Prophets in the Bible were people who heard the voice of the Lord and were responsible for relaying His words to others. False prophets are either prophets of a false god (an idol) or those who claim to speak for the true God but do so falsely.
We see examples of false prophets throughout the Bible. True prophets of God spoke against those who gave messages to the people that they claimed were from God, but were really of their own making (Jeremiah 14:14; 23:21–33; Zechariah 10:2). These false prophets told the people smooth words and vain hope, reassuring them that everything was fine when God was pronouncing judgment on Israel because they were living in sin: "They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11; see also Jeremiah 23:16). Because of the false prophets the Israelites wandered like sheep and were afflicted without the leading of the Lord (Zechariah 10:2).
While today we do not have prophets in the same function, there are many people who claim to speak on God's behalf yet do so falsely. There are even false prophets who come into the church, bringing destructive heresies and leading people astray from the truth with their enticing doctrine. Peter warned, "But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction" (2 Peter 2:1). False prophets do not teach the truth of the Bible. Sometimes they teach that which is blatantly contrary to the Word of God. Other times they twist the truth or add to it their own opinion, doctrine, and lifestyle. While some false prophets are themselves deceived and unaware that they are peddling lies, many others are driven by greed and pride (2 Peter 2:3). Their goal is not to make disciples of Jesus but disciples of their own teaching.
False prophets bring destruction upon the church. Their twisted doctrine entices "unsteady souls," people who don't have a solid footing, people who are just beginning to seek God or who don't have a strong relationship with Him (2 Peter 2:14). Even Christians who are strong in their faith may be deceived for a short time before they realize the false teacher's true intentions. They preach freedom, but their doctrine only leads to chains (2 Peter 2:19). Peter says that "Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed" (2 Peter 2:2). Ultimately, the work of false prophets blasphemes God's name and mars the reputation of His people.
Jesus warned about false prophets, saying, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are gapes 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 hear good fruit is but down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'" (Matthew 7:15–23).
The danger of false prophets isn't just that they are teaching lies, the problem is that they look like 'good' people and even like true followers of God. On the outside they look righteous, but on the inside they are corrupted. Jesus tells us that we will recognize them by their fruits, and second Peter chapter 2 describes in detail what fruits false prophets produce:
They bring in destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1)
Many people will follow them (2 Peter 2:2)
They have heard the true gospel and gone back to the "defilements of the world" (2 Peter 2:20–22)
They are driven by greed (2 Peter 2:3, 15–16)
They exploit and deceive with their words (2 Peter 2:3)
They are bold, willful and unafraid of God (2 Peter 2:10)
They are like irrational animals, acting on instinct (2 Peter 2:12)
They are adulterous (Jeremiah 23:14) and like to revel in the daytime (2 Peter 2:13)
They are slaves of corruption (2 Peter 2:19)
Thankfully, the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church, and false prophets are no different. In the same chapter on false prophets, Peter reminds the church that "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgement" (2 Peter 2:9). God condemns false prophets with some of the most intense description of judgment in the Bible. God promises that their destruction will be swift (2 Peter 2:3), and "for them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved" (2 Peter 2:17). If there is a false prophet in your church, among your Christian friends, or in the media that is drawing Christians away from the truth, take heart that for Christians that it is only a trial that will pass. Their wickedness will soon be exposed, or those who are faithfully following Christ will eventually see their fangs through their sheep-like exterior.
We can pray that false prophets will repent from their errors and that others will not be taken captive. We must also be diligent in studying the truth ourselves. The best way to recognize a falsehood is to be well-versed in the truth. Combat the danger of false prophets by looking to God as the source of truth, compare all that you hear to what He actually says in His Word (the Bible), and share the truth of the gospel with others. God's Word is powerful and necessary for us to live effective lives (2 Timothy 3:16–17; Hebrews 4:12). We can all follow Paul's advice to Timothy: "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).
John gives us a good test for false prophets: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God" (1 John 4:1–2). Anyone who is truly speaking the words of the Lord will proclaim Christ's death and resurrection first. What they prophecy will come to pass, their teachings will be in accordance with Scripture, and their ministry will result in changed lives and the spreading of righteous living.
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