This is a simple test. If a man claims to be a prophet speaking in God's name, God's people should prove the veracity of the man's predictions. If his prophecies do not come true, it is obvious that God is not speaking to him or through him. Such a man is a false prophet. We should neither fear his words nor feel compelled to obey them.
Even if the man's prophecies do come to pass, we must beware. God warns us, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (I John 4:1). We need to be watching for the fruits of God's Spirit in those who would claim to be His representatives.
In the remaining verses of the chapter, verses 20-22, the subject matter changes. God seems to acknowledge that He has purposely left the true Prophet unnamed, perhaps wanting His people to put effort into recognizing the Prophet or prophets who truly represent Him. Of course, He wants us to use His criteria, which He proceeds to explain. This is just as true today as it was in ancient Israel.
If a man falsely claims to speak in God's name, or if he speaks in another god's name, he is worthy of death. If the man's predictions do not occur, he is a false prophet. Conversely, if a man speaks in God's name, and what he says happens, he may indeed be a true prophet (Jeremiah 28:8-9).
Apart from Christ Himself, Ezekiel may be the clearest case of a true prophet. He prefaces many of his prophecies with "the word of the LORD came to me, saying . . ." (Ezekiel 3:16; 6:1; etc.), followed by a direct quotation of God's words. This is speaking "a word in My name" (Deuteronomy 18:20). If it is indeed what God commanded him to say, he is guiltless, whether or not it comes to pass within his lifetime. Many of Ezekiel's prophecies, for instance, had a near fulfillment (in type) and a far fulfillment (antitype). In both cases, he is shown to be a true prophet of God.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
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