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What Do We Do With The Old Testament Prophets?

Following on from Chris’ post on Tuesday, I wanted to delve a bit deeper into what it means to make prophetic art. We’ll get to the art in the next post, but to give some context, I wanted to focus today on the thorny issue of prophecy.

I am what could fairly be described as a charismatic Christian. I am aware that, if that label means anything to you at all, you will now see me as anything from a faithful adherent to New Testament Christianity to essentially a snake handler. Well, I’m in no rush to fill you in on exactly where I would sit on that spectrum, but hopefully, whatever your theological tribe, there’ll be something in this post of interest, amusement and maybe even of value.

Charismatics, as you may be aware, are very fond of prophecy, and picture God as a very chatty father, who loves to speak to his children. But, someone might object, what if you get the wrong end of the stick? What if you just have a vivid imagination or happened to eat a lot of blue cheese before bed or just downed half a pint of adder venom or whatever? Well, of course, that’s a possibility, and for that reason, all prophecy should be weighed, as per 1 Corinthians 14:29. The image that’s always stuck with me regarding this process is someone weighing a lump of what appears to be gold, to work out how much of it is actually gold and how much is accumulated dross. So how do you weigh prophecy? Well, you recognise that we’ll always be slightly faulty receptors of God’s word (we prophesy in part- 1 Cor 13:9) and therefore listen carefully, hold on to what seems valuable, and graciously reject what seems a bit ‘off’, always using God’s revealed word (The Bible) as the gold standard.

But, what about Deuteronomy 18:20-22? I hear you cry! If I’ve misheard your particular cry on this occasion (probably something to do with the cobra fangs latched on to my right forearm), Moses says in these verses that if a prophet prophesies something and gets it wrong, they should die. This seems a far cry from giving an encouraging pat on the back and gently suggesting that, after all, there are other gifts of the Spirit.

Now, here is where we get close to the actual focus of this post, because at this point a certain move is made. In my opinion a good move, but a move that perhaps needs looking at again. In answer to this very reasonable objection, the modern charismatic would tend to draw a line between the gifts of prophecy in the Old and New Testament. Yes, in the Old Testament, there was a weight that was expected of all prophets (total infallibility), but now that the Spirit is freely available to all, and all ‘your sons and daughters will prophesy’ (Acts 2:17), there is more grace available to those wanting to communicate God’s will to people (and presumably also an expectation of more wisdom in those who are listening).

And so, with this line drawn, all the teaching I’ve heard on how to prophesy has been taken from the New Testament, with very clear instruction that we should not look to emulate the Old Testament prophets at all. The concern is that, if this is not underlined, we will open the door to the ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’, ‘I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger’, ‘sackcloth and ashes’ brigade. And we can’t have that.

But the result is that we no longer know what to do with the Old Testament prophets, except to discuss their theology. The bit about the suffering servant is great, but you obviously shouldn’t lie around for three years, eating food cooked over poo (Ezekiel 4). Agabus (Acts 21:10-11) may be a fine role model, but not Isaiah. And, if in doubt, (because let’s face it, Agabus seems a bit on the spectrum himself!) 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 help us out. In these chapters, Paul tells us exactly the purpose of prophecy for the modern day Christian, especially in 14:3-

‘But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.’ (1 Cor 14:3)

So basically as a brief summary of the teaching I’ve had on prophecy over the years: God still speaks. We should listen. If I’m going to share what I think He’s saying, I must make sure it’s a) in line with what the Bible says and b) is potentially strengthening, encouraging and/or comforting for people.

Now, just to underline what may have been lost in my slightly flippant tone, I like this stuff. I’ve hugely benefited personally from listening to God’s voice and from accepting what God is saying to me through others. I also love being part of a church that listens to God and encourages the use of the gift of prophecy.

However, at the same time, I do think that we need to reassess the role of the Old Testament prophet in this whole scheme. I think that the ancient Hebrew seers, both major and minor, have things to teach us about how we should communicate God’s truth, not just about how we should think about God.

And I don’t think that we need to make a huge shift here, but simply to do what this particular blog is adamant that Christians need to do in all spheres of our lives: we need to remember that we’re not just called to speak to the church.

1 Corinthians 12 and 14 gives instructions for the use of the gift of prophecy in a gathered meeting of Christians. Yes, there are allowances made for guests to the meeting who are not followers of Jesus (1 Corinthians 14:24-25), but the focus of this teaching is upon how we communicate God’s word to people who already have a certain openness to that word. The Old Testament prophets on the other hand spend most of their time speaking to people who are very resistant to God’s word.

God makes it clear to Isaiah that this will be the context for his whole ministry. As the prophet faithfully puts himself forward to serve God, God spells out, in Isaiah 6:9, what his message is to be:

‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;

Be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’

For Ezekiel, his call is very similar:

‘Son of Man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebeliious nation that has rebelled against me… the people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn.’ (Ezekiel 2:3-4).

Now, of course, these prophets were mainly ministering to those who were seen as God’s people (although not always, eg Jonah), however, God was making very different assumptions about the group these guys were addressing, than Paul was about the audience that were receiving prophetic input in Corinth.

In short, the teaching I’ve received (and often given) on the prophetic seems to have assumed that we are communicating God’s word only to Christians who need encouragement, or to people who aren’t Christians but have come to Christian meetings. If, as this website regularly asserts, the church needs to learn how to communicate much more effectively with people who don’t already follow Jesus and have no intention of coming to our meetings, I think we need a new model. And by a new model, I mean an old model. And by an old model, I mean the model of often eccentric, outspoken and unpredictable Hebrew prophets who brought God’s messages of hope and judgement to Israel and the surrounding nations between about 900 and 400 BC.

Just to clarify, I’m not suggesting that by following their example, we should have a different message from what we communicate in our church meetings. It’s important to remember in all of this what the Old Testament prophets actually did: they pointed people towards the Messiah. That is still the goal. In one sense, ultimately, it is the only valid goal. And my motivation behind this encouragement would be that this is so important that we shouldn’t neglect a method of achieving this goal that God gives over such a large chunk of his word to.

The reason why I am examining this topic on our arts blog is that I reckon that a helpful way to view the Old Testament prophets, at least at times, is as forerunners to the performance artists that began to emerge in the 20th century. When seen through this lens, I think we start to see who may be able to step into their shoes in our times, and how they could do that. We can also pick up some very important lessons for all artists who wish to strengthen, comfort, encourage and perhaps also dramatically confront those outside of the church who are presently hurtling happily towards disaster and trying to take the rest of us with them. Just like the Old Testament prophets, an artist has the ability to cause people to stop in their tracks, think about their present direction and ultimately turn towards Jesus.

So let’s look at that more in the next post. In the mean time though, where did I put my flaggon of poison?