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July 8, 2021

One Strike and You’re Out?

By Dr. Craig Keener

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. (NRSV) - Deut. 18:22

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In the New Testament, we recognize that even in small house churches, like those in Corinth, prophecies had to be evaluated each week (1 Cor 14:29). That suggests that those prophecies remained fallible and not all of them passed muster in all their details.

But how does that square with Old Testament teaching about stoning a prophet if their word doesn’t come to pass? Some argue for a radical difference between Old and New Testament prophecy. But we should remember that not all prophecies in OT times, just like not all prophecies in NT times, automatically qualified for inclusion in the Bible, even if they were by true prophets. We don’t hear the prophecies of the true prophets whom Jezebel killed, or of the hundred whom Obadiah hid in a cave (1 Kgs 18:4).

Prophecy in Corinth, where the believers were just two or three years old in the Lord, had to get vetted through a process of peer review. In the OT, senior prophets often mentored junior prophets, probably supervising their prophesying (1 Sam 19:20; 2 Kgs 2:3-7; 4:38). That is, there was also a process of review as younger prophets were maturing. (It was considered noteworthy when a prophet arose like Samuel, none of whose words failed—1 Sam 3:19; or Moses, who talked with God face to face—Num 12:6-8.)

Words coming to pass was one measure, but as we shall see, it was not the decisive criterion for prophecy. Prophets were false even if their words came to pass, if they sought to lead God’s people to worship other gods (Deut 13:1-5); if they spoke “rebellion” against the Lord (13:5). The passage about executing a prophet who speaks something that does not come to pass (18: 20-22) contrasts in context with the true prophet like Moses (18:15-19). The prophet to which it refers is a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods or speaks presumptuously what God has not said (18:20, 22).

But does this refer to stoning a prophet who thought  God was speaking and misunderstood him or made a mistake on some point? The Hebrew word translated “presumptuously” means “rebelliously.” As in the statement above, it refers to someone seeking to lead us away from the Lord. If it actually referred to anyone who makes a mistake in speaking for the Lord then it would rule out Nathan, who had to correct himself (2 Sam 7:2-5). If it refers to anyone whose word does not come to pass it would rule out Jonah, who prophesied judgment but the judgment was averted by the people’s repentance (Jon 3:4). Jeremiah teaches that in fact most prophecies are conditional (Jer 8:5-10). God sometimes lets true prophets know when conditions have changed and judgment is delayed (1 Kgs 21:29).

Israel’s history, however, does not give us much indication of true prophets who prophesied publicly and spoke what was not truly the word of the Lord. After being mentored by senior prophets, by the time that newer prophets were speaking, they seem to have been fairly mature in their prophetic calling. Prophecies in local congregations must be evaluated, but a prophet who prophesies wrongly on a massive national scale seems to be at most an exception in the OT. So while an error might not always make a person a false prophet who prophesies rebellion against God, it is still serious business. True prophecy is about honoring God and revealing his heart.

Of course, we are not called to stone even genuinely false prophets today. In the New Testament, the OT death penalty is transmuted to excommunication (Deut 13:5 and parallels in 1 Cor 5:13). If a person has prophesied falsely, even publicly, but is not leading us toward other gods or counseling rebellion against the Lord, some discipline may be in order, allowing for a time of seeking where they got it wrong. If a person has prophesied and their words come to pass or don’t come to pass, but they are prophesying rebelliously against God’s true message, then the full discipline of putting them outside the church is in order. We just need to be pretty sure we get it right before exercising that full discipline, which is quite serious (Matt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:5; 1 Tim 1:20).

As for executing people—happily, that’s not our business as the church. If people got executed today for all the things that Old Testament law commanded, we might not have many people left. As Christians, we are called to bring life and restoration. So keep your stones for your rock garden. But we do need to take prophecy seriously. On the local level, we grow and mature as best as we can. Before we say definitively, “the Lord says,” we’d better be pretty sure we’re right. (It’s safer to say, “This is what I feel like the Lord is saying.”) The same is really the case for teachers, when we say, “The Bible says,” among those for whom “The Bible says” = “The Lord says.” And before going public on a massive scale, prophets (and teachers) should have a pretty good track record of hearing God (and the Bible) rightly.

This article was reprinted with permission from https://craigkeener.com.

Dr. Craig Keener did his Ph.D. work in New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke University and is known for his work as a New Testament scholar on Bible background (commentaries on the New Testament in its early Jewish and Greco-Roman settings). Well over a million of his thirty-plus books are in circulation and have won thirteen national and international awards.