Certainly charlatan preachers and so-called “faith healers,” who cheat, steal, and fool people in the name of God should be called “false prophets.” But perhaps they’re not the only false prophets in our society. Perhaps many of our false prophets are more secular in nature. Perhaps they write books, host television and radio programs, and spread “prophecies” cleverly disguised as political commentary. How do we recognize these false prophets?
Prophets & False Prophets
When we think of a prophet, we tend to think of someone who predicts events in the distant future. However, in biblical times, a prophet did not primarily predict the future, he interpreted the present. The most pressing question a prophet answered wasn’t, “What will happen?” but rather, “Why is this happening?
When there was war, drought, earthquake, or plague, the people wanted to know, “Why is this happening?” Prophets would consult God, interpret the events of the day, and explain what people needed to do to avoid doom. A true prophet was moved by a message from the Lord, but a false prophet was moved by his own selfish interests and his own interpretation of the situation. The false prophet would claim to know why things were happening and how to make things better; but, of course, things never panned out the way false prophets predicted (see Deuteronomy 18:20-22).
This is the distinction Peter drew when he wrote, “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20-21). The Scriptures came from prophets who were carried along by the Holy Spirit, but false prophecies are a man’s own personal interpretation, produced by his own will.
Simply put, a false prophet is someone who claims some great insight into why things are happening and how to turn things around for the future, but their insight is coming from their own imagination and not from the Lord.
Secular False Prophets
The ancient world was very spiritual and religious. One of the best ways to gather a following was by telling people you had a message from God about their situation. If you said God told you how to make everyone’s problems go away, there was a good chance that desperate people would listen.
Our world today is not quite so religious, but it is just as desperate for prophets. Perhaps that is why many of today’s prophets are secular. Unlike religious false prophets, secular false prophets do not claim divine authority for their message, but they speak with no less certainty about the present and the future. Motivated by their own selfish interests, they:
- Interpret – “This is why bad things are happening”
- Instruct – “Here is what you must do”
- Predict – “This is your horrible fate if you do not listen”
From both the “right” and “left” extremes of the ideological spectrum, there are plenty of people who want to sit in the prophet’s seat. These are not people who are simply offering an opinion or a perspective, but people who confidently assert that they speak with authority. The bleak future about which they warn is not offered as a mere possibility, but as an absolute certainty if people do not heed their warning.
Recognizing False Prophets
You may be thinking, “Yes! I have heard some false prophets like that!” But, of course, we all tend to see ourselves as being too wise and discerning to be so easily fooled. However, Jesus’ words are just as applicable to us as they were to his original audience, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). We must all beware and on guard against false prophets.
How can we recognize these false prophets? How can we know when someone’s prognostication is not just mistaken but actually toxic and destructive? Jesus tells us exactly how to recognize them. He says, in Matthew 7:16-20,
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
I used to think this simply meant we will see sinful practices and behaviors in their personal lives. After all, we have seen plenty of illicit and immoral behaviors come to light in the lives of popular leaders and teachers. Sometimes this bad “fruit” is growing in the would-be prophet’s own backyard; but more often, the bad “fruit” is growing in the lives of those who listen to them.
Their Fruit in OUR Lives
I learned this lesson the hard way. At one time, I listened to a lot of talk radio. It would be accurate to say the hosts were my “prophets.” I believed they had profound insight about why things were happening in the world, what steps needed to be taken, and the doom that awaited us if people didn’t listen to their warnings. I obviously knew their message wasn’t directly from God, but I felt like they were speaking a godly message.
One day I finally recognized the bad fruit their message was bearing in my life. My heart was full of anxiety and anger. The way I thought about those who disagreed with me and the future was not spiritually healthy. The message that was bringing fame and fortune to these men, was bringing fear and frustration to me.
The “bad fruit” of false prophets isn’t always recognizable in their personal lives, but it is recognizable in our hearts and minds. If you want to know if someone is proclaiming a message from God or from their own corrupt heart, just look at what the message is producing in you. Good seed produces good fruit and bad seed produces bad fruit.
If someone is proclaiming a message of godly wisdom, it will be (James 3:17):
- open to reason
- full of mercy
- full of good fruits
Similarly, the result of Spirit-filled teaching will be, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). You don’t have to dig up dirt in someone’s life to know if they are proclaiming a message from God or not; all you have to do is examine the fruit of what they’re proclaiming.
Beware of both religious and secular false prophets, we are all susceptible.
I love you and God loves you,