What does it mean if a person gives a prophetic word and it is wrong or not fully accurate? Does that mean the person is a false prophet? This is a real concern so we need to be faithful to the Scriptures, which command us to test spirits to see if they are from God.
1 John 4:1-3 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, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
This passage is clear that there will be false prophets in the earth, but notice that this passage describes the definitive sign of a false prophet as…
“every spirit that does not confess Jesus is from God.”
This text is not speaking of believers who are earnestly seeking to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit and are unsure if it is him speaking, rather it is about people who have a deliberate agenda of turning people away from Jesus and toward themselves or a false god. So what does it mean when a Christian gives a prophetic word and it is not 100% accurate? Does this mean these believers are false prophets? To unpack this let me take a few moments and share a bit of my personal story and then we will look at this from a theological perspective.
Looking back at my journey in prophetic ministry brings a flood of memories. I have witnessed some incredible breakthroughs and have seen multitudes of healings and salvations and I have also made many mistakes. One particular time that comes to mind was when I stepped out, in what I thought was faith, to share a prophetic word with a young man in line at a restaurant. As I gave this “prophetic word” I was expecting him to be taken back that I had shared specific details of his life. To the contrary, as I shared what I thought was a prophetic word I recall him looking at me with a blank stare. He responded by simply telling me I was completely wrong. Now I would love to spiritualize that story and say that my prophetic word was really right and that he actually was mistaken, but I am not at the liberty to do that. Sure there is a possibility that what I spoke to him would come to pass in the future and he was just confused about hearing in the present moment. But it was something about his response that would not allow me to shake the fact that I was wrong.
After missing this word I went back to my house that night and fell on my face in prayer completely confused. Prior to that moment I had given many genuine prophetic words and seen the Holy Spirit dramatically impact peoples lives and in one moment like a house of cards it came crashing down. While I was lying on the ground praying pictures began to flash through my mind from Sunday school of how false prophets were stoned to death because they missed one prophetic word. I felt that I had let God down. In one moment I went from stepping out in faith to stepping into the role of a false prophet. That was quite a burden to carry as a 16-year-old boy.
As I got up from my floor I made an internal commitment to no longer give prophetic words. The weeks and months after that commitment were difficult. I could sense the Holy Spirit inside of me stirring my heart with prophetic words for people around me but I could not overcome the feeling of walking the tight rope of being a false prophet and I did not want anyone else around me to know. Thankfully, I did not stay in this internal bondage for too long. It was actually the discomfort and confusion that provoked me to take a closer look at what the Scripture identifies as a false prophet.
I discovered rather quickly to my surprise that biblically a false prophet was not the person who gave wrong words, but actually was a person who gave accurate prophetic words and used his gifting to deliberately turn people away from the one true God. Look at what the book of Deuteronomy says:
Deuteronomy 13:1-5 “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 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,’ 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. 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. 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.
Notice that this text identifies the mark of a false prophet is when he uses a sign or a dream that comes to pass to turn people away from the one true God. In fact the entire chapter of Deuteronomy 13 is about purging people and things from Israel that would cause them to turn away from God.
The other key passage that deals with false prophets is Deuteronomy chapter 18.
Deuteronomy 18:20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or (and) who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’
You will notice in your Bible that in verse 20 the word “or” is italicized. The reason for this is that the word “or” can and should be translated as and. This text is not talking about two separate categories of people 1) those that speak when they were not commanded and 2) people who speak in the name of foreign gods but one group of people. This text is talking about people who speak in the name of foreign gods and lead people away from truth. This is also consistent with the words of Jesus in the New Testament regarding false prophets.
Matthew 24:24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.
What I am trying to show you is that Biblically false prophets are closer to psychics, warlocks and some TV preachers who use supernatural power to deceive people away from the one true living God and the finished work of Christ. Rather then Christians who step out in what they believe to be a leading of the Holy Spirit. Before we focus on contemporary prophecy it is crucial that we take a little more time to further distinguish theologically between the purpose and function of Old and New Testament prophecy.
Old Testament vs. New Testament Prophecy
The Bible that you hold today is comprised of sixty-six books divided into two major sections the Old and New Testament or the Old and New Covenant. Each of these books is grounded in its unique context each with its own author, recipient, and historical setting. Contained within these sixty-six books are thousands of stories unfolding over thousands of years and scores of people’s lives. But there is one thread that holds everything together- redemption. From Genesis to Revelation the whole Scripture reveals the beautiful story of a good God redeeming broken people and a broken world through Jesus Christ. Every book of the Bible contributes to this story whether or not we realize at first glance. The writer of Hebrews states it eloquently:
Hebrews 1:1-3 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.
The author of Hebrews gives us a sweeping view of Old Testament history in just three verses and tells us that the purpose of Old Testament prophecies were to reveal God’s redemptive plan that culminated in the coming of Jesus. This is an essential verse to comprehend because it reveals two things. First, it reveals that the purpose of Old Testament prophecy played a unique role in redemptive history by guiding the Children of Israel and setting the stage piece by piece for the coming of Jesus. Secondly, we know from the date that the book of Hebrews was written that the gift of prophecy was still in operation even though Jesus had come as the Messiah and had fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies.1 From these two thoughts we can propose that New Testament prophecy serves a different purpose than Old Testament prophecy. So even though the same words ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophet’ appear in both the New and Old Testament their purpose like many other themes in the Old Testament that carry over to the New Testament is modified such as kings and priests which are mentioned in Revelation 1:6. It is this revision of prophecy that we must concern ourselves with. For here lies much confusion regarding the prophetic because people cannot differentiate between Old and New Testament Prophecy.
To appropriately understand Old Testament prophecy we must see it in its greater context, namely redemption and covenantal history. A covenant is simply the way that God chooses to interact with people and in turn how he commands people to interact with him (See: Genesis 17:7, Ezekiel 16:59, Hosea 6:9, Psalm 106:45, Haggai 2:4-6). From Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and the children of Israel God has always related to people on the basis of covenant. Although in contemporary language we do not use the word covenant often, like the studs in your house this is the unseen framework that holds the entire Bible together. However, covenant is not isolated to the Old Testament but is central to why Jesus came to this world.
The Scripture tells us:
Luke 22:19-20 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
Here at the last supper on the night before his crucifixion Jesus establishes the new covenant. Notice that he does not say “a” new covenant or another covenant but “the” new covenant. It is this new covenant that was prophesied beforehand by the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Jeremiah 31:31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant.
Ezekiel 37:26 “I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore.”
The new covenant is not just another way God would choose to interact with his people, but is the very fulfillment of everything that God has promised throughout the epochs of Israel’s history. It is the final covenant. This distinction between the old and new covenant is paramount for understanding the Christian life as well as the gift of prophecy. In the revealing of the new covenant one of the primary purposes of Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled, the coming of Jesus.
Jesus’ own words confirm this assertion:
Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Matthew 11:13-15 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
In the texts above Jesus states that both the law and prophets have been fulfilled and that they had served their purpose as they were intended up until the time of John the Baptist. Jesus refers to John the Baptist was for two reasons 1) prior to Jesus’ coming into the world the primary revelation of God’s character and nature came through the law and the prophets and now the Word of God stood before their eyes. 2) John was the last in line of the Old Testament covenantal prophets declaring the coming of the Messiah.
The Apostle Peter confirms the purpose of Old Testament prophecies on two separate occasions:
1 Peter 1:10-11 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.
2 Peter 1:19-21 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
As you can see the author of Hebrews, the apostle Peter, and Jesus himself show us that the Old Testament prophets played a unique and one time role in the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan completed in Christ. However, there is not doubt that the gift of prophecy continued well beyond the death of John the Baptist, and the resurrection of Jesus as witnessed in multiple books throughout the New Testament: Acts, Romans, Ephesians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, and 1 Timothy.
So then if the primary purposes of New Testament prophecy was the same as Old Testament prophecy in that it was to reveal God’s redemptive plan and guide Israel until the Messiah came why would the gift of prophecy continue after Jesus had come. The only logical conclusion would be that New Testament prophecy serves a different purpose than revealing God’s redemptive plan.
Eyewitness Apostles & O.T Prophets
The eyewitness Apostles (1 Cor. 15:7-8) had a unique function in the establishment of the Early Church. Like the prophets of the Old Testament these men were commissioned by Jesus and were promised to carry his very word and authority (John 14:25-26). In the book of 1 Corinthians Paul the apostle unequivocally claims that his words are the rule or measuring stick by which all spiritual gifts, including prophecy, should be judged (1Corinthians 14:36-37). The apostle Peter also confirms the unique presence of this apostolic authority when he states that Paul’s letters are of the same authority as the other scriptures (2 Peter 3:16), which he was directly referring to the Old Testament. Later we see that Peter places the apostles, of which he is included, in the same line of authority as the Old Testament prophets before them.
2 Peter 3:2 “You should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles.”
The eye-witness Apostles were unique in that they like the Old Testament prophets were relaying nothing short of God’s inspired and authoritative word (Acts 2:42, Romans 1:1-5, 1 Thessalonians 2:13) While the foundational Apostles wrote under inspired authority and even consciously stepped out of it momentarily (1 Corinthians 7:12) the New Testament reveals a far different function for the New Testament gift of prophecy. Again, though the word prophet is used both in the Old and New Testament its function evolved in the New Covenant like many other themes that carry over from the Old Testament (priesthood, sacrifice, temple). Unlike the eye witness Apostles no New Testament prophet wrote a letter that was recorded as binding scripture and is included in the sixty-six books of the Bible as the word of God.
This is an essential distinction to make for a handful of reasons. First, if N.T prophecy served the same purpose as O.T Prophecy how can we be sure that we are not disobeying God by not having access to a prophetic word that was given by a prophet at the church of Corinth some 2,000 years ago? This distinction also emphasizes the importance of the supremacy of scripture (sola-scriptura) and allows for a proper rule to test prophetic words. If N.T prophecy was of the same substance as O.T prophecy how could one effectively weigh N.T prophecies in accordance with the Apostle Paul’s commands to “test prophecies” if there was no outside standard to appeal to? By what standard could one judge a prophecy? By one’s subjective feelings?
As you can see there is good reason to believe that there was a shift in the purpose of N.T and O.T Prophecy. Just as the O.T prophets were inspired by God to reveal the unfolding of his redemptive plan, the foundational Apostles were inspired by God to reveal the implications of the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan in Christ.
The function of New Testament Prophecy
Now that we have given proper attention to the unique function of O.T prophets and their counterpart the eye witness Apostles who both call for strict obedience to their words as the very word of God12 notice the change in tone when the writers of the New Testament describe the N.T gift of prophecy.
1 Corinthians 14:3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.
1 Corinthians 14:29-33 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
Acts 15:32 And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.
Instead of describing New Testament prophecy in matters of absolutes that demand strict adherence, as in the Old Testament, both Paul and Luke intentionally use the word encourage to depict the purpose of these prophecies. As you study you will see that all the prophecies recorded in the New Testament, and the commands given for administration all fit under the canopy of encouragement. This shift away from infallible prophecies as the word of God demanding strict adherence to something that is judged and sifted through becomes even more evident as you take a closer look at Paul’s commands to the church at Corinth.