The Test of Lawless Prophets
After forbidding Israel to study the religious practices of the Canaanites, Moses turns his attention to those prophets who would use their prophetic gift to entice men to become lawless. Deuteronomy 13 says,
1 If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,” 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall follow the Lord your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him.
The first thing to notice in this passage is that Moses does not use the term false prophet. Moses assumes that the prophetic gift is genuine, even if the prophet leads people into apostasy. Even genuine prophets can use their gift in an unlawful manner.
In those days signs and wonders were required to establish or prove that they were indeed prophets. Paul acknowledges this in 1 Corinthians 1:22, saying, “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom.”
Miracles Without Fruit
If a prophet had given signs that did not come to pass, it was not likely that men would have followed his teachings. Hence, Moses did not deal with such cases. He was more concerned with prophets whose signs did come to pass or the miracles (“wonders”) that he performed, for these were the things that gave the prophet credibility in the eyes of men.
The problem which Moses sets forth is where genuine prophets gain credibility by signs or miracles, but then teach the people to follow “other gods.” In the Mosaic context, following other gods was done by violating the law of the God of Israel. One must listen to Yahweh’s voice, rather than the voice of other gods. The mind and will of Yahweh (Christ) is set forth in this law, whereas the laws of the nations have only a distorted view of genuine morality and the mind of Christ.
This is perhaps the foundational law by which Jesus warned in Matthew 7:15 and 16,
15 Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits…
A “false prophet” is not one who prophesies falsely, but a prophet who comes with signs and wonders and yet leads people into lawlessness. In other words, he is “false” to Jesus Christ and is not “true” to the law.
We know this, because Jesus then says so in verses 21-23,
21 Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” 23 And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness [anomia].
Hence, the “false prophets” in Matthew 7 are equated to those who “practice lawlessness” in spite of their faith in doing miracles in the name of Jesus Christ. This explains the meaning of Deuteronomy 13, because anomia comes from the root word nomos, “law.” Gesenius Lexicon says that it means: (1) the condition of without law, and (2) contempt and violation of law.
Unfortunately, the KJV usually translates the word as “iniquity,” which is not clearly understood by Christians. Iniquity is technically a proper translation, because iniquity is the inner lawless condition that causes men to sin outwardly. But many miss its connection to lawlessness, because they no longer define sin as lawlessness, as John does in 1 John 3:4. In Isaiah 53:5 we see how to define iniquity,
5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed [or bruised] for our iniquities….
A transgression, then, is an act of sin that is condemned by the law. Jesus was pierced, or wounded for our transgressions, because a wound can be seen by all. On the other hand, iniquity is an inward condition or motivation that causes men to transgress. Hence, Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be “crushed” or “bruised” for our iniquity. The bruise is an inner wound, comparable to iniquity.
The prophets being denounced in Matthew 7 are not devoid of faith to do miracles. Neither do they call upon other gods, but speak in the name of Jesus. Neither do they do their miracles by the power of Satan, for they even cast out demons. One cannot cast out Satan by the power of Satan, for Jesus said that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25). Their problem, Jesus says, is lawlessness.
How could men of faith also be lawless? Is not faith sufficient? Faith is indeed sufficient for one’s justification, but sanctification requires obedience. Obedience is a necessary step toward coming into agreement with the will of God and the mind of Christ. This is the main theme of the book of James, yet Paul also admonishes the church to be obedient to the Spirit of God.
One must hear and obey God to have genuine faith—that is, faith that bears fruit. The problem is that many have thought that faith could be genuine apart from fruit. This has come partly by misunderstanding Paul’s teaching on grace, but also because even lawless faith can result in miracles. Men then think that the miracles validate the lawlessness of the miracle worker. But in the end, Jesus will say, “Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”
Lawful Faith Passes the Test
Broadly speaking, faith is believing the mind and will of Christ, which is set forth in the written word as well as the revelation of the spoken word. The word is the law, the prophets, the psalms, and the New Testament gospel. And so sin is certainly tied to one’s lack of faith, but also to the violation of the law.
For this reason, Jesus condemns anomia, “lawlessness,” and John defines sin as anomia (1 John 3:4). In fact, Paul also uses the same term, writing in Romans 6:19,
19 … For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness [anomia], resulting in further lawlessness [anomia], so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.
There is no contradiction, then, between Jesus, Paul, and John. They all understood that lawlessness was a violation of the mind and will of God. Furthermore, Jesus prophesied that many “false prophets” would come during the Pentecostal Age and would do signs and miracles, casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and yet would practice lawlessness. Jesus also condemned those who would teach men that the law had been put away (Matthew 5:19), essentially legalizing sin in the church.
Moses reveals that God would indeed “test” Israel by giving them prophets who would come with signs and wonders and yet tempt people to put away the law. Jesus carried this prophecy into the New Testament and the Pentecostal Age up to the present time. It is a matter of clear history that both churches failed the test, first under the Old Covenant and later under the New. Men find miracles more credible than the inspired word of God.
The Tests are from God
One final note is important. In Deuteronomy 13:3 Moses gives no credit to the devil when lawless prophets work signs and wonders. He gives credit to God alone and gives us the divine motive as well. It is not the devil testing us, but God who tests the heart of the church (using the devil as His agent). We may not like this test. Many think it is unfair for God to test our hearts in this manner, especially when they believe that to fail such tests would result in burning in hell forever. Here is where it is helpful to understand that the judgments of the law do not include torture, unless someone has tortured others. But even in such a case, no one has tortured other people forever, and so there is no judgment of the law that includes an endless burning hell.
Because the judgment always fits the crime (Exodus 21:23-25), and every man is judged according to his works (Revelation 20:12), all judgment is limited by time. The ultimate end is established by the law of Jubilee. Further, the purpose of judgment is to correct the sinner and to restore the lawful order by establishing the rights of the victims. Isaiah 26:9 says that “when the earth experiences Thy judgments, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.”
He tests the hearts of the people in order to expose hidden iniquity (lawlessness), for this allows us to deal with it in a lawful manner. We are largely ignorant of the iniquity hidden in our hearts, so God brings us into situations where that iniquity comes to the surface in the form of sin or transgression of the law. Only then can we see the true condition of our own hearts.
God’s tests are not needed to keep God informed. They are needed so that we know our own hearts and can then repent with sincerity, knowing precisely which forms of lawlessness we need to put under the blood of Christ. This is how we grow spiritually and begin to be conformed to the image of Christ.
Many have repented in principle, but not often with knowledge. They say, “I repent,” but if they do not know how they are violating the law, nothing will change. Paul says that “through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). He confesses in Romans 7:7,
7 … I would not have come to know sin except through the law; for I would not have known about coveting if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’.”
We need the law to tell us what we are doing wrong, for only then can we truly repent in such a way as to make a real change in our mind and in our behavior. God’s tests are designed to do this. I can personally testify to this fact, for God has dealt with me many times in this way. I never liked it while I was going through it, but I realized that God was being merciful to me in exposing my fleshly mind and its lawless tendencies so that I could put on the mind of Christ.