The Prophetic Ministry
What is the Prophetic Ministry supposed to do, and why is it so hated by the modern church celebrities?
– Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age, Bruno Bettelheim
Subscribe to the PodcastiTunes Google Spotify RSS Feed
Welcome to Episode 83 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 30 minutes we will practice some resurrection. That is, we will resurrect a topic that has long been dead in our churches, and especially in our Reformed churches. Namely, the topic about the Prophetic Ministry. Not just about prophecy, or just about the spiritual gifts. We want to talk about the Prophetic Ministry. What is it, Biblically, what is its purpose, what should it look like today, and, most important, why has this topic been silenced and forgotten by today’s churches – and especially, by the leaders and celebrities in today’s churches. And, perhaps, if we have the time, we may want to look into the issue, what we need to to do to restore it in the Church today. (I am sure we won’t have the time, for I need to make a very long introduction, but perhaps in a future episode.)
I said we are going to be talking about the Prophetic Ministry, not about prophecy or the other gifts, but we need to start with prophecy and the other gifts – because we cannot resolve the issue of the Prophetic Ministry before we resolve the issue of the gifts of the Spirit and their validity and application today. So let me first shortly get this issue dealt with and out of the way before we move to the topic at hand.
Those of you who have listened to previous episodes, specifically “Modern Presbyterianism: Under the Feet of Men” and “The Spiritual Gifts,” know that I am an unrepentant Charismatic. Not just a “continuationist,” which denotes a rather passive acceptance of the continuation of gifts, but a Charismatic. That is, I believe that the Bible specifically instructs us that the spiritual gifts as they are described in several chapters in the New Testament are central to the way the Holy Spirit works in the Church in the New Testament era, and they are also central to our knowledge of God, and specifically to His immanence. We are not just admonished to accept them as “continuing,” we are explicitly commanded to actively and earnestly desire all the gifts, and especially the gift of prophecy, because the more of the gifts we have, the more the Church grows in maturity. The only detailed description of a church service in the Bible (1 Cor. 14) is entirely predicated on the free practice of the gifts of the Spirit. Now, obviously, the Bible doesn’t say that a service that doesn’t have them is necessarily invalid, or that a church that doesn’t practice them every day is necessarily invalid. But what is clear – again, from Scripture – is that a church that deliberately forbids them or declares them “ceased” has a serious problem with trusting and believing Scripture, and therefore is not a Sola Scriptura church, no matter how vociferously it may claim the title.
I know, I know, within the Reformed tradition, I rather stick out. (Perhaps not completely; a few Reformed theologians of the last 100 years have been continuationists.) And I have had my share of flak for voicing publicly my disagreement with the un-Biblical beliefs of the majority of those who pass for “Reformed” in this specific area of their theology. And, boy, have I heard all kinds of bizarre and laughable arguments why Scripture should not be taken at face value for what it says on the spiritual gifts. The most common of them, of course, is not Biblical (there are no Biblical arguments in favor of cessationism anyway) but sensational and experientialist: namely, “We don’t see today any prophets and healers, therefore the gifts must have ceased.” Because, you know, our temporary experience trumps the Bible; whatever the Bible says, we need to first see it, and if we don’t see it around us, it must have ceased, right? That’s what sola fide and sola scriptura means, right? Kinda ironic when it comes from folks who accuse Charismatics of “experientialism.” Then there is an attempt at Biblical argument from 1 Cor. 13:8-10, that when “the perfect” comes, the gifts will be done away; and “the perfect,” you know, is the completion of the canon. But what exactly in the text can make anyone believe that “the perfect” is the completion of the canon? Even Greg Bahnsen, himself an avowed cessationist, admitted that was not a good argument; and until the early 1900s, every single theologian commenting on that verse said that “the perfect” comes either at the end of history or with the earthly death of the individual. Calvin himself, commenting on that verse, calls it “stupid” to believe that “the perfect” comes in an intermediate time in history. But if this verse is not a good argument, there is no other verse that even mentions cessation of the gifts. Where is the Biblical evidence of those who beat themselves in the chest that they are “sola scriptura”?
Then the turn comes for arguments that, for anyone unbiased, sound like they have come from a lunatic asylum. For example, that in Acts, the gifts are mentioned more in the beginning of the book but less or no mention of them is made at the end of the book. What kind of an argument is that? Paul told the Roman church in Rom. 1:11 that he longed to see them so that he could impart some spiritual gift to them. But he didn’t get to Rome until two years before his death. “Sorry guys, I promised to impart gifts to you, but it’s the end of the period, no spiritual gifts anymore.” Then comes the argument about “they were only for one purpose and it has expired.” Like, “only to witness to the Jews.” Or, “only to fill the gap until we have Scripture.” None of these “only reasons” are ever found in Scripture, but the mythology persists. Meanwhile, Scripture contains multiple real reasons and functions for the gifts: establishment, encouragement, edification, growth to maturity, power to witness, public worship, evidence for unbelievers, judgment, confirmation of elders, vision, purpose, protection, guidance . . . how many of these have expired in the first century? (On a side note, ever wondered why all the “Reformed” ministries we have today – including some of the best, like R.C. Sproul – have been preaching the same milk for 30+ years, and there has been no growth? Meanwhile, Charismatics are already busy building Kingdom institutions while our so-called “Reformed” are flocking to G3 conferences to hear the same stuff on substitutionary atonement and the grace of God that they have been hearing for decades.) Then comes the argument that if we have prophecy today, it must be as Scripture and therefore will rival Scripture – despite obvious Biblical verses that show that there have been prophets whose prophecies were not Scripture. Calvin says about this that prophecy is simply “the application of Scripture to present use.” Much like engineering is the application of science to present use. If engineering doesn’t compete with science, because they serve different functions, prophecy does not compete with Scripture, because they serve different functions. Paul told Timothy that “all Scripture is profitable,” and yet, Paul also twice told that same Timothy to remember the prophecies concerning him and his ministry and gift. Was Paul contradicting himself? Then semantics comes into play: They were “apostolic” gifts, you know. That is, they were only for the apostles. Well, sola scriptura doesn’t mention anything about “apostolic” gifts, but it surely calls them spiritual gifts, that is, they belong to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit has not expired in the first century, as far as I can tell. Or what about the argument that the tongues must be intelligible human languages? Paul explicitly says in 1 Cor. 14:2 that one speaks in tongues, “no one understands.” Etc., etc., etc., I am not going to try to cover all of that lunacy in every single detail. Sometimes I wonder, how deep a hole can a person dig for themselves just to avoid the clear obvious message of the Bible?
When all these fail, of course, there comes a more “moderate” cessationism: for example, that God still does miracles today and He gives prophecies and stuff, but they are no more given as “gifts” to specific people, just scattered among many people. But the text in 1 Cor. 12:4-11 specifically says that the Holy Spirit gives them as gifts to specific people; and it is part of the whole concept of the church as a body with different parts. How do you hold to that position without logically destroying the whole concept of the Body as described in Scripture? What sola scriptura principle allows you to ditch a clear Biblical text in favor of your own imagination? But we will shortly see why the concept of the personal gifts is so repulsive to modern churchmen.
To summarize: cessationism is one of the most un-Biblical doctrines to ever hit Christianity. While it came out of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, it has produced nothing more than irrational babbling by people who refuse to even read what the Bible clearly says on the issue. The result is that when you try to search sermons by so-called “Reformed” pastors on “prophecy,” you discover that the only “prophecy” they speak about is not the New Testament view of prophecy, but only the eschatological chapters about the end times. And there is nothing on the Prophetic Ministry.
What I want to do here is fill this gap. And explain why these preachers are silent on this topic. And what needs to be done to restore the Biblical teaching and practice.
Obviously, the New Testament speaks about prophets, and speaks about the Prophetic Ministry. Ephesians 4:11-16 is clear that prophets are one of the ministries together with apostles, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, for the edification and the growth of the body. There are prophets mentioned in different passages: Agabus (Acts 11:28; Acts 21:10), the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9), multiple unnamed members of the congregations at Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14) and Antioch (Acts 11:27; 13:1). There is abundant indication that prophets were a distinct ministry in the church, and they were known by the fact that they were prophets; these were not just random people who randomly uttered a prophecy once in their lives. Their utterances had enough authority that even the apostles listened to what they said and took guidance from them (Acts 11:27-30; 21:10-14; 1 Tim. 1:11; 4:14). Prophets continued to exist in the era after the 1st century, despite many modern claims to the opposite. True, the church authorities tried to suppress them – and we will shortly see why – but they persisted anyway. Tertullian speaks of prophets in his own day (AD 2nd-3rdcentury). Augustine, in his early conversion from Manicheism denies there were any gifts in his day – but, keep in mind, gnosticism was strictly rationalist and cessationist. Later in life, however, as he got more orthodox, Augustine changed his mind and testified that the gifts were still valid and operational in his day, including the prophetic gift. The church continued to acknowledge the prophetic ministry for many centuries, especially after the Reformation. I have mentioned in a previous episode about Reformed Scotland and England, and the abundance of miraculous and prophetic manifestations, as testified by many accounts of the time, including Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Scots Worthies by John Howie. John Knox was acknowledge as “the Prophet and Apostle of Scotland” for his ministry to his country. Etc., no need to detail all the historical records here.
The question, however, is this: what was that prophetic ministry they had, and what was it based upon? The New Testament doesn’t give any detailed description of it; it doesn’t tell us how the prophets prophesied, how other people knew they were really prophets, nor how anyone decided how far their authority went. Of our modern debates – should we trust prophets or kill them, and how do we know they are real prophets – do not exist in the New Testament. Looks like the authors just assume their readers know what it is and how to deal with it. Paul, in fact, admonishes his readers to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts and especially prophecy, and he warns them to not despise prophecies. He doesn’t even tell them to first test the veracity of the prophet! How did they even know what a prophet looks like, let alone test if he was a true prophet?
The answer is: From the Old Testament. Yes, the New Testament’s prophetic ministry was no different from the Old Testament’s prophetic ministry. It was the same ministry. It just continued over. It didn’t change a bit; it was the same as they always knew it. In fact, they had Old Testament prophets in their own culture, in Israel, and the Church just incorporated the ministry into its own ministry. That’s why Paul didn’t have to explain anything. The converted Jews knew what a prophet was, and they knew how to value the prophetic ministry and to accept prophetic utterances. And they taught the converted Gentiles. It was a full continuity from the Old Testament. The prophetic ministry has always been part of God’s Covenant and His work with His people. It wasn’t anything new limited to a few decades for some isolated single purpose. It was God’s design for the whole history of His covenant people.
Now, if you are anything like the average modern Christian, especially the average Reformed Christian, you are probably stunned at these words. What you were taught on this subject just doesn’t compute. First, you were taught that the function of the Old Testament prophetic ministry was to write the Old Testament Scripture. You know, we have the books of the prophets, therefore that’s what the Old Testament prophets were. But in the New Testament, we don’t have those same prophets anymore, because we don’t have Scripture written by them. Because everything that a prophet says is a word from God, must necessarily be included in the Word of God, and that’s how we have the Old Testament. Thus, if you have sat under the teaching of modern “Reformed” teachers, they have instilled in your mind a sort of Dispensationalist discontinuity between the Old and the New Testament in respect to the prophetic ministry. Old Testament prophets wrote Scripture. New Testament prophets were different, and they simply filled the gap until the church had the Canon. Now that the church has the Canon, we don’t need prophets anymore. Therefore, the prophetic ministry is not needed anymore, it has ceased, and whatever claims to be prophetic ministry today can’t be valid.
But what is the Biblical truth?
When we open to study the Old Testament concerning prophets, we discover the following: There was an abundant number of prophets in the Old Testament, so abundant that OT Testament Israel was used having them around, and even the surrounding nations were used to go to the prophets of Israel to ask for advice. The prophets were not limited to those writing Scripture; those who wrote Scripture were a very small minority among the prophets whose names we know. And those prophets whose names we know are only a small minority of all the prophets mentioned in the Bible, whose names we don’t even know. To meet a prophet in the Old Testament was as common experience as meeting a Levite; God never left His covenant people without prophets, even in the times when He was not giving Scripture.
A number of men in the Bible were declared to be prophets. Abraham was a prophet (Gen. 20:7). So were the patriarchs after him and the whole family of Jacob (Ps. 105:15). Moses’s brother Aaron was a prophet (Ex. 7:1). Moses himself was, of course, a prophet (Deut. 18:15; 34:10; Hos. 12:13). Joshua was a prophet, too, being laid hands on by Moses (Deut. 34:9). The seventy elders of Israel were prophets (Num. 11:16-29). In the days of David, there were a number of prophets, like Nathan (2 Sam 7:2), Gad (2 Sam. 24:11), Asaph and Jeduthun (1 Chr. 25:3).
Oh, but it gets even worse. There were women prophetesses. Yes, boys, the Old Covenant was real tough time for men. You could be a dignified patriarch having a life of dignified authority “serving” as umbrella for women and children as their direct connection to God, and all of a sudden you could meet a woman who actually spoke word from the Lord, and she could speak to you with authority, leaving you in a quandary, “Do I submit to the authority of this woman, or do I disobey the Lord and His word?” (On a side note, it will get even worse when we get to the final judgment and some of us patriarchs realize that there are women sitting in judgment of us men, Matt. 12:42; Luke 11:41. So enjoy today’s intermediate time of blessedness.) Miriam was a prophetess (Ex. 15:20). Deborah was a prophetess (Judges 4:4). Yeah, I know, some people claim that women were given such authority because men had apostatized, but you can hardly claim that Miriam’s time lacked godly men. When King Josiah’s priests found the Book of the Law in the Temple (2 Kings 22; 2 Chr. 34), and he sent the priests to inquire of the Lord, they went to the prophetess Huldah to hear a word from God. There is a prophetess mentioned in the New Testament who rightly belongs to the Old Covenant: Anna, the daughter of Penuel (Luke 2:36). Her namesake in the Old Testament, Hannah, the wife of Elkanah (1 Sam. 1), was not specifically designated as a prophetess, but her song in 1 Samuel 2 is a prophecy against the powerful of the day, and she is rightly celebrated by the Rabbis as one of the women prophets of the Old Testament. (See Joel McDurmon’s commentary on 1 Samuel for a detailed covenantal treatment of Hannah and her prophecy.) Isaiah’s wife was a prophetess (Isaiah 8:3); some say that she was only called so because she was his wife, but the rest of the Bible doesn’t support such interpretation of the word “prophetess.”
Then there are multiple other prophets mentioned whose names are not even given. In Judges 6:7-9, a prophet came to Israel to rebuke them, right before the rise of Gideon. 1 Kings 13 speaks of the interaction between two prophets, one whose name is known (Ahijah, from chapter 11), the other one unnamed, just “the old prophet.” More importantly, starting from the time of Samuel, there were groups or “schools” of prophets who either lived in the same place, or traveled around and prophesied. Apparently, the presence of the Holy Spirit was so heavy around them that any person, even if he wasn’t anything close to spiritual or prophetic, could acquire a prophetic spirit for a while and prophesy. That happened twice to King Saul; once in 1 Sam. 10:9-12, when he was still a young man, and the second time in 1 Sam. 19:22-24, when he was now a king and was trying to catch and kill David. Both times his prophesying under the influence of the spirit of the prophets became a proverb in Israel: “Is Saul also among the prophets?” Such “companies” or “schools” of prophets existed in many cities: see, for example, 2 Kings 2, where a number of cities are listed that had such “schools.” Apparently, the institution of the prophetic ministry was firmly established among the covenant people and its existence was taken for granted. What started as an individual family ministry (Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were all said to be prophets) developed into a cultural phenomenon that even the pagan nations acknowledged as valid and truthful, and as a sign of the presence of God in Israel (2 Kings 5:15; Jonah 3). Even while there was no Scripture written, in the centuries between Malachi and John the Baptist, there were still prophets in Israel who spoke word from God, as is clear from the examples of Anna and Simeon (Luke 2:25-38). This is the reason why people flocked to the ministry of John the Baptist to get baptized: they were not surprised that another prophet had arisen in Israel. The novelty of his ministry was that he declared to be the last prophet before the Messiah came, not that he was a prophet.
Thus, the prophetic ministry had always existed among the covenant people – and by prophetic ministry I mean not the truncated definition for it used by modern cessationists who only call “prophets” those who wrote Scripture, and believe they were limited to the first century AD. I mean the prophetic ministry as a ministry established by God for a specific purpose, for the needs of the covenant community, needs that were present before the coming of Christ in the Old Covenant era, and, obviously from the New Testament, were to be present in the New Covenant era as well, given that the Holy Spirit continued that ministry in the Church as the New Israel. The New Covenant believers didn’t need anyone to explain to them what a prophet was supposed to be – they knew it from centuries of experience before them. They only needed to know the rules for the ministry (as in 1 Cor. 14), but they didn’t need to know what a prophet was and what he was supposed to do to be a prophet.
But what is it that a prophet is supposed to do? Do we have a detailed description in the Bible to know? Do we have examples? Do we have anything that would lead us to the conclusion of how the prophetic ministry is supposed to work, and what that work is supposed to accomplish?
We surely do. In fact, we have one person who personifies the prophetic ministry to all history, a person who was very special to God in his earthly life, but even more in his death so that God didn’t even allow him to die in the way of all flesh, but kept him from even tasting death. No, it is not Jesus Christ, even though Christ is greater than that person and than anyone else, and He is our Great Prophet. But I am speaking of a man who was predestined by God to become the very name and person of God’s prophetic ministry: Elijah.
It should be clear and obvious that Elijah was the very impersonation of the prophetic ministry in the same way Moses was the impersonation of the Law. The New Testament, in dozens of verses, speaks of Jesus’s ministry as the fulfillment of the Law of the Prophets (Matt. 5:17; Luke 16:16, John 1:45, Rom. 3:21 and multiple other verses and passages). In order to make the continuity clear, Jesus ascended to a high mountain and there, in the presence of three of his disciples, met in person with Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets). The two men were very special and precious, for they were two of the only three men in history who did not taste earthly death (Enoch being the first of the three; but his ministry deserves a special episode). Elijah, obviously, was the personification of the Prophets; which contradicts many modern theories that the “prophets” must have meant the books of the prophets, starting from Isaiah and ending in Malachi. Elijah himself never wrote a book. His life was a subject of a book, but the majority of his prophecies were not recorded, and in fact, if anything is recorded is not so much his prophecies but his miracles. So there is more to the Prophetic Ministry of which Jesus speaks than simply the books of the prophets in the Old Testament, and it is encoded in the life and work of Elijah. But there is more: The appearance of Elijah on the mountain confused the disciples. They knew, from the Old Testament, that Elijah was supposed to come before Messiah came; that prophecy was very clear in the last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi, in 3:1 and 4:5. But here they saw Elijah only appearing to Jesus and them on the mountain, but not really returning to Israel. Jesus’s answer to them in Matthew 17:11-13 and Mark 9:11-13 is the center of what we are talking about here: “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him. . . .” Pay attention here. Elijah was the Prophetic Ministry in the Old Testament. He – or the ministry he personifies – was prophesied to return, which he did, in the person of John the Baptist, but Jesus said more: He is coming, and will restore all things. Folks, the Prophetic Ministry did not end with John the Baptist. It is coming, and it will restore all things. Jesus declared the validity of the prophetic ministry for a specific purpose. We just need to figure out what that “restoration of all things” is supposed to be.
And the life of Elijah can give us that clue.
Not much is told us about his life. Elijah is given an abrupt and powerful introduction in 1 Kings 17: one prophecy directly to King Ahab, one economic miracle in making the Sidonian widow rich, and one resurrection in raising her son, all in just the first chapter. We don’t know how he came to be so powerful in the Spirit; his previous life is just summarized in the words, “Elijah the Tishbite, of the settlers of Gilead.” The choice of words is curious, for the word “settlers” is “toshab,” literally “sojourners, foreigners.” Everywhere else in the Bible the word is used for foreigner. The word “Tishbite” is the same word of the same root; the name of his town would have been “Tishbeh,” or “Foreigners’ Town.” The same word – “foreigner, sojourner” – is repeated twice in the introduction, and then nothing else is given about his origin or early life. Apparently, however, by the events of 1 Kings 17, Elijah had already established his reputation as a prophet, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to get an audience with the king. In the next chapter, Obadiah said that Ahab had been searching for Elijah everywhere; and later in the chapter Ahab calls Elijah “the troubler of Israel.” Elijah was already dangerous by the time he is presented to us. He must have prophesied and done miracles before that which were not recorded in Scripture.
However, we don’t need details about his whole life to make a conclusion about what his ministry was – just like we don’t need to make up stories about the early life of Jesus Christ in flesh in order to know what His ministry was. In the life of every person, there is a culmination point, a metaphorical or sometimes even literal hill, or a mountain, that he needs to ascend to get the essence of his real ministry before God. For Jesus, of course, it was Calvary – even if you didn’t know much about the rest of his life, Calvary tells you what He came for. For Moses, it was his stay on the Mount Sinai – twice of 40 days each – where he met the Lord in person, then saw the Lord carve the Ten Commandments on stone with His own finger, then saw Him again carve them on the second stone tablets Moses had chiseled out.
Where did Elijah have the culmination of his ministry? On that same Mount Sinai (or Horeb) where Moses met God twice. (Actually, three times, given that the burning bush in Ex. 3 was also on Mount Horeb.) After his meeting with Ahab, and after his victory over the 450 prophets of Baal on the Mount Carmel, he received a threat from Jezebel in 1 Kings 19:2: “I will kill you the way you killed my prophets.” So he fled south to Judah (a separate kingdom, at the time), left his servant there and continued even further south. I have heard a number of modern commentators claim that Elijah did it out of fear and shouldn’t have fled, but the text is clear that an angel was feeding him during that time, because “the journey was too great” for Elijah. God wanted Elijah on the mountain to meet Him in person, for God had for him the greatest task of his ministry. Eventually, after 40 days and nights, Elijah ascended on the mountain, supposedly the same place where Moses met God. The story that follows is similar to that of Moses in Ex. 33:17-23: Moses was allowed to experience the full presence of God, and Elijah was brought there to experience it, too. But the two stories also differ greatly, and that’s where we find the essence and purpose of the Prophetic Ministry. Moses explicitly asked to see God’s glory and face. Elijah didn’t need that; he only complained to God that his ministry had failed. God told Moses that He would put him in a cleft and protect him with His hand, because no man can see God’s face and live, but Moses was able to see God’s back as God’s glory was passing by – whatever it was, it was a phenomenon of gigantic proportions. Elijah was told to stand on the mountain and he saw everything that was happening around him. A strong wind rending the mountains and breaking the rocks before the Lord; then an earthquake, then a fire. Elijah was there, seeing everything; but the text says, the Lord was not in either one of these, so he stood on the mountain, waiting. And then there was the sound of a gentle voice. It was then that Elijah covered his face with his mantle and hid back in the cave. No man can see God’s face and survive. And Elijah knew that God was in the gentle voice. So he hid his face and found shelter in the cave.
You want a parable of how a prophet sees God? There is your parable. To everyone else, God would be in those big phenomena with the power of nuclear blasts. When Israel was with Moses at the foot of that same mountain, god thundered from the mountain and the people were paralyzed by fear; to them, God was in the thunder and the darkness. To a prophet, strong wind and earthquake and fire are background noise; he is not moved by them, not scared by them, not impressed by them. What can scare him is a gentle voice. That is how God speaks to him; in a voice that no one else can hear. There are no crowds waiting for him at the foot of the mountain; no one even knows he is there on that mountain. The nearest settlement is 40 days and 40 nights away, there is no one around, but the prophet and God. No wonder people don’t usually understand prophets; the mentality required for the prophetic ministry is certainly not the mentality that gets you through the busy everyday life of the average person in the society. As we look at Elijah’s life, it looks the life of bipolar person – oscillating between extrovert aggressiveness against the whole society and behavior that today would be defined as autistic. But there is a good reason for it: Elijah’s life was controlled by the sound of a gentle voice that has always been the presence of God in his life. He could recognize God where no one else would, and he could ignore the background noise without any effort. Because the sound of a gentle voice is where God meets a prophet.
Now that the personal meeting of God was there, God was to give Elijah the culmination task of his ministry, a task that would define what Elijah was supposed to be as God’s prophet, and by implication, what the Prophetic Ministry in general is supposed to do.
God asks him the same question: “What are you doing here?” Elijah answers with the same report about the failure of his ministry: “Israel has forsaken Your covenant, they have torn down Your altars, killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to end my life as well.” Then God gives His instructions, paraphrased (listen carefully): “Go back, anoint a king over Syria (a pagan nation), then anoint a king over Israel (the covenant community), then anoint a spiritual authority over Israel, the next prophet after you.” I hope you all get what is happening here. Elijah had no formal authority in Syria. Neither did he have any formal authority in Israel, for that matter. And yet, God gave him the task to go and sanction a coup-d’etat in Syria, then a coup-d’etat in Israel. Change the governments in both nations, God said, and then appoint yourself a successor. And then God promised that there will be bloodshed committed by all these three. Whoever escapes the sword of your protegee in Syria will be slain by your protegee in Israel. And whoever escapes your protegee in Israel, will be killed by your protegee in the prophetic ministry. So, go, you got work to do.
Interestingly enough, Elijah went about the task in the opposite order: he first went to find Elisha and take him as his disciple and successor. That in the very same chapter, 1 Kings 19:19-21. But Elijah never got to do the rest of it. The story of his life continues for 5 more chapters before he got taken to heaven. All this time he was in Israel, and he never approached Jehu to anoint him. Also, all this time Syria was in war against Israel, and Elijah never went to Syria to anoint Hazael as king. What’s going on here? God met with Elijah personally on the mountain to give him tasks, and Elijah didn’t even bother to finish them? What kind of a man of God was he, anyway?
The answer and the solution to the quandary can be seen in the fact that it was actually Elisha, his appointed successor, who finished the other two tasks. He went to Damascus in 2 Kings 8 and prophesied to Hazael that he would become king. (He even told him to lie to his master, the lawful king of Syria, in v. 10.) Then, in the next chapter, 2 Kings 9, Elisha returned to Israel to anoint Jehu as king. Elijah’s tasks were accomplished by Elisha. Why? Because that was meant to show us that what God gave Elijah was not just his personal task, an isolated occurrence, but that was to be the very meaning and purpose of the prophetic ministry in general. What specific prophet would accomplish it was of no consequence, as long as there was a prophet to do it. This is what all prophets were called to do, and commanded to do.
So what was it?
The purpose of the prophetic ministry was – and still is – to provide God’s checks and balances to earthly authorities. A prophet was someone without earthly power, and without any earthly means of enforcing his will. In the eyes of the people, and especially in the eyes of the formal powers, he had nothing to back his claims or demands: no armies, no legislative bodies, no committees, no church sessions, no procedures for deliberations and decisions. To their eyes, he was a “lone ranger,” someone who just went around creating trouble. (“Troubler of Israel,” remember?) And yet, without all this earthly power of arms or majorities, the prophet was supposed to be someone with enough courage to stand up to all these earthly powers and declare a new order of power, and anoint new governments. He was the man who goes around and encourages coups in both church and state, because he saw when human hierarchies degenerated into serving themselves, and therefore needed to be replaced. In this respect, the prophet was the man who declared a restoration of God’s true hierarchy: God at the top, all men and earthly powers under Him. And those earthly powers who did not serve God, were declared covenantally dead, and therefore doomed to extinction.
That the prophet was supposed to not have earthly power but appear weak to earthly powers was the explanation why Elijah fled when Jezebel threatened his life. He didn’t flee because he was afraid; remember, that was the same guy who stood on the mountain in the middle of wind so strong that it was breaking the rocks to pieces. He fled because his job was not to fight earthly battles against earthly authorities; his job was to fight God’s battles God’s way. It was also the reason why John the Baptist – the Elijah who was to come, according to Jesus – decided to go to the wilderness and dress in simple clothes. In Luke 7:25-30 and Matt. 11:8-15, Jesus specifically contrasts men of earthly power with the prophets: “What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? Those are found in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? You found him, and you found Elijah who was to come.”
That the prophet was supposed to be a check and balance – and even a judge – on human powers, church and state, was clear from the ministry of all Old Testament prophets. When one looks at the life of John the Baptist, the same is obvious: that greatest of all prophets did not simply preach a religious message, he challenged the king himself, and lost his life because of that. Jesus did the same to the Pharisees many times, until they killed Him, too. The prophetic ministry was very specifically directed against the powers of the day. It was not simply predicting future events. In fact, it has never been about predicting future events – such predictions have always been only incidental to it. The Prophetic Ministry was about challenging earthly powers, and about the restoration of true hierarchy in both the world and the church. It was God’s division of powers in action, His checks and balances.
You can now understand why the Enlightenment reacted with such violent rhetoric against any supernatural revelation today. The Enlightenment was a movement to restore the supremacy of human power over the society, and deny God His authority over men and their societies. To acknowledge the validity of ongoing supernatural revelation today would mean to acknowledge the validity of the Prophetic Ministry. To acknowledge that validity would mean to acknowledge the validity of God’s checks and balances on human powers. Such acknowledgment the new pagans could not afford to make. So the solution was rationalism: a religion of the supremacy of the human mind, which eventually boiled down to the supremacy of the decisions of a small elite of central planners. The war against the supernatural was, on one hand, a war against God and His Word, but also, a war against God’s prophetic ministry: the only authority on earth that could present real challenge to human powers.
But you can also understand why the modern church bureaucrats have adopted cessationism as their operational ideology. It is not because of some concern for the authority of the Word of God: prophecy, as Calvin pointed out, is not in the same category as Scripture, so it can’t compete with Scripture. The real reason is that the powers in the modern churches – including Protestant, including those who claim to be Reformed – resent God’s system of division of powers and of checks and balances in the church. Their agenda is to subject the visible church to human powers only and thus bar God from exercising His real authority in His Church. The presence of prophets has always been a problem for the formal leadership in the church; prophets have always been “troublers of Israel.” They truly are. And that’s why they have been suppressed.
But the suppression of God’s prophetic ministry – men without formal power who speak in the authority of the Holy Spirit – has not been without consequences. That the churches in the West have grown more tyrannical, and yet weaker and less influential in the society was not caused by the power of paganism to defeat Christianity. (If paganism had any power, it would have defeated Christianity in the 1st century, when paganism was at the culmination of its power, and Christianity was still young.) The one fighting against the modern church is the Holy Spirit Himself, and He is fighting against it because it has rejected His principle of checks and balances of power. Just like Israel that killed the prophets sent to her, the modern church is killing the prophetic ministry with its rationalistic ideology; and by killing the prophetic ministry, she is killing the opportunity for correction and growth God has decreed. We are wondering why the world has been dismantling our formerly Christian culture, why such a majority of Christians are so apathetic and unable to challenge social sins like abortion, abuse, adultery, government tyranny, etc. But the lack of power in the church can have only one source: the Spirit has withdrawn from it. And if He has withdrawn, that’s because it no longer represents Him. And if we want it to represent Him, we need to listen. He has His prophets somewhere out there, and we have failed to listen to them. And we have failed to challenge our leaders in the churches, and we have failed to slaughter the prophets of Baal.
So, we need to restore the prophetic ministry. To be honest, I still don’t know how that would look like. But I know that we need to start searching the Bible and stand silent before God so that He can speak to us. As R.J. Rushdoony said in his Systematic Theology, the Holy Spirit has not stopped speaking to us today. But, I am afraid, we have trusted our pastors and preachers and conference celebrities for far too long, and we have stopped listening to Him.
This week the assignment will be not a book but a lecture series: Evangelizing Man and His Institutions, by Dennis Peacocke. When you listen to it, pay attention to his concept of “prophetic evangelism.” Dennis Peacocke’s tapes were instrumental to my mission and ministry in Bulgaria back in the 1990s. What I learned from him was immeasurably valuable. He is a Charismatic, but even if you are a cessationist (still), you will find him helpful.
In your prayers and giving, remember Bulgarian Reformation Ministries, a mission organization devoted to building the intellectual foundation of the future Christian civilization in Eastern Europe through translating and publishing books that apply the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every area of life. Including government. We know that eventually, God will restore the prophetic ministry to Eastern Europe, and will use His prophets to challenge the powers of the day. But in order for that to happen, we need to have the critical amount of literature which will give the alternative to the present secular order. Help us finish that job. Visit BulgarianReformation.com, subscribe to our newsletter, and donate.