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"Test the Spirits" - Helge Kjær Nielsen

How Did the First Christians Seek to Distinguish Between True and False Prophets?



Awell-known evening hymn by Matthias Claudius contains inter alia this prayer:


Our Father in Heaven,

teach me to carefully know,

truth from its appearance.

(The Danish Hymn Hook, hymn 716:5)


For as long as the church has existed, it has been necessary to pray as Matthias Claudius does because the appearance of truth, i.e. falsehood, has always been one of the most serious dangers in the church. And it will unquestionably remain so.

Indeed, this is reflected in the usage of the New Testament in that the danger of falsehood was very much recognized already at that time. It is essential to beware of those who pretend to be apostles of Christ but who, in reality, are sham-apostles (2 Corinthians 11: 13; Revelation 2:2). Likewise, one has to be on guard against those who are fellow Christians in name but who, in fact, are sham-Christians (see i.a. Galatians 2:4) and for those who appear and act as teachers but who are false teachers (2 Peter 2: 1; 1 Timothy 4:2). Indeed, one even has to be aware that "Impostors will come claiming to be messiahs" (Matthew 24:24). If one listens to these sham-apostles one is listening to false preaching and is thereby being led astray.


The group of falsifiers one is most frequently warned against is the false prophets. In Matthew 7:15 it is written: "Beware of  false prophets", and in 1 John  4:1 we are warned that many false prophets "have gone out into the world". The remaining texts in the New Testament in which false prophets are directly referred to or mentioned are Matthew 24:11 and 24 (with parallels); Luke 6:26; Acts 13:6; 2 Peter 2:1; Revelation 16:13, 19:20, and 20:10.

In his valediction speech to the elders in Ephesus, Paulus warns against the savage wolves who will come in among them, and adds:

"Even from your own body there will be men coming forward who will distort the truth to induce the disciples to break away and follow them" (Acts 20:30). In the light of Matthew 7:15 especially false prophets spring to mind.

In the texts of the New Testament, no well-defined distinctions are made between false prophets and for instance sham-apostles or false teachers. Thus in 2 Peter 2:1 the false teachers are seen as a counterpart to the false prophets in the Old Testament. Yet, when the task is to determine whether it is possible to give a definition of the false prophets and as such of the false prophecy, it seems only fitting to attach the greatest importance to the texts where "false prophets" are mentioned.

The Significance of the Recognized Prophets

An important key to understand the warning against the false prophets is the significance of the true prophets and the true prophecy.

The attention is not so much brought to the prophets in the Old Testament even though their proclamations are of decisive importance to the true interpretation of Jesus and his work. Rather, the purpose is to draw the attention to the fact that prophets - according to i.a. the New Testament -  have played an important part in the earliest congregations.

In the accounts and exemplifications of gifts given in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 and 28-30, 13:1-2, and Ephesians 4:11, the prophets are in fact the only group which appear in each of these texts. An indication or sign of such prophets are given in the admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, "not to despise prophetic utterances", and in Paul's recommendation in 1 Corinthians 14:1 to aim especially for the gift of prophecy.

The prophet was believed to have been inspired by God and to have acted as God's mouthpiece (see i.a. 1 Corinthians 14:29-33). Generally speaking, the words of the prophets were meant to serve as a foundation for the congregation, and the assumption was that, through the prophet, the glorified Christ could now speak to his congregation. Therefore, it was decisive not to despise prophetic speech which in a way also could be seen as a continuation of Jesus' preaching.

At the same time, however, the more reason there was to beware of the false prophecy. It was necessary to test the spirits which means that in each individual case one had to try to clarify whether in fact it was the glorified Christ and as such God who spoke through the prophet.

Wolves Dressed up as Sheep

It is evident from the New Testament that it can be very difficult to identify the false prophets and to expose the false prophecy. The false prophets often appear in disguise. Indeed, they appear in something so utterly innocent as in sheep's clothing (Matthew 7:15). Their true identity is concealed. Another obstacle is that false prophets are capable of producing signs and wonders (Matthew 24:24 with parallels in the other Gospels), thereby giving the impression that they possess power and authority given to them by God. That the intention is to mislead the chosen is hard to understand under these circumstances.

This is why it is very likely that people will speak favourably of the false prophets just like they did in the Old Testament. The reason is that they often announce w hat the listeners would like to hear. That, too, makes it difficult to identify them.

Their Fruits Expose Them

Is it in any way possible to identify the false prophet and to expose the false prophecy? It would not be in accordance with the New Testament if the answer is no. The admonition to be on guard against the false prophets and to test the spirits has as its precondition that truth can be distinguished from its appearance. And yet, an unqualified yes to the question does not seem apt. It. would leave the impression that clear and straightforward criteria are available by which the false prophet and the false prophecy can be picked out. But that's not the way it is. It is, however, quite clear that people have had the need and strived to find such criteria. There is ample proof of this -  both in the Old and the New Testament.

Matthew 7:15-23 makes no secret of the fact that it can be difficult to pick out the false prophets. This is clear from the words "dressed up as sheep". Presumably this refers to people who were regulars of the congregation and who seemed unsuspicious and trustworthy.

At the same time, a criterion is stated by which it should be possible to expose them. And the criterion is their fruits. "You will recognize them by their fruits", it is declared in Verse 20.

To Submit to the Will of God

But w hat is meant by "fruits"? This is not quite clear but for instance Verse 21 points towards the meaning that it is with the person who submits to the will of God that the truthful fruit is to be found. In other words: the fruit is to submit to the will of God.

Consequently, the point is that the false prophets are exposed precisely because they do not exercise the will of God. The difficulty in establishing w hat in fact is the will of God is not addressed by the text and this is why unmasking the false prophets is hardly as simple as the text prima facie may lead one to think.

Also according to 2 Peter 2, the behaviour of these persons is completely inconsistent with the will of God and this behaviour will expose the persons one has to beware of.

Admittedly, this chapter speaks of "false teachers", but this hardly makes any difference. They are -  as already mentioned -  seen and described in the light of the signs of false prophets given in the texts of the Old Testament.

The false teachers and prophets on whom the elaborated and greatly negative description in 2 Peter 2 fit are hardly the most difficult ones to beware of. Surely they are not dressed up as sheep. What we have here is a conduct of life so utterly inconsistent with what according to the New Testament befits Christians.

The Christology as a Criterion

A different criterion is found in 1 John 4:1-3. According to these verses is it by listening to their confessions one can distinguish between the true and the false prophet:

"This is bow we may recognize the Spirit of God [i.e. the true prophet]: every spirit which acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit which does not thus acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is what is meant by 'Antichrist'; you have been told that he is to come, and here he is, in the world already!".

Consequently, it depends on the view of Jesus. The Christology is the criterion, to express it with an important theological concept. True is only the prophecy which springs from the acknowledgement and confession that God became man in Jesus from Nazareth. Thereby Jesus, his words, and his acts become a decisive criterion of the true prophecy.

The Criteria of the Old Church

The texts in the New Testament bear witness to the realization that false prophets exist and that not least in the last days others will appear and that this will mean a serious danger for the members of the congregation. It is therefore only natural that people bave sougbt to find criteria be means of which they could protect themselves from the false prophets and the false prophecy.

Having consulted the New Testament, one cannot argue that the oldest congregations bave succeeded in discovering unambiguous and readily practicable criteria. As such it may come as no surprise that people in the period following the New Testament have made efforts to find suitable criteria.

By way of example we may refer to Didaké, an important scripture from the old Church, which drew up guidelines for congregational life. Ch. 11:7-12 in Didaké is precisely about this. Here we find four criteria which, however, do not completely differ from one another or from criteria already mentioned in the texts of the New Testament:

"Not everyone who speaks under the influence of the Spirit is per se a prophet, only if he lives by the practice of the Lord (that is behaving and living with Jesus as his model) he is such a prophet; by their practice the true and the false prophet is to be recognized."

"Any prophet who indeed preaches the truth is nevertheless a false prophet if he doesn't practice what he preach."

The resemblance to some of what is stated above is quite obvious. It is first and foremost the life of the persons in question - for instance the connection between preaching and behaviour - which serves as criterion.

Two Other Criteria

So it is with the other two criteria which, however, differ by being more specific.

"Any prophet, who under the influence of the Spirit, demands a table laid do not himself eat at this table unless he is a false prophet".

"He, who in the name of the spirit says: "Give me money" or whatever, do not listen to him. But if he asks you to give to others, to the destitute, no one should judge him".

These two rather specific instructions rest on the understanding that the true prophet is concerned not so much about his own wants and needs as e is for his fellow human beings. It is not he who sits at the table, but it is he who serves who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God. A prophet who does not act according to this understanding is a false prophet.

The texts of both the New Testament and those written shortly after the New Testament show that attempts have been made to set up criteria for the unmasking of the false prophets and the false prophecy. From the persuasion that there has to be a close connection between life and teachings, the attention has been very much directed to the prophets' way of life.

Correspondingly, confession - or rather the confession to Jesus as Christ - has been established as a criterion from the persuasion that the true prophecy can only exist together with the true confession.

It is important to be attentive to the first Christians in their efforts to try to establish suitable criteria. In addition, it is worthwhile to consider the criteria we have knowledge of.

Jesus the Prophet

It would be unreasonable to say that reliable rules exist or that such can be employed assuredly. Also, it is likely that such rules cannot be found anyway.

However, there may be good reason to point at a matter not previously addressed. What I have in mind is that Jesus according to our Gospels was seen for instance as a prophet -  indeed, he was even seen as the prophet. This may be an indication of how a true prophet and a true prophecy is perceived.

Thereby the Gospels' picture of Jesus becomes a standard of true prophets and true prophecy. Not to be interpreted in the way that a prophet can only repeat what the prophet Jesus has preached. What characterizes a prophet -  and what is so valuable in the prophet's work is precisely that be, rightly considered, can say something new or is able to explain himself in some other way.

The prophet Jesus, however, is the standard in the sense that any prophecy which is inconsistent with Jesus' preaching, including Jesus' prophetical preaching, must be considered false and as such be rejected.

N.F.S.Grundtvig, in one of his hymns, speaks of the valuable ability "to have ears for sound" (Den Danske Salmebog (The Danish Hymn Book), hymn 335:1). How does one get ears so that it is possible to distinguish between the false prophecy and the true prophecy?

My solution is as follows: by listening to the preaching which has its origin in Jesus from Nazareth, a preaching which above all is made known in the New Testament. Only in this way is it possible to distinguish between "truth and its appearance". This, too, I presume, is what lies behind the attempts to establish the criteria I have discussed in this article.