How Do You Tell a False Prophet From a True Prophet?
Have you ever wondered if prophets still exist today…and how to tell if they are the real thing or a false prophet?
If so, you’re in the right place. Together, we’ll learn what a false prophet is, how to tell whether a prophet is true or false, and why the Bible’s tests of a prophet still matter today.
What is a false prophet and how to identify one
A false prophet is someone who claims to have received a message from God, but in reality, their message is meant to deceive others (regardless of their ultimate intentions).
A true prophet acts as God’s spokesperson to His believers. A false prophet might pose as a spokesperson for God, but if they speak any message that doesn’t align with His Will, they are ultimately against God.
But God doesn’t want us to be deceived or fearful. So the Bible provides guidance to help us test people who claim to have the prophetic gift.
You can ask yourself 6 essential questions to determine if a prophet or prophecy is true or false:
- Do their words line up with the Bible? (1 John 4:1-3)
- Do their proclamations about the future come true? (Deuteronomy 18:20-21)
- Do their lives show the fruits of godly character? (Matthew 7:16-20)
- Has God revealed himself to them? (2 Peter 1:20-21 )
- Does the message inspire godly change? (Ezekiel 13:10)
- Does the message mix truth with lies? (2 Peter 2:1-3)
Do their words line up with the Bible?
Scripture is the test. If the message follows the trajectory of what the Bible teaches and is consistent with what is revealed in the Bible, then the prophecy is true.
One of the fundamental principles that scripture upholds is that Jesus has come in the flesh and is our savior.
One example of this is in 1 John 4:1-3 (ESV). John the Revelator writes:
“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”
According to John, prophets do not have the spirit of God in them if they deny that
Jesus (1) is the Messiah, and (2) that He became human so He could sacrifice Himself for our sins.
This isn’t a surprise, since several prophecies in the Old Testament speak to Jesus’ first coming.
For example, much of the prophet Isaiah’s prophecies are about Jesus’ birth. In fact, Isaiah is the most-quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament.
Consider these verses from Isaiah as examples of true prophecy in that they acknowledge the first coming of Jesus and his death for our salvation. He gave very specific circumstances for people to be able to tell when this would be coming true:
- “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, ESV).
- “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5, ESV).
Additionally, Isaiah himself warns against prophecies that don’t line up with the message of the gospel:
- “To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn” (Isaiah 8:20, ESV).
When Isaiah writes that these teachings and testimonies have no “dawn,” he means that they have no “light” in them. They are not following the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This means two important things:
- Teachings and testimonies that do not fit with the gospel are in darkness. They have no truth.
- Teachings and testimonies that do not fit the gospel have no light because they leave out “the light of the world,” Jesus (John 8:12, ESV).
Paul, the writer of Galatians, makes a similar point when he urges Christians to desert a gospel contrary to the one in the Bible (Galatians 1:9).
The reasoning or motivation behind a prophecy should always tie back to Jesus because that’s what the Bible does.
If a prophet does not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, then they are a false prophet.
Do their proclamations come true?
While not all prophecies are about telling the future, many of them are—like the messianic prophecies from Isaiah that we read in the last point. Those prophecies came true: Jesus was born to a virgin, and he was crucified to give us eternal salvation.
Let’s take a look at the story of one of the original prophets of the Bible, Moses, as an example of a true prophet.
Throughout the Exodus story, God communicates directly with Moses. A stand-out instance is when God speaks to Moses through a burning bush. In this story, God gives Moses a mission: go back to Egypt and tell pharaoh to “let [His] people go” (Exodus 5:1, ESV).
In his communications with pharaoh, Moses lets him know what the future holds for him if he does not obey God. He prophesies of plagues to come: boils, gnats, flies, hail, locusts, darkness, etc.
According to the account in Exodus, these events do come true.
So to recap,
- God speaks directly to Moses.
- He gives Moses a message, making Moses God’s spokesperson.
- Moses gives God’s message to pharaoh.
- The predicted events come true.
Moses himself makes it clear that fulfilled proclamations are crucial when determining if a prophet is true or not.
In Deuteronomy, Moses shares with the children of Israel his parting words before he dies. Part of his speech is about avoiding false prophets:
“But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’
And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously.
You need not be afraid of him” (Deuteronomy 18:20-21, ESV, emphasis added).
When Moses says that “the prophet has spoken it presumptuously,” he is saying that the prophet presumed something would happen, or that he/she em>assumed that God communicated with him/her. Without looking into it further, or continuing to pray about it.
True prophets do not assume God’s plans; they know God’s plans because God has communicated with them directly. A true prophet doesn’t have to “figure out” if God is giving them a message or not. Scripture shows how God is direct and clear when He calls someone for this role.
Therefore, if what a prophet predicts for the future does not come to pass, then that prophet is not a true prophet. We can use Moses’ direction, as well as his own story, to guide us on our search for truth.
It’s also important to consider that many of the prophecies in the Bible are still coming true today.
Many of the prophecies in Revelation are yet to come true. This question is one of many that help guide us.
It is certainly not the only one.
Do their lives show the fruits of a godly character?
The Bible instructs us to test prophets based on their character and their actions.
Jesus makes this very clear in his “Sermon on the Mount,” which is found in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew. In his message to his followers, he warns them of false prophets who look one way but act another:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.
A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16-20, ESV).
In this passage, Jesus is using fruit as a metaphor for actions to help his followers understand how to uncover a false prophet. He does this in terms that his audience would understand: shepherding and farming.
First, Jesus says that false prophets are dangerous because they dress like sheep, but they are actually wolves in disguise. However, Jesus makes a distinction.
They are inwardly ravenous wolves. In specifying that false prophets are outwardly sheep and inwardly wolves, Jesus clarifies that the dangerous part of a false prophet is their character.
Here is where things get a little complicated.
Can we see someone’s character when we look at them?
Can we glance at a person and say, “That person has poor character”?
Oftentimes, we can’t. At least not at first glance or before we really know a person.
If that’s the case…
How can we tell if someone’s character is bad?
When Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits,” this is what He meant:
If a good tree is really good, it will bear good fruit; if a bad tree is truly bad, it will bear bad fruit.
The key is to look at their habits.
Is a prophet consistently living out the fruits of the Spirit, or are they deceitful, prideful, or selfish? Or here’s a big one: Do they only act a certain way when they are being watched? How do they treat “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40)?
By looking at a prophet’s life as a whole and understanding their character, we can better determine if they are a true prophet.
And those fruits manifest in people’s actions. If prophets have the Holy Spirit in their hearts and are in communion with God, then their actions will show love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23, ESV). Because a relationship with Jesus fills us with these good fruits.
However, if a prophet does not have the Holy Spirit in their hearts, they will not show the good fruits of the spirit.
Keep in mind, however, that prophets are still human.
They make mistakes just like everyone else.
Having a past full of bad fruit doesn’t “disqualify” someone from being a prophet.
A great example of this is the story of Paul.
Before his conversion, Paul—then Saul—actually persecuted Christians, but after he encounters God and repents, God gives him a new identity.
Paul begins to bear good fruit.
It’s all about current fruit and current habits.
We are all sinners in need of God’s grace.
There is a difference between bearing good fruit and being perfect.
Has God revealed Himself to them or given them words to speak?
As a spokesperson for God, it is important that the prophet has received a message from God and isn’t just making it up for their own agenda. The apostle Peter says this well in 2 Peter 1:20-21 (ESV):
“Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Peter wants Bible readers to know it is God who gives the prophet words to speak, not anyone else.
In some cases God reveals himself to prophets or gives them words to speak through dreams or visions. This is true for prophets like Daniel and John the Revelator. Much of their respective books in the Bible are made up of visions they receive from God.
In other cases, God speaks to his prophet directly.
Moses is a great example of this face-to-face conversation with God.
In Numbers 12:6-8 (ESV), God, in the form of a pillar of cloud, says this:
“Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord.”
Not only does God communicate with Moses through the burning bush, like we discussed earlier, but he also speaks with him directly, like when Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19 and 20).
In that case, God communicates with Moses in a very grand way. He even passes before Moses so that Moses will behold his glory. God’s glory is so strong, that when Moses descends from the mountain, his face is shining:
“When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29, ESV).
God doesn’t always speak to his prophets in such grand ways. Sometimes, He communicates with them in stillness.
Elijah’s encounter with God on the same mountain where God reveals His glory to Moses is a great example of this (1 Kings 19). As Adventist pastor Randy Roberts puts it:
“So Elijah goes back to Mount Sinai, he disappears into a cave, which some have suggested, may be the cleft in the rock where God hid Moses…. Then he has the wind, the earthquake, and the fire. All ways in which God has revealed himself. God is in none of them. God said, ‘Come out of the cave,’ and when [the wind, earthquake, and fire] are all done, it’s a dead stillness…. And in the stillness [Elijah] sense the voice of God. The text says [Elijah] wrapped his face in his mantle and came out of the cave to stand in the presence of God.”
Then, God gives Elijah his next instruction as a prophet.
“From that point forward, the grand, the dramatic, the glorious, virtually ends. God no longer reveals himself in those Exodus ways…The next time you really see God, he is lying in a manger as a baby, weak and helpless, so his way of revealing himself, interacting with humanity has dramatically changed.”1
All this to say that God reveals himself to true prophets in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is glorious and dramatic, but a lot of the time, it is in stillness where a true prophet can sense the voice of God speaking.
And, if true prophets have an intimate relationship with God, then they will know when God has revealed himself to them.
Does the message promote change even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular?
As we’ve already noted, prophets act as God’s mouthpiece. They deliver messages from God to his people.
However, it’s important to consider what kind of messages God is sending and the prophet is delivering.
In the Bible, prophets are often used when God’s people are breaking their covenant with him. Prophets say to the people, “Hey, you aren’t honoring your relationship with God, and that needs to change.” And if they listen to God’s message, peace is the natural consequence.
So a true prophet is one that delivers a message of change in order to bring God’s people back into a covenant relationship with him.
But do people often want to change? Do they want their wrongs to be called out? Not usually…
Let’s check out the story of Hosea as an example.
In his book, the prophet Hosea functions as a living parable for the people of Israel who have turned against God. God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute named Gomer and bear children with her. Then, when she is unfaithful to him, God tells Hosea to return to her and love her.
This story might come across as strange, but in entering a prophetic partnership with God, Hosea’s life illustrates how Israel is acting towards God, and that even despite their sin and prostituting themselves to other gods, God shows endless love for them: He will always call them back.
What happens next?
The prophet Hosea, fully embodying God’s message since he lived it out himself, pleads with the people of Israel to change. Neither he nor God want Israel to remain in a state of sinfulness.
“Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
for you have stumbled because of your iniquity.
Take with you words
and return to the Lord
say to him,
‘Take away all iniquity;
accept what is good,
and we will pay with bulls
the vows of our lips’” (Hosea 14: 1-2, ESV).
Hosea asks that Israel repent and return to God. He knows that God will receive them with unending love, but the peoples’ hearts must change in order for them to accept Him.
So if a true prophet promotes a change of heart for the people listening, a false prophet might do the opposite.
A false prophet might try to promote a state of comfort in sinfulness rather than ask people to turn back to God. This passage in Ezekiel 13:10 (ESV) is a good example:
“Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash, say to those who smear it with whitewash that it shall fall! There will be a deluge of rain, and you, O great hailstones, will fall, and a stormy wind break out.”
Ezekiel is saying that false prophets have misled the people of God. They have proclaimed “peace,” when really, there was no peace. They deceive the people of God.
Ezekiel writes that false prophets “smear with whitewash.” They cover up sinfulness with lies and fake notions of peace rather than promoting a cleansing of the heart and soul like a true prophet would.
However, Ezekiel also writes that rain will wash away the lies and lay bare the sinfulness of the people. Because repentance is what will bring about the change in heart and soul that the people need.
Another example of false prophets promoting comfort and peace over truth is in Isaiah.
The prophet Isaiah tells the people of Judah that they are lovers of deception and of falsehood:
“For they are a rebellious people,
children unwilling to hear
the instruction of the Lord;
who say to the seers, ‘Do not see,’
and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
leave the way, turn aside from the path,
let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel’” (Isaiah 30:9-11, ESV).
Isaiah condemns both the people of Judah and the prophets for prophesying “smooth things.” The people want to believe that they are hearing the voice of God from these false prophets, but they refuse to listen to the truth.
Instead, they only want to hear pleasant messages.
A few lines later, Isaiah, the true prophet who speaks on God’s behalf, tells the people not to listen to the comfort that false prophets promote. Rather, they must repent, for “repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15, ESV).
But there is a consequence to true prophets delivering messages that make the masses uncomfortable.
A prophet’s message must glorify God above all else, and in doing so, their messages call people out for their sinfulness.
These unpopular messages meant that prophets were often ridiculed or even persecuted:
- Isaiah was purportedly sawn in half (Hebrews 11:37)
- Daniel was put in a den of lions (Daniel 6)
- John the Baptist was beheaded (Matthew 14)
These are just a few examples.
But, there is hope for those persecuted prophets and for all followers of Christ.
Jesus affirms the difficulty of the journey in his Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12, ESV).
So even if the journey is hard and the message unpopular, God rewards true prophets for their work.
Now we know that…
- True prophets will ask the people to repent of their sins and return to God, whether the message is popular or not.
- False prophets will allow sinfulness and deception to thrive, and they will cater their messages to fit the will of the masses, not to honor God.
Does the message mix truth with lies?
It’s easy to tell if someone is a false prophet if their message is obviously filled with lies.
But what if a false prophet’s message is mostly truth with a few tiny lies snuck in? Are they still a false prophet?
In fact, if there is even one lie mixed with the truth, we can pretty much guarantee the prophet is false.
True prophets receive messages straight from God, and God does not mix truth with lies or inaccurate information.
What does the Bible have to say about this?
In 2 Peter 2:1-3 (ESV), Peter gives a warning about false prophets who blaspheme the truth:
“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.”
These false prophets aren’t “accidentally” mixing truth with falsehood. Rather, they are intentionally deceiving audiences because of their own agenda. They “deny the Master,” God, and instead, speak to honor themselves, just as the false prophets from Isaiah did in the last point.
But sometimes, it can be hard to parse the truth from the lies. Especially when the lies are small and well hidden.
What do we do then?
Search and test the scriptures for yourself
When we are unsure of a prophecy and feel that its falsehood is not obvious, it is of the utmost importance to prayerfully study the scriptures and let the Holy Spirit guide us to make decisions.
Timothy makes it clear in his epistles that scripture is meant to equip God’s followers with the ability to discern truth from lies:
“All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:12-16, ESV).
The Bible is our guide for testing prophets, and when we are unsure, we are not to sit around and “be children in our thinking,” as the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:20).
Rather, we should use our God given wisdom, not to fear prophets for being false, but to “test all things; hold fast to what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, ESV).
Lastly, when we feel we do not have the wisdom to make a decision for ourselves, we must realize that God is the giver of wisdom. He does not create chaos or confusion: sin does. We need not fear false testimony. Instead let us follow the council of James:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5, ESV)
Test the prophets and cling to what is good.
Ask God for wisdom, and he will guide you.
Are true and false prophets still around today?
Prophecy is not limited to Bible times.
In fact, much of the prophecy that is in the Bible has relevance for the future.
For example, Adventists and many other Christians believe that John prophesies events in the book of Revelation that will happen in the future.
Additionally, Adventists believe that the word of God continues to speak today.
Ephesians 4, Romans 12, and 1 Corinthians 12 tell us that the Holy Spirit will continue to speak as the church embodies the mission of God in the world. The spirit will speak through spiritual gifts, and will never be in conflict with scripture, but will apply and grow what is already there.
These spiritual gifts are essential for the church to flourish in its mission to spread the gospel. One of the spiritual gifts outlined in 1 Corinthians 12 is the gift of speaking prophecy.
The Bible is also very clear that God will continue to reveal himself through prophets:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18, ESV)
However, if true prophets will exist into the last days, false prophets will as well.
Jesus Himself confirms this when he speaks with his disciples about the last days. He warns them against people who claim to be him, saying,
“For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24).
False prophets are around today, and they will be around in the future.
However, by asking these 6 questions, you can prepare yourself to identify who is a messenger of God and who isn’t.
[Want more info on false prophecy? Check out our Bible Studies page. ]
 Personal Interview. 30 June 2021.
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