What do you imagine when you think of a prophet? A rheumy-eyed, wild-haired old man raging while spit dribbles down his long white beard? A preacher smacking his fist into the podium and declaring judgment on sinners? A church brother telling you in no uncertain terms that you are on the wrong track? Someone who “sees things in black and white”?
Does the word prophecy conjure up impressions of anger, intolerance, violence? Do you think of a prophet as someone who creeps people out with his end-times predictions?
It is possible that these kinds of people do deliver prophecies. After all, God uses all sorts of people to reveal His kingdom. But I’m beginning to think that often we mistake prophets for people who merely have a modernist worldview or a controlling personality.
From reading the stories of prophets in the Bible, my impression of prophets and prophecies has changed. Here’s my simple definition of a prophet: someone who hears God’s voice, and if instructed by God to do so, he tells others what he hears.
Some of the most prophetic people that I know are also the most kind people that I know. Prophecy is not about rage and fire–it is about hearing God’s voice and following His instructions.
Consider several prophets named in the Bible. Abraham was a man who heard God’s call to leave his family and country (Genesis 12:1), and as he journeyed in obedience to God, God talked with him and gave him step-by-step instructions for his life. A hallmark of Abraham’s life was his all-consuming love for God even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Moses followed God into the snakepit of Egypt, rescued God’s people, and pastored them through forty years of wandering in a wilderness. Over and over he talked with God, bargained with God, interceded for his people. Moses lost his temper occasionally, but his love was deep and selfless. Numbers 12:3 describes Moses as being a very humble man, more than any person on earth.
Samuel, as a child, responded to God’s call with “Speak, for your servant hears.” He told Eli hard news about Eli’s sons, but it was clearly information Samuel did not wish to share–hardly a picture of fiery intimidation. Samuel’s life after that was a pattern of listening for marching orders when God had something for him to do, and speaking when God told him to speak. Samuel displayed a life of gentle, listening obedience.
There are so many, many more prophets listed in the Bible. Elijah, Daniel, Anna, Isaiah, Ezekiel. A common thread in all these people was that they cared about God, and they cared about hearing from Him. Sometimes they were reluctant, even rebellious like Jonah, but still they returned to God again and again because they loved Him.
The New Testament names many people who heard from God as well; not just the writers of Scripture heard from Him. Really, the whole storyline of Scripture is infused with people communicating with God. And over and over, even in the pain and anger, you will see love, humility, obedience, and mercy saturating their lives and words.
Now there is something of a difference between being a prophet, and being able to prophesy. The lists of spiritual gifts in the Bible (1 Cor 12:28, Romans 12:6-8, Ephesians 4:11-12) list “prophet” as being a special gifting bestowed by God (not by the church). Obviously, some people have a special anointing for a life of being God’s mouthpiece to draw His people. However, the Bible says that in the last days everyone is going to be able to prophesy.
And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
Acts 2:17 (ESV)
This is a quote of the prophecy from Joel 2:28 that even the most low-down people in that culture–the female servants–would be able to be filled with the Spirit and hear from God.
So whether or not we have the spiritual role of prophet, any of us who believe in God and allow His Spirit into our lives can prophesy.
What does prophecy look like? First of all, while it never contradicts Scripture, it gives information that you cannot get only from reading Scripture. There are times when a decision needs to be made and either side of the decision could be supported from Scripture, but one of the decisions is wrong for that situation. In a case like this, we have to be able to hear from God to be able to give the right kind of advice.
For instance, the Bible instructs us to be good stewards of our money, and it also instructs us to care for the poor. Sometimes we cannot help the poor because we need to be careful with our money. Other times, God wishes for us to take care of the poor even if the act looks stupid from a business perspective. If God wants us to make a “bad” decision financially and we righteously guard our money as good stewards, we are making a serious mistake. Being able to do both simultaneously would be nice but there are times when that is impossible, and hearing from God is imperative.
Many other examples could be listed. Decisions about family, about safety, about how we spend our time, about relationships, about health. If someone comes to you with a question and you respond with a human-reasoning, common-sense answer, you may be getting it wrong. Or not. It all depends on what God wants to accomplish in the situation.
I’ve sat through countless church meetings where we spent hours hashing an issue the church was facing. Very few (if any) of those meetings involved praying together and actually trying to hear what God had to say about the subject. How can we come to a conclusion that is authentically Christian if we only rely on our mortal reasoning? We need the gift of prophecy to give us light and direction. Without prophetic vision, we flounder.
Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.
Proverbs 29:18 (ESV)
We tend to think of “vision” in this verse as being “goals”. As in, “where there are no goals, the people perish”. Which may be true, but that’s not how the word is used in this context. “Vision” is referring to a divine visitation. This word is used in the same way in 1 Samuel 3:1.
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord in the presence of Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.
1 Samuel 3:1 (ESV)
And in Lamentations:
Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars;
her king and princes are among the nations; the law is no more,
and her prophets find no vision from the Lord.
Lamentations 2:9 (ESV)
Second, prophecy can reveal the secrets of a person’s heart to bring him to Christ. This is described in I Corinthians 14:
But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
I Corinthians 14:24-25 (ESV)
I have witnessed this, and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my whole life. I listened as a gentle, Spirit-filled man told my friend all about his life, even though he had never met him before and knew next to nothing about him. “The secrets of his heart” were disclosed and brought my friend to worship Christ. The encounter was life-changing for my friend, and life-changing for me as well. I had never seen God’s raw power working in a Christian’s life in such a dramatic way. This “prophet” was a quiet, humble man, someone who only wished to bring glory to God. And he did!
On another occasion, a pair of complete strangers told me two things that I love to do: deliver babies and garden. They also told me why I love to do them. They said to me, “these things are about bringing life—and that is something fundamental for you.” I have thought of their words so many times. The need I feel to “bring life” helps me understand myself in situations when I struggle because the systems around me feel dead. This naming of who I am has also helped me live out of who God has called me to be.
Third, prophecy can foretell something in the future. Some dear friends of ours have been foster parents for years. One foster child that they cared for especially won their hearts. They felt a deep attachment to this little one, and the child loved them back and prayed every day for a home of his own. Our friends badly wanted to adopt him, but various factors made it impossible. To complicate matters, they needed to move out of state because of a job change. By all appearances, they were going to lose the child. But a number of their friends had a strong impression that this child was to be theirs, and told them so. The parents felt the same way, but circumstances were completely unfavorable. They chose to walk in faith, believing the prophecies that this child would join their family. And guess what? God moved mountains in the foster system and our friends adopted this precious little boy!
An important part of the foretelling aspect of prophecy is that God sometimes tells us about bad things that are going to happen, in order that we may prevent them. Hearing that something bad is going to happen does not mean we need to give a fatalistic sigh and hope it passes quickly. I believe that information is given to us so that we can fight against it and even change the course of events. Jonah in the Bible is an example of prophecy changing the direction of the people to avoid harm befalling them.
Once I woke up at night from a very vivid dream. In my dream, one of my best friend’s little boys was killed in an accident. The dream was so real that I felt impressed to pray and pray over the next days for this little boy’s safety. I actually looked for him after church the next Sunday so I could pray for him in person. A couple weeks later their family was on a road trip and had a serious accident that totaled their van. Nobody was hurt. I think God gave me that dream for a reason.
Several things that prophecy is not. First of all, the gift of prophecy does not excuse us from practicing the other Christian virtues. As I pointed out earlier, the outstanding traits of God’s prophets in Scripture were things like humility, mercy, obedience, and love. That is the spirit in which a prophecy should be delivered.
Prophecy is not merely preaching. This is what some conservative Mennonites teach. Of course prophecy ought to be included in preaching (to give it life!) but it is not only found in preaching. The belief that prophecy is preaching doesn’t fit within conservative Mennonite theology anyway, because the Bible clearly indicates that women can prophesy, and conservative Mennonites teach that women should not preach (I Tim. 2:12). Also the teaching that women should cover their heads is based on Paul’s instruction in I Cor. 11 for women to cover while praying and prophesying.
Prophecy is not giving instructions that are contradictory to Scripture. In Deuteronomy, the Lord tells his people that even when a prophet accurately foretells something, if that prophet tells people to follow after other gods, he isn’t a true prophet.
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which 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 know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God…
Deuteronomy 13:1-5a (ESV)
Prophecies are not given by infallible people. Most of us have listened to pastors and teachers with whom we disagreed on some point–we thought they got some things wrong, but overall we approved of them. Why then do we think that a prophet has to get it perfectly every time, or he is bogus? This isn’t consistent with how we treat pastors and teachers. None of us are writing Scripture anymore; we can make a few mistakes and God will still rule the world!
Prophecy is not divorced from love. I read a book a while ago that spoke about prophecy and other gifts ceasing with the Bible, and the book made a case that love as described in I Corinthians 13 has taken over so we have no need for spiritual gifts (including prophecy). But the first verse of the very next chapter is a good reminder to all of us that love and prophecy are not opposites; not contenders, but companions.
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.
1 Corinthians 14:1 (ESV)
Indeed, prophecy is a gift to be yearned after.
And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
(1 Corinthians 12:28-31a ESV) emphasis mine
1 Corinthians 14:1 again…
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.
I believe that prophecy is the ability to hear God’s voice, and when He gives us instructions to tell others what we hear, we do so in a spirit of love.
until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Ephesians 4:13 (ESV)