This article was originally published in Sword Magazine. Re-tweeted with thanks to Sword and the author, with minor edits. Simon Pease considers modern ‘prophets’.
“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity…..
On that day every prophet will be ashamed of their prophetic vision. They will not put on a prophet’s garment of hair in order to deceive. Each will say, ‘I am not a prophet. I am a farmer; the land has been my livelihood since my youth.’ If someone asks, ‘What are these wounds on your body?’ they will answer, ‘The wounds I was given at the house of my friends.’”(Zechariah 13:1, 4-6)
Of prophets and prophecy
Whilst we know that prophecy will eventually disappear (1 Cor 13:8), in Zechariah the Lord specifically draws our attention to His taking action against false prophets at the time of His return. Although the context relates to Israel, there is a wider application in terms of the church, for judgement starts at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17).
I have reflected on this passage for some years, but recent events have brought this into sharper focus. Numerous prominent American church leaders have been embarrassed by the failure of their confident claim that God told them that Donald Trump would be re-elected President of the USA. Regardless of significant evidence of election fraud, these “prophecies” cannot be made elastic after the event – being reinterpreted to mean that Trump would otherwise have won.
Undoubtedly this has caused great damage to the reputation of American evangelical Christianity and, by association, the Gospel. It has also caused many Christians to reflect on how this state of affairs has come about and, no doubt privately at least, for some to wonder why they have put so much confidence in the bold “prophecies” of prominent church figures. We are all flawed and fallible people, and forgiveness lies at the heart of the Gospel, so the tone of our response matters. Premier Christianity’s article on this theme has much to say that is helpful, but also argues:
“This is not the first time that prophets have got scored less than full marks on their report card. Scripture describes prophets who ran away (Jonah), prophets who got depressed (Elijah), prophets who mis-used their authority to cause unjustifiable destruction (Elisha – with tragic consequences in 2 Kings 2) and even 400 so-called prophets who were quite happy to prophesy whatever the king wanted to hear, even if it was utter nonsense (1 Kings 22). When the Corinthian prophets are instructed to weigh carefully what they each prophesy it suggests that not everyone in the room was hitting the bulls-eye.”
Misses the mark
This line of reasoning misses the mark, I believe, for two reasons. First, whilst the Biblical prophets were flawed men (what else would they be?), they were also genuine prophets who accurately and reliably spoke those words which God gave them. We can entirely trust their statements as recorded in Scripture. Excusing modern-day Christians for giving false prophecy on account of the personal failures of the Biblical prophets is a false argument – like comparing apples with pears, as the saying goes.
Second, how can it be right to defend them by comparing them to the 400 self-serving prophets whose motive in flattering the king was their job security and personal welfare? The point made by Scripture is that these were false prophets who, to a man, were entirely willing to listen to and repeat the “positive” words of a deceiving spirit! Only one person questioned their judgement, asking “Is there no longer a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?” God’s true prophet is contrasted with them as the lone voice among hundreds, bringing a message of judgement the king was loathe to hear, as his sycophants well knew:
“The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Look, the other prophets without exception are predicting success for the king. Let your word agree with theirs, and speak favourably.”
But Micaiah said, “As surely as the Lord lives, I can tell him only what the Lord tells me.” (1 Kings 22:13-14)
The Premier Christianity article correctly reminds us that prophecy in the church should be weighed carefully and, as if to settle the matter, Paul states in no uncertain terms that in the realm of prophetic credentials, self-certification is not an option. The plumb-line against which prophets must be measured is their submission to the Word of God:
“Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.” (1 Corinthians 14:36-38)
Identikit of a (true) prophet
By now we should be receiving a clear picture of what the Biblical prophet looks like – someone who is entirely grounded in God’s word, faithful in passing on only what God says, and therefore completely reliable in what they say. Peter Sammons has summarised this succinctly in “The Empty Promise of Godism”:
“What are the biblical marks of a true prophet? Several criteria are set out in the Bible to evaluate prophesy and prophets: (1) prophecy must be in continuity with the customs and traditions of Israel as enshrined in the Torah Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:20; cf Romans 12:6; (2) the prophet must speak only that which the Lord commands (Deuteronomy 18: 20) and (3) true prophet must be historically verified (Deuteronomy 18: 21-22; Jeremiah 28: 8-9)”.
In The Tanakh (“Old Testament”), we do not find the words of God’s prophets needing to be weighed. There is therefore a qualitative difference between their utterances and those of born-again believers in what some call the “church age”. (Should we wonder, perhaps, why no-one seems to have prophesied Covid-19?). Ephesians 20:20 tells us that the believing community is founded on Jesus (the Word of God), who Himself is the foundation for the prophets and apostles.
But which prophets and apostles, some might ask? A New Frontiers elder once confidently told me that Paul was referring to the “apostles” and “prophets” of the New Apostolic Reformation! As we shall see, this flawed but widespread thinking may help to explain what really lies at the heart of the problem with much present-day “prophecy”.
Contrary to this modern re-interpretation of Paul’s words, the Biblical prophets were God’s messengers pointing forward to Jesus, whilst the New Testament Apostles were called to look back at His life and ministry so they could faithfully bring the Gospel to the world. The prophets and apostles together, faithfully grounded in the written and living Word of God, reveal Jesus and complete Scripture and revelation. These foundations are essential:
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Cor 2:10-15)
Is what we are seeing today, with the “prophecies” of many prominent evangelicals being exposed as false, a fulfilment in some sense of Zechariah’s words? If so, then we are seeing God’s grace and mercy at work in judgement and His call to repentance. But repentance from what? Is it simply a matter of some individuals getting overly confident or even proud, and the church putting people on a pedestal to the extent that they ignore the New Testament’s injunction to properly test prophecy?
Modern false prophets?
Whilst this is surely the case, I also believe recent events have revealed a far deeper problem at which the Premier Christianity article unwittingly hints. Much of the modern-day church puts those who call themselves “prophets” and “apostles” on the same level as the men of God we find in Scripture. From here is it easy to fall for the New Apostolic Reformation’s lie that their movement is called to reveal “new truth”, replacing the Word of God with their false doctrines of spiritual and worldly dominion, such as the “Seven Mountains Mandate”.
The Bible repeatedly links false prophets with false teachers. Could it be that so many got it wrong regarding Donald Trump because their theology was at fault? Church history is full of teachings which seek to avoid the cross based on the “fight or flight” principle. John P Harrigan helpfully labels these respectively as “dominion” and “escapist” theologies in “The Gospel of Christ Crucified: A Theology of Suffering Before Glory”. Those who believe that Christians are called to set up God’s kingdom on earth might well support political leaders who apparently share many of their values, allowing wishful thinking to cloud their spiritual judgement, but the kingdoms and rulers of this age are transitory and our trust needs to be in the Lord.
Regarding Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, it is interesting to observe how some church teachers filter his words. Everyone is happy to quote his famous passage on love, whilst many also emphasise his teaching on spiritual gifts, and even God’s wisdom expressed in the cross. But what of his indictment of self-appointed “super apostles” and the immorality which seems to thrive under their leadership? Commentators note that the Corinthian church was “worldly” and, whilst passionate about spiritual things, struggled profoundly with issues of truth and un-repented sin. In many ways, like the church at Laodicea, it serves as a warning to believers today.
Still a gift ….
Prophecy remains an important spiritual gift which, when handled correctly, is to be encouraged. However, claiming to speak for God is a serious matter, and should be done in a spirit of humility or not at all. Zechariah foresaw a time when the fear of the Lord will fall upon the Jewish people as He opens up a cleansing fountain in Messiah Jesus, causing false prophets to repent. May He graciously do the same within the church which claims to bear His Name.
The Empty Promise of Godism, p202. Peter Sammons, Glory to Glory Publications, 2009
Simon Pease is author of the recent book “Ruth – A Prophetic Parable” Sub-titled “How does the story of Ruth relate to YOU today?” He teaches on the unity of Scripture and contributes to the UK magazine Sword.