How Mature Prophets Shape the Culture Around Them

Part 1

We all have a sphere of influence. As Christians we each have the ability to bring a Christ-like influence to wherever God has placed us. One helpful way to reflect on this is to use the framework of the fivefold ministries in Ephesians 4.

Each of the fivefold roles has the potential to shape culture in a unique way, whether that is the culture of our household, our church, our team or our workplace. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers all have a particular way of inspiring and challenging the people around them. Each of the five roles has the potential to build a special type of intelligence, consciousness and ethic in whatever group they are part of. If we are at all interested in the church’s ability to become healthy, united and mature; if we long to see our neighbourhoods impacted for the kingdom, then we would do well to consider how best to release this culture-shaping potential.

So how do fivefold prophets shape culture?

I love working with prophets and helping them navigate a path towards a mature, Jesus-shaped expression of the role. There is so much potential for good contained within this particular aspect of the fivefold ministry. But far too many churches have struggled with their prophets over the years and failed to welcome their influence. And let’s be honest – prophets don’t always have a great reputation for being easy to work with. Their tendencies to

• see everything in black and white,
• call out sin and compromise when they see it,
• love the prayer closet more than the party,
• question everything,
• and be a little weird at times

…don’t win them many popularity contests.

But we really need them. Prophets bring something unique and vital to the church and the world, something we can’t get anywhere else. We need their wisdom, experience, unique perspective and their passion.

In considering how mature prophets shape the culture around them, we can look at two areas of life:

Church – There is much more to being a prophet than just bringing prophecies. Mature prophets are very good at shaping the culture of the church by:

• Keeping everyone’s attention on God.
• Helping to maintain the spiritual health of the body.
• Speaking covenant identity into people’s lives.
• Strengthening a culture of worship and prayer.
• Developing a growing community awareness of God’s presence and voice.
• Listening to God on behalf of the community so that we can all keep aligned with God’s heart and purposes.
• Making sure that the downtrodden are protected.
• Protecting the community from encroaching evil.
• Cultivating an alternative consciousness.
• Preparing the church for what God is about to do.

Most of us will know individuals in our local churches who are passionate about prayer and worship, those who are most likely to bring the subject of a conversation back to God, those who have a tendency to challenge a lack of holy desire for more of God. It’s these people who are likely to be fivefold prophets, even if they would not describe themselves as such, and we need to be welcoming their influence.

Workplace – Prophetic consciousness and influence are equally relevant in the corporate world as they are in the church, and understanding how the prophetic function contributes to the health and productivity of the non-church organisation will enable us to properly support our fivefold prophets in their place of work.

Mature prophets will shape the culture of any workplace by:
• Prioritising values and integrity, ensuring that things are done right and in line with the vision of the organisation.
• Questioning policy and decisions when they become self-protective or oppressive.
• Bringing strategic and critical insight that enables people to understand their current reality.
• Being creative, forward-looking visionaries, pointing people to future possibilities.
• Questioning the status quo in a way that enables the organisation to reform, grow and develop.
• Advocating for the less-heard and marginalised members of the organisation.
• Standing up for truth and justice.

Many of us will know people in our workplaces who are prepared to speak truth to power and bring necessary critique, who provoke for change when it is needed, and who are able to bring creative solutions to problems. This is the prophetic wiring being expressed.

Mature prophets shape the culture around them, both inside and outside the church. We can watch how they provide vision, nurture hope, bring discernment, and prioritise authentic spirituality to create a culture that is ethical, radical and prefigurative.

The next step is to work out the how: how to enable our prophets to do this well. That’s what we’ll look at in the next blog.

Carriers of the Revelation of God

My new book on the prophetic church is coming out later this year. Here’s an extract.

What does it mean to be a prophetic church?

When we have a clear understanding of what the prophetic is, then we can start to make sense of our calling to be a prophetic community. So, here’s an holistic definition of the prophetic; one that aligns with the biblical narrative and prophetic tradition, and that helps us take hold of our corporate identity:

The prophetic is about the faithful holding out of God’s reality, so that it can be clearly seen and responded to, so that transformation can take place, and so that relationship can be restored.

This holding out of reality – what we can call revelation – is at the heart of what God’s people are called to do; in fact, what we’ve always been called to do.

God’s people have always had a collective purpose in holding out God’s reality. We could even say that this is our defining role: a people who carry and demonstrate God’s reality to the world around us, a people who thus represent God. So, in a very fundamental way the people of God have always been a prophetic body – something we need to pay close attention to as we go on to consider what a prophetic church or organisation is.

We are carriers of revelation – the revelation of God – and this core purpose is at the heart of the biblical narrative. The Israelites, God’s people under the old covenant, carried the revelation of the One True God Yahweh – which was a pretty big revelation at the time. In fact, it was unimaginably radical in those days. The countries of the world were full of false gods and the abominations associated with them. Thus the revelation of monotheism was a startling light in the darkness: the God of love, the God of covenant, the Great I Am. This was the God who was Presence – cloud and fire – and the God who spoke: not an abstract concept or distant entity, but relational and communicating. The God of Israel was truly unique. ‘Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.’ (Deuteronomy 6:4)

The people of Israel were essentially a prophetic community because their primary task was to hold out this revelation to the nations of the world. Theirs was a most holy and prophetic calling: to represent Yahweh on the earth and be the embodiment of a people in covenantal relationship with him. God’s original intention for them was that they would be a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6), walking so closely with their God that they would hear his voice and represent him before all other nations (but of course at the critical moment on Mount Sinai they chose to hold back and have Moses as their intermediary).

This reality, this revelation of Yahweh, was so precious but so vulnerable to idolatry. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the one people group chosen to transform the world through its revelation struggled repeatedly to stay faithful to their call. At times they just couldn’t resist running to other gods and compromising the covenant relationship. Because idolatry pollutes, distorts and counterfeits the true revelation of God, it was, and still is, a central prophetic concern.

As we move from Old to New Testament, we see the people of God are still called to carry the revelation of God, but now with even deeper resonance. The church of Jesus Christ, God’s people under the new covenant, are called to carry the revelation of the Trinity. The reality that we now hold out to the world is the revelation of the family of the Godhead.The revelation of the triune God is at the heart of the gospel. This pre-eminent reality that we hold out to everyone is that within the unity of the Godhead there is a community of three persons:

• Our glorious Father who loves us unconditionally and extravagantly, and who invites us into his eternal embrace.

• Jesus our Saviour, the Light of the world, through whom we have redemption, forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

• The Holy Spirit, our ever-present friend and helper, who dwells in our innermost being to constantly bring us wisdom and insight.

A central theme of the New Testament is the unveiling – the making known – of the reality of the Trinity, and through it, God’s plan of salvation and restoration. This three-part personhood is unveiled to the world at Jesus’ baptism, where ‘Heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”’ (Matthew 3:16-17) The Trinity give us a picture of a perfect three-way relationship of pure, self-giving and eternal love. This is the reality of the God we worship. And it’s our responsibility as Jesus’ church to faithfully take this true revelation of God and hold it for all to see: ‘This is who God is and this is his reality.’

The ultimate goal of prophetic ministry is to reveal who God is; to reveal the truth of the nature of God to those who cannot yet see him. To reveal that they have a Father in heaven who loves them; to unveil Jesus their Saviour to them; and to introduce them to the Holy Spirit who will never leave them.

The prophetically-awakened church is a channel of God’s beautiful communication to his world: the means by which the world can hear the invitation to come back, to find your true identity, to meet the one who loves you with an everlasting love.


Stewarding Our Prophetic Gifts

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

You are in possession of some remarkable prophetic gifts.

The New Testament makes it clear that our good and generous Father is the great gift-giver and, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all God’s people, revelatory gifts are available to all. The beautiful gift of prophecy is accessible to every disciple of Jesus: it’s certainly not something reserved for the prophets. We all have the potential to take hold of this gift by faith and move powerfully in the prophetic for the encouragement and strengthening of everyone.

But it seems to me that many of us, for whatever reason, fail to properly step into this potential. Perhaps another way of putting it is that we don’t always do a great job of stewarding the gifts that God has freely given us through his Spirit.

In this blog I want to touch on one particular area of stewarding prophetic gifts. This is the area of spiritual disciplines and how getting the right ones in place can open the door in all sorts of incredible ways to an authentic prophetic lifestyle.

Train yourself for godliness… 1 Timothy 4:7

By spiritual disciplines I mean the regular habits that we put in place to help us stay connected to God, which usually include things like Bible reading, prayer, worship, contemplation and listening. These disciplines provide devotional pathways for us: patterns we can build into our day-to-day lives that draw us back to the reality of being immersed in the sacred presence of God’s light and love. The right disciplines keep us spiritually healthy and help us avoid complacency: they nurture our desire for God, allowing us to be captivated by the divine beauty and maintain our awareness of his nearness.

A healthy prophetic culture is one that recognises that although God is always with us, there are certain patterns and rhythms that help develop attentiveness to his presence and openness to his voice.

Spiritual disciplines help us stay attentive to God’s voice day by day. In fact getting the right spiritual patterns and disciplines in place is one very important way in which we can steward the prophetic gifts that God has given us.

Now, some of us find routine something of a challenge. It can be difficult, first of all, to find the daily disciplines that work for us. And secondly, to stick to them.

But this is why having a conversation with God about them can make all the difference.

In my previous blog I wrote about seeking God for a word – the word – for the year ahead. Which is a life-giving and discipleship-enhancing practice that we can all do. But equally important I believe is asking God for what the pattern of our spiritual disciplines should be throughout 2021.

If one of your goals for this year is to hear God more clearly, then it follows that you need to build the right patterns and habits into your life to best facilitate this. Many of us are only scratching the surface of the prophetic because of busyness, hurry and distraction. Revelatory gifts need to be carefully nurtured and attended to. After all – those of you who have run a marathon will know that without months of regular, disciplined, scheduled training, there is no way you would be able to complete those 26 plus miles on the day of the event.

Very few of us these days live in a monastery with the provision of regular times of prayer throughout the day (and night!) So we need to be proactive and intentional about getting the right patterns in place.

What I’ve learnt over the years is that if I ask God to help me with spiritual disciples he will faithfully lead me to the right ones for any particular period of time. We need to remember that one size does not fit all: we can’t prescribe identikit disciplines to every Christian, because we’re all different. Those of us who grew up with the evangelical concept of the daily ‘quiet time’ may need to start thinking outside the box and be open to new and creative ways for maintaining attentiveness to God.

These may be disciplines, but they are there to be life-giving and to feed our souls. They are not a task, a mechanical exercise; they are not something to fail at. Rather, God wants to meet us and speak to us through them according to the way he made us.

Here’s an example: one really simple daily discipline I’m doing over winter is to light a candle at 4pm and spend a few minutes sitting in God’s presence and meditating on Jesus being the Light of the World. I’m finding that this habit is regularly opening the door to fresh revelation.

So my challenge to you is to ask God for specifics. He has created each one of us and knows us perfectly. And he knows what particular routines and rhythms are going to work best for us. This time of year is the ideal time to be seeking God for this detailed information.

  • What daily disciplines are going to keep you rooted and grounded in the scriptures?
  • What daily habits are going to create the space for you to hear God in a deeper way?
  • What daily schedule is going to keep you centred on the presence of God and filled with the Spirit?

As God starts to answer these questions for you, and a plan emerges, I recommend that you find at least one person to share it with who can pray for you and hold you accountable.

When Prophets Get Things Wrong – and How We Can Get It Right

“Was that really the voice of God?”

We all have moments when we question our own ability to hear God clearly; and in late 2020 many of us have misgivings about the ability of the prophets to have any kind of idea of what God may be saying about world events. How can we determine what an authentic prophetic ministry is, whether it belongs to us or someone else?

Doubt is a normal part of any exploration of prophetic gifts and ministry. For those of us taking our first baby steps in listening to God we are bound to question our own prophetic experiences until we become more confident in our ability to recognise the particular tone and content of Jesus’ voice. And even for those of us who have been using prophetic gifts for years, I believe that it’s appropriate and healthy to hold things lightly, to be cautious, and to ask questions of what we think God is saying. We are all learners. We should never assume we get it 100% right and we certainly need our Christian communities to help us with discernment and accountability; especially when we claim to be hearing God for other people.

I love prophetic ministry, which we can define as seeking God’s heart for those around us. The New Testament teaches us that we can all learn to use the gift of prophecy, and 1 Corinthians 14:3 is clear that this wonderful gift does so much to strengthen, encourage and comfort other people. But in pursuing this gift we also need to recognise the huge responsibility involved, particularly as we move from:

Hearing God for ourselves

To hearing God for someone else (personal prophecy)

To hearing God for the bigger picture (public prophecy)

If we claim to speak for God we have to ensure that we have been ruthless in setting aside anything that might conspire to twist, distort or filter the true word of God. In order to tune into God’s voice we have to learn to tune out all the other voices that are fighting for our attention, and some of these “other voices” are very subtle and deceptive.

  • They may be issues of the heart, such as emotional pain, fear, hurts, unforgiveness, brokenness, and trauma.
  • They may be issues of the mind, such as our mindsets, prejudices, world-views, belief systems, opinions, ideologies, judgments, and theology.

But these all have the ability to cloud our prophetic perception. If we are going to hear God clearly we have to surrender them back to God.

As I’ve observed many different expressions of prophetic ministry over the years there are two particular scenarios that concern me, ones where I see many mistakes being made:

  • Emotionally charged environments
  • Politically charged environments

It is really hard to hear God clearly and precisely in these contexts and even experienced prophets may miss the mark.

When a dear friend of mine is desperately ill in hospital, I know that the voice of my emotions is going to be very loud, and I’m extremely cautious not to confuse their voice with the voice of God. In any situation where there are a lot of emotions involved we have to exercise considerable vigilance when seeking to hear from him.

I believe that it’s even harder to hear God about some of the political issues that have dominated our collective consciousness in recent years. Not impossible; but it’s so hard because, certainly here in the UK, we cherish (and even idolise) our carefully nurtured opinions. Politics is a big part of life, and now, with social media, everyone has an opinion. Personal biases that have been shaped by our upbringing, culture, and experience can have a devastating impact on our prophetic perception. And the stakes seem so high. For those of us in the UK and US, as politics has heated up in recent years, it seems that any public prophecy, whether speaking into Brexit or American politics, is taking place in a context that is both emotionally and politically charged.

Getting our agendas, opinions and feelings out of the way is hard enough when prophesying over an individual. But it’s ten times harder when prophesying over a nation.

It’s not at all surprising that many “big name” prophets have got things wrong recently. I personally think part of the problem is that the rest of the church venerates them too much: we have slipped into an Old Testament mindset: “I can’t hear God for myself – I need a prophet to tell me what God is saying”.

If you want to be able to hear what God is saying about Trump, Brexit, Boris or the EU, please understand that you don’t have to go to a prophet. The remarkable Spirit of Truth has been given to you and you can ask him yourself. It is his delight to search the heart of the Father and make his thoughts known to you. But I’d strongly recommend you also follow these three steps:

1. Ask yourself “Why?” Why do you want to hear God about that particular issue? The main reason God speaks to us about global events is so that we will pray. So will you faithfully commit to pray about these things?

2. Stay rooted in love: love for God, love for his world, and love for our leaders – especially the ones we disagree with.

3. Ruthlessly and radically surrender all your opinions, agendas and feelings before God. This may takes days, weeks or years. Consider carefully the warnings in Jeremiah 23:16 and Ezekiel 14:3 which indicate the perils of inquiring of God through the lenses of our own understanding and our idols. The aim is to be an empty vessel that God can fill with his pure revelation. Humble yourself and remember the wisdom of Proverbs 3:5-6 “Lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him.”

As well as ensuring our own prophetic perception is untainted, we want to be able to weigh and discern other prophetic voices that we come across. The New Testament makes it clear we should test all prophecies. It’s hard to weigh and test strident prophetic voices when they speak so loudly about issues and claim the Bible backs them up. But we all have the Holy Spirit. And most importantly we all have the beautiful image of Jesus before us. As we seek to weigh other people’s prophecies we can ask, “Does this look like and sound like Jesus?”

Prophets will make mistakes. Well known prophets will get things wrong. We are all seeing through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12). But this should never be a reason to avoid the precious gifts of the Spirit. Prophecy has been used to abuse, manipulate and control people. It has been used to push political agendas. But the beautiful Spirit of Truth has never abandoned the church of Jesus. And he loves a humble heart.

            “But when he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13

Theological Roots of the Prophetic

I’ve spent lockdown working hard on my new book about the prophetic church. Here’s an extract from chapter 2, “So What is the Prophetic All About?”

To truly understand prophecy we have to start with the character and nature of God. In fact we have to start with the theology of the prophetic in its literal sense. Theology is the study of God, and the prophetic is first and foremost rooted in who God is. Understanding the nature of God is the foundation for all our thinking on the prophetic.

The really big picture to be grasped is that prophetic consciousness and intelligence is a reflection of who God himself is. The prophetic originates with God; it’s grounded and sourced in him. We will get the fullest understanding of the prophetic role and ministry if we are able to pull right back and look at God himself, to see how prophetic roots (and in fact all fivefold roots) are found in the nature and purposes of God, to see how God’s nature informs and shapes the prophetic function and calling:

The God who chooses to be known Scripture shows us a God who wants to be known, the Deus revelatus. Despite the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the infinite, uncreated God and his creation, he takes the initiative and breaks into the finite created realm to reveal himself in love to us. He make knowing him possible. Self-disclosure is an aspect of his divine nature. Not completely known so that he becomes predictable or packaged; but still, he tells us his name; he speaks forth his character; he allows us to know his emotions. We love him because we know him. He holds out the promise that he can be found by those who truly seek him.

Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me. Jeremiah 9:23-24

The God of Revelation God is the one who initiates communication, the one who speaks first. Revelation is inherent to the very nature of God and is at the heart of the Trinity. It’s not just through the written words of scripture that he communicates to us. Throughout the biblical narrative God speaks to people: through creation, through angels and other supernatural experiences, but primarily through his voice. Indeed the Creator has designed creation itself to carry the revelation of God:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. Psalm 19:1-2

The God of Relationship The God we worship is not a distant, unemotional, unconcerned deity, satisfied with burnt offerings. The Bible speaks profoundly of God’s heart, and reveals the God of love, a God with thoughts and deep emotions, who chose to create people in his own image so that he could be in committed relationship with them. His passion for people is sometimes expressed in righteous anger against injustice. And this God is in fact our heavenly Father: the type of Father who picks up his skirts and runs towards his prodigal children. He’s personal! He’s relational!

Walter Brueggmann expresses it like this:

The prophetic alternative is rooted in the character of God himself… He is one whose person is presented as passion and pathos, the power to care, the capacity to weep, the energy to grieve and then to rejoice.

The God of Shalom The sense of shalom is rooted deep in scripture and in the nature of God. It means peace, wholeness, completeness and well-being. This rich, beautiful word reflects God’s intention that all things shall be restored and made new. Despite humanity’s best efforts to rebel and destroy, to sow division and wage war, God and his kingdom are all about wholeness, healing and peace. His desire is that all of creation will be reconciled and realigned back to him. When Isaiah prophesies the coming Messiah he declares that this king will be called the Prince of Shalom and that his reign will bring Shalom without end (Isaiah 9:6-7).

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Utilising Prophets in a Global Pandemic

Did you know that you have prophets in your church?

Ephesians 4 make it clear that the ascended Christ has gifted this particular bunch of folks to his Body, along with the apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And these roles are not just for leaders, they are for every Christian.

Jesus has given prophets to his church! So even if you feel a bit uncomfortable about the idea of labelling someone a ‘prophet’ there are plenty of them around, and they are there for “equipping Christ’s 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.” (Eph 4:12-13)

I really hope that’s your experience of fivefold prophets. (I’m all too aware that there have been plenty of prophets who have not lived up to these verses, who have not humbly equipped the church and produced unity and maturity – which is why I’m passionate about discipling prophets and helping them be all that Jesus intends them to be.)

In giving prophets to the church Jesus has given us a part of his beautiful and perfect ministry. After all, Jesus is the perfect prophet, the most complete example of prophetic ministry we have ever had, and the One on whom we must model our own prophetic lifestyle and call. The fivefold role of the prophet is fundamentally there to serve the Body of Christ and help it become mature. It’s a ministry that we should be celebrating and releasing, along with the other fivefold roles.

Unfortunately, not all churches know what to do with their prophets at the best of times, let alone when there is a global pandemic happening. So in this blog I want to share a few thoughts on how churches can best utilise their prophets at a time like this – a time when so much is being shaken.

PRAYER: Now more than ever the church needs to be praying – and prophets love prayer. They particularly love being alone in their own private prayer closets, so now is a good time to challenge them to share their passion for intercession with others and to think about how to get the whole church committed to praying. Welcome their insights into how your church can develop a much healthier prayer culture.

A couple of practical suggestions:

  • Ask your prophets to mobilize a 24-7 prayer event particularly focusing on the needs of the local community and the impact of Covid-19.
  • If you are a church leader then ask your prophets to be interceding for you and your ministry at this time. Choose some that you trust and get them praying.

LISTENING: This is a time of sifting and refining, when we need to be reimagining how we do church and where God is leading us. Prophets function as the eyes and ears of the Body, alert to the purposes of God and the promptings of his Spirit. They can bring both God’s words for now, speaking into the current situation, and God’s words for the future as we discern the way forward. They can hear God for both individuals, speaking much needed words of strengthening and comfort, and corporate words for the Body, city and nation.

A practical suggestion:

  • Gather your prophets regularly (online!) over the next few months with the specific purpose of giving them a safe space to share what they sense God is saying to your church at this time. They will need this space to process everything they have been discerning over the last few months. Give them permission to seek God’s heart for words of encouragement and direction for the Body.

ORIENTATE: Because of their passion for God’s presence prophets have an important role to play in re-focusing attention back on God and reminding people of his unfailing love and care for his people. Prophets strengthen the church by helping people draw closer to God and by supplying a life-giving God-awareness. This pandemic is increasing already record levels of anxiety, fear and distraction. We need the ministry of the prophets to help us stay centred on Jesus and the peace that can only be found in his presence.

A practical suggestion:

  • Get your prophets leading a daily online ‘drop-in’ session where people can come and be refreshed in God’s presence through stillness, quiet reflection, mediation on God’s love, and prophetic ministry.

QUESTIONING: Prophets live in a place of 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 brokenness. This ‘gap-consciousness’ means they are wired to ask questions, to provoke, to confront, and to challenge the status quo. The prophet’s questioning can feel threatening for church leaders, but I believe that in this current season the church urgently needs the prophets to be bringing an alternative consciousness and helping us think outside the box. In a time of shaking we need to be alert to the new things that God is doing. The world right now is grieving, but it is also full of possibilities, and prophets are very much awake to divine promise and the newness that comes through godly questioning. They know that God is on the move and want the rest of the Body to catch up.

A couple of practical suggestions:

  • Commission your prophets to dream with God and to bring some grace-filled prayer-soaked questioning to the community. Allow them to reimagine what the church might look like post-Covid.
  • Ask your prophets to bring their prophetic imagination to the question of how, as we face a global recession, we can better offer support for the poor and marginalised in our city.

This is undoubtably a time of great shaking, for society and for the church. But there is something about the prophetic personality that relishes a bit of shaking and instinctively knows how to navigate a way through it. Fivefold prophets are alive and well in the church today. We need to find them, disciple them, embed them in community, and put them to work.

Making Sense of the Old Testament Prophets: 2

As we saw in the previous blog, one way of making sense of the Old Testament prophets is to summarise their ministry according to these two dimensions:

  • Vertical dimension: focused on protecting and maintaining the covenant relationship between God and his people.
  • Horizontal dimension: focused on God’s concerns in the world.

In this blog I’m going to unpack the Horizontal dimension a bit more, and look at how the prophet’s passion for God was often channelled into a passionate engagement with the world around him. Because, at the end of the day,

You can’t worship God and be unmoved by the things that move God.

The prophets of old knew both the ecstasy of being caught up with the glory of God and the agony of seeing the broken world from God’s perspective. For many of them, as they encountered God they simultaneously encountered the divine pathos: the deep emotions in the very heart of God. And a common outcome of this was the prophet being used by God to challenge the various injustices prevalent in the society of the day.

The best place to start is with Moses. Thousands of years may have passed but his embodiment of the prophetic role, along both dimensions, still resonates clearly. Moses heard from God and became the Lord’s friend, and it’s Moses’ ongoing relationship with God that marks him out as the prototype for all other prophets. And when God was moved by the suffering of the Israelites and initiated his great rescue plan he chose Moses as his prophet:

“And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt”  Exodus 3:9-10

Moses stands as a towering figure over the Old Testament. The Exodus story is the narrative of the Old Testament and Moses is the protagonist of the Exodus narrative – the great archetypal story of an enslaved people becoming free. God raised up Moses as his representative, commissioned to lead his people, and to confront the evil regime of Pharaoh. Through Moses, the first prophet, God’s reality crashed headlong into the dominant imperial culture, into Pharaoh’s version of reality, so that the false gods were exposed and so that God’s people could break free from oppression and exploitation.

Moses gives us a great framework for understanding the Horizontal aspect of prophetic ministry and helps us make sense of how many prophets after him engaged with God’s heart for social justice. In the Old Testament we see that part of the prophet’s role was as political commentator and activist: concerned with challenging empire and society, and taking the side of the marginalised and vulnerable. They spoke truth to power, and experienced anguish at injustice and oppression. 

Amos makes this very clear:

Let justice roll on like a river…  Amos 5:24

The Horizontal dimension of the prophet’s ministry is about calling for change: for societal transformation so that the poor, downtrodden and marginalised are protected. This is about advocacy for the powerless and being prepared to stand with the oppressed. The Hebrew prophets were not afraid of emphasising the need for God’s people to live ethically and to love justice.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”  Isaiah 58:6

Something that has helped me make better sense of the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, especially in the Horizontal dimension, is Walter Brueggemann’s remarkable book “The Prophetic Imagination” and his insight into the prophet’s role of nurturing an alternative consciousness to that of the dominant culture. It’s a two-step process:

1. Criticise The prophetic task is to first of all name the realities of brokenness, exploitation and injustice. This means being able to stand apart from the prevailing culture and being able to speak to it, with eyes to see and ears to hear. The prophet has to be prepared to lament, to allow God to “break my heart for what breaks yours” and to then to name things for what they are.

2. Energise The second part of the prophetic task is to energise and empower God’s people by ministering hope and expectation, and propelling them into godly action. This is the prophet helping people to imagine an alternative to the status quo and anticipate God’s renewal of all things. The prophet helps us stay attuned to God’s promises and remind us that God is faithful.

In holding these two together – criticism and energising – the biblical prophetic tradition challenges the status quo of oppression and injustice and enables God’s people to embrace an alternative way of thinking and acting.

What does this mean for us?

One thing we can take from the prophets of old is that an embrace of prophetic ministry is not just about seeking God’s voice and presence, but also being prepared to represent his holy concerns. As we pursue God’s heart we will certainly encounter his heart for justice and righteousness. A mature prophetic lifestyle is about being first prepared to sit with God and lament, and then to rejoice with God and dance upon injustice.

Making Sense of the Old Testament Prophets: 1

The prophets of old are an interesting bunch. Their words are challenging and their behaviour is very strange at times. But we can’t ignore them.

The Old Testament prophets make up a sizeable chunk of the Bible; indeed a whole genre of biblical literature is devoted to them. If we include both the writing prophets who produced the Bible’s prophetic literature (Isaiah through to Malachi) as well as the additional characters identified as prophets (such as Elijah) their ministry spans virtually the whole of the Old Testament narrative. Thousands of years after they were recorded their writings and actions speak powerfully to the contemporary church and to the world around us.

But how closely related are the Hebrew prophets of old to the fivefold prophets of the New Testament and the church today. What can we learn from their lives, words and ministry?

There are two dangers in studying Old Testament prophets: at one end of the spectrum we ignore them completely; at other end we base our understanding of prophetic ministry wholly on them.

To properly take hold of the role and ministry of prophets 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. The church of Jesus is born into the age of the Spirit and we require new wineskins. But at the same time we have to find a way to allow the prophets of Israel to speak into the realities of the church today and to learn what we can from their ministry and their experiences of God. When we take time to understand their context they have much to teach us.

It’s important to recognise that the Hebrew prophets operated in a very different context compared to the New Testament church. In Old Testament times the ability to hear the voice of God was quite rare. We see a concentration of the prophetic gift in a small number of people. Most people couldn’t hear God’s voice, because they didn’t have the Holy Spirit. And without the Holy Spirit they couldn’t weigh and discern either. So the onus was on the prophet to get it right and deliver the prophetic word faithfully. Under the old covenant, the prophets were commissioned by God to speak his words with an absolute divine authority, and the people listening to these words were expected to treat them as the ‘very words of God’. There was no room for error and the response to a false prophet was to have him stoned (Deuteronomy 18:20).

So, if that’s the context, what was at the heart of their role and ministry?

As we seek to understand the breadth of their calling, a helpful framework is to consider the two primary dimensions of prophetic expression:

  • Vertical dimension: focused on protecting and maintaining the covenant relationship between God and his people.
  • Horizontal dimension: focused on God’s concerns in the world.

We see the Old Testament prophets engaging in both dimensions. In our next blog we’re going to focus on the Horizontal dimension. But here are some reflections on the Vertical dimension.

The Vertical: At the heart of the prophets’ message was the reminder of who God’s people really were. A people defined by their covenantal relationship with Yahweh the one true God. An alternative community to every other culture around them, shaped by God’s incomparably alternative reality.

The prophets held out hope to God’s people by reminding them that, at the end of the day, they belonged to Yahweh.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour… Since you are precious and honoured in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you.” Isaiah 43:2-4

In communicating God’s heart to his people the prophets did all they could to keep the Israelites’ attention on God. They helped them understand their present circumstances through the eyes of God, and encouraged them with words of future hope: speaking of a time when he would bring restoration to all things.

But there was an ongoing battle – an internal battle – that overshadowed the prophets’ ministry and in some ways defined it: the relentless pull of idolatry.

Idolatry was the prevailing sin of the Israelites, the dark cloud they could never escape from. The idols they turned to held out a false promise and a quick fix. The prophets knew that these idols appealed to a distorted sense of identity: if I bow to this idol my life will be better and people will like me. In succumbing to idolatry God’s people were denying their true identity and living out of a false one. Jeremiah conveys this reality very powerfully:

“Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror,” declares the Lord. “For my people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Jeremiah 2:13

The agonising message that Jeremiah had to deliver was: in turning away from your true love, you are tearing up your covenantal identity.

That’s why the call to holiness is so central to the prophet’s message and they would constantly promote worship of Yahweh because worship is one of the best ways to stay true to the covenant and stay faithful to God.

The tragedy of the story is that the people of God forgot who they were. And under the old covenant the only response the prophets could give to an idolatrous people was judgement and death.

For us today we can celebrate our new and better covenant, but we would be wise to heed the warnings of Israel’s prophets: to stay true in our devotion to God and to pursue his heart and presence above all else. Let’s seek to grow a prophetic culture that helps ensure our eyes stay fixed on Jesus and him alone.

The Prophetic Process: Discernment

“OK, so what exactly do you mean by that?”

Have you ever said that to God?

I’m doing a series of blogs over the summer on the prophetic process, the process that starts with revelation from the heart of God, and finishes, hopefully, with fulfilment and transformation. As I said in the first of these blogs, prophecy is not a one-time event, but rather a long-term process, as we align our lives and properly walk out the word from God. To have a prophetic lifestyle – and to be a disciple of Jesus – involves engaging with the whole of this process.

The three parts to the process are: first of all tuning in to God’s revelation, next discerning the interpretation, and then actively responding to what God is saying. It’s really helpful to separate out these three parts and to be conscious of where perhaps we are stronger or weaker, where we need to be more intentional.

In this blog I’m focusing on the middle part, the discerning part, where we work out the essence of what God is actually saying to us – the full meaning behind the vision, dream, word. The part where we properly unpack it and interpret it.

“What does this lovely picture of a waterfall actually mean?”

“What on earth was God saying to me through that dream of a white horse last night?”

This is all about asking God what the revelation means and getting clarity on exactly what God is saying to us through it. It’s about accurately interpreting the revelation so we then know how to respond to it.

Discernment is a vital part of the prophetic process, one that we can’t rush; and unfortunately it’s usually the part of the process where most errors are made. The easiest mistake to make is that we stick our own interpretation on God-given revelation. In fact most problems or controversy associated with prophetic ministry are actually not because of weak revelation, but because of wrong interpretation. It’s all too easy to jump to conclusions and read our own interpretations into genuine revelation.

To do interpretation well we have to lay down our own reasoning and agendas, and actively enquire of the Lord. We have to ask him!

It’s important to recognise the symbolic nature of a lot of God-given revelation; sometimes prophecy is pretty strange and mysterious. To be honest I sometimes wish that God’s communication was more straightforward at times. I’m rather jealous of Moses:

“When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; 
he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles.” Numbers 12:6-8

But I think this is a good reminder that a healthy engagement with the prophetic flows out of deep relationship with God, and perhaps he chooses to speak in riddles at times so that we have to lean in extra close to him to hear the interpretation.

In whatever way God may be communicating with us, and revelation can take many wonderful and varied forms, we need to get to a point of clarity so we know exactly what he is saying to us. Yes, sometimes the interpretation comes quickly and clearly, but there are many times when we need to actively seek God for it.

When I’m helping other people process their prophecies I will often suggest they express the essence of God’s word to them as if Jesus was standing next to them and speaking directly to them. This is often a brilliant way of distilling down the meaning of the prophecy to the clarity of a few simple words.

It’s good to remember that we don’t have to work everything out by ourselves and often it’s really helpful to involve other people in the interpretation process.

As we seek to get greater clarity, good questions to ask are:

  • Why has God brought me this revelation at this time? What are his purposes?
  • What scripture is relevant?
  • What truth does God want me to get hold of?

Discerning the interpretation of prophecy is something we need to take seriously. It’s a skill we can all grow in, being confident that the Holy Spirit will faithfully lead us. So the next time you receive something from the Lord, don’t be afraid to ask him exactly what he means by it. And then listen carefully for the explanation.

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.