Seaborn Hall, 10/28/18, updated
The Number Two objection to prophecy is that if it does not come true immediately then the person who proclaimed it is a false prophet. This entire objection to prophecy can be reduced to the one Scripture from which it comes: Deuteronomy 18: 21-22.
“You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’ (Deut 18:21 NAS95) “When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him. (Deut 18:22 NAS95)
There are several problems with applying this verse as an intractable prophetic criterion to determine whether someone is a genuine prophet, for example, as John MacArther does in Charismatic Chaos, or Strange Fire.
First, Jeremiah 18:1-12 indicates that God changes His mind relative to the responses of nations or His people (see also Jer. 26:13; 2 Chron. 29:6,10; Jonah 3:10). Even a genuine prophet may appear wrong for a time – even a lifetime or longer – due to God’s mercy, compassion and long-suffering towards people. Perhaps the Israelites made this same mistake of judging based on immediate fulfillment when they imprisoned Jeremiah, or Micahaiah (1Kings 22) for supposed false, negative prophecies.
Second, the Bible never teaches that a full grown perfectly speaking prophet is dropped by a stork into the lap of the people of God. According to Deuteronomy 18:18 “I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” Deut. 18:21-22 asks, “How will we know what the Lord has not spoken?” and answers that when something does not come true, the Lord has not spoken it.
Deuteronomy 18 is evaluative in nature – not prescriptive. It explains to Israel how to evaluate someone who is already a certain type of prophet, a prophet like Moses. This is an important distinction, because as Numbers 12 makes clear, the Moses type is a higher and much different level of prophet (see Evaluating Prophets And Prophecy).This is the type or level of prophet to which Duet. 18 would apply – but only with Jeremiah 18:1-12 as a caveat.
Third, the above interpretation ignores the larger context of the passage. If this passage were not evaluative, but prescriptive, it would tell us how a prophet is supposed to be produced and generated. It does not tell us that. We are left to glean this ourselves – from the rest of the Bible (hint: 1&2 Kings is a good place to start, but you are also going to need to examine prophetic interactions from Genesis to Revelation + Numbers + Corinthians to get a more complete picture). The far context of Deuteronomy 18 is that the people of Israel are reviewing statutes and commands that are to be their guide as they enter the Promised Land (11:26-12:1). The near context is that they will be tempted to listen to diviners and false voices for their direction, in imitation of other nations (18:9). Deuteronomy 18:15-22 helps them understand how God will communicate to them instead – through a Moses-type prophet in every generation (this is implied and the potential of the promise).
Last, most commentators mistakenly relate Deut. 18:18 to Moses and its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, with no in-between. That is, they assert that there are no in-between prophetic figures to whom it should be applied. At the same time, contradicting their first application, they apply the criterion of 100% accuracy implied in 18:20-22 to all potential prophets throughout the Old and New Testament eras. Both interpretations are off the mark. Yet, if the context of the verse implies that God will raise up Moses like prophets in each generation, then there will obviously be potential prophets to apply criteria towards. Is this true anywhere in the Bible? Check out 1-2 Kings: some prophets make it to the Moses-Elijah level, some don’t.
How Do We Evaluate A Prophet?
How are we to evaluate someone who acts like a prophet or claims to be one? We use Biblical criteria. Those are primarily two:
- Have they been commissioned as a prophet in a Biblical-like supernatural visitation?
- Do they manifest the character and fruit of life of someone who makes such claims?