How to Recognize a False Prophet

By Mark W. Swarbrick

Scripture warns repeatedly that there would be false prophets or false teachers in the church, especially in the last days. For example:

“But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons…”(1 Timothy 4:1)

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

The Bible also warns us that these false teachers will be in disguise. They will appear to be men of God. For example:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness… (2 Corinthians 2:11-13-15)

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. (Matthew 7:15)

Thus it behooves us to be prepared to recognize a false teacher. Here is how you do it: Five signs of a false prophet —

1. False Prophets Come With a New Revelation from God

The cannon of scripture is closed. There are no new books of the Bible being written. The Bible is all we need for faith and practice. There are no more doctrinal revelations coming from God. The Bible is it. To assume that we need more revelation is to say that the Bible is incomplete and inadequate.

All cults and false teachers present a new revelation that they say they have from God. Don’t believe them. It is a lie. Even if a lot of what they say agrees with scripture, if they claim to have a revelation, then they are saying they have something that you can’t get from scripture and that is totally wrong. If their “revelation” is something that it is already in scripture, then what they claim to have is not a revelation.

Here is the definition of revelation. “Something not before known that was previously secret; to make known, to reveal a secret; a dramatic disclosure of something not previously known or realized.” So if a person claims to have a revelation from God, then by definition, he is claiming to have something not already revealed in scripture.

If what he teaches is already in scripture, then he is wrong to claim it is a revelation. It is not a revelation if it is already revealed in scripture. If he claims his revelation is in the Bible, but it was hidden and that he is the only one in two thousand years of Christianity that has seen it, then he is a megalomaniacal nutcase, and if you believe him then you are…well you get the idea. Let’s just say that it would be unwise to believe such a preposterous claim.

Sola Scripta (Latin: By Scripture Alone) is a foundational doctrinal principle of the Protestant Reformation. Allowing so-called doctrinal “revelation” within the church is deny the hallmark of the Reformation. Let’s look at just a few scriptures that support what I have just said. The following scriptures show the total sufficiency of scripture for faith and practice.

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. (Acts 17:11)

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. (Galations 1:8)

Nowhere does the scripture tell us to look for new revelation. Rather it warns to hold fast to what has already been taught.

…hold fast the word which I preached to you (1 Co 15:2)

Contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed…who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness… following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly… (Jude 1:3-4,16)

This tells us that the faith was “once for all handed down.” Teachers who claim a revelation from God are speaking in contradiction to this scripture. They are saying that the faith was not “once for all handed down,” but that it has to be handed down again with their revelation.

The apostles warned not to accept any teaching that was different from what they taught.

If we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! (Galations 1:7-9)

Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. (Romans 16:17)

To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:20)

Most Christians know that all teaching must harmonize with the Bible. However many Christians seem to be unaware that the very idea of any sort of supposed divine revelation at all is foreign to Christian orthodoxy. The minute a teacher claims divine revelation he has set himself up as an extra-biblical authority and is claiming his words are on a par with scripture and that in itself is serious doctrinal error. Thus no matter what the teaching itself is, the teacher’s labeling it as revelation makes it anathema from the start.

If the objection is made that the teaching is also found in the Bible, then what he has is not a revelation and should not be called such, for it is nothing new. It can be called an expounding of scripture or a teaching based on scripture. If it is already in scripture then it not a revelation. It cannot be had both ways.

So the Bible clearly says that the Bible is all sufficient and no further revelation is needed. We should add nothing to it and certainly nothing in contradiction of it. I believe it was by divine intent that the book of Revelation was the last book of the Bible and it warns us…

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)

Some would argue that this only applies to the book of Revelation. In answer it can be pointed out that all the books of the Bible are equally holy, and if it is grave sin to add to Revelation, then it would certainly also be sinful to add to any of the books of the Bible. And that is exactly what any kind of so-called divine revelation would be; it would be adding to the word of God.

If a false prophet tries to squirm out of this by saying, “Of course I don’t consider my revelation equal to scripture,” then I would counter with the question of just exactly what is a divine revelation from God then? Is it truth? Is it from God? Does God lie? If one claims to have a divine revelation from God then of course he is also saying it is the truth and that God gave him that truth. And of course, truth from God (if it really were that) would be on a par with scripture, unless one believes God is a liar. Thus anyone claiming to have a divine revelation is claiming that his words are equal to scripture, and that is heresy.

Prophets in the New Testament Church

One may object that the Bible talks about prophets in the New Testament church and would not these prophets receive revelations from God? Prophecy is a gift in the church, however New Testament prophecy is totally different from the office of an Old Testament prophet, such as Jeremiah or Isaiah, who did write scripture.

New Testament prophecy is not doctrinal in nature. It is a powerful and spectacular means of encouraging and exhorting the church in following what has already been taught by the Old Testament prophets and New Testament Apostles who were commissioned to write scripture.

New Testament prophets do not speak doctrinally. They speak with supernatural knowledge of what is in a person’s life; past, present or future, for the purpose of building them up in Christ. For example:

But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you. (1 Corinthians 15:24-25)

Furthermore, New Testament prophets do not speak with the perfection of scripture. They are human and exercise the gifts of God as best they are able. They may make honest mistakes and thus are to be subject to the church congregation as a whole:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. (1 Co 14:29)

For we know in part and we prophesy in part…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part… (1 Corinthians 13:9-12)

2. False Prophets Use Double Speak

A crafty false prophet will use double speak to obfuscate their false teaching to the alert and wary. They will speak out of both sides of their mouth. In other words, they will say one thing one day and then teach the opposite of it the next. This can be observed in nearly all of the major cults. They will say one thing on your doorstep, but the opposite once they have their hooks into you.

Double speak is a very clever way to maintain deniability. If an astute student of the Bible catches a doctrinally incorrect statement from the ministry and then they challenge them on it, if they have been doing their double speak regularly they can easily deny what they have said by pointing to a book or sermon or article where they said the opposite. By this means they can deflect criticism while still teaching their heresy.

Cults do not want to be recognized as a cult. It interferes with their efforts. They prefer to come as wolves in sheep’s clothing. It is hard to be a successful wolf when your lamb suit is taken away, so they do all they can to hide their unbiblical doctrines and practices from the general public.

To this end, cults use double speak in order to provide themselves with plausible deniability of their false doctrine, by stating the opposite of what they believe at different times and places. A simple example would be a cultist on your step who claims to believe in the Trinity, when in fact the official position of their organization is to deny the doctrine of the Trinity. They want to be able to deny their false doctrines until you are sufficiently under their influence.

A more sophisticated application of this method is to have in place writing, video or audio where they teach the opposite of their false doctrine. For example, a false teacher may teach frequently something erroneous, such as, that the Bible is unreliable. Then when confronted and challenged by Christians about their cultic error, they claim they teach no such thing, and then as proof, show some place where they do teach the reliability of the Bible. By this method they obscure their heresies from public view.

3. False Prophets are Sneaky

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies…Many will follow their sensuality… (2 Peter 2:1-2)

False teachers will very often SECRETLY introduce their heresies. An example of this would be Joseph Smith the founder of Mormonism. He secretly introduced polygamy to his inner circle, while for many years keeping it secret and even denying to the main church membership (and to his wife) that he practiced it.

So here is what you look for: If a person is a false prophet you can expect that his most public teaching will be Biblical and orthodox while his more private teachings will have heretical teachings mixed into them. Also watch out for teachers that speak out of both sides of their mouth, saying one thing in one place and time, and the opposite elsewhere.

So to examine a teacher for orthodoxy you must dig beneath the surface. Order their magazine and read behind the scenes. Consider what they say when they are on TV or in public and compare it to their behind-the-scenes teaching. Watch out for contradictory statements, which are a red flag.

4. False Prophets Are After Money

But false prophets…in their greed they will exploit you with false words…(2 Peter 2:1-3)

False prophets are very often greedy for money. If you are investigating someone to see if they are a good Biblical teacher or a false prophet, then do a financial investigation. How much money do they have? How much do they make? Do they handle money in a biblical manner? Are the financial records of their ministry reviewed by an independent auditing agency? Are they made public? Is the minister a millionaire? Do they sell the gospel and make merchandise of their followers?

Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

Being rich doesn’t mean someone is a false prophet, but it is part of the total picture to take into account. If they are a millionaire, be cautious.

Notice among yourselves, dear brothers, that few of you who follow Christ have big names or power or wealth. Instead, God has deliberately chosen to use ideas the world considers foolish… (1 Corinthians 1:26-27 LB)

Listen to what a teacher says and think about this scripture: “But false prophets…in their greed they will exploit you with false words…” (2 Peter 2:1-3). If a teacher begs for money and promises that if you send him money that you will get rich, or that for $19.95 you can have a prayer shawl that will heal your sickness, or for a certain amount of money you can read about his great divine revelation, then know that he is a false teacher that is greedily exploiting you with false words.

The gifts of God and the gospel are not for sale and to make it so angers God. The maddest Jesus ever got was when he made a whip of chords and drove the money changers out of the temple saying, “It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves.” (Luke 19:46)

Likewise when Simon thought that the power to impart the Holy Spirit could be purchased with money Peter responds with righteous indignation:

But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. (Acts 8:20)

When someone turns the gospel into a money making scheme to get rich then they are turning the house of God into a den of thieves. The gospel should not be patented and put up for auction. Those who do so have lost their fear of God.

5. False Prophets May Lead Sinful Lives

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will know them by their fruits.

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:15-23)

We have already seen that if a man claims to have a divine revelation from God that he is a false prophet. Now we can add to that a further test. If such a man has a history of continued deliberate willful sin in his life, this is a further indication that he is a false teacher.

But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. (1 Corinthians 5:10-12)

What if a minister did such things in the past but claims he has repented? There are qualifications for ministers:

For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, (Titus 1:7-8)

The minister must be above reproach, so if he sinned while being a minister it would depend on several circumstances. Was his fall of such a nature that the general public will never be able to consider him above reproach? Did he submit to his church’s program for discipline and restoration? Does his life now show a track record of holy living as befits repentance? It is true that God is mostly concerned about what our spiritual walk with Him is now. But He is also concerned about ministers exhibiting a consistent Godly life so as to be above reproach.

Conclusion

So we have seen five warning signs to help us detect a false teacher. Here are the five:

  1. False Prophets Come With a New Revelation from God
  2. False Prophets Use Double Speak
  3. False Prophets are Sneaky
  4. False Prophets Are After Money
  5. False Prophets May Lead Sinful Lives

If you see any one of these in a minister’s life, be careful. If you see a number of them or all of them then he most certainly is false teacher. When the disciples came to Jesus with questions about the end times they asked him:

Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3)

The very first thing out of Jesus’ mouth in answer was…

See to it that no one misleads you. (Matthew 24:4)

Spiritual deception will be the most predominant sign of the end of days. Today cults and false prophets are proliferating. Today we must listen to all teaching with discerning ears and guard against doctrines of demons that would infiltrate the church. Jesus is coming soon! While we wait for the Blessed Hope we must exercise wisdom and discernment to guard against the many false prophets that have gone out into the church world. Even so, come Lord Jesus!

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8 Comments

  1. What is the double speak which you feel Jimmy Swaggart and Donnie etc. use Mark. I do not hear it.
    I like what they say to the “leadership” of America.
    Now I heard Swaggart , the elder speak of the Holy Spirit having a body. It was in response to a question. He said , “when we all get to heaven anything is possible, I DON’T KNOW.

    Reply

    1. Hi Doris – The double-speak. They are very careful in their television broadcasts. Most of the false doctrine is in their magazine and books and bible. But an example of double-speak is when they will say one thing and then say something different later and/or deny what they said. For example, you say Jimmy Swaggart say that “possibly” the Holy Spirit has a body and that he “doesn’t know.” In his Expositor’s Bible he says he does know. He says the Holy Spirit has a body. So that is an example of double-speak. And of course such a doctrine is the same as the Mormon’s false teaching that God has a body. It is contrary to what Jesus taught and contrary to orthodox historic Christianity. Another example is when Donnie said on TV that if you don’t speak in tongues you were not saved, and then the next week he corrected that and said he isn’t saying that. (unfortunately I have not found it to make a clip of it, but saw it). This is just one of many examples.

      Reply

  2. First I appreciate you warning people about false teachers. Let me tell you what happened to me. My sister-in-law loves Jimmy swaggart and thinks he the most anointed man of God on t.v. She buys his books, his bibles (she gives them to other people, even those who are unsaved) and gives money to his ministry. Anyway,my sister-in-law was visiting me and started talking about Jimmy swaggart. She told me that on Frances and Friends an homosexual who had renounced his homosexuality wanted to be a pastor and his question was should he wait for a year. Their answer was “Yes!”. Whether it was right answer or not that wasn’t my concern. What upset me was knowing Jimmy Swaggert”s past, that he had been with prostitutes and when the Assembly of God had asked Jimmy to step down he refuse. When I mentioned this and said what a hypocrite he was my sister-in-law got very angry, I had touched the Apple of her eye. She told me that was years ago and I needed to forgive him. Then she stormed out of my house. After she had gone I went to the Lord and cried to Him. I had been doing some research on Jimmy swaggart but now I wanted the Lord to show me if this man was from God or not.I prayed “Lord you tell us not to follow wolves in sheep’s clothing, is Jimmy swaggart a true man of God?” As soon as I prayed a verse came in my head Revelation 2:2 ‘…I know you can not tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them false.’ When I read His Words I knew that Jimmy swaggart was a false teacher. My sister-in-law told me the next day that she had called the Jimmy swaggart ministries so thy could pray for me. The person she spoke to said that I had No understanding of the cross. What I say to that is they have NO understanding of Jesus and what He did on the cross. It is to Jesus and Him only that gets all my praise Amen.
    .

    Reply

    1. Hi Mathilde, Thanks for your interesting and insightful reply. Your sister-in-law’s reaction is typical of Swaggarites. They care more about defending their idol than anything else. Its almost like they love Swaggart more than Jesus, because they have no problem offending other Christians for whom Christ died. That is a great verse you quoted – Revelation 2:2 ‘…I know you can not tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them false.’ I am sure Jesus is pleased when we expose these false teachers.

      Reply

  3. I had a long time friend on FB for many years…a Swaggart follower. I sent her what I thought was a message from Joyce Meyer to help Syrian refugees. My so called friend had a fit because I mentioned another minister. We are no longer friends. Are only followers of Swaggart going to heaven?

    Reply

  4. Pastor Mark, you are so spot on but, I sure you know that. My research tells me the absolute same. I can and will help many many people with this information. My saying is, ” be very careful who you allow to minister to you.” You sir are God sent. Thank you very very much. May God continue his blessings on your life is my prayer.

    Reply

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