Having been in self-imposed excommunication from the church for seven years, my reintroduction was bound to introduce me to various new themes floating around in Christian culture. One of the most prominent themes that I hear thrown around is ‘prophecy’. I have heard a number of people being flippantly referred to as prophets, and even more people claiming to ‘speak words of prophecy’, or having had such prophetic ‘words’ spoken over them. The common use of term ‘prophecy’ in the today’s parlance seems to be conveniently pliant and hopelessly confused and vague.
But just what is prophecy, and what function did the prophet play in history? Like usual, Scripture gives quite clear answers.
The Bible describes the prophet as having a very precise purpose and function, prophets were not people who just predicted the future as is commonly thought. To use a modern analogy, they were basically God’s ‘prosecuting attorneys’, whose specific purpose was to bring God’s lawsuit against both God’s people and the nations that surrounded
So just as a modern prosecuting attorney will represent the government in charging
a criminal for an alleged crime, God also sent His prophets to charge His
people with a particular crime. Israel
At the start of Ezekiel’s prophetic mission, God enunciated a very clear definition of what prophecy exactly is:
“When I say to a wicked person, “You will surely die,” and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.” Ezekiel 3:18-19.
Here we see four clear attributes of a prophecy: 1) identification of sin, 2) dissuasion from sin/call to repentance, 3) pronouncement of punishment for unrepented sin, 4) accountability of the prophet to his task.
So while a prophet would certainly pronounce a future punishment, this was only a small part of the prophet’s purpose. It is important to note that the prediction of the future was always contingent on repentance. If the offending people did repent of their sin, then God’s punishment would be revoked. We see this in Jonah’s prophecy of the destruction of
prediction of their destruction did not come to pass because the people did
heed God’s warning and repented. Nineveh
So the primary purpose of the prophet was not to warn the people of God’s impending wrath, but rather to persuade them to cease their sinful ways and turn back to God. It is God’s love that motivates the prophecy, not wrath.
1 Corinthians 14:3-4 gives another good general guide to what the effect of prophecy is; “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort”, and “he who prophesies edifies the church”. These verses should not be misconstrued to mean that the prophecy of the New Testament should be solely positive and feel-good. One only has to look at the prophecy in the book of Revelation where the seven churches are addressed to see that quite a lot of harsh words were said of them. Also, while the Old Testament prophecy contained a lot of harsh rebuke, it also contained much encouragement and comfort too (Hos 11:14, 14, Joel 3:17-21, Amos 9:11-15, Mic 7:8-20). And what would be a more effective way to edify the church than for it’s sins to be made known? Progress can not be made unless one’s stumbling blocks are known.
So we see that prophecy also contains encouragement and comfort in tandem with warnings of God’s wrath. Both are integral parts of prophecy.
The Bible makes it clear that there are just as many false prophets as true prophets, so we need to be discerning when listening to anybody who claims to be speaking prophecy. The two most effective methods for identifying a true prophet from a false prophet are: 1) to see if the specific prophecy comes true. “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously” Deuteronomy 18:22. 2) “By their fruit you will recognise them.” Matt 2:15,16. The fruit of the spirit is of course a reference to Gal 5:22-23, which is in contrast to the works of the flesh Gal 5:19-21, which would be manifest in the false prophet.
Also prophets are always described as spreading their message on the streets to all the people concerned with total conviction and a desperate vehemence. Prophets do not timidly whisper their message in a church corner.
So in summery we find a number of principles in the Bible for discerning between true and false prophets. These are the characteristics that the Bible describes of a true prophet:
1) The prophet must be prophesying directly to the people concerned
2) Specific sins will be identified
3) The prophet will call the offending people to repent
4) Specific punishment will be identified for unrepentant sin
5) Specific blessings with be identified for repentance
6) The prophecy must identify a path to edification
7) The prophecy must come true
8) The fruit of the prophet must be of spirit, not of the flesh
It is obvious from all this that prophecy isn’t the mere prediction of calamity or blessing- this would be better defined as ‘revelation’- but instead true prophecy will include the above biblical principles. Also it is a quite poignant note that an extremely high responsibility is upon the shoulders of the prophet to do his job properly. This should serve as a dire warning to anybody who wishes to call their words prophecy; it is not a risk-free and glamorous job, and it is also your life that is on the line. So people should be extremely cautious that their compulsion to call their words prophecy is not in anyway a whimsical or self-aggrandizing compulsion. God takes prophecy extremely seriously:
“Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing!”, “My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations” Ezekiel 13:3, 9.
“But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’” Deut 18:20
The whole modern understanding of ‘prophecy’ seems to be based on a confusion between ‘prophecy’ and ‘revelation’. If someone is only stating what will happen in the future, then this is revelation, NOT prophecy. The two are categorically different things.