Is ‘prophecy still active in the church and if so, how do we recognize it? Those are the questions I began with on the previous post. As explained in that post, analyzing the Biblical vocabulary leads me to a baseline definition for ‘prophecy’ –
A public exercise for the sake of those who already believe, carried out by one who has been given a clear vision of God’s plan for a situation or time (often including predictions of the future) and to whom the message is weighty enough to be called a burden, possessed of sufficient internal pressure that it must flow forth and, where predictions are concerned – 100% accurate.
I will now add a point to this baseline definition by considering I John 4:1-3.
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God; and every Spirit that does not confess Jesus is from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist. Of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.
And I Corinthians 14:37-39
If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment. But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.
Both passages obviously have relevance in terms of ‘qualifying’ a prophet. In both passages it is necessary to take the words in their larger context to gain a fuller understanding. In I John, John is concerned with three points about Jesus Christ – each of which is presented as non-negotiable in the course of the letter. That is to say that one cannot be considered a Christian if they do not agree that –
In I Corinthians 14, Paul is finishing a discussion about the work of the Holy Spirit in the church: the manner in which the Spirit dispenses gifts, the manner in which the gifts work/work together and the manner in which the gifts are to be ‘recognized’ or ‘carried out’ in the life of the church. It is this, I believe, Paul insists the prospective prophet must agree to. If a prophet does not recognize the source of his/her gift, uses the gift in a way that does not compliment the gifts of other Christians, does not bring about the common good, does not maintain proper order, etc. – If one calling himself a prophet fails to exercise his/her gift according to these points Paul has laid out, perhaps goes so far as to say the points themselves are invalid – such an ‘alleged prophet’ is not to be recognized.
There are a other passages in this vein – Deuteronomy 13:1-4, Isaiah 8:20, etc. Taking them all together, I draw a conclusion. God, who sees the end from the beginning is never surprised by developments and thus, never contradicts Himself. A prophet – given a clear vision of God’s will and plan for a specific situation or time – operating by the Spirit of God – will not contradict God either. If we have decided that God has spoken through Scripture, we cannot accept any prophet (or an angel from heaven either) who offers a message contradicting what God has already said.
A prophet cannot contradict Scripture on the nature or office of Jesus Christ. A prophet cannot contradict Scripture on the nature or exercise of Spiritual gifts – like prophecy! A prophet may well speak a ‘new’ word as John – in that same first epistle offered ‘new’ commandments. But those new commandments are not a contradiction of anything God has already said – rather a fulfillment of previous commandments. Love was always the essence of the law and Jesus was always the essence of prophecy. The new commandments are simply to love one another and believe what God has said about Jesus.
So, yes, a prophet may well issue a new word for a new situation but the new word will not contradict what God has previously said. Rather, the new word will more fully apply what God has previously said to the current situation. The new word may call for a new and more radical obedience to what God has already said. But the new word will never legitimately proclaim – God has changed His mind! Adultery is ok now – so give me your daughters.
Add to this Matthew 7:15-20
Beware of all false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles are they? So, every good tree bears good fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruit.
Not only must the prophet’s message not contradict what God has already said, the prophet’s life must not contradict it either. I am quick to note that, aside from Jesus, there are no morally perfect prophets. God worked with Jonah despite his obvious need for an attitude adjustment and God met Elijah’s bout of suicidal depression head on. But neither Jonah nor Elijah (nor Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Zechariah, etc.) lived lives defined by drunkenness, gluttony, sexual immorality, deception, or exploitation.
So, we add another point to the definition – the Prophet speaking for God will not, by the message spoken or the lifestyle lived, contradict what God has previously said. David Koresh (were he still living) is no more a prophet than Harold Camping.
There is still more to be said – another post?!?