When I was a seminary student in Chicago, the buzz words on campus were “pastoral counseling” and “prophetic preaching.” There were classes on pastoral counseling but I can’t recall being taught how to be a prophet. Most of us grew up in churches that preferred to be non-prophet organizations, even though our post-war nation certainly needed to hear a powerful word from the Lord. I recall a student in a seminary Ecclesiology class asking about the kingdom of God and the gift of prophecy, nad the instructor’s reply was, “I don’t want to go into that. It will take us too far afield.” He didn’t explain why the topic was a dangerous detour.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that “prophetic preaching” (however you define it) isn’t all that our churches need. What they really need is a “prophetic ministry.” Is the minister permitted to be “prophet” in the pulpit but not in the committee meetings or when visiting in homes? If so, then we are separating what God said and did in the past, and if our pastoral work is unrelated to the real world in which our people live, then our ministry is out of balance and probably not accomplishing much.
At least sixteen times in the Old Testament you will find the phrase “my servants the prophets” or “his servants the prophets” (see 2 Kings 9:7; 17:13, 23; 21:10; 24:2; Ezra 9:11, Jer. 7:25; 25:4; 29:19; 35:15; 44:4). The prophets didn’t serve themselves, they served the Lord, and His people, and many of them suffered greatly because they did.
The language experts aren’t agreed on the root meaning of the basic Hebrew word for “prophet” (navi’). It might mean “to call” or “to be called” or “to bubble up” as if filled to overflowing with the message of the Lord. The other two words (ro’eh and hozeh) mean “a seer,” about which I’ll say more later. Our English word “prophet” comes from the Greek word prophetes, meaning “to tell forth” and not just “to foretell.” The prophet declared the word of God to the people, and each person’s responsibility was to hear, believe and obey. If future blessings or judgments were involved in the message, then the prophet was both a foreteller and a forth-teller. Here are a few marks of the true prophets of God.
They are available. The prophets didn’t live on top of high pillars or in mountain caves, isolated from the society the Lord desired to change. They lived among the people and shared their everyday experiences. Jeremiah stood and preached at the busy crossroads (6:16) as well as at the gate of the temple (7:2) and the house of the potter (chapters 18-19). Ezekiel sat “overwhelmed” among the exiles in Babylon (Ezek. 3:15), and the elders of hte people felt free to come to his house to consult him (8:1; 14:1; 20:1). Faithful prophets were shepherds who identified with the needs of the people and sought to encourage them with God’s Word. The true prophet speaks as a member of the covenant community and not as an outsider who pays an occasional visit in order to criticize something.
They are knowledgeable. In Israel, when the priesthood became corrupt and the kings didn’t care that idolatry had captured the land, it was the prophet who showed up to make things right. In order to do this, the prophet had to know the past and have keen spiritual insight when it came to understanding the present and the future. They knew and studied God’s law and God’s covenants, and they measured their own performance and the performance of the people against the commands of God.
They are vulnerable. Philosopher John Locke wrote, “God, when he makes the prophet, does not unmake the man” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 4, chapter 19, par. 14). Both Moses and Jeremiah wanted to resign, Jonah ran away, John the Baptist became discouraged in prison, and Elijah left the field of battle to hide in a cave on Mt. Sinai. “The prophet is a lonely man,” wrote Jewish scholar Abraham J. Heschel in his monumental book The Prophets. “He alienates the wicked as well as the pious, the cynics as well as the believers, the priests and the princes, the judges adn the false prophets. But to be a prophet means to challenge and defy and to cast out fear” (p. 18). After all, “we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7), and if the wisdom and power don’t come from God, we are unable to work.
They are accountable. Those who proclaim, “Thus says the Lord” to others must also bow in obedience to that same Word. In Israel, there were two tests of true prophets: their precepts must agree with the Scriptures and their predictions had to come true (Deut. 13:1-18; 18:14-22). According to The Didache, the earliest “church manual” we have, probably written in the second century, teachers who disobeyed the Word they taught were considered false prophets. “From his behavior, then, the false prophet and the true prophet shall be known…Every prophet who teaches the truth, if he does not what he teaches, is a false prophet” (The Apostolic Fathers I, Loeb Classical Library, p. 327). A prophet must be transparent.
They are inscrutable. At the same time, prophets sometimes say and do strange things that people may not understand. Moses disappeared on Mt. Sinai for forty days and nights and his brother Aaron hinted that his long absence was the cause of Israel’s orgy. Ezekiel gave several “action sermons” to get the attention of the exiles, such as playing war, shaving off his hair, trembling as he ate and clapping his hands and stomping his feet while crying, “Alas!” We don’t have to follow his example, but there are times when our people might wonder what we are doing. When we are different, we attract people; when we are odd, we may repel them. But when the Spirit, who is like the wind, is at work. He does God’s will and people will not always understand our actions and words (John 3:8). Dr. Bob Cook used to remind us, “Keep your ministry on a miracle basis. If you can explain what’s going on, God didn’t do it.”
(Copyright 2008, Warren W. Wiersbe. All rights reserved.)
Dr. Warren Wiersbe (1929-2019) was an internationally known Bible teacher, author, and conference speaker. He graduated in 1953 from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. While attending seminary, he was ordained as pastor of Central Baptist Church in 1951 and served until 1957. From September 1957 to 1961, Wiersbe served as Director of The Literature Division for Youth for Christ International. From 1961 to 1971 he pastored Calvary Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky south of Cincinnati, Ohio. His sermons were broadcast as the “Calvary Hour” on a local Cincinnati radio station. From 1971 to 1978, He served as the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago 1971 to 1978. While at Moody Church he continued in radio ministry. Between August 1979 and March 1982, he wrote bi-weekly for Christianity Today as “Eutychus X”, taught practical theology classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and wrote the course material and taught a Doctor of Ministry course at Trinity and Dallas Seminary. In 1980 he transitioned to Back to the Bible radio broadcasting network where he worked until 1990. Dr. Wiersbe became Writer in Residence at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids and Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. In his lifetime, Dr. Wiersbe wrote over 170 books—including the popular Be series, which has sold over four million copies. Dr. Wiersbe was awarded the Gold Medallion Lifetime Achievement by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA).