“Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to Hananiah the prophet in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD, and the prophet Jeremiah said, ‘Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD make the words that you have prophesied come true, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles. Yet hear now this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes to pass, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet’ ” (Jeremiah 28:5–9)
In Jeremiah 28 we have a showdown between a true and a false prophet. There are a number of such face-offs in the Scriptures. The most memorable is perhaps that of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. In that instance it was 450 to 1, as far as mere human ratios go (1 Kings 22). A less well known instance, not very far into the future from this one, is that of Ezekiel and Pelatiah. Pelatiah wasn’t a prophet, but a leader who gave wicked counsel and devised iniquity; so he pretty much functioned like a false prophet. Ezekiel is commanded to prophecy against him. As he does so, Peletiah dies (Ezekiel 11). In the New Testament, one thinks of Ananias (also not a prophet), who lied about the gift he gave to the church. When Peter confronted him saying, “you have not lied to man but to God,” Ananias fell down and breathed his last (Acts 5:4–5).
This episode is a bit more subdued, but the results are the same. There is a face-off, and though everyone walks away, one does so certain to die. In all of these instances, ultimately, the bad guy is on the ground and the good guy lives to ride on.
This is not the theme of every story. Sometimes the good guy gets killed. But this does speak to the way things play out ultimately. In Matthew 5:11–12 Jesus tells his disciples, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Winning in this life isn’t guaranteed. Persecution is to be expected. And the reward is to be found in heaven. But it’s episodes such as these that let you know with whom truth really lies. Men kill true prophets. In these instances, God kills the false prophets. When YHWH decides to draw, He wins every time.
What is peculiar about this showdown, is that if you immerse yourself into it as a single episode, you can’t distinguish the good guy and the bad guy by quick glance. When Elijah had a showdown with he prophets of Baal, they were wearing different colors. Both of these men speak in the name of Yahweh. Both of them are wearing white hats.
Here, Jeremiah and Hananiah both use the same formulas of expression. Much of what Hananiah speaks of, Jeremiah has also promised. Jeremiah too has said that the vessels will return (27:21–22) along with the exiles (24:4–7). He also has promised that the yoke of Babylon will be broken (27:7).
In order to tell them apart one can’t just look. Nor can you casually listen for certain markers of orthodoxy. You must listen and you must listen carefully. We come to this story knowing who wears the white hat. But immerse yourself into the moment. Or, think of a parallel situation today. Two teachers stand opposite one another. Both make Biblical arguments. Both cannot be right. The differences are not negligible. Theirs is no gentleman’s argument over tertiary matters, but a truth war, a matter of life and death. So how do are we to discern?
Deuteronomy outlines two tests concerning false prophets. First, if they make a prediction and it doesn’t come to pass, that prophet is not to be feared but executed (Deuteronomy 18:20–22). Second, when a prophet calls for them to go after other gods, to break covenant, he is to be executed (Deuteronomy 13:1–5). Obviously, Jeremiah applies the “wait and see test,” but I believe he does so in a way that says they don’t really need to wait and see.
The prophets were raised up by God to call the kings, the priests, and the people back to covenant faithfulness when the strayed. If mercy, grace, and peace were held out, they were promised on the other side of repentance or judgment. This is the precedent Jeremiah sets forth in this chapter, the precedent which Hananiah deviates from.
So how can you distinguish between the false and the true when they look similar, sound similar, and yet stand on opposite sides of critical issues? Yes, we must test them against the Scriptures, but false teachers are good at wrapping up heresy in Biblical paper so that we think they’ve handed us a gift. Before you tear in, look to see if some Biblical truth is exaggerated while another is absent.
Many false teachers have an over-realized eschatology, which is a fancy way of saying they’ve got their cart way in front of the horse. Eschatology is the study of the end. Prosperity teachers over-realize the end. They put the very end well before the very end. With Jesus’ first advent and resurrection, the future kingdom began breaking into the present; but that future is not fully present yet and the present is not yet fully past. Still, many false teachers today promise no pain, no suffering, and no sickness. All health! All wealth! All happiness! All victory! Some will even promise victory over sin in this life. A great deal of what they say the saints have in and because of Jesus is true. Like Jeremiah, we could say “Amen!” to much of their message, if we too add qualification. The problem is timing. The reason they get the timing wrong is because their hearts are wrong. They don’t really want Jesus, so much as they want His stuff, and like the younger brother, they’ll have it right now thank you! False teachers take God’s good gifts, paint “god” on them, and with faux piety, demand that God give them their “gods” in the name of God.
What is absent? Sin, judgment, righteousness, repentance, and wrath for starters. While their eschatology is over-realized, their Christology and soteriology are under-emphasized. They say Jesus’ suffering liberates us from suffering. It certainly will, one day, but do they speak of it as a propitiation, a sacrifice placating the righteous wrath of a holy God against our sins? Do they glory in the cross of Christ as a place of substitution, where the ransom of Christ’s blood was spilt to redeem us out of our bondage and pay our debt? Do they speak of Jesus life as one of obedience so that His righteousness might be imputed to us by faith? When they glory in the resurrection, do they mention that we were dead in our trespasses and sin, but by grace, we were raised with Christ? Do they speak of adoption as the highest privilege of the redemption we have in the only begotten Son, or do you sense that it is not really the Father they want, but an inheritance? And as evidence of this supreme love for God himself, do you ever hear them say with Job, “Though he slay me yet I will hope in him” (Job 13:15), or “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21)?
Perhaps exaggeration was the wrong word though. It isn’t that the false prophets can promise more; they can only promise wrongly. They offer cheaply. There is so much less to their teaching. Less God. Less Jesus. Less suffering. Less beauty. Less meaning. Less glory.
Meridian Church · Jeremiah 28:1–17 || Showdown || Josh King