I have a confession to make. As I grew up in the church, I was way too hard on the false prophets in the Old Testament. I was quick to dismiss them as stupid. I wondered how anyone could have the audacity to use their ministry and gifts to build their own platform and deceive people in the name of God. In my speedy dismissal of these godless men, I missed the compelling nature of the ministries they led. We ignore the allure of the false prophet at our own peril. If we dismiss the trappings of their office that led them down the path of destruction, we are doomed to trip over the same temptations that ensnared them. Jeremiah 23 offers us a convicting warning of the destruction that follows the pursuit of worldly “success” at the expense of faithfulness to our Savior. Let us heed these 3 temptations and avoid them in our own ministries at all costs.
A Compelling Vision
"Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord." - Jeremiah 23:16
False prophets built large followings because they were effective communicators. God’s issue with them had nothing to do with the level of relevance or excellence with which they spoke. It had everything to do with the content of their message. Look at how verse 16 describes that message: “filling you with vain hopes”. Don’t focus on the word vain here. They had a vision for people to be filled with hope that they spent time intentionally crafting. They came up with a vision, spoke it to the people and told them that it was from the Lord. A compelling vision is a great way to grow a following. I remember sitting in an incredibly well attended “Church Conference” a few years ago and was told that my ministry would only succeed if I could craft and communicate an excellent, compelling vision. The false prophets of the Old Testament prove this to be true. Consider the true prophets of the Old Testament. Their vision was for people to repent, give their money away, and abandon the idols that met their felt needs. Where is the hope in that? The false prophets we unencumbered by the legalistic restrictions of actually hearing from the Lord. They weren’t bogged down by the lack of relevance in the dry, dusty old message of men like Jeremiah, Micah, and Hosea.
An Adoring Audience
"They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’" - Jeremiah 23:17
Say what you want about the false prophets, but people loved them. They were wildly popular with the religious people of the Old Testament. They spoke at the best conferences, had great book deals, and boasted a massive following on social media. They may have despised the word of the Lord, but they really connected with people on a deep level. Specifically, they made sure that people knew their religious conservatism would be a blessing to the nation of Israel. They had donned "Make Judea Great Again" hats and spouted vague religious platitudes wrapped in the flag of ethnonationalism. I know that’s hard to imagine it could be applicable to 21st century America, but let’s not be quick to dismiss the allure of the love and affection of massive amounts of people. The true prophets of God didn’t despise his word and look where that got them. Beaten up, playing in old graveyards, running around the city nude, eating feces, marrying prostitutes and running for their lives. That sounds terrible.
Status and Power
"For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns, and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up. Their course is evil, and their might is not right." - Jeremiah 23:10
It’s easy to focus on the first part of verse 10 here and then we miss the payoff. They had might. Without status and influence, what good would their ministry even be? They had political influence because of their platform. They sat with kings and queens, shaped policy, and benefitted materially. Their houses were in the right neighborhoods and they drove luxury camels. Clearly, they were living their best lives then. Their course might’ve been a little evil, but who is perfect? If you want to reach people, you have to be willing to innovate and contextualize right? The true prophets of the Lord had no influence, couldn’t provide for their families well, were largely unheard and had no power to enact change in their country.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’" - Jeremiah 23:5-6
When we look at the tempting lives of the false prophets, it is easy to feel the tug of our flesh in at least one of those areas. We live in a hyper-comparative evangelical subculture that values size, relevance, and success. If we aren’t extremely careful, we can forget that when we discard God’s definition of success, we endanger ourselves and our people. Why was the ministry of the true prophets preferable when it pales in material comparison to the ministry of the false prophets? Then answer lies in verses 5 & 6. The glory of God and the message of the gospel is better than a successful ministry. If the gospel of Jesus Christ is not better than money, power, and fame, then we are doomed to repeat the sins of the false prophets at the peril of our eternal souls. We sing, write, and tweet that Jesus is better–it’s important that the goals and fruits of our ministry reflect that reality. The message of the gospel is worth suffering for, standing up for and even failing for. If we are unpopular but the gospel is preached, God is pleased. If we are poor and marginalized but the Gospel is preached, God is pleased. If we are uncool but the Gospel is preached, God is pleased. Let us confront the temptations that tug at our flesh and abandon them in pursuit of the ministry of the Gospel, regardless of the cost.