His predictions were wrong—three times. Harold Camping, the founder of Family Radio, first predicted that the end of time would take place between September 15 and 27, 1994. It didn’t happen.
Five years later, he predicted that the rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. The saved would be taken to heaven, and the world would be devastated by five months of fire, brimstone, and plagues. Millions would die each day. The final destruction of the world would happen on October 21. He collected millions of dollars from his listeners and supporters during those two years. He used the money to rent space on billboards from coast to coast to warn people. He also printed pamphlets that explained the complex formula that led him to the May 21 date.
However, the world awakened to life as usual on May 22, so Camping announced yet another date for the rapture: October 21, 2011. This time there were no billboards or pamphlets. When October 21 came and went uneventfully, he acknowledged that he had been wrong about all three predictions, and he even apologized. He also admitted that no one can know when the end will come, and he went back to studying his Bible.
But by this time many, many lives had been affected by his false predictions. People who believed him had quit their jobs, sold their belongings, and sat at home, waiting. We can’t help but feel sorry for those who were deceived. If only they had gone to the Bible—God’s Word—they would have known that Camping’s dates couldn’t have been right. Jesus Himself said in Matthew 24:36, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
If even Jesus doesn’t know the day of His second coming (or at least He didn’t know it at the time He said spoke these words), how could an ordinary human being predict it? That’s why it’s so important for us to be careful students of the Bible. Then, if someone claims to be a prophet, we will know whether his or her prophecy is credible. And if someone introduces new concepts, we will know whether those teachings are true or false.
Prophets in the Bible
God has used prophets since Old Testament times. Probably the greatest prophecy in the Old Testament is Isaiah’s prediction about Jesus’ birth: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). As you know, that’s exactly what happened!
Here’s how Matthew recorded the prophecy’s fulfillment: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means ‘God with us’ ” (Matthew 1:22, 23).
The greatest prophet in the New Testament was John the Baptist. He had the privilege of predicting the ministry of Jesus. John said to the people: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry” (Matthew 3:11). And Jesus did come, just as John said He would!
The Bible also mentions women who were prophets. In the Old Testament, there are Deborah and Huldah (Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14–20), among others. And the New Testament says that Philip’s four daughters prophesied (Acts 21:9), as did a woman named Anna (Luke 2:36–38). God chose prophets and prophetesses for one reason: He had important messages to communicate to His people.
Whom can we believe?
In the book of Joel, God said that there will be prophets in the last days. Joel 2:28, 29 says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”
On the other hand, Jesus warned that there will also be false prophets. “Watch out for false prophets,” He said. “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). In other words, they will seem to be credible. They may even sound very religious—but they will mislead their followers.
So how can you and I distinguish a prophet sent by God from a false prophet sent by our enemy, the devil? There are several important questions we can ask, and we’ll need to pay careful attention to the answers, because they will tell us whether the prophet is true or false.
What is their “fruit”? After warning us to watch out for false prophets, Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (verse 16). We can recognize true prophets by the lives they live and what their ministries produce. This may take some time to decipher.
Do they teach the true gospel? The true gospel is this: we have no righteousness of our own, but Jesus died for our sins, and when we repent of them and confess them, we are forgiven. So if prophets preach a “gospel” of salvation by works—that we have to work our way to heaven by doing good deeds or by giving money to their ministries—they aren’t teaching the truth. They are false prophets.
Do their predictions come true? I know a pastor who had a stranger show up at his church’s young adult group. The man had done some calculating and was positive that he knew the very day Jesus would come. Sadly, five young married couples believed his prophecy. The pastor pleaded with them and tried to teach them what the Bible says, but it was no use. They quit their jobs, sold many of their possessions (one man even sold his car), and waited. When the end didn’t come as predicted, they were so disillusioned that their group scattered. Some of the couples even divorced over it. This man was obviously not a genuine prophet.
Do they glorify God or themselves? The focus of a true prophet will always be on Jesus. If the so-called prophet or teacher comes across as proud and self-centered, be careful. True servants of God will humbly point us to Jesus—not to themselves.
Is money more important to them than the gospel? When I was a young girl, my grandpa became very ill. Grandma believed in God, but she wasn’t a member of any particular church. She was watching TV one day when a televangelist invited people to send in their prayer requests. So Grandma sent a letter asking for prayer for her sick husband and soon received a letter back from the ministry. It said that they’d be glad to put Grandpa on their prayer list—for a donation! Thankfully, Grandma didn’t fall for that!
Do they stand to benefit personally from their message? When I was in college, I received a phone call from a young man I had gone on a date with the night before. He proclaimed, “I had a dream last night in which God told me to marry you.
” I replied, “Well, He hasn’t told me that!”
Obviously, he had hoped to benefit personally by giving me this “message from God.”
The gift of prophecy
When the New Testament mentions spiritual gifts, the gift of prophecy is always in the list (Romans 12:6–8; 1 Corinthians 12:4–10; Ephesians 4:11). And that’s what it is—a gift. It’s not something that someone can gain on his or her own. It’s given to the man or woman whom God chooses.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be fooled. He’s our only hope for salvation, and He knows that a false prophet could lead us away from Him. His Word warns us, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Thankfully, if we know our Bibles, we will be able to recognize God’s true prophets and reject the false ones. Don’t be fooled! Rather, be guided by God and His Word!