Throughout history people have claimed to be prophets sent with divine messages. Which of these claims are true? How can you recognize false prophets?
Various religions and cultures—including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, ancient Greece, the Vikings and others—have had prophets.
In the Bible, the word prophet comes from the Hebrew word nabi, meaning spokesperson. Another Hebrew word, ro’eh, literally means one who sees—a seer. In Greek, the word is profetes, meaning one who “speaks forth” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words, 1985).
A prophet is thus someone who speaks for another, foresees the future or proclaims a message.
An important function of a true prophet is found in a statement from God to the ancient Israelites through Moses: “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). God was foretelling that, like Moses, Jesus Christ would come as a true prophet and God would speak through Him.
The Bible explains that, in addition to true prophets, there would also be false ones. Anyone who falsely claims to speak God’s words or who teaches errors in His name is not a true prophet.
Why are there false prophets?
Satan the devil, a fallen angel, is the father of lies and has deceived the whole world (John 8:44; Revelation 12:9). His goal has been to twist and falsify the truth of God and to discourage humanity from following the path to true happiness and eternal life. To assist him in this effort, he influences people to become counterfeit prophets.
Another reason given in the Bible is that some people speak from their own imagination. God says, “Woe to the foolish prophets, who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing!” (Ezekiel 13:3-4). Throughout the centuries, numerous false prophets have arisen because of their own desires and Satan’s influence.
Four tests to prove whether a prophet is true
We need to carefully consider God’s Word—the Bible—in order to discern between false and true prophets. The Bible provides four tests to determine the genuineness of a prophet.
1. Does the conduct of the prophet reflect godly character?
Jesus and the apostles warned many times about deceptive prophets. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “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” (Matthew 7:15-17).
These prophets can be identified by their “fruits”—a term used metaphorically by Jesus to describe one’s actions and character. The law of God is the only standard we have to determine whether someone’s fruits are good or bad. True prophets will live in accordance with God’s law.
2. Do the predictions of the prophet come true?
Moses instructed ancient Israel: “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deuteronomy 18:22).
The Bible gives a few exceptions. It shows that God has the prerogative to change His mind, as was the case with Jonah’s prophecies about Nineveh (Jonah 3:10). Also, this does not mean that God’s true servants couldn’t be wrong about timing, as Paul was in assuming he would be alive at Christ’s return (1 Thessalonians 4:15).
Except in circumstances like these, if a prophet’s predictions do not come to pass, then he or she is not a true prophet.
3. Are the words of the prophet consistent with Scripture?
God explained to those who foolishly seek knowledge from mediums and wizards, “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:19-20).
Peter declared that the apostles could truthfully attest to many fulfilled Bible prophecies concerning the life and deeds of Jesus Christ. “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. ... And we have the prophetic word made more sure” (2 Peter 1:16, 19, Revised Standard Version).
Peter also stated that true prophets do not speak their own words. As Peter wrote, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20, emphasis added).
4. Do the people benefit spiritually from the prophet’s ministry?
God’s desire was that ancient Israel would serve as a model nation and represent Him to the nations around them. Israel would be blessed as it fulfilled God’s expectation.
With this background, God warned His people, “‘Behold, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,’ says the LORD, ‘and tell them, and cause My people to err by their lies and by their recklessness. Yet I did not send them or command them; therefore they shall not profit this people at all,’ says the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:32; also read verses 13-14).
The results of a prophet’s ministry can also indicate whether this person is a false or true prophet.
God explains why some people love to listen to lies and fables
God exposed prophets who spoke lies as “an astonishing and horrible thing” and noted that “the prophets prophesy falsely … and My people love to have it so” (Jeremiah 5:30-31). Why would people listen to them?
Before the apostle Paul’s death, he predicted that some brethren would be easily led astray by false teachers. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
God’s warning to false prophets
So harmful were false prophets to the nation of Israel that God warned through Moses, “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die” (Deuteronomy 18:20).
Peter explained that false prophets had come in the past and that false teachers would continue to come with harmful messages filled with lies. “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1).
A warning for the generation just before Christ’s return
During His earthly ministry Christ described conditions in the last days just before His return to earth in glory to set up His Kingdom. He said false prophets would have power to show great counterfeit miracles that would almost deceive even the faithful. “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand” (Matthew 24:24-25).
A test from God
It is important to note one additional point regarding people who claim to be a prophet. God said that even if a prophet’s predictions were to come true, people were not to follow this person if he or she advocated the worship of another God.
“If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘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” (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).
This same test could occur in our day. The apostle John warned, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God” (1 John 4:1-2).
God is merciful and kind to reveal the future in advance through His true prophets. Use the information above to make sure you are not deceived by false ones.
For more study on the prophets of the Bible, see the articles in this section “Prophets.”