A false prophet is a person who spreads false teachings or messages while claiming to speak the Word of God. In the Bible, false prophets also spoke on behalf of false gods. False prophets functioned in their prophetic role illegitimately or for the purpose of deception. The Bible denounces false prophets for leading people astray.
In the Old Testament, the actual term false prophet does not occur, but references to false prophets are evident and abundant. In the book of Jeremiah, we encounter a clear description of false prophets:
“Then the Lord said unto me, The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart.” Jeremiah 14:14;(also Jeremiah 23:21–33; Zechariah 10:2).
The primary difference between men like Jeremiah—a true prophet of God—and false prophets was their source of information. Rather than speak the Word of the Lord, false prophets delivered messages that originated in their own hearts and minds: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord.”Jeremiah 23:16; (also Jeremiah 23:25–32; Ezekiel 13:1–7).
God distances Himself from all false prophets: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.” Jeremiah 23:21
Another difference between true prophets and false prophets in the Bible is motivation. True prophets are motivated by loyalty to God above all else, whereas false prophets are motived by self-interest and a desire to be popular among the people (1 Kings 22:13–14). While Jeremiah foretold the truth of coming desolation upon Jerusalem (Jeremiah 4), the false prophets promised peace (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11). The people of Judah preferred the pleasant messages of the false prophets: “Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits: That this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord:” Isaiah 30:9-10
Often false prophets were hired for payment or spoke their messages for financial gain: “The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: yet will they lean upon the Lord, and say, Is not the Lord among us? none evil can come upon us.” Micah 3:11; (also Nehemiah 6:12–13; Jeremiah 6:13–14; Ezekiel 13:19; 2 Peter 2:1–3).
Israel could not always discern the difference between a true and false prophet. In 1 Kings 22, King Jehoshaphat of Judah sought counsel from the Lord before he and King Ahab of Israel embarked on their mission to retake the city of Ramoth in Gilead. Jehoshaphat heard the predictions of victory from Ahab’s 400 counselors but suspected that these men were false prophets who did not have the mind of the Lord. Jehoshaphat’s suspicions were correct: they were Ahab’s “yes men,” false prophets who had no concern for relating the true Word of God. They merely said what the king wanted to hear and collected their salary from the royal treasury.
Jehoshaphat asked if there was another prophet who could give a second opinion. Ahab called for the prophet Micaiah, albeit reluctantly: “I hate him,” Ahab complained;
“And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, There is yet one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may enquire of the Lord: but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil. And Jehoshaphat said, Let not the king say so.” 1 Kings 22:8
True to form, Micaiah prophesied that Ahab would be killed in the battle and Israel would be “I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd:” 1 Kings 22:17. Micaiah, whose words came to pass, proved to be the true prophet of God. None of the false prophets in Ahab’s court could keep the king alive.
The punishment specified for false prophets in the Old Testament was severe: “But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.”Deuteronomy 18:20
In the New Testament, Jesus taught about false prophets in His Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” Matthew 7:15–18
Jesus went on to explain the grave consequences of being a false prophet: “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” Matthew 7:19–23
The Bible describes false prophets as adulterous (Jeremiah 23:14), treacherous (Zephaniah 3:4), drunkards (Isaiah 28:7), wicked (Jeremiah 23:11), liars (Jeremiah 14:14; 23:14), and associated with divination and witchcraft (Jeremiah 14:14; Ezekiel 22:28; Acts 13:6). Scripture teaches believers to be diligent in faith and devotion to Christ’s teachings so that they will be able to spot false prophets and false teachers quickly (2 Peter 1:10; 1:19—2:1; 1 John 4:1).
The best way to guard yourself against falsehood and false teachers is to know the truth. To spot a counterfeit, study the real thing. Any believer who “correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) and who makes a careful study of the Bible can identify false doctrine. For example, a believer who has read the activities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in Matthew 3:16-17 will immediately question any doctrine that denies the Trinity. Therefore, step one is to study the Bible and judge all teaching by what the Scripture says.
Jesus said “a tree is recognized by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33). When looking for “fruit,” there are three specific tests to apply to any teacher to determine the accuracy of his or her teaching:
1) What does this teacher say about Jesus? “He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”Matthew 16:15-16
“Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.” 2 John 9
“Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son.” 1 John 2:22
2) Does this teacher preach the gospel? The gospel is defined as the good news concerning Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). As nice as they sound, the statements “God loves you,” “God wants us to feed the hungry,” and “God wants you to be wealthy” are not the complete message of the gospel.
“ I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-7
No one, not even a great preacher, has the right to change the message that God has given. “As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:9
3) Teachers should exhibit character qualities that glorify the Lord. “Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core.” Jude 11
In other words, a false teacher can be known by his pride (Cain’s rejection of God’s plan), greed (Balaam’s prophesying for money), and rebellion (Korah’s promotion of himself over Moses). Jesus said to beware of such people and that we would know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).
For further study, review the books of the Bible that were written specifically to combat false teaching within the church: Galatians, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, and Jude. It is often difficult to spot a false teacher/false prophet. Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and his ministers masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11:15). Only by being thoroughly familiar with the truth will we be able to recognize a counterfeit, and most important, listen to the Spirit of the Lord.