What is a Prophet Historically and Presently?
What rises in your own thought and in your own heart when the word 'prophet' is evoked? What image, what sense of things comes to your own understanding? We need to remember that the false prophets were those who wore rough garments to deceive, and that the only reason they could succeed was because the people whom they deceived had an anticipation or a stereotyped view of prophet that their false depiction represented. Does a prophet have to be some long-haired wilderness guy in a rough garment, who acts strange and peculiar, and who looks with great intensity in his eyes? How would you define what a prophet is? How is he different from an apostle, or a teacher, or an evangelist? Are prophets still existent or are they strictly an Old Testament phenomenon? Is there such a thing as a New Testament prophet, as being something very different from the Old?
There is a tremendous amount of difference and controversy that broods over this subject. The church has really suffered from a kind of dichotomy between the Old and the New, as if the New has displaced or rendered the Old null and void. That is not the way that God sees it. That is the terminology that men have employed, but not the terminology that God Himself has given, and we have suffered for that. Jews have also suffered for that because it leaves them secure within the framework of their own Judaistic understanding: "You have your Book; we have our Book." It is implying that: "You have your God, and we have our God". It is an impression that God never intended, but that we have allowed Judaism to luxuriate in and find safety in. We need, therefore, to fight for the one faith, the one unbroken, continuous faith, given from the beginning, and that is climaxed, concluded and consummated at the end by the same God who gave it in the beginning. He is the same yesterday, today and forever.
If that is the way we see the faith, then can we expect and will we need prophetic men of the Old Testament kind in our own generation, and especially at the end? Is there a conjunction between beginnings and endings? As it was in the beginning, so also at the end? The issues of the beginning do not change, but are even brought into more intensive focus and significance at the end, but it is not different or other than what was at the beginning.
I am astonished at the novelty and fascination with prophetic things for our charismatic generation. What trails we break in order to pursue after the 'prophet of the hour' without a comparable fascination or interest in the prophets of the Book! I cannot understand this kind of schizophrenia. We are fascinated by the contemporary 'prophets', who are so infinitely shallow and who themselves have bypassed completely any interest in the great Hebrew prophets of old through whom God spoke, not only in addressing the Israel of their own generation, but the Israel that is yet future. We need to be constantly reminded that the prophets are the prophets of Israel. They are the spokesmen of God to that nation. It is not unfair to say that nothing more reveals God as God as is seen in His dealings and judgments with Israel. To put ourselves, therefore, in a dysjuncture from Israel and the prophets of Israel, is to put us away from the hearing of God's prophets, and thereby affect our whole consideration of what we mean by prophetic. This will condemn us to a kind of shallowness about the very things of which we are already victim.
We need to ask what the essential differences are in, for example, Ezekiel or Jeremiah's message? If we can come to some understanding there, then we are cutting right into the truth of what the prophetic call is. Is it the soothing and benign comforting of a false kind, which is generally what people want? Their souls cry out for it, particularly in time of distress and consternation. The true prophet, however, is rubbing salt into their wounds. He deepens the dilemma and makes more clear the painful contradictions of the age, and he says, "There is no peace." He is bringing the dilemma into yet a deeper focus and saying, "You are not going to find peace until there is a judgment for this." He brings an unwelcome message that the flesh wants to shrink from, and the most common way to nullify the message is to kill or render null and void the man who brings it.
That is why we are probing what the classic, timeless elements are that have constituted prophets in every generation, whether or not it is Elijah, Isaiah, or Jeremiah. What in fact, is the difference between Isaiah and Jeremiah, or Samuel, or any of the minor prophets? However diverse these men are, is there anything central that runs through them all, that is intrinsic to being prophetic? Whatever the differences, what are the things that are the same? What is the heart, the quintessence of that which is prophetic? The quality of the man rarely comes through in his speaking or writing, but they all share the same label 'prophet'. We are trying to get at the heart of what that prophetic definition is, because if we have not as yet seen it in New Testament times, do we have a reasonable right to anticipate that we will? I cannot imagine that the age is going to close, with all of the great tumult and controversy of last day's collision between kingdoms of darkness and light, in that final warfare that eventuates in the victory of one and defeat of the other, without again men of this kind speaking. What does restoration mean, at least in part, if it is not the restoration of these offices that we have not seen in modern times. We even sense the need for the restoration, but we are so quick to grasp at anything that appears to be it, without critically examining what is being offered as 'prophet,' and in that might lie one of our deepest mistakes.
This is an hour of restoration, but one that requires our jealousy and watch-care. I know of one late pastor in New Zealand who saw as his prime function to instruct the church on how to identify, recognize, and honor the prophetic office when it comes. He was preparing his fellowship to be able to perceive, to recognize and to give honor to the true thing when it comes. I really appreciated that man. I think that I can say with a certain confidence that when I am speaking before a congregation, the blessing is the greater when a pastor or a leader in the congregation acknowledges the man in his prophetic call. When they are unwilling to make that acknowledgment, they still get something, but they do not get as much. There is, therefore, a blessing in the receiving of the man whom the Lord sends.
If we were to examine the callings of all of the prophets and their responses, we would see how often these men cry out, "But I am a child and cannot speak." After all of our examining we would have a portrait, and it would be a composite portrait of the prophetic genius. However much these men differ in their calling and personalities, there is some central thing that runs through them all that is designated 'prophetic', and that is what we are wanting to identify, because certainly the cry for that particular thing is with us in our final generation and in these last days. We cannot even conceive of the church independent of the restoration of prophets. Somehow and all of the sudden, this subject has broken upon the consciousness of the church, and now there is a sudden flush of excitement and men seem to be running everywhere to hear prophets. These prophets seem to have come to an instantaneous popularity. They were not on the scene before and all the sudden they are here. They are also being heralded in very lavish ways, not just as prophets, but as 'the oracles of the hour'. This is, therefore, a phenomenon that we need to examine to see how legitimate it is, and whether indeed it is the Lord or some kind of counterfeit. We should be well along enough in the Lord to know that whenever the authentic thing is about to come, it is often preceded by something fictitious or counterfeit. I want to say that I am watching this present prophetic phenomenon very carefully and have an extreme sense of caution in my own spirit—if for nothing more than the suddenness and the popularity—both of which have not been my experience. There is nothing sudden, but rather there is a growth, and there is nothing popular, but quite the contrary, there is reproach.
The Office of Prophet and the Gift of Prophecy
An important distinction to make that I think is being blurred is the gift of prophecy as opposed to the office of being a prophet. In fact, that may be the gravest mistake now being made, of calling a man 'prophet' who is only moving in the gift of prophecy, but is not called to the office. I cannot think of anyone in the New Testament that exhibits the office of prophet, but to me that is not a problem. The fault lies with us in thinking that this is a New Testament dispensation that therefore requires another definition. If there is only one definition, however, and it is and has been in existence for all time, though we have not seen it in recent times, then it is no reason to look for a new kind.
The difference between the gift of prophecy and the office of prophet is a very important point. We would be wrong to say that anyone who prophesies is a prophet. The Spirit of God is dividing severally His gifts, which God can give in a moment as He wills. That should not, however, be a permanent and abiding distinction or designation. The Spirit of God can fall on any one of us and we can prophesy. We are operating by the Spirit in the gift of prophecy. The gift is something that the Spirit exercises at His will, and it can come from a man or a woman. It has nothing to do with their calling, their training, their preparation or their qualification. It may be informational, directive or a word of encouragement, but the office of the prophet is altogether something else and other.
The office of prophet differs from the gift of prophecy in that it is permanent. It is given with the man. It is a calling, and it may well be that men, who have the office of prophet, can go an entire lifetime in their service and never once speak out of the gift of prophecy, and yet still be functioning in their office. The church today is suffering from the ignorance of blurring these two categories. We are calling men prophets who have not the office, but who are operating in the gift of prophecy, and in many instances not even the gift of prophecy, but the gift of knowledge of a rather deceitful clairvoyance. We really need to be clear, therefore, on what we are saying.
The office of prophet is the ultimate thing and carries an enormous responsibility. Such a one brings the oracles of God. He is standing for very God and speaking from God with the authority of God in a troubled and final generation. His statements are the statements of God's heart to His people that have to do with His purposes in an understanding of the present time in view of the things that are future and eternal. It is the prophet who is alerted. He interprets the event and communicates that interpretation to a church that would otherwise have passed it over. That is his function and that is his call for which he is not necessarily going to be understood nor heard. The word is more often than not going to be rejected and his life is going to be threatened.
The Testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of Prophecy
For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Rev. 19:10b).
There is a powerful and irrevocable identification between the Lord, His own distinctive Person, and this prophetic thing. I can only intuit that there is some kind of inextricable and intimate bonding between things prophetic and Jesus Himself; that the issue of the thing prophetic is the issue of Jesus, and the issue of Jesus is the issue of the thing prophetic. To miss the meaning of prophetic is to miss Him. To abuse, therefore, the prophetic or to reject it, is to reject Him. In fact, the coming of the prophet is the day of decision. The receiving or the rejecting of him is making a statement to God. It is a fateful decision, one way or another, that will determine the future of that work, that church and that fellowship. Regrettably, most Christians, even of a charismatic kind, are so naive and so uninstructed that they do not even recognize how fateful a situation it is in the day that God brings such a one to them. It sounds extraordinarily presumptuous, as if somehow it has to do with your ego, "You have received me", but it really is the issue of the Lord in His own prophetic constituency.
Jesus Himself was a prophet, and more than any other calling, it is what the man is in himself. That what Jesus is in Himself, is what the prophetic thing is in itself. It is that intricate and that joined, and yet we have a lot of presumers and a lot of pretenders. The office of prophet, therefore, is not a ministerial thing that can be obtained through certification, that if you submit to a course of study and fulfill certain academic and other requirements, then you receive a diploma and you are it. It has another kind of formation and everything that has to do with that formation has to do with suffering, as we shall see later.
Classically a prophet communicates the sense of God as He in fact is. This is the foundation upon which the church is built. The church is "...built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone (Eph. 2:20)." It is not only the teaching or the ministry that apostles and prophets bring, but primarily the sense of God as He in fact is. They communicate something in the bringing of the word that is intrinsic to their own persons. There is a reason why people fear prophets, or they will tell you, "There is something about you that intimidates me." It is not some conscious design by which prophetic men want to hold others at arm's length. There is rather something of a resonance of God that men of foundational callings carry. The communication of this sense of God is foundational to the church, or the church would be given over ievitably to a view of God that contains a certain lightness and shallowness and that is not God. Prophets therefore correct the church from a faulty sense of God. I am often crying out, "Lord, the sense of You, like the fear of You, has been lost and we are asking for that communication!!" That is why the man must be the thing in himself.
God has a deep identification with that which is prophetic, and to somehow touch that is to touch Him, and to abuse that is to abuse Him. It may well be that the greatest enmity of the world against God is visited on prophets for exactly that reason, namely, that to assault a prophet is to assault God. The world is at enmity with God, but the prophet is the visible, corporeal manifestation of elements central to God's own being and therefore the world has the opportunity both to identify, to hate, to despise and to do in. The testimony of the prophet is the statement of God, not only when he is speaking, but often even when he is silent. His very presence is an abomination and an offense to a world that despises God. The prophetic man is in himself the offense, as well as his message. In fact, if he is not his message, then we may well suspect that what we have is not a true prophet, but a false. That is why we need to watch with a jealous urgency anything that purports to be prophetic and is not, because it destroys the validity of that calling for the church in putting before it a false model.
There is a great accountability for that gift of God to men, and if it is mistreated, ignored or rejected, then the end result will be judgment. We pay a great price when we lightly regard or disregard, let alone violently reject, him whom God sends in that prophetic mantle, because it is so much the essence of God Himself in His own being. Israel repeatedly stoned the prophets that were sent to her, and in so doing, invited and made necessary the devastating judgments that have followed.
The Validity of the Accuracy of Predictions
I would suspect that any man who calls himself prophet and talks statistically (for example, 70 or 80 percent accuracy), is not in keeping with the timbre, the make-up and the knit of a truly prophetic man. To determine whether a prophet is true or false should not immediately lie on whether their predictions are accurate. The issue of the moment is not the accuracy of prediction in assessing the validity of prophets. It is a false criterion because the issue of what is ultimately true or false is and has always been the issue of the word, namely, the prophetic word. Even to think statistically is to put ourselves on a false basis to determine true and false among prophets if it has moved us from heart discernment to mathematical discernment in terms of "what is the average". It is not that these men do not bring biblical messages, but it is the kind of biblical message that is a routine commonplace, that is to say, which anyone can bring. There is nothing in it that can be faulted in terms of doctrine, but it is not oracular. It is not a message that bears prophetic weight or intensity or seriousnessor requirement. Oracular speaking, or the oracles of God, can be distinguished by the way it brings with it a manner of perceiving things that were not there before that word came. It opens up things as God sees them, which is altogether not as we see. That is a prophetic function.
If we allow the word 'prophet' to be given to anyone who is giving predictive prophecy or even the gift of knowledge or what seems to be more likely, fortune telling, and call that oracular prophecy, then we are well on the way to deception! These men speak messages, but they are only a preliminary that one has to wait through in order to get to the 'action' for which we have really come, namely, for their predictive prophecies that so excite and titillate an audience. The greater issue is not so much as to whether these prophets are accurate most of the time so much as whether they are prophets at all! To confirm the church in its present lightness by their own example is analogous to the false prophets of Old Testament time who confirmed Israel in its sin. All in all, one must ask, what is their revelation? How oracular is it? What is it more or other than the general preaching of others who make no profession of being prophetic? Is their distinctive not much more than the sensationalism or excitement of their gifts or the anticipation derived from the hero status generated largely by their affirmation of each other?
The Prophetic Function
The quintessential definition of the prophetic call is given to Jeremiah at the inception of his ministry:
Then the LORD stretched out His hand and touched my mouth, and the LORD said to me, "Behold, I have put My words in your mouth. See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." (Jer. 1:9-10).
The first expression of the prophetic calling is judgment. Unless we have a stomach for that, n we will not be allowed the privilege of the word that builds and plants. Note the order of the words: the hardest thing first. Everything that is painful to the flesh and that will earn for us the displeasure of men must first be addressed. The prophet is called to pluck up and break down the things that are dear to men, namely, their religious tradition, the false things that they have celebrated for generations, the things that they want to cling to because it has to do with their identity and their dignity and the way in which they even see themselves. Men will kill for this and yet the prophet has got to tear down and destroy. The things that are false will be contended for fiercely! He has got therefore to be painful and a destroyer. His word then is destructive before it is benevolent. Unless we are willing to speak the destructive word, we will never be used for benevolence. Only the prophets who were faithful to speak the word of exile and judgment were also the prophets who spoke the word of restoration and return. They were given the privilege of speaking the creative word of restoration. It would be a much simpler task if we just had to establish fresh principles where it falls on virginal consciousness. When you first have to deal with and penetrate a whole existent medley of opinions and traditions that have become dear (if not sacrosanct), you will ironically be accused of being opposed to God!
A prophet not only identifies falsity, but he ruthlessly destroys it. There is something about his word that is like a fire. It is plucking up, rooting out and destroying before it is planting and rebuilding. Who wants to hear men like that? They not only just bring things into question, but they absolutely reduce it to rubble before your eyes. For you to pick it up after that is to touch the unclean thing. They have identified it and now you are stuck with that word. It is little wonder that such men are not welcome in places where people want to continue their lifestyle unchallenged.
A prophet critiques and unsparingly lays bare, without fear and regard of man, the lie or even 'conventional' truth, that is to say, the assumed, mindless, uncontested premises that constitute death in the midst of life. It is to reveal the lie, to expose it and to 'blow the whistle.' That lie may well be the lies of the false prophets. The whole world is predicated on lies, but how shall it know unless a word of truth comes. If that word is to come, then it is to come from one who is totally without fear of man. We all know that the fear of man is the most powerful and crippling factor that works in the lives of God's ministers. To be free of that and to speak without regard to the fear of man is an ultimate statement that implies such a history of dealing with that servant. We are all born with the fear of man. We live for the regard of man, for their acknowledgment and for their applause. Men love the acknowledgments of men, particularly prestigious men, but we have got to be weaned away from that necessity. It is a process; it does not take place in a day. Every time that God brings us to that place of weaning, we have got to submit to it, until we come to the place where we do not need it. We need to come to the place where we are not only indifferent to the applause of men, but also to their criticisms and reproaches. A prophet requires, therefore, an extraordinary discernment to critique and an analytical ability honed by the Spirit. It is not a 'taking of pot shots', but an apprehending of God's own view of something, and expressing that.
The prophet's own lifestyle must itself, therefore, be a repudiation of the lie. We cannot 'blow the whistle' on false values if we ourselves are subscribing to them. There is something about poverty that is more than an accident or happenstance. It is appropriate to the authenticity of our union with God. Camel's hair garments and the eating of locusts are symbolically intrinsic to the prophetic life. There is a reason why John the Baptist was in the wilderness and not in Jerusalem, though he was the son of a priest. He could not be where the Establishment was. He could not enjoy its benefits and at the same time 'blow the whistle' on the falsity of it. We cannot in our own lifestyle indulge in the very thing that we are condemning before others. Lifestyle is, therefore, remarkably important with regard to the word that is to be proclaimed and probably nothing more betrays whether you are a true or false prophet than this. The false prophets ate from Jezebel's table. Elijah had to be fed by ravens and live by the side of a brook. It is not that one seeks to wear a camel's hair garment because it is romantic or that you have to dress in such a way that marks you as being distinctive and different. The values that are false cannot have a place in us. A prophet is called to reveal the lie, the underlying premises that need to be examined in the light of God about value, about life and its purposes, and therefore your own lifestyle must be a repudiation of that lie, however much society and even the church legitimates it. A prophet's speaking not only reveals the lie but condemns and judges it. His word as is his life itself is a divine destruct.
When Elijah said, "There shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word (1 Kings 17:1b)," it was not just saying that there will be a little difference in your weather pattern. It meant that they were not going to have crops. They were not going to eat. They were going to experience a famine. It was going to be a judgment from God and it was to come through the speaking of Elijah's word. His word was not just a piece of information or an interpretation, however much it may be that, but rather it was a statement of judgment. It would actually affect the whole nation. That kind of word needs to be revived and restored. It is a trembling proposition to bear, and I can think of a few minor instances in my own experience where my word was a word of judgment, and God acted according to what I spoke. The church to whom it was spoken no longer exists because that was the word of judgment itself.
The prophet's task is to establish an alternative, powerful and valid enough to utterly displace the lie. He presents a view of reality not yet existent and that is contrary in most points and particulars to that which is thought to be 'real' and for which there is no precedent or model in the experience of the hearer. He brings a heavenly and an eternal sense that obliterates the kind of validation and endorsement that the world's values have had upon his hearers up to that time. If he had not come, they would have thought that what they were celebrating was real. When the prophet comes, however, he is not only blowing the whistle on what is false, but he brings a sense of what is true and what is eternally true. He brings the sense of eternity itself and inducts the hearer into it. By his speaking, he sets in motion and brings his audience to a place where the false becomes true. The word becomes creative and establishes the resonance of something not understood before—something that is ultimate and eternal. To pierce through the false and raise another kind of a standard and make that the foundation of life is, and must be, an extraordinary kind of speaking.
Those who embrace this model that the prophet is setting forth as the alternative to the lie, and that is a heavenly alternative, condemn themselves to being pilgrims and sojourners in the earth, and therefore able to die 'not having received the promise.' If they are going to receive a prophetic word like this that calls them to the heavenly vision in which Abraham walked, then this is going to be the consequence for their life. The word, therefore, that comes to the hearers has got to come with such a power, authority and credibility that the person who hears says, "If I say 'Yes' to this, then I am signing my death warrant." No-one is going to sign that lightly who has not been persuaded by the word that invites that kind of consecration. Only a prophet, a foundational man, can bring a word of that kind. He calls for something of ultimate consecration on the part of the hearer— unto death. That is why false prophets are more invited and listened to than the true. The false prophet affirms the hearer in his present condition and tells him that in that he is already 'well-pleasing'.
The prophet's purpose is singly and jealously the Father's will. He restores lost vision of a kind that energizes the people of God, especially in crisis times when despair needs to be turned to hope—having initially been stripped of false hopes by the prophet himself. He does not balk at having to be cruel before he can be kind. A man who can bring the necessary but painful, cruel word that must come in order to build is not unloving but very love itself. In a word the prophet brings the 'moment of truth'. Standing in the counsel of the Lord he is able to perceive error and state boldly and unequivocally the requisite truth though it be utterly at variance with the consensus being demonstrated.
The prophetic task is to restore to men who have lost it, the biblical mentality and the biblical view of things that are unchanging in God's sight. He conveys the view of God particularly to a people who are unwilling to hear it. If the prophetic word is critical to bringing an alignment of God's people with His own view, then the kind of word that is brought by the prophets is the ultimate issue. Where there are authentic prophets who are willing to bring the unwelcome word, so will there also be a plenitude of popular false prophets who bring the false word of comfort and who say, "Peace, peace" when there is no peace.
A prophet does not major in minors. Out of a consummate jealousy for the glory of God, he sets forth the ultimate purposes of God in such a way as to obtain the sacrifices of his hearers to fulfill it. It is not enough just to set forth what God's program is, but to set it forth in such a way that he has won the willingness of the hearers to be participant in obtaining the ultimate and eternal purposes of God— as sacrifice. That is where the prophetic word is more than the word of explanation. It does not just explain what the eternal purposes of God are, but he communicates it in such a way as to win the commitment of his hearers to the sacrifice necessary to fulfill them. That takes more than explanation. The prophet epitomizes the suffering that such an adherence evokes. In other words, those who are going to embrace the view that he is presenting are opening themselves to suffering. The prophet, therefore, who is inviting them to that suffering has himself in some sense to exhibit it and give the evidence that this is God's way and that the cross is central to the faith. He makes clear to his hearers that persecution, if not martyrdom, is intrinsic to a faith of this kind—and wins their willingness. It is one thing to establish that the cross, persecution and martyrdom are intrinsic to the faith, but to win the hearer's consecration to that call is an extraordinary stroke that requires the authority and anointing of those who bear His word. That is the prophetic task. We are not bringing information, but rather calling men to ultimate, sacrificial things and that is why that kind of a word will always be resisted.
The prophet announces and projects the impending end of this world in apocalyptic fury and judgment, sufficient to birth the longing for a new heaven and a new earth in which there is righteousness. He not only brings to the awareness of the hearer that the world that they have celebrated is under judgment and is intended for destruction, which means it will destroy a lot of where their own heart is, but he also births a longing for the thing that comes down from above and which will replace this present age.
A prophet is a man of the word who abhors lightness while deeply respecting and guarding the sanctity of language and its meaning from abuse and cheapening. He is not, therefore, always your enjoyable household guest and is not good for easy conversation and small talk. He guards his mouth because he knows the sanctity of words and will not, therefore, give himself to frequent speaking as it debases the currency of words. There is with him a history of waiting and silences.
A prophet shuns the distinctions and honors that men confer. These things bring a certain aura of prestige and eminence and weight, but the prophetic man, in order to be true to God is the 'wilderness' prophet. Wilderness does not just mean physical isolation, but a conscious and willful separation from the kinds of things that are calculated to compromise. He does not effect any kind of prophetic outward 'appearance' to indicate his office. He is unprepossessing in appearance and demeanor and despises what is showy, sensational or bizarre. A prophet is intent on turning men to God and not to himself.
This calling is given and is not something that we ourselves summon or take for ourselves, but if we have it, then we need to know that God is going to work us over, again and again, in order to ensure that it is His word that comes forth and not our own.