[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given at the United Church of God Portland, Oregon congregation on September 2, 2017.]
When I was a student at the Ambassador Bible Center some time ago, one of my instructors had commented that he had met at that time more than a hundred of the two witnesses. No doubt the experiences of many ministers are the same. Even for those of us who have no particular interest in prophetic speculation, it is not hard to find many books by people who profess to be prophets with some sort of divine vision that authorizes them to make sweeping claims about their own ministries and their own interpretation of scripture. Those of us who read books find many occasions where people will write at considerate length considering themselves to be experts with insight about prophetic trends and even specific events in the future . It is easy to be taken in by such prophetic enthusiasm and, when it inevitably goes bad, to think poorly of prophecy as a whole because of one’s experiences. How is it that we test the prophets in the world around us or even among us? Does the Bible leave us without practical tests that we all can use to avoid falling into the trap of believing someone who has presumptuously spoken without divine warrant?
As it happens, the Bible provides two tests for would-be prophets in order to determine if a professed prophet is legitimate. Although the punishments for these tests cannot now be enforced since we do not live in a society that enforces God’s laws, the laws themselves present principles that we can apply to the body of prophetic discourse that is around us. We may not be able to stone false prophets, but we can certainly do our best to avoid giving them a hearing and puffing up their own egos as phony divine emissaries. Let us look at those two tests now. As it happens, both of those prophetic tests are in the book of Deuteronomy.
The first test can be found in Deuteronomy 18:15-22. Deuteronomy 18:15-22 speaks about both the ideal prophet in Jesus Christ and the first of two ways that we can know if a prophet is godly or not. It reads: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, according to all you desired of the Lord your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’ “And the Lord said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.”
This first test gives a contrast between the sort of prophet that we are to listen to, namely Jesus Christ and those like Him, and the sort of prophet that we are not to listen to. When Israel came to Mount Sinai and God spoke to them, the people of Israel were terrified. As a result of their fear of an intimate and personal relationship with God, it was established that there would be various mediators between God and Israel, prophets and priests and so on. God says here that when He next attempted to have a more intimate relationship with Israel that He would do so by raising up a prophet from among the people of Israel who would speak of God’s ways and whom Israel would be obligated to hear on pain of judgment, a prophecy that points clearly to Jesus Christ. He also says that those prophets who speak presumptuously and do not have a word from God will be recognized by their speaking prophecies that do not come to pass. The first test of a false prophet, therefore, is having one’s prophecies fail to come true without, as in the case of Jonah, God showing deliberate mercy to a repentant people.
The second test the Bible gives us for false prophets is in Deuteronomy 13:1-5. The whole chapter is worth reading on your own time as it repeats the point and provides a terrifying look at how this law was to be enforced by the family members of false prophets and by the nation of Israel on cities that had gotten caught up in enthusiasm for false prophets, but let us focus our attention today on the first five verses, which tell us: “If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice; you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has spoken in order to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to entice you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall put away the evil from your midst.”
This passage gives the second qualification of how to recognize if a prophet is a false one, and that is the content of the message. In the Bible, the work of prophets was not merely to tell what would happen in the future, but also to instruct the people of God in how they were to live. Over and over again we read that obedience to God was to bring blessings, and disobedience to God’s ways was to bring national calamity up to and including the destruction of the nation and the death and slavery and exile of its people. Prophets were to provide divine warning of what would come upon an unrepentant people, with the goal of encouraging that people to repent, to turn to God, and to avoid the threatened judgment. In that light, we see the importance of the second test. Even if a prophet’s words came to pass, if that prophet preached for Israel to abandon God and to follow other gods, and to cease from obeying God’s laws and commandments however imperfectly they were obeying those to begin with, that prophet was leading Israel towards a path that could only end in destruction unless they repented, and so God’s law was extremely harsh in dealing with those who would lead Israel astray.
So we have two simple tests as to whether someone is a prophet: do their prophecies come true, and is their message one of repentance and obedience to God? These are not complicated tests. Those who prophecy what is to come to pass that does not come to pass are not to be feared because they are speaking as human beings and not as messengers from God. Those who preach against God’s laws and commandments are also not to be feared, becuase they are not following God, and are to be dealt with harshly. How did God’s laws apply with self-appointed prophets in the time of Israel. Let us look at one example briefly before we close and see why we should not seek to give ourselves an office that God has not ordained us to, regardless of whether or not we are preaching according to what is right.
We find the story of Urijah in Jeremiah 26:20-24. Urijah was what we might call a me-too sort of prophet, someone who echoed the message of a prophet ordained by God, and it did not go particularly well for him. Jeremiah 26:20-24 tells us: “Now there was also a man who prophesied in the name of the Lord, Urijah the son of Shemaiah of Kirjath Jearim, who prophesied against this city and against this land according to all the words of Jeremiah. And when Jehoiakim the king, with all his mighty men and all the princes, heard his words, the king sought to put him to death; but when Urijah heard it, he was afraid and fled, and went to Egypt. Then Jehoiakim the king sent men to Egypt: Elnathan the son of Achbor, and other men who went with him to Egypt. And they brought Urijah from Egypt and brought him to Jehoiakim the king, who killed him with the sword and cast his dead body into the graves of the common people. Nevertheless the hand of Ahikam the son of Shaphan was with Jeremiah, so that they should not give him into the hand of the people to put him to death.”
The story of Urijah ought to give us caution when it comes to our own prophetic enthusiasm as people. Jeremiah had been anointed as prophet, and lived a particularly difficult and unpleasant life that included being forbidden to marry, being in frequent threat of lynch mobs and angry rulers, being thrown in prison, including at least once in some kind of mire, facing starvation as well as continual accusations of being a traitor to Judah by preaching submission to Babylon. He was even dragged into exile as an old man when a coup attempt against the Babylonian-appointed monarch went wrong. Jeremiah did not live a happy life, in other words, and yet during his ministry there were people who sought to piggyback on to his prophetic message without having been anointed as prophets by God. Let us note that although Urijah did preach a godly message, since he echoed Jeremiah’s words, it still did not go well for Him because without a divinely appointed office, there was no protection for Urijah when the king decided to deal with those who were publicly criticizing him. Let us avoid following that example.
What are we to do then? In this world we are faced with many would-be prophets who consider themselves insightful guides into the workings of God’s will for mankind in these troubled times. How are we to distinguish between those whom God is working with and those whom God is not working with? The Bible itself, through what it says in Deuteronomy 18 and 13, give us two tests. The first test is whether the prophecies of that person come to pass or not. If they do not come to pass, it is a false prophet. The second test is whether the prophet’s message is meant to return God’s people to obedience to God’s ways. Those prophets who attack God’s laws and commandments and who seek to encourage apostate worship are not to be feared and followed, regardless of whether their prophecies come to pass or not. Let us also heed the warning of Urijah when it comes to appointing ourselves to the office of prophet for God even if we can recognize a godly message and wish to support it. Those whom God does not appoint, God does not promise to protect, and we well understood the sort of suffering and difficulty that resulted from being a godly prophet to a disobedient people, it would not be an office we would want to claim for ourselves, regardless of how much glory we saw in it. The difficulty of living a godly life in an ungodly society is serious enough, the danger high enough, without our adding to it by seeking to glorify ourselves. Let us therefore neither heed nor aspire to be prophets of our own will, or to heed those who have presumptuously considered themselves as divinely ordained prophets. Sufficient for our day is its own trouble.
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