It is quite possible that our understanding of 'The Prophet' has been unduly biased by cultural distance and some of the more famous prophets' activities that we have been familiar with since children. We often think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future and performs miracles. There is no doubt that a good number of prophets, especially those of the Old Testament, do just that. However none of them do it that much. The largest of the 'major prophets' can be read out loud in less than a day yet some of them have ministries spanning decades. The aim of this brief paper is to delve into some of this 'missing time' in an attempt to get a clearer view of what a prophet actually is and how the role may be relevant today.
The first thing to note is that the prophet was far more prevalent in Israel than might be immediately imagined. Whilst we only read of one or two at a time by name there were schools of them. We first read of this in Samuel where we find he was the head of such a school. Elisha was also a clear leader of such a school. Even in the times of Elijah when there were only 7000 worshippers of God we know that there were 100 prophets: that is one prophet to every 70 people. We find in Elisha's day that the school had grown so large that it needed new accommodation. So what did all of these people do?
The simple answer would be to say that prophets prophesy. So what does it mean to prophesy? According to Easton prophecy can be defined as 'prediction'. Many object to this definition as they note the prophets spoke about things other than the future. However I think the objection is flawed. It is true that prophets did not always speak of the future however is it not possible that they were not prophesying at that point? I am a computer programmer and I cook food; but cooking is not a part of computer programming. Even when I sit at the keyboard and type I am not always programming.
I suggest that prophecy is the act of predicting the future. Even in those cases where a prophecy concerns a past event it is with a view to a future consequence. We should not too that the Bible defines the test of a prophet as his ability to predict the future. In Deu 18:21-22 the question is specifically raised: "how shall we know if this person speaks from God?" The response is that if the predictions do not come to pass then it is not from God.
It should be noted however that the double negative of the previous sentence is not just the clumsy grammar of a scientist turned prose-writer. The ability to predict the future is not enough to vouchsafe that someone is a prophet from God. Deu 13:2-3 deals with the case of someone predicting the future but then suggesting something that is contrary to the rest of scripture. In that case the person is not to be followed. We see therefore that a prophet is validated by two different factors: the ability to predict the future and a consistency with truth that has already been revealed.
Based on the above it is possible that prophecy was not the primary purpose of most prophets but that it was actually their method of validation. It is interesting that if you ask most believers to name the 'best' Old Testament prophet that they will almost never pick the one that the Bible does. According to Deu 34:10 Moses was the greatest prophet until the one that arose 'like unto him' (Deu 18:18) which is generally accepted to be Christ. Moses did predict the future and he did perform miracles yet in the life of Moses we see he spent most of his time settling disputes, leading, teaching and organizing.
So what is a prophet? Again I love the definition in Easton. He notes that the root from prophet is nabi which means "to bubble forth, as from a fountain," hence "to utter". Put simply a prophet is someone that bubbles forth the message from God. I suggest that most of that time the message will simply be the application of truth already presented in scripture and always it will be consistent with truth already presented in scripture.
So is a prophet really just a preacher with foresight? Well I believe that many good preachers are prophets however I don't think they are synonymous. A key feature of every single prophet is that they were culturally relevant. They did not simply generate theology; God placed them in a situation to show how a given event should be handled according to His truth. As a teaching preacher I might well deliver a message on predestination today that is just as relevant (or otherwise) to a group of people in twenty years time. A prophet has a message from God for today and about today.
If the above is accepted then it has some severe ramifications for the way we handle missions today; especially the way we handle new mission fields. Many that live in countries that have a strong Christian tradition will state that prophecy does not exist today. This may well be true, or largely true, within their environment. Over the years scripture will have been applied to most of the extant culture. New issues will arrive but a strong group of discerning elders will have been adequate to ensure that the Body of Christ develops the immunity it needs to this new threat.
Regrettably many of the interpretations that have grown (legitimately) in a given culture become sufficiently ingrained that they become considered Biblical mandates rather than interpretations of Biblical truth. Then when a missionary endeavor to a new culture occurs the cultural adaptations of the sending nation are carried alongside actual truth and are taught hand in hand. This leads to a form of cultural vandalism. Worse it can result in an inappropriate legalism in the new church that is forced to develop Western ideals alongside Gospel truth.
The solution to the problem of cultural evangelism is the gift of prophecy. The person or ideally persons that have been validated and whom are thus qualified to interpret actual Biblical truth in the context of the target culture need to do so.
I'm sure many conservative feathers are ruffled at the suggestion of 'new truth'. However much of what we conservatives believe today is only half biblical. Take the notion of dressing decently. This is a Biblical mandate. But what does it mean to dress decently? In a tribal society where all the women are topless should a Christian woman cover up? Should a missionary woman cover herself in that situation? I cannot answer the question. However a prophet that had been sent to that culture might well be able to do so.
In this paper I have attempted to show that prophecy is the prediction of the future. Further I have suggested that the ability to prophecy is a necessary condition of being a prophet as is a complete consistency with revealed truth. My belief though is that the day job of a prophet is simply the application of existing truth to the lives of those around them. Teachers and elders fulfill most of this role within established churches. In new mission fields gifted prophets should be able to help shape a Christian culture that is suitable within the secular culture of the church being formed.