Today there appears to be a revitalization of the office of prophet. In Evangelical circles, today’s prophet sees apocalyptic images and dialogues with God or an interpreting angel, and are prominently associated with divine healings and casting out of demons. In Mainline Protestant traditions, an emerging group claims to have the new prophetic authority. These prophets speak into contemporary issues of our day, often with a different rendering than a traditional interpretation of the Scriptures, and yet often has a message that is contrary to the prophets of Evangelical circles! Both groups claim prophetic authority; yet the competing messages create confusion. How can we know the true prophetic voice? Discernment rests within the Scriptures and the portrait of the Old Testament prophet.
Every prophet called from Moses through John as revealed through the Scriptures share several characteristics:
1) They were God’s appointed messenger, delivering God’s message, not their personal agenda! . Isaiah, after having a vision of the throne room of heaven, answered the call to deliver God’s message to a people with calloused hearts (Isa 6:9-13). Jeremiah tried to remain silent, but the message of God was a fire that could not be contained in his soul (Jer 20:9). Amos, when commanded to return to his native land, refused because the Lord compelled him to deliver the message (Amos 7:12-16). Jonah was compelled to go and deliver a message to his sworn enemy (Jon 1:2). Many more prophets had a call to deliver God’s word, but it was devoid a personal agenda. If the prophets had their way, Jonah would have watched Assyria burn, Habakkuk would have watched Israel restored and the Babylonians return without harming the land, and Hosea certainly would not have redeemed Gomer from prostitution!
2) The prophets were covenant enforcers, calling people back to faithfulness to the Scriptures, the message God had already revealed in the Law. They called the people back to Deuteronomy 6:5, to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. They called out every place where another god ruled over their hearts, exposed idolatry and unfaithfulness to the Sabbath and true worship of YHWH (1 Kgs 18, Isa 55, Hos 4, Ezek 23, etc.). The prophets also called people back to faithfulness to Leviticus 19:2, to be holy. They called out blatant sin and called for repentance (2 Chr 7:14, Isa 1:18, Joel 2:12-17, etc.). And, they also spoke out on social justice issues and application of Leviticus 19:18, to love neighbor as oneself (Isa 58, Amos 2, Micah 6, etc.).
The prophets condemned syncretism and called the people back to orthodoxy, orthopraxis, and orthopathy. Joshua called out wavering between multiple opinions and declared that one should serve God alone (Josh 24). Ezekiel challenged a people that were more focused on worshipping the temple than the one who dwelt in the temple (Ezek 8-10). And Micah reminded the people that God already had instructed them in how they should respond (Mic 6:8). In reminding the people to be faithful to the covenant, they warned against mixing faiths and adopting ideas that are contrary to the holiness of God. We know that there were false prophets that encouraged syncretism; the true prophet spoke the truth, often in the face of cultural pressure and in solidarity against a society that wanted to embrace another way (1 Kgs 22; Jer 28).
3) The message of the prophets was nothing “new;” every piece of their message was rooted in the entire witness of what has come before. God packaged their message in unique ways to gain the attention of the hearer, using the prophets often as living parables (Hosea’s redemption of Gomer, Ezekiel’s naked march, Jonah’s tree and worm, Jeremiah’s purchase of a field). But the content of their message was rooted in the covenant and the witness of those who had come before. Yes, the prophets actually did predict what would come in the future as revealed by God, most prominently displayed in the arrival of Jesus. But in even the predictions of the future, it was rooted and grounded in what was already established. Babylon came in response to the people’s unfaithfulness to the covenant. Jesus died because of the unholiness of humanity and the need for redemption and atonement. The four beasts representing four kingdoms will arise and terrorize the earth, but the kingdom of the Ancient of Days will overthrow and establish his universal reign. Every one of these prophetic oracles have grounding in the Torah, such as exile as a punishment in Deuteronomy 28, the need for atonement in Exodus 12, and the universal reign of God in Genesis 11.
4) The prophets reluctantly took the mantle at great personal cost. More often than not, the prophet was executed by the state. Isaiah was sawed in half. Micaiah was imprisoned. Zechariah was murdered while serving in the temple. Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern, and taken as a slave to Egypt. Ezekiel was deported to Babylon. Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den. John was beheaded. These men and women who answered the prophetic call were willing to die for the word of the Lord.
Today, when one claims to be a prophet, we should test them against the characteristics of the prophets. Is the message claiming divine origin and compulsion, even risking their own life for the message? If it is a personal agenda, then maybe it is not the true voice! Is the message reminding us to be faithful to God in how we love him, love neighbor, and calls us to return to holiness? Or is the message calling to compromise the faith, is a “new word,” and ignore the long-standing witness of Scripture? If it calls for compromise and syncretism, then it is not the true voice! God may indeed be awakening the prophetic voice again in our day; but may we look to those who have gone before to discern what God might say in our day.