The Place of Prophecy in InspirationBy Nate Wilson
The topic of prophecy is vast in scope, and I cannot possibly plumb all its depths, so this paper will primarily be a broad overview of the subject. I am also writing with certain limitations. Since this paper was commissioned as an assignment for a theology class in a reformed seminary, I am limiting my total time on this project to 30 hours, and I am limiting my sources primarily to the Bible and to Systematic Theology tomes written by men in the Reformed tradition. Other writings, such as Bible commentaries and books specifically on prophecy by charismatic and non-charismatic authors, I am simply not able to consider in this format--as much as I'd like to include them!
The method of my study was first to go through the entire Bible (using computer software) searching for the string "prophe," thus catching "prophet," "prophetess," "prophecy," "prophets," and "prophesy," etc., but not catching use of other translations of the Hebrew words such as "seer." I made notes on each use, then did a similar search through the indices and tables of contents of the systematic theology books of Berkhof, Calvin, Turretin, Strong, and Hodge. This latter search was, admittedly, not as exhaustive as the former (Bible), because I did not have the advantage of computer software, but it nevertheless yielded some excellent insights.
The main reason for my inquiry into this subject is the dearth of interest in prophecy that I have observed in the reformed tradition. Although the bulk of prophecy in the Bible is larger than the entire New Testament, it receives mention in only a few pages of each of the Systematic Theology manuals I perused. There is also the controversy of modern-day prophecy which I wanted to explore. The majority of the church world-wide, being charismatic, frequently exercises what it calls prophecy, while the reformed tradition in which I was reared tends to ignore prophecy. Why is this? With the limitations of my format, I cannot fully answer this question, but I hope that this paper will begin to shed light on the issue.
One further note: A week after I finished this paper, I realized that there may be some confusion among the three classes of prophecy generally lumped together in this paper. I didn't bother to make a great deal of distinction among them due to my time limitations, but it would be well to keep these distinctions in mind as particular instances of prophecy are reviewed. One class of prophecy is the written Scriptures. They are prophecy already completed and canonized, and have use as Scripture that a believer can look back upon. A second class of prophecy deals with revelations, visions, and dreams which God gives. They are spoken of in the present tense, not looking back to a previously-established writing of old. This class of prophecy is not necessarily put into the canon of scripture, and it is not even necessarily communicated to other people. The last class of prophecy is the classic work of a prophet. Whereas the second has to do with the message itself and the first has to do with the Bible, this third has to do with the context--the ministry of the prophet, his purpose, his way of communicating the message, and the response of the people to that message. This third class teaches us more about what a prophet is and does. Keep in mind that when I use the word "prophecy" in this paper, I may be referring to any one of the three classes, and that the context should determine which of the three classes is meant. I hope this does not cause too much confusion!
People who were prophets
Definition of prophet
Webster's Collegiate Dictionarydefines a prophet as a derivative of two words: pro = forth and phanai = to speak. "1. One who speaks for another, esp. for God or a god. 2. A declaration of something to come."1 It is instructive to note which meaning is given the primacy. In today's world, the second meaning, that of telling the future, overshadows the former, but when we look at the Bible, the former meaning, that of speaking for God, is the primary meaning of the word prophet. As Charles Hodge states, "Prophecy...is not intended to give us a knowledge of the future, analogous to that which history gives us of the past..."2 The point is not to learn the future from the prophet, but to get right with God. He defines a prophet as "a spokesman, one who speaks for another, in his name, and by his authority...Exodus iv.14-16...'Aaron...shall be thy spokesman...and thou shalt be to him instead of God'... He spoke as the organ of the Holy Ghost."3
Strong states that "Prophecy is the foretelling of future events by virtue of direct communication from God"4 but I don't think he is asserting the primacy of the predictive role over the role of speaking for God's morality, because he says later, "true prophecy is based on moral grounds. Everywhere the menacing future is connected with the evil past by 'therefore.'"5
Louis Berkhof expounds on the several Old Testament words and phrases denoting a prophet: "nabhi," "ro'eh" or "chozeh," "man of god," "messenger of the LORD," "watchman," and the New Testament "prophetes." He concludes, "A prophet is one who...receives revelations, who is in the service of God, particularly as a messenger, and who speaks in his name."6 I like the concise definition that Dr. Paul Gilchrist gave in the Prophets class I took several years ago at Covenant College: "a spokesman for God."7
Notice that there is a distinction between a prophet and one who prophesied. There were a number of people cited in the Bible as having given a prophecy, but they were not called "Prophet." Among them are Enoch (Jude 14), King Saul (I Sam. 10, I Sam. 19:20), Caiphas the High Priest (John 11:51), Phillip's four virgin daughters (Acts 21:9), and John the Apostle (Rev. 1:3, 10:11). Berkhof elaborates: "One who receives a revelation is not necessarily a prophet...what constitutes one a prophet is the divine calling, the instruction, to communicate to others the divine revelation."
Christ as Prophet
Jesus Christ is, of course, the apex of the Bible and the apex of its prophets. "The fact that Christ was anointed to a threefold office [prophet, priest, and king] finds its explanation in the fact that man was originally intended for this threefold office and work... Sin affected the entire life of man... Hence is was necessary that Christ, as our Mediator should be prophet, priest, and king. As Prophet, He represents God with man..."8 As Prophet, Christ was "active even in the old dispensation, as in the special revelations of the angel of the Lord... teachings of the prophets... illumination of believers... and appears in Proverbs 8 as wisdom personified... He carries on his prophetical work in His teachings and miracles... also in the illumination and instruction of believers as the indwelling Spirit."9 Christ is the prophet par excellence.
List of Prophets in the Bible
Prophets and prophecy pervade the entire Bible with hundreds upon hundreds of references. The mention of prophets occurs most often in the history sections of the Bible (esp. Kings, Chronicles, Matthew, and Acts) and is also a focus in some of the New Testament epistles to churches (I Corinthians, Ephesians, and II Peter). For what it's worth, mention of prophets is scarce in the Wisdom books and not once found in II Corinthians. It's also interesting to note that the New Testament, comprising only a fifth of the Bible, contains one third of the Bible's references to prophets.
Following is a list of occurrences where a person is called a "prophet" or "prophetess" either by God or by an inspired writer of Scripture. This, therefore includes false prophets who were nevertheless called "prophets," and excludes writers whom we associate with the books of the prophets but did not have the appellation "prophet"--namely, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, and Malachi.
Do true prophets still exist? This would be hotly debated between various streams of Christendom. I have personally witnessed false prophecy both in secular arenas and within the church, but despite its abuses, I believe that true prophecy may yet exist today. It is my assertion that modern-day prophets may be legitimate, as long as they fit the profile of true prophecy given by the Bible. I believe this for three reasons, one based on the Bible, one based on the writings of famous reformed theologians, and one based upon experience.
First, it would be a logical conclusion that prophets would exist beyond Bible times because the last books of the Bible give guidelines for the exercise of prophecy in the church and for the discerning of true prophets from false. If prophecy was to cease within a few decades, why would John, Paul and Peter give guidelines for an almost-extinct gift?
My second argument for the validity of modern prophecy lies in the fact that some of the old reformed theologians agree with this position. While John Calvin does not hold prophecy to be a gift in need of common use, he says, "The Lord raised up [apostles, prophets, and evangelists] at the beginning of His kingdom, and now and then revives them as the need of the times demands..."10 Also, in support of this, A.H. Strong wrote at the turn of the 19th century, "Believing in the continual activity of the divine Reason in the reason of man, we have no need to doubt the possibility of an extraordinary insight into the future, as such insight is needed at the great epochs of religious history."11 Strong goes on to cite Savonarola's prophecy in 1496 of the capture of Rome in 1527, which was fulfilled in great detail, as proof of the legitimacy of modern-day prophecy.
At this point, an objection arises: "If prophecy still exists today, can the canon of Scripture be closed?" My answer is that not all prophecy has to be canonical. It is obvious from Scripture that some prophecy was not intended for the Canon by the fact that the following people are mentioned as prophesying, yet the words of their prophecies are never recorded: Saul (I Sam. 10:10), the 12 men in Ephesus (Acts 19:6), Iddo (II Chr. 12:15), Philip's four virgin daughters (Acts 21:9), and the prophecy at Timothy's ordination (I Tim 4:13), to name a few. Thus, it is conceivable that God might still today give prophecies which are not intended to be included in the Canon of Scripture. God has given His church all the knowledge that is absolutely necessary for salvation in the Bible. A prophet in these days must not be adding revelation to Scripture, but calling people to a right relationship with God, as did all the true Biblical prophets.
A third argument comes from experience: Because prophecies ARE being given and fulfilled in the world today, it is possible that some of them are legitimate. Strong cites Savonarola's prophecy, but there are many others as well. It is outside the scope of this paper to examine them, but suffice it to say that as I have compiled news from the frontiers of missionary work over the past few years, I have recorded dozens of verifiable cases in which a person received a vision of Jesus and subsequently was joined to the church. Many of these cases involve a Muslim leader who received a vision in which he was told to worship Jesus. This leader then started preaching about Jesus in his mosque!12
Proof of Inspiration
Now, let us return to the Bible. Why do we say that the Biblical prophets were inspired? Are the prophetic books really the word of God? Briefly, the proof of inspiration can be found in the following marks: First, their claim to be God's words--"Thus Sayeth The Lord!"--and second by the fulfillment of their predictions in history. To these great proofs we can enjoin the grandeur of the style of the writings and the affirmation of God's people. Specifically concerning the last proof, the prophetic writings of the Bible are considered to be the true word of God by the Jews (Acts 13: 15,27), by Jesus Himself (Matt. 5:17, 7:12, 11:13, 13:35, 22:40, Luke 16:16, 29, Luke 24:44, John 6:45), by the Apostles (Acts 24:14, Rom. 16:26, Heb. 1:1, II Peter 1:20-21), and finally by the Church. The affirmation of the Church does not make Scripture to be holy; the canonization of Scripture is rather a confirmation of its innate holiness as the Word of God. Even the earliest of the Christian Church Fathers, Clement of Rome, quotes from some 44 books of the Bible, including the Pentateuch, History books, Psalms, Wisdom books, all the major prophets, 4 minor prophets, the Gospels, and all the epistle writers in the Canon today!13 The reformers also believed in the inspiration of Holy Scripture and its primacy in all of life and knowledge. As an example, Calvin asserts the inspiration of Moses by saying, "by these [miracles] was not God, from heaven, commending Moses as His undoubted prophet?"14
Source of Inspiration
As the Apostle Peter says, "no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God."15 What exactly does this mean? Since the Spirit proceeds from both Christ and the Father, we can identify prophecy with any member of the Trinity. I cannot conjure an authoritative theology on this, so I will defer to other great men here:
Principles of prophecy
The universal message
As we consider prophecy and how it relates to divine inspiration, we must examine what a true prophet is and what he does. The general pattern we see from Scripture is as follows. the true prophet:
An example of this pattern is seen in Jer. 25:1-7, "...the word of Jehovah hath come unto me, and I have spoken unto you... Return ye now every one from his evil way... dwell in the land that Jehovah hath given unto you... go not after other gods... provoke me not to anger... to your own hurt. Therefore thus saith Jehovah of hosts: Because ye have not heard my words... I will send unto Nebuchadrezzar... and will bring them against this land... I will utterly destroy them... serve the king of Babylon seventy years."
Berkhof's general comments are also instructive here: It was the duty of prophets to "protect against mere formalism, stress moral duty, urge the necessity of spiritual service, [and] promote the interests of truth and righteousness. If the people departed from the path of duty, they had to call them back to the law and to the testimony, and to announce the coming terror of the Lord upon the wicked."21
Other pervasive themes
In addition to the general pattern of the prophetic message outlined above, the following themes also emerged as practically universal traits of prophecy:
Centrality of Christ
Rev. 19:10 says that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." Isaiah particularly makes many prophecies of the details of Christ's life, the fulfillment of which is expounded in Matthew's Gospel. And Isaiah wasn't the only prophet to do this, for Peter speaks of "prophets" (plural) who "predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow" (I Pet 1:10). As Strong also affirms, it is a general "feature of prophecy in the Scriptures [that it] finds its central point in Christ"22
Signs of God's grace to Jews and Gentiles
The work of the prophets was not always to prophesy doom! The prophets generally carried a complementary message of grace which was manifested in miracles of mercy and promises of blessing. A duty of the prophet was to remind God's people of the "gracious promises of God for the future."23 Calvin states, "The prophets are full of promises...which offer mercy to a people though they be covered with infinite crimes... 'Return you who turn away, I shall not avert my face from you, for I am holy, and will not be angry forever' [Jer. 3:12]"24
This grace was applied to Gentiles as well as to Jews, for the prophets reflected God's desire for international glory and were not as xenophobic as the average Jew. "And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian." (Luke 4:27)
The persecution of true prophets is ubiquitous in Scripture, and God often chastises the Jews for despising His prophets. In Acts 7:52 Steven quips, "Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute?" It even makes it's way into Jesus' sermons (Luke 6:22-23, Luke 13:34) and John's revelation (18:24).
The scriptures teach that persecution will be ongoing, too. I Thes. 2:15 says, "For ye, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judaea in Christ Jesus: for ye also suffered the same things of your own countrymen, even as they did of the Jews; who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove out us." Peter also tells the Spirit-filled church that we should continue to expect persecution as normative (I Peter 4:12-14).
The following patterns only emerged occasionally, but were of note:
Many prophecies have one meaning at the face of it, but a deeper meaning beneath. This is true of Hos. 11:1, "I called my son out of Egypt," (meaning both the people of Israel at the Exodus and also Jesus after the flight to Egypt to escape Herod). Daniel 11:36 speaks of the "Man of Sin" which was ostensibly Antiochus Epiphanes, but is interpreted by Paul (I Thes.) in an Eschatological sense. Isaiah 41's "servant" initially appears to be Israel, then takes on definite Messianic connotations, and Jesus begins prophesying of the destruction of Jerusalem in Matt. 24-25, but ends up describing the end of the world. Dr. Strong explains this "double sense" of prophecy:
"Each separate prophecy has its drapery furnished by the prophet's immediate surroundings, and finds its occasion in some event of contemporaneous history. But by degrees it becomes evident that only an ideal and perfect king and savior can fill out the requirements of prophecy...
"A prophecy which had a partial fulfillment at a time not remote from its utterance may find its chief fulfillment in an event far distant.... [A prophet] seems freed from the laws of space and time, and rapt in the timelessness of God, he views the events of history sub specie eternitatis."25
An almost incidental work of some of the prophets was to pray for God's people. This is typically not a prophetic function, but it does typify Christ who is our great Mediator. Jeremiah intercedes for the remnant in Jerusalem in chapter 42, Habakkuk prays for an end to the violence in his nation in chapter 1, and Isaiah prays for Hezekiah when he is threatened by Sennacherib in II Ki. 19.
Although it is by no means universal, there seems to be a family connection to some prophets. Moses, Miriam, and Aaron were all siblings (Deut. 34:10, Ex. 15:20, Ex. 7:1). Iddo was a seer, and his son Zechariah became a prophet (II Chr. 12:15, Ex. 5:1, Zech 1:1). Amos states the phenomenon more clearly in (7:14) saying, "I am neither a prophet, nor the son of a prophet," as though it would be expected that a prophet would have a prophets in his ancestry. It is true that many of the prophets were Levites, thus sharing a common ancestry.
Different Themes for Different Times
As we will see in the next section on the purpose of prophecy, there appear to be different epochs of prophecy with definite beginnings and endings. The first epoch had to do with the giving of the law and had Moses as its zenith. Deut. 34:10 states that "since then no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses, who knew God face to face," and Zechariah 7:12 speaks of the "former prophets" who gave the law, as though there were a distinction between prophets like Moses and prophets like himself.
In regards to the second epoch of prophecy, it is generally accepted in reformed circles that the major and minor prophets were interpreters of the Mosaic law.
Jesus Himself speaks of another break-point when He says, "The Law and the Prophets were until John, the Gospel of the kingdom after" (Luke 16:16). The writer of Hebrews confirms this, saying that God first spoke through the prophets, but in these last days spoke through Jesus (Heb. 1:1). Thus, a third epoch has to do with Jesus and the church.
The final epoch will begin in heaven at the end of the world, where Paul teaches that prophecy shall cease when perfection comes (I Cor. 13:8).
Paul's instructions for the church
Prophecy seems to be rather different after Christ's resurrection, therefore Paul, Peter, and John are inspired by God to set out principles governing it. Following are some principles I have gleaned:
Purpose of prophecy
The purpose of prophecy is demonstrated by the way that the godly men of the Bible used it. I have broken this section down into different time periods, since there seem to be slight changes in the use of prophecy in different epochs. However, it will be seen that there is a common purpose that runs throughout--that of calling for repentance and faith in Christ. "The Purpose of prophecy [is] not to enable us to map out the details of the future, but rather to give general assurance of God's power and foreseeing wisdom, and of the certainty of His triumph, and to furnish, after fulfillment, the proof that God was the end from the beginning."26 To put it in modern terms, you might say that evangelism and spiritual renewal are the great purposes of prophecy in all times.
Prophets in the Pentateuch
Abraham is called a prophet to the king of Egypt. Perhaps this is because the true God was revealed to a foreign king through Abraham's presence! The highlight of this time period was the Mosaic law, to which Zech. 7:12 and Dan. 9:10 testify.
Prophecy was instituted in this time period, and God gave guidelines for it: Num. 12:6 "if there be a prophet among you, I Jehovah will make myself known unto him in a vision, I will speak with him in a dream." Deut. 18: 15-22 15 also states:
"Jehovah thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken...and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him... But the prophet that shall speak a word presumptuously in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if thou say in thy heart, How shall we know the word which Jehovah hath not spoken? when a prophet speaketh in the name of Jehovah, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which Jehovah hath not spoken: the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him."
In the time period between Moses and Jesus, the interpretation of the law and the anticipation of Christ's advent predominate prophecy in the midst of the rebellious people of Israel. Berkhof states, "the duty of the prophets...was to interpret the law,"27 and Calvin elaborates:
"The law was published, and the prophets afterward added as its interpreter."28 "As for doctrine [the prophets] were only interpreters of the law and added nothing to it except predictions of things to come... because the Lord was pleased to reveal a clearer and fuller doctrine in order better to satisfy weak consciences, he commanded that the prophecies also be committed to writing and be accounted part of His word... histories were added to these words, also the labor of the prophets, but composed under the Holy Spirit's dictation. I include the Psalms with the prophecies, since what we attribute to the prophecies is common to them."29
According to Ps 74:9, the prophets told people what God's plans were--connecting the people with God and giving them a sense of what's up. There was a sense of disorientation in the absence of a prophet. The main things that the prophets did at this time was to call Israel to turn from idolatry and disobedience to God and His law: II Chron. 24:19 "...he sent prophets to them, to bring them again unto Jehovah; and they testified against them." (Also see II Ki. 20, Ps. 51, I Ki. 16, II Chr. 15:8, II Chr. 20:14, II Chr. 24:19, 25:15, 34:22.) The prophets especially targeted civil magistrates in this respect and pronounced judgement on kings who were particularly evil: I Ki. 14, I Ki. 21, I Chr. 21:12, I Ki. 20, II Chr. 12:5.
Another purpose we see for prophecy in this time period is what might be called "Supremacy Evangelism," where prophets establish God's supremacy throughout the world in order to cause people to worship Him. This is typified in Ezekiel's oft-repeated phrase, "I will do ... and then they will know that I am God." This purpose is advanced among the Jews to bring spiritual revival, such as in the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal in I Ki. 18, and it is also advanced among the Gentiles, as the prophets were sent with messages to the kings of the surrounding nations. Jeremiah was appointed "Prophet to the nations" (Jer 1:5), and he delivered prophecies to Egypt (ch. 46), Philistia (ch 47), Moab (ch. 48), Ammon, Syria, Kedar, Elam (ch. 49), and Babylon (ch. 50). Still other prophecies are interpreted by New Testament authors as foretelling the evangelization of the Gentiles (Acts 15:15, Gal 3:8, and Eph. 3:5).
The great Israelite prophets also showed God's mercy and love to Jews and to Gentiles. In II Sam 12:24, Nathan tells King David that God loves him even after sinning with Bathsheba. Elisha recovers a man's ax-head, purifies water, fixes the poisonous stew, saves a widow's children from slavery, and bestows blessing on Jehosaphat and other kings when they go to battle (II Ki. 1-5). King Hezekiah is even healed of a terminal disease (II Ki: 20). God reached out His hand in mercy to Gentiles also through the prophets, healing Naaman (II Ki. 5), feeding the widow in Zerepath (I Ki. 17), and raising the Shunamite's son from the dead (II Ki. 4). These are acts of kindness that seem almost senseless and random except that they flow from a God who is loving and compassionate.
There were also a few other roles filled by prophets in this time that are not found in other time periods, namely civil and military leadership (Judges 6:8, II Ki. 3, II Ki. 6, I Ki 20, Ezra 5:1, 6:14), the anointing of kings (I Sam 9:9, I Ki. 1, II Ki. 9), and direction of temple worship (II Chr. 29:25).
Prophecy in Jesus' time
In this time period, the main purpose of prophecy was to confirm Christ as the Messiah. Thus the cluster of prophecies by John the Baptiser (Mark 1:7), Anna (Luke 2:36), Zacharias (Luke 1:67ff), Mary (Luke 1:46ff), and Elizabeth (Luke 1:31ff) at the beginning of Jesus' life which proclaimed him to be the Messiah. There were other confirmatory prophecies, including Peter's exclamation, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God," which Jesus attributes to the Spirit's inspiration, and the inadvertent prophecy of the High Priest Caiphas (John 11:51) about the substitutionary atonement of Christ for the people.
Jesus also used O.T. prophecy to prove himself to be the Messiah, "And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself." (Luke 24: 25--see also verse 44). Additionally, Jesus made prophecies foretelling his "death and resurrection...the destruction of Jerusalem... [and] the world-wide diffusion of his gospel...,"30 the fulfillments of which establish His credibility conclusively as a true prophet!
Prophecy in the early church
The bulk of prophecy in the New Testament is quotes from Old Testament prophets used to bolster the evangelism that was the hallmark of the early church. Paul even explains new prophecy in the light of the spread of the Gospel (I Cor. 14:22). Matthew, more than any of the other Gospel writers, focused on showing how Christ specifically fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (Matt. 1:22, 2:6,15,17,23; 3:3, 4:14, 8:17, 12:17, 13:13, 21:4; 27:9, 26:56; Mark 1:1, Luke 1:68, Luke 3:4, Luke 4:17, Luke 18:31, John 12:38, Acts 2:30). Justin Martyr, in the 2nd Century, follows in the Gospel-writers' steps with a recounting of how Christ fulfilled all the O.T. prophecy, concluding, "why should we believe a crucified man that he is First-begotten of the unbegotten God, and that he will pass judgement on the whole human race, unless we found testimonies proclaimed about him before he came and was made man, and see that things have thus happened?"31
The Apostles pointed to the gospel contained in the prophetic writings, quoting the Old Testament prophets regularly in their evangelism: Stephen (Acts 7:48), Phillip (John 1:45, Acts 8:34), Peter (Acts 3:18, 10:43), Paul (Acts 7:48; 26:22, 28:23, Rom. 1:2, 3:21).
There are a few other isolated principles for the use of prophecy, including confirmation of God's indwelling (Acts 19:6, I Cor. 12:10, I Cor. 14:22, I Tim. 4:13), warning (Agabus in Acts 21:9), and the "example of suffering and patience" (James 5:10), which, due to their infrequent mention in Scripture, need not be capitalised upon here.
Use of Prophecy today
I believe that we can extrapolate the great theme of evangelism and revival centered on Christ into today, expecting that prophecy will still exist which carries these themes. A significant part of the focus on Christ in the church today is the yet-to-be-fulfilled prophecies of His second coming. We should, indeed, look forward eagerly to the return of our beloved Christ, but Charles Hodge gives us some caution:
"We see interpreters undertaking to give detailed expositions of the prophecies...relating to the future... such interpretations have always been falsified... But this does not discourage a certain class of minds, for whom the future has a fascination, and who delight in the solution of enigmas, from renewing the attempt.32
"Prophecy makes a general impression with regard to future events, which is reliable and salutory, while the details remain in obscurity... The utter failure of the O.T. Church in interpreting the prophecies relating to the first advent of Christ, should teach us to be modest and diffident in explaining those which relate to his second coming. We should be satisfied with the great truths which these prophecies unfold, and leave the details to be explained by the event."33
We can still make great use of the prophecies contained in the Canon of Holy Scripture to learn of God and evangelize others. For instance, in apologetics, it is common for a proof of the authenticity of scripture to be made by pointing to the fulfillment of its prophecies.
I believe that the commands of the apostles regarding prophecy in the church still hold today so that prophecy can be made that "edifies," "exhorts," and "consoles" (I Cor. 14:13).
Calvin notes further that the prophets stand for truth against the errors of church councils, because the prophets of the Bible prophesied against the "church" and its "pastors." 34
I believe that prophecy may also be used by God particularly among people who do not have other ways of hearing the Word of God. There are millions of people who are yet untouched by Christian missionary work, and millions more who do not have the Bible translated into their language. Reports from the mission field, such as one in which a Nepalese Sherpa boy received a revelation of Jesus and preached the Gospel to his family, seem to confirm that God helps mission efforts through visions and prophecy.35
The Problem with prophecy
The greatest problem with prophecy is the existence of false prophecy. We know that "false prophets shall arise" (Matt. 24:11), and we must be prepared for them. Under the Mosaic Law, false prophets were put to death (Deut 13:1-5), but we don't have the liberty to do that in a secular state. We can, however, observe the basic principle, by identifying false prophets and cutting them out of the fellowship of the church.
Characteristics of false prophets
Common to all the false prophets mentioned in the Bible was their stand against God's truth and their work of turning people's hearts away from God. Zedekiah contradicted the true prophet Micaiah in Jehosaphat's war council (I Ki 22), the Prophets of Baal contested the true God (I Ki. 18), Balaam (Num. 22-24) took money to curse God's people and seduced Israel to idolatry, Shemaiah contradicted Jeremiah's prophecy in Babylon (Jer. 29:27), Hannaniah tried to kill Jeremiah in Jerusalem (Jer 28), Noadiah discouraged Nehemiah from rebuilding the wall (Neh. 6:14), Elymus opposed Paul's teachings, deceiving the magistrate (Acts 13:6), Jezebel seduces to fornication and idols (Rev. 2:20), and the Apocalyptic false prophet is controlled by demons that work wonders and turn kings against God (Rev. 16:13, 19:20). The Bible elsewhere echoes these same principles that false prophets work iniquity (Matt. 7:22, Matt. 24:11, Jer. 23:14-22) and lead people astray (Matt. 24:24, Mark 13:22, Isa. 9:6).
The false prophet may have power to work signs and wonders, but their power comes from demons (Rev. 16:13-14) or Baal (Jer. 2:8). That power, however, is limited, because God controls even the spirits that deceive the false prophets (Jer. 13:13, I Ki. 22:23, Ez. 14:9)!
Distinguishing false prophecy from true
Three verses in the Bible give specific tests by which a true prophet can be distinguished from a false prophet:
It is obvious from the Scriptures cited above that false prophecy will continue on this earth until doomsday. I believe that God will always leave corresponding true prophecy to counteract it. But it must take careful discernment to distinguish sham prophecy in some churches from real, and we must be vigilant in recognizing and condemning prophet-heresies such as Mormonism and Islam, whose errors are deceiving and damning over a billion souls today.
Even more insidious is the challenge of Mysticism, which confuses the source of truth by removing the foundation of the Scriptures as the basis for all truth and substituting human reason or personal feelings as the basis for truth. This error has existed in the Church from its earliest years (Montanists) until the present time, when it is commonly heard in Evangelical circles, "I feel God is saying..." If you want to know what God is saying, read your Bible!
Check the fruit! Test the spirits! Compare notes with the principles laid down in the Bible's prophets and the Apostle's teachings! And, in the words of Jeremiah, who dealt more with false prophets than any other Biblical writer, "Let not your prophets deceive you." (Jer. 29:8)
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996. Combined Ed.
The Bible, American Standard Version. Albany OR: SAGE software, 1996.
Calvin, John, ed. John T McNeill. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Tr. Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.
Gilchrist, Paul. The Prophets
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. Reprint.
Strong, A. H. Systematic Theology. Philadelphia: Judson, 1946.
The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979. Revised ed.
Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield: C&G Merriam Co, 1943. 5th ed.