Amongst Christians, the word “prophecy” often elicits two very different reactions. Some hear the word and are captivated by images of the Last Days in the books of Daniel, Revelation, and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Nothing could be more urgent than calculating the timeline of the rapture, tribulation, and millennial reign of Christ; identifying world events with signs of the coming Armageddon; and supporting the state of Israel in supposed fulfillment of the Scriptures.
Others hear of prophecy and mostly think of bad Kirk Cameron and/or Nic Cage movies. Talking about prophecy is taboo. The only possible result is public mockery, for who could, with even a modicum of certainty, correlate the actions of a terrorist group with signs of the end times? Who could with such gusto welcome the coming of the end of the world? Who could possibly support Israel when they too commit human rights travesties against Palestinians? No, prophecy for these Christians is inventive but misguided.
In actuality, both are misguided. Both have lost the Bible’s prophetic voice, even the ones who jump at anything hinting at 666 and seem steeped in prophecy.
THE PROPHETIC MESSAGE
They are both wrong for the simple reason that both have misunderstood what prophecy is in Scripture. Does biblical prophecy make predictions of things to come? Certainly. Even of things that will happen at the Last Day? Yes. But the prophets act and speak as more than the LORD’s fortune tellers. They have two primary objectives in their proclamations:
Call out the unfaithfulness of the people to their Redeemer.
Proclaim the faithfulness of the Redeemer.
When the Israelites were held in bondage by Pharaoh, oppressed by a man who viewed himself as God, the true deity demonstrated his power over any imitator. Leading his people miraculously out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, he made a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai, requiring obedience and promising blessing that would draw the world back into fellowship with God (Exodus 19:4-6). The Law was proscribed, then, to show the community what peace with God might look like.
But the people forgot, and kept forgetting, the steadfast, redeeming love of the LORD. But God, the Good Shepherd, would not let the people stray so easily. He sent prophets to reveal to the people how they had betrayed the only One who fully and lavishly loved them. And so you find throughout the prophets calls for personal renewal: Stop worshipping false gods! Tear down the altars and monuments to idols! Turn your hearts back to the LORD! Not only are their calls for personal renewal, but the prophets reveal the shortcomings of the community as a whole: Your leaders are corrupt! The poor are exploited! Do justice to the downtrodden and sojourner among you! (See Micah 6:8 for a little bit of both.)
Like an unfaithful spouse, Israel commits spiritual adultery time and again, both as individuals and as a community, and subsequently incur the righteous judgment of God. Nonetheless, God covenanted with his people, and his love would bring back a remnant to himself (see Ezekiel 16). He would restore the world despite the people’s sin. Hence, in reminding the people of God’s past promises, the prophets call people to hope in the fulfillment of those promises (i.e., the predictive element of prophecy).
WHAT WE LOSE
Much is at stake if we neglect the (true) prophetic voice of Scripture.
First, we lose the impetus for a personal relationship with the Fountain of Life. As our sin corrupts our hearts, we become firstly separated from God and secondly blinded to the ways in which we personally offend the holiness of God. Our life becomes like an American Idol contestant who thinks she can belt it like Whitney Houston but who in fact screeches like a dying owl. It takes an outside, prophetic word to penetrate that closed system of compounding sin and wake us to repentance. Otherwise, we wade into death away from God rather than walk into life with him.
Second, we lose the peace that characterizes God’s kingdom. One of the nasty things about sin is that it corrupts not only individual hearts. In doing that, it necessarily contaminates the various relationships among individuals. Those individuals and relationships ultimately constitute cultures and societies. Thus, it follows that just as an individual may be sinful, an entire culture might be sinful (or have deep-seated sinful elements). If I am personally a jerk, a friend might be able to speak prophetically in my life to call me out of that sin. But if an entire culture exploits the poor or discriminates against one particular race, who is there to restore the peace and justice which God intends? Everyone has been blinded by sin. The world needs a biblical prophetic voice to draw whole cultures back to God and into his kingdom.
Lastly, we lose our public witness to the hope of the gospel. If we cannot prophetically and rightly identify sin and injustice in our world -- the ways in which the world has gone wrong -- why would anyone believe that our God will not let it go completely wrong but will (and has through Jesus already started to) restore it? You cannot fix what you do not believe is broken; therefore, it is imperative that we correctly, truthfully, and lovingly call to account personal sin and communal corruption so that we can subsequently plant a seed of hope that God has noticed and is doing something about it.
HOW WE LOST AND HOW WE REGAIN
Our time is not the first time losing the prophetic voice has happened. The Church has throughout her history been drawn by political, economic, and cultural power rather than prophetic, Spirit-filled power. Perhaps because the former more ostensibly has the appearance of power while God’s power, revealed most fully in the humble self-sacrifice of Christ’s crucifixion, must stimulate our imagination to a greater extent as it reorients our conception of power. For those interested, research further the impact of Constantine, Pope Leo X, and Hitler on the Church. Constantine offered political power, Leo X twisted theological truth for economic gain, and Hitler promised political and cultural superiority. In each case, people followed blindly. But in each case, faithful Christians turned to the Word of God and confessed its truths boldly.
That is how we regain the prophetic voice: be more soaked in Scripture and Christian community than cultural liturgies (to borrow the phrase of James K.A. Smith). Be married to Christ rather than married to culture and the power it promises. Be filled by the Spirit rather than lust for power. It just might be the case that we see more of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven when we rediscover prophecy.
Having earned degrees from Southern Methodist University and Princeton Theological Seminary, Michael attempts to pass on what he has learned by teaching world and church history and apologetics. If he had to read theology and classic fiction for the rest of his life, though, he wouldn’t be sad about it. Michael loves his beautiful wife, Micaela.