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Evaluating Prophets and Prophecy

Evaluating Prophets and Prophecy

We Need Truth Over Tradition

Seaborn Hall, 2/02/2015

On the evening of January 9, 2015 at Mott Auditorium in Pasadena, California, a well known, respected prophetic figure unequivocally declared that in September of this year America will be the target of a terrorist nuclear attack. How should the church evaluate such a claim?

Many charismatic churches, perhaps believing that familiarity breeds understanding, have made little distinction between the authority or level of different prophetic voices. This has led to a lack of authority of the true prophetic voice and the false authority of many soulish voices and prophecies – and to the maligning of the prophetic. Loren Sandford’s Purifying the Prophetic, published in 2005, has been largely ignored by the prophetic church to its own peril, inviting criticism from those like John MacArthur, in Strange Fire.

While in Seminary and later doing doctoral work, I prodded my teachers for any Scriptural insight on the subject. I was exposed to theological minds from many of the top-rated schools around the nation. Eventually, there is something that strikes you about the human condition as you sit under those of renown: brilliance is not an antidote for blindness. No one can see everything; everyone misses something – a fact that all of us should bear in mind.

As Jesus said in Matthew 15 to the Pharisees, the most learned Jewish group of the time, “You invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” Likewise, a clear Scriptural criteria for evaluating prophets has been missing from church tradition in the modern era.

the primary criterion for evaluating prophets

Published initially in 1988, Wayne Grudem’s The Gift of Prophecy, became the sine qua non of the theology of the prophetic gift in the charismatic church. It was endorsed by Vineyard co-founder and my late pastor, John Wimber, as well as by J.I. Packer, F.F. Bruce, and other respected Evangelical and Charismatic leaders of the time. But, though valuable as a complete body of work on the gift of prophecy, it does not deal thoroughly enough with the distinction between types and levels of prophets and disavows the office of prophet in the New Testament era. It is the lack of correct distinctions in these areas that is the cause of so many misunderstandings about prophecy and prophets today.

For example, Numbers 12:1-15, largely ignored, may be one of the defining interpretive passages in all of Scripture. It sets the boundaries of the prophet and prophecy from Genesis to Revelation. In this passage, a clear distinction is made between a Moses type of prophet and a Miriam type of prophet. A Moses type communicates with the Lord “face to face.” A Miriam type hears from the Lord through “dark sayings” and “riddles.” The vehicle for these riddles is generally either dreams or visions, which necessitate interpretation.

As we all know, a layer of interpretation can lead to error. John Wimber used to say that the distance between revelation, interpretation, and application was the primary challenge in interpreting the prophetic. But, a Moses type prophet faces no such interpretive barrier – the Lord speaks with him “mouth to mouth, even openly (Nu.12:8).” At this level, the words of the prophet and God are the same, therefore authority and accountability are higher.

The primary criterion for evaluating a prophet is whether they are a Moses type or a Miriam type.

the second criterion for evaluating prophets

Deuteronomy 18:15-22 is another important passage in Scripture concerning the prophet and prophecy. According to Deuteronomy 18:18 “I will raise up a prophet from among their countrymen like you, and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”

Most commentators mistakenly relate Deut. 18:18 to Moses and its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, with no in-between. At the same time, contradicting their first application, they apply the criterion of 100% accuracy implied in 18:20-22 to all potential prophets throughout the Old and New Testament eras. Both interpretations are off the mark.

The far context of Deuteronomy 18 is that the people of Israel are reviewing statutes and commands that are to be their guide as they enter the Promised Land (11:26-12:1). The near context is that they will be tempted to listen to diviners and false voices for their direction, in imitation of other nations (18:9). Deuteronomy 18:15-22 helps them understand how God will communicate to them instead.

Deuteronomy 18 is evaluative in nature. It explains to Israel how to evaluate someone who is already a certain type of prophet, a prophet like Moses. This is an important distinction, because as Numbers 12 makes clear, the Moses type is a higher and much different level of prophet. Deut. 18:21-22 asks, “How will we know what the Lord has not spoken?” and answers that when something does not come true, the Lord has not spoken it.

This second criterion for evaluating prophets – implied 100% accuracy – only applies to a Moses type of prophet (but there is a caveat – see below).

Moses type and Miriam type prophets

Deuteronomy 18 is not prescriptive, that is, it does not tell Israel – or us – anything about how someone becomes a prophet, except the ambiguous comment that God will raise him up. To determine this process – and whether there is allowance for mistakes along the way as the prophet develops into maturity – we have to look to other passages of Scripture (beyond the scope here). That is, unless we believe that a stork drops a fully matured prophet into the midst of the people just when they need it. But if this were the case, James would not tell us that Elijah was a man with a nature just like ours (Jms. 5:17 – implying that even in our times it is possible for someone to reach Elijah’s level).

It should also be clear from the Deut. 18 context that it is speaking to a potential generational phenomenon, not a one-time occurrence, the typical evangelical or cessationist interpretation. In other words, God tells His people not to look for diviners and those who practice witchcraft because there will be someone in each generation (implied) they can look towards to hear God’s voice – someone like Moses.

Miriam type prophets, since they must interpret, are not speaking the very words of God and are judged differently. They foreshadow the gift of prophecy in the New Testament. Moses foreshadows both the apostolic and prophetic offices. As so many have asserted, there should not be any inconsistency between Old and New Testament prophets and prophecy – and there is none.

There is only one Moses. But, there are other Moses-type prophets in the Bible: Abraham, Samuel, Elijah, Daniel, Jeremiah, and John, of the Revelation, just to name a few. They span the Old and New Testaments. This feature of Deut. 18:18 is known as telescoping and is a feature of many Old Testament prophecies: multiple fulfillments culminating in an ultimate fulfillment – Jesus, and the church.

How are the other figures like Moses? They communicate openly – mouth to mouth – with God and His agents, at least some of the time.

the prophecy concerning America

In the early days of America, George Washington and other leaders made a covenant with God on the ground now known as Ground Zero in New York City, as described in the New York Times bestseller, The Harbinger. Speaking in the context of 911, the prophet noted in the opening asserted that America’s protective hedge is now gone, indicated in September of 2001 by 911 occurring on the same ground where this covenant was made.

According to him, when 911 failed to produce national repentance, exactly seven years later in September of 2008 (the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy) economic judgment was unleashed. Now, exactly seven years later, sans national repentance, even greater judgment is coming. Speaking in this context, what the prophet said about this time was something like this: “America will experience the sum of all fears on its soil in September of this year.”

Prophetic figures, in the Bible, and today, often speak in symbolic or coded language, but there is only one way to interpret the phrase, the sum of all fears. Any Bing or Google of the phrase will produce an entire page of entries referring to the Tom Clancy novel and the film of that name. In the novel, and the film, the hero attempts to foil a terrorist nuclear attack on U.S. soil. In the climax, the bomb goes off, but is a fizzle, and instead of a nuclear detonation only kills an entire football stadium of people, including some cabinet members.

To what degree the prophet in Pasadena was predicting a nuclear explosion or a fizzle of a nuclear explosion – or the other conspiracy sub-plots – as in the novel, was unclear. Let us hope and pray that if it occurs [and when September 2015 came around, it did not occur], reality mimics fiction, and the plot is mostly thwarted.

the myth of 100% accuracy

One of the common myths of American Christian culture is that all prophets must be 100% accurate. But, Scripture does not make this level of accuracy a criterion of prophetic status. It only makes it one of the criteria for a Moses type prophet.

Accordingly, MacArthur’s premise in Strange Fire that Deut. 18 “unsparingly condemns all who speak even one word falsely…in the Lord’s name,” misinterprets the text (Kindle Edition, 115). He ignores the overall context of Deut. 18, the meaning of like Moses, and the Numbers 12 distinction between Moses type and Miriam type prophets.

But, even relative to the Moses type prophet there is a caveat – God may choose to change His mind.

Jeremiah 18:1-12 indicates that God changes His mind relative to the responses of nations or His people (see also Jer. 26:13; 2 Chron. 29:6,10; Jonah 3:10). Even the Moses type prophet may appear wrong for a time – even a lifetime or longer – due to God’s mercy, compassion and long-suffering towards people.

Therefore, the question, “How accurate has the prophet been in his/her predictions?” is almost never a valid criteria for determining prophetic validity or significance. In cases of inaccuracy we need to defer to criteria like character, fruit, and focus of message (Matt. 7/Deut. 13/Deut. 18). And we need to take responsibility for our own idolatry towards prophetic words and predictions.

the purpose of a prophet

The purpose of the New Testament gift of prophecy is edification, exhortation and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3). But, the prophet in the tradition of Moses has a higher call.

The purpose of the Moses type prophet is to speak specifically into the situation of the people of God and declare to them what is coming in order to turn them from their sins and back to God (Jer. 23:18-22). This means the prophet may break down and destroy – old concepts, traditions, or habits of sin – as well as plant and build (Jer. 1:10; Rev. 2-3). To say that all generations, both Old and New Testament, do not have a need for this is to read the Scripture superficially. Whether or not the words of the prophet who spoke in Pasadena come true [and as of March 2017, they still haven’t as far as we know – though there could have been some attack thwarted that we don’t know about, I guess], we should ask whether or not his message bears this fruit.

Much of the confusion over who is a true prophet and who is a false prophet comes from this lack of Biblical distinction between levels and types of prophet. Apparently, the leaders of Judah, though they should have understood this distinction, misinterpreted Deuteronomy 18 and accused Jeremiah of speaking presumptuously and deserving of death (Jer. 26:7-9). They committed the same mistake that MacArthur commits in Strange Fire and his previous book, Charismatic Chaos.

Today, we socially murder those we deem false prophets for the supposed negativity of their words. But, it is almost always the prophets who prophesy the positive report that are the false prophets in the Old Testament (e.g. Jer. 23; Jer. 27; Ez. 13).

Jeremiah 23 confirms this distinction between the prophet who knows the secret counsel of the Lord (Jer. 23:18), like Moses did, and those that receive communication through dreams and visions and whose interpretation may lead to false prophecy.

conclusion: truth over tradition

It is part of the human condition to have occasional blindness relative to the truth. A few of the antidotes are to stay in our gifting, to humbly rely on others, and to stray out of the box and challenge our traditions occasionally. Michael Brown has written insightfully regarding this and the intricacies of balancing what God is saying and doing today in light of history and Scripture, especially in his book Authentic Fire.

Regardless of what occurs in September 2015 [and apparently – and thankfully – nothing did], many voices have declared that America is about to enter challenging times. Both the nation and the church are in need of God’s voice spoken through true prophetic vessels. To hear it we need to pay closer attention to the truth of Scripture (Heb. 2:1) and not just rely on the traditions of the past.

Seaborn Hall
2/02/15