A prophet was an individual who received a call from God to be God's spokesperson, often connected with some crisis that was about to occur, and then announced God's message of judgment and/or deliverance to Israel and the nations. The importance of this office can be seen in the fact that the word "prophet" occurs over 300 times in the Old Testament and almost 125 times in the New Testament. The term "prophetess" appears 6 times in the Old Testament and 2 times in the New Testament.
The Derivation and Meaning of "Prophet." The derivation and meaning of the word "prophet" has been a matter of controversy for several centuries now with no prospect of closure on this debate. Since most of the solutions to this enigma have been based on etymologies or terms in cognate languages, it is small wonder that no resolution has been forthcoming. Linguists are especially agreed that the most that etymologies can yield are only various suggestions. The only safe course in resolving the meaning of a word is to depend ultimately on usages in contexts.
Early attempts to explain the meaning of prophet were based on trying to derive the noun from a verbal root. The older Gesenius Lexicon edited by Tregelles hypothecated that the noun "prophet" came from the verb naba [[;b"n], in which the original final letter, ayin, was softened into an aleph (naba [[;b"n]); this verb meant "to bubble up" or "boil forth." Hence the prophet was one who entered an ecstatic state of utterance, pouring forth words automatically under divine inspiration. Almost all scholars now reject such a suggestion because it remains unattested and cannot be demonstrated from known rules of philology.
More recent suggestions have shifted to viewing the word as being denominative in form, as coming from a noun rather than a verb. If the noun nabi [ayib"n], "prophet, " is the original form, then the suggestion of W. F. Albright that the Akkadian verb nabu, "to call, " is helpful in suggesting that the passive meaning may well be "one who is called [by God]." If the verb is taken in its active form, the prophet is "an announcer [for God], " the meaning favored by König, Lindblom, and Westermann. However, there still exists the possibility that an unknown Semitic root exists that perhaps gives the real source from which the noun "prophet" is derived.
However, in spite of the absence of any definitive consensus on the real meaning of the word "prophet" there are at least two classical texts that demonstrate the usage of this term and its meaning in the biblical texts. The first is Exodus 7:1-2 (cf. Exod 4:15-16 ): "Then the Lord said to Moses, See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharaoh." What could be clearer? A prophet (nabi [ayib"n]) is one who receives a word from God, just as Moses acted in the place of God in passing on the divine revelations he received from the Lord to his brother Aaron, now functioning as a prophet. Moreover, a prophet is authorized to communicate this divine message to another. Thus Aaron was to function as Moses' mouthpiece.
The second classical text is Numbers 12:6-8: "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; he sees the form of the Lord." In the case of Moses, vis--vis all other prophets, God would speak in direct conversation"face to face." Other prophets would receive no less a revelation from God, but in their case the means God would use to communicate his word would be the less direct, somewhat enigmatic form of dreams and visions.
Clearly, then, a prophet is an authorized spokesperson for God with a message that originated with God and was communicated through a number of means. When God spoke to these spokespersons, they had no choice but to deliver that word to those to whom God directed it.
The Call of the Prophet. It is impossible to demonstrate from the text of Scripture that each person called to be a prophet received a specific call from God; however, that fact may be explained by the brevity of our records and by the fact that it was not the purpose of Scripture to record all such details. It is enough for us to know that in many cases there was such a definite call from God, as the testimonies of Elisha, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel demonstrate.
It is true, nevertheless, that there were many who "prophesied" who were not called to be prophets, but were called to be judges, leaders, or priests. Thus, Gideon delivered Israel from the hand of the Midianites, acting on rather detailed instructions from the Lord as to how he was to effect such a deliverance, much as a true prophet would receive revelation from God ( Judges 7:2-8 ). David is specifically said to be a prophet in Acts 2:30, yet his primary call in life was to be king over Israel. And few prophets could rank or rate as high in esteem as Moses, but his call was primarily not to the office of prophet but to being a leader of God's people in the exodus ( Exod 3:10 ). Therefore, we conclude that many more individuals "prophesied" than those who were specifically called to the office of prophet.
It is true that Acts 3:24 speaks of "all the prophets from Samuel on, " making Samuel appear to be the first to prophesy. Samuel was not the first person to prophesy, however, for "Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied" (Jude 14). Enoch was well before Abraham's day, much less Samuel's. Psalm 105:14-15, in referring to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, urged, "do my prophets no harm." Many others could be included in this list of those who exercised this gift prior to the days of Samuel, including Moses, Aaron, Miriam ( Exod 15:20 ), Eldad, Medad, the seventy elders ( Num 11:24-29 ), Balaam (Num. 21-24), Deborah ( Judges 4:4 ), and Minoah and his wife ( Judges 13:3 Judges 13:10 Judges 13:21 ).
The official institution of the office of prophet took place in Moses' day ( Deut 18:15-22 ): After God had warned Israel about attempting to get supernatural information from bogus pagan sources ( Deut 18:9-14 ), he announced that he would "raise up for [them] a prophet like [Moses] from among [their] own brothers" (v. 15). God would "put [his] words in [the prophet's] mouth and [the prophet] will tell [the people] everything [God] commanded him" (v. 18).
In Deuteronomy 18:15-22 and Deuteronomy 13:1-5 God listed five certifying signs by which a true prophet of God could be recognized: (1) a prophet must be an Israelite, "from among [his] own brothers" ( Deut 18:15 ) (Balaam is the exception that proves this rule); (2) he must speak in the name of the Lord ("If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name" [ Deut 18:19 ]); (3) he must be able to predict the near as well as the distant future ("If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken" [ Deut 18:22 ]); (4) he must be able to predict signs and wonders ( Deut 13:2 ); and (5) his words must conform to the previous revelation that God has given ( Deut 13:2-3 ).
Elisha is one of the earliest individuals in Scripture to receive a specific call from God to be a prophet. Even though the call was mediated through Elijah, it was nonetheless divine in origin. In 1 Kings 19:15-16, God directed the disheartened Elijah to "Go back the way you came and anoint Elisha the son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet." While the text does not indicate whether the oil of anointing was poured over the head of Elisha, it does note that Elijah found Elisha plowing in the field, whereupon Elijah "threw his cloak [the prophetic mantle] around [Elisha]" (v. 19) and as a result Elisha immediately left his oxen and ran after Elijah. Indeed, as Elisha later requested, a double portion of the Spirit that rested on Elijah fell on him ( 2 Kings 2:9-14 ). The miracle of the parting of the waters of the Jordan River, with the use of the mantle that had dropped from the ascending Elijah, was God's further attestation to both the validity and reality of that call of God.
Isaiah describes how he felt when he saw the Lord on a throne in his temple ( Isa 6:1-5 ). It was such an overwhelming experience that he was filled with the impropriety of his being in the presence of a holy God, much less being called to serve such a high and exalted Lord. However, the seraphim took a live coal from the altar and touched Isaiah's lips, thereby purging his sins and iniquities (vv. 6-7). This was followed by a voice that inquired, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" Isaiah's answer was immediate: "Here am I. Send me!" (v. 8). Even though this call does not come until we are six chapters into the book, it is not to be concluded, as some interpreters have complained, that this was not Isaiah's original call, for part of the call of God was in the desperate spiritual vacuum that had grown up in Israel. Isaiah 1-5 sets the backdrop against which the call of God to Isaiah was issued. Isaiah's call in chapter 6 involved the four significant elements: a theophany, the purification of the prophet's lips and heart, the commission to "Go!" and the content of the message he was to proclaim.
Amos had not been unemployed, with no other option but to become a prophet. On the contrary, he was a most successful shepherd in Tekoa and a grower of sycamore-fig fruit ( 1:1 ; 7:14 ). It was the Lord who "took" him from tending the flock and the orchards and commanded him, "Go, prophesy to my people Israel" ( 7:15 ). In fact, Amos protested that he was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet ( 7:14 ); therefore, no one was to think that he merely fell into this occupation, or that he sought it as a career goal. He did not! It was the compelling call of God that forced him to leave what he was doingand apparently doing with no small degree of successand directed him to prophesy in the name of the Lord to a culture that had become sensate and sin-sick.
No less direct was God's call on Hosea. The first three chapters of his book reveal how his own personal story mirrored the desperate state of affairs that northern Israel found herself in and how deeply offended God, Israel's spiritual husband, was at all that had happened. Just as resolute as God was in his call of Hosea, so too was Hosea in his resolve to love his wife Gomer even after she had forsaken him for other lovers. After bearing three children to Hosea, whose very names were as symbolic as the message and love of this man for his estranged wife, Hosea wooed back his wife again as God would ultimately his people Israel.
Jeremiah's call came even before he was formed in the womb ( 1:5a )! In that prenatal period, God set Jeremiah apart and "appointed [him] as a prophet to the nations." The Lord himself would "put [his] words in [Jeremiah's] mouth" ( 1:9 ) and make him like a "fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land" ( 1:18 ). In retrospect, Jeremiah felt overpowered and powerfully constrained by the Lord. This divine constraint is one of the most characteristic elements in God's calling of his prophets.
Ezekial, like Isaiah, was given a vision of the greatness of God and his glory. The whole scene of the throne, with the spectacular radiance of the glory of God, was to assure Ezekiel that nothing less than the personal presence of God could be expected to go with him wherever he went. The throne of God was situated on wheels that were solid and thus able to go in any direction his servant Ezekiel went.
Even though the prophets professed strong feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness ( Isa 6:5 ; Jer 1:6 ), they nevertheless could not resist the strong divine compulsion they were under ( Jer 15:20 ; Ezek 1:3 ; 3:14 ; 8:1 ). Their "accreditation" came from God ( 1 Sam 3:20 "all Israel recognized that Samuel was attested [or better still: was accredited] as a prophet of the Lord" ).
The Terminology of Prophecy. The most common term for prophet (occurring over three hundred times in the Old Testament) is nabi [ayib"n]. The feminine form of this noun, nab"a(h) [h'ayibn], is used six times of women who performed the same task of receiving and proclaiming the message given by God. These women include Miriam, Aaron and Moses' sister ( Exod 15:20 ); Deborah ( Judges 4:4 ); the prophet Isaiah's wife ( Isa 8:3 ); and Huldah, the one who interpreted the Book of the Law discovered in the temple during the days of Josiah ( 2 Kings 22:14 ; 2 Chron 34:22 ). There were false prophetesses just as there were false prophets. The prophetess Noadiah was among those who tried to intimidate Nehemiah ( Neh 6:14 ).
Another general designation for these servants of God is "man of God, " appearing over seventy-six times. Nearly half of these references (36) are used of Elisha, fifteen of the unnamed prophet in 1 Kings 13, and the other twenty-five are scattered: five refer to Moses, four to Samuel, seven to Elijah, three to David, two to Shemaiah, and five to unnamed individuals. Another general name for the prophets in Scripture is "My servants." This title is first used of Moses in Joshua 1:1, but it appears with a fair degree of frequency in Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
The prophets are also given figurative names. Haggai is uniquely called the "Lord's messenger" ( 1:13 ), while Ezekiel is called a "Shepherd" (chap. 34) and a "Watchman" (chap. 33).
The oldest term, however, is the participial form of the verb "to see, " ro'eh [h,aor]. Apparently this was the older name for a prophet, for 1 Samuel 9:9 notes in an aside, "(Formerly in Israel, if a man went to inquire of God, he would say, Come, let us go to the seer, ' because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.)" The term is used in six out of a total of thirteen times in the Old Testament to refer to Samuel, with the only occurrence in the prophetic books proper coming in Isaiah 30:10"They say to the seers, See no more visions!'" In 2 Kings 17:13 seer is used in parallelism with prophet, thus also showing the equation of the two terms.
Another participial form of the verb "to have a vision" or "to see a vision" is hozeh [h,z'j]. This word can also be translated "seer" or "visionary." It appears sixteen times in the Old Testament. The priest Amaziah called Amos a hozeh [h,z'j], "seer" ( Amos 7:12 ). The name is also applied to David's seer, Gad ( 2 Sam 24:11 ), and to Hanani and his son Jehu ( 2 Chron 16:7 ; 19:2 ). Only in 1 Chronicles 29:29 are the three terms, roeh, nabi [ayib"n], and hoeh used together while referring to Samuel, Nathan, and Gad respectively.
A roeh, then, was one who was given divine insight into the past, present, and future so that he could see everything from lost items to the great events of the last days. A nabi [ayib"n] was one who was called of God to announce the divine message, while a hozeh [h,z'j] was given messages mainly in visions.
The Prophetic Activity. It is of more than just passing interest to learn how the prophets received their messages from God and how they delivered them to their intended recipients.
The prophets were neither especially precocious savants who could render wise counsel at will nor were they mere automatons through whom God spoke as they remained in a zombie-like trance. They were mere mortals with differing abilities and with the human capacity to make mistakes. Thus, when the prophet Nathan was asked for his own human opinion as to whether David should build the temple for God, he enthusiastically urged the King to do so. But Nathan spoke as a mere mortal; God had to instruct him to return and give a divine answer to the question prefaced with the prophetic formula of divine authority: "This is what the Lord says!"
Oftentimes a prophet knew only a portion of the divine will. For example, Samuel knew that he was to anoint one of Jesse's sons, but he did not know which one (1 Sam. 16). His guess was that it would be one of the older sons, but it was only after David, Jesse's youngest son, stood before him that he knew that he had been looking at external appearances while God looked on the heart of the one who was to be anointed as king.
How did God communicate his word to his prophets? In rare cases, God spoke in an audible voice that could be heard by anyone who might have been in the vicinity. Such was Samuel's experience when he heard his name being called out in the middle of the night ( 1 Sam 3:3-9 ). Moses spoke directly with God on Mount Sinai ( Exod 19:3-24 ). Elijah would later come to this same cave, where God would converse with his thoroughly disheartened servant ( 1 Kings 19:9-18 ).
More frequently, the prophet received a direct message from God with no audible voice. Instead, there must have been an internal voice by which the consciousness of the prophet suddenly was so heightened that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that what he said or what he was to do was exactly what God wanted done in that situation. In 1 Kings 13:20-22, a prophet suddenly rebuked the man of God from Judah with a word that he said an angel had given to him. The fact that what he said came to pass validated his claim that it was from God, even though that same prophet had previously lied to the man he now rebuked in the name of the Lord.
So accurate was this type of communication by a man of God that "Time and again Elisha warned the [Israelite] king so that he was on his guard in such places" ( 2 Kings 6:10 ). When the enraged Syrian king demanded to know where the leak was in his organization, the answer was, "None of us [is on the side of the king of Israel] , but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom" (v. 12).
God also communicated with his prophets in a third way: by opening the prophet's eyes so that he could see realities that ordinarily would be hidden. Thus, just as the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam's donkey so that she saw what Balaam at first could not see ( Num 22:31 ), so God opened the eyes of the prophet Elisha's servant so that he could see the angelic armies of the Lord that surrounded Samaria were indeed greater in number than the Syrian armies ( 2 Kings 6:15-17 ).
The fourth way that God communicated with his prophets was the extensive use of visions, dreams, and elaborate imagery. God's word was sometimes clothed in symbolic imagery that left a firm imprint on the mind of the prophet and his listeners. Some of the images were explained in the very same context. For example, the head of gold on Daniel's image was the nation Babylon with its king Nebuchadnezzar while the stone that grew to fill the whole earth was the kingdom of God ( Dan 2:37-39 ). In other instances, the imagery was drawn from revelation that had already been given to God's people. Thus the Book of Revelation makes extensive use of such Old Testament symbols as the tree of life ( Rev 2:7 ; 22:2 ; cf. Gen 2:9 ; 3:24 ); the key of David ( Rev 3:7 ; cf. Isa 22:22 ); and the four horseman ( Rev 6:1-8 ; cf. Zech 1:8-11 ). Some symbols, however, are deliberately left unexplained; hence the partial enigmatic quality of prophecy.
The visions God gave did not come at any special time. Some came while the prophet was awake; others came while the prophet was awakened from his sleep or was sleeping. In some cases the prophet was transported in a vision to places far distant from the locale where he was ( Ezek 8:1-3 ; 11:24 ). Yet the prophet always retained the ability to distinguish between his own dreams and those that were given by God.
The fifth and final way that God revealed his message to his prophet was through the use of symbolic actions. Scripture is replete with examples of such activity, which can best be described as outdoor theater, pantomimes, or parables in action. The prophet Micah went about naked as a sign that Samaria would go into captivity ( Micah 1:8 ). Jeremiah wore a yoke in a downtown area to warn Judah that they would shortly be going into exile to Babylon ( Jer 27:2-13 ). Ezekiel was the strangest of them all. He set up a sandbox siege of Jerusalem to portray the city's pending plight ( Eze 4:1-3 ), then laid on his left side for 390 days and on his right side 40 days with meager siege rations to warn the people what was ahead of them for not repenting of their sin (vv. 4-17).
In all these ways, God wanted his prophets to receive his message and the people to remember what he had said. In delivering these messages, often the prophet would deliver a brief word of rebuke or encouragement, or present a specific order that was to be carried out.
At other times, the prophets were available to answer direct questions, such as the time when the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom came to Elisha as an embarrassed delegation to ask how they could extricate themselves out of the military mess that they had managed to get themselves into ( 2 Kings 3:11-19 ). Often such answers were followed by longer rejoinders that called for some type of believing or confessing response; more often than not, however, the response was one of unbelief. One outstanding case of unbelief was the instance of the ungodly aide to the king who refused to believe God's miraculous provision of grain in the midst of a frightening siege ( 2 Kings 7:1-20 ). He lived only long enough to see the prophecy fulfilled as he died in the stampede for the miraculously provided food.
The Interpretation of Prophecy. Biblical prophecy is more than "fore-telling": two-thirds of its inscripturated form involves "forth-telling, " that is, setting the truth, justice, mercy, and righteousness of God against the backdrop of every form of denial of the same. Thus, to speak prophetically was to speak boldly against every form of moral, ethical, political, economic, and religious disenfranchisement observed in a culture that was intent on building its own pyramid of values vis-a-vis God's established system of truth and ethics.
However, prediction was by no means absent from the prophetic message. The prophets were conscious of contributing to the ongoing plan of God's ancient, but constantly renewed promise. They announced God's coming kingdom and the awful day of the Lord when God's wrath would be poured out on all ungodliness. In the meantime, before that eschatological moment, there would be a number of divine in-breakings on the historical scene in which the fall of cities such as Samaria, Damascus, Nineveh, Jerusalem, and Babylon would serve as harbingers or foreshadowings of God's final intrusion into the historical scene at the end of history. Thus each minijudgment on the nations or empires of past and present history were earnests and downpayments on God's final day of coming onto the historic scene to end it in one severe judgment and blast of victory. So said all the prophets. And in so saying they exhibited the fact that all their messages were organically related to each other; they were progressively building on one another. And, being focused distinctly on God, they were preeminently theocentric in their organization.
Therefore, the predictive sections of biblical prophecy exhibit certain key characteristics: (1) they are not isolated sayings, but are organically related to the whole of prophecy; (2) they plainly foretell things to come rather than being clothed in such abstruse terminology that they could be proven true even if the opposite of what they appear to say happens; (3) they are designed to be predictions and are not accidental or unwitting predictions; (4) they are written and published before the event, so that it could not be said that it was a matter of human sagacity that determined this would take place; (5) they are fulfilled in accordance with the original utterance, unless expressly attached to a condition; and (6) they do not work out their own fulfillment, but stand as a verbal witness until the event takes place.
History, then, is the final interpreter of prophecy, as Jesus said, "I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe" ( John 14:29 ). Moreover, in addition to leaving the details of fulfillment to be disclosed when the historical process uncovers them, it is to be noted as well that it is not the interpreter who is to receive the plaudits of humans, but Jesus; prophecy points to him. Jesus taught: "I am telling you now before it happens, that when it does happen you will believe that I am He" ( John 13:19 ).
Prophecies may be placed in several categories, based on their fulfillment: unconditional prophecies, conditional prophecies, and sequentially fulfilled prophecies. The first category is the simplest and most straightforward. Included in this category are the divine promises relating to God's covenant with his people Israel and our salvation. Examples are the covenants made with Abraham and David and the new covenant. However, God's covenant with the seasons ( Gen 8:21-22 ) and his promise of a new heaven and a new earth are also unconditional prophecies. They are unconditional because they rely upon God's faithfulness for their implementation and not on our obedience or response.
The best way to demonstrate this one-sided obligation is to point to Genesis 15:12-19, where God told Abraham to cut animals in half and form an aisle down the middle so that the person obligating himself could walk down the aisle outlined by the pieces. In this case, however, only the Lord, here depicted as a smoking fire pot with a blazing torch, moved between the pieces; Abraham did not go between the cut animals. Therefore, God would perform what he promised regardless of what Abraham did or did not do.
Most of the prophecies in the Bible fall into the conditional category in that they pose alternative prospects, depending on whether Israel, the individual, or the nation to whom they were addressed, obeyed and responded to the conditions set forth in them. Two controlling passages that governed much of Old Testament predictions were Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. There God promised blessing if Israel obeyed, but punishment if they disobeyed.
Alternative outcomes were predicted for individuals, depending on whether they responded in belief or not. For example, Jeremiah laid before King Zedekiah two possible scenarios ( Jer 38:17-19 ), and he did the same for the people of Judah ( Jer 42:10-16 ).
The clearest statement of this principle of conditional fulfillment can be found in Jeremiah 18:7-10. Here it is announced as a principle that relates to any nation or political entity. It read: "If at any time I announce that a nation or a kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it." It is this principle that explains why the prophet Jonah was so reluctant to announce God's imminent judgment on Nineveh. He feared that the message of the threatened judgment might be heeded by the Ninevites, resulting in their repentance, in which case the threatened judgment would be rescinded by God to the great dismay of the aggrieved prophet. It must be carefully noted, however, that not all conditional prophecies have an expressed condition attached to them, just as was the case in the prophecy of Jonah. The conditions are known from the context or from the progress of revelation. The fact that the prophecies were not given with the obligation only resting on God is another sign that such prophecies fell in the conditional category rather than the unconditional one.
One other rather limited number of prophecies must be noted here. In actuality, they are a subcategory of the conditional type: the sequentially fulfilled type. Ezekiel 26:7-14 is an excellent example of this third category. This prophecy warned that many nations would come up against Tyre; however, the focus of the prophecy was on Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of the mainland city of Tyre on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Suddenly, in the midst of the prediction, there is a sudden switch from the third-person masculine pronoun "he" and "his" to the third-person masculine plural "they." Some have contended that since Nebuchadnezzar was frustrated because he was unable to capture the people of Tyre, who merely moved from the mainland city of Tyre to an island one-half mile off-shore, that this was an indication that the prophecy was unfulfilled. But it is not an example of an unfulfilled prophecy, for it was fulfilled sequentially. After the Babylonian nation worked its destruction of the mainland city in the 580s b.c., Alexander the Great came along in the 330s b.c. and finished the rest of the prophecy by throwing the "stones, timber, and rubble" of the city that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed "into the sea" in order to build a causeway from the mainland out into the Mediterranean Sea to the island city and capture the city. The prophecy was fulfilled, but it was fulfilled sequentially.
New Testament Prophecy. Old Testament prophecy came to an end with Malachi, approximately four hundred years before the time of Christ. No formal declaration was made that prophecy had ceased; it was only as time went on that the people began to realize that divine revelation had been absent for a period more protracted than ever before. Three times in the book of 1 Maccabees, written during the events of the revolt against the Syrian Antiochus Epiphanes in days following 168 b.c., the fact that there was no prophet in Israel was noted with sadness (4:46; 9:27; 14:41).
Suddenly, Jesus Christ, the greatest of all the prophets, and the one anticipated in Deuteronomy 18:15-19, appeared on the scene. The title "prophet" is applied to him about a dozen times in the Gospels. His forerunner, John the Baptist, was considered by Jesus to be the last of the prophets who prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah. In fact, John the Baptist formed the natural dividing point between the Old Testament prophets and those who were to come in the New Testament, as Matthew quoted Jesus as saying of John, "For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John" ( Matt 11:13 ).
What was the nature of prophecy in the New Testament? Were the New Testament prophets as absolutely authoritative as their predecessors?
Many interpreters divide the New Testament prophetic phenomena into two classes: (1) the authoritative prophecies demonstrated by the apostles and their associates who functioned much as the Old Testament prophets did; and (2) a type of prophetic activity that made no claims to being the very word of God, but which was for the "strengthening, encouragement and comfort" of believers ( 1 Cor 14:3 ). It is this second type of prophetic activity in the New Testament that has drawn so much current interest, especially if the argument also holds that this gift of prophecy is still operative in the church today.
Usually the case for sustaining the argument that the New Testament apostles are linked with the Old Testament prophets as authoritative recipients of the word of God is made by noting that the Book of Hebrews avoids applying the word "prophet" to Jesus, but uses instead the word "apostle" ( 3:1 "fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess").
What about this other type of Christian prophecy where believers, who prophesy, do not regard themselves as the bearers of the very words of God? Did not the apostle Paul teach in 1 Corinthians 13:8-9 that "where there are prophecies, they will cease For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears." When would that cessation of prophecy take place? After the early church had matured? Or after the completion of the canon of Scripture? Probably neither of these suggested termination points answers the completion of the perfection process. Perfection cannot be expected before Christ's second coming. Thus, the believer's present, fragmentary knowledge, based as it is on the modes of knowledge now available to us, will come to an end.
How long, then, will prophecy last? The argument at this point now shifts to Ephesians 2:20the church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets" (also see Eph 3:5 ). If the apostle Paul refers here to two different functions or giftsthe apostles and the prophets of the New Testament erathen the gift of prophecy was so foundational in building the Christian church that it does not continue to our day; its foundational work has been completed. But if, as others contend, the expression "apostles and prophets" refers to one and the same group in a type of figure of speech called a hendiadys, where two distinct words connected by a conjunction are used to express one complex notion ("apostles-who-are-also-prophets"), then the gift may still be operative today. However, no Greek examples of two plural nouns in this type of construction have yet been attested even though the construction is known in other combinations of words.
Two answers are given, therefore, to the question of the termination of New Testament prophecy by modern interpreters. All agree that classical Old Testament prophecy and apostolic prophecy that delivered to us God's authoritative Scriptures have ceased. Others feel, however, that a secondary type of Christian prophecy continues today in the tradition of the New Testament prophet Agabus ( Acts 11:28 ; 21:10 ) and the prophets of 1 Corinthians 12-14. This second group is subordinate to the teaching of the apostles and subject to the criticism and judgment of the body as two or three individuals prophesy in the regular meetings of the church.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
Bibliography. W. F. Albright, Interpreting the Prophetic Tradition, pp. 151-76; R. L. Alden, New Perspectives on the Old Testament, pp. 131-45; F. D. Farnell, The Master's Seminary Journal2 (1991): 157-79; H. E. Freeman, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets; R. B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit; K. L. Gentry, Jr., The Charismatic Gift of Prophecy: A Reformed Response to Wayne Grudem; W. A. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament Today; A. J. Heschel, The Prophets, 2 vols.; G. Houston, Prophecy; W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Back Toward the Future: Hints for Interpreting Biblical Prophecy; J. L. Mays and P. J. Achtemeier, eds., Interpreting the Prophets; R. L. Thomas, BSac 149 (1992): 83-96; W. A. Van Gemeren, Interpreting the Prophetic Word; R. F. White, WTJ54 (1992): 303-20.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Prophet, Prophetess, Prophecy'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".