Making Sense of the Old Testament Prophets: 2

As we saw in the previous blog, one way of making sense of the Old Testament prophets is to summarise their ministry according to these two dimensions:

  • Vertical dimension: focused on protecting and maintaining the covenant relationship between God and his people.
  • Horizontal dimension: focused on God’s concerns in the world.

In this blog I’m going to unpack the Horizontal dimension a bit more, and look at how the prophet’s passion for God was often channelled into a passionate engagement with the world around him. Because, at the end of the day,

You can’t worship God and be unmoved by the things that move God.

The prophets of old knew both the ecstasy of being caught up with the glory of God and the agony of seeing the broken world from God’s perspective. For many of them, as they encountered God they simultaneously encountered the divine pathos: the deep emotions in the very heart of God. And a common outcome of this was the prophet being used by God to challenge the various injustices prevalent in the society of the day.

The best place to start is with Moses. Thousands of years may have passed but his embodiment of the prophetic role, along both dimensions, still resonates clearly. Moses heard from God and became the Lord’s friend, and it’s Moses’ ongoing relationship with God that marks him out as the prototype for all other prophets. And when God was moved by the suffering of the Israelites and initiated his great rescue plan he chose Moses as his prophet:

“And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt”  Exodus 3:9-10

Moses stands as a towering figure over the Old Testament. The Exodus story is the narrative of the Old Testament and Moses is the protagonist of the Exodus narrative – the great archetypal story of an enslaved people becoming free. God raised up Moses as his representative, commissioned to lead his people, and to confront the evil regime of Pharaoh. Through Moses, the first prophet, God’s reality crashed headlong into the dominant imperial culture, into Pharaoh’s version of reality, so that the false gods were exposed and so that God’s people could break free from oppression and exploitation.

Moses gives us a great framework for understanding the Horizontal aspect of prophetic ministry and helps us make sense of how many prophets after him engaged with God’s heart for social justice. In the Old Testament we see that part of the prophet’s role was as political commentator and activist: concerned with challenging empire and society, and taking the side of the marginalised and vulnerable. They spoke truth to power, and experienced anguish at injustice and oppression. 

Amos makes this very clear:

Let justice roll on like a river…  Amos 5:24

The Horizontal dimension of the prophet’s ministry is about calling for change: for societal transformation so that the poor, downtrodden and marginalised are protected. This is about advocacy for the powerless and being prepared to stand with the oppressed. The Hebrew prophets were not afraid of emphasising the need for God’s people to live ethically and to love justice.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”  Isaiah 58:6

Something that has helped me make better sense of the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, especially in the Horizontal dimension, is Walter Brueggemann’s remarkable book “The Prophetic Imagination” and his insight into the prophet’s role of nurturing an alternative consciousness to that of the dominant culture. It’s a two-step process:

1. Criticise The prophetic task is to first of all name the realities of brokenness, exploitation and injustice. This means being able to stand apart from the prevailing culture and being able to speak to it, with eyes to see and ears to hear. The prophet has to be prepared to lament, to allow God to “break my heart for what breaks yours” and to then to name things for what they are.

2. Energise The second part of the prophetic task is to energise and empower God’s people by ministering hope and expectation, and propelling them into godly action. This is the prophet helping people to imagine an alternative to the status quo and anticipate God’s renewal of all things. The prophet helps us stay attuned to God’s promises and remind us that God is faithful.

In holding these two together – criticism and energising – the biblical prophetic tradition challenges the status quo of oppression and injustice and enables God’s people to embrace an alternative way of thinking and acting.

What does this mean for us?

One thing we can take from the prophets of old is that an embrace of prophetic ministry is not just about seeking God’s voice and presence, but also being prepared to represent his holy concerns. As we pursue God’s heart we will certainly encounter his heart for justice and righteousness. A mature prophetic lifestyle is about being first prepared to sit with God and lament, and then to rejoice with God and dance upon injustice.

Making Sense of the Old Testament Prophets: 1

The prophets of old are an interesting bunch. Their words are challenging and their behaviour is very strange at times. But we can’t ignore them.

The Old Testament prophets make up a sizeable chunk of the Bible; indeed a whole genre of biblical literature is devoted to them. If we include both the writing prophets who produced the Bible’s prophetic literature (Isaiah through to Malachi) as well as the additional characters identified as prophets (such as Elijah) their ministry spans virtually the whole of the Old Testament narrative. Thousands of years after they were recorded their writings and actions speak powerfully to the contemporary church and to the world around us.

But how closely related are the Hebrew prophets of old to the fivefold prophets of the New Testament and the church today. What can we learn from their lives, words and ministry?

There are two dangers in studying Old Testament prophets: at one end of the spectrum we ignore them completely; at other end we base our understanding of prophetic ministry wholly on them.

To properly take hold of the role and ministry of prophets we have to move away, to a certain extent, from an Old Testament perspective and grasp a broader paradigm more influenced by the new covenant we now live in. The church of Jesus is born into the age of the Spirit and we require new wineskins. But at the same time we have to find a way to allow the prophets of Israel to speak into the realities of the church today and to learn what we can from their ministry and their experiences of God. When we take time to understand their context they have much to teach us.

It’s important to recognise that the Hebrew prophets operated in a very different context compared to the New Testament church. In Old Testament times the ability to hear the voice of God was quite rare. We see a concentration of the prophetic gift in a small number of people. Most people couldn’t hear God’s voice, because they didn’t have the Holy Spirit. And without the Holy Spirit they couldn’t weigh and discern either. So the onus was on the prophet to get it right and deliver the prophetic word faithfully. Under the old covenant, the prophets were commissioned by God to speak his words with an absolute divine authority, and the people listening to these words were expected to treat them as the ‘very words of God’. There was no room for error and the response to a false prophet was to have him stoned (Deuteronomy 18:20).

So, if that’s the context, what was at the heart of their role and ministry?

As we seek to understand the breadth of their calling, a helpful framework is to consider the two primary dimensions of prophetic expression:

  • Vertical dimension: focused on protecting and maintaining the covenant relationship between God and his people.
  • Horizontal dimension: focused on God’s concerns in the world.

We see the Old Testament prophets engaging in both dimensions. In our next blog we’re going to focus on the Horizontal dimension. But here are some reflections on the Vertical dimension.

The Vertical: At the heart of the prophets’ message was the reminder of who God’s people really were. A people defined by their covenantal relationship with Yahweh the one true God. An alternative community to every other culture around them, shaped by God’s incomparably alternative reality.

The prophets held out hope to God’s people by reminding them that, at the end of the day, they belonged to Yahweh.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour… Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you.” Isaiah 43:2-4

In communicating God’s heart to his people the prophets did all they could to keep the Israelites’ attention on God. They helped them understand their present circumstances through the eyes of God, and encouraged them with words of future hope: speaking of a time when he would bring restoration to all things.

But there was an ongoing battle – an internal battle – that overshadowed the prophets’ ministry and in some ways defined it: the relentless pull of idolatry.

Idolatry was the prevailing sin of the Israelites, the dark cloud they could never escape from. The idols they turned to held out a false promise and a quick fix. The prophets knew that these idols appealed to a distorted sense of identity: if I bow to this idol my life will be better and people will like me. In succumbing to idolatry God’s people were denying their true identity and living out of a false one. Jeremiah conveys this reality very powerfully:

“Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror,” declares the Lord. “For my people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Jeremiah 2:13

The agonising message that Jeremiah had to deliver was: in turning away from your true love, you are tearing up your covenantal identity.

That’s why the call to holiness is so central to the prophet’s message and they would constantly promote worship of Yahweh because worship is one of the best ways to stay true to the covenant and stay faithful to God.

The tragedy of the story is that the people of God forgot who they were. And under the old covenant the only response the prophets could give to an idolatrous people was judgement and death.

For us today we can celebrate our new and better covenant, but we would be wise to heed the warnings of Israel’s prophets: to stay true in our devotion to God and to pursue his heart and presence above all else. Let’s seek to grow a prophetic culture that helps ensure our eyes stay fixed on Jesus and him alone.

What’s Discipleship Got To Do With It?

Here at Accessible Prophecy we love our coaching huddles! This month I’m training up six new coaches who will soon be starting their own prophetic huddles: the multiplication process that this training represents is a core value for us and a great way to grow healthy prophetic culture in many different contexts.

As many of you know from first hand experience, at the heart of the huddle you find two questions:

            What is God saying to you?

            What are you going to do about it?

These two questions illuminate the fundamental process of discipleship that Jesus presents to us time and again in the gospels, and that he uses at the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

Discipleship is at the very heart of our faith. The call on our lives is not simply to believe in Jesus but to actively follow him as disciples. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be constantly looking to Jesus to hear what he wants us to do, and then living it out. Disciples intentionally choose to listen and obey.

Discipleship is intrinsically linked to the prophetic. To follow Jesus faithfully requires a sensitivity to his voice: that ability to discern what he is saying to us in the midst of many other clamouring voices fighting for our attention. So if we want to grow a discipleship culture one of the first things we have to do is teach the people of God how to hear him, both in the written Word of scripture and through the ‘now’ words of the Spirit.

But if it’s true that we need the prophetic in order for discipleship to happen, then we absolutely need discipleship for the prophetic to flourish. A mature prophetic culture is one that is thoroughly rooted in discipleship. Without an emphasis on discipleship the prophetic is highly vulnerable to all sorts of pitfalls and hazards, such as lack of accountability, isolation and judgmentalism.

I’m thankful that here in my church in Sheffield we’ve been able to develop a prophetic culture in the midst of a strong culture of discipleship. And this has been so beneficial. It’s meant that the prophetic is rooted in accountability, and done so much to ensure there is a healthy emphasis not just on “What has God said?” but also on “What are we going to do about it?”. It’s meant that even the most gifted prophets see themselves as disciples first, and has helped develop a culture where the prophetic is normalised: we can all learn to hear God’s voice.

A discipling culture brings with it a necessary emphasis on community – we can’t do discipleship in isolation! – and this is vital for a healthy prophetic culture. The New Covenant model of prophetic ministry is very much rooted in community, and we need to create environments where prophetic expression is embedded in strong accountable relationships.

As we seek to grow a discipleship culture in which the prophetic can flourish it’s very important that we don’t confuse the ability to hear God clearly with spiritual maturity. It’s all too easy to look at an anointed prophet who is getting accurate revelation and therefore assume that he or she is a mature disciple of Jesus. Anointing is not an indication of character. Putting the emphasis on discipleship above gifting helps us to embrace wholeness and maturity. It also helps to avoid any kind of spiritual hierarchy.

It’s worth noting that some leaders are reluctant to actively disciple people who are more prophetically gifted than them. The insecure leader is going to ask, “How can I lead this highly anointed prophet who hears God better than I do?” But this is not fully understanding the process of discipleship. Discipling others is not about hearing better; it’s about holding people accountable to what God is saying to them. It’s about calling people to fruitfulness and engagement with God’s Kingdom. It’s about allowing others to imitate us as we pursue relationship with Jesus.

So let’s celebrate discipleship! We can’t grow a healthy prophetic culture without it.

Expectancy

If we expect God to speak to us then we’ll probably hear him. If we don’t, then we probably won’t.

Now, I realise that’s quite a bold statement, but I observe the reality of it frequently, both in my own life and in many people I meet. Expectancy is such a vital component of hearing God’s voice and if we’re going to operate in prophetic gifts we need to have a well-developed sense of expectation that God is going to do something and say something today.

Expectancy goes hand in hand with Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 14:1 to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. If we’re going to pursue these wonderful gifts we need to first of all desire them and then be expectant of the Spirit’s generosity and faithfulness in giving them to us.

Expectancy comes from knowing to a greater and greater degree the truth of who God is – relentlessly good and amazingly generous – and the truth of who we are – beloved children, filled with the very Spirit of truth and revelation. God is our perfect heavenly Father who delights to speak to his children; he wants us to hear his voice. An expectant mindset is nurtured as we root ourselves in the truth of our covenant identity and the kingdom purposes for which God has called us. Life in the Spirit means every moment of every day is pregnant with possibilities.

In order to grow our expectancy we need to recognise the things that can thwart and frustrate it: disappointment and fear of failure being two of the usual suspects. We have to persevere in our pursuit of God’s voice. Developing expectancy is a daily choice and an attitude to cultivate. Having a mindset of expectancy means that we have developed a particular way of thinking: “I’m a child of God; of course he’s going to speak to me, and he’s going to use me to be a channel of blessing for others. I can seek his heart for everyone I meet today.”

Each one of us needs to be growing our expectancy as individuals, but we also need to be developing a culture of expectancy in our churches. A healthy, mature prophetic culture is one in which people are excited and expectant that whenever we gather together God is present and active in our midst and that the Spirit of Revelation might just show up with some incredible truth to share with us: a community that expects to hear God with a corporate attitude of expectancy. Too often the reason we’re not seeing the kingdom of God break out in our midst with signs and wonders is because we’re not actually expecting God to do very much.

Expectancy flows from the presence of God and a renewed mind: it’s first and foremost an internal process, where we shape our way of thinking. But there is also an external process, a practical aspect of cultivating expectancy, where we intentionally create space to hear God and create opportunities to use the gift of prophecy. It’s often as simple as making room to listen to God, actively seeking his revelation together. Whenever we’re gathered we can get in the habit of saying, “Let’s just wait on the Lord for a few minutes…” It’s also about giving people plenty of opportunities to practice prophecy in a safe and releasing environment.

We can practice expectancy by starting every day in joyful anticipation of an encounter with God’s heart and his voice. And by asking him about who we might meet and how he wants to bless them. Let’s believe the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:11

How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

The Prophetic Process: Responding

In a recent series of blogs we have been exploring the ‘prophetic process’ and considering how hearing God’s voice is much more than a one-off event, but rather something to be properly unpacked and worked through. We’ve looked at the ‘tuning in’ part and the ‘discernment’ part. And finally we come to what in many ways is the most crucial element of the whole process: what we do in response to God speaking to us.

As we consider how to respond to God’s voice we find ourselves at the place where the prophetic intersects with discipleship. In many ways this intersection is at the heart of our relationship with Jesus. Because as Christians we know that the call on our lives is not just to believe in Jesus but also to follow him as disciples. And we can only consistently and effectively follow him if we learn to recognise his voice and then respond with obedience.

As disciples of Jesus we are constantly looking to him to hear what he wants us to do – and then living it out. That’s the essence of discipleship: hear and obey.

Listen to what Jesus says at the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.Matthew 7:24

It’s not enough to simply hear Jesus’ words to us – we also need to align our lives with them and obey.

We can have the most incredible 3D technicolour visions, encounter angels, and hear the audible voice of God (and there’s nothing wrong with pursuing those things), but if we don’t respond – if we don’t allow God’s voice to change us and change the world around us – there is a problem somewhere. We have to learn how to walk in obedience to whatever God is speaking to us about.

When God speaks to us he speaks for a purpose and he looks for a response. There is a profound intentionality to God’s spoken words to us. We need to be active responders to his revelation rather than passive receivers.

We need to remember that the voice of God is here to change us, not just make us feel good. When God speaks to us it’s an invitation to transformation. Sometimes the transformation will be internal – a change of heart or mind – and sometimes the transformation will be external – where we need to change our behaviour or environment – but God is always in the business of renewal. He speaks into our lives as a Good Father who desires to conform us to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29) and to use us as instruments of transformation in the world around us.

So, how do we become good responders to God’s voice? How do we learn to walk into the fulfilment of his precious words to us?

As I’ve coached many people over the years one thing I’ve noticed is that the ones who are prepared to make concrete, specific and accountable plans in response to God’s voice are usually the people who step into the greatest levels of transformation and grow fastest in the prophetic. When God speaks to us, whether he is speaking deeply into our identity, showing us how to tackle homelessness in our city, or anything in between, we need a plan. True discipleship is more than a theoretical acknowledgement of the truth of what he’s saying or vague notions of how we might chew over his words to us. We need to learn to respond intentionally and wholeheartedly every time the Good Shepherd speaks into our lives.

So the next time God speaks to you, for you, how about asking yourself these two questions:

  • How do I start to step into this in a very practical way over the next few days?
  • Who am I going to be accountable to?

The Prophetic Process: Discernment

“OK, so what exactly do you mean by that?”

Have you ever said that to God?

I’m doing a series of blogs over the summer on the prophetic process, the process that starts with revelation from the heart of God, and finishes, hopefully, with fulfilment and transformation. As I said in the first of these blogs, prophecy is not a one-time event, but rather a long-term process, as we align our lives and properly walk out the word from God. To have a prophetic lifestyle – and to be a disciple of Jesus – involves engaging with the whole of this process.

The three parts to the process are: first of all tuning in to God’s revelation, next discerning the interpretation, and then actively responding to what God is saying. It’s really helpful to separate out these three parts and to be conscious of where perhaps we are stronger or weaker, where we need to be more intentional.

In this blog I’m focusing on the middle part, the discerning part, where we work out the essence of what God is actually saying to us – the full meaning behind the vision, dream, word. The part where we properly unpack it and interpret it.

“What does this lovely picture of a waterfall actually mean?”

“What on earth was God saying to me through that dream of a white horse last night?”

This is all about asking God what the revelation means and getting clarity on exactly what God is saying to us through it. It’s about accurately interpreting the revelation so we then know how to respond to it.

Discernment is a vital part of the prophetic process, one that we can’t rush; and unfortunately it’s usually the part of the process where most errors are made. The easiest mistake to make is that we stick our own interpretation on God-given revelation. In fact most problems or controversy associated with prophetic ministry are actually not because of weak revelation, but because of wrong interpretation. It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions and read our own interpretations into genuine revelation.

To do interpretation well we have to lay down our own reasoning and agendas, and actively enquire of the Lord. We have to ask him!

It’s important to recognise the symbolic nature of a lot of God-given revelation; sometimes prophecy is pretty strange and mysterious. To be honest I sometimes wish that God’s communication was more straightforward at times. I’m rather jealous of Moses:

“When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; 
he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles.” Numbers 12:6-8

But I think this is a good reminder that a healthy engagement with the prophetic flows out of deep relationship with God, and perhaps he chooses to speak in riddles at times so that we have to lean in extra close to him to hear the interpretation.

In whatever way God may be communicating with us, and revelation can take many wonderful and varied forms, we need to get to a point of clarity so we know exactly what he is saying to us. Yes, sometimes the interpretation comes quickly and clearly, but there are many times when we need to actively seek God for it.

When I’m helping other people process their prophecies I will often suggest they express the essence of God’s word to them as if Jesus was standing next to them and speaking directly to them. This is often a brilliant way of distilling down the meaning of the prophecy to the clarity of a few simple words.

It’s good to remember that we don’t have to work everything out by ourselves and often it’s really helpful to involve other people in the interpretation process.

As we seek to get greater clarity, good questions to ask are:

  • Why has God brought me this revelation at this time? What are his purposes?
  • What scripture is relevant?
  • What truth does God want me to get hold of?

Discerning the interpretation of prophecy is something we need to take seriously. It’s a skill we can all grow in, being confident that the Holy Spirit will faithfully lead us. So the next time you receive something from the Lord, don’t be afraid to ask him exactly what he means by it. And then listen carefully for the explanation.

The Prophetic Process

I’m the sort of person who loves getting to the bottom of things. I enjoy unpacking concepts and ideas and finding the fundamentals of an issue. So it’s good to reflect on what is actually going on when God speaks to us, and what our posture should be to fully enter into the impact of God’s voice. At the heart of our prophetic experiences is, I believe, something I term the ‘prophetic process’.

You see, there is a tendency in charismatic circles to focus on the delivery of the prophetic word: that’s what we get excited about. The prophet coming and telling us whatever it is that God wants to communicate to us. The prophetic event.

But a mature prophetic culture requires something much deeper and, to be honest, something much more time-consuming: a process in which we sit with the revelation, we discern the interpretation, and we embrace the application.

Let’s remind ourselves of the potential for transformation that comes with God’s spoken word to us:

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is My word that goes out from My mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11

God speaks. His word goes forth. And in that moment is contained unimaginable potential for transformation and fruitfulness.

I love that fact that God is the Great Communicator: he talks to his people very often, and one of the joys of being a disciple of Jesus is learning to tune into his voice. But we mustn’t forget that there is something profoundly intentional about his words to us. They are never random or accidental. God always speaks for a purpose.

We may be very good at hearing God, but if we don’t engage properly with what he’s saying and respond with obedience we will waste the full potential of his spoken word to us.

To fully engage with the intentionality of God’s words to us, and to embrace the transformation he intends them to achieve, we need to understand the three vital parts of the prophetic process:

  1. Tuning in: recognising and receiving revelation from God. It’s good, if possible, to make space to fully dwell in the revelation for a while. It should be a relational, not functional, experience.
  1. Discerning: unpacking the revelation (whether it’s a prophetic picture, word or dream) and working out the essence of what God is actually saying to us through it.
  1. Responding: working out the application and what it looks like to walk in obedience. “If this is what Jesus is saying to me, what am I going to do about it?”

This process is necessary regardless of what God might be saying to us. With everything from hearing him say, “I love you”, to hearing him for the future direction of our church, or how he wants us to combat homelessness in our city, this process enables us to align our lives with his heart and intention for us.

To be mature practitioners of prophecy we need to take hold of each of the three parts separately. We need to encounter the Holy Spirit in each part of the process, and involve our faith communities as we walk it out. And as we dig deep into each of the three parts we will come face to face with both lament (things need to change!) and hope (God is able!).

I’m going to look at each part of the process in turn over some future blogs, but in the meantime I’d invite you to consider one or two significant words that God has given to you for you recently and reflect on to what extent you have really taken hold of them. Are you seeing the full measure of transformation and fruitfulness that God has intended for these words he has spoken to you? If not, which part of the prophetic process needs some more attention?

Understanding Prophets (Part 2)

What do present-day prophets bring to the table? What’s their unique job description?

A problem we want to avoid in our churches is that of prophet-shaped people who are not operating according to their calling, either due to lack of understanding or lack of acceptance. So we need to do all we can to grasp the bigger picture of what prophets offer the church and world, and ensure they are deployed effectively.

Ephesians 4 shows us that prophets are one of five roles gifted by Jesus to his church, and that all five roles have the purpose of building up the Body of Christ to maturity. It is only when all five gifts are fully released to equip the body that we will be able to truly reflect the full measure of Christ and express his glory to the world around us.

We all have a role to play; each and every one of us is a gift to the church. If you are wired as a prophet (and that’s something we explored in the previous blog) then the church and the world need you to grab hold of this calling on your life and do something with it. Please don’t withhold the particular grace that God has entrusted to you, because it’s not for your benefit but for the benefit of the whole Body of Christ.

So what do prophets bring and what should they be doing?

In the previous blog we looked at how prophets are acutely aware of the gap between God’s glory and the reality of the world around us, and how they are motivated to articulate and then bridge that gap.

In the Old Testament this ‘gap-consciousness’ was played out in the prophets being God’s mouthpieces and calling the people of God back to covenant faithfulness. It also meant speaking words of judgement and warning: sort yourselves out or suffer the consequences of turning your backs to God; if you persist in foolishly walking away from God – “defying his glorious presence” (Isaiah 3:8) – then there will be trouble.

A New Testament perspective on prophets doesn’t lose the gap-consciousness, but we now need to view things in the light of the life of Jesus and outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. The way we understand ourselves as prophets needs to be defined according to Jesus’ ministry as the true and perfect prophet. And post-Pentecost we celebrate the fact that the gift of prophecy is available to all.

One of my favourite verses about the prophetic is found in Acts 15:32 and gives us a glimpse of how the prophetic role was worked out in the early church:

Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers.

Prophets have a vital role to play in developing the spiritual health of people, as they lean into God’s heart and speak out words of encouragement.

How else do prophets serve the church? What does their brilliant contribution look like?

  • Listen and perceive: prophets are particularly attuned to hear and communicate the heart of God; they ensure the church has eyes to see and ears to hear. Because of their keen spiritual sight they have a key role to play in releasing vision – they see the bigger picture of where God is calling us and enable us to lift our eyes and perceive future potential.
  • Equip: prophets help people hear God for themselves, so that every follower of Jesus can discern his voice and obey his leading.
  • Orientate: prophets have a deep hunger for God, a passion for his presence, and a desire for everyone to draw closer to Jesus. They constantly re-focus attention back on God and call God’s people to covenantal faithfulness. They are sensitive and alert to compromise and complacency, guarding against idolatry and promoting radical obedience.
  • See creative solutions: prophets often have the ability to stand back from the immediate and see creative solutions and develop vision for situations others don’t see. They are often highly intuitive and can think outside the box.
  • Maintain sensitivity to spiritual warfare: prophets are sensitive to the battle going on in the spiritual realm. They discern strongholds and equip the church to take authority over the powers of darkness.
  • Champion social justice: as prophets pursue God’s heart they develop passion for God’s concerns and they prioritise issues of justice. They speak against oppression and call society to change.
  • Ask questions: prophets help God’s people develop an alternative consciousness by questioning everything that does not reflect the values of God’s kingdom. Their questions allow God’s reality to tear down illusion and deception and the church to be sharpened and strengthened.

I hope you can see that prophets have a vital role to play in creating a mature, Jesus-shaped church. We need to promote an understanding of their role, as well as resourcing and championing their ministry, so that the whole church can have a healthy prophetic culture and consciousness.

UNDERSTANDING PROPHETS (Part 1)

Not many people are that comfortable going around calling themselves a ‘prophet’. It’s not how I would introduce myself to someone at a party. But Ephesians 4 tells us that Jesus has gifted this bunch of folks to his church along with the apostles, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. And these roles are not just for leaders: they are for every follower of Christ.

Fivefold thinking enables us to view prophets as simply ‘one of five’: some people are prophet-shaped, a God-given role, and alongside the other fivefold callings, their ultimate aim is to build up the body of Christ:

…to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:12-13)

That is some calling!

The problem with the word ‘prophet’ is that it has so many Old Testament style associations that can lead to misunderstanding about the prophet’s ministry. Over a couple of blogs I want to explore the role and calling of prophets, but in order to do that we have to move away (to a certain extent) from an Old Testament perspective and grasp a broader paradigm more influenced by the new covenant we now live in.

In this blog I’m going to focus on how prophets are wired. What makes them tick? And in the next blog we’ll be looking at how their role works out in the life of the church.

More than anything, prophets have a passion for the heart of God. That’s where their attention keeps returning to, that’s what they’ll always be chasing after.

Prophets are focused on God and they are very spiritually aware. Therefore they are acutely conscious of the gap – ok the huge gulf – between all that is beautiful, sacred, loving, righteous and life-giving in God’s presence…. and all that is broken, messed-up, unjust, sinful and dying apart from God’s presence.

The primary impulse of the prophet is to somehow bridge that gap. To find a place – any place – where they can stand between heaven and earth and facilitate some sort of connection. To search God’s heart for the words or imagery that will draw people back to God, for actions that will demonstrate a God-shaped alternative. Prophets translate God so that the world can re-orientate itself back towards him. They eagerly pursue whatever words, imagery or action will bring the much-needed realignment of created with Creator.

The gap is a place of tension for prophets: tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, the ‘actual’ and the ‘ideal’. They are simultaneously focussed on the glory of God and, at the same time, sensitive to the existing reality in the world around them, with all its injustice and unfaithfulness. Because of this the prophet is someone who at heart wants to challenge the status quo, bringing an alternative consciousness to the dominant culture, and questioning everything that does not reflect the values of God’s kingdom. For a prophet this often feels that they are like a fish swimming up stream.

In occupying the gap prophets are wired both for worship and for warfare. Their passion for God’s heart carries with it urgency for reverence and devotion. They prioritise prayer and the pursuit of God’s presence. But their sensitivity to injustice and unrighteousness creates such a holy discontent that they are intent on confronting the powers that oppress people, whether cultural or spiritual.

Prophets are enthusiasts for God, carrying a message that he is so much closer and so much better than we can think or imagine. With their eyes turned heavenward, and awake to divine promise, they long for God’s renewal of all things. They love to release hope and expectation in the Body of Christ, anticipating the new thing that God is doing.

Prophets are wired for the message of transformation: “We have to change! Things have to change!” Remaining as we are is never an option for a prophet. Why stay here when there is something better around the corner? They know that God is on the move and want the rest of the Body to catch up. As they pursue God’s heart they discern the work of the Spirit in refining and purifying his people and speak a message of transformation to the world around them.

*******

Does any of this resonate with you personally? You are probably a prophet if you:

  • Have a passion to see people walk more closely with God
  • Love prayer, worship and pursuing God’s presence
  • Often get a sense of what God is saying about a situation
  • Long for every Christian to hear God’s voice
  • Tend to see things a little differently from everyone else
  • Find your heart breaking for the poor, oppressed and marginalised

Whatever fivefold ministry we most closely identify with it’s important that we get a clearer understanding of the role of the prophets and embrace the particular grace they bring to the Body of Christ.

Understanding the Prophetic Function

What does it mean to be a prophetic church, a prophetic body of people?

To fully answer this question we need to see the big picture of exactly what Jesus has called his church to be. As much as I love prophetic ministry and mentoring prophetic people, there is more to an holistic prophetic culture than just activity and experience: we need a broader paradigm than is currently found in many charismatic churches. If all we focus on is giving people prophecies, we miss out on the breadth and depth of prophetic spirituality. If all we focus on is prophets, we miss out on seeing the way the church itself can be prophetic in its very nature.

So to understand the prophetic function of the church we have to step back a little bit from prophetic ministries and individual callings, and begin to view the church in terms of who we are called to be as the Body of Christ. The prophetic function is part of the church’s intrinsic identity and purpose: how we are shaped and defined. We are called to be a prophetic community, and this community needs to look like Jesus.

As I said in my last blog, our number one goal as the Body of Christ should be to imitate Jesus as closely as we possibly can. The church is defined by Jesus: it is Jesus who shows us who we are and what we are called to do. All authentic Christian ministry is based on him. The church, by its very nature, is called to be Jesus-shaped, and the fivefold ministries from Ephesians give us a clear perspective on what a Christ-like church should look like. Jesus has given these five identities to the church so that we can be all that he has called us to be, fully representing him in the world.

So as we consider how the church in its very nature can be prophetic – embodying the prophetic function – we need to embrace the prophetic pattern we see in the life of Jesus. Our life as a prophetic people must be directly formed around the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. We can only define a prophetic church according to Jesus’ ministry as the true and perfect prophet.

When we look at Jesus’ life and ministry we see that he is uncompromisingly prophetic in a whole host of ways:

  • He is the revelation of the Father: he perfectly shows us what God is like.
  • He is the Word of God in flesh.
  • He is the mediator of the New Covenant between God and people.
  • He confronts evil and breaks the power of sin.
  • He calls people to return to God and live righteously.
  • He speaks truth to power (both religious and secular).
  • He only does what he sees the Father doing.
  • He is led by the Spirit and ministers in the power of the Spirit.
  • He prioritises prayer and worship.
  • He speaks prophetically of the future.
  • He discerns the hearts and minds of people.
  • He challenges injustice and unrighteousness.

Jesus is the perfect expression of the prophet and so gives us the blueprint for a mature, holistic, multi-faceted way of being the prophetic church. We need to be prophetic in the way that Jesus was prophetic. Not just as individuals but as a Body with a collective prophetic consciousness.

The really good news is that as we choose to emulate Jesus’ prophetic role in our churches we get to participate in his very work and ministry as the greatest prophet there has ever been. The prophetic function is deeply rooted in the person of Jesus. In building a mature, holistic prophetic culture in our churches we are continuing his work, not having to manufacture something new. And as we do this, Jesus will be more present in our midst as his perfect prophetic identity gets expressed through his people.

So what does a prophetic church look like?  Here I’m using the 3-dimensional pattern of Jesus’ life as a framework for casting a vision for what the mature Jesus-shaped prophetic community can look like:

Upwards to God: Deep spirituality

As a prophetic church we have a passion for the heart of God, desiring to feel what God feels.

We prioritise worship, prayer, and the presence of God.

We are prepared to challenge idolatry and cultivate a hunger for holiness and obedience.

We create a culture of intentional and expectant listening, making space for this in all parts of church life.

The presence and holiness of God is tangible and accessible.

Our church is a place where people’s personal covenantal relationship with God is encouraged and enhanced.

We are developing a culture where individuals have confidence they can hear God for themselves.

Inwards to each other: Thriving prophetic ministry & community

We prophetically reveal the Father’s heart in the way we love each other.

We help each other connect with God’s heart so that together we are strengthened, encouraged and comforted.

The Spirit’s presence is manifested through his revelatory gifts as we meet together.

We demonstrate prefigurative community – radical, holy, covenantal – witnessing to God’s presence and power.

We embrace a prophetic ministry that is servant-hearted, inter-generational and inclusive.

Out to the World: Bringing transformation

We rejoice in revealing the true nature of God to the world around us.

We are connecting with God’s heart for the neighbourhood, city and nation.

We are walking in the power of the Spirit as we serve our communities.

We take a stand against injustice and unrighteousness and share God’s concern for the poor and oppressed.

We confront powers and principalities.

We are not afraid to speak truth to power.

This is the prophetic function alive and well in the church of Jesus. This is the prophetic ministry of Jesus reflected in his people. This is the big picture of the prophetic church. And be encouraged: it’s not too difficult to get there!