What is prophecy? Many believe it is foretelling of our future, but the Early Church did not view prophecy in this way. To the Early Church, prophecy was revealing the deeper understanding of the Word of God, including foretelling of Biblical events to come. The prophets often warned sinners of their conduct and exhorted them to repentance. The Early Church believed prophets would be around until the second coming of Christ.
Today, prophecy is more often an ear tickling message about our worldly desires – predicting our future house/career/spouse/general success, etc. To the Early Church, this was considered a false prophecy. The Prophet Jeremiah warned about false prophets:
“Thus says the LORD of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They make you worthless; They speak a vision of their own heart, Not from the mouth of the LORD. They continually say to those who despise Me, ‘The LORD has said, “You shall have peace” ‘; And to everyone who walks according to the dictates of his own heart, they say, ‘No evil shall come upon you.’ ”Jeremiah 23:16-17 [emphasis added]
Jeremiah cautions that false prophets will speak from their own wisdom, not by the voice of the Lord. He goes on to expound on this – they will prophesy to those not walking according to the commandments of God (ref. John 14:15), telling them good things to come and not exhorting them to repentance. We see this happening by large in churches today. Instead of calling out sin and warning of the judgment to come, prophecy for the most part, has become a feel-good prediction of our future. Zechariah tells us the prophets preached repentance, but they were not heeded (ref. Zechariah 1:4). All throughout the Bible, the prophets were sent by God to preach repentance: Moses, Jonah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, John the Baptist, and so on. The Twelve Apostles were sent out to preach repentance (ref. Mark 6:12). A prophet is ‘one who was raised up by God and, as such, could only proclaim that which the Lord gave him to say. A prophet could not contradict the Law of the Lord or speak from his own mind or heart, to do so was to be a false prophet’. (1)
Second–third century Early Church Father Hippolytus, wrote the following:
“The prophets of old did not speak of their own power—let there be no mistake as to that. Nor did they declare what pleased themselves. But, first of all, they were endowed with wisdom by the Word. And then again, they were rightly instructed in the future by means of visions. And then, when they themselves were fully convinced, they spoke those things that were revealed by God to them alone, and concealed from all others.” (2)Hippolytus, On Christ and Antichrist, Ch 2
Hippolytus confirms that prophets only prophesy according to the Wisdom of God and not of their own feelings, or that of others desires. In Peter’s second epistle he writes:
“No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”.2 Peter 1:20-21
Here, Peter is saying it is the Holy Spirit alone who prophesies. Paul gives us more understanding of the Holy Spirit:
“For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.“1 Corinthians 2:10
The Spirit of God reveals the deep things of God. The word for “deep” in Greek means mystery (3) and the secret, unrevealed purposes of God (4). By this, we understand that the Spirit of the Word is the deeper teachings, or the unveiled mysteries of the Word of God. This is confirmed again in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians:
“For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles— if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: . . .”Ephesians 3:1-5 [emphasis added]
Paul understood the deeper teachings of the Word of God through the Holy Spirit, and it was this deeper understanding of the mysteries of God that he was endowing his followers with. Paul goes on to say:
“. . .that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power.”Ephesians 3:6-7
Paul is saying here that it is only through the unveiling of the mystery, revealed by the apostles and prophets, we are able to come into the inheritance of Christ.
Origen of Alexandria also understood the office of the prophets and apostles to be the appointed ones, understanding the deeper teachings of God:
As God has commanded them, the prophets had therefore declared with all plainness those things that it was desirable for their hearers to understand at present for the governing of their conduct. In regard to deeper and more mysterious subjects (which lay beyond the reach of the common understanding), the prophets set them forth in the form of enigmas and allegories. . . . They have followed this plan so that those who are ready to spare no labor and no pains in their quest after truth and virtue might search into their meaning. (5)Origen, Against Celsus, Bk 7, Ch X
Origen, a prolific second–third- century Early Church Father, confirms that the prophets along with the apostles handle the deeper teachings of the Word of God. It is through teaching these mysteries they find out who, out of their hearers, are serious because they want to know more. Origen also writes that the prophets speak what is profitable for the governing of the behavior of their hearers, as we discussed earlier.
The Didache, written by the 12 Apostles, instructs further as to see who the true prophets are:
“But not everyone who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet. Rather, only if he holds the ways of the Lord. Therefore, from their ways will the false prophet and the [true] prophet be known. . . . Every prophet who teaches the truth, if he does not do what he teaches, he is a false prophet. . . .” (6)Didache, Ch 11
True prophets are those who are living the Word. If they are not living what they are teaching, that is a pretty good sign they are a false prophet. As Jesus said about false prophets: “
You will know them by their fruits.”Matthew 7:16
Prophets were to continue right through to the end of the age. According to Amos, God does nothing on the earth before He reveals His secret to His servants, the prophets. (Amos 3:7) This is a bold statement in this day and age because many have dismissed the need for prophets, but we see all through Scripture the Lord revealed what was coming to pass through them. Scripture tells us that God doesn’t change (ref. Ecclesiastes 1:9, Hebrews 13:8). Furthermore, the Book of Revelation, prophesying about the end of the age, speaks of the prophets:
“. . . but in the days of the sounding of the seventh angel, when he is about to sound, the mystery of God would be finished, as He declared to His servants the prophets.”Revelation 10:7
Above, Scripture is again declaring that the mysteries of the Word of God are going to be unveiled through God’s prophets.
The notion that prophets were done-away-with is completely incorrect and it was refuted by the Early Church Father, Irenaeus. This quote was written in reference to the Montanists (late second century), who said that the gift of prophecy had left the church:
“Others, again, try to set at nought the gift of the Spirit, which in the latter times has been poured out upon the human race, by the good pleasure of the Father. For they do not admit that aspect presented by John’s Gospel, in which the Lord promised that He would send the Paraclete. Rather, they set aside at once both the Gospel and the prophetic Spirit. Wretched men indeed! They wish to be pseudo-prophets, but they set aside the gift of prophecy from the church. . . . We must conclude, moreover, that these men cannot admit the apostle Paul either. For, in his Epistle to the Corinthians, he speaks expressly of prophetic gifts, and recognizes men and women prophesying in the church.” (7)Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Ch XI
Irenaeus verifies that prophets will be here at the end of the Age. He calls people that refute this “wretched”, or contemptible. (8) He makes a good point that those who refute prophets would also be refuting the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians, Paul sets out the order of the Church:
“And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.”1 Corinthians 12:28
This order did not cease, otherwise we would be calling God a liar, the Church just moved away from the truth.
To recognize true prophets, we must first and foremost look for those who are unveiling the deeper understanding of the Word of God, not those who are simply prophesying into our own desires. Only through the deeper understanding of the Word of God are we able to come into our inheritance, so why would we want to settle for anything less? A true prophet will live the Word he/she preaches, and they will say only what God instructs them to say, even if that is a hard word. We should be grateful for those words of discipline because God chastises those whom He loves (ref. Hebrews 12:6, Proverbs 3:12). The Book of Revelations gives us the understanding that prophets will be here right up until the time of the second coming, so it is imperative we are on the lookout for them, as they are the ones revealing the mystery of Christ!
1. Complete Word Study Dictionary: ‘prophet’ (H5030)
2. Hippolytus, On Christ and Antichrist, Ch 2
3. Strong’s Bible Dictionary: ‘Deep’ (G899)
4. Complete Word Study Dictionary: ‘Deep’ (G899)
5. Origen, Against Celsus, Bk 7, Ch X
6. Didache, Ch 11
7. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Ch XI
8. “Wretched.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wretched. Accessed 20 Jul. 2021.
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010.