by Murray Dueck
What is prophecy?
To sum it up, prophecy is: God speaking, us listening, and then sharing what we hear with those around us. Prophecy (or God speaking) can come in the form of visions, such as when John the Apostle saw Jesus in Revelation chapter one, it can come as a feeling or an impression as Isaiah received the “burden of the Lord” throughout the book of Isaiah (see Isaiah 17:1 NKJV as an example). Or prophecy can bubble up and just flow from inside of us like a flow of spontaneous thoughts and/or words, for, in fact, that is exactly what the Hebrew word for prophecy, “Naba,” means – to bubble and flow. The disciples in Acts 19:6 could be just such an example. And ,of course, let’s not forget the prophecy that Daniel had through a dream in Daniel chapter seven. The forms prophecy – of God speaking through and to His people – can take are probably endless, but they have a purpose: That we would know God better. This is Paul’s statement about the purpose of “revelation” (think book of Revelation – the prophecy book) in Ephesians 1:17
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.
God speaks in all these ways, revealing himself through prophecy – the declaring of His word, so that we may know Him, the glorious Father.
To get a good understanding of what Paul is saying in regards to revelation being for the purpose of knowing God better we need to do a bit of an overview of the purpose of prophecy in the Old Testament vs. the New Testament; same gift of God speaking in both covenants but with a much different focus.
In the Old Testament we find the gift of prophecy is for the very few: A select group of people who spoke on God’s behalf. Finding these people in the Old Testament is not hard to do, most books are named after the prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel, to name a few. If someone wanted to know God’s will, you would not go to God, you would go to the prophet who would listen to God on your behalf and inform you of what he heard. We find just such in instance in 1 Samuel 9:6-9. Saul and his servant were looking for their lost donkeys and decided to consult the prophet Samuel to see if God would tell them where the donkeys were. But here in lies the mystery. Why couldn’t people go to God themselves?
Let’s let the children of Israel explain this for us as they come to the mountain of God with Moses:
“When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
The Prophet Isaiah, upon seeing the Lord in Isaiah 6:5, expressed a similar view when he lamented “I am ruined.”
Because of the sin of the people and the holiness of God man needed intermediaries to stand before God, and thus priests and prophets come into the picture. Priests would make sacrifice on behalf of the people for the remission of sins, and the prophets would listen to the voice of the Lord for the people.
“Listen to my words: “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams.”
But things were going to change:
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”
This is an astounding prophecy by Joel. Suddenly the language of the very few, prophecy – the ability to hear God speak, set aside for God’s intermediaries the prophets, is promised to everyone. God wants everyone to hear His voice and share it with all!
Eight centuries later, after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit on everyone just as Joel prophesied — and the need for the intermediary to hear God on our behalf is gone. The language God used to speak throughout history to the select few passes on to the average believer. Peter in Acts two, upon the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, quotes Joel’s prophecy word for word explaining to all who were present what they were witnessing – people were prophesying in their own languages what God was saying at that very moment! In fact Paul the Apostle picks up this “everyone can hear God speak” theme in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25:
But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
Paul continues this line of thinking in verse thirty one when he instructs us that we can “all prophecy in turn.”
Only The Beginning
The language of the prophet becoming the language of the New Testament Christian is just tip of the iceberg. This new ability to hear God’s voice through the same language as the prophets is a declaration of who we are in God – of our value to the Father. And from Jesus through the New Testament writers the view of who the average Christian is is extravagant. For example Peter’s thoughts:
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
1 Peter 2:9
We don’t need priests as intermediaries anymore; we are the priesthood of believers. We have become so much more by Jesus’ death, resurrection, and by Jesus filling us with the Holy Spirit. But if we don’t need priests as intermediaries in the New Covenant, what about prophets – do we need them as intermediaries? Or have all Christians taken on that role as well? Here is Jesus’ take in Matthew 11:11
I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
John the Baptist, being considered Elijah (vs14) and a prophet it is easy to see why he could be the greatest born of women – but why would the least in the kingdom of heaven be greater than John the Baptist? Because John the Baptist was still a prophet of the Old Covenant, he was not full of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit could come upon him as it did on Moses’ elders when they prophesied in Numbers 11:17 and 25, but John the Baptist was not full of the Holy Spirit. (For another reference of how God’s Spirit would use the O.T. Prophets see 2 Kings 3:19). Jesus’ point is that the average New Testament Christian filled with the Holy Spirit – George down the road, Randy the repairman, Susan the housewife – are greater than the greatest of the Old Testament prophets because they are New Covenant people, full of the Holy Spirit, who is God Himself.
Let’s look at one more example to make the point. Let’s look at James the Apostle’s view of the average Christian compare to the Prophet Elijah.
“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”
When I read this passage as a young man I concluded that James must be saying we can be like Elijah by praying fervently. Years later I discovered that that is not what James is saying in this passage. James is not comparing us to the prophet. James is comparing the prophet to us. Let me put it another way. If we think of a great athlete we all admire, a true legend, like Michael Jordan in basketball or Jack Nicklaus in golf, we can maybe do a few things they could do; we could possibly shoot a few hoops. Or possibly we could drive a few golf balls right onto the green. In that way we could be a little like Michael Jordan or Jack Nicklaus. But let’s change the comparison in the way that James does with the average Christian and Elijah. How could Jack Nicklaus or Michael Jordan be like little ordinary us? That is James’ point – James takes the greatest prophet of the O.T. and declares that the great prophet is just like the average Christian. How can that be? Because the New Testament Christian is something that an Old Testament prophet could never be – a temple for the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor 6:19).
The New Testament Point of Prophecy
As a result of what Jesus did on the cross and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we are a new creation. We all now do the work of priests, we lead people to Jesus, we pray with people that they would be forgiven – and we behold the marvelous work of salvation. That role has become our role. Likewise the role of the prophet: We can all prophecy because we have become those who hear the voice of God “that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9b). Now is this to say that we do not need prophets in the New Testament, not at all. We do need prophets, but the role has changed. We do not need prophets to be the intermediaries between us and the Lord as we can all hear God speak for ourselves. But we do need the N.T. prophets to confirm the word of the Lord (1 Cor 14:29-32) and to train and equip everyone in how to hear God so that we can come into maturity, learning all the ways God speaks (Eph 4:11-13). God speaking through his New Testament prophetic people is for us all to come to realize what God has done for us through Christ and to release God’s life and love to one another. This is why Paul defines prophecy in this way in 1 Corinthians 14:3:
But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.
As Paul stated back in Ephesians 1:17 God wants to be known: by all of the different ways He speaks that we may know Him, the glorious Father, and make Him known. Thus Paul’s great declaration for every Christian (1 Corinthians 14:1).
Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.