False prophets are people who claim to speak on behalf of God but have their own agendas. Jesus warned the disciples to keep an eye out for these people when He said:
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 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 7:15–20).
Not only did Jesus alert His followers to the dangers of false prophets, but He also gave them instructions on recognizing these charlatans. Why are false prophets so hazardous? To answer that question, we need to take a close look at the Old Testament.
Clearing up prophesy confusion
A deep dive into the topic of prophecy can be a little confusing. We see people like Isaiah or Nahum who operated under the mantle of prophet. But we also discover leaders like Saul having ecstatic experiences with God and prophesying all day and night (1 Samuel 19:23–24).
When we think about the Old Testament prophets, we think about Amos, who was chosen by God to exclaim His message:
"I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took me from tending the flock and said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel'" (Amos 7:14–15).
The Hebrew word translated as "to prophesy" is "nibba" or "hithnabbe," which means to speak or sing while under inspiration. It can be used to describe making a pronouncement, but it can also be used to evoke unrestrained excitement. And these two uses can add to the confusion about prophets.
For instance, in the big standoff between Elijah and the Baal worshipers on Mt. Carmel, we’re told that the pagans were having a hard time getting their gods to accept their offering. Scripture says:
At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened." So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention (1 Kings 18:27–29, emphasis added).
Here we see the Baal worshipers’ behavior translated in the New International Version as "prophesying." The English Standard Version translates it as "And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering . . ."
They weren't speaking the words of God; they were working themselves into a frenzy in an attempt to get their gods' attention. This is an example of the ecstatic frenzy that some religious people can work themselves into that is occasionally called prophecy.
For the sake of this discussion, we're going to zero in on the false prophets who claimed to speak on God's behalf, but perverted His message.
Rise of the false prophets
As Yahweh's people, Israel was reliant upon hearing and responding to God’s voice. The Lord directed His people through the law, cared for His people through the priesthood, and corrected and guided His people through the prophets.
Sometimes He would use a prophet to speak directly to an individual. An excellent example of this is found in 2 Samuel 12 when Nathan confronts David over his sin with Bathsheba. At other times, a prophet might have a word of warning or direction for the entire nation of Israel.
Inevitably, this led to prophets-for-hire. These were counterfeit prophets who would sell their services to various leaders and kings. They'd speak "on behalf of God," but only to line their own pockets, often steering God's people in directions that were contrary to God's will.
It's always been a problem that people would pay to hear what they wanted. And these fake prophets would say whatever they needed to keep lining their pockets. On top of that, unscrupulous leaders used false prophets to lead Israel astray.
The sins of false prophets
God devotes a lot of Old Testament real estate to calling out these dangerous prophets. Here are some of the sins that He accuses them of:
Instead of telling Israel the truth about her sins, false prophets would "whitewash" the truth. They'd cover up the truth with something more comforting and encouraging. This was attractive to people who wanted to feel close to God without hearing anything challenging.
My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. They will not belong to the council of my people or be listed in the records of Israel, nor will they enter the land of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Sovereign Lord. Because they lead my people astray, saying, "Peace," when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. (Ezekiel 13:9–11a)!
I will tear down the wall you have covered with whitewash and will level it to the ground so that its foundation will be laid bare. When it falls, you will be destroyed in it; and you will know that I am the Lord. So I will pour out my wrath against the wall and against those who covered it with whitewash. I will say to you, "The wall is gone and so are those who whitewashed it, those prophets of Israel who prophesied to Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for her when there was no peace, declares the Sovereign Lord." (Ezekiel 13:14–16).
These prophets lied to the nation of Israel. Sometimes they were coached to speak lies, but they often deceived themselves into believing that the things in their hearts were from God.
Then the Lord said to me, "The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries and the delusions of their own minds" (Jeremiah 14:14).
This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord" (Jeremiah 23:16).
God didn’t put up with the prophets getting it wrong. If they attributed something to God that wasn't true, they were lying.
Do not listen to the words of the prophets who say to you, "You will not serve the king of Babylon," for they are prophesying lies to you (Jeremiah 27:14).
Threatening God's prophets
Inevitably, false prophets would align themselves against those who spoke for God. They could afford to do this because their message made them more popular than God's actual prophets. This put legitimate prophets in danger because people preferred the feel-good prophecies of these phony seers.
The priests, the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speak these words in the house of the Lord. But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the Lord had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, "You must die! Why do you prophesy in the Lord’s name that this house will be like Shiloh and this city will be desolate and deserted?" And all the people crowded around Jeremiah in the house of the Lord (Jeremiah 26:7–9).
False prophets in the New Testament
Jesus's warning against false prophets arises from this context. Similar to the Old Testament, the gospel would be in danger from people trying to benefit from falsely claiming to speak for God. We see a good example of this in the Book of Acts.
They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, "You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord" (Acts 13:6–10)?
Bar-Jesus was a sorcerer who used his ungodly abilities to convince people he was a legitimate prophet. The ruse was good enough to fool the proconsul, a man Luke calls "intelligent." Apart from the magic, this false prophet's fruit was an attempt to turn the proconsul away from the faith.
Peter warns Christians about these bad actors:
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves (2 Peter 2:1).
These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error (2 Peter 2:17–18).
They exist to pull people away from faith. Peter calls them "springs without water." They're a mirage. They attract spiritually hungry people but will never be able to give them the life-giving refreshment they're looking for.
False teachers are like the birds in Jesus's parable of the sower; they come to pick up the seed before it can take root. The bad fruit that Jesus warns about is that these people undermine faith in God.
False prophets have gone into the world
The reason Jesus warns His followers to watch for false prophets in sheep's clothing is because they introduce spiritual deception into the church. John gives us some tips for identifying false prophets.
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. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood (1 John 4:1–6).
John starts by identifying essential theological points. Anyone who would claim to speak on God's behalf will acknowledge that Jesus came from God in the flesh. This combats two false teachings circulating at the time. The first was that Jesus was simply an influential teacher, and the second was that He only appeared to be human.
On top of that, false prophets don’t speak from God's perspective. Their focus is on the world's concerns, and they attract others whose primary concerns are worldly.