I believe in prophecy and I believe in prophets. But based on what I know from Scripture both are rarer than many would have us believe. I suspect though that there are a lot of Christians who used to share my acceptance of the validity of prophecy and prophets — who no longer do due to the events of 2020.
One of the many reasons I believe in prophecy and prophets is the teaching of Scripture. I will use one particular two-verse passage to bookend this week’s pastor’s desk to make my case.
Prophecy is predicting or foretelling. It is not like a good guess or a mere hunch. It is what happens when the Spirit of God comes upon a person and they speak on behalf of God. For the most part, the only ones who prophesied in the Old Covenant era were prophets. There were occasions when people experienced the Holy Spirit coming upon them in which people wondered whether these people were now prophets. But each of these instances were temporary and the prophetic utterances that resulted were forth-telling rather than foretelling. That is, rather than predicting the future (foretelling), these temporary prophecies were more like declaring God’s praises. Here are some examples-
Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it. Numbers 11:25
And when all who knew him previously saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, “What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?” And a man of the place answered, “And who is their father?” Therefore it became a proverb, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” First Samuel 10:11-12
It was a grave thing to claim to be a prophet. ‘Grave’ because the consequences of claiming to be a prophet when you were not included shaming and a painful death (Deut. 18:20-22). Little wonder then that several of the Old Testament prophets were hesitant to accept God’s call to be a prophet.
¶ “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” ¶ Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” Jeremiah 1:5-6
Anyone who claimed to be a prophet but taught falsehood, was not to be listened to. This required that there was a standard of truth by which the prophet’s words could be evaluated. This is why the written Word of God became increasingly important. Over time, the role of the prophet broadened beyond foretelling to reminding God’s people of His Word, reminding them of the covenant their forefathers had established with God by retelling them their history (the prophet Jeremiah was one of the authors of First and Second Kings for example), and fulfilling the role of an intercessor. In Isaiah 36 we see the prophet Isaiah fulfilling each of these prophetic aspects after King Hezekiah sent messengers to Isaiah pleading for him to intercede on their behalf –
It may be that the LORD your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the LORD your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.’” ¶ When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the king of Assyria have reviled me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumour and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.’” Isaiah 37:4-7
PROPHETS AND PROPHECY IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
It has been said that the calling of the prophet is the only Old Covenant ministry to be carried over into the New Covenant. Jesus Christ stated that He would be sending prophets, but just like the prophets of old, they too would be mistreated.
Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town Matthew 23:34
And the apostle Paul tells us that when Christ ascended He gave of people to the church which included prophets.
He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers Ephesians 4:10-11
Just as we briefly saw from our glimpse of what the Old Testament said about the distinction between the ministry of the prophet and those who received a temporary Spirit-enabled ability to prophesy about the glories of God, so too the New Testament makes a distinction between the gift of the prophet to the church, and the gift of [edifying] prophecy to the believer. Through the Book of Acts we see the unfolding role of the New Testament prophet. In the Old Testament, prophets prophesied to the regents of Israel and their national neighbours. Elijah’s prophetic ministry marked the beginning of the Age of the Prophet. John the Baptist was the last Old Covenant prophet and he marks the end of the Age of the Prophet. After Christ ascended and He gave gifts of people to the church as summarised in Ephesians 4:11, we see in Acts three important indicators about how the understanding New Testament prophet developed.
1. The Leadership team at Antioch
In Acts 13 we are introduced to the church at Antioch (which was the Apostle Paul’s home church) which was comprised of prophets and teachers.
¶ Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. Acts 13:1
In his commentary on this passage John Calvin argues that prophets and teachers in this sense basically amounts to the same thing – people who could teach and interpret God’s Word. But it seems that later in Calvin’s life he came to recognise that they were distinct ministries and functions1. Calvin acknowledges in his commentary on Ephesians 4 and First Corinthians 12 that there is a similar distinction in the New Testament to the ministry of the prophet and the occasional gift of prophecy.
Through Acts we notice that others become identified as prophets (Acts 11:27; 15:32). But there is one in particular I would like to point out.
Agabus appears in Acts 11 as one of the pioneers of the church at Antioch. His ministry is truly weird. While it might be popular among conservative scholars to assume that only the Old Testament prophets were foretellers, Agabus makes this assumption untenable.
And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). Acts 11:28
The next time we meet Agabus is in Acts 21. By this time we see that Agabus had a long track record of being an authentic prophet. The prophecy that he delivers in Acts 21 highlights the difference between the gift of prophecy as one of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, and the ministry of the prophet. (People whom the Holy Spirit graces with occasional gifts of prophecy for the edifying of the church are not necessarily prophets.)
While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Acts 21:10-13
Prior to Agabus delivering this prophecy to Paul, the disciples at Tyre, where Paul’s ship had landed, were “through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4). What we see when Agabus prophesied is that Paul listens, accepts, and acknowledges what he has said. We note that Agabus did not direct Paul to do anything. Paul may have chosen to heed the Tyrian and Agabus’ prophetic warnings about going to Jerusalem, but he accepted that what they were prophesying to him agreed with what he knew was God’s will was. This should stand as a warning for those who ever have people “give them a word from God” that is directive (that is, ‘God wants you to…’). Be very careful if someone claims to have a word from God for you telling you to do something that takes you by complete surprise.
3. The Daughters of Philip
Among some Christians there remains some controversy about the role of women within the church. For those who claim that it is against God’s will for a woman to preach/teach/prophesy in a church, Philip’s four daughters present a problem.
On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. Acts 21:8-9
There can be little doubt that women prophesied in the early church (1Cor. 11:5). This should not be surprising either because even in the Old Testament times God called women to be prophets – Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Huldah (2Kings 22:14), Isaiah’s wife (Isa. 8:3), and Anna (Luke 2:36).
DISCERNMENT AND PROPHECY
Twenty-twenty will be a memorable year for most us but sadly it will probably be recorded by church historians as the year of discredited prophets and prophecy. I’m not aware any prophet who foretold of the global pandemic, and most of the high-profile American ‘prophets’ unanimously prophesied the President Donald Trump would be re-elected.
I dared to respond to one of these ‘prophets’ with a Youtube video challenging his prophecy that Bill Gates was going to infuse a nano-chip into a coronavirus vaccine which would lead to him being revealed as the prophesied Antichrist. I’ve had around 700 people call me a ‘false prophet’ and condemn me to hell for daring to challenge this ‘prophet’. But this example of modern prophecy serves to illustrate the principle found in our bookend biblical passage.
Based on this text of Scripture, whenever someone prophesies something, we test what they say. This testing should include:
Does it correspond to the teaching of Scripture?
Is it conditional? (Most Biblical prophecies were unconditional.)
Does it have a time-frame? That is, does it declare that it will be fulfilled by a certain date? This makes it easy to test.
Does the person prophesying have a credible prophetic track-record?
Last Sunday (January 17th 2021), someone in our church received a word from the Lord. They wrote it down and gave it to me through the week. This is what it says-
“God is calling His church—individual people to seek Him deeper for a more personal relationship with Him. This will cause people to grow—and lead to church numbers (attendance) to grow. So the church needs to prepare for growth. Be aware that in the past, such calling for knowing God deeper is often associated with upheaval.”
What do we do with a prophecy like this? We should do as First Thessalonians 5:20-21 teaches us. We should test it. Is it contrary to Scripture? No. Is it conditional? Perhaps. But it is an exhortation to draw near to God. Does it have a time-frame deadline? No. Does it come from a credible source? Yes. And it is my pastoral hope that if someone gives you a prophecy, or tells you of a prophecy that will supposedly effect you, you too will apply these tests to their prophecy. Even though recent high profile ‘prophetic’ ministries have brought enormous discredit to the genuinely God ordained prophetic, we should not despise prophecy, but we should test all claims and hold onto that which good.
¶ “For the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing His secret to His servants the prophets. Amos 3:7