hat comes to mind when you hear the word prophet?
• An important role in biblical times that is not needed today
• A greedy huckster who promises to send people a special message if they will donate to his or her “ministry”
• A soft-spoken Christian speaking inspired words to a hurting person
• A boisterous preacher shouting, “Thus saith the Lord”
Biblically speaking, a prophet is someone who delivers a message from God. The message might reveal a present reality or predict a future event. If the message is
untrue or does not come to pass, it is not a genuine prophecy . . . and the person who delivered it is not a genuine prophet (see Deut. 18:21-22).
A prophetic message might be a loud declaration to a group or even a nation, or it can be a quiet word spoken from one individual to another.
God used individuals to speak prophetic messages in Old Testament and New Testament times, and He is still sending prophetic messages today.
Old Testament Prophets
In the Old Testament, prophets did some bizarre things:
• Ezekiel lay on his left side for 390 days, and then on his right side for 40 days.
• Jeremiah built a yoke and wore it around his neck.
• Isaiah and his prophetess wife gave birth to a son and named him “Speed the Spoil, Hasten the Booty” (Maher- Shalal-Hash-Baz).
These actions were not signs of mental illness. Instead, each deed was a God-inspired symbolic warning of impending judgment.
But the prophets of old did not just deliver warnings to God’s people. Over and over, God inspired them to prophesy the most important message of all: A Savior was coming to rescue the world from sin. Here is one of hundreds of examples:
“You, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah, yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past” (Mic. 5:2 NLT).
John, Anna, and Simeon
Prophecies did not end with the Old Testament, but occur again from the beginning of the Gospels. In Luke 1, we meet Zacharias and Elizabeth, who had no children “because Elizabeth was barren, and now they were both very old” (v. 7 NLT). Suddenly, an angel appeared to Zacharias and prophesied, “God has heard your prayer, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son! And you are to name him John. . . . And he will persuade many Israelites to turn to the Lord their God” (vv. 13, 16 NLT).
When John began his ministry, he preached out in the Judean wilderness, yet throngs came to hear him (Matt. 3:1, 5). No matter who showed up, his message was the same: “Repent!” (v. 2). When the religious leaders came, he called them “snakes” and “firewood” (see vv. 7, 10).
Most importantly, John prophesied about the Savior:
“He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (vv. 11-12 NASB).
John’s preaching took place just before Jesus launched His earthly ministry. Three decades earlier, just after Jesus was born, the Holy Spirit inspired two godly individuals with prophetic words about the Savior.
When Jesus was six weeks old, Mary and Joseph brought Him to the Temple to present Him to God. At that moment, a devout elderly man named Simeon, “inspired by the Spirit,” also entered the Temple (Luke 2:27 RSV). God had promised Simeon he would not die before he saw the Savior, and he immediately realized who this Baby was.
Simeon picked up Jesus and declared, “My eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a Light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (vv. 30-32 NASB).
Simeon then prophesied to Mary, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (vv. 34-35 NASB).
The prophetic words did not stop with Simeon. Immediately, a prophetess named Anna, who was at least 84 years old, “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (v. 38 NIV).
The prophecies of Anna, Simeon, and John were fulfilled perfectly in Jesus Christ.
Prophetic Words Today
Early during my wife’s first pregnancy, I flew north to Chicago for a meeting while Sharon drove east to visit her family in Virginia. The morning after my arrival, I received a phone call saying Sharon had been hospitalized. By the time I reached that little hospital in Wytheville, Virginia, late that night, Sharon was miscarrying.
One Sunday night a few months later, Sharon and I went to the church altar to pray together. Our pastor knelt beside us and whispered, “Sharon, may I ask if you are pregnant?”
We thought she might be pregnant again, but had not mentioned it to anyone. Pastor Riley told us, “I feel led to pray for your unborn child. May I?” We said yes, and he prayed.
When we found out Sharon was indeed with child, our pastor’s prayer was an encouragement to us anytime we were tempted to worry about another miscarriage. The pregnancy went full-term, and April Lauren was born a healthy girl.
While our pastor’s prophetic prayer did not have the global implications of the prophecies concerning baby Jesus, it was a word from God concerning a baby—our baby—nonetheless. And we were thrilled when we presented our firstborn to the Lord in a worship service.
First Corinthians 14:31 declares that God’s people can “learn” and “be encouraged” through the gift of prophecy (NKJV), and I have experienced that firsthand more than once.
Several years ago while attending Focus— the Church of God international childen’s ministries conference—the Lord spoke to my heart that He was calling Allison, our youngest daughter, into children’s ministry. She was not on my mind when that word came to me, and I knew it was from the Lord.
Allison was a teenager who regularly served with me on summer children’s ministry trips, but I did not feel I should pass on that message to her then. Instead, I “treasured” that prophetic word, “pondering” it in my heart as Mary did when angels spoke to her regarding her newborn Son (Luke 2:19 NASB).
A few years later, on the day Allison, then a Lee University student, announced she had decided to become a schoolteacher, I told her what the Lord had spoken to me, affirming her decision. She is now a second-year teacher, and her husband, Kevin, is a youth ministry leader.
Something to Desire
The Bible urges us, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Cor. 14:1 NIV).
This does not mean we should chase after self-proclaimed prophets and attend “prophetic conferences” in a never-ending effort to hear something fresh. Instead, we should pray for the gift of prophecy to operate in our churches as a source of divine encouragement, affirmation, and education.
As you pray for this gift to function, be ready . . . the Holy Spirit might use you to speak a timely word to a fellow believer or to your church. Just as He spoke through Jeremiah and Anna, God’s Spirit can speak through any devoted believer who is sensitive to His voice.