How To Recognize The Word of God
There has always been a sharp distinction between the word of God and messages which have been developed by human reasoning. Certainly God may make use of the mind of an inspired writer in presenting His word: Luke, for example, "investigated everything carefully from the beginning" before writing his inspired gospel (Lk. 1:3). But, "no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will" (2 Pet. 1:21).
(1) The word of God was not necessarily connected in any way with the human thoughts of the prophet who spoke it. When Isaiah had finished delivering the word of the Lord to Hezekiah, he left the palace and started to return home. We are not told what Isaiah's own thoughts were; but certainly he was not expecting another message from the Lord, or he would not have left the palace. Yet, "before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court . . . the word of the Lord came to him" again, and he had to turn around and go right back to Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:1-5).
(2) The word of God was sometimes actually opposed to the human thoughts of the prophet who spoke it. The soothsayer Balaam was imported from Mesopotamia specifically for the purpose of cursing the Israelites; but "the Spirit of God came upon him" (Num. 24:2), and he blessed the Israelites instead. "I could not," said Balaam, "do anything contrary to the command of the Lord, either good or bad, of my own accord. What the Lord speaks, that I will speak" (Num. 24:13).
(3) The word of God sometimes was not even understood by the prophet who spoke it (1 Pet. 1:10-12). After the prophecies recorded in the final chapters of the book of Daniel had been revealed, Daniel writes, "As for me, I heard but could not understand; so I said, `My Lord, what will be the outcome of these events?' And he said, `Go your way, Daniel, for these words are concealed and sealed up until the end of time"' (Dan. 12:8-9).
The word of God was utterly distinct from human reasonings. The two had nothing in common. "The prophet who has a dream may relate his dream, but let him who has my word speak my word in truth. What does straw have in common with grain? declares the Lord" (Jer. 23:28).
How To Tell The Difference
Nevertheless, it was not always easy, on the surface, for uninspired men to recognize what was the word of God. A man might claim to be speaking the word of the Lord when in fact he was not (Jer. 23:25). A man might speak a message, claiming that it came from God, and soon afterwards speak an exactly opposite message, again claiming that it came from God (1 Kings 13:18, 21-22; 22:15, 17). How were ordinary people supposed to tell the difference? The Bible gives a number of guidelines by which the word of God could be recognized.
(1) The word of God always came true. "You may say in your heart, `How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?' When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him" (Deut. 18:21-22). Not everything which came true was the word of God, but anything which did not come true could not be the word of God.
It was especially important to apply this test when the message of the prophet was unusual or surprising in some way. "The prophets who were before me and before you from ancient times prophesied against many lands and against great kingdoms of war and of calamity and of pestilence. The prophet who prophesies of peace, when the word of that prophet shall come to pass, then the prophet will be known as one whom the Lord has truly sent" (Jer. 28:8-9).
(2) The word of God always presented the same message; it never contradicted itself. Even if a message came true, if it flatly contradicted the word of God, it could not be from God. "If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 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,' 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" (Dent. 13:1-3). The same kind of test is, imposed within the New Testament: "Even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel. contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8). "Beloved do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist" (1 Jn. 4:1-3). No message which is contrary to the word of God can be from God.
Today, we are still confronted by all sorts of people who claim to be declaring the word of God. And the same tests still apply. A "man of God" who declared that the world was going to end in 1975 could not possibly be proclaiming the word of God, because his message did not come true. A "man of God" who declared that the Bible contained mistakes could not possibly be proclaiming the word of God, because his message was directly contrary to the word of God.
It is our responsibility to recognize what is the word of God and what is not. It is the responsibility of elders: "From among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (Acts 20:30-32). It is the responsibility of teachers of the word (1 Tim. 4:1-6). It is the responsibility of every Christian (Acts 17:11).
"Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them" (Rom. 16:17).
Truth Magazine XXIII: 15, pp. 245-246