How would you describe a false prophet? There are plenty of right responses to this question. Usually, what people think of are people who distort the Christian message for personal gain. If you said this you’d be off to a good start. But there is still one chief distinguishing mark of a false prophet above all else. What is it?
The context is Matthew 7:13-23, what one church calls “The Scariest Passage in the Bible.” This is the beginning of the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. After talking about the narrow and wide gates, Jesus then discusses false prophets. Naturally, using basic Bible hermeneutics, we can conclude that there is a connection between X and Y — that is, there is a connection between the gates and the prophets. Jesus encourages his listeners to enter the narrow gate where the road is hard; false prophets do not. Therefore, the chief distinguishing mark of a false prophet is that they do not advocate the narrow gate and the hard road in the path of Christian discipleship (Matthew 7:14). 1
Jesus says the gate is narrow. The word narrow here is often used with a family of words to characterize suffering and opposition. Jesus is giving a realistic understanding of Christian discipleship; the way is grueling.
Indeed, he says the way is hard. What is hard, exactly? Everything Jesus just said in the preceding parts of the sermon — you know, stewarding your anger (Matt. 7:21-26), avoiding lust (Matt. 7:27-30), loving your enemies (Matt. 43-48), giving to the needy (Matt. 6:1-4), and so forth. This lifestyle places God at the center and others in second place. This is hard. But this is the way of Christ, this is the path of Christian discipleship. False prophets do not talk about this.
We can keep going. False prophets do not talk about sin and suffering properly. They will not tell you that being a Christian disciple is hard, and is a road often marked with opposition and persecution and difficulty from the world, the flesh, the devil, and even family and friends. They will not tell you that Jesus does not promise success and material possessions if you follow him. False prophets will not tell you the wide gate and easy way leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13); they entirely misrepresent Christian discipleship altogether.
In the Old Testament, a prophet is a spokesman for God. He is a mouthpiece who speaks on God’s behalf. Prophets do not exist today, at least not in the Old Testament use of the word. Our Lord reminds us that those who claim to speak for God will arrive in sheep’s clothing. “Sheep,” of course, is a metaphor for one of God’s people. Christians are referred to as sheep all over the New Testament. “Sheep’s clothing” means someone who has the appearance of a Christian.
On the outside, false prophets seem legit. They are usually excellent public speakers. They talk the Christian talk. They pray. They seem warm and approachable. They smile a lot. They might even have a theology degree and be ordained – but on the inside, they are ferocious wolves.
Jesus says to be aware of them. This imperative is used to show that you should be on guard when you spot one. And you can spot one when their message is not consistent with the narrow gate and hard road. In addition, Jesus tells us that we can identify false prophets by their fruit (Matt. 7:20). Your fruit can be evaluated by your life — by your actions and words. And through one’s actions and words, we can discover the authentic from the counterfeit. Although only God knows the heart, the fruit of their life will generally tell us where the speaker on God’s behalf stands.