I stumbled across a scripture that I’ve been meditating on this week. The Ferguson Declaration linked to a passage from Matthew 24. It’s one of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourses and it had a very fascinating thing to say about false prophets. Here are two verses: “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:11-12). How do we know who is a false prophet? They make our love grow cold.
There’s more than one way to make peoples’ love grow cold. In this passage, it attributes the cold-heartedness to an “increase of lawlessness.” I took a look at the Greek because I was dissatisfied with the word “lawlessness.” People who have power are the ones who make the rules and decide how the rules of the past will be interpreted. So anyone who says the rules are unjust can be labeled “lawless.” Civil disobedience was “lawless,” but it certainly wasn’t the lawlessness that Jesus is talking about here, because it didn’t make the protesters’ love grow cold. It’s true that most lawbreakers aren’t doing so to fight for justice but simply out of selfish motives. But I think we need a more precise word for what Jesus is describing.
The word in Greek is anomia. Nomos means law. So “lawlessness” isn’t a bad translation. But in order to make a distinction between the perfection of divine natural law and our fallible human laws, I think “disharmony” is a better translation. People who are disharmonious because they’re out of sync with God’s love are going to see their love grow cold. You can follow all the written rules in the Bible and still be disharmonious if your moral legalism is a source of spiritual pride. Jesus spends Matthew 23 skewering the rule-following religious elites of his day for being “like whitewashed tombs” who “tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”
A false prophet is someone who fills us with these idols and distractions that destroy our inner harmony with the Holy Spirit. Sometimes this takes the form of hate. Other times it takes the form of a lukewarm gospel. The test is in the fruit. When people are cold-hearted and unloving, they are under the spell of a false prophet. It doesn’t matter whether they follow all the rules of the Bible or check the right box on every progressive social justice issue. If your love is cold, you are under spiritual captivity in some way.
I’ve got many false prophets in my life. I’ve probably been a false prophet at times. Now we do need to be clear that people who fill you with rage because they tell you a difficult truth are not false prophets. The disharmony lies in whatever ideologies or worldly idols prevent us from responding to everything with Christlike love. If the predominant order of things is disharmonious, then disruption is required to restore God’s harmony.
Perhaps the test is this. Am I speaking truth in such a way that it hardens the hearts of people who agree with me? If someone accepts my teaching, will they become less loving as a result? These are important questions to contemplate for any of us who are called to speak prophetically in the church.