What is Prophecy?

24 Mar

At recent Sunday evening Y-focus services, we did a short mini-series on the New Testament letter of Revelation. In this letter the Apostle John tells us that the words of Revelation are prophecy (Rev 1:3). This generated some discussion, and as a result a number of people have asked me what I consider prophecy to be. A very common perception is that prophecy is simply predicting the future. However, while some prophecy certainly does foretell the future, this is not in itself an adequate definition.

Perhaps it is best to begin with the question, what is a prophet? Technically, a prophet is a “spokesperson” who has been authorised to speak for another (e.g., Aaron for Moses, Exo 4:15-16; 7:1). But in biblical terms, a prophet is a person chosen specifically, and given authority by God, to speak on God’s behalf. They were also sometimes referred to as God’s messengers. The prophets were one of three key leadership positions in the OT (Old Testament). However, unlike the monarchy, and the priesthood, the office of a prophet was not hereditary or gender restricted (Exo 15:20; Judg 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Neh 6:14, etc).

The most important thing about biblical prophecy, is that it is the actual words of God

A prophecy then, is the specific message God gave to a prophet to speak to certain people. In the OT it can also be called a vision, oracle, burden, or simply “the word of the LORD.” The most important thing to note about biblical prophecy, is that what was spoken was the actual words of God without any modification or interpretation (Deut 18:18-20). This is why a prophecy often started with, “Thus says the Lord!”

Biblical prophecy then, is not the thoughts, ideas, message, or words of the prophet themself. So, when the Apostle John tells us that Revelation is a prophecy, he is saying that this letter is not his own thoughts and ideas, but rather the very message of God. And this is why we find the letter of Revelation in the Bible, because in a sense all Scripture is prophecy, in that “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16).

Furthermore, since prophecy is any message God chooses to communicate to His people through His prophets; the foretelling of future events only comprises a relatively minor element of biblical prophecy. Most often prophecy was focused on the present situation of the people the prophet was sent to speak God’s message to.

Jewish people did, and still do consider Moses the greatest OT prophet. This is because Moses was the ‘spokesperson’ through whom, God communicated the OT law to His people. Interestingly, in the same way that people were eagerly awaiting a promised future king like David, people were also eagerly awaiting a promised future prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15, 18), who would be as significant and central to Israel as Moses was. The Jewish leaders even asked John the Baptist if he was this prophet (John 1:21b), but he was not.

When we examine, however, the God-given messages Moses communicated to the people (prophecy), we see little of its content involved foretelling the future. The vast majority of the content involved instructions to that (and future) generations, about how to live life to the glory of God. And this is also the case when we consider Scripture as a whole. Yes, there is some foretelling of the future (which is wonderfully encouraging), but the bulk of God’s communication to us involves teaching who He is, instructing how to live holy, righteous lives to His glory, warning, rebuking, correcting, calling to repentance, and of course encouraging and inspiring us.

8 Replies to “What is Prophecy?

  1. Very helpful thankyou. This is certainly different to how prophecy is described in many modern day churches.

  2. I really don’t understand New Testament prophecy and wish there was more teaching about it.

  3. There seems to be so much to this prophecy thing. Do you think there are modern prophets today? They did seem to be present in the early church.

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