How Early Christians Tested False Prophets

Matthew 7:15–20 (CSB) — 15 “Be on your guard against false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. 16 You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. 18 A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. 19 Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.

In this summary of early Christian writings I want to allow the earliest recorded writings of the first, second, and third century Christians to speak as the commentary on false prophets. You may notice a difference between how many today treat this subject and how they treated the subject of false prophecy with the fear of God.

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Let every apostle that comes to you be received as the Lord. But he will not remain except one day; but if there be need, also the next. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. However, if he asks for money, he is a false prophet. Didache (c. 80–140, E), 7.380.

But not everyone who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet. Rather, only if he holds the ways of the Lord. Therefore, from their ways will the false prophet and the [true] prophet be known.… Every prophet who teaches the truth, if he does not do what he teaches, he is a false prophet.… But whoever says in the Spirit, “Give me money,” or something else, you should not listen to him. But if he says to you to give for the sake of others who are in need, let no one judge him. Didache (c. 80–140, E), 7.380, 381.

The false prophet does not have the power of a divine Spirit in him. Therefore, he answers his hearers according to their inquiries, and according to their wicked desires. He fills their souls with expectations, according to their own wishes. For being himself empty, he gives empty answers to empty inquirers. Hermas (c. 150, W), 2.27.

He says, “I will tell you about both kinds of prophets, and then you can test the true and the false prophet according to my directions. Test the man who has the divine Spirit by his life. First of all, he who has the divine Spirit proceeding from above is meek, peaceable, humble, and refrains from all iniquity and the vain desires of this world. He contents himself with fewer needs than those of other men, and when asked he makes no reply. Nor does he prophesy privately. The Holy Spirit does not speak when man wishes the Spirit to speak. Instead, it speaks only when God wishes Him to speak. When, then, a man having the divine Spirit comes into an assembly of righteous men who have faith in the divine Spirit, and this assembly of men offers up prayer to God, then the angel of the prophetic Spirit, who is destined for him, fills the man. When the man is filled with the Holy Spirit, he speaks to the multitude as the Lord wishes.” … He says, “Hear then, in regard to the spirit which is earthly, empty, powerless, and foolish. First, the man who seems to have the Spirit exalts himself, and wishes to have the first seat. He is bold, impudent, and talkative. He lives in the midst of many luxuries and many other delusions, and he takes rewards for his prophecy. If he does not receive rewards, he will not prophesy.” Hermas (c. 150, W), 2.27, 28.

Test the man who says that he is inspired—by his deeds and his life. Hermas (c. 150, W), 2.28.

It appears probable enough that this man [Marcus, a heretic] possesses a demon as his familiar spirit. By means of this spirit, he seems to be able to prophesy. He also enables others to prophesy—as many as he counts worthy to be partakers of his charis.… However, the gift of prophecy is not conferred on men by Marcus, the magician. Rather, only those to whom God sends His grace from above possess the divinely-bestowed power of prophesying. And they speak where and when God wishes, not when Marcus orders them to do so. Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.334, 335.

He will also judge false prophets, who have not received the gift of prophecy from God. They are not possessed of the fear of God, either. Instead, either for the sake of vainglory, or with a view to some personal advantage (or acting in some other way under the influence of a wicked spirit), they pretend to utter prophecies, while all the time they lie against God. Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.508.

The prophets of old did not speak of their own power—let there be no mistake as to that. Nor did they declare what pleased themselves. But, first of all, they were endowed with wisdom by the Word. And then again, they were rightly instructed in the future by means of visions. And then, when they themselves were fully convinced, they spoke those things that were revealed by God to them alone, and concealed from all others. For with what reason should the prophet be called a prophet, unless he in spirit foresaw the future? For, if the prophet spoke of any chance event, he would not then be a prophet. For he would be speaking of things that were under the eye of all. But one who set forth in detail things yet to be, he was rightly judged a prophet. Hippolytus (c. 200, W), 5.204, 205.

Let [Marcion] know that, whatever it may be, we will challenge it to the rule of the grace and power of the Spirit and the prophets. That is, we will challenge it to foretell the future, to reveal the secrets of the heart, and to explain mysteries. Tertullian (c. 207, W), 3.462.

Show me your authority. If you are a prophet, foretell something for us. Tertullian (c. 210, W), 3.522.

Even among them, too, he reveals that there are men of a lax disposition … who listen to new forms of prophesying [i.e., the Montanists]. Victorinus (c. 280, W), 7.347.

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Please note that these early Christian writers are not meant to be treated as inspired; they were fallible men, as we all are, however, we can gain valuable insight into Biblical doctrine by reading what they have to say about this subject and then returning to the word of God and standing firm in the truth.

Matthew 7:22–23 (CSB) — 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?’ 23 Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!’

Matthew 24:11 (CSB) — 11 Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many.

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