“True and False Prophets”
Robert M. Thompson, Pastor
Corinth Reformed Church
150 Sixteenth Avenue NW
Hickory, North Carolina 28601
(© 2012 by Robert M. Thompson. Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptures quoted are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, Copyright 2011 by New York International Bible Society.)
October 7, 2012
This past Tuesday I received an e-mail from Clem Geitner, one of our elders.
Sorry to bother you with this but i had to make a sudden trip out of the country to Spain. Am here to see my ill cousin she is suffering from a critical uterine fibroid and must undergo hysterectomy surgery to save her life. The surgery is very expensive here, so i want to transfer her back home to have the surgery implemented. I really need to take care of this now but my credit card can't work here. I traveled with little money due to the short time I had to prepare for this trip and never expected things to be the way it is right now. I need a loan of 1,200 from you and I'll reimburse you at my return. Get back to me asap, I'll advise on how to transfer it.
You may think I am an uncaring pastor, but I did not send him any money, nor did I “get back to him asap.” I knew immediately that although this message came from Clem’s e-mail address, he did not write it. Someone had hacked into his e-mail account. How did I know? I receive e-mails on a fairly regular basis from Clem, and they’re never that long – maybe a phrase or a sentence. He is also a very private person and would not share those kinds of details about a family member’s health. The grammar and style of the message do not fit Clem. He travels frequently enough not to be caught unprepared. Even if he did need money in an emergency, he would not ask me for it. He would have written my name at the beginning of the e-mail, not just “Hello.” And he would not have signed the e-mail “Clement.” I saw Clem at Tuesday morning Bible study a few hours after this e-mail was sent, and sure enough he was there taking a ribbing from the other members of the group about how he had returned so quickly from his emergency trip to Spain. They had received the same message.
There was no e-mail or electronic spam in the days of Jeremiah, but the people of Judah had to decide whether the message they were hearing from the prophet Jeremiah came from God. What made this task even more complicated was that other prophets – the vast majority of the professional prophets – were pronouncing a different message. They, too, said they were speaking from God. If you are a man on the street, how do you know?
Here is Lesson 1 about true and false prophets. Not everyone who says, “I have a message from God” has a message from God. A young man came by the church yesterday and told me he has been having dreams and believes God wants him to write a book of the Bible. I was unable to spend any time with him yesterday, so he will be back in my office this week. What would you say to him?
It was no small matter for the people of Judah to discern who was telling the truth. The Babylonian empire was gaining strength and sweeping across the region with a military machine, trouncing their rivals mercilessly. Jeremiah’s message to God’s people was, “You have sinned grievously. Babylon has been sent by God to judge you. Surrender to them. Give it up. Stop preparing for battle and looking for military alliances. God says let the judgment happen because restoration will follow in future generations.” All the rest of the prophets were saying, “Jeremiah is a traitor. You are not living badly. You are God’s people. He will help you defeat the Babylonians. Never ever give up.”
How do you know whom to believe? In the words of biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, “Jeremiah lives midst a variety of competing ‘truth claims,’ each of which purported to be a disclosure of Yahweh’s will. In that dispute, there were no objective criteria by which to adjudicate the various claims.”
“Objective criteria” is the operative phrase. If two different prophets say, “I heard this from God,” who is to say one is telling the truth and the other one is not? How do you know?
This problem has not gone away in the twenty-six intervening centuries. We still have competing truth claims. A Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney debated some of them Wednesday night. In the religious realm, just this week I have heard a number of names in connection with the issue of true vs. false prophets: Joel Osteen, Joseph Smith, Billy Graham, Rob Bell, Jim Bakker, Harold Camping, and Maxie Hellman. The motto of our denomination, the United Church of Christ, is “God is still speaking,” I cannot disagree, but if there are “competing truth claims,” what are the objective criteria?
In my first reading through Jeremiah, I thought he did not answer that question. In his case, he was vindicated by time. We know his message was inspired by the Holy Spirit because it’s in the Bible. The reason his words were preserved and passed down as Scripture is that everything happened exactly has he said it would. But it took time.
What if you are living in Jeremiah’s day, when all the other prophets are saying something different, sounding equally spiritual and authoritative? Here’s a lesson on true and false prophets. You can’t tell who’s right by whether they are in the majority. You also can’t tell by whether they give good news or bad. Sometimes prophets do both.
Just like the people of Jeremiah’s day, we cry out, “Give us some ‘objective criteria!’” The more I read Jeremiah, the more I realize he does just that. I have given you a number of those criteria on your bulletin insert (appended to this sermon manuscript). That list is organized in a logical fashion, something Jeremiah is not known for. I also drew from hints throughout his book. For today, let’s spend a few minutes in the one chapter where Jeremiah answers the question about “objective criteria” more than any other.
Verse 16 sets up the contrast. Jeremiah says, “Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.” OK, Jeremiah, how do we know?
Verse 17: “They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The LORD says: You will have peace.’ And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’” There’s an objective criterion. Watch the lives of those who follow a particular prophet. Do they have a passion for God and for truth? Are they arrogant and stubborn, or humble and repentant? How about you? Are you just looking for a ‘prophet’ who will ratify your theology and your lifestyle?
Verse 18: “But which of them has stood in the council of the LORD to see or hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word?” There is a wide gap between revelation and speculation. Did God say this or did some prophet privately dream it or invent it? As I said, I can’t argue with the statement that God is still speaking, but if God is speaking again, don’t you think what he is saying now will be consistent with what he has said before?
Jeremiah’s audience may not have had the whole Bible, but they had the Torah. We have sixty-six books of God’s revelation, preserved and ratified by centuries of godly believers. By comparing what is being said now with what has been said, most of the time we can tell whether the new message truly comes from God.
In verses 19-20, Jeremiah repeats his basic message: judgment is coming.
In verse 21, he repeats his assertion that those who say otherwise are false prophets.
The objective criteria continue in verse 22. “But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds.” True prophets do not validate evil deeds.
The basic message of what kind of life honors God is consistent throughout the Bible. The Ten Commandments summarize them. There is only one God who deserves your worship. Honor your parents, and by extension, human authority. Respect and preserve human life. Sex belongs in marriage between a man and a woman. Don’t take what does not belong to you. That means you don’t exploit the poor – instead, you care for them and work for a just society. Tell the truth. Don’t covet what others have; be content. If someone has a “message from God” that says otherwise, it is not a message from God!
Now look at verse 23-24. “’Am I only a God nearby,’ declares the LORD, and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the LORD. ‘Do not I fill heaven and earth?’ declares the LORD.”
Many people in Jeremiah’s time and place had forgotten that God can see the forest, not just the trees. Their God was local, he was small, he was like them, and he thought like they did. To borrow a 1961 book title from J. B. Phillips, their God was too small. He was made in their image.
A message that claims to be from God must be consistent with God’s character. Here are two equal and balancing truths about God: God is immanent and he is transcendent. He is close and he is far away. He is accessible and he is beyond understanding. He is your friend and he is holy, holy, holy. God is both immanent and transcendent, and if you focus on one or the other your life will get off and you will also not be able to discern which prophets speak for God.
These people found themselves too much on the side of God’s immanence. They were cozy with God. God to them was a guy who lived in the neighborhood, always at their beck and call. God was so close they could go around the corner and sleep with a prostitute at the local shrine and feel he was right there with them.
If you hear anyone say or imply, “God likes you just the way you are because he thinks like you do,” that message did not come from God. God will not validate your sin. If the voice you think comes from God says it’s no big deal to sleep around or tell lies or ignore the cries of the poor, that voice does not come from God.
On the other hand, if the voice you hear tells you that there is no hope for you, no forgiveness for your sins, nor way forward with God, that voice does not come from God either. If the voice in your head says God is so transcendent and holy that he’s just ticked off at everything and everyone and there’s no hope for grace, that voice does not come from God. Especially if the voice says God is so angry with everyone’s sin but yours, that voice does not come from God.
This is the message that brings us today to the table of the Lord. Here we find transcendence and immanence in perfect harmony. Here we find God’s holiness and God’s love wondrously merged. Here we find the message of God’s judgment on sin very clear, but the judgment was passed on Jesus Christ on our behalf. So here we find grace for our sins that enables us to give grace to others. Amen.
A Prophet Checklist from Jeremiah
Bob Thompson, Pastor, Corinth Reformed Church
Start with you
How to identify a false prophet
How to verify God’s messenger
A Commentary on Jeremiah, 208.
The comma is intentional, borrowing a quote from Gracie Allen, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”