God still speaks through people. Prophetic gifts are celebrated throughout the New Testament, and Paul even instructs the Church to “eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.” (See 1 Corinthians 14:1.) The Greek word used for “eagerly desire” here means to burn with zeal, to strive after, and to actively pursue. Surely believers today should crave to partner with God in this way!
Starting with the rise of the Pentecostal movement in the early 1900s — and accelerated by the Charismatic movement later that century — prophetic words have become more and more common in the Church. Today there are “prophetic schools” being held somewhere around the world on any given weekend where people flock to learn about how to hear God’s voice more accurately and prophesy with greater integrity.
However, with the rise of true prophetic words comes also a rise in false prophetic words. And with the vast ocean of “words” out there these days, how do you know the difference between a true prophetic word and a false prophetic word?
Identifying False Prophecy
Two chapters in the Bible give us significant insight into how to identify false prophecy: Ezekiel 13 and Jeremiah 23. Here are some things I learned:
- A false prophecy does not identify and repair breaches in the wall. (See Ezekiel 13:5.) Paul told the Corinthian church that the purpose of prophecy is to strengthen, encourage, and comfort the hearer. (See 1 Corinthians 14:3.) But what are we strengthening and encouraging? A section of the wall that is already strong doesn’t need to be strengthened. A person only needs encouragement where discouragement or insecurity exist. He or she only needs comfort where there is pain or concern. A true prophecy will speak strength, encouragement, and comfort to broken areas in a person’s soul. A false prophecy will either bring further harm or flatter the hearer in areas where they’re already secure in their success. A true prophecy brings healing; a false prophecy brings either frustration or a big head.
- A false prophecy puts a fresh coat of paint on a flimsy wall, providing a false sense of security (rather than tearing down and rebuilding a proper wall). (See Ezekiel 13:10 and Jeremiah 1:9-10.) Human beings have the capacity to “feel” in a spiritual way. It’s an ability God designed in us so that we can empathize with people and serve one another effectively. Some people “feel” better than others, and those who do it exceptionally well can sometimes even explain exactly what is going on in the hearts and minds of others. But calling out fears and insecurities and then speaking an encouragement of some sort will not solve the problem without a true prophetic word. Likewise, calling out successes and strengths in a person may be flattering, but it does little to actually improve us. R. Loren Sandford, in his book Purifying the Prophetic, calls this “sanctified psychic reading.” He writes, “Ability to sense and even define what is in the hearts of others does not make us prophetic. It makes us human. . . . So ‘reading people’s mail’ (their hearts) does not make us prophetic. It just makes us more fully human.” Any so-called “prophetic word” that does not bring us to a deeper death to our flesh and life “by grace through faith” in Christ is nothing but a fresh coat of paint on a flimsy wall. It looks nice and seems relevant, but the same underlying problems that existed before still remain.
- A false prophecy encourages the wicked not to change and discourages the righteous from persevering. (See Ezekiel 13:22 and Jeremiah 23:14.) To be clear, when I talk about the wicked “not changing,” I’m not talking first of all about changing their behavior. In the Old Testament, prophecy demanded a change of behavior; but in the New Testament, prophecy demands a change of the mindsets and motivations behind our behavior. In Christ, we have the indwelling Holy Spirit to lead us, guide us, and enable us to live holy lives like Jesus. Any so-called “prophetic word” that demands change through human effort rather than trust in the inner working of the Holy Spirit is false. While we all have behaviors that need to change, the one and only thing that actually needs modification is whether we trust more in our own effort and ability to live righteously or whether we trust more in Jesus’ effort and ability to express His life through us as we live by faith. True prophecy keeps our flesh at the cross and our spirit united with Christ. False prophecy produces false-confidence in our own ability to behave a certain way. True prophecy does not contradict the Gospel.
In case you didn’t notice, the above three points have a common theme: False prophecy encourages and strengthens our reliance on the flesh while true prophecy encourages and strengthens our reliance on God.
The Council of the Lord
False prophecy comes from the prophet’s own imagination as the speaker follows his or her own spirit, although he or she has not actually seen anything. (See Ezekiel 13:2-3 and Jeremiah 23:16.) A person who spends enough time in the Scriptures can generally speak biblical things that are in line with the heart of God, but this is only second-hand prophecy. Only the true prophetic word carries with it the grace to accomplish it. In John 6:63, Jesus said, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” And in John 8:38, He revealed the key to making this sort of speech possible: “I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence…”
If you want to speak true prophecy, then you must spend time in the Father’s presence.
Jeremiah 23:16-18 and 21-22 — This is what the Lord Almighty says:
“Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you;
they fill you with false hopes.
They speak visions from their own minds,
not from the mouth of the Lord.
They keep saying to those who despise me,
‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’
And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts
they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’
But which of them has stood in the council of the Lord
to see or to hear His word?
Who has listened and heard His word?…
I did not send these prophets,
yet they have run with their message;
I did not speak to them,
yet they have prophesied.
But if they had stood in My council,
they would have proclaimed My words to My people
and would have turned them from their evil ways
and from their evil deeds. (NIV, emphasis added)
In short, God speaks to those who will draw near enough to listen. Anyone who is more interested in prophecy than in prayer will struggle to ever engage in true prophetic ministry. Jeremiah 23:14 says that these people are living a lie. They claim to speak for God, but how can you speak for the One you have not heard? And how can you hear the One with whom you do not spend time?
If a prophetic word causes you to trust in the flesh — whether it’s your own flesh, the flesh of a religious leader, the flesh of a political leader, the flesh of a particular group, or of anyone else — it is a false word. Even if it sounds good (promoting repentance or encouraging righteous living), if it does not cause us to bring flesh to the cross and encourage us to trust more in the grace of God, then it is false.
And if, as Paul instructed, you “eagerly desire” to prophesy, let all your zeal, striving, and pursuing be directed at intimately knowing the One who speaks. Spend time in God’s presence. Invest yourself in prayer. I guarantee you’ll hear Him.