True or False Prophet – how do we know?



Scores of pages could be filled with the names of people throughout the course of history who were either called prophets or who called themselves prophets. Who is a prophet? From the Scriptures we deduct that whereas priests spoke to God on behalf of the people, prophets spoke to the people on behalf of God. So anyone claiming to speak directly or indirectly on God’s behalf would either be a true or a false prophet. This would also include those who claim to have or convey supernatural knowledge (from the spirit world). This includes all shamans (witch doctors) and all founders of sects (like the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc.). Already in Bible times there was an abundance of false prophets.

How can we distinguish between a prophet who speaks on behalf of God and one who speaks on behalf of the devil or on his own behalf? Can we be held responsible for classifying a true prophet as false and the false prophet as true? Can we be held responsible when we do wrong, because inadvertently we believe a false prophet?

These are crucial questions for those who want to follow God. Here we have good news. God does not expect us to follow a prophet, be he true or false, blindly. He has given us the duty to test not only the spirits (1 John 4:1), but also the prophets, whether they are from God and speak on behalf of God: “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” (Deut. 18:21) The Word of God gives the answer: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.” (Deut. 18:22) “Present your case, says the Lord. Set forth your arguments, says Jacob’s King. Bring your idols to tell us what is going to happen … declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so that we may know that you are gods.” (Isa. 41:21 -23) “Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the Lord? And there is no god apart from me …” (Isa. 45:21) “In that day they will know that it is I who foretold it. Yes, it is I!” (Isa. 52:6)

What can we conclude from all this? A true prophet will prophesy events far ahead of the fulfillment of the prediction. He does this to safeguard us from questioning the actual message of the prophet. Fulfilled predictions are taken as the proof of the divine origin of the message the prophet proclaims. At the same time God lets us have insight into His plans.

The Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, abounds with prophecies. There are three major themes:

  1. God’s dealings with his people Israel

That includes the destruction of the temple and the diaspora, i.e. the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world and the re-establishment of Israel as a country and the return of the Jews as well as the Arab hostilities. Most of this is by now fulfilled.

  1. The coming of Jesus the Messiah

This is foretold in totally ‘unpredictable’ detail giving the time and place of his coming, his virgin birth, his name, many of his miracles and very particularly the salvation He brought when redeeming us by His own death on the cross. All of this was fulfilled.

  1. The end of this world

This is of course, not fulfilled as yet, although we are beginning to see the signs which could lead to the end. But what about the other “holy books” such as the Bhagavat Gita, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata of Hinduism; the Sadharma pundarika or the Suk-havativyuha Sutra of Buddhism; the Qur’an? None of these have any element of prophecy in them! There is a very short prediction in the Qur’an, indicating that the Byzantine Empire would be defeated by the Persians (Surah 30:1-4). But this was a very foreseeable political event and not even accurately fulfilled and therefore does not qualify as a prophecy. A good guess is not the same as a prophecy!

Muhammad emphasised, however, that the verses of the Qur’an (called ‘aya’ = sign) are the sign of his prophethood, which the Jews had strongly challenged. We have to reject this claim also, for the Quran contains absolutely no knowledge which was not yet available at that time in Arabia. There is therefore no supernatural element in the Qur’an.

The careful reader will have come to the conclusion that, applying biblical standards. Muhammad does not qualify as a prophet. On the other hand, we can rest totally assured that the many fulfilled prophecies of the Bible give us the greatest possible safeguard, that its message, provided it is interpreted rightly, is absolutely reliable.