What do you think of when you hear the phrase “false prophet?” For my part, any one of three different images comes to mind. I have an Old Testament false prophet; he’s a cult-compromised, greasy, grasping, fellow who knows he’s making stuff up, but will say anything to flatter and pacify the current ruler, in order to gain power and favor for himself.
Then I have my New Testament false prophet. He’s an opportunist who’s jealous of Paul. He travels around with the twofold aim of destroying the reputation of the apostles, and gaining a foothold in the fledgling church so he can use it for his own means.
And last, but not least, my modern-day false prophet: He’s got too-white teeth, a loud hairdo that was never in style anywhere with anyone, and has a fondness for bling, especially gold. He’s got his own tv show and he’s all about the money. He’s a prosperity peddler in the extreme, and he’s utterly godless.
Or, he might be dressed in the costume of a middle aged proto-hipster—in which case he propagates an ear-tickling, humanist, post-modern, syncretistic, subjective, social gospel Christianity. He wants everyone to know he’s above the fundamentalist fray…and hopefully to make a few bucks off his latest controversial book.
All of these guys have one thing in common. They are liars and they know it…or at least strongly suspect it. Religion is primarily a tool for manipulating the faithful and acquiring security, prestige, or self-validation. The false prophet seems exceptionally and inexplicably willing to tread on dangerous ground for relatively small and temporary gains.
But Ezekiel offers an insight that makes the phenomenon of the false prophet more understandable…and more spooky.
…say to those who prophesy from their own inspiration…“Woe to the foolish prophets who are following their own spirit and have seen nothing…They see falsehood and lying divination who are saying, The Lord declares,’ when the Lord has not sent them; yet they hope for the fulfillment of their word.” 13:2, 6
They hope for the fulfillment of their word?
Well, I don’t think you can do that unless your message at least has the appearance of fitting into your own belief system. In some sense, the false prophet has to believe that what he is saying could be true.
We have all had the experience of wanting something to be true so badly that we find ways to convince ourselves that it is. Is this also the experience of the false prophet?
They speak a vision of their own imagination. Jeremiah 23:16
…these prophets of the deception of their own heart. Jeremiah 23:26
…set your face against the daughters of your people who are prophesying from their own inspiration. Prophesy against them. Ezekiel 13:17
Without exception, when the above passages talk about the source of the message, it is the prophet’s own leb (לֵב). This is the self, the inner man—the thoughts, motives, will, and emotions. (For more on this concept, see my post, Mind, Heart, and Soul: What is the difference?)
Certainly there are false teachers who have no fear of God whatsoever. But that doesn’t seem to be the norm, and it doesn’t even mean that this minority started out that way. Godlessness seems to me a likely and logical outcome of unrepentant self-deception and compromise.
False teachers are not some class of super-villains with a potency of wickedness that us average Christians are immune from. You and I absolutely have the immediate potential to be false teachers and false prophets—and probably have been.
Have you ever told a Christian brother or sister that you’re sure they are doing the right thing or that you know their motives are good, when you actually have no idea if that’s true…or when you’re pretty sure it isn’t true?
We don’t want to sound judgmental. We don’t want to offend. We don’t want to risk a friendship. We don’t want to be perceived as…whatever.
We’re willing (for the sake of self-preservation) to possibly (or certainly) say what is false, lead someone astray, or affirm them in their sin—and we justify it with some unfounded, imagined thread of hope that, besides being expedient, maybe our words are also somehow true.
This, by the way, is the repeated message of the false prophet throughout Scripture, No worries. You’re good. God’s not mad. Everything is going to be just fine. You’re his child, after all. He accepts you just the way you are. You just keep doing what you’re doing, and trust God.
It’s easy to do because it’s what people want.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires. 2 Tim 4:3
You know, the whole “peace, peace when there is no peace” thing.
It is definitely because they have misled My people by saying, ‘Peace!’ when there is no peace. And when anyone builds a wall, behold, they plaster it over with whitewash. Ezekiel 13:10
They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially,
Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’
But there is no peace. Jeremiah 6:14
“They have healed my people superficially.” Isn’t that interesting?
And then there’s the false teacher/heresy aspect of things, which might seem like a different category, but it’s not. I think it’s really based on the same motives, just with a more overtly theological focus. How many of us have been guilty of recklessly embracing and propagating teachings that make us feel comfortable, look enlightened/relevant, or otherwise boost our self-image or promote our pet agendas?
We are motivated to believe the things that we know will impress others and advance our popularity and influence in our chosen sphere of Christianity. It doesn’t matter if that sphere is existentialism, universalism, fundamentalism, pentecostalism, dispensationalism, Calvinism, post-conservativism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism (whatever that is), or any other ism, leaning, or sympathy. The principle is the same. We really hope the teaching is true, but we do not diligently search it out, and we do stubbornly ignore or explain away evidence to the contrary.
It became plain to me through my Ezekiel reading this week (and related passages) that the infamous false prophet/teacher has and does play with the same deck of cards that we do. He or she has always been tempted by the same basic motives that we are.
Whether or not we belong to that category, or how entrenched we become in it, depends on the level of care we take with our thoughts and words, and the level of integrity we use in assessing our own motives for what we believe and say.
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. 2 Tim 2:15
There is a reason this instruction is given to believers (in this case a godly man who has been mentored and placed in leadership by Paul): becoming a false prophet is a real danger. It requires effort to reject the enticing morsels that lead us down that path. Self deception is the default setting of the flesh. We must GUARD against it. Diligence, integrity, and righteousness do not happen by accident.
So anyway, I hope you’re thoroughly intimidated.
Of course, there’s always the little matter of the self-existent, all-powerful God promising to back us when we pursue righteousness. I guess we can take a little comfort in that.