False Prophets in Sinai Covenant and Imperfect Prophets in New Covenant: Life and Death Differences

Youtube critics daily, it seems, call for the blood of Christian prophets who are mistaken about some of their prophecies. The critics read Deuteronomy 13 and 18 and demand the death penalty for their ministries. But what did Paul say about them? Let’s do a side-by-side comparison of the OT and the NT.

The NT warns against false prophets: Matt. 7:15; 24:11, 24 // Mark 13:22; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 1:4. This verse to the church at Thyatira is particularly stark: “Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (Rev. 2:20).

Whenever they appear, we are supposed to test the spirits: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). In John’s day, false prophets denied that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh (vv. 2-3).

Those cases are extreme. In my experience, prophets in the Renewal Movement don’t deny that Jesus has come in the flesh, nor lead people toward sexual immorality or food sacrificed to idols.

Those of us who are part of the Renewal Movement have seen excesses in those claiming to be prophetic. They claim they can visit heaven whenever they want. They predicted that Trump would occupy the White House in January 2021. They did not clearly predict election fraud in a video with a verifiable time stamp before the election. Some have repented. Others have not repented but remain defiant.

Though these prophets grab the headlines, what about the ordinary ones at the local church who make a mistake and learn some lessons? I have further observed that they are accurate about many other issues. They are not completely and always wrong. And they are teachable.

What would Paul say about these more ordinary classes of prophets who don’t say the awful things in 1 John 4:1-3 and Rev. 2:20-21? (1) the imperfect and defiant and (2) imperfect but teachable?

What would he say about a mixture of true and inaccurate prophecies, in their ministries over time? Blast them with the label “false prophet!”?

Let’s do a side-by-side comparison of Deuteronomy 13 and 18 in one column and various passages from Acts and 1 Corinthians 14 in the other column. We can see the clear differences between the life-and-death demands placed on (false) prophets and dreamers in the Sinai Covenant and the instructions placed on (imperfect) prophets, who sincerely make mistakes in the New Covenant.

The translation is the NIV. If you want to see many translations, I encourage you to click on biblegateway.com. The Scriptures are in bold font, and my comments are in each block, below the Scripture, without bold font.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 Acts 11:27-30
If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. That prophet or dreamer tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.

Commentary:

These prophets or dreamers remind me of Rev. 2:20, quoted again: “Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.”

This is serious.

Next, false signs and wonders can happen. In the NT, Paul writes about the lawless one producing signs and wonders, which will serve his lie:

The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, 10 and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. (2 Thess. 2:9-10)

The lawless one will set himself up in the temple of God, the church in Paul’s theology (Eph. 2:20-22; 1 Cor, 3:17; 2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Pet. 2:4-9). In Deuteronomy, the evil prophet sets himself up in front of God’s people to work a miracle.

But then the false prophet will tell them to follow other gods. Yet the Lord is testing his people to find out how much they will love and obey him.

The false prophet or dreamer must be put to death.

27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

Commentary:

Agabus delivered a true word. He is not a false prophet by OT standards. He did things the right way. But what happens when Christians do not speak a true word? Should they consider themselves false prophets and shut down their ministry?

Deuteronomy 18:14-22 Acts 19:21
14 The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. 15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”

17 The Lord said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name. 20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.

Commentary:

The prophet or sorcerer will arise from the nations whom the people of God were called to dispossess–chase them away and out of the land. He will claim to speak in God’s name, but not what God commanded. What God commanded is the law of Moses, at Mt. Horeb. How will the Israelites know that the prophet is false? If the prophecy does not come true. The prophet has spoken presumptuously. The people should not be alarmed.

In sum: In Deut. 13 and 18, false signs and wonders; false gods, (moral) law-breaking, and untrue predictions–all these things together–are evidence that the false prophet or dreamer or sorcerer. He must be put to death.

So do all NT prophets fit this severe and extreme pattern? Should we put them to death if they mess up? Where do we draw the line between imperfect prophets and false prophets?

Let’s check out the other column and the NT

21 After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome also.”

Commentary:

This verse sets up the other ones below. (In a footnote, the NIV offers: “decided in the Spirit.”) Paul receives a word from the Lord, a calling from the Holy Spirit to his spirit that he is destined to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome, all of which came to pass. We will see, next, that he heard from God’s Spirit.

Acts 20:22-24
22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

Commentary:

Paul is speaking to the Ephesian elders. Now we learn that the Spirit called him to go to Jerusalem (see the NIV footnote in 19:21). The Holy Spirit warns him in every city that he will suffer imprisonment and hardships. These warnings by the Spirit come from other prophecies, but so far they do not contradict Paul’s leading to go to Jerusalem. They only foretell what will happen. They do not prophesy, “Don’t go!”.

Acts 21:3b-5
We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. We sought out the disciples there and stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way.

Commentary:

Here some disciples urged him by the Spirit, that is, through prophecy (or so they thought) that he must not go to Jerusalem. They were wrong. Paul must have seen that they were motivated by concern and shaped their concern into prophecies. They messed up. In effect, these were false prophecies. However, they did not tell him to follow other gods or break the moral law in the Law of Moses. They did not say to eat food sacrificed to idols. This was more personal.

Paul does not overreact. He was a mature disciple. He knew God’s call on his life. We should never allow misinformed “prophecies” to control us. Paul did not command them to be put to death, nor did he command the death penalty on their career. Of course not! This is the New Covenant! We see him develop a more detailed policy for mistaken prophets and their prophecies in 1 Cor. 14, below.

Acts 21:10-14
10 After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’”

12 When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”

Commentary:

Agabus reappears in the long narrative, and he predicts what was about to happen to Paul, which came true. Note that Agabus did not say, “Don’t go!” He just said hardships await him. This will be a true prophecy. It happened, as the rest of the Book of Acts says.

Then the people and his team (“we”) urge him not to go. But evidently they were not saying this by the Spirit (unlike those in Acts 21:4). but out of concern. Once again, Paul was mature and told them, out of love, not to break his heart and cause him to weep. He did not call for the death penalty on their soulish concern.

1 Corinthians 14:1-6, 29-33, 39-40
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? [….]

29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. [….]

37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.

39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

Commentary:

Now Paul develops his theology more fully and clearly. Does he impose the “death penalty” on the ministry of misguided prophets who refuse to listen and repent (though not on the prophets themselves!)?

As I have written elsewhere, a certain group called themselves pneumatikoi, (“persons of the Spirit” or “spiritual ones”; the singular is pneumatikos). They were running roughshod over peace and order and decorum in the public gathering. They were apparently demanding that everyone speak in tongues in the assembly of the Corinthian Christians, to show that they had arrived at a new sort of spiritual reality or Eschaton or something. They also believed that they were endowed with special wisdom (Chapters 1-4), superior knowledge (Chapters 8-10), and an extra-dose of spiritual gifts (Chapters 12-14). They may have believed that they were speaking the tongues (or languages) of angels (13:1), as if they were in constant contact with the angelic heavenly dimension.

However, in those sections of his letter Paul teaches them that they must cool their extra-enthusiasm. To counter them, he even refers to himself as “spiritual” (2:13). Then he says that he cannot address them as persons of the Spirit, but as people who are still worldly, infants (3:1; see 13:11). He again calls them infants in 14:20.

These prophets were often (but not always) speaking out of their own soul-power and did not allow the Spirit to guide them. At other times, they spoke by the Spirit. They had mixed prophecies.

The solution was simple: teaching and correction. No condemnation. No shutting down the entire gift of prophecy for those who were teachable.

Does Paul impose the ministry death penalty on these over-the-top, defiant prophets? They were not telling people to break the moral law in the NT and the moral law in the law of Moses. They were not telling the people to follow other gods or to deny Jesus came in the flesh or to eat food sacrificed to idols. What would Paul say to them, then? He does tell the church that the church should ignore them if the defiant, unteachable prophets do not follow Paul’s instruction. He does tell them that they should remain in their ignorance if they refuse to listen. So in effect, this is something like a death penalty on their ministry (but not on them), when he says the church should ignore them.

However, Paul also implies that if they do follow his instructions, they can continue on in their prophetic gifting, but in an orderly fashion. This abuse of the gifts should not stop true disciples from pursuing spiritual gifts, especially prophecy.

The contexts of Deuteronomy 13 and 18 and the New Testament are completely different. The Old Sinai Covenant imposed the literal and irreversible death penalty for private sins like homosexuality and adultery and for all sorts of public crimes, like blaspheming in public. The older generation of ancient Israelites in the wilderness actually failed in their mission to make it to the Promised Land. And throughout Israel’s history, they failed to be a light to the nations when they got there (except for a few breakout moments, like Jonah).

Why the failure? They were under attack from followers of awful pagan deities, whom the Israelites also set about worshipping. This was a national emergency. The penalty for misleading God’s people to walk away from the LORD and to follow other gods was death, under the Sinai Covenant. There’s a certain internal logic to it, though I would not want the death penalty imposed on people today for following different gods. Freedom of religion.

The big difference between the Sinai Covenant and the New is the risen and ascended Christ, who sits at the right hand of the Father, and is powerful enough to convert people away from false gods. On people’s repentance, he sends them his Spirit, who causes them to be born again and internally transformed. They now follow Jesus. The Spirit distributes gifts as he wills (1 Cor. 12:4, 11). He is in charge, not the humans with strong personalities.

One Decisive Difference Between Sinai Covenant and New Covenant

With that hopeful word, let’s now transition to prophets under the New Covenant.

In 2 Thess. 2, the lawless one, whom Jesus will destroy at his Second Coming, was outside of the salvation offered in the New Covenant. He wormed his way into the temple of God, the church, so he was a fake disciple without a true knowledge of God through Christ (see Matt. 7:21-23). Yet this “destructive ministry” will take place at the Second Coming, so the church is not commanded to kill him. Let the Son of God himself do this.

The imperfect, mistaken Christian prophets of Acts 21:4 and 1 Corinthians 14 do not fit into the notion of a false prophet who shows off with signs and wonders and leads people to follow other gods within the Sinai Covenant and outside the New Covenant. They did not lower themselves to the level of “Jezebel,” who misled Christians into sexual immorality and eating food sacrificed to idols (Rev. 2:20-21). They did not deny that Jesus had come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3). Some New Covenant prophets were simply mistaken. Paul works with them. He corrects them. The spirit of the prophets are subject to the prophets, he says. That is, they must not be out of control. But they must calm down.

Now what about the sincere prophetic people who have mixed results? They don’t say those things in 1 John 4:1-3 or Rev. 2:20-21. But their prophecies are sometimes true and at other times untrue. They make mistakes, because, as Paul says: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). No one is perfect or enjoys perfect knowledge down here on earth, even in his or her prophetic voice.

Paul’s answer to the mixture of true and failed prophecies from humble prophets: we should judge all prophecies. He writes: “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:20-21a). He also says: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Cor. 14:29). These two verses necessarily mean that prophecies can be a mixture. Paul anticipated this and offered a solution. When the prophetic speakers are teachable, they can learn. We lay aside their bad prophecies and accept the sound ones. We patiently work with them. No death penalty, even on their prophetic ministry.

Now what about the defiant prophets who do not repent of their inaccurate prophecies, yet they do not urge people to follow other gods, do not compromise with idols, do not break moral law nor deny that Jesus came in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3 and Rev. 2:20-21)? They often refuse help but surround themselves with a team of “yes men” who don’t know Scripture, nor do they correctly interpret what they do know. The team seem enamored with the prophet’s strong personality or are scared of it. Paul’s answer for the local church before the web was to ignore them (1 Cor. 14:38). This imposes the death penalty on their ministry (but not on them!).

Sadly, however, this class of prophets keep propping themselves up on social media and still get many views. (Many of us are old enough to remember a time without the web, and these ministries would have been left behind in the back waters of American Christianity.)

So, given the far-reach of social media and these prophets’ defiance and arrogance, critics can keep pointing out the errors of this class. Maybe we can term them “false,” but warning! We may drive them away, without hope of redemption. And if the critics themselves are harsh and severe cessationists, then their impact will be minimal. The prophets and their followers won’t listen to them.

Truth in love, but in the fullness of the Spirit.

What if the defiant and arrogant prophets show signs of repentance because they finally listen to wise leaders? Then the sensible and biblically literate and charismatic leaders must work with them and teach them what Scripture says. There is always hope for the repentant.

Now, finally, what about the rest of us, those of us who are ordinary receivers and practitioners of spiritual gifts? Should we give up on spiritual gifts, specifically prophecy, because of the abuse of the gifts?

Paul teaches us that we should earnestly desire spiritual gifts, but especially that we may prophesy. He does not abolish this gift because of its abusers. He tells us not to be contemptuous of it. People should express prophecy, when done properly. Then the rest of us should judge and weigh them.

All of the gifts in 1 Cor. 12:7-11 are still for today. Let’s wait on the Spirit for them, in humility and openness and teachableness, in the context of the local church, where wise leaders can correct and guide us.

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