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Christian Spirituality > Prophecy > Modern Prophets?
Many of today's most visible churches talk a lot about the gift of prophecy. They spread far and wide the word that the gift is still available today, that their pastors have it, and even certain church members have it. When we get past the hoopla and the hype, what can be said about this?
The most important thing that must be said is that it could happen today. There is nothing anywhere in Scripture that says that prophecy has ceased for the rest of time. All it says is that prophecy will someday end, just like everything else that's part of this world except faith, hope, and love (1 Cor 13). Prophecy is not needed in the Kingdom, since the King is right there and will speak directly. Since 'everything else' has not ceased yet, the door on prophecy hasn't been shut. (Paul clearly believed it was still happening; otherwise First Corinthians after chapter 13 makes no sense.) Lacking a definitive word from Scripture, one can only believe that God can choose to speak through prophecy if and when God wants to do it that way. It's totally up to God alone, and God has a habit of turning our best theories into dust.
Another important point is that communication from God doesn't have to shake earth, if God doesn't want it to. This is the God of the supernova, the tornado, the pillar of fire, the earthquake, and the flood; yet also the God of gentle breezes and loving whispers, of tiny flowers and butterflies and tinier double-helixes and even tinier quarks. This is the God who dealt with nations and the grand sweep of history, but also the God who dealt personally with Abraham, Moses and the prophets, who notes each sparrow's fall, who hears a child's prayer, and who lovingly knit you while you were still in your mother's womb. Christ died for all of us; Christ died for each of us. To the God of the Bible, the mundane is important, and each moment gets attention of its own. Thus, the scale and purpose of any prophecy is whatever God chooses it to be, and God has a track record of choosing to work at the level of ordinary things and common people.
You are a continuation of the Bible's story, and so are the
one billion believers around you. (Not that you are Scripture,
but if Acts was being written today, you could well be found in
it.) The message, the miracles, the changed lives, the
conflicts, the role models, the problems, the gifts --- they're
all different now yet still much the same as then. The gospel
train is still running. This is an awesome responsibility that
we can't take lightly. But then again, it's nothing to dread,
for Christ sent the Spirit in His stead.
Most mainline Protestant theologians see something missing here; if God acted definitively with Jesus, then what more is there for God to say? But then look at how God related to ancient Israel. Yes, the prophets sometimes pointed to the covenant and even what lay beyond it. But based on that, they also dealt with other matters : warnings about the results of abandoning God, promises of victory or pending defeat, matters of confession of sins, the inner voice, spiritual discernment, how we treat each other in society and commerce, and reminders that God deals with more than just his followers. Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, yes, but like the ancient Israelites we too might have to be reminded about what that means. The Spirit is sent to all believers to show us God's ways, yes, but prophecy is one way that this same Spirit has already used for showing us. "Neither add nor subtract", it is written, but the word it referred to was the Law and the Prophets (the Scriptures, to Jews of Jesus' day). The Scriptures now include the OT Writings and the whole New Testament, not to mention the disputes over the Apocrypha and the role of The Revelation. It doesn't make human sense for the Lord to send prophets today -- I can't think of even one standout reason to do it -- but it's not human sense that counts. God doesn't need to use prophets anymore, but can, in sovereign divine wisdom, choose to do it that way, anytime. Since Scripture itself does not bar the door, neither should we, no matter what the theological or practical consequences may be. It's not our decision to make.
So, it *can* happen today, and it doesn't have to supersede Scripture or bind all believers or deal with momentous matters. But I'm still begging the question: is it happening today, in what way or to what order, and are those who claim to do it really doing it?
I don't know, but I can share my own opinion: yes, I think it does happen today, though not in the momentous ways that make for Scripture. In the shop talk of students of prophecy, this would be a 'low-order' type of prophecy, or of gifts that are in some way related to prophecy. I have both heard, and heard about, things spoken with uncanny effect:
Now as then, popular religion has proven very good at heaping up the hype. Yet there is nothing yet from the leading figures of the newest wave of prophecy that measures up, not only on the scale they claim, but even on the smaller scales of lower-order prophecy. Certainly nothing that has any business being published and spread around to the Church Universal or to the general public -- doing so amounts to an implied claim of near-Scriptural authority, whether they say so or not. Their prophecies haven't dealt with the tough stuff of life. Instead of having an authority and level of truthfulness that even non-believers can sense, their prophecies have a surreal quality that makes even believers doubt. There's never any gravity to them. They don't reveal anything for what it really is. They don't cut through the spin. They fit the pre-set categories too well, categories pre-set by their own branch of Christianity rather than Scripture. Their 'prophecies' play into the hands of their own side in any 'us vs. them' battles within the church. These 'prophets' wear neckties and eat steak instead of wearing a yoke on their neck and eating locusts. The divinity that speaks through these people gums but doesn't bite -- a god of awwwww not awe. Their words lack the character and force of God, and thus lack what's needed to be real prophecy of any kind. They're mere personal opinion. That's why I don't cite them or point anyone to them. As prophecies, the words are hollow. As prophets, they're false and some are knowingly, deliberately lying.
The most telling difficulty is that most of them call
themselves prophets, insist that others call them prophets, and
heavily advertise themselves as prophets. Some of them
have strong gifts as teachers, pastors, and prayer ministry leaders, but those gifts
are getting overwhelmed by their need to be known and treated
as a prophet. Look at the Bible : Amos denied he was a prophet,
and many of the other biblical prophets ran from the common
perks of the role of prophet. Their prophecies were the
full-powered real deal, but to them, being a prophet was a
burden not a brag. Nor do they act like Philip's selfless,
free-spirited daughters in Acts, who were doing the kind of
low-order prophecy we might actually get today. There is a
clear attitudinal difference: today our 'prophets' shout "I am
a prophet!! I have something better than you have! Come see me
via satellite! Attend my conferences! Buy my DVDs! Get my prophetic Tweets!" When they do that, they are
hiding their true gifts under a mask that will betray their
While it is impossible to totally separate prophecy from prophets, it doesn't take a prophet to prophesy. Prophecy is a call to a person to deliver a specific revealed message. The one who speaks it is not responsible for the response, only for its delivery. God can choose anyone to speak a needed truth, even a donkey, as Balaam found out. Amos, the first of the so-called 'minor' prophets, wasn't a career prophet but a herdsman and tree-tender who obeyed God's call to prophesy on a few brief but very important occasions.
Look again at Philip's daughters. Or Joel's prophecy about the era to come which came at Pentecost, in which "just folks" prophesied. The Second Vatican Council spoke of how the Church and each baptized believer shared in Christ's prophetic office (LG 12, 35) by way of their insights and their witness.
God can make anyone prophesy, but being a prophet is
a much more serious matter. A prophet is one who has not only
been given the gift of prophecy, but also its task, its
calling, and its special burden. Prophecy becomes
the prophet's purpose. Like with Elijah or Jeremiah, the
sacred task becomes their entire identity.
There are several tell-tale signs of the deliberate abuse of the claim to prophecy :
Either way, the problems are threefold.
That's why some people follow a teaching of the late leader
of the Vineyard Fellowships, John Wimber, and speak of
'prophecy' in a more tentative language. It's an
approach drawn from the Quaker practices that Wimber learned
when he was a Quaker. Wimber taught their members to express
what comes to them as prophecy in terms like 'I think you're
being led to...'and 'God could be wanting us to do this...' as
opposed to 'Thus saith the Lord!' or "God told me last
night...". Tentative language encourages others to weigh what
is said and to use the full array of the means of discernment
on it. It gives permission to take time, to see what kind of
fruit it might bear. It allows people to be wrong without
stigma, because the person who prophesies or gives a 'word'
makes no rash claim about its authority. It allows people to be
right with less ego about having a supposed 'special connection
to God'. Tentative language also gives space for everyone to
share, even if they're new to this sort of thing. It is, I
think, a sign of a growing sense of responsibility regarding
what is actually an earth-shaking claim, that God still speaks
to his people today in ways that happened at the church's
It may be that much of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was trying to get at in his Letters and Papers from Prison, with his talk of 'religionless christianity', may have been the notes for a nascent prophecy which never got to its fuller substance and form due to his death. We can't take what he already had written as real prophecy, for it was early in development, more like a brainstorm than a resulting course of action, more like a chick than a hen. Even so, something of a prophetic sort may well have been taking shape, a message for the followers of the God of Abraham and Jesus who would have to try to live faithfully under a victoriously evil Third Reich that would co-opt the organized church, a prophecy that was no longer needed because the Reich lost and thus the horrible context never came to be. Even so, there are still many lessons in it for us.
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