Biblical Keys for Discerning True and False Prophets

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Biblical Keys for Discerning True and False Prophets

Most of us tend to see parts of a form hierarchically. The parts that are important (that is, provide a lot of information), or the parts that we decide are larger, or the parts we think should be larger, we see as larger than they actually are. Conversely, parts that are unimportant, or that we decide are smaller, or that we think should be smaller, we see as being smaller than they actually are.[1]

The Biblical keys for discerning true and false prophets are useful and plentiful, and for the most part, surprisingly neglected. This study includes a hypertext list of Bible tests for true and false prophets. The best known tests turn out to be the ones most qualified by precept and abused in practice. However, most can be applied without careful qualification, each positive test being balanced by complimentary tests for false prophets. Modern use calls for consideration of the Mote-Eye rule (Matthew 7:2-5), that no interpretation or application of a Biblical test for prophets can be correct if it requires us to reject Biblical prophets. Overall, these Biblical tests should focus attention on the truly important points by which we can discern the true and false.

Because the attitudes and actions of each individual shape what we can know and perceive, I also include a section on Bible passages that describe what a person should do in order to see truth. In all cases, the recommendations contrast with contrary behavior and attitudes we should avoid.

The Bible also includes many[2] of the arguments made to justify rejecting true prophets. I discuss some of the most instructive of these. They demonstrate that what people think and want often emerge as obstacles to their perceiving what is real. Additionally, other objections based on actual Bible tests often demonstrate what Jesus meant when he said that those who do not know what it means to “have mercy, and not sacrifice” may condemn the guiltless. In practice their examples show how the letter kills, and the spirit gives life.

The overall picture includes all three elements—tests to apply, actions and attitudes to demonstrate, and mistakes to avoid—and reveals an organic interaction between them. That is, those who use the appropriate tests for prophets also demonstrate the behavior recommended for seeing truth. Those who reject true prophets fall short of the recommended behavior. In consequence, they miss or misapply the actual tests for true prophets, and repeat the kinds of arguments used by those who rejected true prophets anciently. This shows why Jesus said “He that receiveth you receiveth me.” (Matthew 10:40). Despite the passage of millennia, that same issues arise. We too quickly congratulate ourselves for being modern.

I include a section on the implications these tests and Biblical examples have for testing the claims of Joseph Smith. One final point is that these are not “proof-texts” by which anyone can compel another person's thinking.[3] Rather they provide essential contexts for the questions we ask about true and false prophets. Each scripture I quote here can and should be further considered in its own cultural and literary context. In some instances, where context is crucial, I have added information from modern scholarship. With respect to both scripture and commentary, I offer a beginning, not an ending. The soil in which we plant such seeds (the “word” in the parable of the Sower) and the care with which we nurture them over time affects our personal harvests.

Now, on to the study.

  • And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.[4]
  • And how shall they preach, except they be sent?...Romans 10:15

Note: This study is designed with links to allow you to survey top-level summaries with or without going down into detailed quotation and discussion, according to your own pace and interests.


  1. Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, rev. ed. (Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1989), 134.
  2. Over 70, last time I counted.
  3. For a discussion, see the link to my detailed essay “Paradigms Crossed” provided in the Author's Note section. See:Kevin Christensen, "Paradigms Crossed (Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology by Brent Lee Metcalfe)," FARMS Review of Books 7/2 (1995): 144–218. off-site
  4. Matthew 24:14. Also see 1/10.{{{4}}}?lang=eng#{{{4}}} Ephesians 1 10:{{{4}}}, Acts 3:21, Deut. 27:30, Isaiah 29:9-24, 2:2-3, 28:7-16.