This is the 9th Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy. The immediate preceding blog is Jesus Fulfills Torah.
The first Christians came to see Jesus not simply as fulfilling specific promises prophecies about the Messiah, but also in fulfilling the entire Torah – the Law, the History, the Promises, the People, and the Covenant. This caused the first believers to rethink their relationship to or understanding of Torah, the People of God, Covenant, the Messiah and the Nations. I’ve mentioned some of this in the previous blogs. The final two blogs of this series will look at the nature of prophecy and the Christian understanding of it and of Christ’s relationship to it.
As we profess in the Nicene creed, God has through the Holy Spirit spoken to us by the prophets.
“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets…” (Hebrews 1:1)
The New Testament mentions prophets and specific prophecies numerous times, but offers us only a few glimpses into what prophecy is or how it works.
“First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:20-21)
“… and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” (1 Corinthians 14:32-33)
What we can glean from these verses is that God Himself speaks to us through the intermediary of the prophets – God uses a human intermediary to convey His message to us, presumably as the means for us humans to receive His divine message. The prophets are an interface point between God and humanity. Whether inspiration works such that the prophet is able to interpret the divine message into human images and language or the prophet for some reason can understand the divine message though the rest of us cannot is not clear. God uses the prophet to convey His message. “Surely the Lord GOD does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7).
The prophets don’t just offer what they think God might be doing or saying, they are not guessing or predicting what God is going to do. Rather God actually moves or inspires the prophets to speak. So the message of the prophets is a divine message. The message comes to us in human words and images, through a human intermediary, but it is God speaking to us. Much has been written about the nature of inspiration, which goes far beyond what I can say here. We receive prophecy as a message from God not a message from the prophet. The message from God has a purpose which is not limited by or to the human interpretation of that message. We can misinterpret the message, we can try to make sense of the message, but we have to be faithful to the message, even if we don’t completely understand it. This is where the Scriptures, as the written Word of God, are so important because they preserve the message. The community of the people of God have the responsibility to make sure the message is preserved and faithfully conveyed – only then can its meaning be faithfully discerned or debated. Finally, the prophets themselves are not mere puppets in the hands of God – they are inspired by God, filled with the Spirit – but the prophets have some control over themselves and speaking the prophecy. Prophecy is very different from demon possession. It must be noted that sometimes prophets do not completely comprehend the prophecy, and sometimes they may not even be aware that have uttered a prophecy.
“For the prophet is not always consciously aware of what he is saying. As the Fourth Gospel states of Caiaphas: ‘Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation’ (Jn 2:51). Caiaphas is an unwitting and involuntary prophet: he does not appreciate, with his conscious mind, the real meaning of the truth that he proclaims, but he says more than he intends or realizes. If God, without depriving the prophet of his free will, may yet use him as the mouthpiece of a message greater than his own understanding, cannot the same be true also of the holy fool? Even when actually unbalanced on the psychological level, his mental disabilities may yet be by the Holy Spirit as a way of healing and saving others.” (Bishop Kallistos Ware, THE INNER KINGDOM, p 178)
Bishop Kallistos is offering a comment about something beyond the scope of this blog series – that prophecy continues in the Church to this day. The gift of prophecy still exists in the Church, and some people still exhibit this special gift even though they might not be aware they are doing so. For our purposes in this blog, the point is that prophecy does not deprive the prophet of his or her free will, though the prophet might be proclaiming something beyond the limits of their ability to understand.
The fulfillment of a prophecy is not understood until it happens; only then does it become clear to the people that a prophecy has been fulfilled.