The False Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)
In 1836 a New York preacher named William Miller announced after two years of intense Bible study that life on earth would end in 1843. He began a barn-storming tour of Northeastern church, gathering adherents.
When January 1843 arrived with no visible sign of apocalypse, he amended his timetable. “I am fully convinced,” he wrote, “that somewhere between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844, Christ will come.” In the winter of 1844, the faithful took a passing comet as a sure portent. The number of Millerites swelled to 50,000, and many of them sold their worldly good, but the trumpet never sounded.
One of his followers decided to change the date of the end—that in fact, the end would come in 1844, and its failure to do so became known as “the Great Disappointment.” After the disappointment, Mrs. Ellen G. White preached that Christ had stopped to clean out heaven before he came back to earth. Her followers became the Seventh-day Adventists today.
You know how common predictions can be. Several years ago, the concern was Y2K; everything was to stop the moment the clocks on computers turned to 01/01/00. I worked with a lady in Kentucky during that time that had canned goods for about a year bought up and she had her gun ready, because anarchy was going to rule the day. Every day in December, you can stand in the check-out line at the grocery store and see everything that’s supposed to happen the following year.
If you’re anything like I am, you find a lot of enjoyment in these predictions; I enjoy reading them just to see how outrageous they are. I doubt quite seriously there’s a one of you who needs me to preach a sermon about such ludicrous prophecies; thus, I will not preach that sermon.
But what about the Israelites? They lived in an era where God actually did speak directly to his prophets; these prophets, in turn, would tell the Israelites what God wanted from them. How were they to tell who was a true prophet and who was a false prophet?
In the passage we’ll study this morning, Moses tells the Israelites how to detect a true prophet and how to detect a false prophet. We want to examine this passage in its original context and apply some principles to modern preaching.
There are a lot of parallels between the prophets in the Old Testament and modern preachers. The Old Testament prophets were given a message directly from God; the frequent use of “Thus says the LORD” demonstrates that the prophets’ job was to speak for God. Although modern preachers are not inspired as were the Old Testament prophets, the role is basically the same: to speak for God, to tell people what God wants them to know.
Thus, we will be able to take this passage about prophets and apply it to preachers.
The Death of the False Prophet, v 20
“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 same prophet shall die.”
In this time period, there were countless prophets throughout Mesopotamia and the surrounding area. Ancient texts from this region contain a large number of prophetic utterances. The most famous among these ancient texts are about 50 texts from Mari (18th century BC) that contain reports from both male and female prophets warning about plots against the king, admonitions from a god to build a temple or to provide offerings and assurance of military victories.
Throughout Israel’s history, idolatrous prophets arose. “The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit” (Jer 2:8). You will also recall that Elijah gathered the 450 prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1 Ki 18).
But this announcement did not just concern those who spoke in the names of pagan deities; notice that God says that “the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name which I have not commanded him to speak.”
The problem, then, included men and women who would say, “Here’s what God wants” when God had not said anything of the sort. This, too, was a problem throughout Israel’s history. “The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so” (Jer 5:31). “And the LORD said to me: ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them to speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds’” (Jer 14:14).
These false prophets to die—Elijah killed the prophets of Baal after the contest at Mount Carmel (1 Ki 18:40).
What does this verse tell us about God? What are we to learn from God’s telling the Israelites to kill the false prophets?
God does not want falsehood among his people.
God was so concerned that his people not be led astray by falsehood that those who spoke falsely were to die.
God certainly has the same concern in the church today. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1). John says, “Examine people to see if they’re telling you the truth or not. Don’t believe everything you hear.” Elders must know Scripture so that they “may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it” (Tit 1:9). God wants the elders in a congregation to defend truth and make sure nothing but truth is taught in the local congregation.
God desires to see those who speak falsely punished.
That punishment came in the form of death in the Old Testament era.
Although God doesn’t tell us to kill false teachers, he plans to deal with them accordingly. Notice what Jude wrote about false teachers—Jude 12-13. 2 Peter 2:1-3. Know this: those who teach error will be severely punished by God.
The Deeds of the False Prophet, vv 21-22
The Israelites needed a way to know if the prophets who spoke to them spoke the truth or not. If I were to stand here and say, “Thus says the Lord: The sky will turn blood red at noon tomorrow because you are an evil, evil people,” how would you know if I spoke the truth or not? Quite simply: if the sky turned blood red at noon tomorrow, you would know that I was a prophet of God. That’s the same test God gave the Israelites to see if prophets spoke the truth or not: If what they said came to pass, they were true prophets; otherwise, they were false prophets and the Israelites needed to have no fear of them.
As I have already mentioned, there are numerous prophets operating today. I would sincerely hope that there isn’t a one of us who would give them a shred of credibility.
Yet, if anyone would ever give these pagans an ounce of credibility, here’s a test to see how reliable they are: If what they say comes to pass, they have spoken truly. Do you notice that God isn’t dealing with a certain percentage of correct prophecies. If you look at these modern prophets, they will often claim to get things right 75% of the time or so. This text doesn’t say, “If the prophet is right half the time, accept him, and if he has a higher error ratio than that, ignore him.” A prophet from God would never be wrong; it wasn’t a ting of percentages.
Just as the Israelites of old needed a standard to know if they could trust the prophets in their day, we need a standard to know if we can trust those who preach in our day. That standard, of course, is Scripture.
“Even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1:8). “Accursed” or “anathema” means to be damned by God; there’s not a real nice way of putting it.
Notice the similarities between Galatians 1 and Deuteronomy 18:
- In Deuteronomy 18, God said the false prophet should die; in Galatians 1, Paul says the false teacher should be condemned to hell.
- Thus, both Moses and Paul, writing by inspiration, says that those who teach what God hasn’t authorized to be taught are going to face an extremely, extremely serious penalty.
The standard in Galatians 1:8 is to determine if what the teacher says conforms to what the apostles have taught. The apostles, of course, taught by direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
“Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ does not have God” (2 Jn 9). John was warning the elect lady about false teachers who were running rampant in her day. John says, “If they aren’t abiding in the doctrine (the teaching) of Christ, they aren’t right.”
Since Scripture is the standard by which we can detect truth and error, let us be diligent to examine Scripture. Let it be said of us, like it was said of the Bereans, centuries ago, that we “welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
Brethren, let us not believe everything we hear. How many of us would be so naïve as to believe every TV commercial we encountered in a day? Why would we then be so gullible as to believe everything a preacher says—any preacher says—when our souls are at stake?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.