But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die. You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
He said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
What does it mean to be a prophet? The image that dominates the modern consciousness about a prophet is someone who predicts the future. However, this definition is also commonly criticized in favor of the prophet as “forthtelling” God’s word to God’s people. Walter Brueggemann offers a more specific definition in his widely acclaimed The Prophetic Imagination:
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us… The alternative consciousness to be nurtured, on the one hand, serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness. To that extent, it attempts to do what the liberal tendency has done: engage in a rejection and delegitimizing of the present ordering of things. On the other hand, that alternative consciousness to be nurtured serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move. To that extent, it attempts to do what the conservative tendency has done, to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give.1
Yet, it may be said that Brueggeman’s definition is more of an analysis of what happens when the prophet speaks and acts, but that is not necessarily the specific purpose the prophet seeks to accomplish.
One critical aspect of the prophetic ministry is that prophets verbally communicate. While this may seem obvious, it is important to emphasize that speech and writing is a common medium by which the prophet communicates what God is speaking. Moses is sent to speak to Pharoah. God puts His words in the mouth of Jeremiah. Ezekiel is called to speak with the authoritative “Thus says the Lord God.”
However, to define the prophet as simply communicating words that come from God is needlessly reductive. The prophets not only communicate God’s purposes through words but also through actions. God repeatedly tells Moses to take some action and then God powerfully acts at the same time, such as when Moses stretches his hand over the sea as the Red Sea divides. Repeatedly, Ezekiel is to portray the future judgment upon Israel. Hosea’s prophetic ministry is intertwined with his dysfunctional marriage with Gomer as a sign of God’s relationship to Israel. While the prophets spoke on behalf of God, they did not simply speak but they also acted.
The nature of these prophetic actions, both verbal and non-verbal, were not intended to declare something true from God, whether it be about the future or simply to give knowledge about God. Rather, prophetic action is to be properly understood as participating in God’s bringing about His purposes in the world. Israel is lead and sustained in the wilderness by God acted through Moses. Samuel does not predict who will become king of Israel, but rather God through Samuel anoints Saul and later David to rule over Israel. Isaiah is called to make the people dull of understanding. When Jeremiah is called, God does not say that he will predict what will happen to nations, but that Jeremiah will himself determine political futures. The prophets speak and act with power that brings about a new future.
Yet, this power is not the native power of the prophet. There are many people who speak and act who can change the world through their own power and authority. Political leaders, CEOs, popular pastors, etc. all have a power with their words and actions that can impact what happens in the future. This power comes from the status that is intrinsic to them, as their popularity, wealth, position, etc., procures the ability to impact the future. Yet, for the prophet, their power can not be reduced to their authority and status within society. While they are like any other human whose words and actions can impact those around them, the power that their words and actions have upon the world around them is not determined by their influence. Instead, the power that they have is ultimately rooted in the power of God to change the world in accordance to the words and actions of the prophet. The power of their own actions by themselves would be puny and ineffective by itself. However, insofar as they are speaking and acting in accordance to God’s will, their words exhibit and demonstrate a power in the world that spans beyond the capacity of their own influence.
What this means is this: the effectiveness of the ministry of the prophet is not connected to the social status and approval the prophet has among the people. We may be inclined to think of prophets as authorities over people for multiple reasons. One looks as Moses and the later judges of Israel, where the prophetic ministry of communicating God’s word and the administrative ministry of leadership are combined, and we may be inclined to think a prophet has social power. We may also look after the fact of how the words of the prophets in the Scriptures now have authority over us as believers and so we may be inclined to transfer the authority of Scripture to the authority that the prophetic role has. Consequently, we may look at the prophet as one whose words declare what people should think and believe. Yet, a close look at the role of the prophet is not as a person who has authority over people, even if they may have an additional role that gives them authority. Prophetic action is not about making declarations about God that people are to listen to simply because the prophet speaks; their words are not an authority. Instead, the power of prophetic action is always tied to the God who acts through and alongside the prophet.
So what then is the purpose of the prophet, if it isn’t to authoritatively declare what people should believe? It is to demonstrate God’s purposes, both through word and action, that brings about a transformation of the world around them that far outstrips the social status that the prophets have. God works in synergy with the ministry of the prophet, where the words and actions of the prophet portray God’s purposes to the people, which the people either accept or reject. Through the prophet, people catch a glimpse of God’s will, whether they believe the prophet is sent from God or not, and it this glimpse from a true prophet that will allow those who receive the prophet to comprehend when God does act, or when they reject the prophet they are then setting themselves against God’s purposes. At the center of the power of the prophet is that by demonstrating God’s will, the hearts and the minds of those who hear and witness them are changed to either receive or reject God when He manifests His power and love to the world.
John the Baptist is a prime example of this, as the forerunner to Jesus Christ. John calls people to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord and he baptized people as a demonstration of the baptism of the Spirit that Jesus gives. The ministry of John the Baptist is a prophetic ministry that provides a demonstrative glimpse of what the Word made flesh accomplishes. John the Baptist understood this, as he recognized that the visibility and status that his prophetic ministry did have would decrease as the One who ministry was to prepare people to receive came to the forefront. Whatever influence and de facto authority John the Baptist may have come to have, it was this type of power that defined his prophetic ministry, but it was the demonstrative foretaste of God’s love and power that defined his ministry.
Perhaps this is why Deuteronomy 18.20-22 defines the true prophet as one whose words come to pass. Rather than trying to say that prophets predict the future, perhaps it is in effect understanding that the words of the prophet are a foretaste of God’s purposes that demonstrate what God is doing. To that end, perhaps future fulfillment is not to be understood as a sign of prophetic authority, but rather it is the power of the prophet whose demonstrative words and actions inspired by God are participating in God’s activity among His people and the entire world. While Israel is called to listen to the prophet (Deuteronomy 10.15), nothing is said about obeying what the prophet says. Perhaps this is because the prophet is not an authority, but simply an agent by which people can come to comprehend God’s will because people would shrink in fear at God directly speaking to them (Deuteronomy 10.16).
To that end, this leads to a radical way of understanding the prophetic ministry of Jesus and the cross, which I will address in a later post. To give a preview, rather than trying to ground the significance of the cross in terms of something atonement theory about the effect of Jesus’ death based upon some metaphysical change that occurs as a consequence which allows us to be saved, the cross is the place where Jesus’ prophetic ministry comes to the fullest demonstration of God’s loving purposes to the world that has rejected Him. In other words, salvation comes by perceiving God’s love of sinners in the cross, with the resurrection as the prophetic demonstration of the general resurrection of the eschaton. More on that later, though.