Last week Steve approached Anton and I, and posed some questions to us.
“What about people who claim to be modern day prophets?
“How do you evaluate their claim?
“Does God use prophets today?
"How can you tell?"
This morning we’re planning on tackling these questions. We’re going to spend most of our time establishing a scriptural perspective on prophets and prophecy. And then, right at the end, we’re going to ask ourselves, “What does that mean for me today?”
What is a prophet?
Prophets are “mouthpieces of God”, people who through direct communication, or reception of visions, or through the leading of the Spirit speak God’s words to a people who need to hear it. The prophetic tradition does involve some foretelling, but it mostly consists of forthtelling—telling the truth of God to a people who don’t want to hear it. Prophets received new revelations and received insight into the mystery contained within existing revelation.
Prophets in history
The first prophets were the patriarchs. Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These leaders of families were in direct communication with God. More than once, Abraham was treated to the revelation of God in human form. Jacob wrestled with God, and received visions. The patriarchs led their families in the knowledge of God.
As scriptural history moved from family groups to a nation, God chose prophets to function as national leaders. Moses was the first prophet to function as national leader, or Judge. Scripture presents Moses as a unique prophet. Moses, as directed by God, led Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 7–14). At Sinai, Moses functioned as the Mediator of the Covenant God made with Israel (Exodus 23:8; Deuteronomy 18:16). He also received the Law and the Commandment (Exodus 23:12). Moses led Israel through 40 years of wilderness wandering. God Himself commented on Moses’ uniqueness.
“If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Numbers 12:6–8).
When the historian finished the last chapter of Deuteronomy, he commented about Moses’ uniqueness.
“And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Deuteronomy 34:10–12).
And yet, despite this uniqueness, Moses prophesied that someone just like him would one day be raised up.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 18:15).
While Moses is presented as being unique in his prophetic role, others within Israel prophesied. For example, the seventy elders of Israel prophesied when the Spirit of God fell upon them (Numbers 11:25). Joshua received a revelation of an incarnate God (Joshua 5:13–15). And a number of the Judges were also prophets and prophetesses (Exodus 15:20; Judges 4:4).
Samuel was the next great prophetic leader of Israel, and the last prophet to be a Judge. Israel was a theocratic nation, and Samuel governed the nation as God’s mouthpiece. Samuel was the last prophet to also be Israel’s national leader. He was also the first prophet to organise the prophetic role. He did this by establishing a school of the prophets, where young men could come and learn from prophets; and, occasionally, become one themselves (1 Samuel 19:18-24; 2 Kings 2:3, 15; 4:38). We hear of these schools at Ramah, Bethel, Gilgal, Gibeah and Jericho.
Once the monarchy had been established, the prophetic role changed from Judge and national leader to that of advisor to the crown. Within monarchical Israel, it was the priestly responsibility to teach people about the revelation of God. Yet the priestly class often became corrupted, as did the monarchy itself. God therefore used the prophetic role to call people to repentance; to call them back to the worship of the LORD.
In this time period, we have the great prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah in the Judah. And the prophets of Hosea, Amos, Joel and Jonah in Israel. In addition to being mouthpieces of God, and advisors to the crown, these prophets functioned as historians, recording the history of Israel. A large part of the Old Testament consists of history and prophecy as recorded by these men of God.
But the prophetic historians were not the only prophets in Israel. Israel also had prophetic poets and musicians, such as David, Asaph, Jeduthun (1 Chronicles 25:3). We see their revelations captured in the book of Psalms.
Once Judah went into captivity, we have the prophets of the Exile: Ezekiel, Daniel, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. These men continued in prophetic role of the great prophet-historians.
I think we can all see that the prophetic role changed over time. First patriarchs, then judges, then advisors to the crown. Prophets functioned as musicians, poets and historians.
The realisation of all prophecy
The gospel of Mark presents the coming of John the Baptist as the great pivot point in scriptural history. Let’s read what Mark has to say.
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
“As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,”’
“John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’
“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:1–15).
Mark’s gospel begins with the declaration that here in John is the realisation of prophecy. The messianic “son of man” is being declared by the one who prepares the way, as foretold by scripture. The “son of man” then begins to declare the kingdom of God—the rule and the reign of God is here, says Jesus.
Mark indicates that something unique is happening here. The heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove is comparable only to Moses seeing God face to face (Mark 1:10 cf Exodus 23:10; 33:17–23, 34:5–7). On Jesus rests miraculous power that had previously only been revealed in Moses (Mark 4:39 cf Exodus 14:16). Heavenly bread appeared that had not been seen since manna in the wilderness (Mark 8:1–10 cf Exodus 16). Jesus, speaking with authority, presents himself as the new interpreter of the Law (Mark 1:22; Matthew 5–7 (esp. 7:29) cf Exodus 19–23). Jesus, like Moses, is the mediator of the covenant (Mark 14:22–25 cf Exodus 24:8). Jesus, like Moses, went up onto the mountain, and shone with heavenly glory (Mark 9:2–8 cf Exodus 34:30). Here on this mountain Jesus spoke with Elijah and Moses, and the voice of God sounded, saying: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 8:7 cf Deuteronomy 18:15).
Can this be any clearer? Can this be any plainer? Mark is saying, “Here is the prophet of whom Moses prophesied. This is the prophet who is just like Moses. This is the scriptural fulfilment we have all been waiting for.”
So, Jesus is the realisation of Moses’ prophecy. But not just his. For Jesus declared that the key to interpreting scripture is that all of the Law and the Prophets — that is, the entire Old Testament — testify about Him. He said this multiple times, and in multiple ways.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39).
“The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it” (Luke 16:16).
“What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
"Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:7–14).
“We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished” (Luke 18:31).
Jesus is the fulcrum around which the world’s history turns. The purpose of scripture is to testify of Jesus.
So, here is the key to all scriptural interpretation: All scripture before Jesus looks forward to Him; and all scripture after Jesus reflects back to Him.
The primary role of prophecy is to reveal Jesus, but now, says the New Testament writers, Jesus has actually been revealed.
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1).
The role of the prophets have been to reveal Jesus, but now, here He is. In one sense, the revelation of Jesus brings to a close the purpose of prophecy. Jesus hints at this in the parable of the vineyard.
“A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
“Have you not read this Scripture:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord's doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes’?”
Here in this parable, God is the man who plants the vineyard, and the vineyard is Israel (Isaiah 5:1–5). God’s purpose in planting the vineyard is to obtain fruit. The tenants are the religious leaders of Israel (cf Mark 12:12), but they are preventing Him from obtaining His fruit. The servants are the prophets who seek to obtain this fruit by calling people back to the purpose of God. But the religious leaders reject them and kill them. Finally, the Son and Stone is Jesus Himself.
In this parable, Jesus places Himself as the last messenger from God coming into the vineyard. The other messengers, the prophets who preceded Him, have all been rejected. And He is the last the greatest messenger from God.
Prophecy in the New Covenant
The incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the clearest revelation of God to humanity (Hebrews 1:1). There is a very real promise within the Covenant Jesus inaugurated that every believer can experience this revelation for themselves.
“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33–34).
Jesus inaugurated this covenant with the disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus declares that his disciples do indeed know Him (John 17:3, 17–18, 20–26) in a way that was previously impossible. Jesus describes this relationship with God as “perfection” (vs 23). Jesus promises not to leave his followers alone, but to come to them and be intimate with them (John 14:16–19, 23, 25–26). In the Great Commission, the final promise is:
“I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Paul teaches that through the Holy Spirit being resident within each believer, each believer has personal knowledge of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:14–17; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 3:16–17). When we have this knowledge of Jesus Christ, then we understand God’s will, for Jesus Christ is God’s will made human (Hebrews 10:9–10).
Given this, it might be tempting to understand that prophecy has no role within the New Covenant. Yet while the main prophetic tradition came to its conclusion with John, Paul is quite clear that the ekklesia has been established on the foundation of apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20).
If we go back to our original definition of prophecy, we find that prophecy involves interpreting mystery. Paul speaks rather a great deal about the mystery of God that is revealed in the gospel and revelation of Jesus Christ (Romans 11:25; 16:25; 1 Corinthians 15:51; Ephesians 1:9; 3:1–9; 6:19; Colossians 1:26–27; etc.). It is the unravelling of this mystery that is the role of the prophet in the establishment of the congregation of God.
It is in this sense that we understand that prophecy is a spiritual gift poured out on God’s church (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5). This spiritual gift was particularly present during the foundational stages of the church, when they were coming to grips with the new age in which they found themselves. Peter, Paul, John, Philip the Evangelist, Philip’s four daughters, Barnabus, Simeon Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, Saul, Judas, Silas and Agabus are all described as prophets within the early church. They were the recipients of the leading of the Holy Spirit as He directed early church in the interpretation and understanding of God’s will within the revelation of Jesus Christ.
So what of prophecy today?
Based on the reading of scripture and looking back on the last 2,000 years, I think we can safely say that many prophetic functions ceased with John. The role of prophets as patriarchs, as national leaders, as national advisors directly sent by God all ceased. They ceased because their primary role was to foretell about Jesus Christ, and forth-tell about Israel’s true relationship with God. Now that Jesus Christ has been revealed, and is personally revealed in an intimate way to his followers, the most prominent prophetic functions reached their fulfilment, and thus ceased to be.
Through reading scripture and studying history, we can also say that the Christian Church was founded on the prophetic gift, which was given in a special way in order that the mystery of the gospel of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ be explored, unpacked, and understood in a way never previously understood. That role was also fulfilled in the early church, and resulted, among other things, in the writing of the scriptures we today call the New Testament.
Through reading scripture and studying the history of the last 2,000 years, we can safely say that those people who have claimed to be leadership prophets, who have claimed to be receiving new revelations of God, have all been false prophets, falsely claiming to represent God when He has not spoken to them. I’m aware of a number of churches that have been founded by people claiming the spiritual gift of prophecy, or of unique revelations from God, and every movement I am aware of has proven to be led by persons leading people into a cult, and away from a true knowledge of Jesus Christ.
If someone comes to you, and says, “Hey, I’m a prophet”—it’s almost certainly a sign that they are either deceived themselves, or are trying to deceive you. The prophetic gift is not self-referential; it is other-focused.
Today, prophecy is closely aligned with a range of gifts of the spirit, from which it is virtually indistinguishable.
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:4–11).
Last year, someone came to me, and gave me a message he said he had received from God. He told me what my thoughts had been—just a moment before—and he gave me an assurance that reinforced faith. Whether you call this wisdom, discernment or prophecy really does not matter; for it is a manifestation of the Spirit within God’s church. I don’t deem the person who gave me that message to be a prophet; but I could agree that this person prophesied.
It’s not a misnomer to say that a person has prophesied, but that they are not a prophet. Remember, for example, Israel’s seventy elders, who prophesied when the Spirit of God descended on them, but that prophetic gift was temporary (Numbers 11:25).
In all cases, the purpose of all spiritual gifts is for the building up of the church.
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 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, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:11–16).
As New Covenant Christians, we are charged with the duty of evaluating prophecy in light of scripture and the revelation of Jesus Christ made to us by the Holy Spirit. We are called to rejoice in the Spirit, to pray always, and be so rooted and grounded in the Word that we can discern when prophecy is from God.
I leave you with the charge Paul gave the Thessalonians:
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–21).
Peace be with you.