up and gives you a miracle and tells you to worship idols, you shall not listen to that prophet.  For God is testing you, to know whether or not you love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind.

Moses’ instructions (from God) to the people before entering the Promised Land.  Here warning the people that God may test them with false prophets and instructing that they should be put to death (vs 5).

How does it inform?

God may test his followers by putting a person in front of you with great claims and even backing it up with miracles. But if his message is not consistent with God’s message already spoken, he is false and should be put to death.

Does it apply? Yes

7

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Brethren, don’t believe every spirit, but test them to see whether they are sent from God.  Do this because there are many false prophets in the world.

The apostle John’s letter to Christians encouraging them love but in the immediate context warning of false teachers/prophets and giving them guidance about how to determine the “Spirit of truth” from the “spirit of error” (vs 6).  Confessing or not confessing that Jesus is from God is one way (vs 3), together with listening to “us” (the apostles) (vs 6).

How does it inform?

Christian’s are obliged to test the things said since many false things are being said.

Does it apply? Yes

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