Not too long ago, I took some time and read a major portion of the Old Testament. Basically Genesis to 2 Chronicles. Not all in one day. Heavens no! But over a couple of months. It was good to read larger chunks, to get the sweeping history of the Hebrew people and God’s work amongst them.
But there was one thing that did catch me by surprise, especially as I read the books of Samuel and Kings.
You might have not noticed it before. And the thing is, I would have expected me to previously notice, since I’m the charismatic around here.
There were a whole lot of prophets in the time of the ancient Israelites. I mean a whole lot. Search the word prophet in just the books of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings and the word arises about 100 times.
But it’s easy to miss this.
Well, I think when you have a particular theology that says a prophet is this or that, and this or that alone, then it’s easy to either miss or skip over what is right there in front of us.
It’s quite like the ministry gift of apostle. When people normally talk about apostles, what they have in mind is either the twelve or the twelve plus Paul. Of course, these 13 were apostles in the early church. But they were not the only ones. And I am also convinced that starting with the 12 and Paul shows our off-base approach from the beginning, mainly because we are have forgot to start with the greatest apostle of all time. You know, that guy named Jesus. Nope, not Paul. Not Peter. Not even John. It was Jesus – the sent-one from the Father, apostled with a specific mission to accomplish.
But, even after rightly starting with Christ, and then moving to the 12 and Paul, we forget that the New Testament mentions up to another 10 apostles. People like Barnabas, Apollos, James, Silas, Timothy and others. I’ve set out why I believe there were other apostles besides the twelve and Paul, which you can read in part 1 and part 2.
I didn’t really head into this Old Testament reading with a plan to catch every time it spoke of a prophet or prophets. It kind of just caught my attention unlike before in reading the Old Testament. Call it a specific Holy Spirit thing or simply what you will. But I was blown away how the word kept coming up over and over again.
First off, and this something I was quite aware of before, but it’s easy to note that there were specific prophets throughout the Old Testament that many are not usually aware of – people like:
- Gad (1 Sam 22:5; 2 Sam 24:11; 1 Chron 21:9)
- Nathan (2 Sam 7:2; 12:25; etc)
- Ahijah (1 Kgs 11:29; 14:18)
- Micaiah (1 Kgs 22:8, 14, 19)
- Huldah, who was a woman (2 Kgs 22:14)
And, catch this. The ministry of the prophet did not end with the ‘Old Testament’, but continued into the new covenant. We’ve got folk like:
- Agabus (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-14)
- Antioch prophets (Acts 13:1-3)
- Judas & Silas (Acts 15:32)
- Specific prophets mentioned in Corinth (1 Cor 14:29)
- The ever revelatory apostolic prophet, John
One thing I also noticed is how many times it spoke of prophets (plural) being together, rather than just a single guy (or lady) here or there. In 1 Sam 10 we read about a procession of prophets. We are told of a group of prophets in 1 Sam 19:20. We read in 1 Kings 18 that, while Jezebeel was trying to kill off Yahweh’s prophets, a guy named Obadiah, not the prophet, was saving a hundred prophets of the Lord. So when Elijah says at Mount Carmel that he’s the only prophet of Yahweh left (1 Kings 18:22), he is communicating that he is the only one that is not in hiding.
Quite overwhelming when you start to look at the biblical text and the wider spectrum of the prophetic ministry. You might walk away thinking these prophets were everywhere.
In all, being reminded that such a ministry was more active amongst God’s people than first imagined, I have 3 points that come to me. These are points that I already believed about the ministry of the prophet, but they were even more highlighted in my recent reading of the Old Testament.
1) Prophets are not mainly Scripture writers
It’s true. A prophet is not mainly called to be an Old Testament Scripture writer, just as an apostle is not primarily called to pen New Testament Scripture. They might have and some did. But this is not essential. That’s why only a few did so in comparison to the wider nature of these two ministries. In the end, a prophet is one bearing a message from God, the ‘word of the Lord’, whether that message gets put to paper or not. Therefore, while I love Scripture and appreciate the prophets who did have their hand in it, we must continually be reminded this is not essential to the prophetic ministry. And this is why, as I will again argue later, I think it very reasonable to acknowledge the prophetic gift has continued today, since it was not solely wrapped up in the production of Scripture.
2) The ministry of the prophet both alongside and post-Scripture
Half of this point is not too disconnected from the first. The Hebrew community preserved the revelation given to them by their prophets of old, with a solid portion being penned as part of Scripture. But the word of the Lord was continually active para-Scripture, meaning alongside it’s recording. Matter of fact, with Scripture normatively being written after the spoken message was brought forth by the prophet, the plentitude of prophets were functioning in a similar vein as the well-known prophets. They were speaking the word and counsel of the Lord.
But, even more, because God was always speaking and revealing himself alongside the writing of Scripture, I think this gives precedence to the continuation of the gift and ministry today, even after having a canon of Scripture. Scripture was never given back then to replace the active ministry of the prophet. And Scripture is not here now to replace this needed ministry. I’m not saying prophecies today need to be placed in the canon, somewhere after 3 John. We have a canon and a canon remains a measuring stick. And I do not believe prophecy adds anything to the redemptive revelation in Christ. But Paul makes it very clear that this ministry role is extremely important for the body of Christ. Check out passages like Eph 2:20; 3:5; 4:11-13; 1 Cor 12:28. This is one of the five ministries given to help equip the church to be all that Christ desires it to be. I’d say it’s not optional.
Prophets functioned alongside the writing of Scripture in both the ‘Old’ and ‘New Testament’ times. And prophets are to continue functioning even after both have been finalised.
3) The importance of teamwork for prophets
As I mentioned above, I was struck during this reading with how many times I read about the plurality of prophets – the procession of prophets, the group of prophets. It’s probably not unlikely that there were schools of prophets where people were trained for this ministry. Something of that nature. And amongst a larger group of prophets, there would have been lead prophets – people like Samuel or Elijah. Maybe some functioned as a kind of counsel, while others had a stronger ministry with specific prophetic insights, and then others came to the forefront as lead prophets, even finding their messages in holy writ. But we should not simply blow these ‘other’ prophets aside as somehow unimportant.
And this is why – God is all about teamwork.
Think about Father, Son and Spirit. Think about God’s empowering the church to accomplish his mission. Things about God getting his revelation to humanity. It’s team. Always has been and always will be.
And, so, these prophets worked together as team. It’s not unlike when we turn to the pages of the New Testament and consider apostolic ministry. I am very willing to recognise that someone like John or Peter or Paul had a stronger measure of apostolic ministry as compared with a Barnabas or Apollos or James. But they were still all very much apostles. The same holds true with prophets. I am thankful for Isaiah or Ezekiel. But we also miss something if we think Nathan, Gad, Huldah, and others were inconsequential. Each had their measure of gifting, their anointing, their calling and we should give space for each to function in their own measure. The same stands true for teachers, shepherds and evangelists. Though I am a teacher, my measure of gifting is my measure of gifting and not that of a Scot McKnight or NT Wright or Jamie Smith or Ben Witherington.
But, regardless of measure, prophets or teachers or apostles or whomever are called to work in team. That’s what I believe Ephesians 4:11-13 is all about – the five ministries of the ascended Christ working together to equip and prepare God’s people for ministry themselves. This is why apostles and prophets work together to lay proper foundations in the local church.
There is no lone-ranger prophet, nor apostle, nor pastor. There is only team. God functions this way. Family is to function this way. The body of Christ is to function this way.
So, in all, I hope something fresh has been opened up in the Scriptures in regards to the prophetic ministry. And I hope our eyes have been opened a bit more to the reality that a) the ministry of the prophet is much wider than we sometimes allow and b) that God always desired that this important ministry continue even now.
I wonder if there is a way to look at the prophet/believer ratio to determine what might be normative. That is, here is the population of Israel at a certain point in time and here are the numbers that God had designated as his prophets. Here is the population of the church today, therefore the number of prophets we might expect is X.
You crack me up with your numbers. I think it would be hard to determine how many Israelites existed in the time around 1050 BC and a bit later. Maybe we could get an idea of the first century. And I don’t think ministry gifts are in proportion, per se. Like I wouldn’t say there is 1 teacher to every 50 Christians or 1 shepherd to every 30 Christians. But I would say there are more prophets, or prophetically gifted people, out there than we recognise or that even those people recognise themselves. I’ve met people that have had some measure of apostolic ministry, but would not utilise that terminology.
[“There is no lone-ranger prophet, nor apostle, nor pastor. There is only team. God functions this way. Family is to function this way. The body of Christ is to function this way.”]
Good stuff, Scott. I actually just read through Joshua through Ezra. I’m now in Nehemiah. I’m doing four chapters a day. 😉
The prophets struck me as servants of YHWH who were commissioned to point out his precepts and statues and to call back a wayward people to his way.
My favorite quote from any of the prophets has to be Micaiah: “As the Lord lives, what the Lord say, that I will speak” (1 King 22:14 ESV).
I think a major roadblock we have to opening up the role of prophet to a much larger group is our use of the word prophecy. Like you said, prophecy was “a word from the Lord”. But we still get stuck on prophecy as meaning “foretelling”. Very few prophets actually foretold future events and even they had as many words on other subjects (such as reminding people of God’s faithfulness in the PAST) as they did future events.
In a sense all believers are “prophets” in that we all have a word from the Lord. The word was written there by the Spirit and is meant to be shared with all. We warn of future judgement and show people how God is at work in the world, just as prophets of old did. As long as our words are not in conflict with known canon, we should feel free to share whatever we feel the Lord has placed on our hearts and minds. It is amazing how we can be used to heal and enlighten others, just by being open to the Spirit’s voice.
I’ve actually posted an article before on the prophethood of all believers. Here is my line of thinking:
1) Christ is the great apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd & teacher
2) The Spirit was sent to continue that exact same ministry. He is the apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding, teaching Spirit.
3) The Spirit empowers the body to be an apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding, teaching body.
4) Christ gifts specific people to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, all that they might equip the body to be apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding, teaching in their corporate lives.
Read your prior posting. Completely agree. We all generally have ALL the gifts of the Spirit, but we also have specific giftedness, both natural and supernatural, in certain areas. As each member of the “team” does their part, the body as a whole is blessed and grows, both spiritually and in numbers.
We don’t each have every gift. But we are, as a corporate body, apostolic & prophetic, etc.
And I’m not so sure the terminology of ‘having’ gifts is the right way to approach it, but that’s another day and another time. 🙂
OK, how about this? Maybe I should say, “We all CAN EXHIBIT all the gifts of the Spirit, because we all have the same Spirit.”
But the Spirit tends to use each one in specific ways according to both our natural abilities and/or according to what God needs accomplished at the time.
As an example, my wife has spoken in tongues TWICE in her life. But she cannot (nor does she strive to) do it of her own will. I don’t think she has the gift of tongues, but God needed her to perform that task at those particular times in order to share His word with those people, and so she did, during those times, understand and speak fluent Spanish, even though she only knows a smattering of Spanish in ordinary circumstances.
I believe other people HAVE the gift of tongues and are utilized often to speak the word of the Lord in a secondary language to those who may not have access to His message otherwise.
I think the same modus operandi applies to ALL of the gifts of the Spirit.