One day not too long ago I was speaking with a missionary who had just had the opportunity to help someone who was dying to turn back to the Lord. He had planned to go visit that person on a particular day, but when the day came he was not feeling well. He struggled with the decision to go or not go. Finally, he decided that it would be best to keep the appointment. When he arrived, he found the man he had come to see in mortal agony, nearly dead. During the short time they had together he was able to help the man decide to repent and return to the Lord. Shortly after, the man died.
The missionary was left musing, “What if I had not gone?” That is an unanswerable question, because God does not show us “what would have happened.” But he does give us responsibility, genuine responsibility, in his work. Therein lies a great mystery. The Book of Wisdom contains a passage which has always amazed me: “O God of my fathers and Lord of mercy, who hast made all things by thy word, and by thy wisdom hast formed man, to have dominion over the creatures thou hast made…” (Wisdom 9:1, 2, emphasis mine).
That it was the wisdom of God to have men and women rule over the creation astonishes me. I would have said it was foolishness! But it is true. God has given us a very definite and a very active role in his work, and with it, a great responsibility.
In all that follows I will assume what some people seem to think shocking: that genuine prophecy is both a divine and a human activity. In fact, genuine prophecy is, in a very real sense, as much a human activity as it is a divine activity. Any person who is given genuine prophetic revelation can decide not to prophesy. They are under no compulsion1 to prophesy. Furthermore, any person who receives a genuine prophetic message can add something to the message, something of their own. Even more, someone who has received a genuine prophetic message can decide how to communicate that message.
Yet, if the prophetic message is genuine, it is also true to say that it is a word from the Lord; that God is speaking to us through that message. Any true prophecy is a word from the Lord spoken in the words of a human being. Therefore, anyone who prophesies has to take responsibility for how they prophesy. Some would like to “supernaturalize” prophecy to such an extent that they themselves no longer have responsibility for the prophetic message. But the Lord does not give us that option. If he wanted to speak directly, and not through the agency of a human being, he could do so. But when God speaks through prophecy, he speaks through a human being, with human capacities and weaknesses.
MORE THAN A MESSENGER
The designation of prophets as “messengers” of God has been developed in order to highlight two central aspects of the prophet’s mission: the objective and divine nature of the message which the prophet brings, and the divine authorization to proclaim the message to God’s people. But to restrict the vision of the prophet to the elements introduced in the designation as “messenger” does an injustice to the very active and diversified task which God sets for the one who prophesies. The prophets clearly saw themselves as God’s “messengers” (Isaiah 44:26; Haggai 1:13; Malachi 3:1). They also considered themselves “servants of God” (Isaiah 20:3; Amos 3:7; Jeremiah 7:25; 24:4, etc.), “guardians” of Israel (Isaiah 62:6), and “watchmen” (Amos 3:4; Isaiah 56:10; Jeremiah 6:17; Ezekiel 3:17).
The prophets were, in their own eyes, entrusted with a mission demanding much more than passive receptivity to inspirations that might overtake them. In the Old Testament, once a man knew that he had been called to be a prophet, he devoted himself wholeheartedly and very actively to his task. “We may indeed quite properly speak of the prophetic office,’ consisting on the one hand of binding commitments, and on the other of liberties and powers.2 The prophets used every occasion and circumstance to proclaim the message they had received from God. For the sake of their missions Hosea married a prostitute and Jeremiah refrained from marriage entirely (Hosea 1:2; Jeremiah 16:2). Amos left his home and his occupation to fulfill his call (Amos 7:12ff.).
In the New Testament the pattern continued. While many Christians prophesied from time to time, or even regularly for periods of time, some of them were specially equipped to fulfill the role of the prophet: “According to Acts (2:16ff.), St. Peter interpreted the miracle of Pentecost as evidence that the whole church was a prophetic community, animated by the Holy Spirit. God had fulfilled Joel’s oracle, ‘Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.’ But from the New Testament as a whole it is clear that certain individuals were specially called to exercise the prophetic ministry” (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:6-10, 28-29).3
Not all of those who prophesy are prophets Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 that all can prophesy (v 31), but he also asks, “Are all prophets?” and the answer is “no.” Paul speaks both of “spirituals” and of “gifts of the spirit” and the two are not the same. A “spiritual” is a manifestation – a breaking forth – of the power of the Holy Spirit in prophecy (or in healing, working a miracle, etc). A “gift of the Holy Spirit” is the equipment which fits an individual to take his or her particular role among God’s people. In other words, Paul says that many can prophesy by a “working of the Holy Spirit,” but that only some have the “gift” to be a prophet. (See Appendix Two.)
An Old Testament prophet knew that when the Israelites needed to hear God’s word, he could quite appropriately go before the Lord and ask for it. That was his place, his role as a prophet. He knew furthermore that his task in delivering God’s word was not completed when he first proclaimed the “message” God had given him. He preached it when the occasion provided the opportunity. Jeremiah committed his prophecy to writing at God’s command so that it could be presented to the king (Jeremiah 36). Ezekiel was quite clearly told by God that his task included not merely the reception and subsequent pronouncement of a word, but also active and ongoing vigilance in speaking that word when occasion demanded it (Ezekiel 3).
THE PROPHET’S ROLE
A true Christian prophet has a role demanding the same vigilance and the same sustained exercise of responsibility. His role can be described under five headings: to receive and proclaim the word; to actively seek out God’s will and God’s word; to “stir up” his gift; to “watch over” the word given and see it acted upon and fulfilled; and to intercede before God on behalf of the church.
Receiving and proclaiming the “word”
A more apt description of this responsibility would perhaps be “obeying the promptings of the Spirit.” A crucial part of the prophetic ministry is immediate and obedient response to the urging of the Holy Spirit, whether that be a prompting to speak a message, perform a prophetic action, or even to refrain from speaking for a time. The Lord said to Ezekiel “Whenever you hear a word from me, warn them in my name” (Ezekiel 3:17). When the Lord told Jeremiah to go visit the house of the potter, Jeremiah went (Jeremiah 18). When the Lord told Isaiah that King Hezekiah would recover from an illness, Isaiah immediately went to the king with that message, even though he had prophesied only moments before that the king would not recover (2 Kings 20). When Agabus heard the Spirit telling him to bind the hands of Paul and prophesy, he did so at once (Acts 21:11).
Of what use is a servant who will not do the master’s will? What good is a messenger who does not proclaim the message he or she is given? Paul would most certainly have been to blame had he not responded to the dream calling him to Macedonia (Acts 16:9). The same blame should fall to the prophet who hears a word from the Lord and fails to speak it.
Actively seeking out God’s will and God’s word
The prophet bears a responsibility to place himself or herself continually in the presence of God, seeking to hear the word of the Lord and asking the Lord for guidance and direction, for encouragement or rebuke. When the Christian community needs guidance, it can rightly look to its prophets for a word from the Lord. When the community gathers to worship, it can rightly look to its prophets for inspired prayer or song, or words of improvement, encouragement, or consolation (1 Corinthians 14:3).
I have witnessed occasions when God has granted a prophetic word in response to people who sought it and occasions when he has not. I have already described a meeting in which God, through prophecy, gave a very practical solution for difficulties (see pages 49-50). Before that meeting, we were not particularly confident that God would speak to us directly on what were, after all, simple practical matters. Yet we received important prophetic revelation when we asked for it.
It is entirely appropriate for prophets to seek God for his word on any and every occasion. Perhaps God will speak, perhaps he will not. But it is the duty of the messenger to be in his presence, ready and eager to convey any word he may give.
“Stirring up” the prophetic gift
Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that “prophets can always control their prophetic spirits,” or as another translation puts it, “The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32). Paul means primarily that prophets can refrain from prophesying when that is appropriate. But I believe that there is also a positive aspect to the control which prophets can exercise over their gift.
When God assigns someone a responsibility in the Christian community, he also provides that person with the necessary gifts. God will not indicate that he has given an individual a mission of evangelism unless he also has given that person the gift to evangelize. And because the individual can count upon God’s power in the assigned service, he or she can take initiative in that service. For instance, a woman who knows that God has called her to an evangelistic service can place herself in situations where she will have to evangelize. It would be appropriate for her, as it was for Paul in Athens and Corinth, to assemble people for the express purpose of preaching the good news to them. She could then expect that God would supply the spiritual power necessary to open people’s hearts to the gospel.
The same basic truth applies to prophetic service. If God entrusts an individual with the task of serving the church as a prophet, that individual can count on God’s action when he or she attempts to serve prophetically. It is right, therefore, for a prophet to take initiative in prophecy. No one can prophesy unless the Holy Spirit is at work in oneself, but a prophet can “arouse” or “stir up” or “call into action” the gift that has been given. When Paul addresses Timothy, he urges him to “stir up” the gift he has been given (2 Timothy 1:6).
Spiritual gifts can be viewed as tools which God provides to help “build up the body of Christ” (see Ephesians 4:7-16). Those who are given these tools are entrusted with carrying out the corresponding tasks, just as a man who is a carpenter, for instance, is entrusted with the task for which his tools and his training suit him. The architect does not tell the carpenter every blow to strike with his hammer. Instead, the architect gives the carpenter blueprints and trusts him to make something according to those plans. This does not mean that a prophet can prophesy whatever and whenever he or she wishes. Prophecy will always depend upon the action of the Holy Spirit. But it does mean that a prophet can bring the power of the Holy Spirit into action. He or she can make the prophetic gift active when the occasion calls for it.
Prophets, in other words, can prophesy whenever it is appropriate, so long as they have a word from the Lord. Jeremiah did not have to wait passively for a moment of inspiration to strike him. He knew the Lord’s word for Israel, and he could bring the power of his prophetic gift into action simply by speaking that word. The importance of this ability to “prophesy” at the initiative and discretion of the prophet depends upon an understanding of the power of the prophetic word itself. Prophecy is more than simple communication of a message. It involves an action of the Holy Spirit, an unleashing of the power of the Holy Spirit. That spiritual power is a significant part of the prophet’s gift. Christians who know the Lord’s word for a particular time and place can repeat that word. But prophets can prophesy that word. They can declare it with full authority, and they can expect God to work through their declaration.
“Watching over” the prophetic word
The Lord told Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the other prophets of Israel that their responsibility went beyond the first time they spoke the word he gave them; they were to continue speaking that word until Israel either responded to it or finally rejected it. So too, those given the role of the prophet in the church have to repeat and insist upon the word which they have been given until God’s people hear it and respond to it.
Praying for the church
I believe that an integral and important part of the prophet’s task is unceasing prayer for the Christian community. The prophets, because they knew what the mind of the Lord was, were in a position to pray more effectually than other members of the community. They had a clearer picture of what God was doing, and so they knew when prayer was most needed. They were also able to pray true “prophetic prayers,” in which the Holy Spirit directed and guided their very manner and words. “Upon your wall, Jerusalem, I set watchmen. Day or night they must never be silent. You who keep Yahweh mindful must take no rest. Nor let him take rest till he has restored Jerusalem” (Isaiah 62:6, emphasis mine).
Prophets, then, are not people who simply leave themselves open to the possible inspiration of the Spirit. Rather, they are entrusted with a task demanding responsibility and vigilance on their part. They are to make themselves active in the role which God has assigned them.
IDENTIFYING A PROPHETIC GIFT
The Old Testament prophets knew they were prophets because they had experienced a definite and life-shaping encounter with God, an encounter in which God clearly gave them a prophetic assignment. That encounter made them prophets. The New Testament contains no accounts of prophetic “calls.” Undoubtedly there were some such calls from God; we know at least that Paul began his ministry as an apostle in response to such a call (Acts 13:1ff.; Galatians 1:1ff.). And we know that Timothy learned from a prophetic message that a particular spiritual gift had been given to him (1 Timothy 4:14). It is reasonable to suppose that some Christian prophets do experience a direct “calling” to a prophetic service.
But whether a person receives a direct call or not, the burden for determining who is to function as a prophet within the Christian community falls to the community, not to the prophets (see chapter five). It is necessary therefore to know how a true prophet can be identified. There are two categories of qualifications for the exercise of a prophetic ministry: the personal life of the prophet, and the manifestation of the spiritual gift of prophecy.
The life of the prophet
No one can effectively serve God in a position of real responsibility unless his or her life is solid and stable, in both its Christian and its normal human aspects. A person afflicted with serious emotional or psychological problems cannot be trusted with a place of responsibility and authority within the community. God offers healing and strength to those who need it, but they should receive that healing before they are allowed to function in a prophetic service (or any other responsible service). Furthermore, any person not living a strong and consistent Christian life should not be allowed to function as a leader of God’s people.
We will from time to time encounter individuals who seem to manifest impressive spiritual gifts, and try to claim a place of service in the community on the basis of their powers. Frequently their spiritual powers are genuine. But it is not spiritual powers alone that determine positions of service in the body of Christ. Some time ago our community encountered a man who seemed to “prophesy” with real power. His prophetic gift was, I believe, genuine. However, this individual also manifested significant emotional immaturity in his personal life. As a consequence, the community could not fully trust this person’s exercise of prophetic gifts. Since he could not be unqualifiedly trusted, it was better that he refrain from prophesying until he had attained the requisite emotional stability.
Manifestation of spiritual gifts
Many individuals in the community will experience “manifestations” of prophecy, but the simple fact of prophesying does not indicate that an individual is a prophet. Before crediting someone with a significant gift of prophecy, we must see in him a more powerful, consistent, and complex manifestation of the prophetic spirit. There are four primary characteristics of an abiding prophetic gift.
First, an ongoing and consistent exercise of prophecy. Most people in the community prophesy only occasionally, or they may prophesy regularly for only a relatively short period of time (perhaps two or three years). Not uncommonly, people who have newly entered the community will prophesy regularly for a while. Only when an individual prophesies regularly over a period of four or five years or longer should we begin considering whether the gift is a significant indication of his place of service.
Second, a prophet should manifest a powerful and effective exercise of prophetic gifts. True prophecy can be manifested with more or less spiritual power. A significant prophecy has an impact on those who hear it; it is life-changing and life-producing. We should look for “results” from the exercise of an individual’s prophetic gifts. If one’s prophecy consistently changes people, moves the community forward in God’s purpose – in short, has appreciable effect on the life of the community – then we can safely assume that God has given one prophetic gifts in important measure.
Third, a prophet should have the ability to “stir up” the gift. Prophets can be counted upon to exercise their gifts when the community needs them. They are reliable; and they can be reliable because they have been sufficiently equipped by God to fulfill their role. At times prophets may even learn what will help them bring their gift into action. Elisha asked a minstrel to play for him when the king of Judah asked him to “get the word of the Lord” (2 Kings 3:9-20). Many prophets have experienced times when songs and hymns which glorify the Lord “bring on” the prophetic spirit. Christians have long recognized that their environment affects their ability to turn to the Lord. Oftentimes prayer or song can dispose us to receive the word of the Lord.
When an individual is able to consistently make his or her gift effective for the life of the community, that is an indication that God has entrusted that individual with the prophetic service in a significant measure.
Finally, an abiding prophetic gift usually includes a true gift of revelation which operates consistently. One clear mark of a true prophet is revelation. Through the prophets God reveals mysteries, brings to light his plan, and makes known things which have been hidden. At times prophetic revelation concerns specific private matters. God revealed King David’s sin to Nathan so that the prophet could confront David and bring him to repentance. At other times God uses prophets to reveal some major aspect of his plan for the world. For example, the revelation that the Gentiles could take part in salvation without following the Law of Moses came in part through the prophets of the early church (see Ephesians 2:4-6).
Not all revelation shows us something entirely new. But many of the mysteries of the Christian faith will be revealed in greater clarity and with a greater fullness by the prophets. Through the many prophecies I have heard describing God’s love, I have come to a much fuller and deeper understanding of that love. This is not simply the effect of repetition. Some of those prophecies opened my eyes to the mysteries of the eternal and unfailing love of God. God had already revealed that love to the world, but through the prophets he has revealed it to me.
The foregoing characteristics of personal life and spiritual gift can serve as a guide for recognizing the presence of the spiritual gift of prophecy. But they can serve as a guide only – not as an official “checklist.” The gifts which Christ assigns to individuals differ. One apostle differs from another in both the degree and character of the gift received. Prophets will differ from one another in the same way. I know one man who seems to have a gift only for a kind of “inspirational” prophecy. Yet for some years now he has consistently manifested a powerful and productive inspirational gift. He is also able to “stir up” that gift. His prophetic gift is one of the greatest assets to community worship that I have ever witnessed. To a degree then, it is appropriate to refer to him as “a prophet.” He does not receive revelation, but still he is in some sense a true prophet.
Paul tells us that each person should use the gift he or she has received according to the measure of the gift given (Romans 12:3). Not all prophets are called to prophetic service in the same way or to the same degree. But there is among them a true “family resemblance.” In recognizing the likeness between members of the same family we are not surprised to notice individual differences as well: one may have blue eyes and another brown, and so forth. But there remains enough commonality among them all that we can discern their overall resemblance. Prophet may also differ from prophet in the way God uses him in his service.
RECOGNIZING PROPHETS IN THE COMMUNITY
A Christian community must be able to encourage and support those who have received prophetic gifts, and help them to grow in their exercise of those gifts. Prophetic gifts are given, not for the person who exercises them, but for the community. It is the community’s responsibility to both foster and oversee the exercise of the gifts. Therefore it is important to pay attention to who prophesies, and how their individual gifts operate, so that we can help them to grow and benefit as much as possible from the working of God in them.
We should not be eager to identify people as “prophets.” There is in some charismatic circles an eagerness to identify each person’s “gift” and to speak about “my gift” or “so and so’s gift.” The reality is far less simple. There are times when an individual exercises a particular gift in a striking and consistent manner, so that we are justified in saying that this person is, for example, “an evangelist” or “a prophet.” But we should not be quick to determine that someone is a “prophet” and bestow a title on them.
We need to devote the same careful wisdom to the discernment of all gifts among the Christian people. We ought not to call someone a prophet before we know that God has called that person to an ongoing prophetic service. It is equally unwise to withhold from a real prophet the freedom to grow and develop in his or her assigned service.
The picture of the prophet which emerges from the pages of Scripture and the early church writings is impressive. Rather than mere mouthpieces who passively respond when God picks them up, the prophets are conscious agents of God, gifted by God to be envoys, watchmen, and bearers of royal authority.
Prophets, as other members of the body, are subject to the authority of the community. But in their place of service they exercise a true “charismatic” authority, proclaiming God’s word and leading the community in its response to God. In their service to the Lord, prophets are subject to the community. But in its service to God, the community is subject to the authority of the word which the prophet brings.
- Jeremiah’s declaration that he cannot “hold in” the prophetic word (Jer. 20:9) is not a literal statement of compulsion. Jeremiah was speaking of the conviction, zeal and indignation which took hold of him when he saw what was happening in Jerusalem.
- Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. II, trans. D.M.B. (Stalker, Edinburg: Oliver & Boyd, 1965), 38.
- Avery Dulles, “The Succession of Prophets in the Church,” Apostolic Succession, ed. Hans Kung, Concilium, Vol. 34 (New York: Paulist, 1968), 53.
This article is excerpted from Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Spirit in the Church Today, Chapter 1, by Bruce Yocum, © 1976, 1993 The Servants of the Word. Revised edition published in 1993 by Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
See previous articles on Prophecy by Bruce Yocum:
- A Brief History of the Role of Prophecy in the Church
- Assessing Prophecy and Charismatic Renewal Today
- The Forms of Prophecy
- The Prophet’s Role
- The Importance of Christian Prophecy and Its Purposes for Us Today
Top image from Bigstock.com, © by paul shuang, stock photo ID: 324004429. Scripture quote added by editorial staff.
Bruce Yocum (1948 – 2022) was involved in leadership and teaching for many years in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the Covenant Communities Movement which began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in the Sword of the Spirit. He travelled widely throughout the Sword of the Spirit communities to equip and train community leaders in North America, Europe and the Middle East, Latin America and the South Pacific. Bruce Yocum was a life-long member of the Servants of the Word, an international ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He served as Presiding Elder of the Servants of the Word for thirteen years (1989-2003).