Recognizing False ProphetsErwin W. Lutzer | October 20, 2013
Selected highlights from this sermon
With the judgment of Judah looming, Jeremiah, God’s true prophet, was surrounded by competing messages from false prophets. They spoke falsely about God, claiming that all was well and that God would not judge. The people of Judah flocked to these false prophets and clung to their lying “visions” and occult divinations.
Our age is filled with false prophets who deceive, as they hide their true motives of greed and fame. Will we be faithful prophets who champion God’s Word, confronting the idolatry and false teaching around us? Will we present the true gospel of sin, judgment, faith, and repentance?
When a nation is in trouble or when you are in trouble, what you and I really need is a word – a message from God. And we need that message from God for a number of different reasons. First of all, we need that message to find out what God is like, to find out what He has planned, and then most assuredly to plan for the future to find out what lies ahead.
In the ancient city of Jerusalem in the land of Judah, about 2,600 years ago (600 BC), there was a prophet by the name of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was speaking the Word very clearly to a nation that had forgotten God. They were worshipping idols, they were into immorality and they were feeling very comfortable in their sin. And so God anointed Jeremiah and said, “Jeremiah, I want you to be a prophet to the nations.” And so he told the people that the Babylonians were going to come and destroy their city, destroy their country, and they had better prepare, and they had better repent of their sin.
But the people didn’t want to hear it, and so what happened is there were plenty of false prophets, false teachers who said to themselves and to others, “We have a better message than Jeremiah with all that negativism regarding judgment. We know better than he does.” And so Jeremiah had to put up with false prophets. In fact, the false prophets actually ultimately had him thrown into a well, and there they persecuted him.
I’ll tell you what I’d like to do in the next few moments, and thanks so much for joining me. I’d like to talk about false prophets from the book of Jeremiah, also using contemporary illustrations, and occasionally going into the New Testament to help us to understand what is going on today. And I am doing this for a very specific reason. I am doing this so that when you are watching television and you see some of these false prophets (and not everyone who is on television is a false prophet or a false teacher, but there are many of them), you will be able to recognize those characteristics and say, “I see that he or she is a false teacher.” We need discernment in this day of confusion.
Listen to what God said about the false prophets of the time, and you can take your Bibles and turn to the book of Jeremiah. The Lord says this regarding the false prophets. “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown.”
What strong words to false prophets who healed the wound of their people too lightly. They talked with people and told them that they could solve their own problems. You know, after all, you can do anything that you want to do. You can authenticate yourself. Your sin really is no problem. And so what they were doing was basically putting a bandage over a cancer, thinking that the bandage would be able to heal the deep-rooted sore of the human heart.
Now what I’d like to do is to give you four characteristics of false prophets. Then we’ll talk about some good news. Now some of you may say to yourself, “Well, you know this doesn’t seem very loving. For Jeremiah to make these very strong statements does not seem like the loving thing to do.” May I tell you that love always tells the truth? Love always is willing to confront, and that is the most loving thing that you can do. Jeremiah was a prophet who wept. He cried over the sins of the nation, and over the things that he foresaw that were coming - the suffering that is absolutely incredible that we will talk about in the next couple of messages. But for now – false prophets!
Turn to Jeremiah 5 and you’ll notice that it says this in Jeremiah 5, and I’m beginning at verse 12. “They have spoken falsely of the Lord (speaking of the false prophets) and have said, ‘He will do nothing; no disaster will come upon us, nor shall we see sword or famine.’” Jeremiah’s message is wrong. It is too judgmental; it’s too negative. That’s not going to happen. This is God’s evaluation in verse 13. “The prophets will become wind; the word is not in them. Thus shall it be done to them!” Wow! That’s God’s view of the false prophets.
Very quickly, notice that they diminish the holiness of God. The Bible says they speak falsely of the Lord. They say, “No disaster will come. God isn’t going to judge us.” The whole idea of judgment is out of vogue. It’s not the kind of thing that you do. As a matter of fact, everybody is going to heaven. In the end everybody wins.
Somebody said, “We don’t want a father in heaven. What we want is a grandfather in heaven, a grandfather who watches the kids play, and even if they are mischievous, and even if they do wrong things, he enjoys it all, and at the end of the day he says, “A good time was had by all.” That’s the kind of God we want.
So people today go “god shopping” because they want a god that is made in their image. So they have the god of self-authentication. They have the god of health and wealth. They have the god of my sexual preference. Whatever it is that I want, God becomes that to me. That’s not the biblical God and God said some harsh things about prophets who say such things.
So the first thing is they, of course, diminish the holiness of God, and they exaggerate the goodness of human nature. They tell humans exactly what they want to hear. By the way, your Bibles are opened to chapter 5. Notice what it says here in verse 30. “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” The goodness of human nature! You don’t have to change. You don’t have to confront your sin. It is more important that you be healed and that you be holy. And so people begin to believe that “I’m okay – you’re okay.” You are okay in the way in which you are. Somebody said that we have cows for milk, we have goats for cheese, we have sheep for wool, and we have God to come along and to confirm all of our desires. That’s the kind of God we want. The Bible says that God created man in His own image, and now man creates God in his own image. Whatever I want God to be, that’s who God is.
And so what you have is the exaltation of human nature. There is a false prophet on television who garners a huge audience and who tells his people things like this. “We have been born for earthly greatness. In fact, what you should do is to imagine in your mind prosperity and wealth, and if you have these clearly in your mind, thinking about them and speaking the right words will bring them about. You have power within yourself to do all of these things. Just think it!”
And so you have the power of positive thinking. There’s no emphasis on sin. There’s no emphasis on the need for forgiveness – nothing like that. All that you need to do is to think it. The power of positive thinking!
Now there is some power in positive thinking. Do you remember that little engine that went up the hill and said, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can?” All of its optimism probably helped it but if it got to the top of the tracks and the tracks were washed out at the top of the hill, it wouldn’t matter how often it said, “I think I can, I think I can.”
And folks, today human nature is basically sinful. Now there’s a good part to us too. We can do both good and evil. You know what Jeremiah says about human nature in chapter 17? He says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” And the very next verse says, “I, the Lord, try the heart.” Do you realize that as you are listening to this message today that God knows exactly what your thoughts are? He knows exactly what your thoughts were last week and what you thought of this morning. God knows the human heart. He knows us better than we know ourselves because there are things about us that we don’t want to admit. God knows them.
Pascal, the great French philosopher and mathematician, had some wonderful things to say about human nature. By wonderful, I mean very accurate. He says that man retains an image of God but he is plunged into the misery of his blindness and lust, which is his nature. So there is a part of man that can do good. One day I was watching television and seeing the news, and here was a story about a woman who went about with an SUV full of groceries, helping the poor. And the very next story was a terrible story of a woman who had been brutally assaulted. And I thought, “What a contrast!” Yes, we retain the image of God, and therefore we can do good, but there’s also that part of us that is sinful and that God knows about, and false prophets come along and tell us that we are really wonderful people, and all that we need to do is to try harder, and surely God is going to accept us. That’s false prophets! So that’s the second thing. They exaggerate human ability.
Let me give you a third characteristic, and that is that they have various sources for their knowledge. Now actually I am in the fourteenth chapter of the book of Jeremiah where God says this about false prophets. And the reason that I am asking you to turn to different passages is really because of the fact that all throughout Jeremiah you have references to false prophets. In fact, chapter 23 almost exclusively is devoted to false prophets. Maybe we’ll have time to read a little bit of that as well.
But this is what is says beginning in Jeremiah 14:13. “Then I said: ‘Ah, Lord God, behold, the prophets say to them, “You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.’” And the Lord said to me: ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. (And now here are three different sources of their prophecies.) They are prophesying to you (first of all) a lying vision.’” You often see this on television, don’t you? The most bizarre thing can be attributed to God, and if you question it, somehow you are questioning either the Lord’s anointed, or you are questioning this prophet of the Lord in a way that is going to be detrimental to him.
Years ago I watched some of these false prophets because I wrote about them. And one false prophet said, “Speak to your wallet and tell it to be full of money.” (laughter) I mean, really? This is incredible. Another false prophet on one occasion said, “Oh, I’m just having a revelation. There are actually nine members in the Trinity.” Wow! Really?
During Luther’s time there were false prophets also in Northern Germany, and there were those who were having these special revelations about God and all these things. And you know that in the New Testament and so forth the Holy Spirit is represented as a dove so Luther sarcastically said, “I will not accept their prophecies even if they have swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all.” (laughter)
So God says that one source is lying visions. Notice the second is worthless divination. That actually is occultic. Yes, it is true that one of Satan’s most dazzling deceptions is to have people speak and think that they are in contact with the living God, but they are actually in contact with demonic powers. The Apostle Paul in the New Testament says this very, very clearly. Listen to what he says there in the book of 2 Corinthians 11:12-15 where he talks about false teachers. “And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission (Notice the words boasted mission because they will become important in a moment.) they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” Wow!
You see people on television today who say that they have the power to be able to touch people and they collapse. You know – to be slain in the spirit. This man is so holy, and he has so much power that if you come under his spell he’ll give you some of his energy, some of his God-ordained energy. And he touches people and they collapse on the platform.
Somebody who was a part of the movement did a study of all those who collapsed on the platform to see whether or not they were given any spiritual power, and concluded that there was no measureable difference between them before and afterwards. They were still the same people, dealing with the same sins, and yet the thought is that this man has so much spiritual power. I have to tell you that there’s no doubt (and I don’t want to name anybody) that some of these people are demonized. I have watched them on television and you can almost see it in their eyes. But they use the name of Jesus all the time. And you say, “Well, how can that be? They are using the name of Jesus.” The Apostle Paul in this very same passage in 2 Corinthians says that they were preaching another Jesus. There are all kinds of Jesuses out there. There’s the Santa Claus Jesus. There’s the Mormon Jesus. There’s the “God of your fantasies” Jesus. And so they proclaim Christ but not the Christ who was crucified for our sins. They are not proclaiming that Jesus. It’s a different Jesus.
And we don’t know exactly what Jesus they were presenting there in 2 Corinthians, but notice this. The Apostle Paul believed that it was so much like the real Jesus that he feared that the Church in Corinth could not tell the difference. And we are living at a time when there are so many Jesuses out there, and unfortunately many Christians cannot tell the difference. It’s heartbreaking.
And so Jeremiah says that that’s another means – worthless divination. And then he speaks of “the deceit of their own minds.” I’m still there in Jeremiah 14:13-14. Basically what false prophets do is they look at their desires, and after they look at their desires, what do they do? They fashion God after those desires. I wish we had time to look at this in more detail, but you know that in the New Testament in 2 Peter (as well as in Jude) there’s a reference there to false prophets who follow their own desires. It says that they look within and they say, “I want to do this, that, or the other thing,” and so God comes along and becomes to them everything that they want, and as a result of that they are led into great sin.
You know the Bible is very clear that God says, “I Am that I Am,” and not “I am who you want Me to be.” So, that’s another way in which false prophets get their particular wisdom, supposedly. It is made up in their own minds.
There’s a fourth characteristic and that is that they hide their true motives. Now the Scripture is very clear about this. In the New Testament this is the expression that is used for false prophets. It says they are trained in greed. My heart just absolutely breaks when I get to this, because what you see false prophets doing is they are making money. They encourage you to send money to them and this money is supposed to become seed money that will garner you a big harvest.
You know this past week I was thinking about one false prophet who is on television regularly who encourages people to send a thousand dollars to him. Now he never tells you how he’s going to use a thousand dollars. So I saw on the Internet that there is someone was looking at some papers to verify the fact that this man was worth about 14 million dollars – money that had been sent in. And if you ever see him on television, he is powerful. He is even Scriptural sometimes, and he will tell you that if you will send him money God is going to use it as a seed and you are going to get a great harvest, and you are going to be wealthy and be able to pay your bills.
Many years ago there was a false prophet on television who told people this, and I saw it with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears. He said, “If you send money to me, your mortgage will be miraculously paid. You are going to get a letter from the mortgage company saying that your house has been paid for.” Do you believe that? A couple of months later I was in the city where this false prophet lives and where his ministry is, and so I asked the pastor who picked me up from the airport whether or not he knew about this claim, and he said he did. And I asked him what really happened, and he said, “The man received a lot of money but no mortgage was miraculously paid.” Is there anybody out there who is surprised at that?
Many years ago I attended a crusade held by a false prophet, and I’ll never forget that as he was taking one offering after another people were putting wristwatches into the offering basket. These poor people were giving everything that they had to him. He even had the nerve to say from the pulpit, “We’re really fleecing God’s sheep today, aren’t we?” Can you believe that? Yet he spoke to thousands of people – many more than I’m probably speaking to today. And so there they are, the Bible says, trained in greed, manipulation and false promises that are not based on the Word of God. Please don’t be deceived by these people.
Sometimes I say, and I do say it with love, that sometimes God’s sheep can’t tell the difference between grass and Astroturf. I do need to say that. I thought I’d throw that one out for free today. No offering afterwards! (laughter) But we could use one here, and I don’t mind raising money for specific things but when I do, I never promise people that if you give, somehow gifts are going to come to you and suddenly you are going to become wealthy. I love to raise money for people who can’t raise money for their own, whether it is for orphanages, or whether it is for the ministry of Moody Church, and our many opportunities to share the Gospel. That really excites me and it is biblical, but we never here make false promises as to how you will be blessed as a result. You will be blessed but not monetarily necessarily.
Well, they hide their true motives. Their real motive is wealth, and then the other motive that is so important, folks, is pride. Did you notice what the Apostle Paul says? These people, in their boast (they boast about what they are able to do) want people to look upon them as if to say that they are so holy. And as a result of that they are so plugged into God; they have a special relationship with the most High and therefore they want us to be able to almost worship them.
I was reading this past week about a false prophet who makes all of these predictions. They love to be able to say, “God is showing me what He is going to do in your life. I am anointing you for special ministry.” So one false prophet said to this couple, “God is going to use you powerfully in South America as missionaries.” A couple of months later the wife was actually killed in a car accident. The prophecy did not come to pass. He said to somebody else, “You will write a book,” appealing to their pride that they write this book that was going to influence people. The book was never written. “You will have an AIDS ministry,” another false prophet told this couple. “God is going to give you this great ministry.” It never happened.
I remember a false prophet (I saw this on television.) and this couple came forward and said, “You know, we’d really like to have children and we can’t have them.” He said, “Let me ask you this. Do you want a boy or a girl?” They said they wanted a boy. “Spring baby, fall baby (whatever)? Okay, that’s what you will have. You come back next year and you tell us about the birth of this child.”
Now I want you to think about this for a moment. Let’s suppose that the couple doesn’t have a child. If they have a child the next year, they’d return and this faith healer would take all the credit for it and say, “Hallelujah! What a miracle!” But if they don’t, whose fault is it? It’s never his. It’s your fault because if you had had the faith it would have happened but because, you see, you don’t have that faith, that’s your problem.
Why am I preaching this message? My heart breaks for people. I sometimes see crowds (you can see this on television) with false prophets, and many of these people are poor, and why are they there? They are saying to themselves, “If I just had enough faith, if I had the same faith as this guru or of this prophet, then I would be able to drive the same car that he drives, and wear the clothes that he wears, and so forth. I’d be wealthy, just like him, because he tells us that if we meet the requirements we will be like him. If only I could be like him!” These dear people leave their money there and they go home and never experience the miracle, because that’s not a miracle that God ever promised. It is tragic.
Now I could go on about his because I’ve seen this so often, but let me give you three quick conclusions here to help us to draw this together and to give us some hope. First of all (number one), remember this. False prophets are God’s judgment upon a nation. What Jeremiah actually says is, “God says, ‘I’m putting a stumbling block before the people and that stumbling block happens to be false prophets.’” And Paul, in effect says the very same thing in the book of 1 Timothy. I want you to just notice what Paul has to say there. “For the time is coming,” he says, “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth, and will wander off into myths. But as for you, always be sober-minded. Endure suffering. Do the work of an evangelist. Fulfill your ministry.” Notice this. People are going to wander off to find doctrine and find a preacher that affirms their own passions.
So you see, what the people said in Jeremiah’s day was, “We don’t like Jeremiah’s message. What we’re going to do is we’re going to find a false prophet who tells us exactly what we want to hear.” And that becomes part of their judgment because, you see, they are not interested in the truth because the truth bothers them so deeply. And the truth means that they are sinners, and they need to repent and come to God, and they say, “That’s not what we want to hear.” And so they turn away and they do their own thing, seeking the kind of teacher or prophet that they want.
Secondly, true prophets always preach God’s Word. I want to read this from Jeremiah 23. True prophets always preach God’s word. You know what Jeremiah says in chapter 23. He says that the false prophets actually strengthen the hands of evildoers. That’s in verse 14 and 15. Can you imagine that? They strengthen the hands of evildoers. They give people confidence to do evil, and say that nothing will bother them and that God will put up with it.
But then the Lord says this starting in verse 23. “Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. (The answer, of course, is no.) Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart (Do you see how deep this goes?), who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal?” Now notice this, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who steal my words from one another.” And they’ve got all the dreams, and so forth.
So God there makes a contrast between His Word, between Jeremiah’s word and the word of the New Testament and the words of the Bible. God contrasts that with all the false prophets who are going with their dreams and their visions. He says, “What connection is there between straw and wheat?” One is straw and the other is wheat.
And what is the message that we need to get to people today? What is our greatest need? If we’re not simply going to heal their wound superficially, what is it that they need to know? First of all, they need to know the holiness of God. We cannot remake God in our image. We must bow before who God is. God does not come along and say, “I want you to choose whether or not you like Me or whether or not you want to change Me. I am who I am and I change not.” That’s the first thing that we must communicate to this generation.
And the second thing that we must communicate is that He is a God of mercy and invites people to come to Him. All throughout the book of Jeremiah, God keeps saying, “Return to Me. Return to Me.” And in chapter 31 God says that even though this generation has hardened their heart and will not turn to Him (and we’ll look at that more in future messages), the Lord also says very clearly that there’s another generation (chapter 31) that will turn to Him and He will give them a new covenant, God says, and they will obey Him. And He says, “I will forgive their sins, and their iniquities I will remember no more.”
And when Jesus came, you remember how he said to the disciples, “Take, eat. This is My body, which was broken for you. This blood is the blood of the New Covenant in My blood.” What Jesus was saying is, “I fulfill the promises of the book of Jeremiah. I am here today to forgive your sins, to receive you.”
The issue is never the greatness of our sin. There are some of you who are listening today who don’t think you need a Savior because you don’t think that your sin is very big. But the Bible says that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. There are others of you who say to yourself, “I’ve sinned so bad; I’ve messed up so bad God can’t forgive me.” The answer to both of you is that God can forgive, He is gracious and He is merciful. If you come to Jesus, forgiveness and reconciliation with God is not only possible. It is a reality for those who believe on Him. Will you remember that?
Simon Wiesenthal was a Jew, you remember, who survived the Holocaust, and in his book The Sunflower he tells an interesting story. He says that there was a young Nazi soldier who was dying, and Wiesenthal was there in the room with this soldier. And the young Nazi asked Wiesenthal to forgive him for his sins against the Jews. No doubt it was quite a dilemma for Simon Wiesenthal but he left the room and refused to grant this young man’s request for forgiveness. So what Wiesenthal did was he wrote then about it and he sent his dilemma to various ethicists, professors of ethics throughout the world and asked if he did the right thing.
Well, actually Wiesenthal did the right thing, in my opinion, because he wasn’t in a position where he could forgive this Nazi his sins. It would have been one thing for the Nazi, you see, to go to those whom he had brutally wronged, and in some instances killed, which of course would have been then impossible for him to make reconciliation. But the whole point is simply that when we sin, only the person against whom we have sinned can forgive us. In that sense, Wiesenthal was right, but there’s something that we need to emphasize from the book of Jeremiah and from the whole Bible. And that is that all sin is sin against God. Whether or not you lie to someone, that lie is an offense against God – a greater offense against God than it is against the person to whom you have lied. Immorality is an offense to God, and therefore, only God is able to forgive sins. And Jesus Christ came to this world so that God could forgive and God could be holy. At the one time over here we know the holiness of God, and at the same time He could be merciful and loving to receive all those who come to Him, recognizing that all of us have sinned against God, and therefore, only God can forgive us. That’s a message that needs to be heard because there are some of you who are listening today in whose heart God is working right now and pointing out your need for a Savior, your need for Jesus Christ who came to forgive us of our sins.
You know, during the time of the Reformation, official Christendom said to the Reformers, “How do you know that you have the right message? Where are your miracles?” And the Reformers said, “We don’t need miracles because the Bible says that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation to all those who believe.” If you want to see a miracle, you come to Jesus Christ and receive His forgiveness and His acceptance, and He’ll do a miracle in your heart, and you’ll be converted and reconciled to God.
Let’s bow together in prayer, shall we? And before I close this prayer, I’m talking now to you. I’m not yet talking to God. If God has talked to you, would you reach out to Him right now and say, “Jesus, I thank You that You died for sinners. I thank You that You invite me to come to You and to become Your son or Your daughter forever.”
Would you reach out to Him now in this moment of silence?
Father, hear the prayer of all, we ask. And we thank You that You are a holy God, but You are also a forgiving God, and we thank You today that Jesus died for us. May we come to receive the forgiveness and the cleansing that He offers to all who believe on Him. We pray this in His blessed name, Amen.