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Christian Spirituality > Spirit-History > History Lessons About the Prophets
In Numbers 11:24-30, Moses chose seventy men to appoint as leaders. The Lord empowered them with the Spirit that had been given to Moses. Their immediate reaction was to prophesy. They only did it on that one occasion, but they did do it. It was not Moses' power, as shown by the fact that two of the seventy (Eldad and Medad) had not yet arrived at the tent, yet they too broke out into prophecy. Moses' response to their outbreak was to say "Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit upon them." (v.29, NASV). Many centuries later, a very similar sentiment tumbled from the pen of a certain Paul.
In the later years of Israel, God revealed through the nebi'im (prophets); those included not only the 'official' and 'called' prophets, but also others such as Abraham, Moses, Miriam, and Samuel. The Hebrew words for '(prophetic) oracle' and 'burden' were homonyms (that is, the two words sounded alike, like 'shear' and 'sheer' in English). What the prophet was speaking was often the sharing of a 'burden' that was on heart of God.
The image of a prophet is one who goes into uncontrollable outbursts which involve extreme emotion (ecstasy) and lack of control. This view is supported by some of what the prophets themselves say, for instance:
"If I say, 'I will not mention Him, nor speak any more in His name', then in my heart it becomes as a burning fire shut up in my bones; I become weary from holding it in, and I cannot last."(Jer 20:9)
This seems to suggest a lack of control, a sense of the Spirit of God overpowering him. This is a part of the experience of prophecy.
Yet, it is not so simple. Ask yourself why Jeremiah was gripped in this way. In this section of prophecy, Jeremiah is suffering from near-universal mockery. His message is caricatured and lampooned. He calls out, "magor missabib" (= 'terror is on every side'), and it creates such an strong image that every wanna-be impressionist in Judah probably had it in their routines. Judah has heard him loud and clear -- and laughs at him. This hurt Jeremiah. Badly. Personally. To the core. Not because he cared all that much about the mockery itself. But because of who was mocking him : he was being held in shame by his own people. Jeremiah loved his people with the passion of God. Telling them of their coming ruin was the most painful task he could take on. But that same passionate love kept reminding him that his people had to hear the horrible truth, so they could turn from their ways and return to God. His passion burns so hot that it overpowers his sense of self-protection. Jeremiah blames God for this. One can almost see him shaking his fist at God in Jeremiah 20:7 -- 'You made me this way, You gave me this task, this misery, this burden, this message.' And he's right!! (His accusation is accurate and wholly truthful, and thus not blasphemous.)
We should keep in mind that not all of what God gives is happy, and not all overpowering emotion is of the wonderful kind we usually think of with the word 'ecstasy'. Jeremiah wasn't talking about an ecstatic loss of control so much as he was talking about his faith experience of having to bear a part of the enormous burden which God was bearing for the covenant people. The burden's much like looking at God : it's too much for the senses to take.
Another prophet who was put through that torment was Hosea. God instructed him to marry a whore. After marrying Hosea, she went out for further whoredom, having 'children of harlotry'. No doubt Hosea didn't like this in the least. God used this to give Hosea a taste of what God was going through when the covenant people Israel (as God's lover) went out a-whoring after other gods -- and to give some insight as to why God kept taking Israel back. God was the caring husband, not just an overlord or the head of a household.
Still another historical example is Ezekiel. God forewarned him of the death of his wife ("the desire of your eyes"), and commanded that the prophet use his public reaction as a sign to the people of Israel, a living sign that something just as horrible was to happen to the whole nation because of their wrongdoings. Picture poor Ezekiel having to do that while grappling with his own personal grief. In that way, Ezekiel had to bear the burden of the pain of God and God's people in his own life, up close and personal.
Whether it be Jeremiah, or Ezekiel on the death of his wife, or Hosea and his marriage, or Elijah before the contest with the priests of Baal, one of the clearest characteristics of the Biblical prophet is that some part of God's burden for God's people is taken to the prophet's heart or life and made their own. (A notable exception is Jonah, who wanted no part of God's task.) On this front, as in so many others, Jesus is the ultimate prophet, for he bore the entire burden of human sin on the back of His divine passion. His burden is, in part, the sadness of God over the self-destructiveness of the human creatures God so loves.
Can you think of anyone who had a strong 'burden' for God's people? What did it cause them to say and do? What happened because of it?
When I speak of a 'burden', I'm speaking less about how to know what is vaguely prophecy (which God can give to anyone), but rather how to know who is a prophet (someone whose overwhelming gift and primary calling for their life is to deliver God's current message to those who it is meant for). We use the term 'prophet' far too loosely nowadays. You don't have to have a specific burden to speak prophecy. But one of the key features of a prophet is that they have the burden of the Lord upon them -- whatever burden the Lord puts onto them. It is a burden about God's people and those in authority around them, before it is anything else. And it is a burden for them, too; they feel it in their gut, it wracks their soul, preoccupies their mind -- God gives them a taste of what His love is like to Him as He sees us live as we do.
In the New Testament, God was revealed definitively through Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Hebrews 1; John 1:18). When people saw Jesus in action, their reaction was generally that he was a prophet ( Mark 6:15; 8:11; Matt 21:11-46; Luke 7:16,39; John 4:19; 6:14; 7:40-52; 9:17); that's why the leaders demanded a sign, so he could be tested as a prophet. So too the disciples (Luke 24:19). While that wasn't how Jesus primarily described his role, He saw himself as being in their ranks (Luke 13:33; Matt 23:31-39; by inference, also Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24; John 4:44). In Matt 7:22, Jesus cites prophecy as one of the foremost of works; prophecy in that instance is being claimed by those who did prophet-like things but did not do what God willed. At Pentecost, the Spirit became God's active presence among us. This was specifically marked by reference to the prophecy of Joel that prophecy would become commonplace in the new era to come. The early church was marked by prophecy: Acts 21:9; 13:1; 11:27-30; 21:10; 15:32, 19:6; also the presence of prophecy is assumed in 1 Thessalonians 5:20 and Romans 12:6. Paul considered prophecy one of the charismata (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12), and even as a higher gift much to be sought (1 Cor 14), an office established by God (1 Cor 12:28). Paul himself waxed prophetic in 1 Corinthians 15:51-58; he even describes prophecy's vibrant power to convict. It is key particularly to the church in Ephesus (Acts 19:6; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11). Lastly, Revelation holds prophecy to be of very high importance (Revelation 11:18; 16:6; 18:20-24; 22:9), and even sees itself as a prophetic writing (Revelation 22).
Greek apokalypsis (1 Corinthians 14:26,30) is a New Testament word for revelation. It refers less to the art of prediction than it does the speaking of the truth God deems most important in the current situation ( v. 24-25). See also Jeremiah, who was not predicting things to come but addressing the now when he told the king of Judah to serve the king of Babylon and live. Indeed, what predictions he made were made on the basis of a lack of true response to that Word about his times, based on the consequences of the nation's lack of action.
In Acts 21:8-9, the four daughters of the deacon Philip were "prophetesses". The daughters were not apostles like Paul, gospel historians and learned writers like Luke, or even commissioned ministers like Philip. No special role, status or position is ever mentioned for them, save that they were virgins. Yet they prophesied. They were women, who as a matter of course were seen by society at large as a lesser kind of person who could not act under their own authority. Yet they prophesied. Given that Philip was still a very active man, and given the generally shorter life spans of his day, the youngest of those daughters must have been quite young. Yet they prophesied. The Spirit does not care if someone is young or old, male or female, or has high or low or no particular social or religious status. The Spirit could use anyone to prophesy back then. The Spirit can use anyone to prophesy today.
The early church's evangelism, especially its public preaching ministry, was solidly linked to the work of two of the offices of the body. One of these offices was the apostles. The other was the prophets. (Acts 13:1-3 tells us something about that.) The prophetic role in public evangelism grew from the Old Testament prophecies of an outpouring of the Spirit. Prophets are consistently valued highly among the churchly 'offices' or roles, and prophecy is rated chief and most prized among the gifts. The New Testament-era church was more dependent on the prophetic gift for giving it direction (Acts 13 and 15). Which leaves us with a dilemma for the modern church. If prophets were to speak, would there be a people listening for it?
Paul (1 & 2 Corinthians) had to face the Corinthian Christians' question
of what to do when prophecy and other gifts were being used as excuses to
war with each other. By the time of the Didache (100 AD), the need to
test prophecy was fully in the
forefront, and the early church was struggling to sort out
how to tell the evildoers from the true prophets, teachers, and leaders (Did. ch. 11).
to the start
The exercise of the gift and duty of prophecy is recorded throughout the history of the Church Universal. Some of the great Eastern Orthodox mystics had what could best be described as prophetic visions. Bishop Melito of Sardis suddenly broke into a prophecy in one of his sermons. Birgitta (of Sweden; 1302-1373) was both a beloved predecessor to Scandinavian Lutherans and a very Roman Catholic saint at the same time. She had prophetic visions regarding her native land. During the Reformation era, some Anabaptists manifested spiritual gifts, including prophecy. There were moments in the ministries of Francis of Assisi and Bernard of Clairvaux, which also manifested a kind of prophecy. While Lutheran Pietists such as Spener and Francke did not themselves prophesy, many pietist leaders had visions and gave unusual words of wisdom or comfort. A later generation of pietists mostly opposed the dispensationalist claim that spiritual gifts had stopped with the last of the apostles.
There are many shades of disagreement on prophecy among Christians. Calvin felt that preaching had taken over the role of prophecy in the Church, so that it was in preaching and interpreting the written Word that the prophetic word was sent to the Church. For instance, when Calvin commented on 1 Thessalonians 5:20 : "By the term 'prophesying', I do not mean the gift of foretelling the future but ... the science of the interpretation of Scripture, so that a prophet is the interpreter of the divine will." The Reformers were in part trying to fend off Catholic apologists like Robert Bellarmine, who used supernatural occurrences to buttress his efforts to re-convert the Protestants to Catholicism. Yet it is very hard to argue that the Bible, or even the earliest of the Churchly writings, support this changeover of certain gifts (prophecy, interpretation) into "science" (ie, skills). The founding Lutherans stressed gospel preaching itself as a form of the Word of God, and thus saw it as a way for the Holy Spirit to make us change course and follow the Lord. This view gives the gospel-based sermon a prophetic role, but presumes the Spirit to be at work in both speaker and listener, which in real life is most often not the way it is on either part. Sermons can be prophetic, but are usually rather pathetic, and even good ones are more educational than transformational. If sermons are claimed to be even vaguely related to prophecy from God, then Sunday must be the high holy day of idolatry, because what is in fact communicated in most sermons is so unlike the living, working God found in the Bible that it must be from some other god.
These church leaders feared opening up the door for lesser forms of prophecy, because they knew what havoc it would cause. But all the wishing in the world, no matter what the cause is or how terrible the possibilities are, can't make something into what it is not. Even when the Spirit is at work, inspired interpretation is not the same as inspired revelation. (Both are great gifts, but they're different gifts.) The prophet is not firstly an interpreter of God's will, but a communicator of it. We humans tend to kill the messenger who brings bad news.
The modern charismatic movement sees itself as marking the resurgence of these gifts to the church, in what most of them view as a major historic moment.
Yet, it must be clearly stated here that these are exceptions in the history of the church. Prophecy had been, like so many of the gifts, dying out gradually and virtually dead since Constantine. The organized church had lots of reasons for putting prophecy and related gifts to the side -- reasons good and bad. Some of these had been piling up since the earliest days of the church. Indeed, the concerns about false prophets and state-sponsored prophets were as old as prophecy itself. Average Christians had noticed that many of those who claimed to be prophets had a craving to be noticed or to be in charge, or to have a gaggle of followers hanging on their every word. Some people with words of knowledge or comfort meant well, but couldn't separate God's voice from what they wanted to have happen, thus giving false hope. Some may even have been putting on a traveling show of sorts, which may be why the Didache (ca. 100) supported only prophets who put down roots in a community. The Montanist controversies served only to deepen those doubts. Of course, these are the same problems that happen with teachers, sages, and other holy people (or, really, any leader of any kind) when they are not part of an active system of accountability.
Over time, as the church took on structure and official chains of command, churches began to rely more on those in the official structure, which by its nature had a kind of accountability. However, the more structured it became, the more it needed voices from outside the structure to keep watch on it. History shows that the stronger a structure becomes, the less it allows outside sources, even if there was still theoretically some room for them. Then came along the Emperor Constantine, dangling the bait of socio-political control before the hierarchy of the church. The system was hooked. So at precisely the time prophecy was most needed (in earthly terms), it was locked out.
Perhaps the near-end of prophecy is
a sign of just how deep the Constantinian
apostasy was. Once the Church
sat on the seat of worldly power, it operated under its own power and not
the Spirit's. It was no longer open to the overt gifts of the Spirit, and
so the gifts vanished. Yet many of those who sought to renew the Church
started receiving those gifts again. The problem wasn't that God was withholding
gifts or that the gifts were no longer needed or available. The problem
was that we weren't open to receiving and using them for the purpose for which they're given. Now, the church is
no longer so much in cahoots with the state, and indeed in the United States
the separation of church and state is treated as a basic right. The Christendom
era is over, and the betrayal he fostered is passing quickly from the scene.
Some of us are coming out of that long stupor and saying, "God, use
me". The doors of the soul have started to pop open again. Given God's
track record, how can we possibly be surprised that there are gifts waiting
for us at those doors?
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|ver.: 03 August 2010|
Copyright © 1996-2010 by Robert Longman.