In Matthew 7.15–23, Jesus gives us a warning against false prophets, a test for recognizing them, and a description of their fate.
A prophet is a spokesman for God. For example, Isaiah begins a prophesy by saying, “Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the Lord has spoken” (1.2), and “Hear the word of the Lord” (1.10). He ends it with these words: “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (1.20). He often prefaces other prophecies with the words, “This is what the Lord says…” (18.4; 21.6; 31.4; 37.6, 33; 38.1; 45.1, 14; 49.8, 25; 50.1; 52.3; 56.1, 4; 65. 8; 61.1, 12). In the New Testament, Peter writes, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1.20, 21). What the prophet says, in other words, God said before him.
Because a prophet purports to speak for God, we must be able to distinguish true prophets from false ones. A true prophet is a person who speaks an authentic word from God. A false prophet does not. Unlike in Isaiah’s day, or Jesus’ or Peter’s, there are not a lot of “prophets” running around today. But there are a lot of people who make claims about God, Jesus, and salvation. How do we evaluate their claims? In two ways: The coherence of the message and the character of the messenger.
Does the message of a “prophet” (pastor, teacher, or popular author) cohere with the biblical message? For example, Deuteronomy 13.1–5 warns against worshiping gods other than the God “who brought you out of Egypt.” And 1 John 4.2–3 says, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” If someone invites us to practice another religion or deviate from biblical orthodoxy, that person’s message is a false prophecy.
The other major test is the test of character. “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7.16–20). “Because a true prophet speaks for God, his character will reflect God’s character. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5.22–23).
So, the next time you hear someone making a claim about God or Jesus or the way to heaven, ask yourselves two questions: (1) Is this person walking the well-beaten path of biblical orthodoxy? And (2) does this person’s character reflect God’s holiness?