In the communal and ecclesiastical context of the local church, believers are accustomed to pastoral leaders who tend to their flock much like shepherds would sheep. Pastoral ministry will never become irrelevant—the Church would grind to a halt without it. However, other biblical ministries can be seen operating within the church structure as demonstrated in the early NT gatherings. “For a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world.” (Acts 11:27) The very first forms of NT church featured a prominent space for “prophets.”
Is this still true in today’s church? How are we to interpret “the prophetic” in a pastor-led, shepherding, caring atmosphere? The answers are hidden beneath multiple layers of dogma and passé teaching. We must adopt a larger, kingdom perspective. In the Kingdom, there is a prophetic dimension, which is not limited to or by the four walls of a church. The prophetic dimension is a distinct area of Christ’s multi-faceted ministry as Prophet, Priest, and King. It has the potential to develop beautifully and corporately if stewarded correctly. Still, many westerners are immersed in a pastorally designed mindset to the point that a legitimate prophetic anointing can be off-putting. It is viewed by some as threatening, uninvited doom-saying or unloving confrontation. Conversely, some church activity labeled “prophetic” could not have a more inaccurate label.
Having been discussed ad nauseam in charismatic circles, there is a vast difference between the office of prophet and a situation-based prophetic gift. The office-holder is characterized by a mantle that cannot be removed.1 The congregational gift of prophecy is mostly spontaneous words of edification, encouragement, and comfort (1 Cor. 14: 29-32). Occasionally they will contain a predictive element, but mostly they edify. Individuals with an on/off prophetic gift tend to give reassuring, comforting messages such as “God is good; He loves you; your sins are washed away by the blood; today is a new day, etc.” Prophetic office holders are iconoclasts par excellence. Under a strong anointing, they don’t waste time or dawdle. They will commandeer a spiritual scalpel and pinpoint roots of any and every type of malaise imaginable. They diagnose, then articulate a Remedy who is Christ. They are profound discerners, rarely fooled any of the time by outward appearance. They can (unintentionally) make people feel as though being X-rayed. A conversation might feature a tone similar to this:
PROPHET: Relax, here’s the splinter that was causing your limp!
Prophets are highly keen on justice and executing divine commands with precision. Any injustice, especially exploits of the weak or defenseless, may cause a blood-boiling offense in the prophet’s spirit and psyche. Like a “ringing” on the inside of his head, he will be unable to ignore it. Although he grapples with injustice, he may learn over time how to major in grace administration. Here is a view from the inside: God’s heart, mind and Word are like lava oozing and bubbling forth in perpetuity inside the prophet. As Jeremiah said: “But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).
A life of superficial, mundane trivialities is the antithesis of a genuine prophetic call. His is the call to shatter false paradigms and obstructions to the accurate apprehension of Christ-character. To the prophet, the whole world is his burden, injustice his constant companion. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “the prophet shares in the divine pathos.2” Prophets are elicitors of repentance, calling the Body to maturity, uprightness, and obedience, just as John the Baptist came offering a baptism of repentance. He will issue a summons to the conditional and demand decision. “If you love me, then you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). “What will you do with your life?” Choose, before it’s too late. Repent now! (Matthew 3:2).
This is where pastors often fail to “get” prophets, or the cause of a prophet. It sounds elementary but is not. As Scott Webster says, “prophets are not primarily blessers. They are builders, and will not experience fulfillment operating only on the level of personal blessing. They are deeply coded to build.3” It is not simply about delivering warm and fuzzy “feel-good” messages to everyone in the congregation. Prophets build accurate “hearing” and discernment into others, biblically sound systems of knowledge, platforms for diverse ministries, and have a penchant for ethical standards. They want to “build it right, or not at all.” To be prophetic is also to have healthy spiritual faculties: highly accurate sight, developed hearing and obeying, and a sixth sense for supernatural timing or seasons.
The kind of “presence” they exude can vary from easy-going and approachable, to down-right harsh and sharp around all edges. It all depends on the level of personal development and God’s preferences for a given situation. Mature prophets will have an eye toward redemption at all times. If a prophet ascertains an underlying fracture, his concern for “setting the bone” and healing will be in the forefront. Of course, it takes decades of transformation, obedience, and training for a prophet to have a beneficial ministry. A failure to wait for God’s release to minister can result in dangerous, damaging results. Those less-seasoned in their gift and unaware of how to handle power will tend to enjoy tearing down and exposing problems.
Therefore, prophets must be the product of a drawn-out sojourning through trials and impossible seasons (think Joseph or Moses). They must possess radically transformed character and embody the frequency that is “change.” They are to exemplify God’s desired future season for the Body, always leading through the valley and to a promised land. Like apostles, prophets are not born in the natural, overnight, nor will they ever be. Neither can anyone choose to become a prophet. Like all gifts and callings of God, God alone picks and chooses. If they are charged with communicating and representing God’s intentions, what part of the prophet’s natural self is involved in such a task? Only one who is truly dead to self will be authoritatively empowered to speak the mind of God and set captives free.
Exposing and dismantling are a fundamental part of the prophetic function (John 3:20). “But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare” (1 Corinthians 14:24, 25). But these are not supposed to be the final destination. As even the OT prophet Jeremiah was commanded “to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10, emphasis mine) There should be a developed grace for ‘rebuilding’ in the prophetic minister as well.
The world may try to silence or discredit the prophetic voice since it so often serves to announce its corrupt and inconsistent ways. Insecure Christians operating in a crooked spirit will attempt to mute the voice (the prophet) to prevent uncomfortable exposure of heavily guarded secrets or false identities. These Christians try to accuse him of sinful motives, brandishing “projectile weapon” words: “mean-spirited, arrogant, disrespectful,” etc. Hubristic, vituperative reaction to and aggressive retaliation on the messenger usually reveal a prophet’s cause to be accurate (See Mark 6:18). The prophet’s job is not for the faint-hearted. Therefore, the prophet must be unflappable, possessing herculean internal and spiritual strength. Knowing deeply who he is, he can rest despite what he is called to do. He can take solace knowing Jesus was no cream puff with some of his accusers. Dr. Lyle Story puts it this way in his article—The Parable of the Strong Man and the Stronger One:
His critics, the Jerusalem Scribes, reveal a blindness that cannot distinguish between the work of Jesus that brings wholeness and the work of Satan that brings destruction and death. What evil is more heinous than the malignant moral blindness which affirms that good is evil? This warning is perhaps the strongest word that Jesus ever speaks. The direct context, found in the tradition of all three Synoptic writers shows clearly the charge against Jesus—that He accomplishes exorcisms by the power of Beelzebul. For those who hold this view, there is, says Jesus, no hope.4
Although no one enjoys being rebuked, much less severely, it is intended to produce a redemptive outcome. When performed with authority (sans human volition), it brings supernatural order and clears the clutter for the road crews to lay asphalt. In the streets, prophetic ministry might manifest through an inviting, gracious, and encouraging demeanor. Recipients of this ministry will be full of hope and inspired to attend a church. It lovingly encourages through a call or invitation to change, to abandon one’s current ways in exchange for a superior, Christ-centered solution. Over time, a prophet might build a relational platform that “draws out” and empowers another individual to be ready for their calling and ministry. Other elements of the prophetic function include:
- preparation (John the Baptist was the “way-preparer” for the Lord Jesus Christ)
- incisive separating of wheat from chaff (identifying, separating falsehood from truth)
- a messenger
- a healer
- a watchman or overseer
- bringing other believers into alignment with God
- giving courage to face a difficult season
- imparting strength to jump over stumbling blocks