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This is a complex subject. And some of the complexities are shown in the story of two prophets found in 1 Kings 13:1-32. Here, a true prophet courageously makes a prediction before a wicked king who seeks to harm him, but God works a miracle to save his life. On the way home he meets an older prophet who lies to deceive him into coming to his house for a meal. The younger prophet goes against what God had clearly instructed him. While at the meal the older prophet, now under the Spirit of God, makes a prophecy regarding the death of the younger prophet who has disobeyed God. That prediction comes to pass when the younger prophet is killed by a lion. The older prophet appears to be remorseful and gathers the body for burial.
This is a puzzling and disturbing story that breaks many of the rules we would think should operate regarding the judging of a prophet to be true or false.55 The older prophet speaks both lies and, as well, gives a true prophecy described as the "word of the Lord." The younger prophet gives a true prophecy, but is deceived into disobedience and loses his life. It teaches, as does the story of Balaam, that someone may have been a true prophet and yet become a false or apostate prophet.
How Not to Judge a Prophet
How then shall we judge a true prophet from a false prophet? First, Let us consider how not to judge a true prophet.
1. Not by physical manifestations
Daniel experienced loss of strength (Daniel 10:8), he did not breathe (Daniel 10:17) and he was given extra strength (Daniel 10:18-19). But
it is well known that these experiences can be found in the occult as well as in biblical prophets; therefore the Bible never sets them up as a means of testing true prophets from false. In fact, if we were to judge some biblical prophets by the way they conduct themselves we would be inclined to lock them away in an appropriate place.
Isaiah walked naked through the streets of Jerusalem for three years. Ezekiel seemed to be playing war games like a little boy. He took a clay tablet and drew on it the city of Jerusalem and made a siege against it. He lay on his side for many days out in the open. He cut off his hair and divided it up. He threw some of it into the wind and some he burned. He cut a hole in a wall and began to drag furniture through. Jeremiah smashed a pot before his listeners and later wore a wooden yoke around his neck. Day after day he stood at the entrance to the temple and plagued the life out of people with his doomsday predictions.
Old Testament prophets can appear to be strange people at times. Why did they act as they did? One answer is that there were cultural expectations made of them. If they did not meet those expectations the people would most likely not take any notice. This explains why Aune56 and Forbes,57 authors of two of the classic works on prophecy in the ancient world and the Bible, spend so much time considering prophecy in the ancient Mediterranean world. Aune makes this observation, "Prophetic or messianic leaders who might arise were expected to conform to various preconceived images of what such eschatological figures should say and do."58 We would expect a prophet to act differently from one age to another in harmony with the cultural expectation of the times in which they live. This we would expect to be true of both true and false prophets.
The Encyclopedia of Religion adds, "In ancient Israel, as in every society, the behavior of divinely possessed individuals followed certain stereotypical patterns, although these patterns varied somewhat depending on the historical, geographical, and social setting of the prophet's activities. . . . Individuals who wished to be accredited as prophets were thus subtly pressed to conform to the group's picture of genuine prophetic behavior. Prophetic actions. Biblical writers rarely describe behavior indicative of possession, but the existence of stereotypical prophetic actions can be inferred by the Bible's occasional
use of the verb hitnabbe', which seems to mean 'to act like a prophet, to exhibit the behavior characteristic of a nabi.' . . . It is clear, however, that the prophet's characteristic behavior was evaluated positively by some groups but negatively by others. In some cases it was seen as a sign of divine legitimation and favor (Nm 11: 11-29, 1 Sam 10: 1-13), while on other occasions it was considered an indication of madness or possession by an evil spirit ( 1 Sam. 18:10-11, 19: 18-24; 1 Kgs. 18:26-29; Jer. 29:24-28)."59
J. Lindblom shows how the physical experiences and claims of the prophets of Israel were not unlike those of nations around them who claimed to have contact with their own peculiar deities.60 Both true and false prophets can have many of the same physical manifestations. No doubt they often did as there would be an expectation by the people as to how a prophet should act. Acting against expectations could lead to rejection.
In the New Testament concept of prophecy, Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 14: 32 that "the spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of the prophets" makes the point that true prophets are rational and under control as they prophesy. We would not expect them to be acting as did the pagans in their irrational behaviour. While prophets may have visions in an ecstatic state, they were to declare them in a rational manner.
2. Not by prophecies coming to pass in isolation from other factors
Jeremiah 28:9 is often quoted regarding the need for prophecies to come to pass in order to tell a true prophet from a false prophet. Is this the right passage of Scripture to use? It deserves close consideration: "The prophet who prophecies peace will be recognised as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true."
The context of this passage is of a prophetic contest between Jeremiah and Hananiah. Hananiah says there will be peace for Jerusalem and Judah; while Jeremiah says the Babylonians will come and destroy the city of Jerusalem, and the Kingdom of Judah will fall. Jeremiah responds by saying that if Hananiah's prophecy of peace comes to pass then they will know that God has spoken through him. In other words,
this is a specific situation being addressed. It ought not to be used as a blanket statement regarding testing prophets if they are true or false on a basis of whether what they say comes to pass.
Deuteronomy 13:1-5 shows why this can be dangerous, and gives a more complete picture regarding fulfillment of prediction as a test. "If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or a wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, 'Let us follow other gods' (gods you have not known) and 'let us worship them,' you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. . . . That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the Lord your God. . ."
This passage warns that if a miraculous sign or wonder takes place as foretold by a prophet, this is not of itself sufficient to say that that prophet is of God. False prophets, may, at times, predict events that come to pass. We see this through the powers operating within the occult. Evil angels can work through human agencies to foretell the future with greater accuracy than humans left to themselves. This passage tells us that the prophet must also teach us to worship the One True God and give obedience to Him.
James Dunn comments about "the problem of false prophecy—the problem of how to discern whether inspiration is of God or not. At first sight the answer seems simple—the test of fulfillment and non-fulfillment: the false prophecy will fail, only the true prophecy will be fulfilled. This was the earliest and most regular test used in the Old Testament (1Sam 3:19; 1 Kgs. 8:56; Jer. 28:9; Isa. 41:21-24; 42:9; Ezek. 33:33), and finds its classical expression in Deut 18:22. The trouble was that sometimes the word of a false prophet did come true, and sometimes the word of a true prophet was not fulfilled; Yahweh could change his mind (2 Kgs. 20:1-7)."61
We must be careful in using fulfilment of prophecy to test a true prophet from a false prophet. Do we consider Jonah to be a false prophet because Nineveh was not destroyed as he predicted? Obviously there are, sometimes, certain conditions to be met in the fulfilment of some prophecies even though the conditions may not be stated at the time the prophecy is given. Jonah did not state any conditions and yet in the mind of God there were conditions involved.
When considering the fulfilment of prophecy for judging true and false prophets we must always keep in mind the following statement made through Jeremiah, "If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it" (Jeremiah 18:7-10).
Sometimes when prophets predict the future they do so in order that something can be done about it—to bring about repentance and a right relationship with God, and so avoid the prophecy of judgment coming upon them. For instance. In Jeremiah 26:16-19 some of the elders argue that Jeremiah should not be put to death because Micah had also prophesied doom for Jerusalem and it did not happen because of a right response from Hezekiah.62
Think of the returning exiles from Babylon. Ezekiel had prophesied of the building of a glorious temple in the last chapters of his book. When they built Zerubbabel's temple some of them wept that it was not as glorious as Solomon's. It certainly was nothing like the glorious temple Ezekiel had predicted. Did this make Ezekiel a false prophet? Certainly not. Their poor response led to a poorer temple than God had promised. God had also promised a glorious future for the nation that was never realised.
Another reason why fulfilment must be limited as a test of a true prophet is that sometimes there may be a delay in the fulfilment. A whole generation may live and die and not see the prophecy come to pass as predicted. An example of this would be Ezekiel's prediction that Tyre would be destroyed and cast into the sea. It was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and then lay in ruins for many generations until Alexander the Great unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy. Think of all those who lived and died and never saw the complete fulfilment of what Ezekiel had prophesied.
Sometimes when prophecies are given by true prophets there are conditions to be met in order for the prophecy to come to pass. In giving the prophecy there may be built in safeguards that can be difficult to detect at first. For example, Paul appeared to give people in
his age the hope that Christ would return in their time. That is, while the present generation was still living. He wrote to the Thessalonians and Corinthians: "According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. . . . After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air . . . ." (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, emphasis added). "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51, emphasis added).
To the first readers and hearers it would appear to be quite clear that Paul was promising them that some would live through to see Christ come. Certainly that is how the Thessalonians understood him as some began to stop working because they felt the coming of Christ was so near. Paul rebuked them for this in his second letter where he appears to modify his earlier statement to suggest the coming of Christ may still be further down the track because the "man of sin" must first arise to do his anti-Christian work.
It has often been debated within the ranks of Christians what Paul meant by these statements. Could Christ really have come in the lifetime of those people in the first century? The fact that He did not does not lead us to the conclusion that Paul was a false prophet. Maybe there were some conditions in the mind of God that did not allow the coming of Christ in the first century. In Christ's parables there are hints of a delay. That is, the parousia could take longer than many expected.63
Another reason we must be careful in using fulfilment of prophecy as the means of judging true prophets from false is found in the nature of God. God is active and dynamic. If He chooses He may not limit Himself to fulfilling the prophecy the way in which it was originally given. It is possible that God may choose to exceed the original prediction and, because of this, the existing generation may fail to recognise that the prophecies are being fulfilled.
A good example of this is seen in how Jesus Christ fulfilled the prophecies concerning His coming as the long awaited Messiah. The Jewish leaders made the point that He could not be the long awaited one because He was a Galileen from Nazareth. They correctly pointed out that no prophet was predicted to come from Nazareth. They knew Bethlehem was predicted in Micah 5:2. However, the prophecy had been fulfilled
when Christ was born in Bethlehem but later He went and lived in Galilee. This they did not expect.
It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the mind-set of the Jews of Christ's day because we have the New Testament, which shows us the way in which Christ did fulfill the prophecies. But if we were able to put ourselves into the same situation as the Jews in Palestine in the 1st century with no New Testament to guide us would be have been any wiser?
Try this as an exercise some time: Can you find from the Old Testament prophecies about the incarnation of Christ? That is, the fact that the Creator would Himself become a babe at Bethlehem. Can you find in the Old Testament the fact that He would die the death of crucifixion? Can you find from the Old Testament alone that the Messiah would be resurrected? Remember you are to do this without the help of the New Testament. At best, this is not an easy task. And yet these three events are pivotal in the ministry of Jesus. The fulfilment of prophecy can be full of surprises. God is not limited by what He has previously said. He is dynamic, ever moving forward, expanding the scope of His purposes and our understanding of them. Often giving more than what He has promised.
3. Not by inerrancy of lifestyle
Although godliness was the usual direction of their lives, we do see the best of prophets stumbling and falling at times. We should be careful not to judge them on their worst times, which may be fleeting compared to the overwhelming amount of their lives which were godly. Note these: Abraham (the first person ever to be called a prophet) denied Sarah was his wife and told the half-truth that she was his sister (Genesis 12: 10-20). Samuel deceived Saul into thinking he was going out to make a sacrifice when in reality he was going out to anoint David as king (1 Samuel 16:2). David lied to the High Priest to get the consecrated bread (1 Samuel 21:1-9). He was also a mass murderer and an adulterer. Jeremiah lied to the people at the king's suggestion (Jeremiah 38:24-29).
Moses lost his temper and had to be disciplined by God because of his rash actions (Numbers 20: 9-13). Some of the most magnificent
prophecies found in the Old Testament regarding the coming of Christ were uttered by Balaam who was an apostate (Numbers 22-24).64 Elijah fled in despair and wished to die (1 Kings 19: 3-5).
In the New Testament, Peter is led astray in his judgment by the Judaisers and withdrew from eating with Gentiles. He was later rebuked by Paul for denying "the truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2: 11-14). Earlier, though, he had been given a vision to show that all people were equal in the sight of God (Acts 10:9-48). After realising the significance of the vision and declaring it to others he later fails to live by what had been revealed to him and what he had proclaimed to others.
Paul had a sharp disagreement with Barnabas about the future ministry of Mark. He did not think him worthy to go with him on his next missionary journey and they parted company. Paul went with Silas and Barnabas took Mark with him. Subsequent events showed that Barnabas showed better judgment than Paul. Mark performed well when given the chance (Acts 15:36-41).
We must recognise that prophets are human, like the rest of us. They can make mistakes. They can follow poor advice. They can misjudge a situation. They can be discouraged and irritable. They may be well informed in some areas and not so in other areas. Even prophets used mightily by God are still very human. The danger is that we may expect them to have the perfection we see in Christ. The truth is that no one has lived as He lived. If they fail at times it does not make them false prophets because of their lapses.
How Then Shall We Judge Prophets?
Regarding Old Testament prophets, Craig Evans has some helpful advice: "The difference lay in their hermeneutics. The false prophets and other 'official theologians' (that is, the priests and wise men) maintained a hermenutic of continuity. That is, after reviewing Israel's sacred traditions, they were convinced that the God of Israel who had bought His people out of the land of slavery and into the land of promise would surely preserve His people in that land. If Yahweh had the power to humble mighty Pharaoh, deliver Canaan into Israel's hands and enable David to capture and establish Jerusalem as the holy city, then Yahweh could always be expected to crush Israel's enemies in her
hour of need. . . . despite Israel's sin God still remains gracious. . . . It induced the belief that Yahweh was God only of the Hebrews and never of the enemy. Thus the official theologians attempted to limit, localize, and domesticate God for the immediate and short range interests of Israel. Such a hermeneutic sought to manipulate God: 'if we do this then He must do that.' If Israel got into trouble then repentance and reform obligated Yahweh to straighten things out. The false prophet's messages of reassurance which were sweet to the ears—failed to inform Israel prophetically. When crushing events unfolded, the words of these prophets were found to be false. Their messages had failed to explain to Israel who her God was and what He was like. History had judged their hermeneutic to be false.
The true prophet, likewise, appealed to these same Torah traditions. He agreed that Yahweh was indeed powerful enough to maintain His people in His land . . . but Yahweh was also powerful enough to take Israel out of the land and put her back into exile . . . . Yahweh was the God of all peoples. . . . Yahweh was also the God of Israel's enemies. To suppose He is not is tantamount to polytheism, that is, in the sense that Israel's enemies have real gods. . . . Those prophets who spoke as true monotheists became part of and contributed to this process and so became 'Bible.' . . . The false prophet, by way of contrast was bound primarily with the interests of the people rather than with God."65
How could a king—sitting on his throne, with two sets of prophets speaking entirely different messages—determine who was speaking on behalf of God? The answer was to be found in the fact that the false prophets offered prosperity without repentance. They preached the gospel without the law. The writings of the true prophets are full of complaint against them. For example Jeremiah complained, "From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Peace, peace,' they say when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:13-14).
True prophets stressed that God's people had to turn from their evil ways or face the consequences. They preached "repent or perish" (Ezekiel 14:6; 18:30). As such they were the guardians of the covenant God had made with Israel. They were there to remind Israel of the promised blessings, which come from obedience and the curses that had been promised from disobedience.
In New Testament times the classic test of a true prophet is the statement made by Jesus: "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. . . . Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" (Matthew 7:15-23).
This passage of Scripture is of vital importance to testing true prophets from false. Here Jesus Himself lays down clear criteria. It is not by laying claim to working in the name of Jesus. It is not by miraculous manifestations whether that may be the physical manifestations accompanying the prophet's work. It is not by driving out demons.
The real test is that of obedience. Verse 23 says, literally, "Depart from me the [ones] working lawlessness." The word translated "lawlessness" is anomia. Nomia means "lawfulness" and an "a" before a word in Greek means "against." It is the equivalent of "un" in English and reverses the meaning of an adjective. So the word literally means "against the law" or "unlawfulness".
True prophets will uphold obedience to God's law both in their lives and in the lives of others. Jesus illustrates this when He states in verses 24-27 that it was the wise man who built his house on the rock. He obeyed the words of Jesus. It was the foolish man who built his house on the sand and lost it. He was foolish because he did not obey the words of Christ.
When prophesying of the coming of the day of the Lord, Peter states another important work of prophets with the challenge to live holy lives. "Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming" (2 Peter 3:11-12).
Paul provides some additional ideas on how to test true prophecy from false when he addressed the church in Corinth. First he says they can not be true prophets if they cried out, "Jesus be cursed!" (1 Corinthians 12:3). Second, true prophecy will edify and build up the
community of believers (1 Corinthians 14:4, 31). For John the test was that the prophet must acknowledge that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3). For both Paul and John the important test for a prophet can vary according to the local situation and the issues being faced.
The great test to be applied to prophets, to determine if they are true or false is, Do they call us to worship the true God and give obedience to his laws by living a holy life? If we have erred from the faith they will call us to repent and give obedience to God's Word. They will call us away from false worship. This puts the test within the understanding of the educated and the uneducated alike.
And for Paul, anyone claiming they are from God will preach the true gospel. Even if they are an angel from heaven, if they preach not the true gospel they should be eternally condemned (Galatians 1: 6-11). The gospel Paul claimed was revealed to him by direct revelation is spelt out by him: "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. . . ." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
55 See D. W. Van Winkle, "1 Kings 13: True and False Prophecy," Vetus Testamentum 29 1989, p. 31. Van Winkle quoted J. L. Crenshaw as saying "At the outset it must be declared that this passage deals the death knell to every attempt to specify absolute criteria by which to differentiate the true from the false prophet." [back]
56 David E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985). [back]
57 Christopher, Forbes: Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christianity and its Hellenistic Environment, Ph.D. diss., Macquarie University, 1987. [back]
58 Aune, p.121. [back]
59 The Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 12 Edition, Mircea eliade, (NY: MacMillan Pub. 1987), article "Prophecy", p.17. [back]
60 J. Lindblom, Prophecy in Ancient Israel, (Philadelphia PA: Fortress Press,1976), pp. 29-46. [back]
61 James D. G. Dunn, The Christ and The Spirit, Vol. 2, Pneumatology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 29-30. [back]
62 The prophecy was made in Micah 3:12 and avoided by Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:3-6.[back]
63 Christ gave some parables towards the end of His famous sermon on the end of the world to illustrate the unexpected timing of His return. In them are some hints of the timing being longer than many would think.
64 Frederick Harder observes the following "Upon a review of biblical personalities identified as speaking or acting under the bestowal of the Holy Spirit, we must conclude that perfection of character was not a qualification required for their selection. Cain, murderer of his brother, received the first message from God outside of Eden of which we have record. The pagan king, Abimelech, was given a divinely inspired dream. Jephtha—bastard son of a harlot, bandit chief, and killer of his daughter—was victorious recipient of 'the Spirit of the Lord.' The song of the prophetess Deborah was not only one of gladness in victory but also of exultation in vengeance. Creation Reconsidered, (Roseville, CA: Assn. of Adventist Forums, 2000). Article. "Prophets: Infallible or Authoritative", Frederick E. J. Harder, pp. 226-7. [back]
65 Craig A. Evans. Animadversiones Paul and the Hermeneutics of "True Prophecy": A Study of Romans 9-11, Biblica, v. 65, No. 4, pp. 560-570, 1984. [back]