What is the biblical standard for prophetic accuracy?

Marko Joensuu         No comments

After the wholesale failure of the prophetic movement in the political arena and the consequent escape from reality by many prophetic leaders into the alternative reality created by QAnon and conspiracy theories, it seems worth revisiting the biblical standards for prophecy.

Old Testament standard for prophecy

The Old Testament standard for prophetic accuracy is clear. Deuteronomy18:21-22 says,  

You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.

1 Samuel 3:19 says,

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.

The prophetic standard of the Old Testament was that a true prophet spoke only the words given by the Lord and they came to pass. Anything else was presumptuous and caused the prophet to lose their authority. 

Contrast this with the standard of the modern-day Apostolic-Prophetic Movement that seems to accept quite a high level of errors. In 1988, Bob Jones, who has now passed, and Mike Bickle, considered by many to be leaders in the movement, recorded around five hours of informal dialogue titled Visions and Revelations

In the recordings, Mike Bickle asks Bob Jones about his prophecies: “So there has been errors. There has been a number of errors.” Bob Jones says, “Oh, hundreds of them.” Mike Bickle asks: “The Lord will correct them?” to which Bob Jones responds, “Absolutely.”

I deal with this in more detail in my book Supernatural Love, but it is enough to say here that the practice in the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement is that it is not a big deal if a prophet has a few failing prophecies. This is because in their model, prophets don’t receive their authority from fulfilled prophetic words but from alignment with the movement itself, as the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement is in essence a governmental rather than missional model. Its main purpose is to exert authority over the believers.

Hence the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement holds annual prophetic roundtables where the prophetic word for the year is produced from the consensus between the prophetic leaders recognised by the movement. And it is being in alignment with the apostles and prophets in this movement that will bring a blessing to individual believers under their authority, not the fulfilled prophetic words.

Looking at what Deuteronomy 18:21-22 says, this appears to be quite a different standard to that set for the Old Testament prophets. But are these Old Testament standards applicable today? Or are they out of date?

New Testament standard for prophecy

Some teachers take 1 Corinthians 14:3 to be the sole guideline for prophecy in the New Testament:

On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.

If this was the only guideline, prophecy in the New Testament church would have lost nearly all its predictive nature and the responsibility for accuracy.

But presenting this verse as the only guideline is contradictory to the evidence of the New Testament as a whole. Nowhere does it say in the New Testament that the demand for accuracy has now been forfeited. For example, in Acts 11:28 Agabus prophesies that there would be a great famine over the whole world, and this came to pass under Claudius. 

We don’t know for certain how widespread this famine was, but it affected at least the people of Israel and Syria where the early church was concentrated at the time. So, Agabus made a clear prediction about a world event, and it was fulfilled.

One of the most visible failures of the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement was their nearly unanimous prediction that Trump would be elected for second term in 2020. This collective prophecy turned out to be a catastrophic failure.

In one sense, if the role of the prophet in the New Testament is merely to encourage, encouraging voters to vote for Trump would have been enough for the prophets to fulfil their function, even when Trump was not elected. But that was not how these prophecies were presented, as they were presented as predictive prophecies rather than election campaigning, so making the retrospective argument about the merely encouraging function of prophecy that some have done to defend the movement is dishonest.

Deuteronomy 18 in more detail

Looking at Deuteronomy 18:21-22, different Bible translations translate the Hebrew text slightly differently: if a prophecy turns out to be presumptuous, we should not be afraid of either the prophet or the prophecy. So, it could be argued that it is either the prophet or the prophecy that have lost their authority due to a failed prophecy.

An understanding that it is a prophecy rather than the prophet that loses the authority when a word is not fulfilled seems to be shared by Kris Valloton, who apologised for prophesying about Trump being elected for second term in 2020. 

Effectively, Kris Valloton admitted that he had spoken this word presumptuously.

“I take full responsibility for being wrong. There’s no excuse for it. I think it doesn’t make me a false prophet, but it does … create a credibility gap. A lot of people trust me, trust my ministry and I want to say I’m very sorry for everyone who put their trust in me.”

According to this view, apologising for the word spoken presumptuously might be enough to restore prophetic authority if the prophetic leader only takes full responsibility for the failure.

But looking at Deuteronomy 18, this would not be enough to restore prophetic authority, as verse 20 says,

But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.

This speaks for heavy prophetic responsibility. Getting only one prediction wrong will lead to the death of the prophet. Because the Torah spoke for death penalty in various occasions, many have interpreted this as a death sentence actioned by the Jewish community. But in fact, the text only says that the prophet shall die, implying that it is God himself that will take their life. So, it wasn’t just the prophetic word but also the prophet who lost their authority.

Some modern interpreters maintain that this punishment of death was only for those prophets who deceived the Israelites to follow false gods, but the text makes it clear that the same punishment was reserved for those who spoke in the name of Yahweh presumptuously.

The word translated in Deuteronomy 18 as presumption is also translated in the Old Testament as arrogance or pride.

This gives us an important insight into the nature of presumption. Prophetic words spoken presumptuously are spoken arrogantly. An arrogant person feels entitled to his or her view. He or she takes for granted that they are right. They don’t have to consult the Lord to check their view, but instead, they speak it out.

Were there any mitigating circumstances?

The most extreme example of what happened to false prophets is the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal which led to the slaughtering of four hundred prophets of Baal by Elijah. Perhaps the following depression was posttraumatic stress disorder!

But mostly, the consequences of false prophecy weren’t administered by the hands of the prophets. In case of Jeremiah 28:15-17,

And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord.” In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died.

Jeremiah prophesied the death of Hananiah, and the prophet Hananiah died what might probably have looked like a natural death had you not heard the prophecy.

There are incidents in the Old Testament where a prophet spoke presumptuously but where the consequences weren’t that significant. 2 Samuel 7:1-4 says,

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?

Here, we can see that Nathan spoke presumptuously although it doesn’t seem that he prophesied. It seems more like a blessing. He didn’t inquire of the Lord but assumed that because God had anointed David, his plan would also be of God.

Looking at the contemporary church, this is an area where presumption often happens. This is also the weak point of the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement, which emphasises the authority of the office rather than the accuracy of the word. There is an assumption that the plans of the apostolic and prophetic leaders will automatically be blessed, even when they don’t inquire of the Lord.

A good example of presumption based on office is when Bill Johnson, Che Ahn, John Arnott, and Rich Joyner prophesied over Todd Bentley just before his public fall from ministry. 

Delayed prophecy

There are two mitigating factors, and one of them is time.

Jeremiah 25:1-3 says,

The word that came to Jeremiah concerning all the people of Judah, in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah (that was the first year of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon), which the prophet Jeremiah spoke to all the people of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem: For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, to this day, the word of the Lord has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.

Jeremiah had prophesied about the impending destruction of Jerusalem for twenty-three years, but it had not yet taken place. Many Jews would have probably classified Jeremiah as a false prophet through all that time. This shows that we must be careful with prophesies that don’t have a clear time limit.

But this doesn’t justify the prophecies that clearly said that Trump would win a second term in 2020. 

Unlike Kris Valloton, so many charismatic prophets have resorted to lies and conspiracy theories to cover up the fact that their prophecies were false. They would rather change their description of reality than admit they were wrong.

Another mitigating factor is the symbolic nature of many prophetic dreams and visions. I have looked at this in detail in my book Understanding Revelation.

In this case, a symbolic prophetic vision is interpreted literally. Again, this doesn’t justify the QAnon theories of Trump still being the president secretly, as none of the prophecies predicted any sort of secret presidency. 

Sometimes genuine prophecies are misinterpreted. That is another issue. But when you inspect the original prophecy retrospectively, it should be clear that misinterpretation has taken place. Most Old Testament prophecies about Jesus were misinterpreted by Jesus’s contemporaries, but that didn’t make them false. Often it becomes clear that a prophecy has been misinterpreted only after it has been fulfilled.

False prophets in the New Testament church

Let us now turn our attention to the New Testament. When the New Testament books and epistles were written, the main reference point would have been the Old Testament, which was the only written Word of God. Consequently, the writers of the New Testament sought to apply the Old Testament teachings in the new context and through the lens of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus had some sharp words regarding false prophets. Matthew 7:15-20 says,

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.

In Jesus’s words, the false prophets could be recognised by their fruit. This passage doesn’t refer to the predictive element of prophecy, but you could say that a false prophecy is also a bad fruit.

Verses 21-23 say,

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

It seems that there has been a change of emphasis. It is possible to do mighty works in Jesus’s name including prophesying, and yet to be an evildoer not known by God.

This is remarkable. But what is noteworthy is that it doesn’t justify false or presumptuous prophecy. In fact, it seems to say that even the false prophets can get their prophecies right, but it doesn’t mean that they knew Jesus. So, Jesus is not reducing the biblical standard but upholding it.

Much like in the Old Testament, there is a blurred line between false prophets and false teachers in the New Testament.

False prophets according to John

1 John 4:1-3 says,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

In my book Understanding Revelation, I look more deeply into John’s definition of antichrists as false teachers. But for John, the main feature of false prophets is that they don’t confess Jesus Christ as come in the flesh from God.

Again, this doesn’t reduce the biblical standard; it only places false prophets leading the believers astray in the 1st century context of emerging heresies within the Church.

Revelation 2:18-23 says,

And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze: “I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead.

Like Jezebel in the Old Testament, this Jezebel of Thyatira led believes astray to a syncretistic religion. I write about this historical development in more detail in Understanding Revelation.

Revelation 22:18-19 says,

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

We can see how John upholds a very high standard of prophecy. In his case, his words must be preserved word for word.


2 Peter 2:1-3 says,

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Even so, many will follow their licentious ways, and because of these teachers the way of truth will be maligned. And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation, pronounced against them long ago, has not been idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

Peter equates the Old Testament false prophets here with New Testament false teachers.

Paul says in Acts 20:29-30,

I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.

Much like Jesus, Paul referred to the false prophets as wolves.

What is behind this emphasis on false teachers rather than false prophets in the New Testament? From the perspective of the apostles, the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of Jesus had been fulfilled. Their focus was on defending the revelation about Jesus rather than predictive prophecy. The principles of prophetic ministry had already been well outlined by the Old Testament prophets. In fact, the Book of Jeremiah is the best manual for prophetic ministry that you can find, and it details the prophetic processes much better than most contemporary manuals written by anyone claiming to be a prophet. There was simply no reason to duplicate this work.

Ambiguous visions

Much of the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement has escaped the demands for accuracy to the spiritual realm, as the events happening in the invisible world are by nature directly unverifiable and they can be verified only indirectly.

There is a reality to the spiritual battle in the heavenlies, but Paul says in Colossians 2:18-19,

Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

There is no way of knowing whether a prophet who says he or she has met an angel has in fact met one, although the false doctrines that many of these people boasting about meeting an angel demonstrate that if they did in fact encounter an angel, it wasn’t an angel of the Lord.

Much of the so-called prophetic in the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement is in fact empty boasting about spiritual experiences, which are unverifiable by nature.

In 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 Paul seems to refer to his spiritual experiences in third person:

It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

Paul implies that sharing some of our spiritual experiences even if genuine can be damaging to the hearers, and he has more important things, such as preaching the gospel, to do. In the charismatic world many new and dangerous doctrines have been generated out of false spiritual experiences. And some dangerous doctrines have even been generated out of genuine spiritual experiences.

In Revelation 19:10, an angel says to John.

Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

The greatest prophecy in the Bible has always been about Jesus, and the apostles were totally consumed by this revelation.

We can see that New Testament has in no way reduced the standards for accuracy. But what has changed is that the whole church has now become a prophetic community. When Peter explains the first outpouring of the Spirit in the First Pentecost (Acts 2), he chooses the word of the prophet Joel, which say that everyone who will receive the Holy Spirit will prophesy. The New Testament church is supposed to be a prophetic community where prophetic gift will proliferate.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:29,

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.

What can be said is that the because of Jesus’s work, the consequences of false prophecy are less severe, and that false teaching is perceived to be more dangerous than false prophecy in the New Testament. Yet, there is still a seriousness about sharing prophetic words, but there is more security because the prophetic Spirit has been released on the whole community.

But if the consequences of false prophecy in the New Testament are less severe, neither can the prophets in our era claim the authority of the Old Testament prophets. Yet some contemporary prophets claim Old Testament authority even when their words have been proven wrong.

1 John 2:27 says,

As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.

In the end, the spirit of the prophets should be the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit never lies. And if a prophet doesn’t speak in the anointing of the Holy Spirit, he will either speak presumptuously – that is without the Holy Spirit, or under an influence of another spirit.

It is my view that the Apostolic-Prophetic Movement is in a need of much repentance for speaking presumptuously rather than in the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We dishonour God when we speak presumptuously in his name.

May God help us find our way back to biblical understanding of prophetic ministry.

You can connect with Marko on Twitter @markojoensuu and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mpjoensuu/ or by visiting markojoensuu.com. 

Published by Marko Joensuu

Marko Joensuu has worked for over sixteen years in the publishing and media ministries of Kensington Temple. He is an author, publisher and screenwriter.
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