“"God Spoke to Me"”
“Son of man, prophesy against... those who prophesy from their own hearts ... who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!”
The Israelites often encountered the problem of discerning between true and false prophecy. Some prophets were saying one thing and other prophets were saying another, yet both claimed to be speaking in the name of the Lord. How did they know who was right?
This problem must have been especially troublesome to unpopular though genuine prophets whose message was not well received by their contemporaries. Classic battles between false and genuine prophets are illustrated in the stories of Jeremiah (Jer. 28), Elijah (1 Kgs. 18), and Ezekiel (Ezek. 12-13).
The ancient Biblical authors kindly note the distinction between genuine prophets and false prophets but to those living in the moment the distinction was much less obvious. In the Law of Moses, God did equip His people with the tools necessary to discern truth from error. Deuteronomy 18:22 was a simple rule of thumb: just wait to see if the prophet’s words were fulfilled. If the prophecy never came to pass, then you have your answer. But some prophecies were too far distant for this rule to be relevant to the hearers. Another test, Deuteronomy 13:1ff, was simple enough. If the prophecy did not agree with the sound doctrine of the Law (for example, if it encouraged idolatry) it must be rejected and the false prophet must be dealt with.
The early church encountered the same problem. God’s Spirit bestowed the first century church with many gifts, chief among them was the gift of prophecy. God’s will for Christians was still being revealed at that time so this spiritual gift was a necessity for the early church to live and worship in the way God wanted (1 Cor. 12; 2:9-13).
But not everyone was telling the truth so a number of warnings and rules were given to believers to instruct them how to discern truth from error (1 Thess. 5:21-22; 2 Thess. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 2:18-23; 4:1-3). To some extent, the proof was within the hearer himself, “he who is of God hears the words of God” (Jn. 8:47), that is, his ears are attuned to God’s voice (Jn. 10:16). Another significant test is the life of the prophet, as Jesus says, “you will know them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:16).
What about today? It is common for religious people to claim that God has spoken to them or that God has spoken through them. Any skepticism toward the mechanics of this process of “revelation” is usually met with quotations of 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, “Don’t quench the Spirit! Don’t despise prophecies!” To which it may be wise to respond politely with the very next verse, “but test everything; hold fast to what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21)
The severity of judgment leveled against false prophets in the Bible should give sufficient warning to any God-fearing person who claims to exercise this gift. The Bible teaches that God’s inspiration of His apostles and prophets was both “verbal” (word-for-word) and “plenary” (every word is equally authoritative) (1 Cor. 2:9-13; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Though the Bible was written by human authors, the words were prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:19-21).
If pressed, contemporary “prophets” will explain their experience of receiving revelation as a vague feeling or a few disjointed words that require interpretation later. Whatever they are experiencing, it is not Biblical inspiration and does not fit the pattern of Biblical prophecy.
When "false prophets" are condemned in the Scripture it is not just their prophecy that is false but their heart, their character (2 Pet. 2:1ff). They may genuinely believe God is speaking to and through them but in reality they are "follow[ing] their own spirit" (Ezek. 12:3) instead of God's Spirit. God will allow people to believe a lie, even sending a deceiving spirit to false prophets to seal their condemnation (1 Kgs. 22:22-23; 2 Thess. 2:11-12). Let us, then, be very careful to speak only where God has spoken (1 Pet. 4:11). We can always be sure God is speaking to us through the Scriptures.