How to Identify a True Prophet
” Dear Mr. Wilson:
My husband was recently transferred to another city and we have been attending various churches, looking for a place that “feels right.” We have found a very friendly church, but the minister is called “a prophet.” I have discussed this topic with some church members and they suggested that I read 1 Corinthians 12.
This is my first exposure to a church that has apostles and prophets, so I don’t know what to think. Could the pastor really be a true prophet? Please help me sort this out.
You have asked a good question and I am happy to respond. To get started, you may be aware that the title “prophet” is frequently distorted. The Bible defines a prophet as an ordinary person who reveals information from God that is otherwise unknown. (Ezekiel 2 & 3, Jeremiah 29:19) With this simple definition in mind, please consider the following passages:
Jesus warned His followers, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. . . . 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 many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:15, 21-23, italics mine) “For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time.” (Matthew 24:24,25)
These few verses tell us that false prophets can (a) be gifted and talented people who deceitfully use the name and gospel of Jesus for recognition, power, and/or money, (b) perform great signs and miracles because they are associated with demons, (c) have no affiliation with Christ and His gospel even though they may speak volumes about Jesus and salvation, and (d) will exist until the end of time. (In fact, the last “false prophet” mentioned in the Bible is the devil himself. Revelation 19:20)
Yes, God has true prophets! The Bible indicates that Jesus bestowed spiritual gifts on the early church. (The word “church” as it is used in this study should not be confused with a particular denomination.) Paul wrote, “It was he [Jesus] who gave some [gifts to ordinary people so that they could serve as] to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, [so that all of these should work together] to prepare Gods people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13, insertions mine)
These verses reveal that Jesus equips ordinary people with extraordinary gifts for the benefit of building up His church. Please notice that Paul identifies their order of importance: “And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and [last] those speaking in different kinds of tongues.” (1 Corinthians 12:28, insertion mine)
The Bible is clear that genuine and false prophets will exist until the end. I believe the first step in identifying a true prophet is found in the book of Ezekiel: “The word of the Lord came to me [Ezekiel]: Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying.
Say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: [They deceitfully say] Hear the word of the Lord! [But,] This is what the Sovereign Lord says [to them]:Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing!
Your prophets, O Israel, are like [noisy] jackals [roaming aimlessly] among ruins. You [claim to speak on My behalf, but you] have not gone up to the breaks in the wall to repair it for the house of Israel [that is, you have not turned My people away from their decadent sins] so that it [My house] will stand firm [in righteousness] in the battle on the day of the Lord.
Their visions are false and their divinations a lie. They say, The Lord declares, when the Lord has not sent them; yet they expect their words to be fulfilled. Have you not seen false visions and uttered lying divinations when you say, The Lord declares, though I have not spoken? “ (Ezekiel 13:1-7, insertions and italics mine)
As you can see, Sandy, false prophets are not a recent problem. In fact, it appears that every time God appointed a true prophet for Israel, many false prophets also sprang up! (See 1 Kings 18:19 and Jeremiah 28.) As you might expect, there are several issues involved in the process of identifying a true prophet. Here are five issues which I hope you will prayerfully consider:
1. – God foreknew that His people would have trouble identifying true and false prophets. To reduce this problem, God said to Israel, “. . . Listen to my words: When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. “ (Numbers 12:6)
This text reveals how God gives information to a prophet. When a prophet speaks, people do not know whether the prophet is lying (speaking out of his own imagination) or if the prophet has actually received a dream or a vision from God. God told Israel to listen to everyone who claims to have received a vision from Him because such persons must either be exonerated or destroyed! “
But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death. You may say to yourselves, How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord? 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. Do not be afraid of him [or his lies, so put him to death].” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22, insertion mine)
2. – Jesus said that false prophets can perform great signs and miracles, so we know that displays or manifestations of supernatural power do not necessarily mean that God has sent a prophet. In fact, the book of Revelation reveals that a time is coming when the devil himself will call fire down out of the sky to prove that he is God, and this overwhelming miracle will deceive most of the inhabitants of Earth.
“And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men. Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. . . .” (Revelation 13:13,14) So, the ability to perform miracles does not prove that a prophet is sent from God.
3. – The Bible also indicates that a prophet cannot validate himself. In other words, no person becomes a prophet because he decides to be a prophet and neither can men appoint a prophet. God Himself decides who will speak for Him and that person may prophesy once during his entire life or he may prophesy many times. (1 Samuel 19)
Paul wrote, “All these [gifts, including the gift of prophecy] are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he [the Spirit] gives them to each one, just as he determines.” (1 Corinthians 12:11, insertions and emphasis mine) Jesus said, “If I testify about myself [claiming that I am the Messiah], my testimony is not valid. There is another who testifies in my favor, and I know that his testimony about me is valid. You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth [that I am the Messiah].” (John 5:31-33, insertions mine)
If a person is “gifted” with visions from God, this gift will become evident over time. Spiritually mature people will test and validate the gift and of course, time will prove whether the prophet spoke for God or out of his own imagination. True prophets are not popular during their lifetime because Almighty God does not trifle with man nor does God send trivial messages through His prophets.
When God sends a message, His words cut like a double-edged sword. God condemns sin and exposes error. So, the message of a true prophet is usually hated, and historically, the life span of a true prophet is short and painful. Jesus acknowledged Israel’s customary treatment of the prophets saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
4. – During the early days of the Christian church, the Spirit of prophecy was actively working through the apostles because Jesus used the gifts of the Spirit to separate fact from fiction. The early Christian church became filled with self-appointed prophets (liars) and false teachers with disastrous results. Consider the contrast between these two texts: “So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there [in Iconium], speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.” (Acts 14:3, italics and insertion mine)
On the other hand, the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira soon fell into apostasy because false prophets and teachers had infiltrated them. Jesus said to the church at Pergamum, “Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore!
Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Revelation 2:14-16) Jesus also said to the church at Thyatira, “Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.
I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling.” (Revelation 2:20, 21) True prophets (a) will promote ideals and doctrines that conform to God’s Word, and (b) can do miracles as God deems necessary to affirm the validity of their testimony.
5. – Sandy, since this is a brief response to a rather large subject, please pay close attention to these closing remarks. In terms of authority, the Bible is a closed book. When the apostolic age ended, the Bible was completed. God has not given subsequent prophets any information that extends Scripture.
Everything that God wanted said in the Bible has been said in the Bible and the Canon was closed. This means that all prophetic utterances since the apostolic age must be tested by Scripture. The words of prophets today are not authoritative (that is, their words are not to be regarded as an extension to Scripture).
True prophets always direct people to the Bible because every true prophet knows that the Bible is man’s sole authority in matters pertaining to God. Yes, we should consider the claims of people who say that God has told them something, but we have to test their claims by the Bible.
Paul wrote, “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22) Those claiming to receive dreams or visions from God are not to be revered, quoted as an authority, or worshiped. Instead their words are to be thoroughly challenged by the Word of God and if they bear up after close investigation, the Word of God is to be exalted not the prophet! The lives of prophets should also be examined. Speaking of prophets, Jesus said, “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 7:19, 20arti)
In closing, true prophets are ordinary people having an extraordinary (and usually, an unpleasant) job to do. Each time a prophet claims to reveal something from God, that claim has to be verified. If the claim is found to be in harmony with Scripture, then a clearer understanding of Scripture will unfold and the body of Christ will be blessed! Otherwise, I hope you will have nothing to do with the subtle lies of a false prophet! (For further study on this topic, please read my article on the end-time appearance of 144,000 prophets.)
I hope this helps,
Your “Biblical” definition of a prophet is that “The Bible defines a prophet as an ordinary person who reveals information from God that is otherwise unknown.” Are you referring to material that is unknown to the individual person or unknown to the entire body of Christ. (Obviously not to the entire body since several prophets in Scripture prophesied the same thing at different times.) I would think that anytime we seek God in prayer for guidance or help and He responds to us, He would be giving us material that was “otherwise unknown”. Once that material is communicated to another person do we become a prophet?
So, say we needed to hear from God for direction in a particular situation. We approached Him in prayer and He responds. That is, we hear God and can then communicate to another person what we sense God is saying. Well wouldn’t that make everyone in the body of Christ, who has the Holy Spirit dwelling within them, a prophet. If we pray to God and hear Him speak what we otherwise would not have known (since He lives within us) and we communicate that to someone, then according to your definition we become a prophet.
7 For if that first covenant (God’s agreement with man in the Old Testament) had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second (New Testament – becoming “born again” – John 3). 8 Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah (that is, the people of God which the Church now is – Rom 11)—9 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they did not continue in My covenant, and I disregarded them, says the LORD. 10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 11 None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them. 12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
If we all know God no matter how insignificant we may be in the body of Christ, then doesn’t that mean that we can hear Him when he speaks to us. And wouldn’t that make every one of us a “prophetic” person with the capacity of becoming a prophet the moment we speak a new thing that God has communicated to us?
Thank you for your comment. You have asked a good question. Please consider the following:
Liars can claim to be a prophet. Anyone can make up a message from God out of his own imagination. And God knows that these claims cannot be validated. How then, can we determine if a person has received a vision from God or he/she is lying? What can we do since the world is full of liars and false prophets!
Jesus warned us, Matthew 7:21-23 “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 many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'”
If a person casts out a demon or works a miracle, this does not prove that he/she is sent from the Lord! The devil can make awesome miracles happen! (2 Thessalonians 2:9; Revelation 13:13,14) So how do we avoid being deceived by false prophets?
1 John 4:1 “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
During the Babylonian captivity, Israel had a number of false prophets predicting the exile would not last the 70 years prophesied by Jeremiah. (Jeremiah 25:8-12) Notice what the Lord said to Ezekiel (notice the facts stated in this conversation):
Ezekiel 13:1-6 “The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are now prophesying. Say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: ‘Hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing! Your prophets, O Israel, are like jackals among ruins. You have not gone up to the breaks in the wall to repair it for the house of Israel so that it will stand firm in the battle on the day of the Lord. Their visions are false and their divinations a lie. They say, “The Lord declares,” when the Lord has not sent them; yet they expect their words to be fulfilled.”
After reading these two texts, we find that anyone claiming to have received a revelation from God when in fact, there was none, will be punished as an evildoer. God knows when a person is lying or speaking out of his own imagination. A false prophet may perform miracles and have many followers, but this does not prove he/she speaks for God.
When the Lord speaks to a person, there is a lucid and intelligent conversation. When the Lord speaks to a person, there is a revelation of information that otherwise cannot be known.
Acts 11:27,28 “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.)”
When the Lord speaks to a person, more often than not, the message is highly inflammatory. The lifespan of God’s prophets is typically short.
Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
I think it is very important that Christians maintain a sharp distinction between having an encounter with God where information is stated in the clearest of terms and seeking the Lord for direction and wisdom to deal with personal issues that confront us.
Sure, the Holy Spirit helps us make good decisions, but this does not make a person a prophet.
James 1:5,6 “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”
The Holy Spirit is given to lead us into all truth (John 16:13), but His work does not make prophets out of truth seekers. When the Lord selects and appoints a prophet to speak for Him, the Lord speaks clearly and directly to that person so that in turn, His prophet can speak clearly and directly to the people involved.
Numbers 12:6 “He said, “Listen to my words: “When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.”
There should be no confusion on this matter. If the Lord reveals Himself to a person and gives him a message to deliver, he/she must deliver the message without regard for the consequences. This is very different than a person having some impression — or an idea — or speaking out of his own wisdom and imagination. If this distinction is not maintained, confusion and ruin will follow.
I hope this helps!