The term “prophet” and its cognates occur over 500 times in the Bible. In both the Old and New Testaments, prophets are routinely featured as sources of divine instruction and motivation. The regularity with which the Bible uses the term “prophet” stands in contrast to its relative infrequency in contemporary Christianity. But that is changing.
A number of traditions and individuals are starting to adopt the term “prophet,” especially in reference to their preachers. Without necessarily claiming divine inspiration, they insist the term “prophet” is really no different than “preacher.” Perhaps we bear some blame for the misunderstanding. For years we have said a prophet is either a foreteller or a forthteller. While the practice of foretelling might imply divine inspiration, the practice of forthtelling does not. By this latter definition, “prophet” becomes a mere synonym for “preacher.” Maybe we should shape our definition and revisit exactly what Scripture means by “prophet.”
The Greek term prophētēs, from which we get the English word “prophet,” is defined in the standard lexicon as “one who speaks for a god and interprets his will to man.”1 This definition also holds for nāvî’, the Hebrew word translated “prophet” (e.g., Exodus 7:1). In other words, the prophet puts into words what God is thinking and thus stands in a position superior to other people (Numbers 12:6; Deuteronomy 34:10). Consequently, the prophet is equipped by inspiration to declare what God has not made plain (1 Samuel 9:9; 2 Kings 3:11).
One can observe in Scripture the primary responsibility of prophets is to declare the word of God. Sometimes they predict future events (e.g., Isaiah 7:14; Micah 5:2), and sometimes they preach a contemporary message (e.g., Jonah 3:4; Nahum 1:2-3). But they are always inspired. This is evident not only from explicit statements, such as “the word of the LORD came to …” (e.g., Jeremiah 2:1; Ezekiel 17:11), but also from later reflections on the prophets’ work (2 Peter 1:20-21). The prophet themselves were aware of their inspiration. David recognized it when he wrote, “The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me; his word is on my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2 ESV). Biblical prophets operated under God’s direct inspiration, and they knew it.
Since the “faith” was “once for all delivered” in the first century (Jude 3) and since God granted to the first Christian generation “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), God has no more revelation to give. And since prophets must operate under divine inspiration and direct inspiration has ceased, “prophets,” in the biblical sense, cannot exist today.
1. Henry George Liddel, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones, Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed.with revised supplement (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 1540.
The Forest Hill News, Forest Hill Church of Christ Weekly Bulletin, April 30, 2019.