Next week in church I will be preaching on false prophets. Truthfully, this is not one of my favorite topics. I am doing it because I am working my way through the Sermon on the Mount. One reason it is not a topic I prefer is that there is such a temptation to name names. The problem with that is that to do this one risks drifting into subjectivity. There are a lot of people who are self-described prophets that I don’t care for, and many more who take on a prophetic role who are more embarrassing to the faith than edifying. I don’t want to name a lot of names. But at the same time, if one stays too focused on abstractions, it is hard for many to understand the topic.
Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 16 You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’
This passage actually gives several reasons why we false prophets often appear to be true prophets.
1. Verse 22 says that these prophets may think of themselves as true prophets. To be a false prophet does not require one to intentionally delude others. A false prophet may also delude himself or herself.
2. Verse 22 also says that that false prophets may prophecy in the name of God. This is important. One of the characteristics of a true prophet in the Old Testament was that the individual prophesied in the name of the Lord, as opposed to some other being. However, Jeremiah 14:14 and following, for example, makes it clear that this is no proof of being a true prophet. In other words, saying “God/Jehovah/Jesus/Spirit told me to tell you _______” is no proof of them speaking the truth. I might even add that it can be more of a “doubling down.” Saying that one’s words literally came from God Almighty adds status to both the message and the alleged messenger.
3. Verse 22 says that false prophets may also do signs and wonders. Some people find this strange, because the assumption is that such things validate the message. It is understandable that people would think this. Jesus did miracles partly out of compassion for the people in need, and partly as a sign of the coming Kingdom. But signs are not enough. Apparently Judas could do signs and wonders and yet was also described as the “Son of Perdition.” We are pretty sure that Judas did miracles because the Bible said that the 12 did miracles, so if he did not, when Jesus said that “one among you is a demon” (John 6:70) presumably all of the other 11 would have looked straight at Judas, rather than be confused. Deuteronomy 13:1-6 notes that a prophet who does miracles and teaches a false doctrine is a false prophet despite the miracles. Actually, that passage suggests that the miracles could actually come from God as a test of faithfulness to the people. But that doesn’t have to be the only explanation. The priests of the Pharoah in Exodus could do some miraculous signs, and the false prophet of Revelation also could.
4. Verse 16 states that false prophets produce fruit. Of course, later on, it notes that the fruit produced is bad… but it is fruit nonetheless. I feel like I can suggest from this that getting things done, or being successful is no reliable evidence of being a true prophet.
5. Verse 15 states that false prophets may look like us (look like sheep to the sheep). It is easier to assume that a prophet is false if they act different than we expect. In fact, Jesus was rejected by some because He was not what people expected. However, it is easy to trust people who use the right terminology and style– providing a comfort to us that they must be of us because they act like us. Often however, looks are deceiving. A somewhat parallel passage is Ezekiel 34. There the analogy is slightly different. The wolves are described as bad shepherds— bad religious and civil leaders in Israel. Despite the language, the imagery is the same. They destroy and scatter the flock out of disregard for the sheep’s well-being, and to satisfy their own selfish appetites.
So, if one looks at this passage, one may be excused for being doubtful of being able to identify a false prophet. After all, the passage seems to say that a false prophet may:
- Look and act like us… and use language that is comforting to us.
- Use the language of a Christian teacher/preacher (referencing God, the Spirit, Jesus, the Bible and such).
- Be successful and even accomplish things that are pretty impressive
- Even be able to do things that seem to demonstrate that they have the power of God on his or her side.
- Actually believe himself or herself to be a true prophet of God.
This last one is especially challenging. How can we identify a false prophet when the false prophet may not even realize that fact himself/herself?
You may see why it is uncomfortable for me to name names. Looking at the list above, I am tempted to call false that which doesn’t look or act like me… and give more grace on those who I can relate to better.
I will continue in Part 2, and will use three examples: One from the Old Testament, and two from recent times.