A few years ago, I had an opportunity to counsel a friend who had received an alleged prophetic word. The prophecy was comically out of line with Biblical principles, saying things like: “sunlight comes out of your mouth;” “when you speak your words shift atmosphere;” “I saw as soon as you sat down, a unicorn;” and even “I saw a bowl of cereal, and I asked the Lord what kind of cereal it was, and HE said, ‘lucky charms.’”
In this article, I’d like to write about how Christians guard themselves from being deceived by false prophecy. I’m not necessarily talking about spotting false prophets who preach a different gospel (Matthew 7:15-20; 2 Peter 2; Jude 5-19), but the sincere believer who honestly thinks they are speaking on behalf of the Lord. Sometimes in the church, we hear people say bold things on behalf of the Lord like, “God told me He wants you to move to _____” or “The Lord told me I am to date you” or “God told me…” Usually, it is followed up by anything but Scripture. We hesitate to speak against it—even if it seems wrong—for how can one compete with God?
So, what should you do when someone says they have a message from God for you? Because these revelations can seem so insightful and often come from people who seem trustworthy, it is essential to follow Paul’s instruction in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to “test all things; hold fast to what is good.” Here are some ways Christians can guard themselves against false prophecies:
1. JUDGE IT OPTIMISTICALLY BUT CAUTIOUSLY:
Be open to hearing from the Lord through the New Testament gift of prophecy. We are told to, “not despise prophecies” in 1 Thessalonians 5:20. It’s natural to become skeptical when hearing weird things under the label of prophecy, but Paul didn't want the Thessalonians throwing the baby out with the bath water. There is room in God’s economy for a prophetic word. Praise God if He wants to edify, exhort or comfort us through the gift of prophecy as we see in 1 Corinthians 14:3, “ But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men.”
Pastor Chuck Smith exemplified a great balance of optimism and caution when he stated the following in his Holy Spirit series:
“…Well, did the Lord really say it? Is it in keeping with what God has said? We are to judge prophecy. You are not just to accept it. If I come up to you and say, 'Brother, the Lord has been showing me something about you. He wants you to go to Africa as a missionary.' You should seek the Lord for yourself, rather than just taking off saying, 'Well, God has called me to Africa.' You should seek the Lord for yourself. Judge it. Is this bearing witness with your heart?…A lot of people make the mistake of saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord…’”
2. JUDGE IT BY SCRIPTURE:
Every prophecy must stand up to the test of Scripture. Even the words of the Apostle Paul were tested as we see in Acts 17:11, “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” If even Paul’s words had to be tested, the words of believers must also be tested against the truth of the Scripture. This process suggests the great need for Christians to have a personal knowledge of the truth of God’s Word, so they are able to recognize unbiblical statements as they are being shared.
3. JUDGE IT WITH CONFIRMATION:
Is the prophecy a confirmation for something you prayed or read about already? A prophecy can act as a reassuring reminder of God’s providence in your life for something He is already calling you to do. In the Old Testament, Jeremiah wasn’t confident he had heard from the Lord until there was providential confirmation. Jeremiah 32:6-9 reads, “Behold, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle will come to you, saying, “Buy my field which is in Anathoth, for the right of redemption is yours to buy it.”’ Then Hanamel my uncle’s son came to me in the court of the prison according to the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘Please buy my field that is in Anathoth…’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord. So I bought the field…” We read a similar situation in Acts 10 when Peter saw a vision from the Lord, which God providentially timed with a visit from some gentiles coming from the house of Cornelius. We too sometimes experience this confirmation through life events.
4. JUDGE IT BY THE MESSENGER:
It is quite a responsibility to speak on behalf of the Lord, and there is a humble way to do it. If the person prophesying to you somewhat confidently says, “the Lord told me to tell you…” then your spiritual radar might activate. If, on the other hand, it comes across humbly like, “I’m not sure if this is God or not, but I sense God wants me to tell you something and you can do with it what you want…”, then that takes into account a necessary humility that invites the receiver to test it. Jesus told us that we “will know them by their fruits,” (Matthew 7:16), and the negative fruit of pride should be a red flag for us.
5. JUDGE IT IN COMMUNITY:
John Piper encourages those exercising this gift to “...Have humble expectations that the prophecy will not be taken as a word of Scripture but as a Spirit-prompted human word to be weighed by Scripture, and by mature spiritual wisdom. For a prophecy to be accepted as valid it should find an echo in the hearts of spiritually mature people. It should be confirmed by biblically saturated insight. And it should find a resonance in the hearts and minds of those who have the mind of Christ and are ruled by his peace.” Piper has a great video on the gift of prophecy.
6. JUDGE IT PUBLICLY:
It is important to correct false prophecy with tenderness. Correction helps teach people about the true gift of prophecy and protects the body of Christ. This may even lead to more people speaking out in faith as they hear from the Lord. Randy Alcorn gives church leaders great advice for correcting the misuse of this gift.