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Prophets and prophecies

Dan Török, 04.03.2012

Who is a prophet?

We can find the first mention of prophets in the Bible in books of Moses. In Gen 20:7 Abraham is called a prophet. In Ex 7:1 God calls Moses‘ brother Aaron a prophet, prophet of Moses, because he interprets to Pharaoh what Moses orders him. So, prophet is a person who tells others somebody’s will; God’s prophet tells people God’s will.


Moses is often referred to as the greatest of the prophets. Why the greatest? This was mainly because he knew God „face to face“, and thus he had a very intimate knowledge of God (Dt 34:9-10). And the most important manifestation of the prophetic office was when God told Israelites the Law through him.


In Nu 11:28 Joshua asks Moses to stop Eldad and Medad who were prophesying „off the program“ (according to God’s command Moses told seventy elders to gather, to whom God divided His anointment, to be at Moses‘ disposal to help him, and they began to prophesy). Moses refused Joshua with saying: „If only all Israelites prophesied!“ This indicates the importance that Moses attached to divination and it also shows that divination is not a mere vision of the future. How would it probably look like if all the Israelites spoke vision for the future?


Also Elisha is a prophet. Regarding him, we can see an explanation in the Scripture. King Jehoshaphat says about him: „The word of the Lord is with him.“ (2Kings 3:11-12).


Christ is referred to as a prophet in a situation where he raised a young man from the dead. His mother says about Jesus: „A great prophet is risen up among us and God has visited His people.“ (Luke 7:15-16). Prophet is also a mediator of God’s power.


Prophet is thus synonymous with the harbinger, spokesman, or a witness, but also a mediator of God’s power.


Those who speak in God’s name but God hasn’t actually sent them, hasn’t commanded them to speak on His behalf are false prophets (Jer 14:14). God says about them that they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart (Jer 23:25-26).



What is prophecy and what does it "preach“?

In the fourth book of Moses we can read that God makes Himself known to a prophet (Nu 12:6). In the first book of Samuel we can read that prophet was also called a seer (1Sam 9:3-20). It was a person telling to another person God’s answer to concrete questions (here the future king Saul went after him because he could not find his female donkeys). Prophecy is also a recognition of the true state of affairs – Simon at one of the dinners with Jesus doubts in his mind about Jesus‘ prophetic anointing. He is thinking that if Jesus was a prophet, he would know that the woman who was sitting at the table was sinful. Jesus then easily refutes Peter’s doubts, because He shows him that not only He knows with whom He sits behind the table, but also He knows what Peter is just thinking about Him (Luke 7:39).


The essential role of the prophets after the death of King Solomon (Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, Amos, Jonah, partly Isaiah, Micah and others) was to draw attention to what Israelites are doing against the God’s will, and on the contrary, what they should do. In case they refused, the prophecy also contained information about the consequences that God will draw from their actions (2Kings 17:13-18 and 23, similarly Neh 9:26, 30).


Prophecy is thus from God’s order communicated God’s will, God’s speech, things of God, God’s answers or attitudes to something, but also God’s revelation of a certain situation to a man. Prophecy is given to the prophets in various ways. Once as a dream, another time as a vision, God’s speech or a prophetic trance.


It is evident that prophecy has a much broader content, meaning, direction and form rather than to be a mere statement on the future status and development of things. And even it is not always directed to the future – sometimes even going into the past, other times into the present.


Besides spoken prophecies there are also „prophetic actions“ in the Bible, such as Abraham sacrificing Isaac.



Where is prophecy directed (regarding time)?

Prophecy about the past When Israelites are oppressed by Midianites, they cry out to the Lord for help. But He tells them that their situation is caused by their disobedience in the past (even after God brought them up from Egypt) (Judges 6:7-10).


We can see a prophecy about the presence in the first book of Kings when Ahab and Jehoshaphat are going to war and want to know from the prophet, if the campaign is in accordance with the God’s will (1Kings 22:6-28).


Example of a prophecy about the nearest future (practically intertwined with the presence): God sent the prophet Gad to David, who sinned with Bathsheba and gives him a choice what punishment he chooses for his sin – plague, famine or war (2Sam 24:11-13).


Prophecy about the distant future Such a prophecy is for example the prophecy about the approaching captivity of Judah by King Nebuchadnezzar. Isaiah had prophesied about him, but he himself did not experience it.


Prophecy speaks also about the completely distant future. For example, in the Old Testament there are prophecies about Christ, but also about the last time. Even Isaiah prophesied both about Christ and the last time.


Prophecy may therefore be directed to the past, to the presence, to near or distant future.



Purpose of prophecy

As it is evident from Micah’s prophecy to kings Ahab and Jehoshaphat, one of the purposes of prophecy can be explanation or showing of the situation. It can also be a revelation about the cause of action. For example in 2Chron 19:2 about Jehoshaphat: because he helped the wicked Ahab, he deserved the wrath of God.


Prophecy may also be showing of God’s will for someone what to do and what not to do. And if he did the things, it can also include evaluation of his deeds. Prophets criticized non-devotional acts of God’s people, so they were very unpopular with some powerful people. A classic example of a ruler who hated God’s prophets was Ahab’s wife Jezebel. She was uncompromisingly killing prophets, because they dared to openly criticize the worship of a pagan idol of Baal, which was introduced by her.


In prophecies God also tells His intentions. For example in 1Kings 11:30-31 we learn that God gives ten tribes under the rule of King Jeroboam, and then in 1Kings 14:1-8 that God will exterminate the dynasty of Jeroboam and substitute it with another one.


Prophecies in the prophetic books (such as Isaiah) are complex – their content can be outlined as the following process: they include conviction of something, which the addressed people do bad (criticism of state), followed by the explanation that God’s behavior towards them corresponds to it (thus the explanation of the causes of what is happening) and exhortation to repentance (what to do to change the state) and ending with a warning against the consequences, which no doubt will come if the exhortation to repentance will not be responded. So, this comes before God will do something, as it was in the case of warning against exile by Isaiah. An integral part of such a prophecy is usually also a promise of a future deliverance (again, what God will do).


Prophecy can also just show what will happen. First, number of this case of using prophecy in Bible is just very limited; besides, it is more about showing what is going on, or what must necessarily happen under the current situation, respectively. An example is in Acts 21:11-12, it is „predicted“ to Paul what will happen to him in Jerusalem, but it is not the kind of „revelation of the future“, but in fact to reveal the real situation: for some Jews, Paul was the enemy number one, and while in the Diaspora they did not have too many opportunities how to get rid of him, in Judea their position was much better – therefore it was clear, that they are at least going to try to do something to Paul. So this simple revelation of the future can also be understood as God’s guarantee that Paul will not be murdered in Judea and God will only permit his arrest. Another example is Joseph’s interpretation of dreams in the Egyptian prison. On the basis of the dreams, he said to his two inmates what would happen to them, which was later fulfilled (Gen 40:8-23). With what has been said about prophecies so far, it can be assumed that the judgment had already been decided and the Joseph’s interpretation was not actually showing of the future, but revelation of already adopted (but yet unrealized) decision.


Fulfillment of prophecy In the vast majority of prophecies that speak of what will happen the mover of things is God. How? He causes the fulfillment on His own, as for example in 2Kings 3:11-25 during the war against Moabites, where Elisha prophesies that God will cause a sudden flood without rain, and moreover, it will look like blood. So, something that could not be caused by accumulation of natural processes, but by direct intervention of God (it was fulfilled).


Or the second option is fulfillment through people. Either the way that one obeys and carries out the revealed will. God chooses someone from His people, He calls him to the fulfillment, and the person either obeys, or God finds somebody else (cf. Est 4:14).


Or God uses a man as a tool (e.g. King Cyrus in Isaiah 44:28-45:5). God is the giver of free will, and He has the right to partially remove it, although He does it only rarely (there are only a few such cases in Bible) (cf. Proverbs 21:1). But even then, He does not remove the whole free will, it is rather that He just moves the person into what he anyway wants to do or it is close to him. An example is the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, when God used him to fulfill court over Israel. Certainly he felt comfortable about the conquest of Judea, while he became also an instrument of God to execute the judgment upon Israel. From Isaiah 47 it is clear that this is more like a mandate and permission of what the king wanted himself. Then, when the king considered it as his own merit and acted more mercilessly than he had to, it turned out as a punishment for him. A similar case was the Assyrian king Shalmaneser, whom God used in the conquest of Samaria (Isaiah 10:12-15).


God has fulfillment of prophecy firmly in His grasp. Either it happens because of His direct action, or He uses people for that. Prophecy about the future is always fulfilled because the guarantor (of His revealed will) is God. But it is not a kind of divination, reading out future from e.g. livers, stars, clouds or coffee grounds, because the future is not always set in stone. And not even in God’s mind. So, the idea that prophets are “reading” the future is odd. In fact, God reveals to them what He does or wants to do.


Prophecies are fulfilled originally and often unexpectedly. For example, Joseph’s dream, in which he saw that his brothers would bow to him, (Gen 37:5-11) did not give any suspect in advance how this prophecy would be fulfilled (in the dream there were sheaves bowing to Joseph). They bowed to him as the second highest man of Egypt, without having any idea who he really was. Prophecy thus does not show every little detail, but what the God’s will is and what the implications for a man are, and what to do.


Just because prophecy is not a revelation of the already given future, but revelation of God’s will, therefore things like saving people of the city of Nineveh after the warning of Jonah or recovery of King Hezekiah could happen (2Kings 20:1-6). King Hezekiah was seriously ill when the prophet Isaiah visited him and prophesied him “explanation of his situation” – that his disease is fatal – and he revealed him God’s will about what he should do – set his house in order before his death. But Hezekiah responds with asking God for healing, which God answers and sends to him Isaiah with another prophecy – that God will add to Hezekiah 15 years of life (despite his disease is fatal).


Therefore, the most concise statement about so far unfilled prophecies is: “God promised”  (see Rom 1:1-3).



Role of prophecy in church

Difference between prophecy and biblical prophecy

Because prophecy is a revelation of God’s will and actually God Himself, the most important prophecy is the Bible and the biggest prophet is Jesus Christ (He is incarnation of God, the most perfect revelation of God and His will). He is also fulfilling of Dt 18:15-19, He is „the Prophet“, who John the Baptist was not. Even people claimed that Jesus was a prophet, which was on the basis of Jesus‘ teaching and acts (miracles). In Jesus and His life, the God’s will written by prophets in Bible was fulfilled (therefore actually in the whole Bible, Luke 24:44). So, Jesus is a prophet, fulfilling of prototype of the „prophetic office“ with whole His life, because He is the revelation of God and His will and He Himself is God.


In Christ the God’s will described in the prophecies of the Old Testament was fulfilled. Biblical prophecies often have more plains, and often they speak about Christ, although primarily they usually speak about the concrete situation happening at the time of telling the prophecy. For example prophecies about the last time usually figure in prophecies as their second or third plain. The first plain can be a message for the person, the second plain can point to Christ‘s prophecy and the third plain can speak about the last time.


This is an attribute just only of biblical prophecies. Their parts or plains concerning Christ are already fulfilled (except His second coming), but the plain about the last time not yet. It is not possible to add some more „generally binding“ prophecies to the biblical prophecies (and not even to prophecies about the last time) (cf. Rev 22:18-19), it is just possible to „add“ their explanation (for example, when the Antichrist will come, based on the understanding from God, it will be possible to truthfully say that it will be “that Antichrist about whom was written that…”). But when the understanding is not from God or it is trying to add something beyond the teaching of Scripture, then it is a false prophecy.


A biblical prophecy actually becomes a teaching. For example the Law – it was given by God to the prophet Moses, with that God revealed His will and that became an object of study and basis of teaching, explaining its meaning. This is a privilege of a biblical prophecy. There does not exist any “doctrinal” prophecy outside of Bible and it is not possible to consider any prophecy to be this binding and to have come from God. An “interpretative” prophecy, as mentioned above, and also a personal prophecy, which is revelation of God‘s will in a particular situation for a particular person, but both must be in accordance with the Scriptures.


Prophecy should be also in church (1Cor 12:10Rom 12:6Acts 19:61Cor 14:1). But it is not a revelation of a new “teaching”. Prophecy in church has two forms – as a prophetic authority, office and also that all people prophesy.


The prophetic office has a variety of applications in the church. One of its roles is evident from 1Cor 14:37 – recognition of the rightness of the teaching (and we know that prophets are not alone in this role, also for example elders should be able to recognize the teaching). The most famous prophet of the New Testament is Agabus who in Acts 11:27-30 prophesied that there was going to be a great famine throughout the entire world in the days of Claudius Caesar. His prophecy can be explained in two ways (after the explanation given until now):

  • God will intentionally commit or cause the famine, for some reason
  • it is already clear that it will happen (the current situation will inevitably lead to the famine) or it is happening and the prophet is announcing it,

while the primary intent and purpose of this prophecy is that God’s people should prepare themselves for the upcoming situation, there’s an appeal for Christians to plan according to the given information (here to make a collection for Christians in Judea).


Prophets of the New Testament also give interpretation, we can call it a “prophetic interpretation of the prophecy” (in Acts 15:1-32 elders of the Jerusalem church are dealing with whether Gentile Christians may indeed be a part of the Church, and they are giving definitive resolution of the issue, after James brings a prophetic interpretation that Gentiles as a part of the God’s nation are the fulfilling of the Old Testament prophecies (cf Eph 3:5-6).


In general, prophets of the New Testament are told that they should build (train, cause growth), admonish (warn) and calm down (please, encourage) the church by revealing the God’s will (1Cor 14:3). And also they should reveal personal message to a specific person, for instance call on someone in a particular service (cf 1Tim 4:14).


One should not despise prophecy in the church (and the Holy Spirit should not be quenched), but in both cases it must be arbitrated if it is a true prophecy (1Tes 5:19-22), because to utter a false prophecy and refer to a revelation or a dream is too easy (cf Jer 23:25-26). A false prophet is the one who speaks what God has not told him (Dt 18:20) and anyone who leads with his prophecy to apostasy from God and the true teaching of the Scripture (Dt 13:1-5) – thus prophecy in the church is not superior to teaching, but on the contrary, it must be in accordance with it. Moreover, on the basis of the fact that prophecy is the revelation of God’s will – God’s revealing Himself to the prophet – it is obvious that the prophet himself must live in accordance with God’s will, because logically, God does not reveal His secrets to somebody who does not obey Him or acts contrary to God’s will. So, if someone for example remains in sin and besides claims that he prophesies, it is not needed to arbitrate the prophecy itself, because it cannot be right.


Besides the “prophetic office”, prophecy in the time of the New Testament also has another form. In the book of the prophet Joel it is written that not only the chosen prophets, but also all God’s people, every Christian will prophesy. This was fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-18) and it continues until today. This does not mean that every Christian will say to the other a prophecy, not even that he should prophesy about the future, but that every person will know God’s will – every Christian should have a personal relationship with God, he should know Him and His will for himself.

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