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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
How does one tell the difference between true and false prophets?
It is good to look at a Bible topic such as this in order to realize how little we can say about it. The Old Testament highlights the constant conflict between false prophets and the prophets of the Lord. Distinguishing between them in the past was difficult, but it had to be done. The Israelites asked the Lord, “How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?” (Deut. 18:21). John wrote to the church, “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” (1 John 4:1). Since this topic is very important, the Lord gave His people some guidance.
1. Fulfilled Prophecies: Moses told the Israelites: “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” (Deut. 18:22; cf. Jer. 28:8, 9). At first glance this is a good test, yet it is often difficult to apply. In order to know whether someone is a true prophet, we have to wait for the fulfillment of the prophecy he or she spoke about. In order to help their hearers, prophets sometimes gave within their long-term prophecies a short-term one that was quickly fulfilled (Jer. 28:16, 17). Yet the predictions of a false prophet could also be fulfilled (Deut. 13:1, 2). This suggests that this test is not sufficient, in itself, to know whether a prophet is from God.
2. Correct Theology: This test assumes that people had already received messages from the Lord and that they were able to use them to grade new revelations. For example, since God’s law prohibits worshipping idols, a prophet who led others to worship other gods would be a false prophet (Deut. 13:2). The message from a new prophet had to agree with God’s former revelations (Isa. 30:8). The people hearing the new revelation had to have a deep personal knowledge of God’s Word. This allowed them to use that knowledge to test the truthfulness of the new revelation. In the New Testament God’s revelation through Jesus became the central test, with the written Word, to show whether a prophet was true (1 John 4:2, 3; John 17:17). Although this test is more difficult to falsify, it can be falsified. The apostle Paul wrote about “false apostles . . . transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:13, 14). Yet those who know the truth as it is in Jesus will not be deceived.
3. Ethical Test: False prophets do not live up to the God’s laws and do not clearly speak out against sin. The prophet Ezekiel accused false prophets, “You have strengthened the hands of the wicked, so that he does not turn from his wicked way to save his life” (Eze. 13:22). False prophets were also arrogant (2 Peter. 2:18), deceitful (Acts 13:6-10), and often preached only for pay (2 Peter. 2:3, 13). Their lives were not in line with God’s revealed word. People can give the impression of being holy, even saying all the right things, yet Jesus said they are like wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15).
4. By Their Fruit: Jesus Himself established this test. He said: “You will know them by their fruits. . . . Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matt. 7:16, 17). It is close to the third test, but it goes beyond it by asking, What are the results of the ministry of a person who claims to be a prophet? Does his or her ministry build up the church? This test requires time, but lies and deception are sooner or later revealed.
We have to be open to the possibility that God still speaks to us through His prophets. But in order to identify a true prophet we should know and understand the Scriptures. We should use God’s inspired Word to test the teachings and the lifestyle of the person who claims to be a true prophet. Finally, we should not hastily accept somebody’s claims. We must allow time for the actions of the new prophet to show what kind of person he or she is. Testing the spirits takes time, prayer, and knowledge of what God has already revealed to us.