There has been a general increase in the use of the word “prophetic” in the diction of the contemporary Ghanaian Christian, and the tentacles of prophecy are stretching from football predictions to 31st night watch services prophecies of “dominion” in the coming year. It seems your everyday Christian is ready to swallow hook, line and sinker any such “prophetic” message, without a whiff of suspicion or a finger lifted in questioning. However, to say the prophetic gift and working of the Holy Spirit in our times is highly misunderstood and wrongly applied is quite an understatement. And all the while, the actions of our so called “prophets” are justified by an appeal to the prophets of the Old Testament (OT), an appeal which when one takes a very critical scriptural look at, will keel over.
This is because though the principle is the same, there is a fundamental and monumental difference between the application of the principles of the Old Testament and New Testaments, and if you’d take the time to read my post on “New Wine, Old Wineskins”, you may find a lot of education on the differences. But I will limit my discussion to the topic of prophecy and it’s application to the contemporary church.
Having learnt from Paul’s attitude of stating who Christians are in Christ and what makes them different from the Jews & Gentiles, I’ll start off by making this distinction of the OT and NT with regards to prophecy as apparent as possible.
OT – God Calls a People
From the time of Abraham, God had been interested in not him alone, but his descendants that will come after him. And this fascination with Abraham’s “people”, is made very obvious in the exodus of the Israelites and his dealings with them afterwards. God has always been interested in a people and a nation – a distinct people who are set apart for his own purpose. As a result, the OT depicts an attempt by God to preserve the sanctity and establish his possession over the Israelite nation, and half the time that effort was frustrated by the same people.
“This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Ex 19:3-6) – [God speaking to Moses]
“You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (Lev 20:26) – [God speaking to Moses]
“From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them, I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations. (Nu 23:9)” [from Balaam’s First Oracle]
As a result of this special relationship with them, God provided prophets, who served two basic purposes – foretelling and forth-telling. The former concerns things that will happen in the future, the latter is an explanation/exposition of what is happening now. Except in very few cases, and this is the important part, their work was targeted at the nation Israel, and not at individuals. The notable individuals who received instructions from prophets were the kings or leaders of the Israeli people, who were simply the embodiment of the people themselves. After all, from all biblical examples whenever a king began following false gods, the people also followed suit (in some cases they actually forced the people to do so). Therefore, prophecy directed at a king is ultimately aimed at preserving the sanctity of the Israelite nation. This is the case for the work of Samuel towards Saul and David, Nathan towards David, Elijah towards Ahab etc.
It is abundantly evident from scriptures that the majority of the work done by these prophets was towards the nation and it’s tendency to rebel towards God, and not towards individuals, granted though the examples of Naaman etc. Just look at the book of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest, as well as the lives of Elijah and Elisha as documented by the books of 1 & 2 Kings. Add to this the fact that God actually grudgingly agreed to the Israelite nation having a king of their own because he wanted to be their God and King, and there is no need to stretch the point further.
Also worth noting are prophecies to other nations. Here again, these are not prophecies to individuals.
NT – Again, God Calls a People
Just as I stated that the principle was always the same, in the NT God again begins the process of setting apart “a people for himself”. That work began with Christ’s promise, which is not to build individual super disciples, but to build a church, an ekklesia, an assembly. That ekklesia is made up of a combination of Jews and Gentiles, not either alone. This is captured in Paul’s statement to the Corinthians.
“Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor 10:32
Nothing could be a stronger statement of the nature of the church. In the dispensation of the NT, everyone could only become a part of Christ by submitting to membership of his body (e.g. Ac 5:14 should correctly be translated “added to the Lord” not “added to their number”). To God, there is no longer a Ghana, Nigeria, Israel or China. There are three nations: Jews, Gentiles (here referred to as Greeks because of the context of the letter) and the church of God. Again, this conglomeration of all sorts of people into one nation before God is reiterated in these passages below.
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28)
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God …” (1 Pe 2:9)
It is obvious from an examination of the OT and NT in the light of God’s desire for a people that the church of Christ has become the God’s Israel – God’s covenanted nation. God’s desire to extend the Godhead to encompass a people special and separate unto him is finally achieved in the NT – and it’s achieved through Christ and in Christ’s body. Interestingly, these are a people who according to Rev 13:8, have their names written in the book of life before the creation of the world. I’ll leave that for you to ponder on your own.
This setting apart of the church as God’s nation is the reason why it is quite futile for us Christians to be busying ourselves claiming our physical nations for God. God is not interested in America being a “Christian” nation, neither is he interested in Ghana being one. He has already determined who his nation is, and it encompasses all who through Christ have come into fellowship with him. This is a fundamental difference between Christianity and other religions like Islam which Christians in our ignorance try to fight.
NT Practice of Prophecy
There are various men & women mentioned in the book of Acts as being prophets. These range from the 5 prophets and teachers of the Antioch church recorded in Ac 13 (including Paul and Barnabas), Judas and Silas from the Jerusalem church (Ac 15:32), Agabus, the four daughters of Philip who prophesied (Ac 21). It is interesting to note that in all the instances where the prophetic gift was used, it was intended at directly building the members of the body of Christ together up in their knowledge, faith and perseverance in Christ – not in prophecies of a personal nature. Indeed, one might want to use the example of Agabus prophecy to Paul concerning what would befall him in Jerusalem as an example of personal prophecy, but this is a woefully inadequate one, given that the prophecy was in relation to suffering as a result of Paul’s ministry to and for the body of Christ, not to his personal life’s circumstances (i.e. business, marriage etc).
Paul’s overriding concern whenever he wrote to any of the churches was that they would be granted further knowledge and depth of insight into Christ. This is evident in almost all the epistles to the churches, where he always offers thanksgiving for their current display of faith and love, and goes on to pray for them to further grasp the “unsearchable riches” of Christ. This same principle applies when Paul talks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1 Cor 12 and how to use these gifts in 1 Cor 14.
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7).
“What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (1 Cor 14:26).
In commending prophecy over the speaking of tongues in the meetings of the brethren, Paul encourages the Corinthians to “excel in gifts that build up the church” (1 Cor 14:12).
Paul always had in mind the work of the Holy Spirit in the church corporately, not individually. And his belief reflected what Jesus said to his disciples concerning the Holy Spirit, that He was to lead us into all truth, which truth Jesus said was himself.
Therefore in keeping with the principle that the gifts of the Spirit are targeted at building up the body, it is so starkly obvious the lack of personal prophecies in the NT church. Interestingly there is a full book of prophecy called the Revelations which buttresses this lack of personal prophecy
Nonetheless, I believe this does not preclude personal prophecies – they should be seen as an exception rather than the norm. In addition because prophecy is primarily targeted at building the body of Christ, it should be an exception rather than the norm for this spiritual gift to be applied to the benefit of them that do not belong to the body of Christ.
The Modern Prophetic Movement
Having established the NT practice of prophecy, I’ll like to reiterate some of the points we have tried to establish as the principle which drives prophecy, whether OT or NT.
Prophecy is primarily targeted at God’s nation, which in the OT was Israel, and in the NT is the church.
Prophecy is meant to provide guidance to the church for the future, or to explain to and encourage the church in current happenings.
Personal prophecy is an exception and not the norm. In fact, there is no example of personal prophecy in the NT church’s experience as recorded in the Bible.
Again, because God’s nation in our dispensation is the church, prophecy targeted at nations e.g. that Ghana will win the World Youth Cup or who will win the next presidential elections should also be an exception rather than the norm. In fact unless under matters of extreme urgency, such prophets should be treated with a large dose of suspicion.
Coming from this background, it is saddening the contemporary Christian’s attitude to prophecy. Having already come into the church through an emasculated gospel which targets our personal needs rather than God’s need (the kind Paul calls “no gospel at all”), we then come to our “clergy” with the clarion call for prophetic messages. Interestingly all these messages are only about how “God is going to open doorways” for our businesses, marriages and personal pursuits, how He’ll make us a success and cripple (sorry, kill) our enemies.
Sometimes I really feel like crawling into a hole and hiding and denying Christianity when I hear all the adverts on radio and TV about “prophetic” services and sermons. From the whole TB Joshua saga concerning our current president and his predictions on football, to the most recent craze about 31st December watch night services being places to “expect prophetic messages to enter into the new year and grasp our destinies”, this whole yearning for the prophetic has become farcical. In fact, if we truly understood what prophecy was about, I believe some of the notable preachers of our times who have the title “Prophet” appended to their names would have removed them long ago. I honestly wish I could name some of them, but I might offend some sensibilities.
There is a phenomenon in Ghanaian Christianity today which I think most Christians are not realizing. Our preachers preach more from the OT than from the NT, and yet we claim that we are liberated from the law. Are we not rather being made slaves to the law? Is it not the case that it is very easy to use the OT to support every action that we take, from calling curses on our enemies to the practice of investing in magnificent church buildings and paying exorbitant monies to our pastors? Don’t we realise that there is now very little difference in principle and practice between a fetish priest and a modern day “prophet”?
Is the New Testament standard now too hard to live by?