False Prophets

By James Cornwell

Reading from the Gospel of John, 8:33-47

33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”

34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 37I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word. 38I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”

39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, 40but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. 41You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself.” 42Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. 43Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. 44You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. 45But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. 46Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? 47Whoever is from God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not from God.”


Jesus corners his unbelieving listeners in a logical trap. Being Jewish, they say first that their father is Abraham, and, when rebuked by Jesus, say the Lord is their father. Jesus ends the exchange by declaring that their father is, in fact, the devil. The evidence for this claim is, “I tell the truth, [yet] you do not believe me.”

What an astounding claim! Rejection of Jesus’ words is considered evidence of demonic paternity! Of course, as Christians, we believe this is true, because Jesus really is the son of God, and his words are truth and gospel — their ultimate rejection is a rejection of God and his authority, which is the primary sin of Satan.

But this ought to make us extremely wary of those who deploy this logic to their own ends. Self-styled prophets declare what they see to be unassailable truths, and, in a kind of diabolic inversion, adopt Christ’s own argument: the rejection of the truths they claim is evidence that their opponents are sons of the devil — or at least intellectually, morally, or spiritually infirm.

Our world is rife with injustice and sin. The ultimate answer to these cleavages of our social and moral fabric is the gospel, and it is meet and right for the Church to call upon Christians to live out the gospel ways to counter them. And there are true prophets whom God sets up to speak his word with authority. But we should be cautious. Do the words of a prophet point back to Christ, his Father and his Spirit, to their holy attributes and expressed will for humankind? Or do these prophet’s words seek to establish other unquestionable truths to make us free — and cast in the role of demonic children any who dare to question them?

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their five children.

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