Both Jesus and the apostles warned about fraudulent prophets.
They were characterised by greed, 2 Pet 2:3,13, arrogance, 2 Pet 2:18, immoral lives, 2 Pet 2:2,10-13, and general ungodliness, Jude 4.
Bar-Jesus was a Jewish magician whom Paul and Barnabas denounced as false and deceitful, Ac 13:6-10. Such false prophets belong to the same line as Jezebel from the church of Thyatira, Rev 2:20.
Christian believers in every age are to test those who make prophetic claims. For example, anyone who denies that Jesus has come in the flesh is not a true prophet, 1 Jn 4:1-3.
Indeed, false prophecy will continue right up to the end of the age, and will even be accompanied by miracles, Mt 24:1,24; Rev 16:13-14; 19:20; 20:10. But Christ’s return will signal the end of all such evil.
Characteristics of False Prophets
Understanding the characteristics of false prophets provides a perspective for the true purposes of the prophetic “office.” Further, the characteristics are hermeneutically relevant because they tell us what the true prophets rejected. The presence of conflict between prophetic groups is rarely disputed. At the earliest stage Micaiah inveighed against the 400 prophets for predicting success in battle, (1 Kings 22:19-23) and Hosea derided the false prophets for causing the people to “stumble” (4:5). As might be expected, the presence of pseudoprophets increased as the divided kingdom moved toward the exile. Jeremiah has the strongest series of denunciations (6:13-14; 8:10-11; 14:14; 23:10-22) with Ezekiel close behind (4:13; 13:1-23).
Many have spoken of “criteria” for identifying false prophets, but Crenshaw correctly challenges this, pointing out that too many questions are unanswered (1971:13-14). Does mere lack of fulfillment identify a prophet as false? Does an erroneous assessment of the situation turn a true prophet into a false one? Could a prophet move back and forth between true and false? (see 1 Kings 13) There was no actual criterion that could at all times distinguish true from false. However, there were “signs,” or “marks,” that pointed to a true or false prophet, and these could be applied in specific concrete situations to enable the people to distinguish them.
a. Divination was often employed by false prophets. (Jer 14:14 Mic 3:7 Eze 12:24) This was expressly forbidden in Deut 18:9-14, but the techniques were impressive (passing through fire, interpreting omens, dealing with false spirits or the dead). Pagan prophets used them constantly.
b. Fulfillment of the prophecy is mentioned in Deut 18:22, and Micaiah uses this to test his message against his opponents. (1 Kings 22:28) Isaiah (30:8), Jeremiah (28:9) and Ezekiel (33:33) stressed this criterion, and we cannot deny its importance in the biblical period. Of course, it is notoriously difficult to use, and is not applicable in the case of messianic or long-term prophecies, nor in terms of the conditional nature of many prophecies. However, this is not quite valid as a criticism of the test, for the prophets only used it of concrete or short-term prophecies. While this test was limited, it still had validity in certain instances.
c. The desire to please clearly marked the false prophet. These individuals told the people what they wanted to hear rather than what Yahweh said. The true prophet, on the other hand, delivered God’s message at the proper time and to the proper place, no matter what the consequences. Then as well as today the issue was whether one wished to be accepted by the people or to serve God. The true prophet was unswerving in his God-orientation, even if it meant his life! False prophets would say whatever could reap the greatest benefits for themselves. Jeremiah stated this most poignantly in the statement quoted in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address (“saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace,” 8:11; compare 14:13; 23:17; Ezek 13:10). Micah (3:5) charges his opponents with crying “peace” when paid sufficiently but prophesying “war” when given no remuneration. The false prophets were often guilty of practicing only for self-aggrandizement rather than out of a sense of ministry. (Mic 3:11) Such men were not willing to suffer persecution for the truth of their message, as was Jeremiah (38:1-23) or Micaiah. (1 Kings 22:27-28) Rather, they desired popularity and the good life and so prophesied accordingly.
d. The revelatory nature of the prophecy was a crucial sign of its authenticity. The form (trance, vision, dream) was not as critical as the nature of the message. If the prophet drew people away from God to serve other gods (Deut 13:1-3) or failed to convict the people of their need for repentance, the message clearly did not come from God. The sense of a divine call was essential; (see Am 7:14-15 Mic 3:8) Jeremiah challenged Hananiah’s call as an essential part of his denunciation of the latter. (Jer 28:15)
e. Continuity between the message and the Torah or other true prophecies was another essential. If the prophecy contradicted the traditions it was unacceptable. On the other hand, if it was in keeping with such accepted truths it was valid. The elders of the land affirmed Jeremiah’s prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem on the ground that it paralleled the prophecy of Micah, which led to the repentance of Hezekiah. (Jer 26:17-19)
f. Authentication by a miracle was not a true criterion, for false prophets could duplicate acts of power (Ex 7:11-12,22; compare Mk 13:22 2 Thess 2:9). However, the prophets employed it as a sign at times. Elijah and Elisha, in particular, demonstrated this (for example, the Mount Carmel test between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, 1 Kings 18).
g. The moral character of the prophet was another sign of the validity of his message. False prophets are charged with lying, (Jer 8:10 14:14) drunkenness, (Isa 28:7) immorality, (Jer 23:14) stealing prophetic oracles, (Jer 23:16) treachery (Zep 3:4) and even of persecuting other prophets. (1 Kings 22:24 Jer 26:7-9) Of course this also was not a perfect test. As Smith points out, Hosea’s marriage to a prostitute would have appeared questionable, and neither Jeremiah (38:14-28) nor Elisha (2 Kings 8:7-15) were always completely truthful (1986a:985). Nevertheless, this test was usually valid; even Jesus recognized its basic validity. (Mt 7:17-20)
h. Discernment by Spirit-led men is seen in the incident where Jehoshaphat asks for a “prophet of the Lord” after the false prophets have spoken (1 Kings 22:7) and is emphasized especially in the New Testament. (see Jn 10:4-5 1 Cor 2:14) In 1 Cor 14:29,32, the prophets will be judged by other prophets, for “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets,” and in 1 Jn 4:1 the believer is to “test the spirits to see if they come from God.” In the final analysis all agree that only Spirit-led individuals can discern clearly whether a prophet or preacher is truly sent from God.
Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral