Toward a Profitable View of Prophets - Of Prophecies, Politics, and Present Responsiblities (Part 1)

July 20, 2020

Perhaps you have heard that there is something of a movement out there of zealous Rightist Christians and Messianic Jews claiming dreams, visions, and prophecies about our current political condition. Among these are those who claim to have predicted the rise of Donald Trump as well as those who claim divinely given insight into the “spiritual warfare” behind current events and the coming election. And then there are those who swear by these prophetic folk, and implore us to pay heed, lest the prophesied disasters overtake us unawares. 

Don’t for a moment imagine that these claimants are few and far between. No, such dreams and visions have become something of a cottage industry, and entire websites are flowering. 

Preliminary to all that follows let me say that I am by hard-earned and much read and well-mentored process a continuationist, one who holds that the dynamics and gifts of the Spirit spoken of in the Newer Testament remain the patrimony of God’s people. I do believe in a genuine gift of prophecy. Indeed, I believe that prophetic speech, which I term “weighty words” is normal and somewhat common among those who seek to serve the will of God, in Yeshua’s Name, through God’s immanent Spirit. I myself have experienced the prophetic action of God’s Spirit,  chiefly in my service to others. So don’t anyone imagine I am a foe of or stranger to these realities. Not so! But insofar as the New Covenant prophetic practice is often wrongly assessed by observers, misrepresented or misunderstood by practitioners, and woefully merchandised, then, yes, there are problems. 

My major goal in this series of blogs is to challenge us all to give heed to an undoubtedly valid prophetic voice challenging all of us to realize that God’s will for us and our times may well contradict our most treasured spiritual values and expectations. After some necessary preliminaries, we will be examining Jeremiah 26-29 where this is spelled out for us. 

We can only appreciate the impact of these chapters if we will first deal with three preliminary matters followed by a fourth, the Jeremiah chapters.  Here are those matters: 

  1. A matter of definition: How does NT Prophecy operate?
  2. A matter of caution: Some of my best friends are false prophets.
  3. A matter for consideration—Jeremiah’s challenge to his time.
  4. A matter for prayer: Toward applying Jeremiah’s challenge in our own time and context. 

A MATTER OF DEFINITION: How Does New Testament Prophecy Operate?

In the NT sense, prophecy occurs when the prophesying person reports something which the Spirit has spontaneously brought to mind for the strengthening, exhortation, or comfort of one or more others. This definition is in accord with that provided by Wayne Grudem, with which I concur.

The authority of NT prophecies is different from that of the Older Testamental prophets. When Older Testamental prophets gave prophecies, these had the authority of God behind them. The persons in the Newer Testament who have this level of authority are the apostles. New Testament prophets may be hearing from God, and perhaps not. But in either case, they do not have the authority that enscripturating prophets had.

Unlike teaching which is prepared and structured beforehand, there is an element of spontaneity in Newer Testamental prophecy, and when given by the prophet, it comes as a report of something that comes to the prophet in an intuitive manner. 

Paul reports at least twice that the responsibility for winnowing what is said, for separating the wheat from the chaff in the communication of prophetic words, falls to the “others” who the prophetic person addresses. For example, in the fourteenth chapter of Paul’s FIrst Letter to the Corinthians we read, “Let two or three prophets speak, while the others weigh what is said” (1 Cor 14:29). The verb behind the English term “weigh” is diakrino, which may be taken to mean to discern or to discriminate through a process of examination.

Notice that the text specifies that the persons speaking are known to be prophets in the community. Nevertheless, that does not mean that we, the hearers, are to be passive receptors and to bow to the authority of these gifted ones. Rather, we are to be active—discerning, discussing, discriminating, weighing what is said and again, separating the wheat from the chaff.

This is why Paul can say in First Thessalonians 5:19-22, “Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.”  In the NT sense, rather than being grandiose and authoritative, such prophecies have a tentative quality about them, and the prophetic activity of the Spirit may be but should not be carelessly quenched, discounted, disregarded, even despised. We are warned not to do that, but to examine everything carefully (the Greek in this Thessalonians text, dokimadzo, refers to smelting—separating the dross from the precious). So again, it is the community’s responsibility to sift what the prophetically gifted person is sharing. They/we are the final arbiters, not the prophetic person no matter how striking or spooky their experience or demeanor, no matter how flashy their gifts, and regardless of their reputation.

We see this even in the case of the Apostle Paul and his ministry to the synagogue of believers in Berea, who, we are told, were “more noble that the Jews in Thessalonica, because they examined the Scripture daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17). Here we have the very Apostle Paul who had been with them, spoken the word to them, and likely did signs and wonders among them. But it falls to the community to decide if these things were so—they are the final arbiters. And so are we. So again: don’t be impressed, passive, or malleable with prophetic utterances. You need the Spirit within, the Scripture in your hand, the community at your side, ice in your head, and fire in your heart. Think. Discern. Weigh. Put it all into the crucible to be tested, smelting away the dross, and keeping only what is precious, if anything. 

As ADONAI says to Jeremiah earlier in the book, “If you say what is worthwhile instead of what is worthless, I will again allow you to be my spokesman” (Jer 15:19). This too is the language of smelting, of extracting the precious from the dross. A true prophet in the NT sense seeks to do this in his or her own experience with God, but the Spirit working in the community and its deliberations is the final arbiter, kindling and operating the crucible of consideration.

What this means for us is that it is never appropriate for someone to say, “Oooh, I heard this guy and he’s a prophet and he’s had these dreams!  You really must come and see! You gotta visit his website!” Your response should be, “Well, we’ll see. I will check it out, and by “checking it out, I mean that you must, with reliance upon the Spirit, working with trusted and sober community members, and deeply immersed in Scripture, do some hard and analytical thinking. Separate the wheat from the chaff, determining what you are getting which is jewels, if anything, and what is jive. 

But no, never, and no how should you be passive, acquiescent, and enamored. In fact, Scripture admonishes us to be alert and discerning. God calls us to be critical in our attentiveness. Remember that verb, diakrino. It reminds us to be discerning, to discriminate between the wheat and the chaff, the gold and the dross, the jewels and the jive. 

But what kinds of false prophets are there to which we ought to remain alert in order for us to avoid being misled? We will turn to that next time.

8 comments on “Toward a Profitable View of Prophets - Of Prophecies, Politics, and Present Responsiblities (Part 1)”

  1. I look forward to reading the sequels to this essay, especially regarding the "types" of prophets you discern. I presume that will include some categories for the false ones, and some inferences about how they come to be so false. I'm not convinced, however, that the prophecy of local application that Rav Shaul addresses in his letters to non-Jewish disciples is so different in nature from that of the ancient Jewish prophets. The difference is one of scope. The ancient scriptural ones had no actual authority either, though they often were addressing national issues and rulers. Their authority was solely in the truth of their words and the quality of their representation of what Hashem was doing or about to do. These prophetic proclamations were preserved in a written record for that reason alone. Their record of accuracy in advices to a ruler is likely the only thing that kept them from being ignored or killed the very first time they opened their mouths. For some, it still didn't keep them alive indefinitely, especially if they had something unpleasant to say.

    The rules of prophetic operation in local gentile assemblies adduced by Rav Shaul did not come "off the top of his head"; and certainly they were safeguards for these assemblies to keep them from being led astray by false prophecy inspired by old pagan habits of thought and expectation. It seems to me that modern Christian Charismatic or Neo-Apostolic prophets are not so distantly removed from such views and dangers even today. We do not possess, today, insofar as I am aware, any comparable set of rules that might have been employed by the ancient "schools of the prophets" among Jews -- though it is not impossible that Rav Shaul modeled his instructions to the gentile disciples on some such material known among Pharisees of his era. We do, of course, have the Torah's own instructions about judging prophets according to the content of their recommendations, either ignoring them for inaccuracy or killing them if they advocate for other gods and values that are contrary to the loyalty demanded for HaShem and His Torah. The requirements for a prophet who claimed superhuman inspiration were pretty stiff, and not to be taken lightly.

    1. Good point about how OT prophets were evaluated.
      There is also a trend towards people wanting a shepherding role for a kind of status,
      when all the significance of the role comes from integrity towards the Word of God.

  2. Your encouragement to be critical thinkers driven by the Spirit and aided by the community -- this is so deeply needed. I've witnessed so many "prophets" speak and people in our community gobble it up with no discernment, and take it as gospel. We must do better.

    I love this statement:

    Don’t be impressed, passive, or malleable with prophetic utterances. You need the Spirit within, the Scripture in your hand, the community at your side, ice in your head, and fire in your heart. Think. Discern. Weigh. Put it all into the crucible to be tested, smelting away the dross, and keeping only what is precious, if anything."

    1. Thank you Judah. Things are a bad, and actually far worse than you state. There is a tremendous amount of ignorant elitist legend-making and gnosticism out there. I find myself reluctant to be associated with much that calls itself Messianic. MOST of what is going on is ignorant, proud, strident, mercenary, sectarian, politically driven, deluded, and false.

      1. Very encouraging to hear your words. I feel the same way but was waiting for someone of balance to call much of the Messianic movement out on this. For a movement that didnt want to display the cross front and center in order to not offend Jewish sensibilities, I have no doubt many Jews would find the current movement very offensive.

        1. Thank you for your commendation. Please be aware that, as I said, I do not deny that God can and does speak to his people, and can and does quicken our intuitive faculties in order to reveal something to us for the sake of others (this is what prophecy does). But the lack of caution and lack of discernment and humility currently observable in the movement is not a good thing. It is a terrible thing. And yes, on a Scriptural basis one could well say that the majority of "prophecies" are in whole or in part false, as they were in Scripture. Thanks again. Please be on the lookout for more to come in this series of blogs.

  3. Thank you, Stuart.
    "Sifting" is helpful - it highlights the possibility that someone may be saying something valuable,
    but there might be some dross in there, too.

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