note: Dan Juster, Ariel Blumenthal and Asher Intrater contributed to this paper.
Is someone who prophesies mistakenly a “false prophet”? Is someone who teaches in error a “false teacher”? For instance, we believe strongly in the Gifts of the Spirit. If another teacher teaches cessation (the idea that those gifts have ceased), is one of us a false teacher?
We maintain that there is a difference between teaching in error and being a false teacher. A false teacher is teaching false doctrine about Yeshua and leading people away from the true gospel doctrine. It is not merely someone who has made a mistake in his or her theology. If our standard is that we must be 100% right all the time in doctrine, then we all are false teachers to some degree—as we have all changed and/or tweaked our doctrinal understanding over the years.
The New Covenant is clear that false teachers and false prophets are not those who merely made a mistake, but are deceivers.
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. (1 Peter 2:1)
Yeshua gave us a clear warning about the emergence of false prophets in the End Times:
And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many…(they) will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. (Matthew 24:11, 24)
A false prophet in the New Covenant is not a believer who loves Yeshua, preaches the Gospel, moves in the power of the Holy Spirit, and is a recognized leader of the Body of Messiah, and yet happens to make a predictive prophecy that does not come to pass! (That’s just one way we might prophecy incorrectly).
This might have happened because they allowed their hopes and emotions to boil over, resulting in a kind of presumption—or for any other number of reasons. Biblically, a false prophet is an unbeliever (or former believer!) using demonic inspiration to draw people away from God and faith in Yeshua. The Torah also makes it clear that the primary issue was prophets/teachers whose words would lead the people astray, to abandon their faith and follow after “other gods.” (Deut. 13:1-5; 18:9-22)
Under Moses there were two ways to identify a false prophet.
He spoke in the name of other gods.
His word did not come to pass.
But in the New Testament Yeshua says, referring to false prophets:
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. (Matt. 7:16-18)
So, again, when we speak of false prophets were not speaking of believers who preach Yeshua and have long lasting fruit in the kingdom—but one time publicly gave a presumptuous word, but rather we are speaking about cult leaders like David Koresh, Jim Jones or Charles Manson. In most cases the false prophet claims to be a messiah or the Messiah.
Let’s take a closer look at how the Scriptures teach this whole idea of prophecy under the New Covenant versus the Old.
New Testament Prophet/Prophecy
Revelation contains an important statement about the true nature of prophecy since Yeshua’s death, resurrection, ascension and outpouring of the Spirit. John sees the return of Yeshua and the wedding supper of the Lamb. An angel rebukes John for seeking to worship him and says:
“Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God. For the testimony of Yeshua is the spirit of prophecy.” (Rev. 19:10)
What does this mean? “For the testimony of Yeshua is the spirit of prophecy.”
This is a fundamental difference between Old and New Covenant prophecy: We prophesy to confirm the Gospel, the message of His life, the cross, resurrection, ascension, the new birth and indwelling and empowering of the Holy Spirit to all who believe, and the hope of His Second Coming to fully establish the Kingdom on earth…we have the full, prophetic revelation of everything God wants men to know in order to be saved!
Before Yeshua fulfilled all of these prophetic acts, the prophets:
…searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Messiah in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Messiah and the glories that would follow. (1 Peter 1:10-11)
By the Holy Spirit, the best the Old Testament prophets could do was to search for and predict the timing and nature of the events of the coming of the Messiah. But for us, we got it! It’s happened, it’s been preached, passed down and recorded in Holy Scripture. When we respond to that prophetic message—Yeshua can save you—the Spirit of the Messiah himself causes us to be “born again” from above; and then the Holy Spirit makes His home in us, giving us an “anointing from the Holy One,” which leads us into all truth. (1 John 2:20, John 16:13).
This means that NT prophecy, and the gift/office of prophet is not what it used to be! We no longer predict the coming of Messiah, we proclaim it and prophetically call all men embrace it.
The Rock Comes Forth
Just look at Simon Peter (Rock) after Shavuot (Pentecost). Only 10 days earlier he still didn’t understand the gospel (see Acts 1:6-7), but moments after his immersion in the Holy Spirit, he speaks by the Spirit mysteries that had been hidden.
He quotes Joel about the outpouring. He quotes prophecies of King David, showing they were referring to the resurrection and the deity of Yeshua. He speaks like a world class theologian.
Seeing what was to come, [King David] spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:31-33)
Where is the man who is rebuking Yeshua for saying that he was going to be crucified? Where is the disciple who denied Yeshua three times? Peter is uneducated, but through the spirit of prophecy, he shares the testimony of Yeshua.
In Acts 3, after the healing the crippled man, he speaks of the end times in the most marvelous way.
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Yeshua. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. (3:19-21)
And before the Sanhedrin he was so intense and overpowering, they said:
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13)
Please go back and read Acts 2-4 and be amazed at how the Holy Spirt works through the uneducated Peter.
But what about False Prophets in the New Covenant?
The phrase false prophet is used 11 times in the New Testament, and it never refers to a believer. There is the False Prophet of the antichrist and Bar Jesus of Acts 13, “a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right!” and he was “seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.” (v. 8)
The other references refer to false messiahs and deceivers of the truth. Never, not once, is a child of God referred to as a false prophet—and yet, we know that every believer was encouraged to prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1). So, if one claims that someone who makes a mistake in prophecy is a false prophet, they are claiming that he is an unbeliever, presently and always, in line with the devil, seeking to deceive the body—despite repentance, loving Yeshua and bearing fruit for the kingdom—which is absurd.
Furthermore, we must ask ourselves: are prophecy and prophets exactly the same under the New Covenant as the Old Covenant? If so, should one who prophesies presumptuously be put to death? (Duet. 18:20). If that is our conclusion, then a host of others should be killed. But there is a clear difference.
Every Believer Should Seek to Prophesy
In the Old Covenant, God spoke almost exclusively through prophets. In the New Covenant, every believer is encouraged to seek to prophesy:
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy…the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. (1 Cor. 14:1, 3)
The Greek word translated eagerly desire is zéloó—where we get our word zeal. It is an onomatopoetic word, meaning it sounds like itself (like buzz) and it sounds in Greek like “boiling water”. In other words, we are to be boiling over with zeal for the gifts of the Spirit (as we “follow the way of love”). It should be something we pray for every day.
Now, if someone who makes a mistake in prophecy is then cut off from the Lord and deserving of death, why, then, is the apostle seeking to put the everyday believer in such a precarious and perilous position by encouraging him or her to seek to prophesy? And, yet, we know that under the New Covenant, it is not just prophets who prophesy, but every believer can do so. That is Peter’s meaning in quoting Joel in Acts 2—that God’s Spirit is not just for prophets, but all flesh, meaning, any believer who is hungry.
Prophecy is an objective word from heaven, but it is highly filtered through the subjective lens of the human vessel—through our emotions, our intellect, our theology, and even our wounds and presumptions. Paul said, “We look through a glass darkly” and “We know in part and we prophesy in part.” (1 Cor. 13) Paul also says, “If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith.” (Romans 12:6) So, there must be the possibility of prophesying beyond your faith or presumptuously, as in Deuteronomy. In such cases, leaders should deal with that, but with the goal of restoration, not repudiation.
Paul says, “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) What about that which is not good—or bad—and the people who falsely or presumptuously prophesied? Did they kill them? Did they label them permanently as false prophets, excommunicating them from the body of believers? It seems not.
Something has Changed
The argument is very simple. Michael Brown has a chapter in his 2018 book Playing With Holy Fire: A Wake-Up Call to the Pentecostal-Charismatic Church on the problems and pitfalls of prophecy. He simply says that the standards of I Cor. 14 show that other prophets and leaders weigh prophecy in the New Covenant, and there is no hint that there is a penalty for making a mistake.
Obviously, something has changed. It is simply to note that the consensus of the Charismatic and Pentecostal world (and its scholarship) is that New Covenant prophecy does not function in the same way as the Mosaic covenant standards. It is that all might learn to hear from God and that leaders would be responsible to confirm (or not).
Because they did not have the Scriptures in the way that we do today, the word of the prophet was much weightier. A missed word could be the difference between life and death. With the New Covenant and the fuller revelation of Yeshua and the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are less dependent on prophets today—though they are needed—and more dependent on hearing God through His word and in personal time in prayer.
Need for Accountability
Indeed, there are many self-proclaimed prophets who do damage and take advantage of the Lord’s people. There is a horrible lack of accountability when it comes to public prophecy. We must do better! Please do not take this writing as an excuse for the plethora of silliness that is out there when it comes to prophecy and prophets. But we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater (or drown him for being a false prophet!).
So, are we going to take the position that anyone who is not 100% accurate is a false prophet? Or can one make a mistake, repent and ask God for forgiveness, and seek to grow? Does not God forgive such things? Or, are we then disqualified for life? We are for mercy, but that should not be interpreted as taking prophecy light. It is no small thing to declare that you are speaking for the Lord. And one who does so presumptuously in public should submit to discipline by other leaders.
Tone it Down
One thing we can do is tone down our proclamations. We rarely, if ever, say, “The Lord told me…,” but use language like, “I sense that God might be saying…,” “The Holy Spirit bore witness with my spirit,” or, “I felt led of the Spirit.”
Making proclamations such as “Thus says the Lord…” places one in a precarious position and will rightly invite rebuke if you are wrong. It is always better to tone down the way in which we deliver prophetic words.
Accept for the account of Agabus in Acts 21, we do not see New Testament prophets saying “This is what the Lord says…” Rather, James’ tone, and he was the most senior apostle, is more low key in Acts 15 when he says, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28)
Function of the New Testament Prophet
A prophet can know things by the Spirit (Peter knowing that Ananias and Sapphira lied [Acts 5]).
He can sense one’s calling by the Spirit (Ananias to Paul [Acts 9] Prophets to Barnabas and Saul [Acts 13:1]).
Strengthen the body (Silas and Judas [Acts 15, Eph. 4]).
Proclaim the word of God in power. (Many examples such as [Acts 2, 10]).
Predict the future (Paul predicts that the false prophet Bar Jesus will be blind [Acts 13] or Agabus predicts a famine [Acts 11:28]).
Proclaim judgment on a believer or unbeliever (with Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5], and Bar Jesus [Acts 13]).
Weigh the prophetic words of other prophets and non-prophets (Acts 14).
False prophets go to hell or, at least, invite “swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Peter 2:1). They do not go around the world preaching the gospel and loving Yeshua. False prophets lead people away from Yeshua, as do false teachers. Just as a teacher’s doctrine can change over time, and he can make mistakes in his exegesis and hermeneutics, so, too, can a believer make a mistake in prophesy, repent, and be restored.
There can be no question that the New Covenant brings a higher level of mercy in regards to mistakes in prophecy and that believers are never referred to as false prophets.