One-third of the Bible is prophecy, future events God promises He will bring to pass. Many competing and disagreeing ministers proffer ideas on what these scriptures mean. Still others claim to be actual prophets. How can you know who is telling the truth?
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“Perhaps your god is sleeping!” Elijah, a lone servant of God, mocked 450 prophets of Baal while they tried to get their deity to start a fire and consume their sacrifice. The story plays out in the Old Testament book of I Kings, chapter 18. It was a test to see whose God was more powerful. Two altars were constructed with a bull placed on each.
Baal’s minions tried first. It was quite a scene: they danced feverishly and chanted themselves hoarse. This went on for hours.
Elijah goaded them: “Perhaps your god is on a journey…or maybe he simply cannot be bothered right now!” The frenzied Baal worshippers began to convulse, contort and cut themselves to elicit any response. All to no avail.
When Elijah’s turn came, he instructed that eight barrels of water be poured on the wood—he wanted to clearly prove his point—and said a short prayer to the Eternal God. Fire immediately vaporized the liquid, the bull, the lumber, and even the stones.
In this case, discerning a true prophet from a false one was easy. Elijah was a true prophet. Baal’s lackeys were utterly false. The fruits were obvious.
But it is not always so simple to know if someone is a legitimate servant of God. This is why Jesus Christ issued a crucial warning: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15).
Jesus was not necessarily referring to overt false prophets such as occult-loving Nostradamus (who has heaps of failed prophecies). Nor was He directly talking about doomsday street-corner preachers, crystal ball gazers, palm readers, or fringe internet Bible bloggers. These should all be avoided, but they are pretty easy to pick out.
What Jesus more specifically meant were people who have a fluffy, fleecy exterior—they may be eloquent preachers, have likable personalities, or have a lot of followers—yet on the inside they are in it for the power, money and attention.
These are the false prophets who Christ warned to “beware.” They may appear to be doing God’s will (sheep’s clothing), but really are in it for themselves (ravenous wolves). In a broader definition, this can include anyone who claims to speak for God—with His blessing and authority—but is actually leading people away from Him.
How can you uncloak wolves in sheep’s clothing to ensure you are not deceived?
Keep reading in Matthew 7. Jesus outlines a clear formula for spotting false prophets—or any false servant. He states: “You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit” (vs. 16-17).
In simpler terms, true servants bear good results (fruit) and false servants bear evil results.
What does Christ qualify as good fruits? Is it running a soup kitchen? Helping the downtrodden in developing nations? Such gestures are well-meaning, but even atheists can do these things.
So then, is it professing a belief in Christ?
Jesus clearly answers this question in verse 21: “Not every one that says unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of My Father which is in heaven.”
People can invoke Christ’s name and “believe on Him” yet not do the Father’s will. Jesus directly stated that this is not enough to receive salvation. Many wolves in sheep’s clothing think they are doing God’s will, but are completely deceived.
Verse 22 shows how people can firmly believe they are godly, but miss the point: “Many will say to Me…Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name? And in Your name have cast out devils? And in Your name done many wonderful works?”. (Note that the context of Matthew 7 is speaking of a specific judgment to come, but the principles apply to any person claiming to be backed by God’s authority.)
Christ responds to those who thought they were righteous: “And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from Me, you that work iniquity” (vs. 23).
These people may have been sincere, yet they were sincerely wrong!
The apostle Paul adds to this by describing those who look like—and may think they are—God’s servants, but are not. In II Corinthians 11:13, he speaks of “false apostles” and “deceitful workers” who transform “themselves into the apostles of Christ.”
Verses 14-15 continue: “And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”
Did you know that Satan has ministers? He does! And they are just as good as the devil at palming off evil as good. This makes false prophets and ministers even more dangerous.
Christ calls such people workers of iniquity. He can see through their wooly guises as supposed “ministers of righteousness.” You can do the same, but first you must be absolutely sure what is iniquity.
“Iniquity” in Matthew 7:23 could also be rendered lawlessness. Put another way, it means being against God’s Law. An even simpler definition is sin. False prophets and ministers usually define sin in vague, slippery terms—and will quickly tell you that the “law is done away” and “Jesus washes away your iniquity.” Yet is this what the Bible teaches?
In I John 3:4, it states: “Whosoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.”
You cannot transgress against something that is not in effect!
Jesus did not preach lawlessness. He was emphatic on this point: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).
The next verse is even clearer: “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
Last time you checked, heaven and Earth were still here, right? Therefore, God’s Law is still in place!
While many false ministers will say that Jesus preached love (which He did), they fail to remember how the Bible defines this term. Romans 13:10 is clear, stating that “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
True prophets and ministers always teach that the commands found in the Bible are “holy, and just, and good” (7:12)—and that the Law is God’s roadmap to a happy, productive life.
In addition, genuine servants preach the exact same message as Jesus: the gospel of the kingdom. This is not a message solely about the personage of Christ. Rather, it is about a coming supergovernment on Earth—ruled by God and the saints—which is the capstone of His Plan for humanity. (For ironclad proof of the Bible’s core message, read Which Is the True Gospel?)
Alongside the real gospel, Jesus preached repentance. Look at the first recorded words of His earthly ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent you, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Repent from sin—turn your life around!—and believe the gospel. This is very different from those who preach “come as you are.” Often, when churchgoers hear a minister say they must change and grow, they become angry and think, You’ve stopped preaching and started meddling!
This brings up the greatest earmark of a false minister: he will tell you what you want to hear. One who is genuine will tell you the opposite: what you need to hear, no matter the personal consequences.
For this reason, true ministers and prophets of God are often accused of being false.
Examine the lives of the prophets and apostles in the Bible. They condemned sin and promoted commandment keeping. They taught the gospel and repentance. They told people the unvarnished truth of where they were off track.
The results are telling.
Zechariah, a prophet, called out ancient Israel on their sinful ways: “And the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, which stood above the people, and said unto them, Thus says God, Why transgress you the commandments of the Lord, that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, He has also forsaken you” (II Chron. 24:20).
The people’s response: “And they conspired against him, and stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the court of the house of the Lord” (vs. 21).
Isaiah, another prophet, taught the gospel of the kingdom and about Christ’s coming: “For unto us a child [Jesus Christ] is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder…Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end…” (Isa. 9:6-7)
The Jewish Talmud records that Isaiah was sawn in two. Hebrews 11:37 supports this.
Tradition also states that both Ezekiel and Jeremiah were stoned to death for rebuking the Jews for worshipping idols.
Even prophets who were not slain had hard lives. Most faced vitriol from the people and kings. They often lived in isolation. Yet they soldiered on, doing God’s will.
While not prophets, the first-century apostles taught heavily from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the like.
The pattern continued in the New Testament. Except for John, all of the early apostles suffered execution. Peter—crucified upside down. Paul—beheaded. Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Simon and Jude—also crucified. James, the son of Zebedee—slaughtered with a sword. Matthew—axed to death. James, the half-brother of Jesus—thrown off a high point of the Temple, then killed with a club.
This is how true servants of God are treated. Not all are martyred, but they are called every name under the sun. A favorite accusation is that of false prophet.
Yet this should not come as a surprise. Jesus Christ Himself was called a false prophet, a drunkard, demon-possessed and a bastard. Ultimately, He too was killed!
It is convenient to call true servants names. Slapping a person with the label “false prophet” is much easier than providing actual proof of wrongdoing—especially when a genuine minister has the Bible on his side.
Another reason the accusation of false prophet gets bandied about is that many people have never been taught the basics of prophecy.
First, notice to whom God says He will reveal prophecy: “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but He reveals His secret unto His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Before God does anything, He promises to reveal it to His servants—those living His Way—through the prophets.
This is echoed in the first verse of the book of Revelation: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him, to show unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass…”
To gain understanding about the prophecies of the Bible, one must be a servant of God. This is true for the ministers who teach it—and the average person seeking to learn it! You have already seen what serving God entails.
But the process of understanding prophecy does not end there. God describes His Word this way: “But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isa. 28:13).
The truths of the Bible are written “here a little, and there a little.” One must comb the Book’s pages to find all of the verses on a specific subject—starting with the clearest and most basic. Only when all of these pieces are put together can you see God’s mind on a particular topic.
All this requires work! In II Timothy 2:15, Paul states: “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
God’s ministers are tasked with delving deeply into their Bibles so that they can clearly and succinctly explain the truth found therein.
Yet even the most avid Bible students cannot know everything perfectly. Paul likened prophetic understanding to seeing “through a glass, darkly” and that one can only “know in part” (I Cor. 13:12).
Because of this, true apostles and ministers can sometimes speculate incorrectly on details regarding the puzzle of prophecy. While this is difficult for some to grasp, realize that even the first-century apostles—again, who were not prophets—were incorrect on some points, especially the timing of certain events.
Look at the disciples’ last question before Jesus ascended to heaven after His Resurrection: “When they therefore were come together, they asked of Him, saying, Lord, will You at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
The disciples were ready for Jesus to set up His kingdom right then and there! His answer? “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has put in His own power” (vs. 7).
Because these men were not given a definitive “no,” they continued to believe Christ’s Return was imminent through much of the first century.
James wrote, “Be you also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draws near” (5:8). This man was only off by about 2,000 years!
The lead apostle, Peter, was also incorrect on timing: “Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved…” (II Pet. 3:12). According to him, Christians alive when this letter was written were supposed to be looking to and awaiting a day when “the heavens” would be “on fire” and “dissolved.”
Without question, this has not yet occurred!
Paul was off as well. He wrote in I Thessalonians 4:17 that “we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
The word “we” implies that some of those in the Thessalonian church would live to see Christ return. He stated something similar in I Corinthians 15:51.
While the apostles were at first certain Christ would return in their lifetimes, it did not stay this way. Their understanding and thinking evolved with time.
In II Thessalonians, Paul had come to realize the apostles were off regarding the timing of specific events preceding Christ’s Return. He revised his timeline and listed a number of prophetic events that would occur before the end: “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition” (2:3).
Even with this updated timing, however, Paul still seemed to believe that Christ’s Return would occur soon after his death.
Acts 20 states this from Paul: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (vs. 29-30).
Paul was referencing a prophecy from Zechariah 11, which has still not come to pass.
Think of it. For three entire years, Paul warned with all his heart about something that still has not occurred today.
How could God allow Paul, and all the apostles, to have timing of prophetic fulfillment so far off? Even more, why would God let this thinking be recorded as Scripture?
Among true apostles, prophetic understanding grows with time. You saw this with Paul. Yet on all bedrock doctrine—God’s Law and what a person must do to secure salvation—true servants never budge.
The reason misunderstanding of timing is found in the scriptures is simple. God wants all Christians to lead their lives with urgency—“pressing toward the mark” (Phil. 3:14).
Can you fault the apostles for writing in a way that spurred the people of their time to action? With the knowledge they had, it appeared that Christ would return soon. God allowed this thinking to persist.
With Paul, can you blame him for warning those under him “with tears”? He deeply cared for those he shepherded and wanted to protect them.
Revelation is a perfect example of the way the Bible is written to invoke an automatic sense of urgency. Four times, Christ declares that He “comes quickly” (3:11, 22:7, 12, 20). Yet this text was written long ago.
God reveals prophetic knowledge to His servants in His own time. He decides when to unlock certain parts of Scripture. For example, Daniel earnestly wanted to know what his book of the Bible meant (12:8).
God’s response: “Go your way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end” (vs. 9).
Yet this book has since been unsealed! Read Bible Authority...Can It Be Proven? It makes clear that Daniel can be understood today—a fact that provides towering proof that we are in “the time of the end.”
Because these are the last days, the warnings of all the original apostles apply to us now—a time when many false prophets and ministers will soon be upon us.
Peter wrote: “But there were false prophets also among the people”—false prophets have always been around—“even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privately shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction” (II Pet. 2:1).
Verse 2 states that “many shall follow their pernicious ways.”
Jesus Christ prophesied: “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matt. 24:24).
In the last days—our time now—false teachers, faux ministers, and evil seducers are foretold to grow worse and worse. It is up to you to ensure you are not deceived.
God’s Word even tells of specific arch-deceivers who will soon emerge. Zechariah 11 mentions a “foolish shepherd,” who is also called the “man of sin” in II Thessalonians 2. He will come “after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders” (vs. 9).
There is also the False Prophet, who works with another man called the Beast, mentioned in Revelation 19:20. Chapter 13 shows that the former will have the power to do “great wonders” and “make fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men” (vs. 13). The next verse reveals he will “deceive them that dwell on the earth”—this is sweeping power!—into worshipping the Beast.
There are numerous other prophecies in the Bible that have not yet come to pass. Many of them will soon! The way to understand them and make certain you are not swayed by false servants is exactly the same. Make sure you do what God says. Read the book The Ten Commandments – “Nailed to the Cross” or Required for Salvation? to understand the core of the Law.
When you live God’s Way, He allows you to understand Bible prophecy as taught by His faithful ministers.
At the end of Matthew 7, after Jesus warned His followers to beware of false prophets, He made clear how to avoid being swept up in the torrent of deception soon to befall the Earth.
He stated: “Therefore whosoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock” (vs. 24-25).
On the flip side, Jesus likened those who do not do what He commands “unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it” (vs. 26-27).
Make yourself realize the gravity of what this passage means!
In the coming turbulent years, you can either be in a house built upon rock—and stand firm in God’s truth—or one built on sand—and fall into the swirling waters of deception.
It is up to you to decide whether you will stand or fall.