“What do you think about that woman who claims to be a prophet, whose messages are on YouTube?” an apprehensive brother blurted out while I was greeting church members after the worship service one Sabbath morning.
“To be honest, I’ve never heard of her,” I replied. “Let me watch the videos first, and then I’ll be able to give you a more informed response.”
After watching the videos, I discerned that by all accounts, the woman was not a true prophet. (YouTube has enabled greatly expanded visibility for self-proclaimed prophets.) What drives a person to assert that they have received prophetic messages from God? More important, how can the church assess whether someone has actually received prophetic messages from God? And if they receive those messages, does it make them prophets immediately?
On the one hand, we should keep in mind that God still wants to communicate with us through prophets. The apostle Paul recommends: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:19-21). We make a serious mistake if we disregard the true prophetic message, either the one that God has conveyed to us through the prophets of old or the one that God wants to communicate to His people at the end of time.
On the other hand, Christ warned about the rise of false prophets: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt. 7:15). They would also aim to deceive even the elect just before the Second Coming (Matt. 24:24). That’s why John’s advice is very clear: “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” (1 John 4:1).
Tests of the Prophets
What, then, are the marks of a true prophet of God? The Bible shows that the rising-of-false-prophets phenomenon is not unique to contemporary Christianity. It had already manifested itself among the people of Israel in the days of Jeremiah (Jer. 14:14). Jeremiah’s contemporaries were instructed to use the filter of fulfilled prophecies as a test for a genuine prophet: “But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true” (Jer. 28:9; see Deut. 18:21, 22).
Bear in mind that the ministry of a prophet encompasses much more than foretelling the future, and that the principle of conditional prophecy establishes that a change in conditions or in relationships can also imply a change in the predicted future (see Jer. 18:7-10), as happened with Jonah’s prediction about the destruction of Nineveh.
Another test element concerns the internal coherence of the prophetic message. A system of revealed truths consists of a chain of related messages. The same Spirit revealed all the prophetic messages in the canon of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16). Therefore, every new message must be in harmony with the truths previously revealed: “Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (Isa. 8:20). Christ Himself appealed to “all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27) from the past to show that His message as a prophet and His sacrifice as Messiah were truthful and the prophecies were correctly fulfilled.
Certainly, truth is progressive (new truth is revealed over time), and later prophets add ideas and details to the truths already revealed by earlier prophets, but in no way can the new messages contradict the messages given in the past.
While it is true that what counts is the message, not the messenger, and the prophets are but human beings with all their weaknesses and limitations, Christ calls on us to see the fruit in the life of an alleged prophet when judging their authenticity: “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. . . . Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:16-20).
Although sometimes it takes time, a ravenous wolf will sooner or later show its fangs through its mild sheep disguise.
Of course, every prophet has to be Christ-centered, confess the divine-human nature of Christ, and exalt His sacrifice for humanity: “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” (1 John 4:2, 3).
Other signs of a true prophet might include the timely nature of their messages (2 Kings 6:10-12); the practical nature of their messages (as opposed to abstractions and generalizations); the fruit in the lives of those who follow their messages; and receiving the revelations through dreams and visions (Num. 12:6). However, we do well to remember that passing the acid test in any or a few of these signs does not make someone a true prophet, just as the divine vision that King Nebuchadnezzar received did not make him a prophet in the whole dimension of this ministry.
The Price of Being a True Prophet
During the years that we have served in the South American Spanish Publishing House we have received more than a dozen manuscripts containing alleged prophetic messages for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Some were sent to us just to evaluate their content. Others came with the supposed divine order to publish them immediately. Being denied that possibility, a number of people condemned us to eternal damnation for not complying with their directive.
We have found out that most of these alleged prophets have something in common: an almost desperate desire to be acknowledged as prophets. Yet when we examine the experience of the biblical prophets, we see that things are the other way around: many of them resisted accepting the call (Jer. 1:6; Isa. 6:5; Ex. 4:10-15), or asked for countless proofs that they should accept that call (Judges 6). The main reason is that, typically, a prophet is unwelcome (Jer. 20:2; 1 Kings 18). The “greatest” of all prophets ended up with his head on a silver platter (Matt. 11:11; 14:1-12). These experiences have taught us to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1), especially when the alleged prophets insist they be acknowledged as messengers of God.
Every falsification implies the existence of something genuine. In fact, the more sophisticated the counterfeit, the more evidence it gives of the value of the authentic version that this counterfeit wants to supplant. That is why Satan tries to supplant true prophets: he is aware of the value of true divine messages. Let’s test the spirits, but let’s not stifle the voice of the Spirit.
*Bible texts in this article are from the New International Version.
The same Spirit revealed all the prophetic messages in the canon of Scripture; every new message must be in harmony with the truths previously revealed.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRAYER
1. As you hear messages that come from various people who claim to speak for God, plead with Him to help you be discerning about what they say.
2. Pray for the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit before aligning yourself with any human being who speaks biblical messages.
3. Lift up a prayer to God when “new truth” comes to your attention, and examine it with pleas for the Holy Spirit to show you what is His truth. Allow for the possibility that He does not affirm what you think.