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God Speaks Through Prophets

This week's commentary is taken from Chapter 2 of the late Herb Douglass' book Messenger of the Lord: The Prophetic Ministry of Ellen G. White.

The full text of this chapter can be found here, on the website of the White Estate.

“God, who at various times and in different ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets . . .” (Heb. 1:1). “If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision, and I speak to him in a dream” (Num. 12:6).

God has been communicating with human beings ever since He created Adam and Eve.1 Human beings were created as God’s counterparts, made “in his own image” (Gen. 1:27). He made them responsible—that is, able-to-respond to Him and to other persons. God provided everything imaginable for our first parents’ happiness. He “planted a garden” (Gen. 2:8) already in blossom, full of plants suitable for food. Our first couple did not have to scratch out an existence, using trial and error, in order to survive.

Further, God made men and women with the ability to produce children in their image, even as Adam and Eve were created in His image. Nothing was left out; everything that men and women needed was in place—the right kind of food, the joy of work, a dazzling flower-and-garden show daily, no rain or rust, perfect companionship with each other and with God Himself. God’s plan for our first parents remains a workable blueprint for us today as we seek peace and health amidst a sad breakdown of what the Lord intended for the human family.

Communication Before Sin

Before our first parents sinned, they were in constant communication with God and His angels. In this way they learned how to care for all living creatures and to provide for their own needs as stewards of this fantastic paradise called Planet Earth. Perhaps every day they had sundown worship with God “in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). And they learned that not all was safe, even in Eden! Evil lurked in the shadow of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17).

But terrible changes took place when Adam and Eve sinned. They no longer could speak with God face-to-face. Not because God had changed, but the first couple had—sin reconfigured their mind and emotions. Isaiah starkly described this new situation: “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you” (Isa. 59:2).

Sin damages the neural paths. No one is ever the same after he or she sins—new boutons in the neural pathways are formed that make sinning easier to repeat. To think clearly again requires special help from God. Thus, when our first parents sinned, God had to change His communication system with human beings. Not all the deplorable results of sin happened to Adam and Eve immediately, but the sad degeneracy of the human race began that day when they yielded to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16).

How God Bridged the Gap of Sin

How could the sin-gulf be bridged? God always has a solution. He knows how to adapt to changing circumstances. For example, instead of face-to-face communication He “speaks” to everyone through “conscience” (see John 1:9; Rom. 2:15). In some meaningful way, the Holy Spirit calls reasoning people to choose right over wrong, whatever their situation. Further, for those who specifically call for divine help, even though not much may be known about God, the promise is open to all: “In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Prov. 3:6).2

He also reveals Himself through angels: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14).3

Though marred by the results of sin, the physical world still reveals much about the nature and character of God: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). People on all continents and throughout history have associated God with such “attributes” as order, beauty, predictability, and design that they have seen in the heavenly bodies or the wonders of earth, both animate and inanimate.4

Before Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt God had been communicating with men and women through such patriarchs as Noah (Gen. 5-9), Abraham (Gen. 12-24), Isaac (Gen. 26:2-5), and Jacob (Gen. 32:24-30). Moses was the shining example of a human being with whom God conversed (Ex. 3, etc.).

In relating to the nation of Israel in its early years, God “spoke” through the Urim and Thummim, two precious stones set in the breastplate (the ephod) of Israel’s high priest. When the nation’s leaders wanted to know the will of God, the high priest asked specific questions that were answered by light resting on either the Urim or Thummin.5 For a young nation so soon out of slavery and before the establishment of the written Word, this dramatic communication method was decisive and affirming.

God also spoke through dreams. Think of Joseph’s dream that had prophetic significance (Gen. 37), the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker (Gen. 40), Pharaoh’s dream (Gen. 41), the dream of the Midianite soldier (Judges 7), and Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams (Dan. 2, 4).

Beyond question, the clearest revelation of God and His will for men and women has been through Jesus Christ: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:1, 2). Jesus was explicit: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). But Christ did not point to God as all prophets must; all prophets had pointed to Him.

Prophets—the Most Recognized Form of Divine Disclosure

Although God used many methods, the “prophet” was the most recognized form of divine communication. Priests in Israel were the people’s representatives before God; the prophets were God’s official representatives before His people. The priest’s calling was hereditary; the prophet was specifically called by God.6

Prophets have been the most visible channel in God’s communication system. “Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). “The Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on His people” (2 Chron. 36:15).

God said very clearly that if people would not listen to His prophets, He had no other remedy to help them in their personal or national problems: “But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets. . . till there was no remedy” (2 Chron. 36:16).

In A Prophet Among You,7 T. Housel Jemison listed eight reasons why God used prophets rather than some dramatic attention-getting device such as writing on the clouds or thundering out His will every morning at dawn:

1. Prophets prepared the way for Christ’s first advent.

2. As representatives of the Lord, prophets showed the people that God valued human beings enough to choose from among them men and women to represent Him.

3. Prophets were a continual reminder of the nearness and availability of God’s instruction.

4. Messages through the prophets accomplished the same purposes as a personal communication from the Creator.

5. Prophets were a demonstration of what fellowship with God and the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit could accomplish in a human life.

6. The presence of the prophets tested the people as to their attitude toward God.

7. Prophets assisted in the plan of salvation, for God has consistently used a combination of the human and the divine as His most effective means for reaching lost humankind.

8. The prophets’ outstanding product is their contribution to the Written Word.

The Prophet’s Work

The prophet’s work was twofold: to receive the divine message and to deliver that message faithfully. These aspects are reflected in the three Hebrew words for “prophet.” To emphasize their role in listening to God’s will as it was revealed to them, the Hebrew writer used chozeh or ro’eh, translated as “seer.” The Hebrew word nabi, (the most frequently used Hebrew word for prophet) describes prophets as they convey their message through speech or in writing.

In 1 Samuel 9:9, both roles are noted: “Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he spoke thus: ‘Come, let us go to the seer’ [ro’eh]; for he who is now called a prophet [nabi] was formerly called a seer [ro’eh].”

Chozeh, derived from the same Hebrew root word from which we get the English word vision, emphasizes that the prophet receives messages through divinely initiated visions.

Each of the three Hebrew terms for “prophet” underscores the prophetic office as the human side of the divine communication plan.

In the New Testament, the Greek word prophetes, corresponding to the Old Testament nabi, is transliterated in English as “prophet.” Its basic meaning is “to speak forth.” The genuine “prophet” speaks for God. 

How God and Prophets Interact

Prophets clearly recognize the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their role as God’s messengers. Peter well understood this relationship: “Prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).

Note Saul’s experience: “When they came there to the hill, there was a group of prophets to meet him; then the Spirit of God came upon him [Saul], and he prophesied among them” (1 Sam. 10:10).

Ezekiel often referred to the Holy Spirit’s presence: “Then the Spirit entered me when He spoke to me, and set me on my feet; and I heard Him who spoke to me” (Eze. 2:2; see also 3:12, 14, 24; 8:3; 11:5; 37:1).

How did the prophet recognize the presence and power of the Spirit? By out-of-the-ordinary visions and dreams—and by the accompanying physical phenomena. Many have been the fulfillments of God’s promise that “If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision, and I speak to him in a dream” (Num. 12:6). (The Biblical record does not make a clear distinction between a prophetic vision and a prophetic dream, the terms often being used interchangeably.)

In Daniel 10, the prophet described some of the physical phenomena accompanying “this great vision” (vs. 8). Although he “was in a deep sleep on my face. . . to the ground,” he was able to hear “the sound of his words” (vs. 9). Others were with Daniel when he was in vision but he “alone saw the vision” (vs. 7).

Daniel was physically changed while in vision: “No strength remained in me; for my vigor was turned to frailty in me, and I retained no strength” (vs. 8).

Whatever may have been the particular phenomena accompanying a vision or dream, prophets knew that God was speaking to them.

What we know about the prophets’ messages and how they delivered them is recorded in the Bible. Originally, not all the messages as we have them today were in written form. Some were public sermons, some were letters to friends or to church groups, some were official announcements by kings to their people. Some of the inspired prophetic writings were not even original with the prophets.

Out of the plentiful prophetic messages presented over several thousand years, God has supervised a compilation that we call the Bible. This sampling has been preserved for one purpose: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11).

How Prophets Delivered Their Messages

Throughout history the Spirit of prophecy has used three methods of delivering God’s messages: Oral, Written, Dramatized.

Oral. The regular, sermon-type of presentation is perhaps the best known form of a prophet’s work. We think immediately of Jesus giving His sermon on the Mount of Blessing (Matt. 5-7) or Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). The entire book of Deuteronomy was an oral discourse in which Moses reviewed the previous forty years of Israelite history. Many of the Minor Prophets first delivered their messages orally.

In addition to these more formal presentations, the prophets recorded in writing their counsel given earlier to individual leaders or groups. Isaiah wrote down his interview with Hezekiah (Isa. 37). Most of the book of Jeremiah is a written summary of his public messages. Ezekiel transcribed his earlier conversations with the leaders of Israel. For example: “And it came to pass in the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I sat in my house with the elders of Judah sitting before me, that the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there” (Eze. 8:1; see 20:1).

Those private interviews such as Nathan with David (2 Sam. 12:1-7); Jeremiah with Zedekiah (Jer. 38:14-19); and Jesus with Nicodemus (John 3) were also considered worthy by the Spirit of prophecy for wider application.

In addition to their more official and public duties, prophets wrote personal letters to people who had special needs.

Written. Written messages have advantages over other forms of communication. They can be read and reread. Compared to an oral presentation, they are less subject to misunderstanding. The Lord told Jeremiah to write a book containing the words He would give him. Jeremiah asked Baruch to be his editorial assistant, and the book eventually was read to the people of Jerusalem and to the king. Years later, the prophet Daniel (9:2) tells of his reading Jeremiah’s messages and how Jeremiah had promised deliverance for God’s people after the seventy-years’ captivity. Daniel himself was told to write a book especially for those living at “the time of the end” (12:4).

The apostle Paul wrote fourteen books of the New Testament, all but one book being letters to various churches or their pastors. Some of his letters were not included in the Bible, such as the letter to the church at Laodicea (Col. 4:16).

Peter also wrote letters to various church groups: “Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder)” (2 Pet. 3:1). He also wrote private letters, such as to Silvanus (1 Pet. 5:12).

John wrote at least three letters in addition to his Gospel and the Book of Revelation: “And these things we write to you that your joy may be full” (1 John 1:4).

Verbal Inspiration or Thought Inspiration

Verbal, inerrant inspiration implies that the prophet is a recording machine, transmitting mechanically and unerringly God’s message. Belief in mechanical inspiration forbids differences in reporting a message or event. Verbal inspiration requires prophets to transmit the exact words supplied by the heavenly Guide even as a court stenographer types what is being said by the witnesses. No room is given to prophets to use their own individuality (and limitations) in expressing the truths revealed to them.

One of the obvious problems for those who believe in verbal inspiration is what to do in translating the Bible, either from Old Testament Hebrew/Aramaic or New Testament Greek, into other languages.

Another problem is Matthew 27:9, 10 where Matthew refers to Jeremiah rather than Zechariah (11:12) as the Old Testament source for a messianic prophecy. This might be a copyist’s mistake. But if it is Matthew’s, it is a human mistake any teacher or minister might make, a mistake that will cause no problem for thought inspirationists. Why? Because thought inspirationists know what Matthew meant!

Or, what did Pilate actually write on the sign placed on Christ’s cross? Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38, and John 19:19 report the sign differently. To thought inspirationists, the message is clear; to verbal inspirationists, a problem!

Prophets, Not Words, Are Inspired

For thought inspirationists, God inspires the prophet, not his or her words.16 Thought inspirationists read the Bible and see God working through human beings with their individual characteristics. God provides the thoughts, and prophets, in relaying the divine message, use whatever literary capacity they possess. Trained scholars will report a message or describe an event much differently than will a sheepherder. But if both are inspired by God, the truth will be heard by the educated and unlearned alike. This is the way the Bible was written, all writers using their best words to express faithfully the message they had received from the Lord.

Revelation in the revelation/inspiration process emphasizes the divine act that discloses information. Seventh-day Adventists believe that this divinely revealed message, or content, is infallible and authoritative. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105).17

Inspiration refers to the process by which God fits a person to be His messenger. This kind of inspiration is different from the colloquial use of the word when we describe some insightful poet or gifted singer as being “inspired.”

Paul wrote to young Timothy that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16). The Greek word that Paul used, translated as “inspiration,” is theopneustos, a contraction of two words, “God-breathed.” This is more descriptive than a mere poetic touch. When Daniel, for example, was in vision he did not breathe, literally (Dan. 10:17)!

Peter said that prophets were “moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). The Greek word for “moved” is pheromeni, the same word that Luke used (Acts 27:17, 27) to describe being “driven” across the Mediterranean Sea in a terrifying storm. Prophets did not mistake the “moving” of the Spirit for normal emotional prompting. They knew when the Lord was speaking to them—they were inspired!

Another word that is used often in describing God’s communication system is illumination. When prophets deliver their messages, how do men and women recognize the messages as authentic? The same Holy Spirit that spoke through the prophets speaks to those who hear or read the prophet’s message. The listener or reader is “illuminated” (but not inspired). Further, the Holy Spirit enables the sincere believer to understand the message and to apply it personally.18

 

Endnotes

1.For a more extended review of prophets and prophetesses from patriarchal times through the New Testament, read A. G. Daniells, The Abiding Gift of Prophecy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1936), pp. 36-172.

2.See also Isa. 30:21; Matt. 10:19, 20.

3.See also Gen. 19:15; Judges 6:11-14; Ps. 34:7; Matt. 1:18-25.

4.See also Acts 14:17 and Ps. 19:1, 2.

5.See Ex. 28:30; Lev. 8:8; Num. 27:21; 1 Sam. 22:10; 28:6.

6.Note the difference between the duties of the priest and prophet: “The priest was concerned largely with the ceremony and ritual of the sanctuary, which centered in public worship, in the mediation of forgiveness of sins, and in the ritual maintenance of right relations between God and His people. The prophet was chiefly a teacher of righteousness, spirituality, and ethical conduct, a moral reformer bearing messages of instruction, counsel, admonition, warning, whose work often included the prediction of future events.”—Siegfried Horn, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary (SDABD Revised edition),(Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1979) , p. 903.

7.T. Housel Jemison, A Prophet Among You (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1955), pp. 24-28.

...............................................

16. “The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers.

“It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God.”— Selected Messages, book 1, p. 21. In other words, God inspires prophets, not words. Compare Matthew’s digest of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and Luke’s further abridgment in Luke 6.

17. See Raoul Dederen, “The Revelation-inspiration Phenomenon According to the Bible Writers,” Frank Holbrook and Leo Van Dolson, Issues in Revelation and Inspiration (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1992), pp. 9-29.

18. John 14:26; John 16:13; 1 John 3:24; 4:6, 13; 5:6.

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