The prophet, and the prophetic are often greatly misunderstood in the church world. In the churches we attended while I was a child, it was commonly believed that John the Baptist was the very last of the prophets, and that therefore it was impossible for anyone in this present era to be a prophet. As I grew older, asking why the book of Acts referred to Paul, Silas, Agabus, and others as being prophets years after John had been executed was a sure recipe for trouble.
For reasons unknown, and perhaps not too mysterious, certain elements of the Spanish-speaking churches had been taught to believe something which contradicted the Bible outright, and apparently many among them had not investigated the question for themselves. In the Biblical record, there are many instances in which God’s people began to fall into error.
“In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
This final verse of the Book of Judges tells us a good deal about our own human tendency to operate according to our own perception and understanding, which are all too often misguided or just plain wrong. In the case of the churches which did not believe in the existence of contemporary prophets, it should not be too surprising that there were other serious problems which also arose from a lack of understanding of the Bible. This brings us to our point, which is the illustration of the purpose and function of the prophet.
Among the diverse purposes of the prophetic is to reveal the mind of God to His people, and to bring order and clarity into matters in which error or confusion have arisen. This is sometimes through prophetic utterances which correct, rebuke, uncover secret sins, or which simply communicate a message of repentance, hope, or encouragement. In all cases, the prophet and his message are always intended to restore God’s people to unbroken fellowship with the Lord.
Who, or even what, then, is the prophet? The word ‘prophet’ is used more than 400 times throughout the Bible. The first use of the word occurs in Genesis 20:7.
“Now therefore restore the man his wife; for he is a prophet, and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live: and if thou restore her not, know thou that thou shalt surely die, thou, and all that are thine.”
The word used here in the Hebrew is nabiy, which defined as follows:
nabiy‘ naw-bee’ from 5012; a prophet or (generally) inspired man:–prophecy, that prophesy, prophet. (05030, Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible)
The root for this word is nabá (05012, Strong’s), which signifies to speak by inspiration. In the historical context of the word, we ought to understand that such inspiration was assumed to be divine in the sense that a god or gods were moving the prophet to speak or sing. Thus we must understand, that the Biblical prophet is someone who is gifted in such a way as to operate under divine inspiration. The Biblical record is clear that some prophets did not always receive their inspiration from God. For example, in 1 Kings 22 there is a group of about 400 prophets who were given a lying spirit by God himself in order to assure the Ahab would go to his doom, and there were prophets who served other gods, as in the case of Elijah’s confrontation with those who served Baal in 1 Kings 18.
We delve into the identity and definition of the prophet in more detail in The Practice of the Prophetic: A Comprehensive Study, but for the purposes of this book we will define the Christian prophet as one who receives inspiration and communication from God by way of an innate gift. The prophet is perhaps unique in that the office appears to be conferred in the womb, and the gift is often seen to function to some extent whether the prophet is saved or not.
We can therefore see that the prophet is ordained in the womb, before any decision to serve God has been made. It is perhaps because of this that the prophet’s gift appears to be ‘tuned in’ even before he has come to know Christ as Lord and Savior. When I was in college and not living for God at all, I would sometimes lay my hand on a textbook and jokingly say to my roomate, “I’m learning by osmosis.” I would then proceed to class and impress the professor with my understanding of material I had never even read. In one case, this understanding was so detailed that the professor commented that in eighteen years of teaching on that book, he had never realized the particular details I had brought up. To this day, I still haven’t read that book. Thus from personal experience, I have known the prophetic gift to ‘work’ even when one is not Spirit-filled or in right standing with God. This is not to say that we ought to live in such a manner, or that the prophetic is ever to be used according to our self-will. Both are dangerous paths to tread, and which lead only to damnation. Remember that Lucifer’s fall began with two words: “I will.”
That being said, the prophet thus appears to be distinct from those with the gift of prophecy, who typically are only prophetic when the gift is in operation. The gift of prophecy is bestowed by the Holy Spirit after the individual has believed the Gospel and has been filled with the Holy Spirit. This does not lessen the value of people with a gift of prophecy; it only means that their purpose is different. However, in the case of both the prophet and the person gifted with prophecy, the pursuit of a close walk with God and the maturity that will result from that walk are not only beneficial, but necessary for their growth into the fullness of their purpose in His kingdom.