The most basic definition of a prophet is someone who acts as an emissary for their god. Note the small g. Every religion has their prophets, spokesmen for their deities. Christians are no exception, of course, but there is one significant difference between the false and the true prophet. I will get to it in a moment.
The first time I was made aware of the nature of a true prophet in a way that hit me viscerally was in Israel. Of course, it was in Israel. And it was an orthodox Jewish professor at Hebrew University who really defined the term. The Christian rules for prophetic ministry that I was aware of at the time centered around 100% accuracy.
Shalom Paul, (read his list of publications here: http://jewishhistory.huji.ac.il/Profs/HU/bible/paul.htm) was Chair of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University and Chairperson of the Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation, among other honors. If anyone understands the nature of an Old Testament prophet, it has got to be him. His lecture on the topic began with the perception of the 100% accuracy model, of which he was fully cognizant as the Christian plumb line.
And he said it was not true. That accuracy was not the most important hallmark of the prophet. It was something else entirely. More than that, the Old Testament prophets weren’t even 100% accurate. His lecture was on false prophets, a term that does not exist in the Old Testament. There is no Hebrew terminology for a false prophet in the OT.
Of course, the litmus tests that I had been made aware of came from Deuteronomy 13: 1-2 where God says if a prophet urges you to follow another God, then he is not from Me. Ok, check. Got that one down.
The second litmus test is from Deuteronomy 18: 18-21. The verse says, ““when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.” Ok, check. So how could Dr. Paul claim that 100% accuracy was not the key? After all, if you think Christians take the Word seriously, you should really make the acquaintance of some Orthodox Jews.
The problem with that interpretation is that some of the tried and true OT prophets would be disqualified as prophets. Moses hit the rock, spoiling a prophetic metaphor about Jesus. In Ezekiel 26:7, the prophet declares that Tyre will be destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Not even just destroyed but leveled to the ground. Sure enough, Nebuchadnezzar set up siege works against Tyre. For thirteen years he fought Tyre and Tyre held on doggedly. Nebuchadnezzar left. Tyre went on.
So here are some other, perhaps better qualifications to be a prophet. Turns out they read like instructions for every Christian.
- A true prophet prays for unbelievers. Abraham, arguably the first prophet in the OT, begs God to save Sodom and Gomorrah. When I hear Christians prophesying disaster in the world but neglecting to beg God for mercy for humanity, I doubt their hearts. In fact, most of the dire prophecy in the Old Testament is optional. God usually said things like, “If you don’t stop sacrificing your kids and worshiping idols, these will be the consequences.” Israel was usually given a choice.
- A true prophet intercedes for believers. Moses begs God several times to spare the people. First, there was the golden calf. Next, there were the ten cowardly spies who tell Moses the Promised Land is unconquerable. Each time, God seems ready to wash His hands of the pesky Hebrews. Each time, Moses reminds Him that He is merciful and tolerant. In each case, God relents. He doesn’t wipe out the calf worshipping Hebrews and He decides to let the children into the Promised land.
In fact, God tells Jeremiah not to talk to Him about Israel in the 11th chapter. Why? God doesn’t want Jeremiah to plead because God doesn’t want to change His mind!
When I hear people prosing on constantly about how this and that is wrong with the church without a heart for the church, I dismiss them. A true prophet would be on his or her knees pleading for God to move in His church out of mercy and love. Everyone can be a critic. Few choose to be intercessors.
- A prophet is willing to be utterly rejected by others, even his or her own community. Jeremiah, Isaiah, and others were rejected and murdered by their own communities. Jesus Himself, the fulfillment of all prophecy and the law, was crucified. Over 100 million Christians have been martyred in the last hundred years. This is far more than all the martyrdoms in the previous 1900 years.
So what did Shalom Paul say to end his lecture? He said this, “The true prophet is the one who is willing to take on God against God.” In Ezekial 1:5, the prophet accuses the other prophets of failing to enter the breaches and repair the walls. They did not intercede.
I took away a number of conclusions that day. The first was a deeper understanding of the personhood of God. He is a God with whom I can engage in argument and persuasion. He listens.
My other takeaway was that God values devotion. The OT prophets laid down their lives for Him, but not because He demanded it of them. In fact, I believe that God’s revenge on the slaughter of His people will be pretty fierce. At least according to John’s revelation. The interesting thing about that? John is the disciple who writes the most about love.
So can it be that God is calling every Christian to be a prophet? We know what the consequences of unbelief are. We know who He is and what He did on the cross. So you want to be a prophet? Intercede, stand in the breach, rebuild the broken places. Surrender your lives to God.
Come to think of it, I think I might be called to be a prophet. What a wonderful and terrifying prospect it is. But then all love requires courage, does it not? All love requires sacrifice, does it not? If our goal is to become like Christ, then our path is clear. Stand up and prophesy to this world that God made and loves, even with His own life.
These are some of the best out there plus one by Shalom Paul that will increase your understanding of the Bible dramatically.