The prophets of Israel were remarkable men who had been seized by the hand of the Lord and brought into a cosmic view of time and eternity, righteousness and rebellion, mercy and judgment, Kings and nations, and the stunning responsibility of speaking on behalf of the One on the Throne.
In 1962, Abraham Heschel’s classic two-volume set “The Prophets” hit the printing press. It started out as his Ph.D. thesis in German, and eventually grew into book form, becoming a widely heralded masterpiece on the subject of prophetism. One of the questions he asks in the first volume is looming large in my spirit at this writing, and in an age where there are many boasts and testimonies of prophetic activity in the Church of the West, I think it behooves us to consider it.
Inspired by a painstaking study of the Hebrew Bible, he asked this great question:
“What manner of man is the prophet?”
Many have asked this question in recent decades, and some have sought to give answer. Movements and ministries have been raised up with men bearing the title of “prophet” and the bulk of these place their emphasis on supernatural activity, in terms of visions, dreams, interpretations and personal words of prophecy. Others would say that a prophet is basically one who preaches a message of repentance. Both views have valuable aspects to consider, and should not be thrown out as a whole. There are many variations of these two emphases, and the opinions are often shared with great feeling and concern.
While Eph. 2.20 refers primarily to the apostles and prophets of the Scriptures, it is clear that if we lack these kinds of foundational servants the Church in our day, we will be severely hindered from coming into the fullness of God. The Church is likely to go through unfortunate cycles of backsliding, leaning on the arm of the flesh, and functioning in a mode of life that is far removed from the reality that the Lord has intended and desired. Unless we see the formation and emergence of the kinds of servants that Paul regarded as crucial for the Church’s maturation, we run the risk of celebrating all kinds of ostensible ministry successes that will crumble in the day of trial, having been built on faulty foundations. It is vital, therefore, that we revive the question,
“What manner of man is the prophet?”
I am suspicious of the great chasm that has been fixed between the roles of OT and NT prophets. The idea that a NT prophet has an entirely different ministry, one of only edification and encouragement, is a distortion of the overarching testimony of the Scriptures. This distortion has much to do with the lack of a distinction between the Spiritual gift of prophecy, which may be given to any believer in the Body, and the foundational ministry of the prophet, which is reserved for the Lord’s choosing and can only be placed upon a mature servant of the Lord. The first is accessible to any believer, whether he is a new convert or a seasoned elder. The latter is a holy appointment, a sacred office, and it is reserved for the one whom the Lord has anointed, consecrated, and commissioned for this particular ministry.
The blurring of these lines has caused great damage. Men have often been prematurely or falsely appointed, and the standard of the prophetic call has deteriorated. We need to encourage an atmosphere where the gift of prophecy can bring edification to the Body, while maintaining a jealousy for the raising up of foundational prophetic servants.
It is my contention that we have done with the prophet what we have done with the Lord Himself. We have interpreted the prophet’s role and nature based on our experience, or based on what best meets our present satisfaction. The idea that we have fashioned our own ideas of prophetic ministry is evidenced by the fact that so many believers who are boasting of prophetic activity are virtually non-literate, uninterested and unfamiliar with the words of the Prophets of Scripture.
Many have seen Israel’s prophets as the “old order of prophetic ministry,” but some elements of today’s “new order” seem to run contrary to the Spirit and stature of everything prophetic in both testaments. We have so little written in the NT of prophetic ministry that it is difficult to be as specific as many have sought to be in recent times. Even so, the overall view of the Spirit and nature of prophetic work has not changed in the NT, as I see it. The prophet’s ministry is one of recovery and restoration, calling his hearers away from self-absorption, deception and apostasy, and back to God Himself, back to righteous living, back to love and humility, back to reality.
Little is said of Agabus and Silas in terms of prophetic function (only his delivery of a few predictive prophecies), but we see the greatest Prophet, Jesus Himself, in remarkable breadth in the Gospels. We see John the prophet’s experience, and the message he is called to convey throughout the book of Revelation. These are New Covenant prophets in the highest sense and the essence of their ministry and message is the same as that of the OT prophets.
The revelation of God and the message of His Kingdom have only deepened and become more pronounced in the New Covenant. The NT prophetic message is not contrary to that of the OT prophets, it is the fulfillment and fuller proclamation of the same vision and view. Why should it be otherwise? Jesus is the Eternal One who has never changed, and John was encountering the same God that the OT prophets encountered! NT prophetic ministry flows in a continuum with the OT prophets, but it announces more clearly and more fully the heart and Kingdom of God.
I am therefore dubious about an idea or expression of prophetic ministry that runs against the grain of the revelation of God already given in the Scriptures. If we have thousands of believers acquainted with “prophetic ministry” who consider the words of Israel’s prophets to be somehow “old-hat” or irrelevant to us, then what are we tending towards? If Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, could it be that the idea of NT prophets replacing OT prophetical stature and function is erroneous and even a gateway to eventual deception? If our idea of any ministry removes or lessens the sense of God that the early prophets and apostles conveyed, should we not raise a cry?
The prophets of Israel had a cosmic view, which means that they had been lifted above the wisdom and counsel of their contemporaries and brought into a revelation of the government and Kingdom of God. They saw beyond the tangible, past the immediate, and through the veneer that most of their friends and neighbors were content to hide behind. They could no longer “go with the flow” of material pursuits, religious pomp, or any other idea of life which robbed them of the presence and heart of the Holy One of Israel. This marked them out as totally distinct and seperate from the functional and professional ‘prophets’ of their day.
They clashed with the religious functionaries of their day because they communicated a word and vision of God as He is, and not as men had fancied Him to be. I am convinced that this is the case in our day, for though there is no shortage of men professing themselves to be prophets (remember that Jezebel called herself a prophetess; see Rev. 2.20), there is a famine of foundational prophetic voices in the land.
The great issue of history is that men have not been willing to receive God as He has revealed Himself. They have been offended at Him, unwilling to surrender their lives to His leadership. They have loved pride when He delights in humility. They have stirred hatred when He delights in compassion. They have loved sin when He delights in righteousness. They have loved “unequal weights and measures” when He desires “truth in the inmost parts.”
The world and its systems are perpetuated and carried along by a pursuit of freedom, pleasure, and a self-gratification that is itself the antithesis of the Lord’s intention for creation. The world is content to live in a pipe-dream. It is happy with the fantasy. “Ignorance is bliss,” they say.
The prophet comes to yank the wool from our eyes. He reminds us of the holiness and character of God, calling us back to reality and truth, dashing our self-centric dreams upon holy desert grounds, where we are compelled by fear and awe to remove our sandals. We see with wide eyes and dropped jaws that our opinions and rights are the expression of the most despicable kind of presumption. Our feet are bared, and we join the cry of the seraphim: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty…” We can not proceed to walk in the same way any longer. Is this manner of a man found in the ranks of our assemblies?
Here are some of Heschel’s thoughts on the character and anatomy of the prophet:
“While others are intoxicated with the here and now, the prophet has a vision of an end. The prophet is human, yet he employs notes one octave too high for our ears. He experiences moments that defy our understanding. He is …an assaulter of the mind. Often his words begin to burn where conscience ends. The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered, and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions.
The prophets must have been shattered by some cataclysmic experience in order to be able to shatter others. The words of the prophet are stern, sour, stinging. But behind his austerity is love and compassion for mankind.
Others may suffer from the terror of cosmic aloneness, the prophet is overwhelmed by the grandeur of the divine presence. He is incapable of isolating the world. There is an interaction between man and God which to disregard is an act of insolence. Isolation is a fairy tale.
…The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.
…the purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner man as well as to revolutionize history.
It is embarrassing to be a prophet. There are so many pretenders, predicting peace and prosperity, offering cheerful words, adding strength to self-reliance, while the prophet predicts disaster, pestilence, agony, and destruction.” (The Prophets Vol. I, A. Heschel; Harper Colophon Books, 1962)
The prophet of God is a broken man; one who has been devastated at the plight of the nations. He has a “fierce loyalty” to the Lord, and his heart is shattered by the realization that the God of holiness and beauty is being neglected while men and their petty systems are being exalted and celebrated. When the Name of God is denigrated, disrespected, or misappropriated, the prophet’s heart burns with a jealousy for the restoration of true worship.
The prophet has a cosmic view, a heavenly vision, for He has encountered the One who transcends our prepackaged categories and preferences. He has come to know the Lord as He is, and His heart cannot be satisfied until the ones to whom he has been sent have come into that intimate knowledge themselves. This is why the prophet is foundational.
The prophet is the bearer of the thoughts and words of God Himself. He is an earthen vessel, radically connected to the society that surrounds him, yet conveying and communicating a wisdom and reality that the common man and the frivolous religionist have not been willing to see and hear. He is among the people, identifying with them in mercy. He is not an aloof, self-righteous pietist. He is an awakener, using words and tears to remind us how God really feels and thinks. He lives in the world of God. He has been converted from carnality, broken from his arrogance, severed from self-sufficiency. He introduces us to the Lord’s own vantage point, and quite literally, everything depends upon whether we casually receive his word, outright reject it, or take it into the deepest parts of our hearts and lives.
The prophet is not a self-conscious, dramatic character, doing what he thinks prophets do in an attempt to fill a role or office. A prophet is a God-fashioned, God-intoxicated, God-inspired man with a cosmic view of time and eternity. He sees beyond the mundaneness of everyday affairs, the buzz of modern politicking, the pull of fashion and entertainment, and any man-centered attempts at ministry. He is not inflated by flattery, and he has learned to rejoice when opposed. He realizes that he is bearing a Kingdom view which is of utmost value to his hearers. Indeed, life and death hang on the words that he proclaims.
He is not a showman, boasting of a title or inwardly aching for religious fame. Nor is he a grouchy man, putting on some kind of an archaic garb, spiritual aura and hoping to remind us of Moses. He does not have to try at being “prophetic.” There is nothing self-conscious about a foundational servant of the Lord. They are not speaking on behalf of their opinions or the lifting up of their reputations. They have been stricken with a vision of the majestic One, and they speak out of that reality.
I wonder why we have heard so much about prophets, why people will flock by the thousands to conferences and events in hopes of receiving a “personal prophetic word,” yet so few have been willing to crack open the Scriptures to hear from the men whom the Lord Jesus valued as prophets. I’m not discounting the genuine works of the Spirit that we see in many circles. I’m raising foundational questions here.
Could it be that we have constructed our own predictable, controllable, insouciant god who makes no requirement of our lives, and who exists as some kind of mascot for our movements and ministries? Could it be that we have not been willing to receive the Lord as He is? If we are willing to chase men who call themselves prophets, and who have the latest insights and revelations which bring us a positive lift without dealing with the issue of sin, then who are we really hearing from? What manner of men are these popular prophets, and what manner of a god are they presenting and proclaiming?
I will likely be accused of discouraging the prophetic gifts by asking questions like these, but that is not my intention. We need to “eagerly desire” the gifts and the work of the Holy Spirit in every context of life. But I believe these questions are crucial for our future witness and testimony. If what we have known as prophetic has not brought us into the same consciousness, the same trembling, the same holiness, the same consecration, the same cosmic view that the prophets of Israel and the apostles of the New Testament came into, what can we say of its credibility? Is it the same prophetic reality, or a caricature of the genuine article?
Perhaps a measure of blessing comes as a result of many of these meetings and expressions. I am certain that the Lord is working in many ways through various expressions in the Body, and that healing and blessing have come to many in every place where Christ is being lifted up. But where is the sense of the fear of the Lord? How can the Church go on with hundreds of leaders stepping down from ministry a month due to sexual sin? How can we blend in so successfully with a world that is moving at breakneck speed toward eternal judgment? And how do we dare, within certain circles, to call our movements and leaders “prophetic” when the same sins that are prevalent in the world are plaguing our churches?
I am convinced that the stature and call of a prophet has not been reduced with the New Covenant. It has only deepened. Christ has become the center and fulfillment. The Gift of Prophecy has become available to all saints, and the Spirit which rested on the prophets of old has been poured out copiously because of the work of Christ.
Moses’ cry that all God’s people were prophets (Num. 11.29) has become a brighter possibility, but we will not come into that prophetic reality if we are unwilling to receive Him as King, Father, and Judge. We will not come into that prophetic reality as long as we are chasing after faddish teachings and personality-exalting success ministries.
If the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then the Church has a responsibility to be sure that the God we are worshiping and proclaiming is the same as the God that the prophets and apostles of the Scriptures heralded. The cosmic view of the prophets revolved around God Himself, and if He is not being proclaimed as He has revealed Himself, we are in grave danger of falling into a pit with the other blind guides of our generation.
Could it be that with all of our teachings on the prophetic, all of our conferences on the prophetic, all of our insights on prophetic ministry, that most of us have yet to come into the kind of union with the Lord that produced the men who became foundational for our faith? I am thankful for every genuine furtherance of the work of the Spirit in recent years, but my heart is crying out for the fullness of Christ. I know there is a greater love, a greater sense of the fear of the Lord, a higher place of abandonment to His heart. Oh, for a greater vision of God Himself! The world is perishing for the want of true servants who have come out from the holy place, proclaiming the truth of God with incandescent hearts!
“I would choose to see the brightness of the heavenly things, although their lightning-glory leave me blind henceforth to any earthly glow; and I would hear but once the voice of God Almighty sweep in thunder from His Throne, although from hence mine ear be deaf to the sweet trembling chime of this world’s music. I had rather stand a prophet of my God, with all the thrills of trembling, which must shake the heart of one who in earth’s garments, in the vesture frail of flesh and blood, is called to minister as seraphs do with fire- than bear the palm of any other triumph.”
-Unknown author, quoted by Oswald Chambers
The Lord is jealous to mold and fashion a prophetic people, walking in the joy of the Lord and the brightness of His holiness. We need to be staggered and awakened from our fairy-tale paradigms, and brought into the revelation of God and His coming Kingdom. Prophets will bring this necessary jolt.
The prophets of old foresaw a coming King, a judgment approaching, and a glory covering the earth as a result. They wept in compassion over their own people, who were too often found straying from the primacy of worship and the hope of His calling. They cried out in warning with a merciful identification and an intercessory burden. They were glowing witnesses during days of unrighteousness. What will we be in our generation, saints?
If the Lord is jealous to raise up a prophetic Church that loves with His love, is holy as He is holy, and extends His Kingdom to Israel and the nations, how can we give ourselves to any other pursuit?
God Himself is coming, and we are not prepared for His coming. Israel is not yet ready. The nations are terribly ill-prepared. When He comes, He will come as Judge and Saviour. There will be judgment and devastation, nations rising up against nations as never before. To the degree that the Lord has a Church of apostolic and prophetic quality in the earth, to that degree will salvation, revival, and mercy break forth in the midst of the upheaval.
We have a prophetic call to weep and pray, to give ourselves to worship and time in the Scriptures. We have a call to purify our hands and cleanse our hearts from the sin and pride of this age. We have a responsibility to speak the truth to one another in love. We have a mandate to proclaim His Gospel in every dark place.
What kind of reality are you walking in? Does your vision for life consist of a hollow 60 to 70 years of pursuing your own pleasures and wants? Is your vision for ministry a mere hope for success in the worldy sense, accolades from family, friends and colleagues? Or have you been stricken with the majesty of God and brought into the heavenly vision?
We need something more than a Christian T-Shirt and a tract, friends. We need something more than an impeccable model for Church structure. We need something more than impressive buildings and state-of- the-art equipment. We need a cosmic view. We need to see what the prophets of old saw. They saw the beauty and holiness of God. They had glimpses of His coming Kingdom, and they came into the realization that the earth was tottering under the weight of sin, pride and rebellion. Out of the revelation of God, intertwined with glimpses of His coming, they cried out for mercy. If we are not crying out as they did, it’s because we are not seeing as they saw.
JUDGMENT IS NOT THE FINAL WORD
As we come into prophetic reality, we will see mercy and salvation released in our day. And at the end of this age, we will see the ultimate release of righteousness and mercy when “the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus.” -2. Thess. 1.7-8
The cosmic view of the prophets did not end in the Judgment. In the words of the scholars, His judgments are penultimate. Salvation is the ultimate reality, and so the prophets were possessed by a Divine hope. Judgment, trouble, and turbulence do mark the end of the age, but tribulation is not the final word. The prophetical visions in Scripture end in great glory, the permanent destruction of death, the removal of all sin and sickness, and the indestructible reality of a New Heaven and New Earth inhabited by God Himself!
The prophets panted for this day, the apostles yearned for His return, and they all labored for an expression of that future Kingdom in their present experiences. What a view to abide in. What a hope! What a worship-inducing vision. The hour is later than we know, and the King of Glory is coming. Are you content to spend your days devoid of this cosmic view? Are you treating life with a holy sobriety? Do you have a cry for the fullness of Christ and the establishment of His Kingdom in the nations, or are you content with something less?
“The Bible stirs up an intense and unquenchable hope that an age of time coming on this earth, inconceivably wonderful, when all that we have ever dreamed will fade into silly fancies beside the reality.” -Oswald Chambers
O God, restore the reality of the prophetic vision. We want to more actively join the company of these foundational servants. Let our lives burn with the same passion, brim with the same hope, tremble with the same awe, and love with the same heart. Bring about the recovery of prophetic reality, and let your Name be glorified in Jerusalem, and in the cities of the earth.