If you’ve taken the time to peruse my website or know anything about me, then you know that my first published novel, Winter, has a main character with the gift of prophecy. I worked very hard to make sure Winter was not just another “telling the future” type prophetess, but was one that exhibited the characteristics of an actual Biblical prophet. You may not have seen all of those things in the first book, but hang on. I have three more to write.
So it seemed fitting that I write a post describing what a Biblical prophet looks like. You may find it doesn’t quite look like you expect. So what is a prophet? Here are some things to look for. They may not fit all of the Biblical people who are described as being prophets or all the prophets may not exhibit all these characteristics to the letter, but these things make for a simple standard with which to recognize a prophet.
A prophet has a message.
First and foremost, a prophet has something to say. God gives them a word of warning, encouragement, or instruction. It is the prophet’s job then to be the mouthpiece of God and relay that message. It is not always pointing to future events, but often is. A prophet is not a fortune teller, so don’t get hung up on the “future telling” aspect. Key in on the fact that the prophet is simply relaying whatever message God has given him/her. “Let my people go” was certainly not a future telling message.
A prophet’s goal is the restoration of God’s people.
God has a purpose for calling a prophet. In the general sense, a prophet’s goal is always to reconcile the people of God to God. Sometimes, this is the only picture we see. But in a few cases, such as Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist (among a few others), we can clearly see that this goal was addressed to one person or a representative of God’s people. We cannot just lump this into the Message of the prophet, because many of the prophets took an interactive role, helping people make decisions, performing signs, and even confronting the adversary.
A prophet can perform signs and miracles.
Words may fail, so God authorizes his prophets to perform signs and miracles. There’s examples of all kinds of stuff in the Bible–everything from calling fire from Heaven to attacking a bunch of disrespectful kids with a she-bear. There’s miracles of provision and healing. And let us not forget the 10 Plagues of Egypt. It seems evident to me that though God is at work, he often gives his prophets free reign to choose when and how a sign can be performed. Kinda like a CEO giving his assistant the corporate credit card.
What is less evident, is exactly where the “power” to perform these miracles originates. Is it the personal action of God on behalf of the prophet? Is it the activity of angels charged with assisting the prophet? Is it the prophet’s own extraordinary faith? Or maybe it’s a combination of all of these? We can split hairs and debate this particular point, but that’s the subject of a later article. Don’t hang your hat here, please.
A prophet receives special knowledge.
A prophet’s special knowledge may manifest itself in their message, but the focus here is on the receiving of that knowledge. There are several ways this may happen.
Dream. Joseph was known as “the Dreamer” and had several dreams, as well as the ability to interpret them. Daniel also interpreted dreams. The best way to understanding what a dream is is not to over think it. It is a dream in the very sense you know it. You fall asleep, you dream. But in the prophets’ case, they fall asleep and God reveals things within their dreams.
Vision. There’s not much difference between this and a dream…except you’re awake. Biblical scholars may argue whether or not some waking visions were truly waking, but I want to make the distinction in definition. If I talk about dreams…asleep. If I talk about visions…awake.
Special insight. Sometimes this looks like mind reading. Yes. You read that right. This may not be “mind reading” per se, but it seems fitting. There are at least two instances I can think of off the top of my head, where a prophet looked at someone and somehow knew knowledge about that person or situation. They somehow instinctively know something they’re not supposed to know about what someone has done or is thinking. Elisha did this multiple times. Peter also demonstrated this when he confronted Ananias and Saphira. Mind reading? Premonitions? The whispering of God? Who knows? But it’s one of the coolest things about prophets.
Or maybe they were just really good mentalists.
Direct speech. Most prophets had the privileged of conversing with God directly. Not only is this an amazing experience, but it is unprecedented in comparison to all other religions. I haven’t decided if I’d like to experience this or not. On the one hand…wow. On the other hand…I’m quite afraid of what God might say.
A prophet has an adversary.
Of course there’s an enemy involved, are you surprised? But you can look for it every time. If someone claims to be a prophet, but has no adversary, then it’s not real. There is always someone trying to keep the prophet from accomplishing his goal, which is the restoration of God’s people. You may not always see the adversary directly, but as you dig into the context and development of the prophet’s ministry you’ll start to notice patterns of persecution. In the case of Jonah, he was his own adversary.
So there’s this prophet/adversary relationship, and they are striving for the dominance of God’s people or a representative of God’s people. Here’s some examples:
- Moses vs. Pharaoh, over the release of Israel.
- Elijah vs. Jezebel, over Ahab’s spiritual leadership of the people.
- Daniel vs. the King’s advisers, over Darius and, by extension, the religious liberty of the captive Jews.
- John the Baptist vs. Herod and his wife, over the proclamation of Jesus.
These are just a few. In most cases, the Biblical prophet has a clearly defined adversary to contend with. A prophet may experience multiple adversaries in their lifetime, or the adversary may be presented as an entire people group (the Philistines).
So there’s some simple ways to understand what a Biblical prophet is. As you can see, it is much more than what we call “prophecy” in today’s terms. Remember this…there’s a difference between prophecy and being a prophet. A big difference. By this criteria, we can view most of the main people in Genesis, Moses and other key figures in the Exodus journey, many of the Judges of Israel, all the major and minor Prophets, Prophets mentioned in the books of History who didn’t write their own books, as well as most of the Apostles as being Biblical Prophets.
We can also exclude many more recent claims to prophethood. Just sayin’.