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.”