Recently a regular SPBC attendee asked me some good questions about so-called modern-day prophets. In particular, he heard from someone else that some of these prophets had predicted that President Trump would win re-election by a landslide. So he asked for my perspective on contemporary claims to speak prophetically and predictively on God’s behalf. Further, what should be done with such prophets when they evidently predict and proclaim what is false? In the Old Testament period, false prophets who encouraged people to rebel against the Lord were to be put to death, even if they successfully foretold a future event (see Deuteronomy 13:1-5). What about now in the church age? I think these issues are very important. The Lord wants us to be stable, well-grounded believers who are not tossed back and forth by possibly speculative predictions. So I encourage you to chew on the following thoughts, that you might be nourished and made strong in the faith.
Scripture is Complete
First, in order to be healthy Christians, we must understand that the Scriptures are complete. In other words, the canon of Scripture is closed. ‘Canon’ is an old-fashioned word that means ‘rule’ – and the idea is that the 66 books of the Bible constitute all that God intended to be written down as authoritative Scripture. These 66 books, and only these 66 books, function as the true rule, standard, and measure by which we differentiate truth from error. The completed canon of Scripture contains all that we need for our walk with God (2 Timothy 3:14-4:2, 2 Peter 1:3-4). There is no “Scriptural revelation” or “equal to Scripture revelation” happening today.
God Interacts with His People in a Variety of Ways
Second, having a settled conviction that Scriptural revelation is a closed book doesn’t mean being closed off to the idea that God interacts with human beings, reveals additional information to them, and guides them in various ways. Consider this question: “Does God sometimes reveal information about specific future events, or about certain courses of action, or about implications of certain decisions, or about spiritual realities in general, to people through dreams or visions or supernatural insight?” My answer is: Yes, God may and does do this from time to time, at His discretion. Just think of such instances that are recorded in the Bible itself: God revealed information about future events to Joseph and Pharaoh (a famine, see Genesis 41), to Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar (the rise and fall of nations, see Daniel 2), and to Paul (about the fate of the boat and crew amid a storm, see Acts 27); God opened the eyes of Elisha's servant to behold the spiritual army that surrounded them (see 2 Kings 6); God supernaturally directed the New Testament Joseph to take Mary as his wife and later to take his family and flee to Egypt (see Matthew 1:18-25 and 2:13-15), and He directed the Wise Men to return home by an alternative route (see Matthew 2:12). The fact that these revelations are recorded in Scripture doesn’t change the fact that they were given apart from Scripture – indeed they were given through dreams and visions and supernatural insight. Now there is nothing in Scripture that leads me to assume that such things wouldn’t happen or don’t happen today.
Of course, we shouldn’t demand dreams and visions concerning the future, and we shouldn’t seek to order our lives around the possibility of receiving detailed supernatural information about our present or future circumstances. What we should be doing is ordering our lives around the revealed, inscripturated Word, which is sufficient to keep us faithful and fruitful on the path of obedience. But we also shouldn’t be closed off to occasionally receiving supernatural insight into the future or divine guidance about some course of action. When I consider the many credible instances of it happening in today’s world – for example, Jesus appearing to Muslims in a dream and then leading them to Christians/churches to hear the gospel, is a common testimony of converts to Christianity in the Middle East today – I am confident that it happens. If you have read or listened to the wonderful book The Insanity of God, which details God’s wonderful dealings with His suffering people as they sought to live under state-sponsored persecution, then you know there are a number of credible accounts of God directing His people in remarkable ways.
Third, in light of the first two comments above, if someone claims to have received such supernatural information or insight from the Lord, we should not feel threatened or intimidated. We should remember that whether the specific claim is valid or not, we have the inerrant and authoritative Bible which is a solid and stable foundation beneath our feet. Standing on Scripture, we should be rooted and steadfast… and ready to test! That’s right – if someone claims to have received supernatural information or insight from the Lord, we have a three-fold job that begins with careful examination:
- Our first job is to test what they say by the perfect standard of Scripture (see 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). We should examine someone’s claim to have received a dream, vision, predictive prophecy or supernatural insight to see if it is consistent with Scripture – or at least not inconsistent with Scripture. God will never reveal information that is inconsistent with the Bible. If we discern inconsistency, that is a huge red flag! Another aspect of testing is to consider the person who is claiming to have a revelation – if this person has a track record of faithfulness to the Bible and manifest love for the church, we will process his or her claim differently than if the person is known to be unstable and all over the map.
- Our second job is to measure the dream, vision, predictive prophecy or supernatural insight for its moral weightiness and possible usefulness (with our moral and usefulness standards coming from Scripture, of course!). Frankly, people can dream up a lot of nonsense. But the more gravity and usefulness that a claim to divine revelation has – the more it pertains to fulfilling our mission or building up the body of Christ or protecting us from false doctrine or seizing a specific opportunity to share the gospel, then the more weight it carries. In Acts 10 God gave Cornelius a vision that prepared him to hear the gospel, and God gave Peter a vision that prepared him to proclaim the gospel to Cornelius. These visions functioned to assist the God-given commission to advance the gospel! If God chooses to assist us in similar ways today, let's welcome it!
- Our third job is to hold the person’s claim with an open hand and make wise application. Because Scripture is sufficient, no one should be clamoring for extra-biblical information. But if God chooses to give guidance or help or warning, so be it. We should want all the help God wants to give us! But our steady diet should be the ordinary means of grace: Scripture, prayer, Christian fellowship, and corporate worship. Even so, as we hold this possibly useful information from a modern prophet in our open hand, we must ponder it with our Scripture-soaked minds, reflect on it with our fellow believers, and consider it in light of the circumstances around us. In due course we may find that this information or insight is very helpful for turning a corner, or seizing a moment, or experiencing a breakthrough, or devoting ourselves to prayer, or leading a congregation into a new season of ministry.
When Predictions Prove False
Fourth, if self-proclaimed Christian prophets say that they are prophesying as the Lord’s spokesmen that something very specific is going to happen – such as Trump winning the 2020 election in a landslide – and it doesn’t come to pass, then something is very wrong. Remember, God is never wrong and Scripture is never wrong. So if self-proclaimed prophets foretell something that clearly proves to be false, then they are in error: they have either misunderstood, or have fancied something up in their own mind, or are being bedeviled by an evil spirit. Of course, I am referring to occasions when it is easy to discern that a predictive prophecy is in error. There may be other occasions when a predictive prophesy is so abstract or vague, or it operates on such an unclear timetable, or it contains an element of conditionality, that it becomes difficult to assess. But even if a particular claim is difficult to assess, we take comfort in the fact that our hope and joy are rooted in the sure and certain promises contained in Scripture, not in the unsure and uncertain claims of imperfect men.
Hold People Accountable
Fifth, should we put to death verifiable false prophets? No, and here’s why. In the Old Testament, the death penalty was imposed for various sins and crimes. In the New Testament situation, the situation is transposed. The state has the authority to punish crimes through capital punishment (Romans 13). The church has the authority to punish sins through excommunication – that is, by excluding them from the fellowship of the church. So within the church, the death penalty for certain sins is replaced with excommunication for such sins (1 Corinthians 5 makes this clear). If a professing believer is guilty of clear, persistent, and unrepentant sin, and the person refuses to receive correction, then the church should excommunicate that person from the church (see Matthew 18:15-20). With respect to erroneous claims of divine revelation, if someone within the church family has a pattern of speaking on the Lord’s behalf in ways that are consistently and verifiably false, and if that person is unwilling to accept correction, then that person should be excommunicated. And the Deuteronomy 13:1-5 passage, which I referenced in the opening paragraph, shows that the soundness of the prophet's overall message is far more important than his ability to correctly foretell a future event. Always put a premium on sound teaching!
Conclusion: Put the Emphasis in the Right Place
In conclusion, let me say how important it is to think and live with the proper emphasis. And the proper emphasis is to think and live according to the written Word of God, which was authored by the Holy Spirit and is given to us as the all-sufficient guide for living a fruitful Christian life. Something is very wrong if we give lip service to biblical authority, but then spend most of our time chasing after dreams and visions and revelations as if that’s where the really good stuff is. Scripture itself is sweeter than honey and more valuable than gold! And God wants us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we become mature Christians who know how to consistently walk in wisdom and love. In other words, God cares more about the actual transformation of our hearts than about our potential acquisition of extra-biblical information about our present or future circumstances!
But on the other hand, it is also possible to be needlessly closed off to some supernatural information or guidance that the Lord might want to give us or our family or our congregation or our nation. So even as we are rightly grounded in and rightly hemmed in by the authoritative Scriptures, let’s not be fools who assume that God would never warn us in a dream to take a different route home, or would never use a vision to get us ready to share the gospel with someone we're about to meet.
PS: I recognize that this is a challenging and nuanced topic. I don’t assume that my article is ‘the last word’ on the subject. We all need to experience continued learning and sanctification. Your comments and follow-up questions are welcome as part of this ongoing growth process.
NOTE: Header Image/Featured Image Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash
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Richard Hesselbarth Nov 19, 2020 @ 7:16 pm