When we think and talk about prophets in the church, we conjure up a multitude of differing images. From Old Testament images of bearded loners pointing a critical finger at the masses and foretelling impending doom to ecstatic future tellers of the charismatic church or dooms day bullhorn wielding street corner preachers of our culture. Prophecy, however, is so much more than we often consider. Since God began to shape his people as a distinctive culture and people (when he led them out of Egypt) prophets have played an important role for God’s people.
So what is the role of the prophet and why do we need them? Do we still have prophets in the church today? If we don’t what are we missing? In my study about prophets, Walter Brueggemann’s book The Prophetic Imagination has been very formative in helping to understand the role historically, and currently of prophets in the church. Walter’s hypothesis for the book is this, “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.”
That is a huge statement about the prophetic role. It assumes first that the culture and community that God desires is different than the consciousness and perception of the culture around us. Secondly, it places an immense task at the feet of the prophet. The prophet not only needs to understand the heart of God, but to nurture, nourish and evoke others to a life lived in response to God’s desires. These are huge tasks, but ones that clearly are important for the church. As we look at Biblical accounts of prophets we find that they played important roles for the people of God.
Numbers 11:29 -But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD’s people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”
Numbers 12:6-8 Listen to my words: “When there are prophets of the LORD among
you, I reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams. 7 But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. 8With him I speak face to face,
clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid
to speak against my servant Moses?”
The prophets obviously had an important role because they were indwelt with the Spirit and carried the vision of God. When they erred from that calling, the punishment was swift.
Deuteronomy 13 – If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, 2and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” 3you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. 4It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. 5That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the LORD your God,
The prophets communicated to the people of God, on God’s behalf. They spoke and reminded the people of who they were, where they had been, and where God promised to take them. Brueggemann suggests that this is the manner in which the prophetic voice accomplishes the tasks set above. By uniting the memory of God’s works in the past with the vision of future in a reality for how we should live today, the prophet offers both a critical and energizing voice to the people of God. As you read through the minor prophets, you find the often the prophets were writing to people of God who had forgotten their past, lost their vision of the future, or had forgotten how to live while in the present.
We too fall trap to these same struggles as the church. We live in this tension between Christ’s resurrection and our own. Too often we forget who we are; a people called apart to live differently than the world around us all for God’s glory. Or, we forget what is to come; the promise of eternal glorification and realized salvation. Losing either one will lead to a loss of perspective on life today. It is the tension we feel as we long to be in the world but not of the world, to live for eternity, but experience salvation today, and to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth while longing for Christ’s imminent return. This tension is hard to acknowledge and hard to live in. Maybe that is why we ignore it so well. It is easier to comfortably live in this world and pretend that eternity is far off and this life now is the only life we were created for. It is comfortable to conform to the world, its standards, and its vision of the future, while forsaking God’s. It is easy to forget who we are, where we came from and where we are going.
Thus, we need the prophetic voice. We need a voice that shakes us, to the bone sometimes. We need that voice in our churches, in our governments, in our pulpits and in our homes. We need those who will not forfeit the past for the future or the present. We need those who with courage will seek the heart of God and help us live into it today and tomorrow. So wherever the prophets are, may they be filled to overflowing once again by the Spirit. May they energize us to a vision of a new reality by accurately telling us where we are and how we have lost that vision. May they redirect, reclaim, and recover the church as God created it to be. May you whom God has gifted, have the courage to be prophets.