Prophets Then and Now

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.” Deuteronomy 18:20

Both the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible talk about prophets, men and women who speak for God. Are there prophets today? Christians sometimes identify themselves as prophets or say that they are speaking prophetically. I avoid such language because I think it implies something that is not true. Modern day prophets do not generally do what the Old Testament prophets did in Israel, or even what New Testament prophets did in the early church. God still speaks to his church, but there is a qualitative difference between how God usually speaks today and how God spoke through people like Elijah, Samuel, Isaiah and Ezekiel.

Biblical Prophets

Prophecy in the Old Testament

The story of Israelite prophecy begins with Moses and Miriam and takes different forms at different points in Israel’s history. The Biblical narrative tells us about prophets like Deborah, Samuel, Nathan and Elijah. The canon also contains written prophecy attributed to prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Ezekiel and Malachi.

A close look at the canonical prophets quickly reveals that they each had their own concerns, their own ways of expressing themselves and their own ways of relating to their target audiences. Still, the canon asserts that despite their differences from each other, each spoke unconditionally and authoritatively for God.

“I will put my words in his mouth “(Deuteronomy 18:18) God says of the prophet. “Thus says the Lord,” says the prophet in a phrase that appears over 400 times in the Old Testament. There is no tentativeness or contingency to the prophet’s declaration. There is no need for communal consensus or rational analysis. The Old Testament prophet is simply repeating the very words of God.

Without the prophets, there would be no Old Testament. Military leaders, kings, priests and sages all have their place in the Old Testament narrative, but it is the prophets who move the story forward from Moses through the conquest of Canaan into the age of kings, and then into the exile and eventual return to the land of promise.

Prophecy in the New Testament

In the vast majority of cases, when the New Testament authors speak about prophets, they are referring to the seers of the Old Testament. Jesus brings the story of the law and the prophets to completion.

There are instances, however, when the New Testament authors recognize the existence of contemporary prophets in the New Testament church.

In Matthew 10:41, Jesus compares the twelve disciples whom he sends in his name to prophets. Jesus sent the twelve as penniless beggars to proclaim the coming of the kingdom, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and drive out demons. They depended on the kindness of strangers to survive. To those he was about to send, Jesus said:

Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. (Matthew 10:40-41)

In this single reference, Jesus seems to be using the word “prophet” indirectly, in a analogical or typological sense. Jesus’ messengers are like the Old Testament prophets. It doesn’t appear that he intends to bestow the title “prophet” on his disciples. Still, they speak and act for Jesus, who speaks and acts for the Father. How people treat the disciples reveals what they think about Jesus, and their response to Jesus is really their response to the one who sent him. And like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus’ disciples will sometimes face opposition and martyrdom.

Following Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the church began to refer to the twelve as apostles, not prophets. There were, however, others in the church to whom the title “prophet” applied.

We see evidence of this in several places. The book of Acts relates that there were prophets in the church at Jerusalem and Antioch. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul says that “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 12:28 Paul says, “God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. ” The office of apostle comes first in both lists, followed by the office of “prophet.” Finally, the author of Revelation identifies his writing as a prophecy, and recognizes the presence of prophets in the church.

While we find evidence of the office of the prophet in the church, one has to pay attention to see it. Unlike prophecy in the Old Testament, prophecy in the New Testament is a minor theme, almost fading into the background. One might say that the office of the prophet in the early church is the receding echo of Jesus’ own prophetic ministry.

The most prominent discussion of prophecy comes in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church was filled with what contemporary Christians would probably call “charismatics.” The church not only had prophets, it had people who performed works of power and miraculous healings. There were people who spoke in unintelligible tongues and those who had visions under the inspiration of the Spirit. Most of Paul’s energy in 1 Corinthians goes toward correcting what the Corinthians thought the doctrine of the Spirit implied, and explaining what Paul believed it really meant.

1 Corinthians 14 gives directions for prophets who speak in worship. Christians, Paul says, are to desire the gift of prophecy (1 Cor 14:1), at least more than they desire the gift of speaking in tongues. At least you can understand what the prophets are saying. Still, even the prophets should not get carried away. At most, two or three prophets should speak, and others should weigh what is said. (1 Cor 14:29). The spirit of the prophets are subject to the control of the prophets (1 Cor 14:32). If anyone thinks they are a prophet, they should acknowledge that what Paul is writing is the Lord’s command (1 Cor 14:37).

Paul does not give this much attention to charismatic gifts – or prophecy – in any other letter, nor does any other New Testament author. Still, 1 Corinthians 14 is evidence that at least part of the early church believed its members were empowered by the Spirit just as Jesus’ disciples were during their Galilean mission. New Testament prophecy is part of a package that includes what ordinary people would call miraculous acts of power. When I read Paul’s list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, I assume that they are exactly what they say they are, supernatural endowments and not glorified natural talents. When Paul talks about gifts of healing , I think he is talking about the kinds of things that Jesus did for the blind and the lame, not about medical care. When he talks about the gift of prophecy, I think he means directly inspired speech and knowledge, not the result of careful study and analysis.

The question becomes, then, is this paradigm still the model for how the church operates under the spirit. I don’t think so. Couldn’t God still work this way in his church if he wanted to? Yes, but that’s not the question. I would be happy to accompany a Christian prophet to a funeral home to raise the dead, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I would love to accompany a Christian healer to a hospital to pull the tubing from the bodies of patients in the ICU, but that won’t happen either.

Some parts of the New Testament church experienced the kinds of spirit power that Jesus exhibited and bestowed on his disciples. The history of the church begins on the day of Pentecost, when the apostles tell the story of Jesus, miraculously, in many different languages under the power of the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts, Luke (its author) says that Pentecost is a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-29.

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.

The further in time one moves from Jesus, however, the less significance these acts of power have. The Book of Acts reports that the apostles worked a few miracles, but the most important thing they did was spread the gospel and build the church. In the churches they founded, directly visible acts of spirit power have even less significance. In the so-called catholic epistles, bishops, elders and deacons have become the primary leaders of the church, and preaching and teaching the primary modes of communications. Why that should be so, I do not know. Why God chooses to act the way he does is known only to him.

Even where the prophets are to be found in the New Testament, their authority has diminished. First, there was the problem of false prophets and erroneous prophecies. The authors of Revelation and 1 John raise the issue of false prophets in the church. In 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Paul states that the church is not to believe a prophecy that says the day of the Lord has already come.

Even where the prophet was mostly right, he or she might not be completely right. The oldest document in the New Testament is Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church in which he says,

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil. (1 Thes 5: 19-22)

The church must respect the prophets and not put out the spirit’s fire, but it also must test everything the prophet says. Hold on to the good, Paul says, but toss out the garbage.  Similarly, the author of 1 John says:

Dear friends, 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. (1 John 4:1)

The New Testament prophet does not speak with absolute, unquestionable authority. The prophet’s word is subject to the community’s judgment: “the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29). Paul’s direction in 1 Corinthians 14:37 also makes it clear that prophetic authority is subordinate to apostolic authority. For the post-apostolic generation, apostolic authority has been encapsulated in the canon of the Bible.

Modern-Day Prophets

Prophecy as Social Criticism

Some modern-day prophets practice what I would call a “de-mythologized” form of prophecy. Prophecy is defined down to a form of cultural criticism aimed at the church or society-at-large. The following quote attributed to Allen & Williamson in Preaching the Old Testament captures the essence of this train of thought:

A prophet is similar to an ombudsperson whose work is to measure how well a community lives out its values, and to points [sic] at which the community embodies its deepest understanding of the divine purposes. Of course, the community needs to have conversation about such matters. Thinking together often brings to the surface questions and perspectives that do not come to individuals reflecting alone. (Quoted here)

There are no literal burning bushes in this form of prophecy, no audible voices calling in the temple. Instead, inward conviction or a burning sense of injustice drive the prophet. The prophet actively thinks and reflects on the issues of the day; he or she is not merely a passive instrument who passes along the very words (ipsissima verba) of God.

This is a “de-mythologized” form of prophecy because its practitioners tend to see the Old Testament prophets through the lens of their own practices. The Old Testament prophets were more or less just like them. The “mythological” baggage of theophanies and miracles are insignificant; it’s the message of social justice, cultural change or ecclesiastical righteousness that really counts.

There are good rhetorical reasons for speakers to wrap themselves in the prophet’s mantle. The use of prophetic language not only endows the social critic’s thoughts with unquestionable religious validation, it casts the critic’s opponents as evil and their ideas as unworthy of respect.

Prophecy as a Charismatic Gift

At the other end of the spectrum, there is that segment of charismatic Christianity that takes prophecy more literally. Some report dramatic encounters with God in which they discover their prophetic call. Subsequently, their thoughts and feelings are not merely their own; they are very directly the word of God. The charismatic prophets get “a word from God” or “a word of knowledge” that very literally reveals the hidden mind of God. The word can pertain to things both great and small, perhaps telling someone to take a particular action or perhaps explaining why a particular event occurred or even predicting an event that will occur. Sometimes the prophetic word has a newspaper horoscope vagueness about it; it is worded in such a way that it can almost apply to anyone. At other times, the prophetic word is very specific but not falsifiable. That is, it is specific but cannot be shown to be wrong, as in an explanation why someone is ill or a direction that someone should accept a particular job. Occasionally, the prophetic word is both specific and subject to objective verification, as when a prophet predicts the date of Jesus’ return. Whether specific, verifiable prophecies frequently come to pass, I do not know. I doubt it, because I have not seen it to be true.

We’re Not Classical Prophets

I think both modern-day forms of prophecy are basically in error. The Old Testament prophets, I believe, were in fact similar to what the modern charismatic prophets believe themselves to be. They were not merely social critics who dressed up their criticism in religious language. I do not believe, however, that charismatic prophecy is, as a rule, the manner in which God guides the church today. Today, I think, God works primarily (and indirectly) in our thinking and reflecting, both individually and communally. Our thinking and reflecting are anchored in the Holy Scriptures, which are God’s enduring and objective revelation for his church.

It is much better, I think, to take responsibility for our own ideas and decisions than to attribute them directly to God. God is at work in our thinking, feeling and deciding, but so are our mental preconceptions and limitations. So are our fears, biases and emotional attachments. So are our behavioral preferences, learned responses and ingrained habits. All of our rational and emotional processes take place in the human brain and they carry enormous neurological baggage.

It is impossible for me to tell where the spirit’s inspiration stops and my own mixed-up thinking kicks in. I trust that God is at work through it all while I acknowledge that God might not be the source of it all.

Is it not possible that God would inspire 21st century Christian prophets in the same way he inspired the prophets of Israel nearly 3000 years ago? Of course he could. The question is, does he? Again, it does not appear to me that he does.

The Way of Wisdom and Character

Instead of claiming to be prophets who speak for God, what if we simply tried to develop wisdom based on what God has shown us to be true in the Holy Scriptures? The way of wisdom develops over time as our minds take on the mind of Christ. Our characters are transormed and reshaped by the Holy Spirit through word and sacrament. Our lives are changed as we abide in Christ and in his church. The law of God is written on our hearts.

The way of wisdom does not offer instant or final solutions to the problems of the church or the world. Wisdom develops over time. We could not claim to speak with infallibility or absolute certainty. Instead, we would have to say things like “here is what I have come to believe to be true, and why. ” Our thinking would be subject to change based on new evidence or alternative lines of reasoning, and we could not expect that everyone would come to agree with us. We would not always get our way. I have no problem with any of that. Claiming prophetic authority does make any of these problems go away.

When someone says “God told me so,” that doesn’t inspire confidence in me. I would be at least as likely to listen to someone if they said, “I was thinking,” or “I had this experience that led me to believe” or “I was reading this part of the Bible when I started to realize.” When someone claims to be a prophet or speak prophetically, it adds nothing to the person’s argument. At worst, claiming prophetic authority can reveal a damnable and presumptuous arrogance (Deuteronomy 18:20). At best, the prophets still need to make their case based on scripture and reason.

God Still Speaks

Let me end on a positive note. God still speaks. On a global scale, we see him speaking in the Protestant Reformation under teachers like Luther and Calvin and in the evangelical awakening under preachers like Wesley and Asbury. More recently, we’ve seen him speak through men like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. An honest look at all of these men, though, puts them in a category different than Old Testament prophets. They were right about a lot of important things, but they weren’t always right about everything. Some of their ideas took us places we didn’t need to go. That’s understandable. They were human beings. Even with the most influential leaders in the Christian community, we need, as Paul said, to weigh everything.

Sometimes, this process is quite messy and confusing. Perhaps the best example of this that I have come across lately is found in Philip Jenkins book Jesus Wars. Jenkin’s tells the story of the Council of Chalcedon and the struggles of the church in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries. On a human level, it is a ugly story filled with jealousy, ambition, vindictiveness and violence. However, each of the church’s combatants (for I know no better word) also had something important to say. It is amazing to me how, at the end of the day, such an ugly process produced anything close to the truth, but it did. The Council of Chalcedon basically got it right. (And three cheers for the Tome of Leo!)

At the other end of the spectrum, God still speaks to individuals and small communities of faith. Through reading, studying and meditating on the scriptures. Through the liturgical and sacramental and teaching life of the church. Through Christian conversation and reading Christian authors. Through our individual and communal experiences. Through thinking and reflecting on all of these. This kind of speaking does not always produce the kind of certainty, clarity or specificity that we want. We continue to live in faith even when we don’t understand it all.

But it certainly does happen. In the midst of reading the scriptures, something new occurs to me. While listening to the preached word or reading a Christian author, I have a new thought, a new understanding, a new direction to take, a new command to obey. Again, I must weigh everything, but I can’t wait for absolute certainty. When I hear the voice of God, as best as I understand it, I must listen and respond in faith.

Shane Raynor recently wrote on the same text in How Not to Speak for God.