What marks a true prophet? As I read through the second half of the Old Testament, this question looms larger and larger in my mind. Whether it be Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Obadiah, or one of the other prophets with a book named after them, their prophecies are all dominated by a message of destruction, punishment, and a revelation of sin. This should not surprise me, since I’ve known and read these books before, and yet it does. Perhaps it is because I have been conditioned to believe that prophets generally bring flowery, positive messages that encourage and build up the hearer. But what if this is not the case? What if the Biblical picture of a true prophet is entirely different?
Two Scriptures in particular alerted me and sparked this crucial question in my mind. Take a look at these words from the mouth of Jesus Himself:
Matthew 5:11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Luke 6:26 “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”
Fascinatingly enough, Jesus associates true prophets with persecution and false prophets with lack of persecution. These verses give me the distinct impression that being a prophet is not a popular job. Looking at the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus’ statement certainly seems to ring true. Time and time again, we see stories of prophets who proclaim unpopular messages to people who are in dire need of hearing them. On several occasions, Jeremiah speaks of false prophets who declare peace when there is no peace. When summoned by King Asa and King Jehoshaphat, Micah was the only prophet who spoke the truth concerning a looming defeat in the face of a host of false prophets proclaiming peace and victory and prosperity. The entire Old Testament testifies to the truth of Jesus words – true prophets are typically not popular people.
Has there been a change after the cross, then? Should we disregard the tone of Micah, Amos, and Obadiah because we are partakers of a new covenant and now under grace? I see no evidence in the New Testament that points in this direction. Jesus Himself was a prophet who preached a message that centered around repentance. Agabus in Acts 14:14 did not have much of flowery message either, and I cannot say that the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John is a particularly flowery one either. As far as I can tell, being a prophet in both the Old and the New Testament means speaking an unpopular message and facing persecution.
All of these thoughts overwhelm me as I bring this conclusion into our day and age. How many men are not announced as prophets, men who speak personal words over people that provide hope, encouragement, and a positive vision for the future? How can I reconcile such a perception of a prophet with what I see in the Bible? I proceed with caution for saying more than the Bible allows for. After all, Isaiah provides a whole section of hopeful words from the Lord and Micah declares some pretty positive truths. If prophecy today is to be Biblical, however, I do not see how such hopeful, nice messages can be the dominating sound in the realm of prophecy.
Most prophecy speaks forth the truth of God to bring people to repentance; any true prophet will have that kind of message at the forefront. No, being a true prophet is not a popular job – anybody aspiring to such a job should be ready for some serious persecution. From a Biblical point of view, I can come to no other conclusion.