Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The prophetic voice

As we've just launched into a Lenten preaching series in Jeremiah, I've been thinking a good deal about prophets, and what it means to be prophetic.  There is no doubt in my mind that the church is called to a prophetic ministry, that the church must sometimes speak in the prophetic voice.  But what does that mean?  Jeremiah has been helping me to think it through.

Most fundamentally, before one can speak in the prophetic voice one must adopt (or be placed into) the prophetic posture.  This is basically the position of the humble listener.  What the prophet has to say must first be heard by the prophet.  God's words are put into Jeremiah's mouth; he is a recipient (and sometimes not a particularly enthusiastic one).  It is characteristic of the false prophets whom Jeremiah encounters that they speak without first hearing; they have not stood in the council of the Lord, they have not received his words.  The true prophet is first of all a humble listener, and for the church to speak in the prophetic voice it must first of all be a community which is devoted to the reception of God's word.  That means primarily devoted to Scripture as the one divinely commissioned and inspired witness to God's revelation in Christ.  A prophetic church is a biblical church.

A second thing that struck me about the role of the prophet in Jeremiah is what a vulnerable role it is.  The prophet is entirely without weapons (except the word of God), entirely without defences (except the word of God), and entirely without a solid place to stand (except the word of God).  The priest has his role in the temple, his ancestry, his legally-backed position in society; the prophet has nothing but the word of God.  To speak in the prophetic voice is a venture, a reach, a stretch - into the void, humanly speaking, but for the prophet a step onto the firm foundation of the word of God.  For the church to be prophetic it will need to understand the authority of God's word and have deep confidence in it, so that it can go out in the strength of that word alone, expecting and needing no other resources.  A prophetic church is a bold church.

Then again, one of the key characteristics of the true prophet as we see that role in Jeremiah is speaking unpopular truths.  The false prophet says everything will be fine.  But Jeremiah has to proclaim judgement on sin, the inevitability of the fall of Jerusalem.  He is even driven to call the people to surrender to the enemy, a stance which in time of war look distinctly treacherous.  Because the true prophet has heard God's word, and because he knows he can stand only on that word, he will speak, regardless of the consequences.  The prophetic voice in the church must surely include this aspect: saying what has to be said (and it has to be said not because we think it is important, but because we heard it from the Lord) regardless of the unpopularity of the message.  I think something for me and churches like mine to look out for is a faux-prophetic stance which criticises sins which none of us are particularly guilty of, or only makes those denunciations which will play well in the group to which we belong.  (It is easy for me to critique materialism and greed in the pulpit; the liberal-ish world around us also denounces those things.  What about if I speak against sexual immorality?  Might one test of the prophetic voice be: would this get me thrown into a cistern?)  A prophetic church is a counter-cultural church.

All of which leaves me thinking we have a long way to go.  But...

Most fundamentally a prophetic church is one which looks to Christ, who is in his person the fulfilment and sum of all prophecy, and expects from him the Holy Spirit.  In other words, the prophetic church is empty, and recognises that it cannot possibly be the prophetic church, but needs God to move if anything worthwhile is to happen.

So perhaps we're on the starting block at least.


  1. Some good points Daniel. However, I would comment on one of your assertions if I may. You claim that a prophet needs to be a humble listener to God but you define that (as expected given your/our background) as being “primarily devoted to scripture…a prophetic church is a biblical church”. Now far be it for me to devalue scripture. I fully believe that Scripture must be held constantly before our eyes. But the prophetic voice specifically I think is that within the Church which goes beyond scripture.

    Scripture is a record of the prophetic voice for previous generations (among other things) but we do not believe that God has spoken once in the past and never again. We believe in a living God, a God whose Holy Spirit is at work speaking afresh to every generation. Would you not agree that the prophet must not content himself or herself only with scripture, but must seek to listen to the living Spirit also? This may indeed be what you were saying, but I thought it deserved expanding on.

    In all cases I can think of, of the top of my head, I am not aware of any prophet who gains their revelation from studying the text of Scripture (though I think we must consider them to have held it in high regard), but solely through the work of the Spirit: dreams, visions, gifts, signs, and voices.

    As an example I would raise before you Acts 15:8 where the Apostles, discussing the validity of the Gentile believers, did not change their minds on the matter through careful study of Scripture, but through paying careful and respectful attention to the work of the Spirit. They said, as their primary evidence of God’s acceptance of the Gentiles: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.”

    Further, Acts 10:9-16 relates how Peter had his mind changed by God on dietary laws, not through careful exegesis of the ancient documents, but from a new revelation, a vision of the Spirit. And again, Acts 10:45-48 shows how the Living Spirit confirmed and sealed the validity of gentile salvation by pouring out the gift of tongues on the new gentile believers. This was unexpected, and would not have been guessed by the Jewish believers, steeped even as they were in the Scriptures. “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.” Should we not consider that Peter’s explanation/proclamation of the Spirit’s work in chapter 11 is a prophecy and also a model to us of how we should treat prophecy?

    Now, we might all agree that the Spirit is living and active, and works where He wills. But how are we to both recognise Him, and incorporate our recognition of His work into our prophetic voice, as Peter demonstrates so well to us in Acts 10-11? This is a major question, and I would say that our particular branch of the Christian faith has lost our focus and our ability in this matter. We do not speak of the Spirit much, and we often pay Him little attention and regard.

    The more ancient denominations are often better with this concept of the mysterious living work of the Spirit, and are more comfortable with incorporating those works, from visions, dreams, and voices into their prophetic voice. The Pentecostals of course have attempted to reincorporate the centrality of the Spirit into their flavour of Protestantism, but in my opinion, with certain significant flaws, though their heart for the Spirit is to be applauded. For myself, I find the whole matter uncomfortable, and too prone to abuse to spend much time on. But I recognise that is my own failing. While I am personally far more comfortable with the reserved exegesis of the text (and I gather you may be also), I think it is important to recognise (and indeed purposefully highlight) that this is not the only way in which God speaks to us, and the prophetic voice is, I think, intended as one of the specific alternatives/additions to textual study, not a part of it; difficult as this may be, and uncomfortable as we may find it.

    1. For some reason blogspot won't show my name in my post above. I didn't intend it to be anonymous. This is Michael Hawkes.

    2. Thanks Mike, useful comment. Yes, you're quite right that prophets in the OT (and I think largely the NT as well, although the role is somewhat different) receive their messages through direct inspiration - although even here I think we need to bear in mind the normative/regulative function of past revelation in Scripture: Isaiah 8:20 puts it explicitly, but it's also there implicitly in the form of the prophetic denunciations etc., which clearly rely fairly heavily on Deuteronomy especially.

      But in my post the word 'primarily' was perhaps doing a lot of work. I'm certainly convinced that the Spirit speaks in many ways, including contemporary prophecy, dreams, visions, and just guiding our hunches. But a church which claims to be devoted to hearing from God but isn't first of all devoted to Scripture - which is on any orthodox account the one place where we know for sure we can expect to hear from the Spirit - is, I think, not adopting what I've called the prophetic posture. Or in other words: if we want to hear from the Spirit in dreams and visions and prophetic words, my suggestion is that we first fill our hearts and minds with Holy Scripture, not because the Spirit is somehow mechanically bound to the book, but because he has promised to meet us in the words of the book which he inspired.

      I'm not sure I find your characterising of different church traditions entirely convincing, but there is certainly room for more emphasis on - and more importantly more experience of - the Spirit at work in our church and churches like ours. Watch this space...

  2. Thanks Daniel, I like your comment on the Spirit not being mechanically bound to the book but promising to meet us there. I would say that though the Spirit works where he wills, He will certainly meet us where we look for Him. If we seek we will find. I am reminded of the picture of the Prodigal Son, and the father rushing to meet him as soon as the boy approaches. I suppose that if we find studying scripture to be the easiest and most comfortable way to approach God, then He will meet us there.

    Good thoughts.