There are those who make a verbal claim that they are apostles and prophets today. Others claim it by showing their supposed signs, wonders and miracles. Those who are in the contemporary “health and wealth, signs and wonders” movement and others are the main proponents of this conviction. The proliferators have made efforts to restore and promote what they have termed as the five-fold ministry described in Ephesians 4:11. The propagators of the movement claim that these dynamics are necessary for the church to have power and effective ministry. In actuality, those who lay claim to this ministry today operate under a misunderstanding of the offices of the primitive apostles and prophets revealed and defined within the Bible.

The Lord confirmed his Word with the apostles’ signs to show a transition of authority from Israel and its priesthood to the apostles who were laying down the foundation for the church, a new entity. This unique anointing testified to Israel and to the Gentiles about a new order of leadership. The demonstration of spiritual authority was transferred to the church, Christ’s body. We can guard against misleading teachings in the church today if we become aware of what the Bible says about these positions in the early church.

A Quick Overview of OT Prophets

The writing prophets wrote between 760 BC and 460 BC. Their writings covered about 300 years of nearly 1400 years of Israel’s history. The prophets spoke in large measure in the context of their own contemporary events. These years were preceded by unique political, military, economic, and social upheavals. Israel was enormously unfaithful and had disregarded the original Mosaic covenant. The nation of Israel had been divided by civil war into two kingdoms, which were in conflict with each other and with other nations around them. Their neighbours, Edom, Ammon (Syria), Moab, and Tyre were caught up in the struggles of the superpowers; Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, and Persia. These were times of invasions of one nation by another. Prophets such as Nahum, Habakkuk, and Ezekiel ministered during these times

Nahum and Habakkuk foresaw Assyria’s destruction (with the rise of Babylon), as Zephaniah prepared the way for spiritual reform. Judah experienced a revival under Josiah in 621 BC abruptly ending with his death in 609 BC. Jeremiah’s “weeping” ministry began with that hope, but saw the tragic decline and fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Ezekiel who was carried off to Babylon as a captive in 597 BC. He ministered to the exiles, explaining to them the reason for their captivity and offering them hope. Daniel’s 70 years as a prophet saw Babylon fall to Persia and far beyond them to Greece and Rome. Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi were prophets among the remnant that returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Distinguishing Marks of a Prophet

What constituted the foundational call to the prophetic office?

In the Old Testament, the men who bore the name “prophet” and those who were said to prophesy, were challenged by a bewildering complexity of their times. They not only needed to be very sharp, but they were conferred with a willing spirit to carry out the Lord’s demands regardless of the measure of praise or humiliation. To illustrate this, there is a marked difference between Saul, who stripped off his clothes and prophesied lying naked all day and all night (I Sam. 19:24), and Isaiah or Amos, whose thunderous “thus saith the LORD” exposed the moral corruption of the nation. In this context, prophecy can be defined as “the proclamation of that which God has revealed.”

The prophet is the spokesperson of God, for God, to his people. Prophecy means to call, to announce. Therefore, a prophet is in the passive sense one that is called by God, as his announcer, a herald, and a proclaimer of God’s message. Amos 7:14ff states, “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore-trees: and Jehovah took me from following the flock, and Jehovah said unto me, go, prophesy unto my people Israel.”

Prophetic revelations were not only concerned with revealing the future but also revealing God’s will for the present. This understanding combined with the other basic principles of grammatical, historical and theological interpretation will take much of the mystery from the way prophecy is understood today. Mickelson asserts that the prophets were written for their contemporaries, in thought, forms and language they could understand. Even in foretelling, “every item of predictive prophecy was given to a particular historical people to awaken and stir them to righteousness by revealing in part what God would do in the future” (Mickelson, p.84).

What constituted the functionality of the office of the Old Testament prophets?

The Old Testament prophets taught the basic truths and principles of God. They taught the facts and nuances of man’s relationship with God. They condemned sin. They brought comfort to the remnant and conviction to those who sinned. The target portion of Israel invariably persecuted them, and most importantly, they spoke of things to come both near and far into the future.

In his providence, God provided a method for identifying fallacies spread by would-be divine spokesmen befitting the sacred office. In general terms, a prophet was considered to be a spokesman for God. Deuteronomy 18:15–19 describes the nature of a true prophet. In verses 20 through 22, if one claiming to be a prophet speaks in the Lord’s name something God has not given him to say or speaks in the name of other gods then he is to die.

Therefore, the distinguishing mark of the Old Testament prophets in their pronouncement of prophecies always ended with “thus saith the LORD”.

There are three things worth noting when considering the nature of all the true prophets:

  1. The prophets were called by God. Thus, any attempt to prophesy without a divine call or commission, whatever was said constituted false prophecy (Jer. 14:14).
  2. The prophets spoke of the Lord, from the Word of God. The prophets, as defined, were primarily spokespersons for God to convey God’s message to his people. Their word was to motivate obedience, in view of Israel’s past and future conditions.
  3. The prophets (though not all of them) also performed miracles. This gracious endowment confirmed two things. (a) That the prophets were the servants of God, called and sent by God. (b) That their message was legitimate and had to be obeyed. Thus, prophets like Moses (Ex. 4:1–9) and Elijah (1Kings 17) worked many miracles.

What constituted the functionality of the New Testament prophets?

A faithful study of Scripture reveals that prophets were not only an Old Testament phenomenon but also a New Testament reality. Was there any difference between the two prophetic groups or is it a continuation of the same office? Prophets in the New Testament used phrases such as “the Lord says” or “the Holy Spirit says” as introductory formulas for prophetic insight into the future (Acts 21:11) or for inspired adaptation of an Old Testament text (Heb. 3:7).

A few considerable things about New Testament prophecy make it different from Old Testament prophecy:

  1. New Testament prophecy was limited (1 Cor. 13:9); it was to be evaluated by the congregation (1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Thess. 5:20–21). The New Testament prophecies were not foretelling in nature but interpretative, i.e. forth-telling. It was teaching or preaching which was based on Old Testament revealed oracles.

Thus, New Testament prophecy was not without restraints. Prophecy outside the apostolic authority was safely ignored because if prophecy came without leaning on the already revealed truth, it was deemed misleading. Thus the true nature of New Testament prophecy submitted wholly to Scripture. This proves that edifying prophecy was not a threat to Scripture’s authority (1 Cor. 14:38–39; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20–21).

  1. New Testament prophecy was confirmative. Hence, both the Old and the New Testaments complement each other. They are never at conflict with each other and never to be isolated when dealing with either testaments.
  2. The Christian reading and understanding of Old Testament prophecy and prophets takes the form of typological interpretation. The New Testament authors believed Old Testament events, persons, or things pointed to the later Christian story. Thus, they used images of the Old Testament to understand New Testament realities. For example, Christ could be compared to Adam (1 Cor. 15:22–23; 10:11).

A Historical Perspective on Apostleship

Like prophets, an understanding of apostleship is important, though it is also a controversial topic to consider. Apostleship is a highly fought about topic in the church today among the Evangelicals and other circles. Many argue that the prophetic and apostolic offices are as actively present in the twenty-first century church as they were in primitive times. Is this true? Are there apostles today? What are the biblical arguments and facts regarding this issue? Moreover, if the Bible is inerrant, what is its position on this matter?

In view of this, a Biblical understanding of the historicity of apostleship may be accentuated:

Various ways to understand the word “Apostle”

  1. Apostle: as one sent with a message

The word “Apostle” in Greek is “apostolos”. It can be literally translated as “one sent with a message”. The word has the sense of sending emissaries or an embassy. The Hebrew usage of this word in the Old Testament bears the principle of sending or the commissioning of a messenger with a task, either divine or human (e.g. Isa. 6:8, cf. 1Kgs. 14:6). The New Testament usage of the word espouses a description of a commissioned representative, tasked to convey a message. In the Roman army context, an apostolos would be a courier, a forerunner who brings an order from the general.

  1. Apostle: as it applies to all believers

The general sense of the word “apostle” as it applies to the Christian church is a reference to all believers who are to be messengers of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world in their daily lives as ambassadors of the Messiah (Acts 14:4, 14; Rom. 16:7; 2Cor. 8:22–23).

  1. Apostle: as it applies to Jesus

This is used of the Lord to describe his relation to God. Hebrews 3:1–2 says, “…consider Jesus, the apostle ….” Jesus was sent to earth by his father to redeem sinners. Christ mentioned the purpose of his coming to the earth. In John 17:3 Jesus prayed to God saying, “…that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus whom you have sent.”

  1. Apostle: as applied to the chosen Twelve

The gospels speak of Christ’s own choice of the Twelve. He appointed them to himself, whose purpose was to be with him and later to send them out for ministry (Mk. 3:14; 6:30, cf. Matt. 10:2). He was preparing them for the future task after his ascension. They would later be sent out, having the same burden as their Master (Luke 9:10; 17:5; 22:14; 22:14; 24:10).

The reasons for the office of Apostle in the NT Church

  1. To set pace for church leadership

In Acts 1:21–22 we read, “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men [in order to replace Judas] who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us [the apostles] of his resurrection.” The original twelve apostles were so designated by Christ in Lk 6:13 from 12 of his disciples. They were to be in a position of leadership.

  1. To establish the foundation of the church

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ testimony about the Rock (Matt. 16:18) asserts the primary purpose of the apostolic witness to Christ. “And the witness was rooted in the years of intimate knowledge, dearly bought experience, and intensive training” (Jeremiah, p.59). The reason for the apostles’ witness was to lay the foundation of the church. Ephesians 2:20 says, “[The church is] built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets.”

  1. To set down the final pages of the Word of God

The selected apostles laid down Scripture for the instruction, edification and direction of the church (2Tim. 3:17, 4:5). Jeremiah says, “The apostles are the touchstones of doctrines, the purveyors of the authentic tradition about Christ….” (Jeremiah, p.60)

Conclusion

Prophet in the New Testament means one sent to speak before or one called to speak for. This refers to one who speaks for God or for Christ. New Testament prophets were also called spiritual (1Cor. 14:37). New Testament prophecy was not revelatory in nature, but confirmative. It was prophecy involving more of forth telling rather than foretelling. Of this Paul says in 1Cor. 14:3, “…he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men.”

Thus, it can be concluded that the Old Testament prophetic office ended with John the Baptist, who was the last prophet. God used the Old Testament prophets as his mouthpiece for instructing Israel in her godly living and loyalty to God. Likewise, the apostles functioned for the purpose of laying the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). Therefore, the primitive prophetic office and an ancient apostolic office cannot be repeated today.

Bibliography

  1. Berkeley Mickelsen, Alvera M. Mickelsen, 1963. Better Bible Study, Eerdmans Publishing Company.
  2. I. Scofield, 1967. The New Scofield Study Bible. NIV. New York: Oxford University Press
  3. Elwell, W. A., 1988. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible- Vol. 1, Michigan: Baker Book House
  4. Hobart E. Freeman. 1969. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets – 4th Chicago: Moody Press
  5. Hatchett Randy, 2010. Prophecy & Prophets. B&H Publishing group. Most of the material on prophecy was adapted from Randy Hatchett’s article, “Prophecy & Prophets,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary [online, cited 1 September 2010]. Available from the Internet: www.mystudybible.com.
  6. Jeremiah, S., 1982. New Bible Dictionary 2nd, England: Inter-Varsity Press
  7. Unger, M. F., 1988. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago: Moody Bible Institute
  8. Vine, W. E., 1984. The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers
  9. Walter C. Kaiser & Silver Moises. 1994. Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. Michigan: Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan
  10. Cornerstone Commentaries: “A Biblical Analysis of the Gift of Prophesy”:http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Styx/4119/spirit/proph3.htm