What is a prophet? How can you tell if someone is a prophet? On television, there are charismatic faith healers who claim the gift of prophecy. There are prosperity preachers who use a supposed prophecy to bilk their followers into giving them loads of cash. But what are we to think of prophecy and supposed prophets?
If we look at Deuteronomy, we can see a couple of standards regarding prophecy as well as what God says about those who speak falsely as they pretend to be prophets.
Deuteronomy 18:18-22 – 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. 20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
Looking at this section, we see that God promised to raise up a prophet like Moses for the people of God. This is both a promise of a future leader like Moses, Joshua, who will carry the nation forward into the land and a Messianic promise of one who will bring the true word of God to all his people. Jesus is that prophet in ultimate fulfillment as God in flesh, the Son of God, the Messiah who came (cf. John 6:14; Matthew 21:10-11).
Notice that, when God talks about a true prophet to come, that one will speak God’s word to God’s people. Before the canon of Scripture was closed, it was possible that such a man would speak to the people a new word from God. Now that the canon of Scripture is complete, however, a true prophet of God will speak to the people and clearly communicate the already articulated word of God. If that seems new, go back and look at the words of the prophets throughout Scripture. Quite often, prophets did not predict the future or give new words from God. Instead, regularly, the prophets would cite already given revelation from god, words of the law, and apply them to the present generation. Prophets would warn of the coming judgment of God on the people for disobeying the law of God, but that judgment had already been promised in the law.
While true prophets communicate the word of God to the people of God, there will be, as Moses tells us, false prophets who will communicate lies. There will be a temptation for a person to try to elevate himself above others by claiming a supernatural gifting from God that they do not have. Like fairground psychics or fortune-tellers, these people will claim a mysterious knowledge that others lack in order to get others to do what they want. But God gives us a couple of ways to see if they are false.
First, here in Deuteronomy 18, the word of God is clear that a supposed prophet who claims to speak a word from God must be tested. If that word they speak does not come to pass, the prophet is false. If they predict a future event, and if that event fails, the prophet is not from God.
There is a second way to test a prophet, though, that is not related to success in predicting a future outcome.
Deuteronomy 13:1-5 – 1 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
If a prophet predicts the future, and his prediction actually comes to pass, and then the prophet directs the people of God to disobey the word of God, the inspired Scripture, that prophet is also false. Thus, while failing to accurately predict the future proves a supposed prophet to be false, accurately predicting the future does not prove a prophet to be true. Rather, what has always made a prophet to be true is that the prophet, gifted by God, directs the people of God to follow the clearly inspired, already-given word of God. A prophet of God will direct people to the Bible and clearly communicate its commands and standards to the people so that they will obey it and honor the Lord.
What does God think of those who claim to speak for him but who are false? In both Deuteronomy 18 and 13, God gives the same command regarding false prophets. In ancient Israel, to claim a word from God that was not a word from God was to earn the death penalty. That nation was not to tolerate, even for a moment, a person who claimed to speak for God but who did not. God hates it when people claim he said something he did not. And even in the New Testament, even as late as the book of revelation, Jesus demanded that his church not tolerate false prophets. (cf. Revelation 2:20-23).
Now, let us tie this all together. Prophets speak the word of God. Quite often, prophets, even when the canon of Scripture was incomplete, simply cited and applied the word of God. Now the canon of Scripture is complete. Thus, prophets today are those who will rightly cite and apply the already-spoken word of God for the people of God to understand and obey. God is very strongly opposed to anyone claiming that he said anything he did not say. And god commands his people not to put up with those who claim that God said things God did not say.
Our test for those claiming the gift of prophecy is simple. Is what they are saying found in Scripture or in Scripture rightly applied? If what a person says is found in Scripture rightly understood and applied, follow that word. If what a person says is simply mystical and non-scriptural, you have no calling to follow it or the one who claims it. Let us learn to follow the Lord by holding high his perfect word just as did the true prophets of old.