Prophecy and preaching.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 June

Prophecy is when we hear God and share with others what we heard.

It’s not a complicated definition. It only gets complicated when people don’t wanna define it that way. When they wanna claim prophecy is only for the very, very few (not every Christian, like Joel described Jl 2.28-29); that it’s a special office, and they’re one of the few officeholders, so heed them. Or when they wanna claim prophecy ended in bible times ’cause God has since turned off the miracles.

Today I’m dealing with the second group, the cessationists. And if prophecy is when we share what we heard from God, but nobody hears God anymore… are there prophets anymore? Can there be prophets anymore?

Some’ll say no. Which is a problematic belief. If there’s no such thing as prophets and prophecy, what’re we to do with all the verses in the scriptures where we’re encouraged to prophesy, 1Co 14.5 and discouraged from rejecting prophecy? 1Th 5.20 Do we set them aside, ’cause they no longer count in this dispensation?

Others have come up with this explanation: Yes we can hear from God in the present day—through the pages of the bible. When you read God’s word, you’re “hearing” from God, aren’t you? And when you share what you read in the bible, and explain it to people who struggle to understand it… well this, they claim, is prophecy. We prophesy every time we teach bible.

Even Christians who do believe God still speaks, have accepted this redefinition: Teaching bible counts as prophecy. Anybody who expounds on the written word of God is ipso facto a prophet.

Is this an accurate definition of prophet? Hardly.

Quoting bible versus prophecy.

What makes someone a prophet? Simple: The Holy Spirit speaks to everyone. Everyone. He speaks to non-Christians so he can lead ’em to Jesus. And he speaks to Christians so he can lead us to Jesus—not to follow him in the first place, but follow him better. We Christians should be listening to him when we pray. When we pass along what he told us to others—especially when he ordered us to—it makes one a prophet.

Yes, the Spirit’s message will sometimes be a passage from the bible. The Spirit regularly quotes himself. (’Cause he said it right the first time.) So when a Christian needs a bit of encouragement, and the Spirit drops a suitable, timely scripture into her mind, it’s just as good as if he told her something new. It’s just as much prophecy as if the Spirit said something new. It’s all from God, y’know.

Okay, so what about pulling quotes from the bible when we’re not talking with the Spirit?

’Cause that’s what the Pharisees did. They quoted plenty of bible. They were well-known for expounding upon the written word of God, same as we Christians are. Did it make them prophets? Nah.

Nobody identified Pharisees as prophets until they honest-to-goodness prophesied, like Simeon and Anna. Lk 2.25-38 If all they did was expound on bible, they were’t considered prophets; they were considered scribes. They were teachers.

Ezra ben Seraiah, fr’instance. He read the entire book of the Law to the Jews who’d recently returned to Jerusalem, reminding them what was in it, and expounding on it so they were clear about what it meant. Ne 8.2-9 Sounds precisely like the cessationist definition of “prophecy.” But do the scriptures ever call Ezra a prophet? Nope. Because in the books we consider scripture, Ezra wasn’t considered a prophet. He was a bible scholar. He definitely worked for God, had a lot of favor from God, and possibly talked with God all the time. But we never see him share a direct revelation he got from God. He didn’t do prophecy. Wasn’t his ministry.

(Yes, in certain apocryphal books like 2 Esdras, God showed Ezra a series of apocalyptic visions. And if Ezra actually wrote those visions down, he’d be a prophet. But the reason those books are apocrypha is ’cause we’re pretty sure he didn’t write ’em. In the books we consider scripture, Ezra has no such visions. He just teaches.)

In Jesus’s day there were likewise scribes who knew bible backwards and forwards. Yet people didn’t call ’em prophets. They taught God’s word, and taught God said various things in the scriptures. They did all the things cessationists call “prophecy.” Yet the scribes never claimed God directly told ’em one thing or another, and that’s why people didn’t describe ’em as prophets.

Jesus, on the other hand, is called a prophet, Mt 21.10-11 because he did claim he heard from his Father, and shared what he heard. Jn 15.15 It definitely makes him a prophet.

So the scriptures themselves don’t verify this notion that anyone who quotes or expounds bible is a prophet. Because anyone can quote bible. Plenty of pagans do. But to be a legit prophet, we gotta hear God. If the Holy Spirit didn’t tell you anything, you’re no prophet.

2 Peter 1.19-21 KWL
19 We have a prophetically stable message, which you do well to heed,
like a lamp shining in a dark place till the day can dawn, and the morning star rise in your hearts,
20 knowing this first: Every prophetic writing doesn’t come from an individual interpretation.
21 Prophecy was never produced by human effort.
Instead, carried along by the Holy Spirit, people spoke from God.

Yeah, you’ll hear cessationists claim Simon Peter’s description applies only to prophetic writing; namely bible. They claim he wasn’t speaking of present-day prophets and prophetic speakers. And yet interpretive speakers are what cessationists mean by “prophets”: People who crack open a bible, then individually interpret it.

It’s already hard to defend the hypothesis God stopped speaking to his people. But flipping the definition of “prophet” 180 degrees away from how the apostles defined it in the bible so they can turn scribes (namely themselves) into prophets? You gotta wonder whether anything a cessationist teaches is in any degree reliable.

Prophetic preaching.

This said, anyone who preaches ought to first become a prophet.

Anyone who wants to proclaim God’s word, and expound on the scriptures, really needs to begin with a serious conversation with the Holy Spirit. He needs to direct what we preach. Not the guy who wrote some book of sermon outlines. Not the liturgy. God.

Talk it out with the Spirit. Yeah, you might have a bible passage you want to preach about (or are expected to preach about), and the Spirit can work with that. Sometimes he’ll override it ’cause he has something more pressing. But he needs to direct your bible study. He inspired your bible, y’know; who better? Have him show you which points to make, and especially which insights to provide.

If the Holy Spirit is directing your sermon, it’s gonna be so prophetic.

If however, your sermon outline was borrowed from a website, or a big book of sermon outlines; if all your anecdotes were taken from some other big book of anecdotes; if all your research was cribbed from the biblical commentaries in your library (even when the commentaries were written by Spirit-filled scholars): It may certainly look prophetic. And sound prophetic. If you crank up the bass in your church’s sound system, the listeners will even think it feels prophetic. It’ll be a wonderful example of your oratorical skill. But will the Holy Spirit be any part of it?

I’ve heard a number of preachers claim they had the Spirit’s guidance in their messages. I have my doubts, ’cause of various red flags. Like out-of-context bible quotes—the Holy Spirit’s not gonna misquote his own bible! Or rambling, unstructured, undisciplined, meandering preaching. The Spirit’s fruit is self-control, but when preachers exercise very little of that—or other fruit of the Spirit—you gotta wonder how much time they honestly spend with him.

If the Spirit has an impact on people through such teachers, it’s in spite of them, not through them. Wouldn’t you much rather it be through you?

Sermons, preaching, and teaching can totally come through human effort. I admit I’ve written many an article through my own efforts. (Which is why I later gotta go back and revise ’em.) But get the Spirit involved, and he’ll make it prophetic.