|At Issue Index White Index Table of Contents Previous Next|
How Much Do Prophets Know?
There is no single passage in the Bible telling us all we wish to know about the gift of prophecy. In Romans chapter 12, Paul writes regarding the operation of spiritual gifts and, as he mentions prophecy, he makes a remark that could have significant bearing on our understanding of this gift: "We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith" (Romans 12:6).
Commentators have pondered the meaning of what Paul means "let him use it in proportion to his faith." How can a prophet prophesy in proportion to his faith? The word translated proportion is the Greek word analogia. This is the only place this word appears in the New Testament. Many commentators have suggested that faith, as mentioned here, is to be taken in a subjective manner tied in with measure mentioned in verse three. Paul here is probably referring to how a person should function.40
David Hill offers this observation: "If that phrase means 'in proportion to our faith' i.e. in proportion to the quality of our faith given or possessed, it could imply degrees of prophetic ability which varied according to the amount of faith one had, 'faith' being the believer's confidence that God's Spirit is speaking in the actual words he is uttering. What Paul is saying then is that the person who exercises the gift of prophecy should speak only when conscious of his words as inspired and presumably only as long as he is confident that God is speaking through him."41
Hill's understanding of the text seems to be reflected in the New Living Translation,42
Cranfield offers further insights: "Once again we have to choose between different possible interpretations. Many commentators understand by 'the faith' here a special charismatic faith—in fact, something hardly to be distinguished from prophetic inspiration. According to this view, Paul is warning the prophets against the temptation to add something of their own devising, the temptation, when they come to the limit of their own inspiration, to go on speaking. According to others 'the faith' is to be understood in the sense of the 'the faith,' i.e. The body of truth to be believed, and 'according to the analogian' as meaning 'according to the standard' . . . the prophet is to make sure that his message does not in any way contradict the Christian faith. It may be suggested that the simplest and most satisfactory interpretation. . . . They are to be careful not to utter (under the impression that they are inspired) anything which is incompatible with their believing in Christ."43
Recognising the Fallibility of Prophets
For those of us who have never received a revelation from God, it is difficult to understand what is taking place. What we do know is that there are three stages of the prophetic process.
Regarding the revelation, we would expect there would be no mistakes because God never offers anything imperfect or faulty. However, it is possible that mistakes could be made at stages 2 and 3 in the interpretation and application.44
Frederick Harder asks the following hard questions to help us gain some insights into the fallibility of prophets. "A recognition of this fallibility raises several questions. How can personal prejudices and errors be distinguished from the divine word? How far were the prophet's natural faculties overruled or held in abeyance? On the other hand, to what extent were they heightened, sensitized, or strengthened
in order to receive and understand the word revealed? How competent was the prophet to accurately communicate the message? Finally, and just as important, how competent am I to understand what he or she said?
No simple, definitive answers exist. Certainly the prophet's mind did not become a typewriter or a recording tape used by the Spirit as an inanimate device. The prophet's personality was not absorbed in or merged with the Divine. Prophets sometimes even argued with God over the content of a message, as did Moses, Amos, and Habakkuk."45
That prophets do not always comprehend clearly what God is revealing is made clear by Peter's "wondering about the meaning of the vision" (Acts 10:17). It was some time later that he understood that it meant Gentiles were to be accepted in the same way as the Jews (verses 34-35). Peter seems to indicate that this was a problem for Old Testament prophets as well as they pondered what God was revealing to them about Christ and His sufferings (1 Peter 1:10-11).
Prophets cannot perform at the level of Christ. He was always stating what was truth because He was God. As such He was omniscient. Ordinary humans can not perform at the same level. They may move from a statement of faith revealed by God to a denial of the implications of what has been revealed, as seen in the experience of Peter. After having declared his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus said, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my father in heaven" (Matthew 16:17). Jesus is saying in effect that this was a prophetic revelation given to Peter. Perhaps prophecy can be defined as that gift of the Spirit whereby that which believers need to know at a certain time is revealed to them. If this is correct then this was a prophetic revelation given to Peter.
Shortly after, Jesus began to explain to them His death. Peter responded by rebuking Christ. "'Never, Lord!' he said. 'This shall never happen to you.' Jesus then rebuked him by saying, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not say the things of God, but the things of men'" (verses 22-23). This passage should cause us to think carefully of how a person can be used of God to make prophetic statements and yet soon after the human element can take over and be way off course in their statements.
It seems that God corrects errors only when the prophet's mistake endangers the central message itself. That is, if the mistake would endanger spiritual welfare. Revelation 19:10 is such an example. John knelt before the angel. This is breaking the second commandment. Immediately the angel intervenes and corrects the error.
No doubt if you were a prophet it would take faith to believe that God had spoken, that you as a prophet had understood it correctly, and that you had delivered the message correctly to God's people. What a fearful responsibility! Think of the implications in the lives of the hearers if you got it wrong.46
Added to the statement Paul made in Romans is another statement that can be quite disturbing, particularly for those who always like to see things in black and white, and clear-cut. "For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. . . . Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12). Commenting on verse 9 the SDA Bible Commentary states, "The gifts of knowledge and prophecy provide only partial glimpses of the inexhaustible treasures of divine knowledge. This limited knowledge will appear to be all but cancelled in the superior brightness of the eternal world, as the light of a candle loses its importance when placed in the bright light of the sun."47
Paul makes an important point here. Even prophets have only partial knowledge. How can finite beings understand the mind of the infinite? The gift of prophecy is not the gift of omniscience. We must not put the prophet up alongside Christ. He knew everything because He was "God with us." But this is not true of the prophets. G. B. Caird says, "The prophet before all else is a man, and it is by the heightening of his normal human faculties that he attains his depth of insight. But like all men he is fallible. He may imperfectly understand the word that is spoken to him. He may lack the interpretive powers to make clear to others what he has seen. Though he be far in advance of his age, he cannot wholly divest himself of the way of thought in which he has been brought up."48
An example of what Caird is referring to is found in Psalm 121:6: "The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night." We understand how the sun can harm us by day. We could be sun-struck. But
how can the moon harm us by night? "This passage is poetic in form," writes George Reid, "meant to assure us that in every circumstance God is our protector. However it illustrates an important fact: While God was revealing Himself and His truth to the ancients, He did not at the same time correct every misunderstanding they had accepted as a part of their culture. This is especially true of their views of the natural phenomena.
"Virtually every ancient society believed in a natural world manipulated by gods and demons. One of the Lord's most difficult tasks was to teach His people that He is the only true God. Sunstroke, in the popular mind, was viewed as the act of a demon active at midday. The night demon, it was supposed, inflicted mental derangement or other maladies. Elements of this popular view persist to modern times in our terms, lunacy, lunatic, and the slang term 'loony', words based on luna, a Latin term for moon. . . . The Bible describes the ancients as believing certain things about the operation of nature that we now know to be inaccurate. Even inspired Bible writers, while they received truth from God, were not, in the process of inspiration, purged of all incidental misbeliefs."49
This example given by Reid can be multiplied. There can be no doubt that God does meet people where they are in many of their cultural concepts. Think about the difficulty we have with Old Testament laws such as those that deal with slavery, the treatment of women and blood vengeance. Nor are our concerns limited to the Old Testament. As God unfolds the life-giving message of His Son He uses their cultural concepts in order to speak to them in a meaningful way.
He uses a star to guide the Magi to the baby Jesus. The Magi were Eastern astrologers.50 In the ancient world it was believed that the stars were gods who lived in the heavens above the clouds. The Magi accepted that this star-god could move through the sky and guide them as they sought a specific house in Bethlehem.
On some occasions when Jesus healed He used spittle. He spat on a blind man's eyes and put spittle on the tongue of a deaf man (Mark 7:32-33; Mark 8:22-23; John 9:1-6). Pliny the Elder explains that it was believed in the time of Christ that spittle had healing properties. Jesus used this thought pattern as He demonstrated His healing power.
Just preceding the return of Jesus the Bible describes the stars falling from heaven upon the earth (Revelation 6:13, Matthew 24:29). Today we know that stars do not fall to the earth. If one did we would be consumed. What they thought were shooting stars we now know to be meteors. The Bible uses the language of the culture of the times in which it was written.
As Jesus returns the Bible describes how the "heavens will disappear" (2 Peter 3:10) and "rolled up like a scroll" (Revelation 6:14). The ancients believed the sky was a solid vault or canopy therefore it could be parted or rolled up like a scroll.51
Prophets Do not Have All Knowledge
Just in case we are inclined to think that prophets used of God possessed the gift of omniscience, consider John the Baptist. Did he have a correct understanding of the nature of the kingdom to be set up by the Messiah? He was the greatest of the prophets. He was God's special messenger to herald the coming of the Messiah and yet when he was put in prison he almost lost his faith. He, along with the other disciples, believed that Christ would set up a kingdom on earth. When Christ did not do this he sent some of his followers to ask Christ if He really was the Messiah (Matthew 11:3).
John the Baptist had some things to learn and some things to unlearn. Remember when he was asked what was required for eternal life he did not outline salvation by grace but rather told his inquirers to reform their lives (Luke 3:11-14). Later his converts had to be re-baptised when they grew in their understanding beyond what he had imparted (Acts 19:1-5).
In fact prophets may not even understand what the message God has given to them in vision really means. For the first decade the Christian Church had a "shut door" view regarding to whom salvation in Christ was to be offered. They felt their message was just for the Jews. Even though Christ said the message was to go to the ends of the earth, they did not see the openness of the gospel invitation clearly. So God gave Peter a vision on the rooftop at Joppa (Acts 10). Some unclean animals were paraded before Peter and he was told to arise, kill and eat. Coming out of the vision it says, "Peter was wondering
about the meaning of the vision . . ." (verse 17). He was not sure what God was trying to reveal to him. Later he said, "God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean" (verse 29).
This is an excellent example of a prophet receiving a vision, not knowing what it was supposed to be teaching, but future experience helped him to understand. Of course some of the prophets never understood the vision they were given. Daniel never understood the 2300 evenings and mornings revealed in Daniel 8:14. He says in verse 27, "I was appalled by the vision; it was beyond understanding."
Peter comments on the prophets of the Old Testament as having "searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow" (1 Peter 1:10-11). No doubt Isaiah was one such prophet who struggled to understand the sufferings of the faithful servant passages found in his book.
Some may wonder if the prophet always had an open line to God. That is, on all occasions they will have God's answer to the situation. The evidence indicates that this is not correct. When challenged by Hananiah, Jeremiah has no answer but walks away. Later he receives the answer (Jeremiah 28:10-11). Again, Jeremiah talks of how on one occasion he meditated for ten days to receive an answer from God (Jeremiah 42:7). Elijah declares he is not under inspiration regarding the problems facing the Shunamite woman when he declares "...the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me why." (2 Kings 4:27). There is even evidence of a need for a type of spiritual tuning in. On one occasion Elisha called for a harpist to help him tune in and prophesy. Walter Kaiser Jr. adds, "[Music] had the effect of quieting the disturbed thoughts and attitudes of the prophets, and of setting theology in the context of doxology."52
King David inquired of his court prophet Nathan regarding the building of a temple. Should he do this? Nathan responded, yes God is with you. It seems that the prophet gave advice that was not from God. That night God told Nathan to go back and tell David he was not to build the temple because he was a man of blood. Solomon his son was to build the temple (1 Chronicles 17:1-4).
On one occasion Paul was about to set sail for Rome. The time of year was dangerous for sailing because of the frequency of storms. "So Paul warned them, 'Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our lives also'" (Acts 27:10). Later the storm hit savagely. They were discouraged and now Paul gives a different message, "But now I urge you to keep your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you'" (verses 22-24).
It would seem that the statement of disaster was Paul giving his opinion in view of the circumstances under which they were going to sail. He was talking without having received a revelation. Later, when God spoke to him, the revelation gave an entirely different message.
We can conclude that what God has revealed to the prophet they can speak with confidence. However there will be many situations where they will be merely giving their own opinion. And when they give their own opinion, they have no greater wisdom than anyone else. Inspiration is not a permanent attainment in the life of the prophet. "In many ways prophets are just like other people," says Kenneth Wood. "They eat, they sleep, they hear, the read, they learn, the speak, they travel. Prophets may be well informed in some areas of knowledge and poorly informed in others."53
A. A. MacRae agrees with Wood when he gives the examples of Nathan giving David
wrong advice and Samuel not having the right idea of who was to be next king of
Israel (1 Samuel 16:6-13): "Thus the prophet might know a portion of the
divine will but be completely incognizant of other portions. (Cf. 1 Cor 13:9.
'For our knowledge is imperfect, and our prophecy is imperfect.')"54
40 See C. K. Barrett, The Epistle to the Romans, (New York: Harper and Row, 1957, p. 23). Also, A. T. Robertson, Word Studies in the New Testament,. (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1931). Vol. lV, p. 403. [back]
41 David Hill, New Testament Prophecy (London, England: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1979), p. 119 [back]
42 New Living Translation, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1996). [back]
43 C. E. B. Cranfield. The International Critical Commentary, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to Romans, (Edinburgh, England: T. and T. Clark, 1979), pp. 620-621. [back]
44 Perhaps an example of this is to be seen in the prophetic activity of Agabus in Acts chapter 21. In verse 10-11 he prophesies that Paul will be bind him and hand him over to the Gentiles. When the prophecy is fulfilled [verses 30-33] there are two small mistakes. 1. It wasn't the Jews who bound Paul. They were trying to kill him. It was the Romans who bound him. 2. The Jews did not hand him over to the Gentiles; the Gentiles took him off them and rescued Paul. The general idea of Agabus is correct; but some of the details are wrong. Agabus is a prophet of experience; yet he seems to have some details incorrect. Could it be that God revealed to him the trouble ahead and Agabus had to fill in some of the details? We will never know the answer to this question, however the important point for us to bear in mind is that the looseness here does not seem to worry Luke. He does not apologize for it; nor does he see the need to touch things up to make them look better. [back]
45 James L. Hayward, ed. Creation Reconsidered, (Roseville, CA:. Assn. of Adventist Forums),. 2000. Article by Frederick Harder, "Prophets: Infallible or Authoritative" p. 226. [back]
46 One cannot help getting the impression from Jeremiah's writings in Lamentations of how easy it would be for a prophet to have some self-doubts about their work. In Jeremiah 20:7-9 he seems to express anger at God as he lamented how he has been treated by others because he gave God's message to them. [back]
47 6SDABC, p. 784. [back]
48 G. B. Caird, The Truth of the Gospel, (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. 59. [back]
49 George Reid, Windows on the Word article entitled "Smitten by the moon?" Adventist Review, April 28, 1983. p. 7. [back]
50 There seems to be a general consensus on this point. For example, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary, IVP, Leicester, England: 1980. Article "Magi" p. 930, Vol. 2. "Both Daniel and Herodotus may contribute to the understanding of the Magi of Mt. 2:1-12. Apparently the Magi were non-Jewish religious astrologers who, from astronomical observations, inferred the birth of a great Jewish King." [back]
51 These points regarding the ministry of Jesus are adapted from an unpublished, undated paper by Richard Way entitled "Heaven In Ancient Cosmology." [back]
52 Walter Kaiser, Back Toward the Future: Hints for Interpreting Prophecy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), p. 76. [back]
53 Kenneth Wood, Hear the Word of the Lord. A Bible study presented at the 1975 General Conference session in Vienna and published in the Review and Herald, July 16, 1975, p. 11. [back]
54 Merrrill C. Tenny, Editor. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975). See Article by A. A. MacRae, "Prophets and Prophecy," p. 880. [back]