Prophets, Preachers, and Pretenders

The Bible is God’s Word. But the Bible did not merely fall out of heaven in a beautiful top grain leather cover. As the book of Hebrews reminds us “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1). God has chosen to slowly reveal Himself more and more to His people by His servants-the prophets. This organic, unfolding of God’s self-revelation has come in time and space for our benefit. Although there are unique moments of God’s audible speech, typically He spoke through men and women. These individuals were called prophets.

The prophets had very specific guidelines (see Deuteronomy 18:15-22). But by and large they were a living testimony of God’s continual care for His people, and that He was faithfully speaking to them in non-contradictory ways. But let us begin with the basic question: What is a prophet?

First and foremost, the prophet of God is called to faithfully speak God’s Word, not their own. The prophet was not merely a foreteller of the future, but they also spoke God’s Word for the present; this is called “forth-telling.” Being a faithful steward of the Word of God, the prophet was not called to be creative or innovative. He was not an entertainer or showman. He had one duty: speak the Word of God to the people of God as they received it from God. If he failed to speak God’s Word to God’s people, or chose to blend in his own words, the prophet was rejected and even cursed.

If we wanted to learn most about biblical prophets, where would we turn? The Bible is divided into various sections, and one of the larger ones is called the Major and Minor Prophets. There are various passages which get to the heart of the ministry of the prophet, but one clear example is seen in the call of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was a prophet whose ministerial trajectory is established in the first chapter of his book. There we learn that Jeremiah did not pursue the office of a prophet but instead God set him apart for this role. God bestowed this office upon him out of mere grace. God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5 ESV)

Jeremiah’s immediate response was to demonstrate his own inability. “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” (Jer. 1:6 ESV). By these words, Jeremiah forgot the obvious. The call of God does not seek out fit men and women, but makes men and women fit for His service. God never depends upon our natural abilities. He does not call the equipped. He equips the called.

Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry would be successful because of God’s work in him. The prophetic ministry entailed one job: speak God’s Word faithfully. God was going to accomplish His own plans through Jeremiah, who would become His living mouthpiece. “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.” (Jer. 1:9 ESV) The prophet was called to give every syllable from heaven to earth. That’s it.

There are many people today who claim to be speaking for God, yet know nothing about the God of the Bible. They demonstrate their ignorance by their lifestyle, or beliefs. And the worst part, is that this sort of self-deceptive ministry often leads many, many people to Hell. This may sound surprising or unpopular in our very laissez-faire context, but my job is to tell you the truth.

We have no lack of biblical examples whether you want to look at the Old Testament priests right before the exile, or even many of the Jewish clergy in the days of Jesus. Our Lord was harshest towards those who claimed to speak on God’s behalf and revealed with every syllable that they were unacquainted with God Himself. For a specific example of Jesus’ words and tone, see John 8, a discourse which likely today would be condemned from “Christian” leaders should pastors follow Christ’s methodological tenacity.

What do we learn from this? We need to carefully assess the words of those who claim to speak for God. Beware of those who would dare to call themselves a prophet, or to speak on God’s behalf, or say “Thus saith the Lord” and not finish with a chapter and verse from Scripture. Beware of those who refuse to have their ministries examined according to the Word of God.

Christians and churches will always fall prey to false teachers as long as they remain unacquainted with God’s Word. This is how so many of the denominations today have wandered off into spiritual decay, that would have horrified their very founders.

We must be able to recognize spiritual pretenders wherever they lie. Whether they occupy our pulpits, our phones or our books. We must do this so that we might save ourselves and our congregations. However, the only way we can ever hope to identify a spiritual forgery is by familiarizing ourselves with the authentic Word of God. And this is your calling: be the sort of Christian who can identify truth from error. Do so for your sake, for your children’s sake, and especially for the wider world.