This of course is not a new phenomenon. Those who were around in the 1970's will remember the best selling book by Hal Lindsay that gave specific predictions on how it was all going to pan out, as he painted his version of the doomsday scenario. Despite the fact that most of his predictions have failed to materialise there still seems to be a never ending appetite among Christians for prophetic utterances, particularly about the future and the end times.
More recently I heard a well known author and speaker, again recognised widely as a prophet, conclude that prophetic ministry was all about finding the gold in people and helping them fulfil their ministry. There may be a certain amount of truth in his point, but is this really what the prophetic ministry is all about? One only has to look broadly across the scriptures to see that the prophetic ministry is a vital thread that God has used from Genesis to Revelation to demonstrate his heart and will, and to keep his people on track with His plans and purposes. True prophets are not only vital today in God's ongoing plans and purposes, but they also should be easily recognised by God's people.
So what things should we expect to see in a Prophet? Is a prophet simply someone who relates words or pictures in a meeting with a thus says the Lord at the beginning? Let's begin with Abraham, who was the first person whom God refers to as a prophet (Genesis 20:7)....
The Call of God
"The Lord said to : Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you." Genesis 12:1
First of all Abraham was called by God, and this is a good place for us to start. No-one can call themselves to any ministry or decide to be something that God has neither called nor equipped them to be. I can no more decide to become a Prophet than I could decide to become a cocker spaniel. The Bible says that God places people in the body as he wishes and therefore our gifts and callings come from Him and can be recognised by others.
A Heavenly Vision
No, not just a vision of heaven (there are lots of books about on this subject too), but a clear picture of God's plan's and purposes for His world and His people. Abraham's whole life was about putting the ultimate plan and purpose of God into action. His eyes were on the heavens and it was for God's ultimate purpose of a heavenly city and a heavenly people that he was working towards (Hebrews 11:10). A genuine prophetic ministry will have God's plan and purpose for His church and His world as a central hub to all he says or does. This heavenly vision will cause the prophet to be dissatisfied with anything less than God's ideal. One of the words that is used in the Bible when referring to the Prophet is a Seer. In other words the Prophet has seen something from God and continues to see something which drives him forward until he has fulfilled his mission.
"A prophet is not judged on the quantity nor even on the quality of his prophetic words which God gives him; his stature is assessed by what he builds or what of the purposes of God he brings his generation into. Here John (the baptist) stands out supreme. He actually prepared the way of the Lord, for Jesus the Messiah to come to that generation;"
David Mansell (Restoration Magazine 1975)
A Provocation and a Plumb line
"The Lord was standing there by a vertical wall with a plumb line in His hand." Amos 7:7If you look at pretty much all of the prophets in the Bible you will see that this was not a popular ministry. The prophet was often a plumb line for the people of God, pointing out when they were in rebellion or disobedience and seeking to call them back into God's will. The story of Elijah on mount Carmel was case in point, where he challenges the evil king and the people who were following him and he boldly tells them to choose and to follow the one true God. Interestingly, Paul the Apostle was among a group of prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch prior to his setting apart for apostolic ministry. We see this intransigent prophetic element all the way through his life as he challenges the false teachers who tried to impose the law of Moses onto the gentile believers. We see him challenging Peter for his hypocrisy in trying to please this same sect in the church and not standing for the truth of the gospel. Then in his letters to the churches we see him bringing a correction to right thinking and right practice or to oppose other heresies that were creeping in.
Am I saying that prophets just go around pointing out peoples mistakes and telling them off? Of course not, but the heart of God is to bring people to maturity as sons of the most high, and the father disciplines those sons whom he loves and accepts. How does he discipline them? It is by the word of God (Hebrews 12:5-8). Therefore the prophetic heart is the heart of the father towards his children. It is one of love and encouragement for the family at it's very core, but it doesn't shy away from speaking up when we wander from the truth or miss the perfect plan of the Father. I can tell you from experience that bringing the word of God into peoples lives is often not appreciated and not going to win you any awards in a popularity contest. I would have to question the validity of so called prophets who constantly tell people how wonderful they are even when they are clearly in disobedience to the truth of God's word.
Of course the most important aspect of being a plumb line ministry is that the prophet should only speak in line with God's revealed word. Lot's of people like to use the God has told me card to justify all sorts of weird and sinful things. My father, who was in full time pastoral ministry for many years, told me of a man in his church who said that God had told him "to divorce his wife and to marry another (much younger incidentally) woman, who was his true soul mate." My Dad was quite quickly able to discern that this was clearly NOT the word of the Lord. By the same token, a true prophet of the Lord Jesus will speak in line with the revealed word of God and bring God's plan into sharper focus. Every word of God should be weighed and measured against this truth.
The fact that an utterance in a gathering is prefaced with the words 'thus saith the Lord' does not guarantee the truth or inspiration of that utterance automatically. Whenever a person prophesies they should do so with the added confidence that their words are subject to the judging of others matured in the Spirit.
Foundational in the Church
The New Testament talks about prophets being foundational ministries and I believe that this is a key aspect in being able to recognise true prophets. Over the years I have met a number of so called prophets who float from place to place and group to group, with no accountability in their lives and yet expect to be heard and accepted as they seek to bring the word of God into people lives. That is clearly an unscriptural pattern of operation. Foundations are part of the building not apart from it, so prophetic ministries that are not part of or submitted to a local body of believers can hardly be called foundational ministries.
As part of the foundations prophets are to work closely with other Ephesians 4 gifts in preparing God's people for the work of the ministry, particularly with apostles. One apostolic ministry whom I asked about this working relationship described it in this way. He said "the Prophet brings the word and the will of God, and the apostle unpacks it and brings it into a practical reality." I know this may be over simplifying these foundational ministries, but my point is that they are meant to be intrinsically linked together and not separate entities moving in different spheres.
Jesus will return one day for his bride which is the church. The Bible tells us that God's manifold witness will be made known to the principalities and powers through the church (Ephesians 3:10). In other words God's great plan is going to come about through His people. I believe that every one of us can prophesy, that is we can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and speak out. But the ministry of the prophet is something that goes beyond simply being able to prophesy, it is a ministry that is to help mould and shape the church to become what God wants it to become. The true prophet of the Lord will not be satisfied until God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven and his bride is made ready for His return.
“Divine vocation - must rest upon a vision which the Lord has given you: a vision, of course, that is not just something in itself but is the vision which He has given concerning His Church.”
Excerpt From: T. Austin-Sparks. “Prophetic Ministry.
This of course is not an exhaustive study on the subject, but it should certainly give us a basic framework for recognising true prophetic ministries and an understanding of how they are meant to function in the day and age we live.