"Beware of false prophets." Jesus says this in Matthew 7:15.
But what's the difference between a real prophet, a person who speaks God's Word truthfully, and a false prophet?
One major difference is seen in an incident we recently considered at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church. (We're reading the Bible together in a year's time.)
The incident, recounted in 1 Kings, chapter 22, and retold in 2 Chronicles 18, revolves around the preparations of two kings for battle: Ahab, a thoroughly evil guy, of Israel (or Samaria), and a decent king named Jehoshaphat. They had formed an alliance and were getting ready to go into battle with the King of Aram.
Before taking to the field though, Jehoshaphat suggested that they should consult with God on the matter. So, Ahab got a group of four-hundred "prophets" together and asked them to give God's direction about their plans. "Go to it!" the four hundred replied enthusiastically.
But Jehoshaphat must have thought their answer was too glib. "Is there no other prophet of the LORD here of whom we may inquire?" he asked Ahab.
There was one other prophet, Ahab said. His name was Micaiah. "But I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster," Ahab revealed. Jehoshaphat, the more pious of the two, told his counterpart, "Let the king not say such a thing!"
So, Ahab relented. Micaiah was called to come speak with the two kings, both sitting on thrones. He was warned by one of Ahab's underlings that if he knew what was good for him, he'd tell Ahab what he wanted to hear, that God would give him success if he went into battle.
Initially, his voice dripping with sarcasm, that was exactly the "prophecy" Micaiah gave. Perturbed by his manner, Ahab pressed Micaiah to come clean. Micaiah told the king that he, Jehoshaphat, and their armies would lose the battle. For his honesty, Ahab had Micaiah imprisoned and put on reduced rations.
Of course, Ahab and Jehoshaphat went into battle (a decision Jehoshaphat regretted) and it turned out as disastrously as Micaiah said that it would. Ahab died from wounds he suffered in spite of precautions he took to avoid being identified by the enemy.
There are several ways to know when someone claiming to speak for God really is speaking for God.
One way is to see whether what they say dovetails with the character and will of God as revealed in God's Word, the Bible.
Another is if they are delivering promises so good that only God could deliver on them (like resurrection for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ).
But, in the story of Micaiah, Ahab, Jehoshaphat, and the four hundred "prophets," we see another way of telling the difference between true prophets from God and false prophets.
False prophets will always tell you what you want to hear. If you're a person with a lot of money, false prophets tell you that God prefers the prosperous and that those without money are deficient in their faith. If the prevailing winds of culture say that sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and a woman is OK, false prophets will tell you that God agrees. If you're a king or president who wants to go into battle, false prophets will tell you that your cause is just, no matter what the Bible teaches about doing justice, loving kindness, or walking humbly with God and that real power doesn't reside in superior arms, larger armies, or fatter war appropriations, but in the God Who, over the long haul, fights for those who humbly trust in Him.
True prophets risk everything to tell you what you might not want to hear, what would be safer for them not to say, in order to help you live in sync with God, the only One Who can give you life, eternity, or purpose.
True prophets are willing to be proven wrong. They don't care the side on which the bread is buttered. Micaiah told Ahab after he'd given a prophecy the king found distasteful, "If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me" (1 Kings 22:28).
False prophets play to human egos.
True prophets make themselves accountable to God and let the chips fall where they may.
That's why they're so rare.
[You might want to check out 1 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 18.]