Bible Q&A: What Is a Prophet?

What is a prophet?

When Christians think of prophets or prophecy, they tend to think of someone who miraculously foretells the future accurately.  This is understandable, since a good amount of prophecy recorded in Scripture consisted of prophets miraculously being able to tell exactly what would take place in the future.  For example, God gave Joseph the ability to miraculously prophesy to Pharaoh about the upcoming seven years of plenty and seven years of famine (Gen. 41).  Isaiah prophesied that the Persian king Cyrus would allow the Jews in captivity to return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple around 150 years beforehand, even going so far as to cite Cyrus by name (Is. 44:28; 45:1ff).  God inspired Moses to remind Israel that they would know if a prophet was truly a prophet by observing whether what he foretold to take place actually happened (Deut. 18:20-22).

However, there is more to the concept of prophets and prophecy than just foretelling the future.  The term prophet (nabi in Hebrew, prophetes in Greek) literally means “one who speaks forth…an interpreter or spokesman for God; one through whom God speaks…one who speaks forth by divine inspiration” (Thayer).  “With the idea of a prophet there was this necessarily attached, that he spoke not his own words, but those which he had divinely received” (Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon).  In like manner, prophecy (nbua in Hebrew, propheteia in Greek) literally means “discourse emanating from divine inspiration and declaring the purposes of God, whether by reproving and admonishing the wicked, or comforting the afflicted, or revealing things hidden; especially by foretelling future events” (Thayer).

Keeping this in mind, we can see why Peter referred to David as a prophet (Acts 2:30).  Not only did Peter say that David “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ” (v. 31), but David himself acknowledged that “the Spirit of the Lord speaks by me; his word is on my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2).  David’s prophesying was nothing more or less than “speak(ing) forth by divine inspiration,” “discourse emanating from divine inspiration and declaring the purposes of God,” as Thayer put it.

This is why Peter also referred to the writings of Scripture as “the prophetic word” and “prophecy of Scripture” (2 Pet. 1:19-20).  He wrote that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (vs. 20-21).  The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is nothing more than prophecies written down by prophets, i.e., “discourse emanating from divine inspiration and declaring the purposes of God” (Thayer), written by those “who speak forth by divine inspiration” (Thayer), men who “spoke not (their) own words, but those which (they) had divinely received” (Gesenius).  Paul would put it this way:

“All Scripture is inspired of God…” (2 Tim. 3:16).

“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.  And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths in spiritual language” (1 Cor. 2:12-13).

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13).

“…the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.  When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:3-5).

The apostles, as well as some others in the early church upon whom the apostles laid their hands (Acts 8:18; Rom. 1:11), were given miraculous spiritual gifts, including the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:4-11).  In other words, God miraculously and directly gave those with the gift of prophecy a message which he wanted them to share with the church and/or the lost (1 Cor. 14:1-5, 24-25, 26, 29-32; cf. Acts 2:4; Matt. 10:19-20).  By doing so, they were, as Thayer would put it, “spokesmen for God.”

Peter would also say under inspiration, “If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God…” (1 Pet. 4:11).  “Oracles” (logion in Greek) literally means “the words or utterances of God” (Thayer).  Not all Christians in the early church had the miraculous gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:29), but Christians were still commanded to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2).  They were commanded to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), and God’s Word is truth (John 17:17).  The miraculous gift of prophecy has since passed away upon the completion of God’s Word (1 Cor. 13:8-10; cf. James 1:25; Rom. 12:2).  Thus, no miraculous prophecy takes place today.  God does not directly place a message into someone’s mind and heart to share with others like he did during biblical times, and those who claim that he has are false prophets continually proven to be such by the things they foretell failing to come to pass, as Moses had said (Deut. 18:20-22).  However, the commands to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2) and “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) — with said truth being God’s Word (John 17:17) — are still very much applicable today, and are obeyed every time any Christian speaks nothing but rightly divided, accurately handled Scripture (2 Tim. 2:15).  When that happens, they are just as much a spokesman for God as the prophets of old who were divinely inspired, even though they are not divinely inspired themselves.  By speaking nothing but “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and “the entirety of Your Word (which) is truth” (Ps. 119:160) and not adding to it or taking away from it (Prov. 30:6; Deut. 4:2; 1 Cor. 4:6; Rev. 22:18-19; Gal. 1:6-10), they are “speaking as the oracles (utterances) of God” (1 Pet. 4:11), just as all Christians in the early church were commanded to do, regardless of whether they had the miraculous gift of prophecy.

So if your preacher, Bible class teacher, and/or fellow Christian shows you nothing but Bible in their sermon, class, study, or theological discussion with you, you must heed what Paul said to the Thessalonians and “accept it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God…” (1 Thess. 2:13).  That Christian may not be prophesying to you miraculously, but they are prophesying in the sense that they are doing nothing but showing you the divinely inspired prophecies of Scripture.

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