What is a prophet––are there any prophets today?
In the Bible two of the major functions performed by men in the things of God were that of the prophet and that of the priest. The priest acted on behalf of men; the prophet on behalf of God. The priest went to God for men; the prophet came out from God to speak for God to men. In a word, the prophet was God’s spokesman (see Jer. 23: 16). Thus I read in Heb. 1:1 “God having spoken in many parts and in many ways formerly to the fathers in the prophets…” and again in 2 Pet. 1: 21 “…for prophecy was not ever uttered by [the] will of man, but holy men of God spake under the power of [the] Holy Spirit”. The principle of prophecy, that is of God speaking through man to man, is clearly seen in Ex. 7: 1 where Moses was to act as God to Pharaoh and Aaron was to act as Moses’ prophet: “And Jehovah said to Moses, See, I have made thee God to Pharaoh; and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet. Thou shalt speak all that I command thee; and Aaron thy brother shall speak unto Pharaoh…” (Ex. 7: 1, 2). In earlier days God had spoken directly to individuals like Noah and Abraham, but when He speaks to men collectively (such as Israel as a nation), He has always spoken by other men––by prophets. Thus, I repeat, the prophet is God’s spokesman.
Now no one can be a spokesman for another unless he is called to that office. In contrast, a man was a priest in Israel by birth, not calling. The fact that he was of the tribe of Levi and of the family of Aaron settled the matter. Not so with the prophet––he was called by God alone. In relation to Israel (rather than to Pharaoh), Moses himself was a prophet and was raised up by God to speak for God to the people and thus became a figure of Christ: “A prophet will I raise up unto them from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him” (Deut. 18: 18). One of the greatest of the prophets in the OT was Samuel and the Spirit of God devotes much space in the Scriptures (1Sam. 3) to show that he was called directly by God. No man determined to be a prophet––it was God’s prerogative alone to call a man to be His prophet.
Now in general there were two situations where God employed prophets: Firstly, when there was a major change in the dispensational ways of God and secondly when the people of God turned their backs on Him and apostatised. Thus, the period of law was inaugurated or set up by Moses: “For the law was given by Moses…” (John 1: 17); the herald of Israel’s Messiah and of the Kingdom of the Heavens, was John the Baptist (see Matt. 3: 1–4); and the Church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets…” (Eph. 2: 20). In regard to the people apostatising, it is instructive to note that apart from Num. 11 and Jud. 6: 8 there is no record of God sending prophets to Israel until the breakdown of the priesthood when Samuel was called and then throughout the rest of the OT history prophets loom large on the inspired page. (Prior to the breakdown of the priesthood the mind of God was sought through the use of the urim and the thummin on the breastplate of the high priest.) Then such prophets as Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, right on to Malachi, brought God’s mind to bear on the current conditions existing among the people of God. Such ministry involved the foretelling of future events but this was merely secondary and the prime function of the prophet was to bring the mind of God to bear on the conscience regarding the apostate state of the nation.
Before turning in detail to the NT, there is one further thing that needs to be understood and that is that because on occasion a man may be led by the Spirit of God to prophesy, that did not make him a prophet. Thus the Spirit of God acted sovereignly in the case of Saul (see 1 Sam. 10: 10–13, 19: 24) and Caiaphas in the NT (see John 11: 51).
In regard to prophets and prophecy in Christianity, it is important to remember that the epistles were written to particular local assemblies and individuals before the Word of God was complete. Until the Scriptures were complete, God was pleased to use apostles and prophets to make His mind known by the revelation of certain truths. Thus Paul says in Eph. 3: 5 of the mystery of the Christ, a particular truth, that it had “now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in [the power of the] Spirit”. In those early days fresh revelations could be expected: “And now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I shall speak to you either in revelation, or in knowledge, or in prophecy, or in teaching?” (1 Cor. 14: 6). When the Assembly came together, new revelations were to be looked for as we further read “whenever ye come together, each [of you] has…a revelation” (1 Cor. 14: 26). Again, “And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if there be a revelation to another sitting [there], let the first be silent” (1 Cor. 14: 29, 30). Not all that was said and not all that was written has been preserved for us permanently in the Bible (see for example Eph. 3: 3).
The revelation of the will of God is now complete and preserved in the Bible for us and so the work of the apostles and the prophets is finished. Thus I read in Eph. 2: 20, 21 of the Church as a temple “being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the corner–stone, in whom all [the] building fitted together increases to a holy temple in the Lord”. The foundation of a building is only laid once, then as the building rises the foundation disappears from sight. Similarly, the apostles and prophets have gone from sight––we no longer have them, no matter what some may claim. Hence Peter, writing towards the close of the apostolic era, says in warning “But there were false prophets also among the people, as there shall be also among you false teachers…” (2 Pet. 2: 1). Notice that in comparing the future of the Church with Israel of old he does not say “there shall be also among you false prophets” which would be natural if prophets were to continue but he changes the word from “prophets” to “teachers”––a gift that still remains with us, although the prophets have gone.
Now while God’s revelation in the Bible is complete and the inaugural function of the prophet is no longer needed, the service of the prophetic word is still required, as the Church, like Israel, has departed from the truth. Ministry of a prophetic character today would not be a fresh revelation of something which is not in the Scriptures but an application of those Scriptures so as to exercise a company of Christians regarding their present state. Hence the details of 1 Cor. 14 are still needed so that when Christians meet together expecting God to speak to them prophetically they may know how such occasions are to be conducted. Interestingly, in 1 Cor. 14: 1 Paul does not exhort the Corinthians to desire to be prophets “but rather that ye may prophesy”. Hence I believe you can have prophecy without prophets, just as in another sphere a man can play a musical instrument without being a musician. Without belittling the value of a prophetic message, it is important to see that compared with the Scriptures, its scope is limited. Prophecy is that which applies the mind of God to particular persons in certain conditions at a given time; the Scriptures give us the mind of God for all in any condition at all times.