Matthew 24:23-25 (my translation, compare NIV)
23 Then, if someone tells you, ‘Look! Here’s the Anointed’ or ‘Here!’ — don’t believe it! 24 For pseudo-messiahs and pseudo-prophets will be raised up providing great signs and wonders in order to mislead the chosen if possible. 25 Look, I’ve pre-warned you.
What’s a false prophet? People often say, “Someone whose prophecy didn’t come true.” There’s some truth there, but that isn’t definitive. Prophecy isn’t primarily about prediction. Even where it contains a prediction, you may find yourself misled long before the prediction fails to materialize. That’s more an effect that a definition. A true prophet is someone who speaks for God, while a false prophet claims to speak for God when they’re not. It’s an issue of authority: whether they’re speaking the word of the Lord.
That’s why Jesus connects fake christs with false prophets. A false prophet promotes a false messiah. They speak for a power other than God, a leader other than God’s anointed ruler for the earth. That’s precisely what Jesus said: false prophets are pointing to someone other than Jesus when they say, “Look! Here’s the Anointed!”
This would be so obvious if we recognized the gospel of the kingdom, the message God wants proclaimed to all nations (24:14). The gospel is the good news of the king God has appointed to reign over the earth, his anointed ruler. The gospel is the announcement of God’s Anointed (his Christ) as our ruler (our Lord). That was the apostles’ gospel.
We speak for God when we make that announcement. Conversely, anyone who proclaims another leader as God’s anointed is a false prophet, speaking on behalf of another power. Even if they can turn a staff into snake, they’re false prophets if they promote Pharaoh’s power (Exodus 7:11).
That’s what Paul told his Corinthian friends when they asked about spiritual matters. His leading advice was to check what power is being promoted: No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3). The key difference between true prophets and false is whether they’re promoting Jesus’ kingship or someone else’s.
The kingdom background
This connection between anointed and prophet is evident in the kingdom story of the Old Testament:
- Saul was proclaimed as God’s anointed by the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 9–10).
- David was proclaimed as God’s anointed by the same prophet when Saul failed (1 Samuel 16:1-13).
- Solomon was proclaimed as God’s anointed by the prophet Nathan (1 Kings 1:32-48), for Nathan had already proclaimed the enduring house of David to represent God’s house (2 Samuel 7:4-17).
- Jeroboam was proclaimed as God’s chosen to lead the northern tribes when the kingdom split. That proclamation was made by the prophet Ahijah (1 Kings 11:29-40).
The “enduring” Davidic kingship failed with the exile. As they returned, enemies falsely accused Nehemiah of scheming against the empire to have himself proclaimed king, and for that he would need a prophet:
Nehemiah 6:6-7 According to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’
True power isn’t taken; it’s an appointment from heaven. That’s the connection between anointed and prophet.
And that was John the Baptist’s role. He was the prophet proclaiming heaven’s anointed. He announced the kingdom of heaven arriving in the mighty ruler who would restore order and give his people Spirit-empowered leadership (Matthew 3:1-12). The very thought that the people believed John to be God’s spokesman terrified Herod (14:5) and the temple leaders (21:26).
Jesus response to those who questioned his authority was to ask if John was God’s spokesman (21:23-27). If they recognize John as a prophet, they must recognize the authority of God’s anointed.
Daniel the prophet
In speaking for God, the prophets spoke against the rulers that devastate God’s world. In speaking against the temple (24:1-2), Jesus picks up a phrase they’d heard through Daniel the prophet: the abomination of desolation (Daniel 11:31; 12:11).
Daniel 11 describes a horrific time in the 160s BC when the temple was temporarily shut down. Their earthly ruler (Antiochus IV) pressured them to give up their Jewish uniqueness and blend with the power of Greece. He placed an idol to Zeus in the Jerusalem temple. To God’s people, this “abomination” was the “desolation” of holy space. For three and a half years, they were no longer able to bring their offerings each morning and evening to recognize their heavenly sovereign. 1 Maccabees tells how the Maccabean family resisted him, restoring the worship of the only true God.
Jesus’ disciples knew this story. They celebrated the Festival of the Dedication of the temple (Hanukkah) each year (John 10:22), as Jewish communities today. But Matthew checks whether his reader understands (24:15). People didn’t have books and many couldn’t read, so this would have been a group reading of the Gospel. The reader needs to check if the audience understands Jesus’ allusion to Daniel’s statements about Antiochus and the closure of the temple.
Antiochus’ actions reveal the essence of evil. Sin is refusing God’s authority, grasping at the power that belongs to him, and using it to oppress each other. As God’s spokesman (a prophet), Daniel condemned this hubris, this violation of Israel’s covenant with their Sovereign. As God’s spokesman, Daniel declared that those who know their true Sovereign’s authority would resist this false ruler (Daniel 11:31-32) who claimed to be “God Manifest” (Epiphanes).
Roman rulers were just as full of themselves. Julius Caesar and Augustus were proclaimed as gods when the died. Gaius Caligula was the first to claim to be a god while still alive, demanding people worship him as the new son god (Neos Helios). He ordered a statue of himself to be erected in the Jerusalem temple — proposing another abomination that would desolate the temple.
But Jesus was speaking of something much more devastating than a temporary interruption to Israel’s twice-daily recognition of their divine sovereign. He was warning of the temple being destroyed at the command of emperors who proclaim themselves to be earth’s rulers — the complete, permanent desolation of God’s house on earth.
For the community that experienced such loss in AD 70, the fall of the temple left a vacuum. Sucked into that vacuum would be pseudo-messiahs, proclaimed by pseudo-prophets (24:24).
But there’s an even greater question here. How on earth will God’s anointed receive the throne when these fake rulers dominate the world? Jesus addresses that question with another allusion to Daniel: the coming of the son of man (24:27). We’ll address that in our next post.
A concrete example
We’ll wrap up this post with one example of a false messiah proclaimed by a false prophet.
We’ll skip over the resistance leaders who claimed to be God’s servants to liberate Jerusalem during the Great Revolt of the 60s. We’ll skip over Josephus’ presentation of Vespasian as God’s anointed ruler for his people.
Around AD 132, Rabbi Akiva wondered if the time had come for the return of God’s nation. He believed he had found the messiah — a man named Simon whom he called Bar Kokhba (son of the star). He claimed Simon was the person promised in Balaam’s prophecy: A star will come out of Jacob; a sceptre will rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17).
Following this messiah, they declared their independence from Rome and began minting coins stamped with the years of Simon’s reign. Rome’s response was swift and brutal, utterly crushing Simon and his supporters. According to the Talmud, the Romans kept slaughtering until a horse sunk into blood up to his nose, and the blood would roll boulders weighing forty seahs until the blood flowed four mils into the sea (y. Taan. 4:5, VII.1.NN).
Simon was a false messiah, and Akiva was his false prophet. When later rabbis referred to Simon, they often called him Bar Koziba (son of the lie).
Those who want power over people regularly claim to be the one God has chosen to reign (his anointed). That’s true across cultures and throughout history. British monarchs claimed the divine right of kings, with the church acting as God’s prophetic voice (speaking for God in anointing the king).
In 2016, I was deeply disturbed to see so-called evangelists proclaiming Donald Trump as God’s chosen man. No one who understands the kingdom of God would proclaim someone else as God’s anointed: that’s a false gospel, faith in a saviour who is not God’s anointed. It isn’t just about whether he was elected or re-elected or not. Anyone who claims to speak for God but proclaims someone other than Jesus as God’s anointed is a false prophet.
We need to get back to the true gospel. Just a few months before Jesus warned about false christs and their false prophets, Peter had proclaimed the true Messiah: You are the Anointed, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16). Jesus’ response was to affirm Peter’s message as true prophecy: This was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven (16:17).
False prophets proclaim someone else as God’s anointed, not recognizing Jesus as the physical person who implements God’s reign on earth (1 John 4:1-3). The core difference between true prophets and false is simply this: false prophets demean Jesus’ authority, while true prophets recognize Jesus as our ruler (1 Corinthians 12:3). The testimony of Jesus’ authority — that is the essence of prophecy (Revelation 19:10).
Jesus warned of pseudo-messiahs supported by pseudo-prophets, so be on your guard against those who proclaim anyone else as God’s anointed. Heaven has given no other name through whom the world can be saved.
What others are saying
John Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 2:318:
False Christs broke out, and appeared in public with their witchcrafts, so much the frequenter and more impudent, as the city and people drew nearer to its ruin; because the people believed the Messias should be manifested before the destruction of the city; and each of them pretended to be the Messias by these signs. From the words of Isaiah [66:7], “Before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child,” the doctors concluded, “that the Messias should be manifested before the destruction of the city.” Thus the Chaldee paraphrast upon the place; “She shall be saved before her utmost extremity, and her king shall be revealed before her pains of childbirth.” Mark that also; “The Son of David will not come, till the wicked empire [of the Romans] shall have spread itself over all the world nine months; as it is said, ‘Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth [Micah 5:3].’ [Bab. Joma, fol. 10. 1.]”
Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts, Matthew, The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 216–217:
The themes addressed thus far derive from Matthew 24:4–14 and 23–28. Between these two sections sits a pericope whose language points most directly to Jerusalem’s destruction (24:15–22). The paragraph begins with an allusion to Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” (a refrain in Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11) set up in “the holy place” or temple (24:15). While the original referent of Daniel is the altar to Zeus erected by Antiochus IV in the Jerusalem temple in 167 BCE (cf. 1 Macc 1:54), Matthew reengages this image to portend the temple’s desecration and destruction to come, providing the aside “let the reader understand” to point his audience forward as well as backward. Jesus’s particular instructions for fleeing Jerusalem (24:16–20) fit the Jewish conflict with Rome of 70 CE. The sense of urgency would make sense in the context of Rome’s efforts to restore control over the whole region (“those in Judea”; 24:16) as they retake Jerusalem and the temple from Jewish zealots.