Despite the potential danger of false prophets arising on the scene, the Lord knew that the work of the coming true prophets would be sorely needed. More than anything, the inspired words of the prophets served to disciple and teach God’s people how to follow him. The ministry of a prophet also had a timeless quality. Their words not only had a very real purpose in the time in which they lived, they also became important guidelines for the survival of God’s people in future ages. Sometimes we mistakenly get the impression that the prophetic parts of the Bible were written solely for the people in ancient times, when in reality believers throughout history could read a prophet’s words and obtain benefit from them.
Unfortunately with the passage of time, those same words that were at first fresh and alive, all too quickly were forgotten or overlooked by subsequent generations. Perhaps the saddest parts of the entire Bible consist of the record of how the once faithful people of God began to fall away to the point of utter disbelief. Again and again, story after story documents the evil practices of the people who were supposed to be righteous. Some would say that the New Testament followers of Jesus were relatively immune to this tendency, but one look at chapters 3 and 4 of Revelation paints an entirely different picture. Of the seven churches that Jesus commanded John to send his words, five of them already had the seeds of disbelief growing within them. Those five represented churches that were established in the age of the Apostles, only a scant generation away from the time of Jesus himself. Yet Jesus reveals that they were involved with everything from immorality to the evil practices of Satan himself. Only one of these churches, the Philadelphian, is given praise without any mention of faults.
So what turns the tide of unbelief once it gets started? The ministry of a prophet. If God did not raise up a man to be a prophet right at the crucial moment when his people began to wander away from him into sin and evil, no one would be left to follow him today. The book of Judges is a perfect example of this concept. Time after time we are told….”And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord.” Every major section within Judges begins with this kind of statement, and invariably ends in the rise of a great leader or “judge” sent by the Lord to turn the people back to him in faith. The purpose of these special prophets was for the preservation of the people of God. These words can be found in the book of Hosea to illustrate this principle:
“I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets.
And by a prophet the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt, and by a prophet was he preserved.”
The story of the nation of Israel is one of constant backsliding and sinfulness, which the Lord continually had to judge. At the same time, however, God always provided through his mercy a way for them to come back. He became like a father in disciplining his children, loving them in every way, but not willing that they should continue to do evil. In Jeremiah he makes this very plain:
“I have spoken unto you, rising early and speaking, but ye have not hearkened.
“And the Lord hath sent unto you all his servants, the prophets, rising early and sending them, but ye have not hearkened, nor inclined your ear to hear.
“They said, Turn again now every one from his evil way, and from the evil of your doing, and dwell in the land that the Lord hath given unto you and to your fathers forever and ever;
“And go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship them, and provoke me not to anger with the works of your hands, and I will do you no harm.”
In order to preserve what good was left among the nation of Israel, it was often necessary for the prophets to encourage the people to turn away from all their sinful ways. Thus, the preaching of repentance became a second major purpose of a prophet’s work. Repentance merely means to have a change of heart and attitude. Biblically, the process refers to turning away from doing what is wrong and beginning to do what is right. Every prophet of God no matter in what age he lived always had this characteristic message as an integral part of his words. In fact, the prophet who heralded the first coming of Christ preached his only recorded message on this one subject alone. John the Baptist cried out to his countrymen, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Later, even Jesus echoed these very words when he first preached in the region of Galilee (compare Matt. 3:2 with Matt. 4:17).
The concept of repentance is critically important to understand. No one can approach God and be forgiven for sins if they did not first have the willingness to turn away from evil. That’s why both John and Jesus preached repentance before anything else. They realized that unless their listeners obeyed them in this one basic point, nothing more they could say would make any difference in their standing with God. Do not be deceived. No man can obtain the true blessings of the Lord without wanting to do what is right. In reality, however, the very process of following the Lord naturally promotes repentance. The goodness of God does not allow him to tolerate evil for long. That’s why the most prominent message found in the prophetic scriptures relates to repentance.
The preaching of repentance shows that the Lord truly cares about the fate of every person that has ever lived or ever will live, more so than we could possibly imagine. However, the message of a prophet was frequently accompanied by something much more serious than just an encouragement to repent. The controversial nature of their words was typically brought forth by a very real threat of judgment if the people refused to listen. The Lord cannot simply turn his back on evil and allow it to continue. If the very people who were supposed to be following him continually wallowed in the evil of this world, eventually it would cause the Lord to punish them as a father would his son. This same father/son relationship was found continually in the Old Testament between God and the nation of Israel. Some of the judgments that Israel experienced for their wickedness got very severe—even to the point of being banished from their own land. Though the Jewish race as a whole was never completely forsaken, people that continued to live in disobedience and refused to listen could easily find themselves eternally cut off from God.
It is here that the words of a man who calls himself a prophet must be without reproach. Prophecies of judgment or prophecies of blessing will affect the lives of everyone who hears them, even if the message is not believed. For those willing to take a prophet’s words seriously, a repentant heart will guarantee forgiveness from God. But just as surely, the ones who dare scoff at the preaching of a true prophet will suffer the eternal wrath of the Lord.
It is vitally important to understand that right and wrong or good and evil are not predicated on popular opinion or current trends. Sometimes the influence of out spoken or well known people can lead you to believe that something is right when it is actually wrong in God’s eyes. The Bible says, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man; But the end thereof are the ways of death” (Proverbs 14:12). In other words, we may convince ourselves that certain things are normal or okay, but the Bible may indicate that these very things are wrong. In many areas of life, we can’t fully understand right and wrong unless we have first searched God’s Word for everything it has to say on a subject. This is especially true of controversial topics such as abortion, promiscuity, or homosexuality. The arguments presented by some people today as to why these acts are all right might actually be believed until you look at what the Bible has to say about them. The Bible says that these are terrible acts that will lead to judgment and death, not forgiveness and life. True repentance, therefore, may actually involve changing our opinion 180 degrees on issues that before we may have thought were normal and okay, but now we understand are sinful through God’s Word and his Spirit working within us.
As might be expected, it was very difficult for the prophets who preached such things to win friends among people whose hearts were far from the Lord’s. The focus of the prophet’s words ultimately condemned the very lifestyle of their listeners. The people had two choices when they heard a prophet speak: believe and repent to obtain God’s forgiveness, or decide to continue with their evil ways and try to ignore the consequences. Of course, to those who refused to listen, a prophet often became a source of great irritation and interference. No area of political or social life was spared a prophet’s judgment.
Jeremiah’s life was virtually ruined because of the hatred spawned from his words, and he didn’t take it patiently, either. At one point he even cried out to God…
“O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived; thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed; I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me.
“For since I spoke, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil, because the word of the Lord was made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily.”
Is this really the image of a prophet’s life that somehow we have been led to imagine? A true prophet will not leave his audience ambivalent. When a prophet preaches repentance, those people who desire to follow the Lord and do what is right will rejoice, while those who prefer wickedness will turn their anger against the preacher. It is no different today. Anyone that dares to stand up for what is right according to the Bible, especially in controversial areas, will immediately suffer the onslaught of those who want to continue to do what is wrong. A Christian speaking out against gay marriage or the killing of unborn babies will be met not with careful listeners but with an angry opposition willing to go to any extent to silence the speaker. Some people of God that have spoken out concerning the evils of society today have been fired from jobs or publically castigated in attempts to ruin their lives and sway opinion away from the truth. Opposing gay rights, for instance, can result in being accused of using “hate speech” or of being not “inclusive” or of being against “diversity”. These diversions are just ways people use to remove God from their thoughts and permit them to continue in sin uninterrupted.
In fact, some of you already have gotten mad at me for saying these words. You want to reach through the internet and at the very least grab me by the shirt and give me a piece of you mind. However, the world is heading in a direction that will lead to its complete destruction, and it is extremely important to realize that unless you turn away from the evils of the world, you will be caught in its judgment at the end.
Jeremiah’s life became so troubled as a result of preaching repentance and predicting Israel’s destruction that he eventually became angry with God. At one point he actually resigned the office of a prophet. Read it yourself:
“Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name.”
When Jesus said that his followers would have persecution in this world, he knew very well of the trials and tribulations they would have to endure. At the same time that Christ was preaching in Galilee, John the Baptist lost his head in Jerusalem because he dared to tell King Herod he could not have his brother’s wife. The moral principles of God’s law were never compromised by a prophet, even when it meant the ire of the rich and the powerful. The Lord wanted his prophets to speak his word without fear of any worldly ramifications. As Jeremiah could certainly attest, that ideal was not easy to achieve. He was still only human with many faults and emotions, and even with the direct manifestation of the glory of God, it was still possible for him to get frustrated and angry. Consider the Apostle Peter, too. He lived with Jesus for over three years, yet because of fear he denied the Lord three times on the day of the Lord’s crucifixion.
The Lord, however, does not leave his people without hope. Christ knew that Peter would come around, even before his denial; and in the very same verse that Jeremiah gave the Lord his resignation he went on to say this:
“But his word was in mine heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not refrain.”
No matter how he tried, no matter how he wanted to quit in the face of adversity, Jeremiah could not stop prophesying of the truth of God. The Lord’s words were burning in his heart and they would not allow him to give in to the fears and persecutions surrounding him. When the Lord of the universe impressed something upon a prophet’s heart that he knew with absolute certainty was the direct revelation of God, nothing could prevent that message from coming forth. God’s words invoked a sense of urgency that kept churning away until it was finally allowed to come out. Amos described it perfectly when he said:
“The lion hath roared; who will not fear? The Lord God hath spoken; who can but prophesy?”
The preaching of repentance was the most dangerous thing a man or woman of God could ever do, because the evil people they spoke to would ultimately hate them for their message. Those that were caught up in the evil of this world loved their sinful lives with a passion, and they resented any attempt to wrest them away from it. A prophet had to look beyond the emotions of the moment and consider the situation from God’s vantage point. Amos realized that no matter what the world had in store for him, he would have no choice but to prophesy. His situation was as certain as the fear invoked when a wild beast crosses your path; he simply couldn’t help himself.
A prophet’s mission not only involves the preservation and repentance of those who hear him, but also consists of something presented more clearly in the New Testament. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he discusses some unique gifts that the Holy Spirit has given to the entire church. These are not necessarily things that people would immediately think of when they consider the giving of gifts, but they are nonetheless extremely valuable for the spiritual growth of all believers. In fact, so unusual are these particular gifts they can actually walk and talk!
In reality, the Holy Spirit gives the body of believers the gifts of chosen men and women in whom he has implanted divinely empowered talents. Each of these special servants of God has unique abilities for ministering in some needed area in the local congregation. In chapter four of the book of Ephesians, Paul describes these “gifts” as follows:
“And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;”
Notice that each of these leaders has their own particular functions and areas of expertise. Some who are teachers could never be evangelists, some who have the ability to pastor would not necessarily possess the divine insight to do the work of a prophet. The Lord has placed these talented people among the churches in order to meet the requirements of a particular situation or fulfill some purpose at a critical point in history. Prophets are unique in this respect, because every group of believers may not need them. They seem to appear just in time to respond to a definite set of circumstances that only they alone are able to handle. In addition, the gift of a prophet would most likely involve the one function that Paul had in mind for all of these individuals. He tells us that they were primarily given…
“For the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry for the edifying of the body of Christ,
“Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ;”
A third purpose of a prophet of God is therefore to aid in the spiritual growth or perfection of the body of believers. It is this aspect of a prophet’s message that is perhaps the least controversial of all his functions. To listen to the words of a man speaking as if from the very mouth of God is to literally be at the feet of the King of the Universe obtaining wisdom by direct communication. If you take counsel from his teachings and change your life accordingly, the result will be a prosperous life and a right relationship with God.
For this reason, no Christian can afford to ignore the words of these men. The words of the prophets who have been included in the Bible stand as an eternal testimony to the care of the Lord for those who believe. Surely, no other portion of scripture can give such a strong confirmation and proof for our faith as that of the prophets.
Notice, however, that in this entire section on the purpose of a prophet, so far no mention has been made of that one aspect that almost everyone thinks of when considering the ministry of a prophet, namely predicting the future. As amazing as this may sound, foretelling the future was not the most important immediate purpose of the rise of a prophet. Preservation, repentance, and perfecting far outweighed the necessity of knowing about distant future events that possibly wouldn’t even occur until long after the prophet’s listeners had died. Establishing the believers on a solid foundation that would not soon crumble was God’s main goal in calling these men.
So why did the Lord also include in their words elaborate predictions of days to come? The answer to that question will become apparent as we study the fourth purpose of a prophet, predicting the future.