“You will know them by their fruits.” – Jesus.
False prophets are nothing new. We have been warned about them from the very beginning of the Bible all the way up through the New Testament. Yet despite these warnings, many people, good people often, are deceived by them. As a result, many Christians are led astray, shipwrecked, or left used.
But why is it that so many people fall victim to false prophets?
The reason is because Satan is clever.
The Bible says that ‘the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made’ (Gen 3:1). A snake is very sly. It often conceals itself so that its prey senses no danger. Only when it is close enough to kill does it reveal itself and strike.
In the same way, Satan and his messengers masquerade themselves as angels of light. Satan’s goal is not to frighten, but to turn people away from the word of God, and thus away from salvation by it. He has different ways that he does this. For some, pressure will turn them away. For others, it is temptation. But concerning those who are the most devoted, other methods are needed to undermine the word of God. This is where false prophets, false teachers, and false brethren come in. By them, Satan sows confusion and strife, and often succeeds in undermining the work of God in various places.
In this essay, I will teach you, from the word of God, how to spot a false prophet.
First of all, it must be understood that the vast majority of false prophets do not think themselves to be false prophets. There certainly have been false prophets who were brazen charlatans, but I am convinced that this is rare. Most false prophets genuinely believe that they are real prophets, just as most false Christians believe themselves to be true Christians when they are not. These kind of false prophets are most valuable to Satan. They do not need to feign sincerity, for they are genuine in their belief. Their belief is wrong, but their genuineness of belief is often extremely solid, lending to very confident and convincing speech.
It is for this reason that many of them can be so persuasive. The combination of their authoritative speech along with a message that is often appealing to the flesh and emotions produces an atmosphere that is conducive to drawing people away. Furthermore, these men and women are often very familiar with the word of God. They can convincingly piece together scripture to ‘prove’ their point of view, making the deception all the worse.
Since these deceptions are so powerful, what can we do? How can we decipher between the false and the true? Should we throw out prophecy wholesale?
I come from a Charismatic / Pentecostal background myself. Prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues have been common in the churches I have attended. As a young Christian, I remember reading through the Bible and having a terrible time understanding how anyone could think that the gifts of the Spirit were done away with. There is simply no scriptural evidence for this. I remember reading 1 Thessalonians 5:20 and 1 Corinthians chapter 14, specifically the passage that says ‘despise not prophecies’, and ‘forbid not speaking in tongues.’ I remember thinking to myself, “Why would anyone despise prophecies? Don’t they want to hear from God?” However, as I grew in my faith and spent many years in the Charismatic / Pentecostal movement, I found myself beginning to ‘despise prophecies.’ Why? Because I have seen so much error, so many hair-brained people speaking when they shouldn’t be, and so many ‘prophecies’ that never came true that I got to the point that I could hardly stand it anymore.
I suspect that many people are in the same boat as me, especially with all the so-called prophets prophesying about Trump being elected in 2020. The temptation to despise prophecy is at an all time high for many people. But we must not. We must obey the scripture.
This brings us to the middle of the road. We must not write off every prophet simply because he prophesies. Nor must we accept a prophet because he claims to be sent from God. We must, as Jesus tells us, discern them by their fruits.
You shall know them by their fruit.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” – Jesus (Matthew 7:15-23)
The question is this: How do we discern between the true and the false? The answer Jesus gives is this: You will know them by their fruits.
But what fruits is He speaking of? Is he referring to miracles and healings and demons being cast out? Is that proof that God is working through a prophet? Is that the fruit He is referring to? No, it can’t be. For Jesus said that many will seek to enter the kingdom of heaven saying, ‘haven’t we done many wonders in your name?’ But Jesus said to them, “Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
Perhaps it is the fruit of making many disciples. Could it be that the fruit Jesus is referring to is the number of disciples that a follow a prophet? No, this cannot be it either, for Jesus said that many false prophets will arise and mislead many (Mat 24:11). We also see in the present day that many quasi-christian groups claim exclusivity, each with millions of followers.
The fruit is not miracles, the fruit is not disciples. In fact, the fruit is not even fulfilled prophecy, necessarily. The Bible says that many false prophets prophesy the imaginations of their own hearts (Jer 23:16). It’s certainly possible that their imaginations are correct from time to time. This is not prophesying, but a lucky guesses. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, as they say.
So what is this fruit that Jesus refers to? The best clue He gives us is in verse 23 of Matthew chapter seven. He says, “Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” The fruit He is referring to is the fruit of holiness or the fruit of sinfulness.
This can be borne out in other passages of scripture:
“Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” – Matthew 3:8-9
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. – Gal 5:22-23
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth) finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. – Eph 5:8-10
I want to zero in especially on this last portion of scripture, Ephesians 5:8-10. The text says that we were once in darkness (i.e. ignorance and sinfulness), but now we are in the light (i.e. filled with truth). Now we are to walk (i.e. conduct ourselves) as children of light, that is, to produce goodness, righteousness, and truth. This is what it means to be a good tree with good fruit.
You see, God doesn’t care much about miracles or prophesies or signs and wonders. These things don’t impress Him. He is searching to and fro for the man whose heart is perfect towards him (2 Chr 6:19). He wants us to repent, turn to God, and to do works that correspond with repentance (Acts 26:20). He wants us to be careful to maintain good works (Titus 3:8) and to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. We are rewarded, not for prophesying or working miracles, but for serving our fellow brethren (Matthew 25:31-46).
Therefore, we must conclude that the way to know if a prophet is false or not is by examining the kind of personal life that he lives. Does he practice holiness, or does he indulge in the flesh? Does he sacrifice for the flock, or does he sacrifice the flock? Does he use his influence to build up the kingdom of God, or to build up his own kingdom and wealth?
We must realize that Jesus does not say that we will know a false prophet by his doctrine. Although it is certainly possible to weed out some obvious false prophets by what they teach, many false prophets stick close enough to orthodoxy that it is impossible to shake them down simply by doctrinal examination. Also, there have been many good and holy men of God that have differed on key doctrinal points. Just because someone doesn’t share a pet doctrines of yours does not make him a false prophet. John Wesley and George Whitefield had enormous doctrinal differences, but most people consider them both great and holy men of God.
Instead, we must discern them by the method Jesus prescribes–by examining the fruit of their lives and ministry. Is holiness and devotion coming from their lives and ministries? Do they demonstrate the fruit of the spirit in their personal walk?
Now I know what you might be thinking. How can we know these things about a prophet we see on tv or on YouTube? The thing is, we can’t. TV, radio, and internet supply such a cloak that it is almost impossible to tell if someone lives what they speak or not. Even going to conferences and workshops is not enough. Seeing and hearing a ‘prophet’ from time to time when he is at his Sunday best is not enough to observe what kind of man he is. This is why the apostle Paul went to live among the people that he ministered to. As a result, he was able to say things like this:
For you remember, brethren, our labor and toil; for laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe; – 1Th 2:9-10
But modern day ‘prophets’ like to get on TV, teach an ‘inspiring’ message, speak some ‘prophecies,’ and then ask for an offering. They don’t ‘wander about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented,’ but, on the contrary, they ‘wear soft-clothing’ and live in ‘kings’ houses’ (Hebrews 11:37, Matthew 11:8).
Now I am not prepared to say that we should never listen to preachers on tv or radio or on the internet. There are many good and valuable teachers that use these venues to proclaim the true gospel. However, we must be extremely wary, especially of those that speak outside of the vein of orthodox Christian teaching and values. Often a dangerous ministry is grown simply by being different and controversial, twisting the scriptures to draw away disciples after themselves. These people are often friendly, sincere, charismatic, and convincing–sometimes providing testimonial ‘proofs’ to what they assert. A person who is not daily in their bible will not be prepared to separate the truth from the lie. It is imperative that we be like the Bereans, who searched the scriptures diligently before ever accepting something new (Acts 17:11). And no value should be put on a TV preacher’s words over a local pastor’s, whose life and work you see day to day.
You are under no obligation to believe or not believe some prophecy that you hear in person or on TV. All these prophecies about President Trump being elected a second term–what purpose did they serve? Even if they turned out to be correct, what purpose would they have served? It would have served the ‘prophets’ well, that’s for sure. They would all accumulate more viewers and much more money. More books would be sold, more offerings would be given. But what good would come to the body of Christ?
The truth is that this is not much different from going to the fortune teller or the palm reader down the street. Many people are obsessed with wanting to know the future. They take pride in knowing more than the next guy. They like to think themselves special for possessing a knowledge that the rest of the world does not have. This is wicked, and it is not faith.
True prophecy looks much different from this. Paul says that true prophecy is for edification, exhortation, and comfort. True prophecy is almost always connected to either warnings about judgments ahead or dangers ahead, providing gracious opportunities to repent or else comforts for those about to endure trials and suffering. Also, those who prophesied to would-be kings in the Old Testament spoke it only to them. They didn’t announce it to the whole nation like the ‘prophets’ of today like to do. Of course, there is no hard and fast way that God always does things, but we should look for patterns and question what doesn’t seem right. Satan mixes in as much counterfeit that he can. He wants to deceive and discourage. We can separate the good from the bad if we are careful. We simply need to keep our eyes open and not believe everything we hear. Instead, we should test all things, holding fast to only what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
I pray that these recent embarrassments to the church will cause us to learn a valuable lesson. Let us not be discouraged, but pick ourselves up and move on.