Q: #231. What is a prophet in the Bible?
A: The word “prophet” comes from the Hebrew word “nabiy” in the Old Testament and the Greek word “prophetes” in the New Testament. Both of these words basically mean an “inspired man.” This inspiration is from God directly, usually through the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, a prophet did several God-inspired things: delivered messages, revealed God’s laws, called people to return to the Lord and repent, issued warnings and judgment, and of course wrote the words of the Bible (all of which are inspired by God: 2 Tim 3:16, 2 Pet 1:20-21). Numerous places tell us that these prophets both spoke for God (Jer 1:9)(Deut 18:18)(Ex 4:11-16) and were told to write what God said (Ex 17:14)(Jer 30:1-3)(Hab 2:2).
Because these prophets were speaking for God, they were ALWAYS 100% accurate (Jer 28:9). If a “prophet” was not 100% right, he (or she) was called a “false prophet” and was to be killed (Deut 13:1-5)(Deut 18:20). In addition, if a God-inspired prophet did not do exactly what God said, he could be killed (see: 1 Kin 13). (1 Th 5:20-21) says the words of someone claiming to be a “prophet” should always be tested to see if they are true.
Since the Bible has been written, there is controversy regarding the gift of being a prophet, and if this gift is still for today. This controversy basically revolves around the question, “Does God still send people divine revelation about future events that will happen as He did in the Bible?” When spiritual gifts are listed in the New Testament that are given to believers today, prophecy (or being a prophet) is one of the gifts (Rom 12:6)(1 Cor 12:10,28)(1 Cor 13:2)(1 Cor 14:1-7). Very few people say that the prophetic gift no longer exists at all today, but rather, they argue that several aspects of it no longer exist today (primarily the future and previously unknown truths are no longer revealed). This is often expressed as foretelling vs forthtelling.
Foretelling means predicting events that will happen in the future.
Forthtelling (not technically a word, but it expresses the thought) means proclaiming the Word of God by teaching, warning, exhorting, encouraging, comforting, and strengthening people using what is written in the Bible. In other words, we might say that a prophet today proclaims messages directly from God not because God has given the prophet a NEW revelation (or previously unknown truth) that has never been heard before, but rather, the prophet is proclaiming what God has ALREADY said in the Bible (God’s Word).
There is clearly precedent for saying that forthtelling is a big part of what a prophet was called to do in the Bible. In fact, the foretelling of future events was a very small part of their ministry. Most of the time, they were delivering messages, calling people to repentance, issuing warnings, and basically declaring the mind of God.
I am not sure that it can be said with all certainty that God does not reveal what will happen in the future to some people. However, speaking for myself, I have yet to hear any future predicting “prophets” today get every “prophecy” they issue right. For example, one well-known “prophet” today has proclaimed such things as God would destroy the homosexual community with fire in the 90’s and Jesus would physically appear on the stage with him at his crusade in April of 2000.
The Bible seems very clear to me that if a so-called “prophet” gets ONE THING wrong, he isn’t from God and is then a “false prophet.” The Old Testament said they should be killed. Although this isn’t happening today, it does tell us how seriously God takes this sin. We need to be very careful about those who continually say they have “a word from God.” Again, I am not saying that this isn’t possible, but as we said above, we should “test all things” (1 Th 5:20-21). We are warned that in the last days there will be MANY “false prophets” (Mt 24:11,24).
Let me add here that when I take spiritual gifts tests, I am often told that I have a gift of prophecy. I would not presume to say that I can “prophesy” the future per se (although I do believe God has shown me a few things), but I can “prophesy” the future to some degree by using God’s Word. For example, if I preach the Gospel, repentance, and the need to surrender to Jesus Christ for salvation, and someone refuses to accept that, I can “prophesy” the future of that person: they will end up in Hell. I can “prophesy” this future because the Bible tells me this. I can “prophesy” that those who practice sin will eventually be miserable because God’s Word tells me that “the pleasures of sin are but for a season” (Heb 11:25). I can also “prophesy” some future events that will happen because end times prophecies in the Bible tell me what will happen.
To me, this is what my prophetic gift means. I am called to teach what God says in His written Word and to warn people what happens if they don’t follow His Word. Nothing I say will EVER add to God’s Word, but prayerfully I will teach what it says to the best of my ability. And, as I have said before on this site, always test what I say against what has already been written in the Bible. This is commended (Acts 17:11).