What Does It Mean to Be a Prophetic People?
Probably no other passage in Scripture expresses so clearly the experience of the Adventist people and their identity than the vision of Revelation 10. The vision describes a heavenly voice instructing John to eat a little book that is open in the hand of an angel. The angel warns him, however, that the book will be “‘sweet as honey’” (vs. 10)1 in his mouth but “‘bitter’” (NKJV) in his stomach. After John has eaten the book and his stomach becomes bitter, the angel instructs him: “‘You must prophesy again’” (vs. 11).
Early Adventist believers saw in this prophecy a description of their experience in 1844. The unlocking of the prophecies of the Book of Daniel was exhilarating, and the expectation that Jesus would come on October 22, 1844, filled their hearts with joy, hope, energy, and a profound sense of mission.
But when Jesus did not come in 1844, they experienced a deep disappointment. The Book of Daniel had been indeed sweet in the mouth but bitter in the belly. They would come to understand, however, that the instruction of the angel, “‘you must prophesy again,’” was also for them. And so they rose to fulfill a mission.
What does it mean to prophesy? In what sense is our mission prophetic? What are the characteristics of a prophetic movement? Luke’s description of the early church is a good place to begin to search for an answer.
A distinctive characteristic of the work of Luke—known today as the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles—is its conception and characterization of the church as a prophetic body.2 In Luke’s view, the church was raised to express God’s word to His people and call them back to Him, as the ancient prophets did. This is because, for Luke, the church was in its identity, way of life, and mission an extension of Jesus, the prophet “like Moses,” that God would raise, fulfilling the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15-19.
A prophet is essentially not a person who predicts the future but a person who speaks for God. He or she is God’s instrument to communicate His will to the world. The prophet communicates this will by the words he or she speaks and lives, that is, by his or her actions and character. So, the prophet speaks, but also enacts and embodies the word of God.
Luke clearly identified Jesus as a prophet. Jesus applied to Himself the proverb that a prophet is not accepted in his own homeland (Luke 4:24). After His death, on the road to Emmaus, His disciples described Him as “‘a Prophet powerful in word and deed before God and all the people’” (24:19). After Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles proclaimed explicitly to the Jewish nation that Jesus was the prophet “like Moses” that God had promised and that anyone who did not pay attention to Him would be cut off from the people (Acts 3:22-26). Luke also identified the believers as prophets (Luke 6:23; 10:24). When Peter interpreted the descent of the Holy Spirit over the church at Pentecost, he quoted Joel 2:28 to 32, arguing that the Spirit had empowered them to prophesy. Luke characterized the church as a prophetic body because it both continued and concluded Jesus’ mission.
Prophets exhibit three distinctive characteristics:
● The prophet is invested with the Holy Spirit. The essential characteristic of a prophet is that the Holy Spirit moves and empowers him or her to communicate a message effectively. Scripture consistently relates prophecy with the endowment of the Spirit. This was a characteristic of Moses, the greatest prophet of the Old Testament (Deut. 34:10-12), Balaam (Num. 24:2), Saul (1 Sam. 10:5-13), the band of prophets over whom Samuel presided (19:20, 21), Elijah (1 Kings 18:12), Elisha (2 Kings 2:9, 15), and the rest—all acted and spoke under the influence of God’s Spirit. Joel also predicted that God would pour His Spirit “on all flesh” (Joel 2:28) so that they would prophesy.
Luke repeatedly affirms that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, even before beginning His ministry (Luke 4:1, 14). Similarly, Luke emphasizes that God invested the church with power by pouring upon them the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8; 2:4). Just as Elisha received a double portion of the Spirit of Elijah when he was able to witness Elijah’s ascension, the disciples also saw their Master ascend, and Jesus sent upon them the Holy Spirit. A crucial characteristic of God’s people is, then, to request and prepare itself to receive the Holy Spirit.
● The prophet speaks the word of God. Another essential characteristic of the prophet is that he or she receives and speaks the word of God to the people. This is most of the time an uncomfortable task because God will often speak to the people to reprove them, to call them back to His original purpose for them. In fact, it is precisely because humanity has wandered from God’s original plan that He finds it necessary to call them back through the prophetic ministry of His people (Rev. 14:6-12).
God’s people need constantly to grow in their understanding of Scripture. Growing in knowledge means exploring, asking questions, and sometimes disagreeing until we come to a deeper understanding of things. On the other hand, lack of growth in our understanding of Scripture implies the abandonment of our mission.
Ellen G. White’s advice on this is essential: “Whenever the people of God are growing in grace, they will be constantly obtaining a clearer understanding of His word. They will discern new light and beauty in its sacred truths. This has been true in the history of the church in all ages, and thus it will continue to the end. But as real spiritual life declines, it has ever been the tendency to cease to advance in the knowledge of the truth. Men rest satisfied with the light already received from God's word, and discourage any further investigation of the Scriptures. They become conservative, and seek to avoid discussion.
“The fact that there is no controversy or agitation among God's people, should not be regarded as conclusive evidence that they are holding fast to sound doctrine. There is reason to fear that they may not be clearly discriminating between truth and error. When no new questions are started by investigation of the Scriptures, when no difference of opinion arises which will set men to searching the Bible for themselves, to make sure that they have the truth, there will be many now, as in ancient times, who will hold to tradition, and worship they know not what.”3
● The prophet embodies the word of God. The prophets not only spoke the word of God but also embodied it in their lives. Moses, more than anyone, embodied the law’s ideal for humanity: He was “very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3, KJV). Jeremiah bought a field that was under Babylonian dominion to demonstrate the certainty of God’s promise of deliverance, and Ezekiel was probably the prophet whose embodiment of God’s word was more colorful and shocking. Similarly, Jesus and the church embodied the message of the kingdom in their own lives (Acts 2:42-47).
God’s people, then, need to embody the message they preach. This is all the more important when we grow in the knowledge of truth. Disagreement is part of the growing process. Lack of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness (Gal. 5:22, 23) is evidence to the contrary. In addition, disagreement cripples our testimony. While ministering in the midst of the 1888 controversy, Ellen G. White remarked:
“The most convincing testimony that we can bear to others that we have the truth is the spirit which attends the advocacy of that truth. If it sanctifies the heart of the receiver, if it makes him gentle, kind, forbearing, true and Christlike, then he will give some evidence of the fact that he has the genuine truth. But if he acts as did the Jews when their opinions and ideas were crossed, then we certainly cannot receive such testimony, for it does not produce the fruits of righteousness.”4
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.
2. See Luke Timothy Johnson, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2011).
3. Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 38, 39.
4. The Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, p. 632. Italics supplied.