THE PROPHETS (This article is taken from his book ‘The Ministry-Gifts of Christ’)
Mr. Donald Gee
There is considerable haziness in the minds of many people concerning the real nature of the office and ministry of a “prophet” in the church.
Some would have us believe that the “prophet” is simply another name for the preacher, and that all true preachers are prophets, and all their preaching is prophesying. There is an element of truth in this, but it plainly does not meet the case for the obvious reason that it completely fails to recognize the essential place in the prophesying of the New Testament of direct inspiration and immediate revelation.
Others simply think that a “prophet” has little to do but foretell the future. This also has an element of truth, but is very far indeed from the complete picture.
Others again have unfortunately distorted the office by trying to make its chief function that of guidance in church or private affairs; and their exaggeration and abuse of the office on this line has only added confusion, and prejudiced people against the truth. Here also there has been an element of truth, in that the Holy Spirit does guide at times through this channel, when He so pleases in sovereign grace; but it is never “to order,” and the New Testament gives no such all important place to prophets in the conduct of affairs.
It is unfortunate from one aspect that we no longer generally use the title “prophet” in describing the ministry of certain brethren, because this lack gives the impression that the office has ceased to exist in the church today, or is limited to those who actually use the title. As a matter of fact we believe it is still present among us in considerable measure, and one would only expect a revival of an inspirational nature to produce a corresponding increase in this type of ministry.
The Ministry of Prophets Defined
A “prophet” in the New Testament sense is one who speaks “from the impulse of a sudden inspiration, from the light of a sudden revelation at the moment (apokalupsis–1Cor.14:30). “The idea of speaking from an immediate revelation seems here to be fundamental, as relating either to future events, or the mind of the Spirit in general” (Robinson). “Prophets” are particularly distinguished from “teachers” (Acts l3:1; 1Cor. 12:28; Eph.4:11) in that the latter exercise a more logical ministry in the Spirit, appealing principally to the reasoning faculties of the hearers; while the former appeal to the conscience more generally through the emotions. “Prophets” are distinguished from “evangelists” in that while these may be powerful emotional preachers, yet they do not necessarily minister from an immediate revelation at the moment.
The Prophet as a Preacher
In the early church the prophets undoubtedly provided a large part of the preaching ministry, and gave it a distinctive note of divine authority and power which must have been tremendously arresting to the hearer. 1Cor. l4:25. In this they were worthy successors of John the Baptist, and the great prophet-preachers of the Old Testament.
To recognize this ministry today we have to look among those preachers who speak very largely by inspiration as they go along. We personally know, and highly esteem, certain brethren who have a singularly powerful and uplifting ministry in the Spirit; and yet avowedly hardly know what they are going to say when they step on to the platform! Some Scripture becomes illuminated to them, and provides a thought from which to start; or some line of immediate need in the company present brings divine revelation as to the word applicable. Their utterances are usually without any attempt at logical reasoning and sequence (sometimes they are even hopelessly illogical!), and yet they captivate the heart by a declaration of truth which is convincing to the conscience. Often also they bring real enlightenment to the understanding, but it is usually through the intuitive rather than the logical faculties. Thank God for such ministry! It is often a powerful agent to promote revival.
Silas, who was a “prophet” (Acts 15:32) found a valuable place in apostolic missionary labors with Paul: and in evangelism this type of ministry has a powerful and legitimate sphere.
A word of warning is required lest this truly God-given gift and ministry should be confused with the lazy, slipshod habits of some preachers who waste precious hours which should be spent in preparation, and then expect the Holy Spirit to help them out by a last-minute revelation. Such often quote, “Open thy mouth wide and I will fill it,” but their messages are usually not such as to bring much glory to the supposed divine giver. A true prophet does need preparation, as much as any preacher, but it is the preparation particularly of the heart. He has to “prophesy according to the proportion of faith” (Rom.12:6), and his faith must be kept-living, strong and enlightened by hours of communion with God.
It is the privilege of the prophet very often to interpret to the people the very emotion of the Spirit, entered into by a walk with God of the closest fellowship in which he shares the very “feelings” of God, if we may reverently so put it. So we may expect a prophet to be somewhat emotional. As a rule; this is a distinctive feature of his office. This may likely make him very sensitive to the spiritual atmosphere around him–reacting most favorably to a responsive audience. Yet perhaps it is one test of a prophet’s true measure of divine unction if he has the power to bring the Word home convincingly to those who are unsympathetic. Such were the great preacher-prophets of the Old Testament.
The Prophet as a Fore-Teller
The New Testament also indicates that there was a ministry of prophets which we should hardly call “preaching.” It was too spontaneous, and–perhaps–fragmentary. There were inspired utterances in the assemblies which brought “exhortation, edification, and comfort” (1 Cor. l4:3); or voiced some immediate “revelation” at the moment (vv. 6, 30). These were probably brief, for “two or three” could speak in one meeting (v. 29); perhaps even the whole company (v.24). Among those who thus exercised the prophetic gift in this form were believers who spoke with tongues and interpreted, for in this case the dual gift was esteemed as equal to prophesying (v. 5).
Then there were cases of distinct foretelling, conspicuously illustrated in the case of the prophet Agabus (Acts ll:27-30; 21:11). The early church evidently had confidence in the prophetic gift of Agabus, and rightly so, for that which he foretold came to pass, thus fulfilling the Old Testament test Deut. 18:22. Even fulfilled prediction, however, is not a final proof of a prophet’s divine inspiration, if he deviates from the commandments of God. Deut. 13:l-5.
With regard to this type of prophet, it should be carefully noted that in the present dispensation there is no suggestion of “enquiring” through such a gift, or of systematically applying to it for guidance. The prophecies of Agabus obviously came quite spontaneously, and without any seeking. It is evident from the New Testament that this was not the regular way by which the Holy Spirit guided the church, although He used it on occasion.
The Prophet as a Foundation
During the period covered by New Testament history, the canon of Scripture such as we now possess was incomplete. In the early churches there were practically no Scriptures at first that dealt with the very truths of the New Covenant which were especially vital to them. They were even then only in process of being finally “revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” Eph. 3: 5. The ministry of prophets who spoke forth genuine revelations of divine truth from the Holy Spirit were plainly of incalculable value. The church was in a very real way being “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Eph. 2:20.
It is a Serious error, however, to presume that this necessarily places the prophetic gift and office on an equality with the Scriptures for infallibility–as is proved by 1 Cor. 14: 29; 1 Thess. 5:19-21. Discernment as to the source, and the relative value of prophetic utterances was needed, and divinely given. 1 Cor. 12:10.
In the midst of all the prophetic ministry in the early church, much of it doubtless transient in interest, local in application, and apparently sometimes questionable in veracity, there was growing up a lasting body of “Prophecy of Scripture” (2 Peter 1:20) which is infallible and not of any private interpretation, and which came at an early date to be rightly so regarded. It was given to Paul and John, along with the other New Testament writers, to pen those matchless writings under the direct personal inspiration of the Holy Spirit which finally completed the glorious and infallible revelation of the written Word of God.
Henceforth the office of the prophet remains, not to add anything to the perfect revelation of the Scriptures, but for the building up of the body of Christ through an inspired and an inspiring ministry-gift that interprets and applies those Scriptures with new light and life and power to every generation and circumstance by a fresh and immediate operation of the Holy Spirit.