When Christians use the word “prophetic ”it can have many different meanings,some good some not so good:
- someone who “gets through ” in preaching
- someone who is very intense
- someone who is eloquent at length in Elizabethan English
- someone who speaks a brief sentence of comfort
- someone who is passionately left wing
- someone who fiercely proclaims imminent judgment
- someone who gets worked up into an ecstatic frenzy
- someone preoccupied with timetables for the end of the world
- someone who brings godly insights for individuals and even the whole church.
When the same word has such varied meanings, it can be difficult to recognise something as genuinely “prophetic” that comes from a different kind of church to our own.
So can the Bible clear up our confusions and help us discover what lies at the heart of prophecy? If we want easy answers,the Bible is not a good place to begin. But if we want reliable answers, there’s nowhere better. In the Old Testament, we find no less than seven different kinds of prophet.
In the time of Samuel and Saul, there were travelling groups of prophets who experienced being overcome by the Spirit of God (1 Samuel 10). As Saul discovered, if you got too close to them, the Spirit could overcome you as well. These ancient Israelite itinerant charismatics clearly knew God’s power, but none of their prophecies were recorded for posterity. Samuel affirmed that God was with them, but he saw no reason to abandon his public ministry in favour of repeated private ecstasies. The experience of these early prophetic groups is therefore recognised as real but treated as marginal in the history of prophecy in Ancient Israel.
2) Priest politicians
Samuel spoke for God in the public life of his nation. He became the king-maker in Israel, not merely performing the coronation, but even identifying those God had anointed to become king. There is a tension built into Samuel’s role: he wielded great power, yet his priority was never to strut the corridors of power but rather to walk with God.
3) Establishment prophets
Samuel was the last of Israel’s judges and the first to crown a king. As he had warned, the balance of power soon shifted from prophet to monarch. Just as Pharaoh had his astrologers and priests, a Jewish king had his prophets. Official prophets also had a place in temple worship. At best, these prophets followed Samuel’s example and spoke into the public life of the nation (2 Samuel 12). At worst, they confused a knee-jerk patriotism with dedication to God - Jeremiah accused them of promising peace where there was no peace (Jeremiah 6:14). Some institutional prophets attempted to corner the market in divine inspiration, not expecting God to speak through anyone without a prophetic pedigree (Amos 7:12-13). Perhaps some Christians have been tempted in recent years by the opposite prejudice, assuming that God could never speak through anyone with establishment connections or a denominational position.
In times of crisis, prophets emerged to call the nation back to the ways of God. The most striking approach was taken by Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17ff). God’s wonder-workers certainly stole the headlines as they demonstrated the power of Yahweh in action. However, although the people professed devotion to God when they saw supernatural fire at Cannel, their new dedication didn’t last. In the history of Old Testament prophecy, fire at Carmel turned out to be a one-off rather than God’s regular response whenever Israel sank back into idolatry.
5) Writing prophets
These first four types of prophet all have one thing in common: they didn’t write down extended prophecies. The writing prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi, made the most profound contribution to Old Testament prophecy, but also the most rare: there were hardly any of them at all. Supremely in the case of Isaiah, the written prophecies are skilfully crafted: they are prophetic poems, composed with great art and care, rather than spontaneous preaching. There are churches today that would be suspicious of someone coming to a meeting with a written prophecy, particularly one composed as a poem. I wonder what they make of the Old Testament’s poet prophets.
6) Spontaneous prophets
When Amos,the wild man from Judah,arrived at the king ’s sanctuary in Bethel,the establishment prophets wanted rid of him.He was a shepherd, neither a prophet ’s son nor recognised officially as a prophet in his own right (Amos 7:14-15).The inclusion of his prophecies in the Old Testament affirms that God was perfectly willing to speak through outsiders,who emerged from nowhere to proclaim God ’s word, as well as through the “official ” prophets.
We can find maverick prophecies among the wonder-workers, the spontaneous and the writing prophets. These mavericks, above all Ezekiel, are marked out by extravagant behaviour (eg Ezekiel 4-5). They are the spiritually untamed, who proclaimed the ways of God through extremely eccentric behaviour. If someone behaved like Ezekiel today, they would run the risk of being locked up and sectioned.
In addition to these seven kinds of prophet, there is the very different approach of apocalyptic poetry. In Daniel, as in Revelation, vivid imagery describes the rise and fall of kingdoms, the conflict between good and evil, and the ultimate triumph of God. The symbolism is so detailed that Christians have frequently attempted to produce timetables of the “end-times”, claiming to decode the Word of God. Church history warns us that there is no end to the making of such timetables, but they have scanty credibility. All too many earnest believers have poured their energy into end-time timetables that have been abandoned just a few years later as completely spurious.
The Old Testament writing prophets provide key insights for prophecy today. First, the prophets spoke to the whole of life, calling God’s people to integrity and a lifestyle shaped by faith. They were never locked into a narrowly religious agenda.
Second, the prophets called for present obedience in the light of future hope. They were always more concerned with living faith today than speculation about tomorrow.
Third, there was often a bad news/good news shape to their message. They recognised that Israel’s circumstances often got worse before they got better. In our world of instant answers, we want blessing today and blessing tomorrow, not judgment and rejection as the painful preparation for mercy and restoration.
Fourth, the prophets often experienced an inverse proportion between faithfulness to God and popularity. Some of the most famous Old Testament prophets were expressly warned at the time of their calling that, if they were faithful in speaking God’s Word,they would be neither heard nor welcomed by the people, priests or kings. Where false prophets proclaimed peace and prosperity, the true prophets warned of judgment and exile when Israel hardened her heart against God. Old Testament prophets admired ever since by Jews and Christians were often ignored or even hated in their own lifetime.
New Testament surprises
Of the seven kinds of Old Testament prophet, how many continue in the New Testament and the church?
From time to time ecstatic groups have sprung up. For a season,they enjoy their blessing intensely, but their impact in church history has been no longer lasting than in ancient Israel. The fact that such groups are not mentioned in the New Testament suggests they have less than strategic importance in the mission of God. As to priest politicians, there have certainly been Christian leaders with the ear of monarchs and presidents, some whose ministry has remained hidden, some who eventually paid for spiritual counsel with their lives. But they have been a rarity.
As to wonder-workers – a steady trickle at most, but none in church history with the impact of Elijah. And in the New Testament, signs and wonders are more associated with the apostles and evangelism than with the prophets. Establishment prophets? None in the days of the New Testament.
Writing prophets? None at all in the 2,000 years of the church with the stature and authority of the Old Testament writing prophets. Here is a crucial insight. While the New Testament affirms that the gift of prophecy is still available, it is far more limited in scope than prophecy in the Old Testament.
The New Testament writers are confident that God still speaks. Paul encouraged Christians to seek the gift of prophecy, which he considered far more valuable than tongues (1 Corinthians 14). Faced with a church disillusioned with faulty prophecy, he encouraged them not to despise prophecy but to test everything (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). Cynicism and gullibility are equally capable of putting out the Spirit’s fire.
Prophecy was certainly taken seriously. An offering was raised in response to Agabus’ prophecies concerning famine (Acts 11:28-29). Later, Eusebius, the church historian, claimed that Christians fled from Jerusalem just before the Roman assault in AD 70 as a result of a prophecy. Early Christians were therefore willing to respond with faith to genuine prophecies. There are, however, no New Testament examples of a prophecy that promised revival a few months later or presented a timetable for the last days.
When prophecy was valued so highly among the first Christians and its use was widely encouraged, there is a surprising omission from the New Testament. We might expect the first Christians’ prophecies to have been written down, treasured and circulated. Not a bit of it. The complete omission of any collection of prophecies from the books of the New Testament clearly indicates that the first Christians saw no need to collect the words of a “new covenant Isaiah”.
The Old Testament prophets continued to speak into the first Christians’ circumstances. Far from replacing the Old Testament prophets, the prophets of the early church were given a much more minor, sub-scriptural authority. Their prophecies were valued but considered a gift of the moment. No one thought it necessary or appropriate to write them down and collect them for the benefit of future generations. In short, New Testament prophecy was taken seriously, but also considered secondary, never given the status of the Scriptures that are inspired for all time. There are more quotations from Isaiah in the New Testament than from all the Christian prophets combined.
If this reading of the New Testament is right, we can affirm the value of prophecy today without diminishing the unique authority of the Scriptures. Traditional evangelicals affirm the Scriptures but some are concerned that any emphasis upon prophecy might distract from the Bible. Traditional charismatics affirm the gift of prophecy today, but some are tempted to put prophecy centre stage and neglect the Bible.
These twin errors were not problems for the first Christians, who kept contemporary prophecy in its place. They understood Christian prophecy to be an immensely helpful gift of the Spirit, but always secondary and subordinate to the Scriptures.
So long as we keep contemporary prophecy in its place and never confuse it with the enduring authority of the Bible, we can similarly benefit from both the Bible and Christian prophecy. Which is greater, Old Testament prophecy or prophecy today? Old Testament prophecy, without a doubt.