"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves." (Matthew 7:15)
Messages bombard us on a daily basis: Buy this. Do that. And when it comes to messages about matters of faith, we can often get confused about what is and is not true.
In the days of the Old Testament, God often spoke through prophets, special people He chose to use as instruments for delivering His messages. People like Isaiah, Daniel, and Jeremiah were plucked from their normal lives and tasked with the great responsibility of being a spokesperson of God. Many of these prophets were highly respected and treated with deep reverence, while others were ridiculed, despised, and even martyred.
But what is the difference between a prophet and a false prophet, and how can we tell the difference?
What Is the Meaning of the Word "Prophet"?
The word “prophet” comes from the Hebrew word nabi or nabiy, to bubble forth, like a fountain, or to utter, speak, or “pour forth” an announcement. Other words — hozeh and ro’eh, meaning “seer”— are also used for prophets. The term is meant to imply the person is receiving an announcement directly from God, and that word or vision then “bubbles forth” for others to receive, too.
The Purpose of Prophets in the Bible
A prophet is meant to receive a message from God — whether a verbal directive or other words or as a vision or dream — and then communicate that message to the people. God often sent prophets to warn or guide people. Often, they served as God’s representative, ambassador, or spokesperson. Israel’s kings would seek the counsel of prophets before making major decisions, such as waging war, to be sure their actions were in line with the Lord’s wishes.
Other times, a prophet would receive a vision from God for the king, then seek out the king to convey that message. For example, in 2 Samuel 7, God revealed to the prophet Nathan in a dream that David would not build the Lord’s Temple but, rather, David’s offspring would do so. Nathan then reported this to David, who heeded God’s command. Many of God’s prophets penned Old Testament books, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Habakkuk.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Peter called a true prophetic message something “completely reliable.” As he said, “You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).
A prophecy’s origin is not in the human will, Peter elaborated, but rather, “Prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
The Difference Between a Prophet and a False Prophet
While a prophet is one who receives and then offers the Word of God, a false prophet is one who receives a word by other means, such as divination, fortune-telling, or sorcery, whether a word from their own minds or from other, false gods. These corrupt, dishonest messages are not of God and therefore cannot be trusted.
Sometimes, people posed as true prophets to mislead, such as in Nehemiah 6:10-15, when a false prophet attempted to convince Nehemiah to hide in the temple, but Nehemiah realized it was a trap. Other times, false prophets offered signs and wonders as a way to entice people to follow other gods instead of the Lord (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).
What Does It Mean to Be a False Prophet?
God speaks harshly against false prophets, occult practices, and other means of sorcery. God describes a false prophet as one who “presumes to speak in My name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods” (Deuteronomy 18:20).
In Jeremiah 14:14, God says these evildoers prophesy lies, offering “false visions, divinations, idolatries, and the delusions of their own minds.”
Apostle Paul also gives a warning against such false teachers in 2 Corinthians 11:12-15,
"And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds."
What Does the Bible Say?
In Deuteronomy 18:9-20, God warns His people not to engage in divination, cast spells, or consult mediums, nor listen to anyone who speaks in the name of other gods. These false prophets should be put to death, He says.
God expresses His displeasure even more fiercely in Jeremiah — both about the false prophets and those who listen to them.
“Therefore this is what the Lord says about the prophets who are prophesying in My name: I did not send them, yet they are saying, ‘No sword or famine will touch this land.’ Those same prophets will perish by sword and famine. And the people they are prophesying to will be thrown out into the streets of Jerusalem because of the famine and sword. There will be no one to bury them, their wives, their sons and their daughters. I will pour out on them the calamity they deserve” (Jeremiah 14:15-16).
Are There Any in the New Testament?
False prophets were not only a problem in the Old Testament; they also plagued the apostles in the New Testament. For example, the Book of Acts describes an occasion when Barnabas and Paul encountered a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet when the apostles were offering the word of God to the proconsul of Paphos. When the sorcerer tried to oppose their teaching, a Holy Spirit-filled Paul verbally lashed out at the man, causing him to go blind. Amazed, the proconsul believed.
The Apostle Peter warned about “false teachers,” much like false prophets, who will “secretly introduce destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1).
These evildoers will be “paid back with harm for the harm they have done” (2 Peter 2:13).
Do They Exist Today?
Jesus, speaking to His disciples about the end times, warned that false prophets would indeed appear in an attempt to deceive even God’s chosen ones that the Son of God had returned (Matthew 24:24).
Don’t listen or heed their guidance, we are told. Rather, stay vigilant and be ready, Jesus said, for “about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).
In 2 Timothy 4:3-4, the Apostle Paul warns that a time will come when people will turn from the truth and instead entertain teachers who say what they want to hear, offering myths rather than God’s Word.
But Jesus tells us we have one path to God: Through Him. As He said in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
And, in His Sermon on the Mount, He said His path is rooted entirely in the Lord, insisting, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
How Can We Tell If Someone Is a False Prophet?
God offers instruction on how His people can determine true from false prophets. In Deuteronomy 18:22, He explains, “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us to beware false prophets, who appear gentle but are not.
“They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:15-20).
The bottom line is that false prophets bring a message that is not from God. Their message contradicts what God instructs, often appealing to our earthly cravings or passions. And ultimately, they produce “bad fruit.”
Trust instead in Jesus and the Word of God as given to us all in the Bible.
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/elijah_sad
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.