I have done a series of posts describing the prophetic. Needless to say this is a pertinent issue in the Church. Unfortunately, in modern Ghanaian society, and it seems the world over too, we have a lot of clowns running around claiming to be men of God. Their antics bring the Church and the name of Christ into such disrepute. I strongly believe we need to be proactive as a Church in combating and resisting these individuals irrespective of the titles or positions they hold.
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. – Jude 1:3-4 ESV
Before we can determine the counterfeit we need to thoroughly understand what the genuine looks like. My agenda in addressing this issue is not only fishing out impostors. I also want the standards in the contemporary prophetic movement to improve. Even among genuine products there are often different standards of quality. I want those with legitimate prophetic ministries to operate at the highest level. The Church needs mature and responsible ministers of the word of God.
A lot has been said by others on the marks of a true prophet. Some are more helpful than others. As I do in all my posts I try to avoid passing over well-trodden ground and offer fresh perspectives on issues. One handicap of the discussion on prophets is that it overly focuses on individual traits. There are so many different kinds of prophets and prophetic expression in the Bible. In talking about certain traits you will almost certainly miss others. What I hope to do is to look at the fundamental ideas behind what it means to be a prophet. To provide a solid conceptual framework to not only identify prophets but also to help guide prophetic discussion and activity.
Now a quick recap of other posts in this three part series on defining the prophetic office: Prophets are God’s actors providing covenant commentary. In the Old Testament this commentary was given through the lens of the Torah but in the New Testament it is according to the Gospel. (For further details see the previous posts.) The third and last component I will be discussing is the prophetic call, which ironically comes first in prophetic ministry. For this topic we will take the prophet Samuel as a case study. The story of Samuel’s call is very famous being taught right from Sunday school (Samuel 3.) However, the story’s familiarity is not the reason why I chose it.
The prophetic as I have already said is very broad and diverse (Hebrews 1:1.) When God in a dream told Abimelech that Abraham was a prophet the king understood what it meant (Genesis 20:7.) This means long before the nation of Israel was formed prophetic figures were well known, at least in that part of the world during that period. Now it was through the ministry of Moses that we get a formal definition of a prophet. Moses as a statesman was the first national prophet of the new nation of Israel and the archetypical prophet for all others to follow.
The next major prophetic figure after Moses was Samuel. Samuel was the first prophet of the ancient United Kingdom of Israel. It was through Samuel that the new office of a king was installed. He was the archetypical court prophet. He set the pace for the subsequent long and storied interaction between kings and prophets in Israel. On account of the new office of the monarchy the prophetic office had to be more closely defined. As such it was through the ministry of Samuel that prophetic activity was standardised. Compared with the relative mayhem of the period of Judges before him (Judges 21:25), Samuel’s tenure brought order and discipline. There were now prophetic schools or companies with the most senior member being the designated leader of the group. This “Father” of the prophets also acted more or less as the liaison between the prophetic office and the monarchy (2 Kings 2:12, 15.) As we can see Samuel was a seminal figure among biblical prophets (Jeremiah 15:1.) The story of his call is therefore very important.
And Samuel grew, and the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the LORD – 1 Samuel 3:19-20 ESV
This passage is often interpreted as because Samuel gave accurate predictions, everybody knew he was a prophet. It is actually more nuanced than that. Remember there were other prophetic figures in the ancient world who were capable prognosticators. Balaam for instance could give the most accurate predictions yet the word of God characterised him as a false prophet (Joshua 13:22). Predictive prophecy, or any other mighty display for that matter, was simply not the clincher (Deuteronomy 13:1-3.) A true prophet had to be called of God.
Now “the call” in scriptural terms is not just a summons. They were actually narratives defining the identity, mission and purpose of the servant of the Lord. Call narratives such as Moses’ in Exodus 3, Isaiah’s in Isaiah 6, and Ezekiel’s in Ezekiel 1-3, were very important. Now the call narrative is not just an individual affair. The prophet played an important cosmic role. In the scriptures the call narrative functions as an origin story which was understood in terms of the creation narrative. God called creation into being to serve him. The purpose of the divine call is therefore the vocation of worship. God then called humanity to lead creation in worship. Humanity failed so God called the family of Abraham to lead humanity in the worship of the one true God. As humanity was to the creation, and Israel to the rest of humanity, so was the prophet in leading the nation of Israel in worship. The call narrative established the prophet as a faithful servant of YHWH and no other god. Now peculiar to the prophetic call narrative is what I call the “Vision of God.”
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God – Ezekiel 1:1 ESV
Perhaps in contrast to modern systematic theology the Jewish people focused on a figural portrait of God. This image generally looked like a splendorous cosmic king, who is good to his creation, and who rules from heaven i.e. his dimension of reality. From the stark reality of the burning bush before Moses to the visceral apparitions of Daniel’s “night visions”, in one form or another prophets had to have the vision of God.
And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.” – Numbers 12:6 ESV
The vision of God is the revelation of God. It is where he throws off the veil and shows himself to his servant. Through it the prophet is initiated into the mystic heavenly realms, that is, God’s dimension of reality, to experience things from a divine perspective. He thereby gains privileged insight and access to spiritual abilities like predicting the future and performing signs and wonders.
Now Samuel’s call did not entail a magnificent vision like Isaiah’s (Isaiah 6) nevertheless the text affirms that God had indeed revealed himself to the boy (1 Samuel 3:21.) (Psalm 99:6-7 implies that he did have spectacular divine encounters in the course of his ministry.) The reason why the young prophet did not receive something so dramatic was that it was part of the irony of his call. The old High Priest and Judge of Israel, who’s “eyes had grown dim” when there was “no frequent vision” couldn’t hear God. Rather it was his younger and clearly inexperienced protégé who was more spiritually discerning. The circumstances surrounding his call underscored the seriousness of the message and the deservedness of the judgment coming the house of Eli’s way. When the nation needed spiritual leadership Eli had checked out so God instead chose a young lad who was faithful to him. The text consistently plays on the contrasts between the two especially in chapters two and three.
Over time the people recognised Samuel to be a prophet through a combination of factors. The message of his call was consistent with what a recognised prophet had already said and also what the people had complained bitterly about (1 Samuel 2:12-36.) Also it was in concert with the Torah. Over time Samuel’s words regarding Eli’s household and other matters were consistently fulfilled. Also he demonstrated a level of discipline and faithfulness to the Lord that Eli and his sons did not. These things went to show that he was the true successor of Eli as the judge of Israel, a true prophet of the Lord.
The study of Samuel’s call in itself reveals a lot about what it means to be a prophet. It took more than a spectacular message. Obedience to God was absolutely non-negotiable. In fact, obedience and faithfulness to YHWH is a major theme in the book. Eli was unfaithful so God picked Samuel as his replacement. Israel was unfaithful to God so a human leader was chosen for them. Saul the handsome and regal first king was also disobedient so he was rejected and a young shepherd called David was established instead. It also gave the motif for the rest of Israel’s history as a covenant monarchy until there exile as a disobedient and unfaithful people.
The three aspects of being a prophet I have described were all at play in Samuel’s life. First, he was called with the vision of God. That showed he was a genuine anointed servant of YHWH. He provided critical commentary clearly demonstrating how the spiritual leadership of Israel had failed with regards to the Torah and its ensuing consequences. As God’s actor he conveyed YHWH’s message with faithfulness and sensitivity. Furthermore, when it comes to the predictive elements it went to show that one true God, creator of the ends of the earth, had indeed spoken. That is why events unfolded precisely in the way it was prophesied by his servant and also as he had forewarned his people through Moses. The prediction was made strictly within the context of the Torah, the standard of God’s covenant people.
The New Testament prophet must also adhere to these standards. Similar features of a prophet can be found in John in the Book of Revelation. A visionary call narrative, faithfulness to the word of God, and a vivid description of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people through a time of struggle among other things. What sets the New Testament prophet apart from his Old Testament counterpart is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. John’s entire revelation was founded upon the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of God. The Gospel message that God is King and he reigns in and through Jesus the Messiah overshadows every single event in the book. The Gospel must be implicit in the life and ministry of the contemporary prophet in the Church.
As always the topics addressed in this blog are done to hopefully generate serious study and meditation, furthering the discussion on pertinent issues. I believe we need a more sophisticated and robust understanding of charismatic ministry and the prophetic office in particular. We need to be able to address head on the various controversies and misunderstandings in the prophetic movement. We can only be truly successful if we remain committed to a biblical vision of a prophet. Let’s have a fervent desire to do things God’s way and not ours, no matter how sincere our intentions may be.