CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Being a Prophet

Jul 21, 2007

These are not good days for prophets, Then again, I guess they never were. Jesus could complain about this 2000 years ago: “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house” (Matthew 13:57).

Prophets have usually not been very well received. And for good reason: To the extent they are bringing a hard word from God to a recalcitrant and stubborn people, they will not usually get a good hearing. Rejection and opposition is most likely the fate of the prophet.

Again, Jesus faced this and told his hearers that this was nothing new: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you” (Matthew 23:37). Recall Jeremiah being cast into a muddy pit, as but one example (Jer. 38:6).

Now when we think about prophets and prophecy, we usually think about fore-telling, or words about the future. But a prophet is as much, if not more, about telling forth, as fore-telling. Speaking into the situation of the day is the bulk of the prophetic task.

Thus their job, in good measure, is to bring to bear God’s perspective and God’s word on the events of the day. The Old Testament is of course full of this. The question is, do we have the same prophetic word today?

Certainly we have the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12-14, eg). Whether we have authoritative prophets as in the Old Testament sense is not a question I will here debate. But it does seem clear that there is still a need to speak in a prophet-like fashion to the events of the day.

That is, we need to be seeking to apply the Biblical message to the various ideas and events of contemporary life, as difficult as that may be. We need, in other words, to seek to develop a thorough Biblical worldview, and let that be our guide as we think about, and comment on, what is transpiring in our culture today.

In that sense, we can agree with the cry of Moses: “I wish that all the LORD’S people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). We need more believers who are able to think critically and Biblically, as we seek to understand what is going on in our world, and try to make sense of it in the light of God’s word and God’s purposes.

This is much like what we read about concerning the sons of Issachar: “the men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” (1 Chron. 12:32). We desperately need believers today who understand the times, and know how the church should act.

Yet a word of warning here: the prophetic task is not one lightly entered into. As mentioned, most prophets are poorly received, and their work is a thankless one. That is because the message we must bring, both to a lukewarm church, and a God-denying world, will not be popular or well-received.

As is clear from the Old Testament, the only prophets who were well-liked and warmly welcomed were the false prophets. The true prophets of God were rejected, persecuted and killed. Can we expect anything less today?

We must imitate Paul, when he said, “For I have not hesitated to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” (Acts 20:27). It is not popular today to do that. Most believers have settled for a life of comfort and ease, not a life of rugged discipleship, denying the self, and taking up our cross.

Today the most popular preachers tend to be those that tell people what they want to hear. Thus many popular preachers today will seldom, if ever, deal with such core biblical themes as sin, hell, the holiness of God or judgment to come. They instead will deliver sweet words and light-weight sermons, designed to please and sooth the congregation, and not challenge or disturb them.

But it has rightly been said that the main job of the preacher – or the prophet – is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. And this must be done by declaring the whole counsel of God.

Os Guinness, who is always incisive and always challenging, puts it this way in his important 2003 book, Prophetic Untimeliness: “The cross of Jesus runs crosswise to all our human ways of thinking. A rediscovery of the hard and the unpopular themes of the gospel will therefore be such a rediscovery of the whole gospel that the result may lead to reformation and revival.”

Quite right. It is time that all the counsel of God is proclaimed in all its fullness. No more selective presentation of the Gospel. No more sugar-coating the Biblical message. This will probably mean we will lose a few invitations to speak, or cause some to not want anything further to do with us. But that is the price we must pay if we are to be true to our prophetic calling.

Indeed, just yesterday I was re-reading about one great recent prophet of God, A.W. Tozer. This is what Warren Wiersbe says about the man and his message:

“A.W. Tozer wrote with conviction. He was not interested in tickling the ears of the shallow Athenian Christians who were looking for some new thing. Tozer redug the wells and called us back to the old paths, and he passionately believed and practiced the truths that he taught. He once told a friend of mine, ‘I have preached myself off of every Bible Conference platform in the country!’ The popular crowds do not rush to hear a man whose convictions make them uncomfortable.”

While the book just mentioned by Guinness has to do with how the mad dash to try to be relevant is simply making the church irrelevant, there is a great section there on why the prophetic calling will be a difficult one. He lists three costs of “prophetic untimeliness”. The first is “a sense of maladjustment. When society is increasingly godless and the church increasingly corrupt, faithfulness carries a price. The man or woman who lives by faith does not fit in.”

The second is “a sense of impatience. For when society becomes godless and the church corrupt, the forward purposes of God appear to be bogged down and obstructed, and the person who lives by faith feels the frustration. At such a moment, untimely people see beyond the present impasse to the coming time when better possibilities are fulfilled.”

The third is “a sense of failure. For when society becomes godless and the church corrupt, the prospects of good people succeeding are significantly dimmed and the temptation to feel a failure is everpresent.”

Yet these are the burdens we must carry if we are to remain faithful to our God and to our prophetic calling. Such a calling may not win us friends. Indeed, we may lose some friends. But as James reminds us, friendship with this world means enmity with God. (James 4:4)

The question is, are we willing to pay the price to faithfully represent our Lord in a world that hates and despises us, and in a church that increasingly more closely resembles the world than the plans and purposes of God?

But let me end on a positive note, again quoting from Guinness: “God knew the times in which he called us to live, and he alone knows the outcome of our times as he knows the outcome of our lives and our work. Our ‘failures’ may be his success. Our ‘setbacks’ may prove his turning points. Our ‘disasters’ may turn out to be his triumphs. What matters for us is that his gifts are our calling.”

[1284 words]

18 Responses to On Being a Prophet

  • Well said Bill!
    And well-written, Os Guinness, too.
    I will have to chew over this one – do I have the stuffing to be a worthwhile Christian, or am I going to be a fluffy light-weight?
    John Angelico

  • If judgment begins at the house of God, so surely must reformation.
    John Nelson

  • I can’t think of anything intelligent to add, other than to say how blessed I was to read it.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  • Amen to that! Glad to hear other people saying the same thing and I am not the only one 🙂

    http://propheticwordsrevelation.blogspot.com/

    Rosalind Franklin

  • Greetings, Bill, and thank you! As someone who lately has been dishearted by recent Calvinist vs Charismatic arguments (battle of the blogs?) your comments did much to ease my distress over the situation.

    It might be noted that the words of some of the prophets of the Old Testament were never recorded. One such was Nathan, prophet/advisor to King David. It would seem his words were specifically for David’s ears alone. By this it appears there are different types of prophetic pronouncement, public and private. Of course we have not had a prophet of the stature of Jesus or even Amos for two millenia, but there have been prophetic voices through the centuries. John Knox was one, who prophesied that his false accuser would die at the very spot from which he viewed Knox’s execution very soon. Two months later that prophecy did in fact come to pass.

    Anyway, I thank you for broaching the topic in a gentle way.

    M.E. Huffmaster

  • Thanks Bill,

    This is a challenging message.

    It is worth noting that telling the “hard and unpopular themes” can lead to good, as some people are convicted of sin and repent.

    It is worth reading Ezekiel, Chapter 3 starting at verse 16. It shows how important prophecy is.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  • M.E. Huffmaster stated “John Knox was one, who prophesied that his false accuser would die at the very spot from which he viewed Knox’s execution very soon. Two months later that prophecy did in fact come to pass.” The small snippets of John Knox’s life that I have read about have fascinated me. Do you have a reference for this event?
    Graeme Cumming

  • The prophetic roles of ‘speaking of the situation of the day’ and fore-telling the future, can often appear as two separate functions. However, doesn’t the latter function follows on from the former? A prophet reads the signs of the times and warns of the ramifications of what they see. E.g. the path you people are taking now is ungodly and wrong. If you don’t turn back … these will be the ramifications as a result of your following this path. God gives them His insight to ‘see the future’ that will result from the ‘now’.
    In today’s world that is so steeped in witchcraft, I have come across people who sometimes confuse ‘fortune tellers’ as being somehow prophetic, when in fact fortune-telling has its origins in the occult, and is never designed to turn people away from sin and towards Jesus. In other words, the purpose of fortune-telling is NEVER for the salvation of souls.
    With prophecy, however, the telling of future events is to draw people away from the wrong they are doing now, and warn them of what will happen if they don’t ….ultimately for the salvation of souls.
    Donna Murphy

  • Your comment about “prophets being not well received..” has certainly been evident even amongs charismatic and Pentecostal churches. Though the role of a congregational prophet is rarely seen today within Western Pentecostal churches (at least during corporate meetings,) those who have experienced the charismatic renewal of the 70’s and 80’s can well testify to the silencing of many prophets. Putting aside the ocassional false prophet, who are generally easy to spot – it seems that even within the body itself speaking out with either a prophetic voice or even with natural insight can too often be a perilous experience.
    Barry Fleming

  • Wow…Reading this was like a breath of fresh air. I for one long to see the prophetic voice in the church and the world! On Saturday when I walked into Borders and saw the Harry Potter display and the (Christian-owned) Gloria Jeans cafe in the same place defiled with spiders webs and the staff wearing witches hats, I felt so deeply sickened that I put down the books I had come to buy and left. The thought occurred to me that there are very few Christian voices condemning these things in the church and as a matter of fact, many Christians I’m sure have no idea that HP is witchcraft being glorified to ridiculous heights in our once Christian culture. This is, of course, just one phenomenon. How is the church, the vast numbers of ‘sheep’ going to be able to discern unless those with the gifts of discernment speak out and guide them? But I’ve noticed that when in a group of chatting church friends, you start talking about abortion or same-sex marriage or other ‘controversial’ topics, a silence falls on the group. It’s only OK to talk about movies we’ve seen, work or some other mundane topic. How are we different to the world? We as Christians hate to disagree with each other, so we just avoid the topics that we need most to support each other on. If we don’t support each other in what is an increasingly difficult stance to take in a darkening world, who will support and encourage us? Is it better to displease God and upset others or offend God and allow the church to go to Hell in a handbasket?
    Bill, thank you so much for writing this article!
    Dee Graf

  • Bill, you are dead right about the sugar-coated messages of today. In Revelation we read that “they overcame by 3 things 1. The blood of the Lamb 2. The word of their testimony 3. They loved not their own lives, even unto death”. In 32 years of being a Christian, of the times in church that I have heard this scripture used, at least 60% of the time the third one is left out. This tells me something. It’s a bit like the inherent weakness of democracy – you make a gutsy, long-term benefit decision, and it’s likely you will be voted out next election.
    Ian Brearley

  • Thanks Bill. An example is the way that the U.C.A. has persecuted prophetic clergy.
    (Rev) Stan Fishley, U.C.A.Retired

  • The voice of C.S. Lewis speaks more clearly as each day darkens. Speaking of the gospel he says:
    “…. It does not begin in comfort; it begins in dismay…and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay. In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end. If you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”
    David Skinner, UK

  • Hi Bill
    I was very interested in what Donna Murphy had to say about the amount of witchcraft you come across in society today. What she said was very true. Star signs, much discussed is one example of the codswallop you hear in conversations today. These codswallopers talk as if everybody born on a certain date span has much the same character traits. Some years ago, when a certain date was on the horizon, I wrote in the Australian that it happened to be the birthdate of Tasmaniam serial killer, Martin Bryant. And that I hoped we’d be spared an analysis, with the ridiculous claim that since he was born “under” a so-called star sign, that it contributed to his behaviour.
    I wrote that born on the same date were composers Tchaikovsky and Brahms, actor Gary Cooper, actress Anne Baxter, singers Janis Ian, Teresa Brewer (1950’s hit singer) Eva Peron, Josef Tito, communist dictator and so on. Are all these people of the same type of character?
    I concluded “Why am I interested in this bit of rivetting information? Well I was born on that date too and I’m not a scrap like any of those people”.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie, Queensland

  • I agree with Dee Graf’s point about an unwillingness for Christians to speak up. Imagine that we are talking on the deck of a seemingly unsinkable, luxury, ocean liner. We are enjoying a cruise and passing the time in endless diversions and distractions but I am trying to persuade you to leave the ship in order to join a small raft that is bobbing about on the waves , a little distance away. Naturally the idea does not grab you. Why on earth would anyone want to exchange the comfort and security of an unsinkable, luxury liner for something seemingly so frail? The reason is that I have facts that inform me of disturbing truths about where we are now , where we are headed and who the captain is; all of which lead me to believe that the ship – like the Titanic – is on course for disaster. But for a mixture of reasons, I remain silent. Perhaps I am indifferent to your fate; or I might be enjoying the sun and sea too much to take seriously these fancies I harbour at the back of my mind – after all, a healthy dose of real life at sea is enough to show that, whatever odd ideas I might have had when shut up alone in my cabin with my books, they could not possibly be true? I might also be reluctant to make myself vulnerable by revealing extremely personal thoughts: when we are partying and having a ball we want to keep conversation light. There again, I might be fearful of offending you and of the scorn or even rage that my message might produce – but for a host of reasons I remain silent. The fact remains, however, that if my inside information were true then the little raft would take on a dramatically, different significance. Far from being an un-attractive proposition, reaching the safety of the raft, from that moment, would become our sole aim in life. Or would it? There are those who are indifferent to the peril they are in. Apparently, even after the Titanic had struck the iceberg, passengers were found playing with the snow that was cascading onto the decks – oblivious of the danger they were in. Pascal, the 17th century mathematician, said that the same person who spends so many days and nights in fury and despair at losing some office or at some imaginary affront to their pride is the very one who knows that they are going to lose everything through death but feels neither anxiety or emotion. Such blindness is incomprehensible apart from a supernatural power. That same power would also attempt to silence me.
    David Skinner, UK

  • Thanks, Bill, for an excellent expose. May I reflect on how pervasive this is within evangelical Christianity. Twelve months ago my wife and I moved to a northern Brisbane suburb. Finding an evangelical church in this region that does not preach and sing Bible-lite, has been extremely difficult. We visited 8 churches before we came to one that has Bible content in the hymns and preaching.
    At one of the churches we visited in our suburb, the songs and preaching (not by the pastor) were so contemporary lite that I mentioned it to a person in a discussion as we were leaving the service. Since then I have emailed the pastor to see if we could join a home group in our suburb. This is most of the response I received yesterday in an email:
    “I do remember you attending, and so I know you are aware of the contemporary nature of [our church], and this nature flows through all areas of our life, and most definitely home groups. And so if our Sunday worship service was not helpful to you in your journey with Christ, to be honest I don’t imagine our home groups would be either. Its great to see you proactively seeking fellowship outside of a Sunday and I encourage you to find yourself a group in which both yourself and [your wife] are comfortable”.
    I did not speak to the pastor so how could he remember our attending? Somebody has blown the whistle to him. But this is an evangelical church in a denomination with a national reputation but the downgrading of biblical Christianity is so pervasive that it is invading the whole church milieu, including the home groups.
    Are others on this blog experiencing anything similar?

    Spencer Gear

  • I’m intrigued why Spencer Gear finally having found a church which he liked, would be interested in joining a home group attached to one of the churches he dismissed as being “contemporary lite”. Putting aside the pastor’s reference to his awareness that the Gears attended the church on one occasion I think the pastors response and advice is entirely measured and appropriate.
    I have come to realize that you will never find the perfect church this side of heaven. Of course some churches are less perfect than others! But, Bill, when all is said and done perhaps true prophets are not going to have many “good days”. On the other hand surely not all faithful Bible teachers would claim to be or would be regarded as “prophets.”
    John Bradford

  • This seems a timely comment for me personally. Having just come back from trying to organise meetings for the Christian Democratic Party in church buildings. The tension and guardedness one feels on even mentioning that you represent the CDP is enough to make you recoil but then when you actually make the request to hire their hall for a meeting you might as well be enemy number one trying to desecrate their sacred buildings. Heaven forbid you might be asking people to consider making a judgement on what your fellow man is up to. ‘You might speak out about those controversial issues like abortion, same sex marriage, islamic laws replacing our judaeo-christian heritage!
    Anyway who said christians should be politicians that’s a dirty business, and the economy – christians aren’t clever enough to handle that, better to leave it to the atheists, humanists or communists they are more fitted to govern our nation. We’ll just lobby them on moral issues and hope for the best, because really we have no right to push our religion on them, better to let them make the rules we and our children live by. God just wants us to love everybody and we pray that God will deal with all those other things. And especially please don’t ask us to get involved in politics, we don’t want to cause any unrest in our congregation, some of them vote Liberal, Labor or Green, so we just don’t go there. Bringing up any of these issues is just too hard, we shut the door on them.’
    Sorry this sounds so sarcastic but truly I do know what I am talking about, I know it is a difficult issue for ministers and pastors to deal with but Jesus has us pray “Thy kingdom come on earth even as it is in heaven.” God is concerned with what we do on earth. Jesus certainly let the money changers know what he thought of them and put his words into actions, and he didn’t hold back when he spoke to the leaders of his day. Our politicians are Ministers of the people, answerable before God, we have a duty to remind them of that
    I see Rev Fred Nile MP as a truly committed bible believing Christian and a modern day Prophet, he has foretold and warned of many things that have come to pass when others simply ‘wouldn’t go there’, and he has often stood alone and endured ridicule and lies for Jesus sake.

    Lesley Kadwell

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