Understanding Prophets (Part 2)

What do present-day prophets bring to the table? What’s their unique job description?

A problem we want to avoid in our churches is that of prophet-shaped people who are not operating according to their calling, either due to lack of understanding or lack of acceptance. So we need to do all we can to grasp the bigger picture of what prophets offer the church and world, and ensure they are deployed effectively.

Ephesians 4 shows us that prophets are one of five roles gifted by Jesus to his church, and that all five roles have the purpose of building up the Body of Christ to maturity. It is only when all five gifts are fully released to equip the body that we will be able to truly reflect the full measure of Christ and express his glory to the world around us.

We all have a role to play; each and every one of us is a gift to the church. If you are wired as a prophet (and that’s something we explored in the previous blog) then the church and the world need you to grab hold of this calling on your life and do something with it. Please don’t withhold the particular grace that God has entrusted to you, because it’s not for your benefit but for the benefit of the whole Body of Christ.

So what do prophets bring and what should they be doing?

In the previous blog we looked at how prophets are acutely aware of the gap between God’s glory and the reality of the world around us, and how they are motivated to articulate and then bridge that gap.

In the Old Testament this ‘gap-consciousness’ was played out in the prophets being God’s mouthpieces and calling the people of God back to covenant faithfulness. It also meant speaking words of judgement and warning: sort yourselves out or suffer the consequences of turning your backs to God; if you persist in foolishly walking away from God – “defying his glorious presence” (Isaiah 3:8) – then there will be trouble.

A New Testament perspective on prophets doesn’t lose the gap-consciousness, but we now need to view things in the light of the life of Jesus and outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. The way we understand ourselves as prophets needs to be defined according to Jesus’ ministry as the true and perfect prophet. And post-Pentecost we celebrate the fact that the gift of prophecy is available to all.

One of my favourite verses about the prophetic is found in Acts 15:32 and gives us a glimpse of how the prophetic role was worked out in the early church:

Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers.

Prophets have a vital role to play in developing the spiritual health of people, as they lean into God’s heart and speak out words of encouragement.

How else do prophets serve the church? What does their brilliant contribution look like?

  • Listen and perceive: prophets are particularly attuned to hear and communicate the heart of God; they ensure the church has eyes to see and ears to hear. Because of their keen spiritual sight they have a key role to play in releasing vision – they see the bigger picture of where God is calling us and enable us to lift our eyes and perceive future potential.
  • Equip: prophets help people hear God for themselves, so that every follower of Jesus can discern his voice and obey his leading.
  • Orientate: prophets have a deep hunger for God, a passion for his presence, and a desire for everyone to draw closer to Jesus. They constantly re-focus attention back on God and call God’s people to covenantal faithfulness. They are sensitive and alert to compromise and complacency, guarding against idolatry and promoting radical obedience.
  • See creative solutions: prophets often have the ability to stand back from the immediate and see creative solutions and develop vision for situations others don’t see. They are often highly intuitive and can think outside the box.
  • Maintain sensitivity to spiritual warfare: prophets are sensitive to the battle going on in the spiritual realm. They discern strongholds and equip the church to take authority over the powers of darkness.
  • Champion social justice: as prophets pursue God’s heart they develop passion for God’s concerns and they prioritise issues of justice. They speak against oppression and call society to change.
  • Ask questions: prophets help God’s people develop an alternative consciousness by questioning everything that does not reflect the values of God’s kingdom. Their questions allow God’s reality to tear down illusion and deception and the church to be sharpened and strengthened.

I hope you can see that prophets have a vital role to play in creating a mature, Jesus-shaped church. We need to promote an understanding of their role, as well as resourcing and championing their ministry, so that the whole church can have a healthy prophetic culture and consciousness.

UNDERSTANDING PROPHETS (Part 1)

Not many people are that comfortable going around calling themselves a ‘prophet’. It’s not how I would introduce myself to someone at a party. But Ephesians 4 tells us that Jesus has gifted this bunch of folks to his church along with the apostles, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. And these roles are not just for leaders: they are for every follower of Christ.

Fivefold thinking enables us to view prophets as simply ‘one of five’: some people are prophet-shaped, a God-given role, and alongside the other fivefold callings, their ultimate aim is to build up the body of Christ:

…to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:12-13)

That is some calling!

The problem with the word ‘prophet’ is that it has so many Old Testament style associations that can lead to misunderstanding about the prophet’s ministry. Over a couple of blogs I want to explore the role and calling of prophets, but in order to do that we have to move away (to a certain extent) from an Old Testament perspective and grasp a broader paradigm more influenced by the new covenant we now live in.

In this blog I’m going to focus on how prophets are wired. What makes them tick? And in the next blog we’ll be looking at how their role works out in the life of the church.

More than anything, prophets have a passion for the heart of God. That’s where their attention keeps returning to, that’s what they’ll always be chasing after.

Prophets are focused on God and they are very spiritually aware. Therefore they are acutely conscious of the gap – ok the huge gulf – between all that is beautiful, sacred, loving, righteous and life-giving in God’s presence…. and all that is broken, messed-up, unjust, sinful and dying apart from God’s presence.

The primary impulse of the prophet is to somehow bridge that gap. To find a place – any place – where they can stand between heaven and earth and facilitate some sort of connection. To search God’s heart for the words or imagery that will draw people back to God, for actions that will demonstrate a God-shaped alternative. Prophets translate God so that the world can re-orientate itself back towards him. They eagerly pursue whatever words, imagery or action will bring the much-needed realignment of created with Creator.

The gap is a place of tension for prophets: tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, the ‘actual’ and the ‘ideal’. They are simultaneously focussed on the glory of God and, at the same time, sensitive to the existing reality in the world around them, with all its injustice and unfaithfulness. Because of this the prophet is someone who at heart wants to challenge the status quo, bringing an alternative consciousness to the dominant culture, and questioning everything that does not reflect the values of God’s kingdom. For a prophet this often feels that they are like a fish swimming up stream.

In occupying the gap prophets are wired both for worship and for warfare. Their passion for God’s heart carries with it urgency for reverence and devotion. They prioritise prayer and the pursuit of God’s presence. But their sensitivity to injustice and unrighteousness creates such a holy discontent that they are intent on confronting the powers that oppress people, whether cultural or spiritual.

Prophets are enthusiasts for God, carrying a message that he is so much closer and so much better than we can think or imagine. With their eyes turned heavenward, and awake to divine promise, they long for God’s renewal of all things. They love to release hope and expectation in the Body of Christ, anticipating the new thing that God is doing.

Prophets are wired for the message of transformation: “We have to change! Things have to change!” Remaining as we are is never an option for a prophet. Why stay here when there is something better around the corner? They know that God is on the move and want the rest of the Body to catch up. As they pursue God’s heart they discern the work of the Spirit in refining and purifying his people and speak a message of transformation to the world around them.

*******

Does any of this resonate with you personally? You are probably a prophet if you:

  • Have a passion to see people walk more closely with God
  • Love prayer, worship and pursuing God’s presence
  • Often get a sense of what God is saying about a situation
  • Long for every Christian to hear God’s voice
  • Tend to see things a little differently from everyone else
  • Find your heart breaking for the poor, oppressed and marginalised

Whatever fivefold ministry we most closely identify with it’s important that we get a clearer understanding of the role of the prophets and embrace the particular grace they bring to the Body of Christ.

Understanding the Prophetic Function

What does it mean to be a prophetic church, a prophetic body of people?

To fully answer this question we need to see the big picture of exactly what Jesus has called his church to be. As much as I love prophetic ministry and mentoring prophetic people, there is more to an holistic prophetic culture than just activity and experience: we need a broader paradigm than is currently found in many charismatic churches. If all we focus on is giving people prophecies, we miss out on the breadth and depth of prophetic spirituality. If all we focus on is prophets, we miss out on seeing the way the church itself can be prophetic in its very nature.

So to understand the prophetic function of the church we have to step back a little bit from prophetic ministries and individual callings, and begin to view the church in terms of who we are called to be as the Body of Christ. The prophetic function is part of the church’s intrinsic identity and purpose: how we are shaped and defined. We are called to be a prophetic community, and this community needs to look like Jesus.

As I said in my last blog, our number one goal as the Body of Christ should be to imitate Jesus as closely as we possibly can. The church is defined by Jesus: it is Jesus who shows us who we are and what we are called to do. All authentic Christian ministry is based on him. The church, by its very nature, is called to be Jesus-shaped, and the fivefold ministries from Ephesians give us a clear perspective on what a Christ-like church should look like. Jesus has given these five identities to the church so that we can be all that he has called us to be, fully representing him in the world.

So as we consider how the church in its very nature can be prophetic – embodying the prophetic function – we need to embrace the prophetic pattern we see in the life of Jesus. Our life as a prophetic people must be directly formed around the life, ministry and teaching of Jesus. We can only define a prophetic church according to Jesus’ ministry as the true and perfect prophet.

When we look at Jesus’ life and ministry we see that he is uncompromisingly prophetic in a whole host of ways:

  • He is the revelation of the Father: he perfectly shows us what God is like.
  • He is the Word of God in flesh.
  • He is the mediator of the New Covenant between God and people.
  • He confronts evil and breaks the power of sin.
  • He calls people to return to God and live righteously.
  • He speaks truth to power (both religious and secular).
  • He only does what he sees the Father doing.
  • He is led by the Spirit and ministers in the power of the Spirit.
  • He prioritises prayer and worship.
  • He speaks prophetically of the future.
  • He discerns the hearts and minds of people.
  • He challenges injustice and unrighteousness.

Jesus is the perfect expression of the prophet and so gives us the blueprint for a mature, holistic, multi-faceted way of being the prophetic church. We need to be prophetic in the way that Jesus was prophetic. Not just as individuals but as a Body with a collective prophetic consciousness.

The really good news is that as we choose to emulate Jesus’ prophetic role in our churches we get to participate in his very work and ministry as the greatest prophet there has ever been. The prophetic function is deeply rooted in the person of Jesus. In building a mature, holistic prophetic culture in our churches we are continuing his work, not having to manufacture something new. And as we do this, Jesus will be more present in our midst as his perfect prophetic identity gets expressed through his people.

So what does a prophetic church look like?  Here I’m using the 3-dimensional pattern of Jesus’ life as a framework for casting a vision for what the mature Jesus-shaped prophetic community can look like:

Upwards to God: Deep spirituality

As a prophetic church we have a passion for the heart of God, desiring to feel what God feels.

We prioritise worship, prayer, and the presence of God.

We are prepared to challenge idolatry and cultivate a hunger for holiness and obedience.

We create a culture of intentional and expectant listening, making space for this in all parts of church life.

The presence and holiness of God is tangible and accessible.

Our church is a place where people’s personal covenantal relationship with God is encouraged and enhanced.

We are developing a culture where individuals have confidence they can hear God for themselves.

Inwards to each other: Thriving prophetic ministry & community

We prophetically reveal the Father’s heart in the way we love each other.

We help each other connect with God’s heart so that together we are strengthened, encouraged and comforted.

The Spirit’s presence is manifested through his revelatory gifts as we meet together.

We demonstrate prefigurative community – radical, holy, covenantal – witnessing to God’s presence and power.

We embrace a prophetic ministry that is servant-hearted, inter-generational and inclusive.

Out to the World: Bringing transformation

We rejoice in revealing the true nature of God to the world around us.

We are connecting with God’s heart for the neighbourhood, city and nation.

We are walking in the power of the Spirit as we serve our communities.

We take a stand against injustice and unrighteousness and share God’s concern for the poor and oppressed.

We confront powers and principalities.

We are not afraid to speak truth to power.

This is the prophetic function alive and well in the church of Jesus. This is the prophetic ministry of Jesus reflected in his people. This is the big picture of the prophetic church. And be encouraged: it’s not too difficult to get there!