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We have begun to examine what I have called the main ministries of the Church, which are listed in Ephesians 4:11. The list there given is apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. I have suggested that we can divide these main ministries into two different categories—those which are called Mobile and those which are Resident. The mobile ministries being not confined to any one particular locality, but available to the whole body of Jesus Christ, the true church, in every area and at any time as directed by the Holy Spirit. The resident ministry is that of the pastor and we will come to it later.
In our previous study we considered the first of the mobile ministries, that of the apostle. In this study we will go on to consider the ministry of the prophet. If you consider a prophet as a general ministry, it runs through the entire Scripture. I believe the first person actually described as a prophet in Scripture is Abraham. The Lord said to a heathen king, “Ask him to pray for you for he is a prophet and your wives will be healed.” Of course, there are prophets in Scripture who go back before Abraham, because it says in the epistle of Jude, the seventh from Adam, in other words in the seventh generation from Adam, there was a prophet. And elsewhere in Acts 3, Peter says that God has had His holy prophets since the beginning of the world.
So the ministry of the prophet is one that extends through all dispensations of God’s dealing with His people on earth. Whereas the ministry of the apostle only emerges in the New Testament. Let’s consider for moment what a prophet actually means. The word “prophet” comes from a Greek word prophetesand its literal meaning is “one who speaks forth.” It being understood that the prophet speaks forth on behalf of God and that he does so by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Essentially, therefore, you could call the prophet “the mouthpiece of God.” Many people have the impression that prophecy always contains prediction of the future, but this is not correct. Any utterance given forth on behalf of God by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is classified as prophecy. And of course there is prophecy that relates to the past. For instance, in the opening chapters of Genesis Moses describes events of remote past which could not be known by natural understanding. It could only be given by divine revelation, and therefore Moses speaks in that connection as a prophet in relation to the past. In other words, any inspired utterance given by the Spirit of God, spoken on behalf of God, is prophetic. The ministry of the prophet therefore is one that extends through all the dispensations and is of tremendous importance, and also of tremendous interest.
Before we come to prophets in the New Testament I’d like to take just a little while to give a kind of picture of what the prophetic ministry is as presented in Scripture. I’d like to begin with one of the great prophets of the Old Testament, that is Elijah. In 1Kings 17:1, Elijah is suddenly catapulted onto the scene in the history of Israel. He’s given no background. He just suddenly appears in a very dramatic and powerful way. It says,
And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab [who was at that time king of Israel and had been seduced into idolatry and wickedness by his wife, Jezebel], As the LordGod of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew or rain these years, but according to my word.
To me, that has always been a breathtaking verse. The courage, the boldness of Elijah to step in front of the king and to say in effect, “From now on the fall of rain and dew are under my control, Ahab, and I’m going to decide whether there will be rain or dew.” That’s breathtaking in its boldness and in its faith. The words by which Elijah introduced himself to Ahab, I believe, give us the real central thought of the prophet. Elijah said, “As the LordGod of Israel liveth before whom I stand...” I believe that’s the key phrase—”before whom I stand.” A prophet is one who stands before God. The other phrase that’s frequently used is “to stand in the council of God.” He stands before God, attentive, waiting to hear God’s message, and ready to go and deliver it when he hears it. This is the essential requirement of the true biblical prophet is the one who stands before God. When he receives the message he delivers it with complete authority. It is not his message. It is God’s message. And the responsibility for its consequences, its impact, those are with God, not with the prophet.
In 1Kings chapter 18 we have another incident in the ministry of the same prophet Elijah. At this time there had been no rain for approximately 3½ years. So Elijah had proved his statement valid that he would control the fall of rain and dew. Then after 3½ years, Elijah received a fresh commission from the Lord. It says in verse 1,
And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the Lordcame to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.
Those words have always gripped me, because I see in them that the prophet cannot be divorced from his message. It isn’t just a message, but it’s a man with a message. God said, “Show thyself to Ahab and I will send rain upon the earth.” Elijah, in a certain sense, was the message. To me this is tremendously significant. I read a book once which quotes these words, “God uses men, not methods.” So many times we’re sitting and planning the methods that we should follow, but let’s put it this way, God’s methods are useless if he doesn’t have the men that can follow them. You could not imagine anybody else taking the place of Elijah. Elijah was absolutely characteristic. He typified certain things about God—hid boldness, his refusal to compromise, and his refusal to show any particular kind of respect for Ahab as a king. He refused to bow. He had a message. It was from God. And he was to deliver it. This I believe is the true spirit of the biblical prophet.
Today you’ll find, if you talk to preachers as I have done over the years, when it comes to delivering a message or following some course of action most people will sit down and say, “Well, what will people say? What will be their reaction? What will people do?” But as I understand biblical prophets, he could care less what people might say or what their reaction might be. He was not concerned primarily with people. He had heard from God and he had to deliver what he heard without adding to it or taking from it.
In the Old Testament, and also in the New, there are many prophets created by men who are not true prophets, but false prophets. In fact one of the interesting and important themes in the prophet Jeremiah is the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day. They far exceeded the true prophets as they did also in the time of Ahab. I would like to read a passage in Jeremiah 23 which I believe sets forth the contrast between the true and the false prophet. As I read this you will notice the repetition of the phrase “stand in the counsel of the Lord.” This corresponds to what Elijah meant when he said, “Stand before the Lord.” I’m going to read in Jeremiah 23:15–32.
Therefore thus saith the Lordof hosts concerning the prophets [that is the false prophets]; Behold, I will feed them with wormwood, and make them drink the water of gall: for from the prophets of Jerusalem is profaneness gone forth into all the land.
I think we see there some of the influence of the prophetic ministry. If it’s pure it brings purity, cleansing and healing. But if it’s impure and profane then it brings profaneness and uncleanness into the whole land. I really think, in a certain sense, when we look at modern America today we see profaneness gone forth into the entire land and behind it in the last resort are false prophets. Men who misrepresent God, and God’s standards, and claim to have other sources of authority than the true God. And the whole nation has been profaned. I believe that if we look at it in the light of Scripture, this is the real source of the profanation of this land. Going on reading verse 16,
Thus saith the Lordof hosts, Hearken not unto the words of the prophets that prophesy unto you: they make you vain, they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord. Thy say still unto them that despise me, The Lordhath said, Ye shall have peace; and they say unto every one that walketh after the imagination of his own heart, No evil shall come upon you.
Surely there’s much of that kind of prophesying in America today. Compromising with evil and suggesting that God will condone and tolerate sin and iniquity. That is false prophecy. Now notice what God says in verse 18;
For who hath stood in the counsel of the Lord, and hath perceived and heard his word, who hath marked his word, and heard it? [That’s the true prophet that stands in the counsel and hears, perceives, and marks the word of the Lord.] Behold, a whirlwind of the Lordis gone forth in fury, even a grievous whirlwind: it shall fall grievously upon the head of the wicked. The anger of the Lordshall not return, until he have executed, and till he have performed the thoughts of his heart: in the latter days ye shall consider it perfectly.
Notice that this message replies to the times in which we are living, the latter days. Then God returns to the theme of these false prophets. Verse 21,
I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied.
You see, it’s not enough to be well meaning. In fact it’s extremely dangerous to be well meaning if you don’t have something from God.
But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings.
Notice again, the mark of the true prophet is that he stands in the counsel of the Lord and had these prophets stood in God’s counsel, and heard His word, and caused His people to hear His word, there would have been repentance and returning to God. So the prophets, in a certain sense, are responsible for the total condition of the nation.
Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord. I have heard what the prophets said, that prophesy lies in my name, saying, I have dreamed, I have dreamed.
Here’s the class of people with the super spiritual revelation. They’ve had dreams and visions and they’re interesting and enticing people. I have met, I’m afraid, quite a lot of these in fairly recent years that have dreams and revelations and visions that tickle people’s ears, but don’t have any real message of truth and repentance.
How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart; Which think to cause my people to forget my name by their dreams which they tell every man to his neighbour, as their fathers have forgotten my name for Baal. The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. [That’s the requirement of the prophet, that he speak God’s word faithfully.] What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord. [The chaff being the false prophet, the wheat being the true.] Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that steal my words every one from his neighbour. Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that use their tongues, and say, He saith [the Lordsaith]. Behold I am against them that prophesy false dreams, saith the Lord, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their lightness; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them: therefore they shall not profit this people at all, saith the Lord.
I think if you consider the total message that those verses that I have read and also much else in the prophet Jeremiah and the other Old Testament prophets, you will find that far more responsibility is laid at the door of the prophets of the nation for the total condition of the nation, than most of us realize. The true prophet that stands in the counsel of God, hears and delivers the word of God, will bring people to God. But where there is not such a prophet, then the nation is deceived and led astray by false prophets. People who claim to have a message from God, people who claim to represent God but do not in actual fact do so, they speak a deception of their own hearts.
Then let us look in Amos 3:7 for a moment and we find another statement that applies generally to the prophetic ministry.
Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.
So it seems that it’s a principle with God that whatever He does amongst men, He has those who stand in His counsel and share His secrets, and He reveals His secrets to his servants the prophets. Again, the key thought of the prophet is the one who hears God’s secrets, who shares His counsel, who knows the inner motives and purposes of God’s dealings. In other words, it’s based on a particular personal relationship to the Lord.
Turning back to Jeremiah we have a statement there that’s based on Jeremiah’s own testimony and experience of what it means to be a mouthpiece of God. That is to be available to God as a prophet. Jeremiah speaks in his own experience in Jeremiah 15:15–19.
O Lord, thou knowest: remember me, and visit me, and revenge me of my persecutors; take me not away in they longsuffering: know that for thy sake I have suffered rebuke. [There have been very few true prophets that have not suffered rebuke and persecution for the sake of the Lord.] Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart; for I am called by thy name, O LordGod of hosts.
Another feature of the prophet is that he has to have digested God’s message. God said to Ezekiel when He sent him as a prophet, He handed him a roll with lamentation and mourning and woe written, and He said, “Eat that which I have give thee.” When Ezekiel had eaten it, then he was able to deliver the message. In other words, the message that the prophet brings has got to go down into his own spirit and become part of him before he can deliver it. Some people talk about speaking off the top of the heads, well that is not valid in this ministry. A person has to receive and digest and become identified with his message, and then he can deliver his message. You will find this is true of almost all the great Old Testament prophets. In some sense or another they had to digest, they had to assimilate the message that they had to deliver. In other words the man and the message become identified. As I said with Elijah when he had to take the message, he was the message. “Go and show thyself to Ahab.” There’s an identification with the Lord and with His word. Those that do not live on the Lord’s word, do not feed on the Lord’s word, cannot be qualified to take His message. Some people today have got the impression that prophecy just drops out of heaven by a sudden startling revelation, unconnected with the Bible. This is totally wrong. I think if you study the prophets of the Old Testament, in fact the whole Scripture, you’ll find that everyone of them indicates by his language and his references and everything that’s available to form judgment upon, that he was intimately acquainted with the revelation of God’s word as it existed in his day. Any person that is not interested in the word, that doesn’t identify himself with the word, that does not feed and live upon the word of God, is not eligible for the prophetic ministry.
Then we read in the 17th verse, Jeremiah 15:17:
I sat not in the assembly of the mockers, nor rejoiced; I sat alone because of thy hand: for thou hast filled me with indignation.
A person that takes his stand for God at times will have to sit alone. There is no question about this.
I remember when the Lord saved me in the British Army, and I had to spend another four and a half years in the army, one of the hardest tests that I went through was sitting alone, because I simply could not identify with the things that the other soldiers were saying and doing. The hardest place to sit alone, actually, was in a desert because there’s no alternative. You can’t go anywhere else and yet you cannot identify with what is going on. I do not really recall a more severe test than this test of being forced to sit alone—not because I disliked them, not because I had anything actively against them. But simply in view of what I knew of God and God had showed me, I could not associate myself with the language they used, their forms of pleasure, their whole attitude of life. I can remember many, many nights sitting alone because God had laid His hand upon me. Those that are not willing to go that way cannot pass the test.
We’ll leave out the 18th verse and come to the 19th verse, because here I believe is the real crux of this ministry.
Therefore thus saith the Lord, if thou return, then will I bring thee again, and thou shalt stand before me: [notice here again is the essence of the prophetic ministry, “...thou shalt stand before me.”] and if thou take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth: [it requires real personal purity and integrity. We cannot have the precious and the vile mingled. We have to separate them. Do away with everything that’s unclean and displeasing to God. Then God says,] thou shalt be as my mouth: [God says, “I am looking for a mouthpiece, but the one that wants to be My mouthpiece has got to meet these conditions. And finally and again it’s very important at the end of the 19th verse] let them return unto thee; but return not thou unto them.
When you receive a message or a revelation, you cannot compromise with man. You cannot lower your standards, you cannot go beyond the line that God has drawn. You have to wait for them to come back to you. There is so much in these verses that express so clearly what is involved in being available to God as a prophetic mouthpiece.
Then let’s notice in Isaiah 55:11 this wonderful promise of what happens when God’s word goes out of God’s mouth. We’ll just take the 11th verse of Isaiah 55,
So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
It was made clear to me a good many years ago that many, many people misquote this verse. They say, “God’s word will never return to Him void...” They stand and preach an uninspired, unanointed message to a dead congregation. There’s no response. No reaction. Nothing happens. They shrug their shoulders and say, “God’s word will not return to Him void.” But that is not exactly what the Scripture says. “God’s word out of God’s mouth will not return to Him void.” It depends on who the mouthpiece is. It’s got to be not just the word, but the mouth that it comes out of when God laid down, as I pointed out to you, in Jeremiah 15 the conditions for being a mouthpiece for God. Because you see there’s a great truth here in the natural, speaking about myself. When my word goes out of my mouth something goes with it. You know what that is? It’s my breath. I cannot speak without giving forth breath. When God’s word goes out of God’s mouth, His breath, His Spirit goes with it. But God’s word without the Spirit does not bring life. “The letter killeth, the Spirit giveth life.” When Jeremiah was available to God as a mouthpiece, then God said, “Is not my word as a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” It never will be broken down. It never will be beaten down. It never will fail.
Now let’s turn to the New Testament with this background from Old Testament prophetic ministry. Let’s look at the persons who are referred to in the New Testament as prophets. You’ll see there’s a little list there, and the total is ten. In our previous study we discovered 28 persons referred to as apostles and there are ten referred to as prophets. Notice again, by way of contrast, one referred to as an evangelist. Yet in the modern church, people happily dub persons evangelists, but would hardly consider calling anybody an apostle or a prophet. In Acts 11:27–30.
And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. [It’s clear from the Scripture that they were recognized in the church as prophets.] And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the spirit that there should be a great dearth [or famine] throughout all the world: [In exactly what way he signified it, whether it was by actually prophesying or whether he spoke forth a revelation that he’d received, we do not know.] thus came to pass in the days of the emperor Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples [the Christians act upon it] every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea:
So this prophetic revelation was accepted by the church of Antioch as a basis for action. They did not just say, “Well, wasn’t that wonderful, we had a revelation.” But they acted upon it. Notice that there were prophets, and one of them was Agabus. I would suggest that the language implies that there were at least two others besides Agabus, which gives us minimum total of three.
Then in Acts 13:1 we find there,
Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon, and Lucius, and Manaen, and Saul.
So there are five persons there named that obviously recognized in their church as having the ministry of prophets.
In Acts 15:32 two others are mentioned.
And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.
Notice that included in the prophetic ministry is the ministry of exhortation. And notice that Silas is there called a prophet. But as we saw in our last study of apostles in 1Thessalonians 1, he is called an apostle. In other words he is another example of a man who was promoted into the apostolic ministry from the ministry of a prophet, bringing out again that this principle that there is promotion in the church.
Then in Acts 21:10 we have another reference to Agabus. However, as we’ve already counted him above, it doesn’t make the total any bigger but we get a minimum of at least ten persons called prophets.
Now let’s consider for a moment briefly certain distinctions between three of these ministries; the apostle, the prophet, the teacher. I would say that an apostle has a special task. When the Holy Spirit, in Acts 13, separated out Saul and Barnabas He said, “Separate me Saul and Barnabas for the work whereunto I have called them.” They are called to a work, and that work as we saw in our previous study was essentially establishing and ordering churches.
On the other hand, I would say that a prophet has a special message individually received from God to be delivered at a certain time and place. That’s why I take exception to these translations that we have today such as Philips, which translates the word “apostle” by “messenger.” Because to me if you’re going to call anybody a messenger, you should call the prophet the messenger. The prophet has the message, the apostle has the task. A prophet’s message is not a general message that’s available to everybody. It’s a special message given to him direct from God to be delivered at a certain specific time and place.
Then we have a teacher—I would say a teacher expounds God’s truth generally, but has no special message individually received. There’s no special additional individual revelation given to him as a teacher. Now I think I can make this clear best by taking a few examples. I have chosen one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament prior to the time of the church, and then one from the church. Let’s look at Jonah for a moment. Jonah 3:4, this of course refers to Jonah going to Nineveh. We won’t go into the background of how God had to get him there. it says,
And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
In other words, Nineveh has got just precisely forty more days before God plunges it under judgment. This was a specific revelation given to one person, Jonah, about one place, Nineveh, at a certain specific time.
Let’s consider the difference. If Jonah had been an evangelist he would have gone into that city and preached in general terms on sin and its consequences and God’s judgment on sin. Everything he said would have been true, but it would not have contained the specific revelation that judgment was less than forty days away. This marked him out as a prophet. Had he been a teacher, he could have taught on various aspects of God’s dealings and judgments, but he could not have given the specific revelation. I think experience shows that people will give much more heed, they’re much more impressed, when in addition to the general exposition of God’s truth there’s a particular specific revelation that brings it right down to their particular situation. This is what, I think, gives the particular impact to the prophetic ministry and message.
Then let’s look in Mark 1:6–8 in regards to John the Baptist.
And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey; And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
Notice again, that John was more than just a preacher. He could have preached on sin and its consequences, called people to repentance and even maybe have baptized them. But he had a specific revelation with a time factor. “Immediately after me there’s coming another who’s greater than I am, and He’s going to be the one to baptize with the Holy Spirit.” Now he could not have known that without a specific individual revelation received direct from God. That’s what lifted him out of the rank of preacher or teacher, into the rank of the prophet.
Then we’ve already looked at the passage about Agabus in Acts 11 where he and the other prophets came down to the church of Antioch and predicted that there was to be a famine in the near future which took place in the days of the Emperor Claudius. We don’t need to look at that passage again, but we have to acknowledge that Agabus could not have know this impending famine accept by specific personal revelation from God.
Then we find in Acts 21 a further example of specific supernatural revelation given to Agabus, Acts 21:10–11. This happened in the city of Caesarea to Paul and his company at the end of one of their journeys.
And as we tarried there [that is in Caesarea] many days, there came down from Judaea a certain prophet, named Agabus. And when he was come unto us, he took Paul’s girdle and bound his own hands and feet, and said, Thus saith the Holy Ghost, So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man that owneth this girdle, and shall deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.
Again, Agabus knew more than just a preacher or a teacher. He had a specific revelation of what was to happen to Paul and he had a specific commission from God, the Holy Ghost, to go to Paul and to tell him what to expect in Jerusalem. He delivered his message in a somewhat dramatic way by taking Paul’s girdle and binding his own hands and feet. This is also true that very often God required the prophets to do more than simply give forth an utterance. Many times in one way or another they had to give a kind of demonstration of their message.
Now, we need to make a distinction here between the ministry of a prophet and the spiritual gift of prophesying. I think it’s important that we see this, otherwise we are liable to be confused. Let me point this out to you by contrasting two different statements in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4:11, a verse we’ve looked at already several times, it says, “He [Christ] gave some apostles and some prophets...” I think it’s clear from the language that not all received the ministry of prophets. This I think is also clear if we compare with it 1Corinthians 12:29. In verse 28 Paul says,
And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers... [verse 29] Are all apostles? [obviously the answer is “no”] are all prophets? [equally, obviously the answer is “no.”]
In other words, not all have the ministry of prophet.
On the other hand where it comes to exercising the gift of prophesying, Paul says it’s open to all believers. Let’s look in 1Corinthians 14:31. We will not read anywhere except just that one verse. We do not have time to go into the context.
For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.
I think we have to observe a distinction therefore between prophesying, which is exercising the spiritual gift, and having a ministry of a prophet which is much more than just exercising a spiritual gift—it’s the total man. As I’ve said, the prophet is his message. A ministry is much more than a spiritual gift. A ministry is a whole way of life. A spiritual gift is just a brief moment for a supernatural manifestation which comes to an end. So, according to my understanding of the New Testament the gift of prophesying is made available by the word of God to all believers who care to reach out for it and receive it. But the ministry of a prophet is not given to all believers. So that the difference between the spiritual gift and the ministry and we have seen this and will see it again also in our study of spiritual gifts.
Another important thing about prophecy in the New Testament is that it is normally intended for believers. You see, in the Old Testament, many, many times God sent prophets to people who were not believers. For instance quite a number of messages give to the prophet Jeremiah were addressed to the Gentile nations round about Israel who did not acknowledge the God of Israel, who did not acknowledge Jeremiah necessarily as a prophet. They were what we would call unbelievers. But in the New Testament, in the church, normally prophesying and the ministry of the prophet is for the church, for those who are believers. Let’s look at these Scriptures. 1Corinthians 14:22:
Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not...
This might confuse some, but notice that Paul is speaking about tongues as a sign. Not the use of tongues for self-edification, but tongues as a supernatural sign are intended for unbelievers. This is what happened on the Day of Pentecost. The people on whom the Holy Spirit fell spoke in other languages which they did not understand, but the unbelievers understood those languages and this became a sign to the unbelievers. This still happens from time to time today. This is not the normal use of tongues. This is tongues as a supernatural sign that is to reach unbelievers. What happens is, a believer by the operation of the Holy Spirit speaks a language which he does not understand but which is understood by an unbeliever present. I’ve seen this happen and it is tremendously powerful. It brings tremendous conviction.
...but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.
Prophesying in the New Testament is intended for believers. It’s very important to remember this because it makes it somewhat different from prophesying under the old covenant.
Then going on 1Corinthians 14:29 we find another very important feature of the prophetic ministry and prophesying in the New Testament.
Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the others judge.
It should be “others.” Both parts are plural in the Greek. Notice that the prophets are mentioned in the plural. To me the suggestion is that normally in the New Testament church, one man did not stand up and say, “I am the prophet. You all listen to me.” This was not the normal New Testament pattern. In a New Testament group there would be a group of men who were prophets. When one prophesied, or gave forth a revelation, it was the duty of the others to exercise judgment upon the one who was prophesying. In other words, no person by a ministry of a prophet or the gift of prophesying was allowed to become a dictator. If you have been through certain sections of the Pentecostal movement, you’ll find that this has been one of their great mistakes. What is called sometimes the Apostolic church, in their congregations had a set prophet—one man—and everybody did what that one man said. In fact, he appointed the apostles. If he said two people were to get married, then his idea was they were to get married. He became... I’ve been in a situation where a girl was prophesied over and told she was to marry a young man, she had no desire to marry him whatever. But because the prophet said it she was afraid that if she didn’t do it she’d be disobeying Almighty God.
But you see, this is not scriptural in the New Testament church. There isn’t one man who does it all. There isn’t one man who is the boss or the dictator, or who’s the only mouthpiece of God. The prophets are in a group. It’s very interesting in the New Testament they are normally mentioned in the plural. Where one is actually ministering, the others are to exercise judgment on that particular ministry. There’s no question of one man at any time saying, “This is what God says and you’ve all got to believe me.” That is not how it operates, you see, because they are not speaking to unbelievers. They are speaking to believers. They are members of the body and as members of the body they function together, one exercising a check upon the other. It is completely unscriptural, as far as I can understand, in the New Testament church to have prophetic ministry without it being submitted to judgment. In fact I, on the whole, would rather not have prophesying or prophetic ministry if there is not to be scriptural New Testament judgment. I think it’s too dangerous to permit. Over the years I’ve seen more disasters than I care to think of, caused by allowing one person somehow through a gift or a ministry to becomes a dictator to the place where they dominate and direct others. And those who are dominated and directed feel that in any sense that they were to resist or oppose this particular person and ministry, they would be opposing Almighty God. It’s a wrong situation and it should never allowed to arise.
I always point out to people myself, that if you are going to encourage to people seek spiritual gifts, to prophesy and to press into ministry then you have a scriptural obligation to not merely encourage prophesying, but to ensure that there is a scriptural process and standard for judging that prophesying. Otherwise I believe it would be better to keep right out of prophesying. It is too powerful and too dangerous. Over the years I’ve come to realize what a tremendously powerful instrument prophecy is. It’s like a tremendously powerful car and if it’s so powerful, and you’ve got to be sure before you take off in it that the brakes and the steering and the other safety features are in good order. And if they aren’t and you haven’t checked them, it would be better not to go in for it at all.
I could mention so many examples. Years back in Jerusalem there was a rather fine Pentecost couple from the United States that were doing good work for God and a Swedish lady set herself up as a prophetess. She began to prophesy and prophesied over these two that they were no longer to live together as husband and wife, that they were to live an unnatural life. And in the end the man, I believe, ended up in a mental institution, both of them ended in a mental institution. This was the result of coming under a spirit of bondage to this particular woman, under the impression that if they went against what she declared to be God’s will they would be resisting Almighty God.
This is a point which I always lay emphasis because there’s a certain tendency, not least in the charismatic movement, to say, “Let’s all get into this thing and have a good time and speak in tongues and prophesy and all this.” But there’s another side to it which is God’s safeguard and the standards that God has set in the church.
So when we see men with a prophetic ministry or persons with the gift of prophesying, let’s bear in mind that it is subject to judgment. One of our responsibilities is to learn how to judge. In this connection I’d like to endorse this by reference also to 1Thessalonians 5:19–21 where Paul says,
Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesying. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
You see, there are two dangerous alternatives. One is to quench the Holy Spirit and say, “We don’t want any prophesying. We don’t want any gifts. We don’t want any manifestations.” But the other is to accept everything. To just accept anything that’s put forth as an interpretation or a prophecy or a revelation without checking it. Paul says don’t do that. But test everything and hold fast or retain that which is good.
When we were in Africa, I used to tell the Africans something that I think they remembered. I’ve had it quoted to me at times. Remember not everything the missionaries have brought to you is good. Some of what they’ve brought you is good and some is not good. Some of what you have yourselves is better than what the missionaries have brought you. So they would look at me in some surprise because I was a missionary. And I say, “Anyhow, you know what to do. When you eat fish you know what to do. Swallow the flesh and spit out the bones. Do the same with what the missionaries brought. Swallow the flesh but spit out the bones. Don’t choke swallowing some bone because the missionary gave it to you.”
The same is true today in the church. When I hear prophesying or anybody stands up and says that they heard from God or had a revelation, I decide for myself whether it is flesh or bone. If it’s flesh I swallow it and get strengthened, but if it’s bones I don’t choke trying to swallow it. I spit it out. And this is what God’s word enjoins that we should do.
In closing let’s try to form a picture of the relationship if this prophetic ministry to the church as a whole. I’ve pointed out already that the prophet takes his place within the church. He’s a member of the body, he functions together with the other members, and he is subject to the control and discipline of the body as a whole. He’s not an autocrat, he’s not a despot, he’s not outside the framework.
Now, let’s look at another picture, which to me is a very beautiful one and a very refreshing one of the relationship of this prophetic ministry to the church as a whole. I’d like to turn for this to the prophet Zechariah 4 and reading part of a vision that Zechariah had in this fourth chapter. I’ll read first of all the first three verses.
And the angel that talked with me came again, and waked me, as a man that is wakened out of his sleep, And said unto me, What seest thou? And I said, I have looked, and behold a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and his seven lamps thereon, and seven pipes to the seven lamps, which are upon the top thereof: And two olive trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side of the bowl. So I answered and spake to the angel that talked with me, saying, What are these, my lord?
And he did not receive an immediate answer. First of all the angel gave him further instruction, which I believe is summed up in the passage in verse 6, “...Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lordof hosts.” That’s a familiar verse and it really is the essential theme of the revelation of this fourth chapter of Zechariah, that God is going to accomplish His purposes in the world, not by force, not by might, not just by the tremendous power that He’s able to exercise, but by His Holy Spirit.
This is put in terms of this vision which Zechariah had of a beautiful candlestick with its seven branches and a bowl on top. A candlestick all through Scripture I believe, always typifies the church. The oil that feeds the candlestick always typifies the Holy Spirit. On either side of this candlestick in this vision, Zechariah saw an olive tree, one on each side. There was a channel by which the oil was flowing out of the olive tree into the candlestick. Thus the oil was kept pure and clean and fresh, and therefore the light that burned was bright and clean and pure. Now, Zechariah comes back to this in the 11th verse of this same chapter. He still hadn’t got an answer from the angel so he asked the question again.
Then answered I, and said unto him, What are these two olive trees upon the right side of the candlestick and upon the left side thereof? And I answered again, and said unto him, What be these two olive branches which through the two golden pipes empty the golden oil out of themselves? [into the candlestick of course.] And he answered me and said, Knowest thou not what these be? And I said, No, my lord.
I believe that there’s a certain irony in the answer of the angel, because if I’m right in my interpretation, Zechariah himself was one of the olive trees. So if he didn’t know that, the angel in a certain sense was making fun of him. “Don’t you know what these are. Then he said, No. And the angel said in verse 14,
Then said he, These are the two anointed ones, [literally in Hebrew “the two sons of oil”] that stand by the Lord of the whole earth.
You notice they’ve come back to the same phrase that we noticed at the beginning, the phrase that described the prophetic ministry, “standing before the Lord, standing in the counsel of the Lord, standing by the Lord of the whole earth.”
Now these two olive trees are referred to in Revelation chapter 11. I think I’ll turn there for a scriptural confirmation of what I’m presenting. Revelation 11:3,4,10 without going into the background of this which I believe is still in the future. The Lord says,
And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and threescore days clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.
Then in verse 10 of the same chapter of Revelation speaking about these it says,
...These two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth.
So, the olive trees are prophets who prophesied. Of course there are two specific persons referred to in Revelation 11 who are yet future. But I think now we have a picture of the relationship between the prophetic ministry and the church. The prophets are like the olive tree standing one on each side of the candlestick which is the church, and out of these olive trees pure fresh clean oil is piped into the candlestick, thus enabling the candlestick to fulfill its function of giving clear bright light through the oil. Of course if the source of oil is cut off, then the light of the candlestick dies. In other words, to function efficiently for its purpose as the light carrier and the light bringer in the world, the church of Jesus Christ must have a continual supply of fresh oil. If the supply of oil is cut off, the church cannot function. This supply of oil comes in this vision from the very source of oil which is the olive tree. And the olive tree is stated to typify the prophetic ministry. So I do believe we have here a very clear picture of the relationship between the prophetic ministry and the church. The church cannot function without pure fresh oil, without the clean pure inspiration and revelation of the Holy Spirit being fed into it continually. this oil comes from the prophetic ministry.
If this is true, I think it makes it very clear what the Scripture confirms in many other ways that the church needs the prophetic ministry continually. It’s not something for a supreme emergency or something that only recurs once or twice every century. The church must have this continual oil, a fresh revelation and inspiration being fed into it if it’s going to be able to give the light that God desires that it shall give.
In line with this, I believe, is that statement in Proverbs 29:18 which has become a great favorite of mine personally.
Where there is no vision, the people perish...
A modern reading in stead of perish is “cast off restraint.” Another version says, “Are left naked.” But anyhow, whatever, however you like to interpret that particular Hebrew word, there’s one thing that’s clear. Where there is no vision God’s people are in a bad condition. They cannot live and function the way that God intends.
Now the word “vision” means “direct, fresh revelation.” It’s not just having the Bible and reading it. It’s not just even teaching of doctrine, but it’s immediate fresh revelation. It says concerning the time when Eli was high priest and Samuel was brought into the prophetic ministry, there was no open vision in those days, and God’s people were backslidden. They were living in darkness and in sin because there wasn’t any direct fresh revelation from the Lord being fed into the people of God.
I believe this is absolutely true today. If we do not have vision, God’s people perish. Merely having doctrine, merely being correct in all that we believe, is not a substitute for having direct, firsthand revelation from God. God, not merely, has the general teaching which He makes available in Scripture, but He has the particular thing that he wants us to know at this particular time. Just as at a certain moment it was necessary for Nineveh to know they only had forty days. At another time it was necessary for Israel to know that the Messiah was just about to come. At another time it was necessary for Paul to know personally what lay ahead in Jerusalem. Now these could not be given in general revelation through the whole Scripture. These required the particular revelation of a prophetic ministry at that particular moment. It’s my personal conviction that we who live in these days of tremendous crises and turmoil and danger, when everything is moving within believable rapidity and no natural mind can form an accurate opinion of what will be happening five years hence in the world socially, financially, economically, militarily, if ever there was a time when God’s people needed the fresh oil of direct, divine revelation being fed into the church, I believe the time is now.
So I believe that we cannot in any sense write off this prophetic ministry and say, “Well, that was for bygone days. It was needed in the time of the apostles. It was needed in the Old Testament.” It is needed today more than ever, possibly at any time in the history of the church. We need to know things that do not come merely by the teaching of doctrine. Things that we cannot understand merely by natural sources of information. God is willing to reveal them to us.
The thing that gripped me about the days of Noah. Jesus said concerning the end times, “As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it also be in the days of the Son of man.” We always begin to think of all the evil that flourished in the day of Noah. The earth was filled with violence. Every imagination and thoughts of man’s heart was only evil continually. All flesh had corrupted its way. We see all these things, sure enough, in modern society today as it was in the days of Noah in the terms of evil, corruption, wickedness. So it is today.
But there’s another side to the days of Noah. It says in Hebrews 11:7,
By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his household...
And I believe that just as Noah needed divine revelation to warn him of what was coming on the earth, particular explicit instruction from God to know what steps he should take to preserve himself and his family, I am personally persuaded that in these last days, in these critical days which are like the days of Noah in respect of the evil and wickedness, we’ll have to be like Noah also in this respect. That we are open to specific supernatural divine revelations that will guide us and show us things that we cannot know merely by the knowledge of doctrine or by any natural means or channel. I believe that if the church is to shine as God intended at the close of this age when darkness is covering the earth and gross darkness the people, God’s message to the church is “Arise, shine, for the Light has come.” I believe an essential part of this message is the full restoration of the prophetic ministry like the olive trees feeding the oil into the candlestick. And personally I am praying for that and I’m looking forward with anticipation that it will be so even in the period that I yet have to live.