Back in Old Testament times God made a promise: “I will pour out My Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out My Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28, 29). The prophet Joel connected this promise to earth’s final judgment, thus indicating that before this judgment comes there will be an unusual outpouring of prophecy. In other words, Joel was telling us that during earth’s last days God will make prophets out of some of the most unexpected people from all classes: women and men, youth and aged, elite and lowly. They will deliver special messages to His people.
What do you make of this prophecy? Is it yet to be fulfilled? Would its fulfillment really be good news for truth-seeking, peace-loving people today?
The arrival of a generation of new, godly prophets may not seem likely in our skeptical, scientific age thousands of years after the prophets of the Bible ceased their work. But Joel was not the only biblical figure who predicted such a thing. The great church leader Paul wrote that prophets would be primary among the leaders God sends to His church, alongside teachers and administrators and other gifted people (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11–13). Paul insisted that God’s followers must not despise the messages of those who claim to be prophets but rather should consider them carefully. He gave no indication that God’s gift of prophecy might be a temporary provision—for biblical times only—any more than he suggested that the gifts of teaching or administration would be temporary.
However, the thought of modern prophets brings a frightening host of potential ones to mind. Headlines predicting tragedies scream at us from tabloids in supermarket aisles, while psychics offer their wares from billboards and storefronts. What a motley crowd! The regularity with which their predictions fail seems to be exceeded only by the outlandishness of their behavior and the sensationalism of their scandals. What thoughtful person would want to consider allowing the good work of Jesus to be associated with a group of such ill repute?
Of course, there are other candidates who do not exhibit such brash and disreputable behavior. They seem to be decent citizens and even deeply spiritual believers, and their messages sound reasonable and helpful—or at least within the realm of possibility. But is it really safe to open the door to them merely because they aren’t offensive?
Are we ready to deal with the repercussions of finding prophets in our midst? The claim that real Christian prophets are loose in the world today is bound to make people skeptical of everything God’s followers are trying to communicate. And there’s no telling how many claims we’ll have to sift through once we open the door to such a possibility. Since it’s hard to determine who’s genuine and who isn’t, maybe we’re better off rejecting everyone. Surely we’d be wise just to trust in the excellent wisdom already available to us in the Bible and avoid the threat false prophets pose to orderly thinking and worship.
The need to avoid chaos must certainly overrule the desire for small increases in our spiritual understanding; God does, in fact, affirm this to be true. However, we must not forget the deeper truth—the fact that it is not our feeble and self-defeating attempts to protect ourselves but His universal power and wisdom that controls the chaos of the universe. And God says that our desperate need for guidance and understanding in perilous times overrules our desire for the soothing illusion of normalcy (Amos 3:7). While our hope to avoid misleading assertions and embarrassing associations is valid, God will do things His way because, unlike us, He sees the whole universe.
test the prophets
Jesus Himself warned that a host of false prophets would cause problems for believers in the future. He noted that a time will come when it will be extremely difficult to tell the false prophet from the true one. Fortunately, though false prophets often speak the words we want to hear and perform apparent miracles, the means for unmasking them are clear. In the first place, the Bible insists that a prophet sent from God will not give a message that is not fully in agreement with the Bible’s clear teaching (Isaiah 8:19, 20). A true prophet will, for example, recognize both the human nature and the divine Lordship of Jesus Christ (1 John 4:1–3).
Second, barring the occasional misdeed, prophets of God must also live their lives in accordance with God’s law of love, which He carefully set forth and explained in the Bible (Matthew 7:15–20). Third, although the prophet’s message may at times be shocking or difficult to accept, it must ultimately contribute to the spiritual growth of the people of God (Ephesians 4:11–13). And finally, because Christians believe that what God promises He will bring to pass, they must hold in question any prophet who makes predictions that are not fulfilled—though God does reserve the right to change His mind in extreme circumstances (Deuteronomy 18:21, 22).
Like most of God’s prophets whom the Bible mentions, those Paul wrote of in Corinth and Thessalonica were apparently given messages of a limited and local nature. In some instances, as in the case of the revelation that John received and recorded at the end of the New Testament, God gives a message that is of value to the broader church. Paul recognized and even emphasized the great value of these prophetic gifts. But he also insisted that whether a message is local or universal, people must carefully evaluate the would-be prophets and their prophecies (1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:20, 21).
It is possible that, after observing carefully the words and works of one claiming to bring a message from God, we will be able to say with full assurance, “Here is a message sent from God—one that makes the Bible beautiful and plain and that lays out clearly my duty and value before God.” What an honor and a joy will be ours in that case!
God is in control despite the threats and confusion of this world, and He will do whatever He must to encourage and guide His beloved followers. Knowing that God will not leave us alone to face things that we cannot understand—that He still keeps His promise of guidance—must be for us a source of satisfaction and peace.