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How do you understand Deuteronomy 18:20-22, and weren’t some of the early apostles guilty of preaching wrong information?

It is interesting to review this section of Scripture although Mr Norbert Link has already addressed aspects of this recently in a member letter and a StandingWatch programme.  In this Q&A, we want to show specific details of some of the New Testament apostles and make appropriate observations on a number of Scriptural references.

First of all, let us read what Deuteronomy 18:20-22 says:

“But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death. You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.”

Mr Link observed in his member letter that “On the face of it, that would mean that the early New Testament apostles would have been false prophets, because they all believed and proclaimed dogmatically, undoubtedly with the conviction that they were inspired by God, that they would still be alive at the time of the return of Jesus Christ. Later it became clear to them that they would all die, but that was not clear to them at first.

“It is obvious that Deuteronomy 18:20-22 does not address these kinds of scenarios. Matthew Henry explains that the false prophet makes wrong predictions, contrary to the plain meaning of Scripture, to encourage people to sin (cp. Jeremiah 23:20-22). The false prophet claims to speak in the name of the LORD, but it is his goal to lead the people to wrong gods. In reality, a false prophet speaks in the name of other gods, either expressly (cp. Deuteronomy 13:1-5), or clandestinely.

“The Nelson Study Bible points out that false prophets might even predict events which do come to pass, while true prophets may predict events which do not materialize.  A classic example is Jonah who proclaimed that God would destroy sinful Nineveh in 40 days. Due to the sincere repentance of the Ninevites, God relented from the calamity which He had planned to bring about (compare Jeremiah 18:7-8; 26:3). This did not make Jonah a false prophet.”

For the purpose of this presentation, let us look at the statements of several apostles in the New Testament who thought that Christ would return in their lifetime.

In Acts 2:16-21 we read the passage where Peter was speaking on the day of Pentecost in 31AD and written by Luke some 30 years or so later:

“But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God,  That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh;  Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,  Your young men shall see visions,  Your old men shall dream dreams.  And on My menservants and on My maidservants   I will pour out My Spirit in those days;  And they shall prophesy. I will show wonders in heaven above  And signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke.  The sun shall be turned into darkness,  And the moon into blood,  Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD.  And it shall come to pass  That whoever calls on the name of the Lord Shall be saved.’”

Peter was quoting the prophet Joel and while this happened in part with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, this prophecy has to be fulfilled at the end of this age. It seems fairly obvious that Peter thought that they were in the last days then; otherwise, why would he have quoted this prophecy at that time?

Also, Peter thought it was the end-time with his comment in 1 Peter 1:20:

“He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.”

This was written nearly 2,000 years ago, but does that make Peter a false prophet?   If he was, we might as well throw the Bible away because all Scripture stands, without exception, or it falls.   We believe that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Further, Peter was joined by Paul in thinking that time was short then. We read an interesting verse in 1 Corinthians 7:29.   This was written by Paul between AD 50-52:

“But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none…”

Paul thought that the time was short and that the Great Tribulation was imminent, but here we are nearly 2,000 years later, still awaiting Christ’s return.

Over a few pages in 1 Corinthians 15:50-52, we read the following:

“Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

The last four words of verse 52 are very revealing – “we shall be changed.”   When we use the word “we,” it obviously includes ourselves, and in this case it included Paul himself.

The first letter that the apostle Paul wrote was 1 Thessalonians, around AD 50-52. The disciples’ early epistles reveal that some, if not most of them, thought that Christ’s return was imminent. So, what does he write in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18?

“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

We read here that Paul expected, at that time, that Jesus would return in his lifetime as again, the word “we”—that inclusive term— is used.  He even said that he was passing this information on to the readers as “the word of the Lord.”

In Hebrews 1:1-2, we again see Paul referring to the last days:

“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds…”

There are four different references of Paul, and we need to fully realize how some—or maybe all of the early apostles—felt on this matter. There are of course many more references where Paul expressed his conviction that Christ would come soon (compare for example Philippians 4:5: “The Lord is at hand.”)

Let us see what James, the half-brother of Jesus, had to say.

He stated in James 5:1-3:

“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you!  Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days.”

Yet again, the phrase “the last days” has been used.  Compare also James 5:8: “…the coming of the Lord is at hand” or, as the margin in the New King James Bible has it, “has drawn near.”

The apostle John felt exactly the same. As we read in 1 John 2:18:

“Little children, it is the [or: a] last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the [or: a] last hour.”

The or a last hour is quoted twice in the same verse.

In this Q&A, we have quoted numerous references for Peter, Paul, James and John.  Were any of these disciples of Christ a false prophet? If they had been, they would have been condemned in the Bible, but they are not. They were men of God, but none of these men were perfect, nor were any of them false prophets.

With the wrong idea that they were false prophets, we might as well conclude that Jesus Christ was a false prophet. In the book of Revelation, we read that God the Father revealed to Christ “things which must shortly take place” (1:1). Christ passed the information on to an angel to communicate to the apostle John. John then adds in verse 3: “the time is at hand.” In Revelation 3:11, Christ Himself is quoted as saying: “I come quickly.” The Greek word for “quickly” is “tachu” and has the meaning of, shortly, without delay, soon. It can also mean, suddenly. Christ repeats this in Revelation 22:7, 12, 20. John understood Christ’s words as saying that He was coming soon, because he responds: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

We must remember, though, that Christ said this and that He inspired His apostles to write what they did, because “they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Even though their words were meant for the last generation—for us today–, still, they believed when they wrote them down, that what they wrote would be fulfilled in their lifetime.

In our anxiety as the people of God, and having been given such a tremendous calling with the promise of a wonderful future, it is unsurprising that members and ministers of the Church have eagerly looked forward to the time when Jesus Christ will return to the earth to set up the Kingdom of God and rule in peace.  This may also be partially due to the fact that they have been very well aware of Christ’s warning in Matthew 24:48-51:

“But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with the drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (New International Version).

With such an incredibly marvellous and magnificent future in store for us, we may well have been over-anxious for this time to arrive before it is God the Father’s time to send Jesus back to this earth to save mankind from extinction. But this does not make us to be false prophets. We are certainly getting close to that point now but we all have to remember that God is the Master of timing and it will happen at exactly the right time – in His own time!

Lead Writer: Brian Gale (United Kingdom)