Throughout nearly four millennia, God has raised up prophets and saints to help restore and build up his People. Lord knows, we need his help today as much as ever, and we can expect he will continue to call forward servants like these. But I have to ask myself: “When God does raise up a prophetic voice in our midst today, will I recognize it?” To help me answer that question, I decided to look back at the experience of the biblical prophets.
The Prophets of Old
What were these men like?
They were mostly nobodies. Ezekiel was a priest, but as for the rest, we either don’t know anything about their backgrounds, or what we know isn’t that remarkable. Moses was a misfit of sorts; Jeremiah was young; Amos was a shepherd and part of the lower class, and; John the Baptist left mainstream society.
They didn’t think of themselves as prophets or anyone special. Moses had a litany of excuses, including: “I’m a nobody,” “They won’t listen to me,” and “I can’t talk.” Elijah tried to change careers. Hosea ended up marrying a prostitute. Amos made it clear that he wasn’t a prophet.
They spoke out against the religious and secular status quo. Their message did not sync with the way most people thought or behaved, and this included the religious leaders of the day.
They were not well received. Sometimes they did attract crowds, but eventually, the majority either walked away or turned against them. Jeremiah was imprisoned, humiliated, and thrown into a well. Legend tells us Isaiah was sawn in half. John the Baptist was beheaded. And Jesus, more than a prophet but one who spoke prophetic truth, was crucified. All in all, it’s not a pretty picture.
Modern Day Prophets
What would these men or women be like if we met them today?
First, they wouldn’t meet our expectations. Most probably wouldn’t be ordained or have a Ph.D. or D.Min. Few, if any, would be celebrities. When we looked at them, we wouldn’t see anything special or notable to distinguish them from anyone else. They wouldn’t appear on television shows, and they may not even be given the opportunity to speak publicly. The content of their message, at first glance, wouldn’t arouse much interest because it didn’t fit the groupthink.
More than likely, they would be ignored. That is until they aroused some hostility.
What’s the Point?
To benefit from God’s prophetic voice, we need to be open to it. I fear that I could be guilty of the same sort of behavior as our predecessors. So, I ask myself: “If today I heard God’s voice through my neighbor, would I even listen?” Or, would I ignore it because it came to me in a plain or even distressing package?
Today, we tend to use a person’s education, position, title, or status to establish his or her qualifications before we will begin to listen to them. If that’s so, how are we, then, to recognize a prophet if he or she doesn’t have these credentials?
I think there are three criteria we can use:
- That they give the witness of a holy life.
- That upon reflecting on their message, we recognize how it agrees with God’s word while remarkably speaking to the needs of our day.
- By the confirmation the Holy Spirit gives us in our hearts.
These will be difficult to come by. What kind of disciple must I be, then, if I am to hear God’s prophetic voice in the least of those I meet? Here are four goals I hope to put into practice:
I must get to know my brother and sister. Not superficially, mind you, but to know them spiritually; to understand how God is working in and through them. I cannot do this unless I enter into spiritual conversations.
I need to cultivate a genuine interest in others. Instead, I become absorbed with my own affairs, or I want others to hear me before I listen.
I need to reflect on life and on what others say and do. And when I do, it must be with an open heart and mind.
I should be ready to encourage the prophet. These people will likely not find a welcoming audience or leaders willing to listen. What a tragedy it would be if they gave up because no one cared!