The term “prophet” needs to be first defined. From the words used to designate a prophet, both in the Old and New Testaments, we can say “that a prophet is one who sees things, that is, who receives revelations, who is in the service of God, particularly as a messenger, and who speaks in His name.” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 1949, 358) Therefore, a false prophet is one who distorts or denies the truth and claims to speak in God’s name.
A Bible Dictionary defines false prophets as “those who falsely claim to utter revelations that come from God, to foretell events, or to have God’s power to produce, miracles, signs, and wonders.” In the Bible, false prophets fall into 3 main categories:
1. Those who worship false gods
2. Those who falsely claimed to receive messages from the Lord
3. Those who wandered from the truth and ceased to be true prophets.
The New Testament is filled with warnings about false prophets and false teachers. Jesus warned: “Beware of false prophets” (Matt 7:15) “Many false prophets shall rise up…and shall shew great signs and wonders: insomuch that if it were possible, they shall deceive the elect.” (24:11) Peter warned: “there shall be false teachers among you, who privly shall bring in damnable heresies…” (2Pet 2:1)
John warned: “…do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone into the world.” (1Jh 4:1)
That 1st John 4:1 shows us that false prophets are being led by evil spirits and all evil spirits are ruled by Satan, the “father of lies” and accuser of God’s people (Jh 8:44). There is a chain of distribution:
Satan —> Demons –> False Prophets
Satan the father of lies inspires lies that deny the truths of God’s Word and these lies are taught as “doctrines of devils” (1Tim 4:1) to his messengers, the false prophets. They act as vehicles by which such false doctrines are disseminated to people, whether through the printed page or the media. This is why Believers should be able to detect them because many false teachers are highly influential and appear outwardly innocent. Most times, people allow sentiments, fear and ignorance to becloud their thinking such that they shy away from testing anyone who claims to be a prophet. Some Christians focus on the gifts at the expense of the fruits, not realizing that spiritual gifts can be counterfeited.
Having read the biographies of those who turned out to be false teachers or prophets in church history (Mary Eddy, Charles Russell, Joseph Smith, David Koresh, Ellen White, etc), I observed two common things that led them into deception: self conceit and self deceit.
Self conceit or self exaltation is a big trap that Satan uses to lure mankind into deception. He always appeal to human pride. This was the weapon he used on Eve. He appealed to her ego and selfish desire to want to “be like God.” This is why all false prophets love big titles. David Koresh claimed to be “Jesus,” Sun Myung Moon claimed to be “Lord of the Universe,” the pope of Rome claims to be the “Vicar of Christ” Joseph Smith claimed to be “the prophet sent with the everlasting gospel.” There is always a desire to exalt themselves to the level of God or Christ.
Another way self-conceit manifests is when a person claims to have “the only truth” or a better interpretation of old, established truths. This leads to the idea that without them, you can’t receive from God. Let me say it that anyone who claims to be the only true Bible teacher or the only one who holds the key to your breakthroughs or to the gates of Heaven, is a false messenger.
Self deceit is linked to self conceit because pride and arrogance are sins that open the door to spiritual deception. The moment a false teacher falls into the illusion that he or she alone is God’s prophet and has a corner on His truth, spiritual deception is inevitable. Most deceivers are self-deceived. A person who believes he is right and others are wrong usually becomes invulnerable to Biblical correction.
This reminds me of William Branham (1909-1965), the great American prophet. Many miracles and healings took place at his crusades and he would give spiritual insights. After some time, he claimed to be the “Elijah” of the church age. He began to teach heresies, denying the Trinity, the eternality of Hell and the Deity of Christ and denounced all other churches. He waved off all godly corrections because of his “revelations” and never recanted his heresies.
Marks of False Prophets
1. They give prophesies that never come to pass (Deut 18:20). In 1856, Ellen G. White, the “prophetess” of the Seventh Day Adventists said:
“I was shown the company present at the Conference. Said the angel: Some food for worms, some subject to the last plagues, some will be alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus.” (Testimonies vol 1, p 131).
This prophecy never occurred. Everyone present at that meeting is now dead.
One famous American prophet said in 1989: “The Spirit tells me- Fidel Castro will die- in the 90’s…The Lord tells me to tell you in the mid 90’s, about ’94- ’95, no later than that, God will destroy the homosexual community of America…He will destroy it with fire.”
None of these happened.
2. They bear bad fruits (Matt 7:18-20). True prophets who are serving Christ are marked by “the fruit of the spirit”- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and self-control (Gal 5:22-23). The opposite of such fruit is seen in false prophets. They use people rather than love them. Watch their relationships, is it marked by a critical attitude, conflict, rudeness, selfishness, failure to keep promises, failure to control their mouths or sexual desires? Do they exploit people financially? Do they keep their members by love, example and teaching or make them afraid to leave their group? Are their claims factual or inconsistent?
Like the Florida-based prophet who can’t seem to get even his conversion story straight. He once said “I got saved in Israel in 1968.” Then during a sermon some years later he said “it was in Canada that I got born again right after 1968.” Then in his book about the Holy Spirit, he says again that he was converted in 1972 during his senior high school. But the records shows that he dropped out before his senior year. So when was he saved? Why the discrepancies?
3. They contradict God’s Word (Is 8:20). They subvert the Bible with their own “new revelations.” They will say you shouldn’t take the Bible too seriously, or they gradually introduce a “formula” or “ritual” that people use that take their eyes off God.
4. They deny or distort the Person of Christ or His finished work on the cross (2Pet 2:1). Any teaching that distorts or contradicts the cardinal doctrines of the Christian Faith- the Virgin Birth, Deity, perfect sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus or the inspiration and sole authority of the Bible- must be rejected. “Prophet” Rick Joyner who is said to have “an ability to forsee certain future events accurately” glibly denied the humanity of Christ in one of his books:
“There is a tendency to continue to relate to Him as ‘the MAN from Galilee.’ Jesus is not a man. He was and is a Spirit. He took the form of a servant and became a man for a brief time.” (There Were Two Trees in the Garden, 59). This is a heresy called Docetism. The humanity of Christ is as emphasized as His divinity in Scripture.
The Watchtower Society which claims to be God’s prophet denies Christ’s deity, denied He died on a cross and His bodily resurrection. I repeat, any prophet or teacher, no matter how “anointed” or popular that teaches a doctrine which denies or perverts these key doctrines is teaching a damnable heresy. Avoid them like a plague.
5. They lead people astray with signs and wonders (Deut 13:1-4). They use miracles (or exaggerated stories of miracles) to attract crowds. Such feats keep their followers at bay because to question the “prophet” or leave his fold can invite calamities. Like Jannes and Jambres who contended with Moses, many of them use occult powers to produce lying signs and wonders (2Tim 3:8).
A famous Nigerian “prophet” once said: “Miracles are just a means to an end…everyone who received a miracle received it for the salvation of his or her soul.” This is false. Miracles do not save, it’s the gospel that saves. The children of Israel witnessed many miracles, yet they perished in the wilderness.
6. They are famous and loved by the world (Luke 6:26). False prophets like to play it for the crowd and win their approval. Any little good they do for others -including miracles- must be televised and broadcast. They are also very selective on what they preach about.
In response to a question on whether God forgives atheists, pope Francis said “the question for those who do not believe in God is to abide by their own conscience.” He told another atheist “just do good, we will find a meeting point” (Newsmax, Sept 12, 2013). Little wonder this pope has become one of the world’s most loved men. He prayed in a mosque; washed the feet of prisoners; made sandwiches for Swiss guards; invited 200 homeless people to the Vatican garden- but then says you don’t need to believe Jesus to get to Heaven. He’s a false teacher.
False prophets are usually found in close association with powerful world leaders or people who think they can buy God with money. A reference work stated:
“A reccuring characteristic of the false prophets is that they are often found in the employment of the powerful and that they are careful to speak pleasing, positive, and flattering words to their employers. Jeremiah condemned the false prophets who were always saying ‘Peace, peace!’ when there was no peace (Jer 6:14)” (Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1995, 440).
For 3 years, apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders of false teachers that would come from within them (Acts 20:29-31). And what was his remedy? He said: “I commend you to God and to the Word of His grace” (vs 32). That is our anchor. Stand firm in the Scriptures and test the spirits. Don’t neglect the Word and chase after miracles, emotional experiences or “new” revelations or gifts in place of the Giver.