Three Stages of Prophecy and Word

It is too bad, sometimes, that Evangelical Christians, especially, tend to give so little time to the Intertestamental Period and to the the time of the Apostolic Fathers. We can learn a lot from them. So why are these periods commonly ignored? I suppose it is the tied to the views:

  • The Sufficiency of Scripture
  • Scripture Interprets Scripture

Both of these beliefs are true to a point, but they share a common genesis of being a reaction to Christian traditions that placed the history of the Church (or a church) on par in terms of authority, and necessity for interpretation. Of course, if Scripture and Church History are equal in authority, but then Church History is necessary to interpret Scripture, then in practice, Scripture is secondary at best. Church History becomes the “canon” or standard to which belief and practice must be held accountable, not Scripture.

To me then, the Sufficiency of Scripture and the concept that Scripture interprets Scripture are valuable correctives, and thumb rules, but less than absolute doctrines. Knowing the context in which Scripture came to be is helpful to its value and understanding. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of canonicity. Consider the case of Prophecy in the Post-exilic times, as well as in the early Church.


The figure above shows a process that happened twice– one at the end of the Old Testament and one at the end of the New Testament.

In the Old Testament, pre-exilic, the word of the Lord came from prophets. They were one of three types: cult prophets (tied to the temple), court prophets (serving the government), and free prophets (ministering primarily to the people). The written word appeared to have little impact in the religious life of the people. One might call this the “Age of the Prophets.” But with the Exile, we enter a transition period. The loss of the temple and of Jewish governance meant that only the Free Prophets were left (Ezekiel may have been a priest, but he acted as a prophet without a temple. Daniel may have served as a court prophet, but for a pagan king.) It is commonly thought that during this time of exile (or certainly soon after) was the development of the synagogue, a place of religious gathering for worship and training, led by a teacher or rabbi. With the return from exile, there is a passionate desire, spurred on by Ezra, to collect and share the written words of Moses and the prophets. In this, despite the return of the temple, there is a gradual increase in the value of rabbis and scribes. There is also a bit of a power shift with the formation of the Great Council, or Sanhedrin, that includes as its members “Teachers of the Law.”

Malachi and the Chronicles were written somewhere in the vicinity of 400 BC. By this time, we seem to be leaving the transition period. According to the Babylonian Talmud Sotah 48b, when Malachi died, “the Holy Spirit departed from Israel”…. meaning that there was no more prophetic witness. This view appears to support II Baruch 85:3  “But now, the righteous have been assembled, and the prophets are sleeping. Also we have left our land, and Zion has been taken away from us, and we have nothing now apart from YAHWEH the Mighty One and HIS Torah.” This describes Jewish believers who see their connection to God primarily through the Torah.  I Maccabees 9:23-27 also confirms a time when Jews saw prophets as having disappeared. Josephus, further, expressed the belief that the canonization of Scripture has an inverse relationship with prophecy. (see David G. Dunbar’s article “The Biblical Canon” in “Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon” (1986))

This does not mean that prophecy fully died out after Malachi. According to David Aune (“Prophecy in Early Christianity and in the Ancient Mediterranean World” (1983)), prophecy did continue to an extent during the Intertestamental Period. However, the term”Prophet” (nabi) became tied to the classical or former prophets on one hand, and the future eschatological prophets (predicted by Joel, Malachi and others). Essentially, the Jews in the Intertestamental period appeared to separate between authoritative Prophecy, and present prophecy… the latter being valued to some extent, but not really esteemed or thought authoritative. An example of this is Caiaphas, serving as High Priest that year, making a prophecy in John 11:51.

So this history suggests three stages (as in the figure above).

  • Stage 1.  The Age of the Prophets prior to the exile where the primary communication from God is oral, and the written word is not available or at least not disseminated.
  • Stage 2. The Transitional Period. The prophetic role is in decline and the role of written Scripture is increasing in value, along with the value of teachers and scribes.
  • Stage 3. The Age of the Written Word. The prophetic role is seen to cease… or at least the role as an authoritative source of divine communication. The written word (Torah) is esteemed and promulgated, along with the words of the classical prophets. Prophecy is seen to continue in a limited and declining form, but not seen as authoritative, while work is underway to determine what of the written word is valuable, and what is canon. Jewish scholars gradually came to the conclusion that prophetic words or writing from the  first two stages would be open to being considered canonical.

The Second such cycle is seen in the First Century AD.

Stage 1 is simple enough. John the Baptist and Jesus act as prophets, along with the apostles and prophets of the 1st century church. During most of this time, the written word (of the new era) was not central. The early church had revelations from God and as eye witnesses, that were transmitted orally. According to the Didache, prophets existed in the primitive church primarily as ones who traveled from church to church, sharing God’s message. The primary message would normally be the words of a witness to the truth, rather than a dispenser of new revelation, but could contain both. Again according to the Didache, a prophet could also choose to settle down and serve in a single church. Along with prophets, “apostles” would also have a prophetic role. The difference appeared to be that apostles reached out to non-believers, to form up communities of faith, while prophets appeared to minister primarily to churches and believers.

Stage 2 is also quite easy to see. The initial motivation seems to be tied to the impending deaths of Peter and Paul during the 60s (AD). According to church tradition, disciples of Peter asked John Mark to collect the words of Peter and write them down, based on the concern that Peter is old and may die soon. Likewise, Luke’s writing of the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles appears to be tied in some manner to the incarceration of Paul in Rome. Moving into the 2nd century, this trend only continues. Some still focused on oral revelation. Papias was known for seeking out the stories and sayings of Jesus, and of the Twelve. But even there, he took those sayings and wrote them down. (Sadly, we only have short snippets of his writings extant today.) Prophets, such as the daughters of Philip, continued through the first century and into the second, but their role declined as the written word increased.

Stage 3 seems to begin with the 2nd century. That which was considered authoritative appeared to be limited to the words of Jesus, the words of the Twelve, and those directly associated with the Twelve (the first two stages). While the development of the canon of the New Testament is often described as being a response to Marcionism, it is pretty clear from the writings of the early church fathers, with some exceptions such as Clement of Alexandria whose referencing was quite eclectic, that there was strong general agreement as far as most of the writings of canon. The disagreements, arguably, were not that critical. The Gospels, Acts, I Peter, and the 13 letters of Paul were pretty universally accepted. This makes up the vast majority of the volume of the New Testament.

The Muratorian Canon, was a late 2nd century attempt at establishing the canon of New Testament. In it, the Shepherd of Hermas was considered valuable, but not to be read publically (suggesting it not being canonical— much like with the Jews where the Tanakh, or canon of the Old Testament, was described as Mikra… that which is to be read in public). The basis was, in part, because it was too recent– seen to be written after the end of such authoritative revelation.

The 2nd and 3rd centuries sees the continual decline and eventual disappearance of prophets and apostles as formal offices. There are a few possible reasons for this. Both groups, were outside of the accountability of churches. This led to suspicions of laziness and greed. The Didache, again, adds considerable caution regarding the two roles. Prophets, especially, were prone to the temptation to say what would make the hearers happy (much like court prophets in the Old Testament commonly did). Frankly, however, with the greater confidence in, and availability of, recognized authoritative Scripture, the prophetic role (at least the aspect of giving new revelation) was seen as not all that necessary, as compared to contextualizing, interpreting, and teaching God’s word in Scripture. Even the Montanist movement, a schismatic group from the 2nd century that placed great emphasis on “new prophetic revelation,” appeared neither to write down their new prophecies, nor to place them as authoritative alongside the words of Christ and the Twelve.

So what does this history do for us as Evangelicals? I believe it helps us question two extremes regarding prophecy. Consider the figure below:


At one extreme is the Cessationist Viewpoint that new prophecies are invalid… they have ceased. On the figure above, it would show as the lower left hand corner of the blue area. New prophecy is invalid and so has no discernible (positive) purpose.

The other side is a Charismatic view of the continuity of gifts including prophecy. This view is sometimes argued based on the idea that God does not change. On the figure above, the extreme in this view would be seen as the upper right corner of the blue area. If prophecy today is not only valid… but authoritative (as some would hold), it is necessary.

Both extremes share some common problems.

  • Both appear to limit God inappropriately. One says that God will not do what he never promised He won’t do. The other says that God must continue doing what He once did. Scripture does not support either view, and neither does the history of the Intertestamental period and the Antenicene history of the church.
  • Both don’t take the transition from prophecy to written word accurately. One argues that there is a clear demarcation between oral and written word (a gross oversimplification). One argues that there is not much of a demarcation at all with prophecy standing alongside the written word (despite clear evidences of a general and steady transition for both the Old and New Testaments).
  • Both minimize the dynamic role of God in the church. One sees God’s revelation only given through illumination of Scripture. The other sees God’s role bound by God’s past role. Again, it is deeply concerning to find people who are so quick to say what God cannot do, or what He must do.

These are, of course, extremes… but extremes happen. One can look at church history to see many who have decided that God has reopened authoritative prophecy (Mohammad, Bah’u’llah, Joseph Smith, among others) and the chaos it does in matters of faith and in undermining God’s canonical revelation. On the other hand, if God chooses to speak, it is wise that we don’t plug our ears.

A look at the history of the Jews and the early church suggests a middle position. Prophecy has occurred, and it can occur, as God in His dynamic nature to interact with His people chooses. But the importance of such prophecies are not great. They are to be challenged by canon, not be a challenge to canon.

History also gives us more than adequate warning to be skeptical of prophets. In the Old Testament, the New Testament, and in early church history, prophets often lack the accountability structures to challenge and verify both word and conduct.

This is still true today. Living in the Philippines, I hear the most outrageous and nonsensical prophecies bandied about as if they were indeed the “Word of the Lord.” Most, if not all, are simply the words of human beings who are seeking to be taken seriously and valued by self-declaring a divine stamp of approval. What to do with these? Be quite skeptical… but be open to the (perhaps slim) possibility that some have truth to them. We are called upon to be discerning… so we should practice discernment… starting with doubt. Rejecting all new prophecy as fake may lead someone to miss something.

On the other hand, if some new prophecy is valid, but still relatively unimportant, the safer position when in doubt is to reject.

And as always, prophecy both in the Old Testament, and in the New, was most commonly the contextualization or application of God’s previous revelation to a new setting. Personally, I would rather that this (most common actually) use of the term not continue. While it is a good use of the term, the term “prophet” has a lot of historical baggage attached to it… leading to confusion (much like I don’t recommend missionaries using the term “apostle” even though the term would be quite historically accurate).




“Prophecy” and a Confession, of Sorts

I was talking to my son about a logical glitch I have in a couple of my blog posts from a few months ago. He suggested that, instead of fixing them, I put a blog post about them.

English: Baptism of Christ
English: Baptism of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In one post, I was complaining about a self-styled “prophet” from America, who had made a “prophecy” that the Philippines would be a great nation and a beacon of God’s light to the world. I am purposely not choosing the exact words but you get the idea. I complained that this is not real prophecy. ALMOST ALWAYS, prophets exhort in the Bible. That is, they encourage people to good action. Even the book of Revelation is primarily exhortational. It was written to those suffering to warn them of more dangerous times, and to encourage them to remain faithful to the end (very much like the message of the Epistle to the Hebrews). The details are not unimportant, but not of primary importance. To give a “prophecy” regarding the future without exhortation is simply “tickling the ears.” It is akin to the fortune teller giving feel good information to a client. Here in the Philippines, people are much like those in the US (along with a number of warm-blooded animal species) in that they like their ears tickled. It adds to the popularity (and pockets) of the said “prophet.”

In a second post, I was complaining about a self-styled “prophet” from America (they all get over here to the Philippines eventually) who stated that a leader of a large religious movement here would be President of the Philippines… if the people would be faithful to God. Now, personally, having no interest in that individual ever running any particular organization… least of all government presidency, the prophetic exhortation encouraged me to want to be “unfaithful.” Still, I was annoyed by the message since it wasn’t testable… the “prophet” (“prophetess”) gave herself an out. If the person becomes president (hasn’t so far) she must be a true prophet of God. He the person does not become president… she wasn’t wrong, the people just weren’t faithful enough.

You will note, I placed these “prophets” in a no-win position. If there is no message of exhortation, I question that it could be a true message from God. If there is one, I question the individual’s unwillingness to truly be tested to see if what they have to say is from God.  That’s not really fair. I have to admit it.

Part of the trouble I have is with term “prophecy” itself. I would rather not see it used. Most times “prophecy” is used in the Bible, the term “exhortation” would appear to be more appropriate. Prophecies are usually not the fortuneteller type… but the word of exhortation or encouragement to be faithful and true to God. When the self-styled “prophets” (sorry… I just have to use quotation marks… can’t help it) go into fortuneteller mode… perhaps it would be better to utilize a different term. Maybe we could call it “apocalypsis.” The term is from the Latin for the revealing of what was covered or hidden. The reason for the different term would be to release us from the messy baggage of the world prophecy or prophet.

A prophet in the New Testament (and in the first century church) seemed to primarily be one who goes from church to church and preaches, encourages, and exhorts the membership to be faithful and holy. It is curious that in the Didache (apparently a first century work) prophecy was not to be questioned… but the prophet was to be tested. That seems to make no sense. Perhaps others would understand this better. To me it suggests the ambiguity of the role. Prophets were to be from God and to be received as if they were speaking God’s truth to us. Yet their message was not supposed to be innovative… but point people back to the words and life of Christ.

One passage that means a lot to me is John 15:26 – 16:4. In this, the Helper/Spirit of Truth will be sent from God the Father to testify regarding the Son. And the disciples are also to testify regarding Christ based on what they have seen and lived. There is more in the passage. A few findings from it seem to be:

  • The Disciples are to point people back to Jesus, His words, His example.
  • The Spirit of God also points back to Jesus.
  • In doesn’t seem to be a primary role of God’s disciples or the Spirit of God to be innovative but restoring people to the key truth in Christ.

Additionally notes from the passage:

  • Being a theist doesn’t mean one is better than an atheist. Atheists claim that theists can be really really evil since they can use their “god” as justification for nearly any heinous act. Jesus appears to agree with the charge of atheists here.
  • A healthy theism only exists with a true understanding of who God the Father is, and who Christ is.

I feel we need more people point people back to Christ… back to God… and less innovative speakers who start calling themselves prophets so as to be listened to. (I have made the argument among evangelicals here in the Philippines before that when pastors are not listened to, they change their title to bishop. When bishops don’t get listened to, they change their title to apostle. When apostles don’t listened to, they change their title to the “Appointed Son of God” or “Emperor of the Universe.”

So, there is my confession. I rejected prophecies because they have caveats and because they do not have caveats. Annoyingly, both arguments seem to be sound. Perhaps it is best not to think of them as prophecies at all (apocalypsis or otherwise) … but the opinions of people who want to be listened to.

Instead of using titles to try to get adherents, I believe we should focus more on pointing people to Christ… as witnessed and testified to by the Twelve, and confirmed in the Spirit of Truth.

<Bracketing my article with two VERY different perspectives below.>