Chapter 14: Prophets of the New Testament
The challenge is how to begin? Big questions loom, like what is New Testament (and that is where we are at now) prophecy and how does this differ from the Old, and other than John the Baptist and John the Apostle (by virtue of his Book of Revelation) who are the New Testament prophets and, even if we come up with a (it is short) list, unlike the sixteen Old Testament “writing” prophets and the umpteen non writing prophets, there is not much that we can write, other than with the two Johns and of course Jesus, who is much more than a prophet and who we have considered back in Chapter 3. Some of these more contentious questions, where even a basic Internet search will reveal there are many differing views, will be touched on in the final chapter of this book but, as for this chapter, the intention is, as has been the case throughout the previous chapters, to concentrate on Bible exegesis, rather than personal opinion.
We ended our journey through the Old Testament, checking out the prophets, with the prophet Malachi, and that was over four hundred years before the next prophet of significance appeared – John the Baptist. That is not to say there were not those who prophesied in the interim, especially if we adopt the looser definition used in this book. We also have an example of a New Testament prophet, before John the Baptist even got going: “And there was one Anna, a prophetess” Luke 2:36. Between the two Johns (Baptist in preparing the way for Jesus and Apostle when he writes the Book of Revelation) one senses that many had prophetic words, although few were named who did. Putting aside Apostles who wrote the Letters section of the New Testament, like Peter and Paul, who also prophesied along the way, the stand out prophet we can name in the New Testament, who actually predicted the future, was Agabus (Acts 11:28, 21:10).
Examples of the office of prophet include “in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch” Acts 11:27, “ there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers” Acts 13:1 and “Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words” Acts 15:31. It was evident that when believers received the gift of the Holy Spirit they often prophesied (as well as spoke in tongues) at the same time. One memorable example relating to the gift of prophecy concerned the daughters of Philip, and we are told: “the same man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy” Acts 21:9. Throughout the New Testament, it was evident that great respect was given to the Old Testament prophets, who were often held up as examples to follow: “take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience” James 5:10. When teaching and preaching, many specific examples were cited of Old Testament prophecies being fulfilled, typically when relating to the coming of Christ.
When considering Prophets of the New Testament, many commentators often make the distinction between the office of a prophet, confined to the few, and the gift of prophecy, concerning which all Christian believers have the potential of exercising. Regarding offices in the church, five have been identified: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers” Ephesians 4:11. As for gifts, nine have been identified: “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues” 1Corinthians 12:7-10.
The office of prophet is foundational to the Church: “And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” Ephesians 2:20. The gift of prophecy is to help build up the Body (a depiction of the Church), which true believers are part of and have specific roles to play. Moreover, we (all of us) are told: “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy” and also to “covet to prophesy” 1Corinthians 14:1,39 and one of the startling results of the gift being exercised, as has been testified to down the ages, is: “there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth” 1Corinthians 14:24,25.
Some of the questions raised, as a result of these brief reflections, include how does the office of the prophet and gift of prophecy in the New Testament compare with that of the Old? and, looking at our own time, can we expect bona fide prophets today and the gift (and indeed any of the nine gifts identified earlier) to be exercised today? We will attempt to address these questions noting Bible expositors differ widely in their answers, but not fully and, as far as it is possible, non-controversially. The author has a non-definitive view and this he will elaborate in the final chapter, when he attempts to relate lessons learned.
Going back to the Old Testament, it has been argued throughout this book that there were both those who held the office of Prophet and those who exercised the gift of prophecy from time to time. The former encompassed the latter but not vice versa. If one were to name a quintessential prophet, few would dispute Elijah. If one were to name someone who prophesied without being a prophet, King Saul would qualify and he did so more than once and might have done so more if he did not turn away from the Lord. What would appear to be the case, few in the Old Testament actually prophesied. When one compares the Old and New Testaments, one might have a field day identifying differences. After all, those who are New Testament believers are saved by grace due to what Jesus accomplished when He died on the cross and rose again, who they follow. Old Testament believers were required to obey the Covenant God made with Moses. The New Covenant, while foretold in the Old Testament, was only revealed in the New, and intrinsic within that was the writing of the Law on our hearts.
Yet there was one significant difference between the Old and New Testaments, explaining why in the New, unlike in the Old, the gift of prophecy should be desired and expected by believers. Rather than being given to a few who are privileged, it is something for all. That is the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you… Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come” John 16:7,13.
The promised Holy Spirit was poured out spectacularly on the Day of Pentecost: “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance… But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” Acts 2:1-4, 16-18.
When it comes to the message of the prophet, it cannot be dogmatically stated that the Old Testament was almost entirely about judgement (and rebuke) and some hope (and comfort), with a strong element of future prediction, while the New Testament was almost entirely about encouraging believers in the church and convincing unbelievers of their need to repent and have faith, with a lesser emphasis on future prediction; when that was present it was more to do with ministry the church and what God is saying to and through the church and less to do with the deliberations of rulers and nations. And yet it does seem like that!
As for prophets and prophecy no longer applying today, other than what is set out in scripture, the canon of which is now, unlike then, complete, while this may be the view of some, cessation of gifts like prophecy with obvious super natural connotations may well tie in with unbelief in a God that speaks today, it is not something (in the author’s understanding) that has scriptural warrant even though the gift of prophecy has been widely abused and, as we will later reflect, there are many false prophets, just as Jesus warned. As for what constitutes true prophecy and why it is needed to today, this is a subject we will return to in the final chapter. As for specific prophecies, such as in Matthew 24 and some parts of the Book of Revelation, we will visit this in Chapter 15. But to complete this chapter, we will return to the two Johns, who we identified earlier as having something substantially prophetic to say, starting with John the Baptist.
If we were to be asked who was the greatest prophet, we might be hard pressed to come up with an answer, for our studies thus far reveal a number of prophets we can class as great, which is why Jesus’ testimony is so relevant, noting that John the Baptist was the only prophet he did acclaim: “But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John” Matthew 11:8-13
John’s ministry was indeed a remarkable one. It was he who prepared the way for Israel’s Messiah. He declared in John 1:23 “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias”. Not only is John foretold in Isaiah 40:3 “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” but Jesus affirms this to be the case when he refers to Malachi 3:1 “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come”.
His ministry began before he was born and was filled with the Holy Spirit from that point onward, evidenced when pregnant Mary came to visit Elisabeth, John’s mother, then six months into her pregnancy. “And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost” Luke 1:41. Just as Mary’s pregnancy was extraordinary, so was that of Elisabeth. “They (Elisabeth and Zacharias) were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years” Luke 1:6-7.
One day, Zacharias received a visitation from an angel, while carrying out his priestly duties “But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God” Luke 1:13-16. We know nothing of John’s life before he appears on the scene, a little prior to when Jesus began his ministry, but might reflect that God’s choice of parents was not incidental, and had a bearing on his ministry.
John’s ministry was to prepare the way for Jesus, Israel’s Messiah. Soon after Jesus began his ministry, John, typical of his character, withdrew away from the limelight. So significant was that ministry that ALL four gospels provided a record: “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” Matthew 3:1-2. “As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” Mark 2:2-4. “The word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he came into all the country about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” Luke 3:2-3. “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.” John 1:6-8
Going back to the account of John’s ministry in Matthew 3, we learn:
- Like Elijah, with who John is often compared, his was a rough and ready, no frills existence: “John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey” (v4)
- His ministry attracted a sizable crowd who listened to him, even though his was a hard-hitting message of repentance: “Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins” (5,6)
- He did not mince his words when speaking to members of the religious establishment: “O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (7,8)
- Always, he would be pointing people to Jesus, their rightful king: “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance. but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (v11)
- He baptized Jesus at Jesus request, even though reluctant to do so because of his unworthiness. He saw the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in the form of a dove and heard “a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (v17)
His message was remarkably practical and down to earth, understanding what repentance meant in practical terms: “Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages” Luke 3:12-14. While John was looking forward to the kingdom to come, with Jesus as the King, he also understood something profound that most missed: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel” John 1:29-31.
Other than a discussion on why John’s disciples fasted, and Jesus’ didn’t, we next read of John when he is put in prison, from where he sent two disciples to ask Jesus the key question: “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” Matthew 11:3, which Jesus answers and then went on to commend John, as we considered earlier. It is worth reflecting that John was human with weaknesses like the rest of us. After all, he more than any should have known that Jesus was the real deal, but then as we consider Old Testament prophecy, the expectation would have been for a king exercising full authority, and that might have included overturning wicked king Herod, who had put him in prison in the first place. As for the reason for John being put in prison: “For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her” Matthew 14:3,4. The tragic outcome is one many are aware off – through now humiliated but still scheming Herodias, John lost his head.
John may be the last of the prophets in the traditionally understood sense. We could take many lessons from John, not so dissimilar to when we considered the Old Testament prophets. For John, the message was all important, and in his case it was to prepare the way of the Lord (Jesus the Messiah). His message was uncompromising and fearless; it was to call people, and especially the leaders, to repentance. Gaining popularity and acceptance was furthest from his thoughts and his often lonely life was void of many of the comforts most take for granted (modern day prophets take note) and he paid a hefty price. Few dispute John was one of the good guys, but one wonders if he were around today, how he might have gone down with “saints” and sinners alike – perhaps he would be rejected by the saints but welcomed by sinners because of his message of hope.
“The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand. John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty. I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” Revelation 1:1-9.
Thus begins the Book of Revelation. Revelation is often seen as a mystery book, given its rich imagery that lends itself to various interpretations and begging the question whether and when to interpret literally or figuratively. It is ignored or downplayed by some, including two of the great Reformers: Luther and Calvin, but some are obsessed with it to the extent they ignore other parts of the Bible, as they try to relate it to world events and speculate concerning what it says about the future and the meaning of unfulfilled prophecy. Trying to unravel the message of the book, including by the saintly and learned, is a challenge, which may be one reason some avoid it, but it should be borne in mind Revelation was written to ordinary, often of humble means, Christians who were members of one of the seven named churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea.
For five out of the seven churches, there were words of rebuke as they failed to do what God required of them, along with a call to repent, and the promise of blessing for those who are faithful amidst persecution. They were living in a time of, and had experienced first-hand, persecution and there would be more to come, albeit for a season, so the letter would have been especially meaningful, with exhortations such as: “they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death” Revelation 12:11 and “here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” Revelation 14:12
Unlike the letters of Peter, John and Paul, which form a significant part of the New Testament, this was from Jesus himself. It is the one book of the New Testament that attaches a blessing for the readers and a warning to those who add to the words of the book. While much of the message is apocalyptic in nature with fearful predictions of what is going to happen, there is the assurance that Jesus wins in the end and that He is coming soon. Regarding the author, while many reckon it to be the Apostle John, we cannot be certain but, as with most prophecy, the message is more important than the messenger.
It is also important to point out that Revelation (especially the last four chapters), like Genesis (especially the first eleven chapters) are essential Books of the Bible even though these are the very parts often dismissed by scoffers. Genesis tells us how it (life, the universe and everything) came into being and Revelation tells us how it all will end. Given where we are at in the world, the growing tide of evil despite hopes for a better world, and the persecution of believers we are seeing in all four corners, and to be expected in the West that hitherto have got off relatively lightly, Revelation’s message and the attached blessing to them who read it is important as are related themes like the need to be prepared, of patient endurance and perseverance and Jesus wins in the end.
Following the specific messages to the seven churches (Chapters 2-3) we get a glorious glimpse of heaven. In Chapter 4, the Lord God Almighty is on His Throne and is worshipped. In Chapter 5, the Lamb is on His Throne and is worshipped: “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” Revelation 5:9,10. The book is full of sevens: seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls. From Chapter 6 on, we read of events which may be seen as yet to happen, which includes divine judgement, hardening of peoples’ hearts, the persecution of believers, the mystery of Babylon, the rule of the AntiChrist, and a heightening in the ongoing conflict between good and evil.
Chapter 19 is about the coming to the Earth of the King of kings, and Lord of lords, in glory, and not this time as a babe born in a manger, who ended up dying on a cross. This is what the Hebrew prophets had looked forward to: He of the line of David, and who was to rule with a rod of iron. We see here as throughout Revelation, allusion and reference to Old Testament prophecy. Then comes the marriage supper of the Lamb when Jesus marries His Bride, the Church. Then comes the 1000-year reign. Satan is bound, but after let loose for a short time to cause havoc, but in the end: “the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever” Revelation 20:10.
Then comes the Day of Judgement: “And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works… And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” Revelation 20:11-12,15. Chapters 21 and 22 look forward to the final end and builds on the theme: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” Revelation 21:1-3.
We close with the closing verses of the whole Bible, which contains wonderful invitation and sober warning. It also reminds us that Jesus is coming soon and we should be living in that expectation and be ready: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely. For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” Revelation 22:17-21.