In the older covenant, there were two principal aspects of the prophetic word. The first one, and the one that everyone associates with prophesy, is the declaration of what was going to to come to pass in the future. This is the foretelling aspect.
This was the basis of Isaiah’s taunt, the one he threw down to the pagan deities who, just like us, did not know what tomorrow might bring. They were not lords or masters of history, and could not describe the future for the listeners, because that history was not in their hands. And you cannot unpack anything if you can’t pick it up.
“Shew us the things that are to come hereafter, that we may know that ye are gods.”
Is. 41:23 (KJV)
But the God of Israel was the ultimate sovereign over all of history, and so He could tell His servants exactly what was going to happen next. He could do it when nobody would believe it, and it was also apparent He could it when everything came to pass exactly as predicted, and all who heard about it could feel their ears start to tingle.
Does God do anything except He reveals it to His servants the prophets (Amos 3:7)?
Voice and Language are Not Synonyms
Now a side comment first. I am not here addressing the nature of prophetic language, except indirectly. The prophetic use of satire or abrasive language is entirely defensible, and I have defended it elsewhere. But by “voice” I am intending something larger. The words and language used contribute to the voice, but the voice has more to do with the assumed stance taken by the one who is speaking. The thing that those in rebellion find so offensive about direct prophetic discourse is not the fact that certain words are used, but rather that the preacher assumes he has the authority to address their sin with words that amount to an abrupt dismissal. So the issue is always authority.
The foretelling shows that the prophet has the authority to address the sin of the people. The language he uses shows clearly that he intends to exercise that authority. But if he aims that kind of language at their foreheads, which are adamantine anyhow, such language will just sound to them like scurrilous abuse. But if he aims at the heart, and speaks with the authority God gave him, the result will be either a revival or a riot, and sometimes both.
The Heart of Prophesy
So this ability to tell the future was the calling card of prophecy, not the essence of prophecy. The ability to say what was going to happen tomorrow was the authoritative proof that qualified the prophets to tell everyone what was actually going on in the present. This is how a false prophet was to be identified. Say he prophesied something, and if it didn’t happen, he was a fraud (Dt. 18: 21-22). He could also be identified if he tried to lure you away to some other god (Dt. 13: 1-3). Put all this together and you have a man called by God, authenticated by the true God, and who consequently speaks as though he were authenticated by God . . . and not as the scribes.
The former test was the foretelling. But the center of the prophetic ministry was actually the forth-telling. What is happening right now? The future told was the qualification for the present explained in terms of the motives of the people dissected.
So the heart of prophetic ministry has to do with the present, not the future. The future was brought in as a way of establishing the authority of the person who is going to tell you about all the compromises you are in bed with in right now. He is going to tell you things which—if you act on what he says—will bring you into conflicts you didn’t want to be in. His message is therefore a troublesome one.
Words We Tend to Prefer
So the thing that is usually happening “right now” is the disobedience of the people, and the reason God had to italicize these things by means of the foretelling is that people don’t like being told about the wickedness of their generation. That kind of message is off-putting, and the people always have an earnest desire to have a messenger who is willing to prophesy smooth things for them (Is. 30:10). “Prophesy deceits unto us”—they want deceits, boy, and they want them layered on thick. They want to heap up teachers who will stroke their felt needs (2 Tim. 4:3). If a man of wind comes prophesying wine and beer, he would be just the right spokesman for this people (Micah 2:11). They want prophets who will speak to them in terms of affirming and melted butterscotch.
At the same time, everybody likes feeling morally superior, especially the reprobate, which brings with it an interesting epistemological criterion. “What is your basis for thinking this generation of yours is so morally superior?” Well, our only basis for thinking something so obviously false is that we feel that it would be simply grand if we were. So the prophetic word comes in to collide with this conceit and says that a person with a Planned Parenthood sticker right next to his COEXIST sticker is the moral inferior of someone who supported the Charleston slave market—after all, the latter supported the sale of blacks, while the former supports the sale of black children, provided they are cut up into little pieces first. Moral superiors, aye.
But convincing someone in the grip of such a delusional self-congratulation really is a hard sell. We live in a time when progressives can sport bumper-stickers that will tout the ticket of Shagrat/Slubgob 2024, and still manage to look down on you and your kind as ethical retards.
And so then when some Tishbite comes roaring out of the wilderness with a message that is a little less flattering than all of that, it is easy to dismiss him. In many cases, it is necessary to dismiss him, and that is why God thought it was just as necessary to authenticate him. And so God did authenticate his prophets—century after century He did this. Their words are consequently our foundation stones. The Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20).
And Prophesy Still Collides with Sin
This case-by-case supernatural authentication is no longer necessary today because the Scriptures contain everything we need to know about our current condition. Anybody who wants to discover the real condition of their soul can read through Ecclesiastes and Ephesians, and there he will find the whole thing laid out for him, his heart pinned to a card like a dried beetle in a museum case. And on the supposition that he will likely not seek out Ecclesiastes and Ephesians on his own, the ministers of the Word have been charged to bring the message to him, and to declare it, whether he likes it or not.
So the same authority that Isaiah and Amos had still extends to the modern preacher. He is to be a careful student of the Word, and if anybody knows what the Scriptures are saying to us today, he should know. Not only should he know, but what he knows he should have the courage to say, out loud, in front of all the people. In the current diseased state of the American republic, the pulpit ought to be a place that requires courage to enter. The fact that it is not such a place is an indictment on our preachers, and not a testament to the kindness of the authorities who decline to haul them off. Why should they haul off people who are presenting absolutely no threat to their evil ways?
But this state of impotence and being left alone does not continue on indefinitely though. Jesus teaches us that when the salt gets to an advanced condition of worthlessness, it is fit for nothing but to be trampled on by men. And so it is (Matt. 5:13). That is what is happening now.
But in the meantime, God is up to something else. God is still building out His church, down through history. In order to do this, He gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:11)—apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers. The apostles and prophets are the concrete workers, pouring the foundation. We don’t need them alive with us today for the same reason that you don’t pour concrete while you are framing out the attic, or while laying shingles on the roof. Foundation work is once and done. Second, the evangelists are the loggers and sawmill operators—they are the ones bringing in new building material. And then last, the pastors/teachers are the contractors. They have the responsibility to erect the walls, and as long as they are building in line with the blueprints and in line with the foundation that is already laid, they speak and teach with the authority of the prophets.
Allow me to state that again. Their calling is that they are to speak with the same authority of the prophets of old. The preaching ministry is a prophetic ministry. It was not for nothing that the Puritan William Perkin’s book on preaching was entitled The Art of Prophesying.
So How Does This Work?
The prophets of old were inspired by the Spirit of God with regard to their content, and empowered by the Spirit of God with regard to their delivery in speaking (2 Pet. 1:21). The modern prophet has the inspired text right in front of him, and as he faithfully handles it (2 Tim. 2:15), he is empowered by the same Spirit who moved the ancient prophets. The Spirit who moved Isaiah is the same Spirit who moved Whitefield, and with the same potent fervency. This is why should be a lot more of “thus saith the Lord,” and a lot less of “it seems to me that.”
Let me first make clear what I am saying, and then after that I will point to a few passages that make it clear that this doctrine is no novelty, but is the teaching of Scripture.
Before I read the text of a sermon, I say the location of the text, and then I say, “These are the words of God,” and then I read it aloud. If a neo-orthodox theologian happened to be in the congregation, he would mutter under his breath over my naive and simplistic approach. He would say that the text is a place where I should be prepared to encounter the Word of God, but the Word itself should not be simply equated with the text of Scripture. I bring this up, not to debate with the neo-orthodox guy about Scripture, for he is simply wrong, but rather to point out that what the neo-orthodox guy says about Scripture is what historic Reformed theology says about orthodox preaching. Uninspired sermons, even when anointed by the Holy Spirit, are not to be equated with Scripture. So much should be obvious. But the prepared Reformed parishioner nevertheless comes to a preached message prepared to encounter the Word of God.
THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD.
Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
Second Helvetic Confession, Ch. 1
This is certainly a high view of preaching, but is it biblical? It most certainly is. A preacher must walk toward the pulpit preparing his heart to announce the very words of God.
“If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.”
1 Peter 4:11 (KJV)
And here is another important witness:
“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?”
Romans 10:14 (KJV)
Perhaps you noticed that the word of there has a strike-through. This is because the verb akouo (hear) takes the genitive as though it were an accusative, which is a round about way of saying that the question is actually “how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” How can they believe in Jesus when they haven’t heard Jesus? And how can they hear Jesus without a preacher? Note that the question is not how can they hear about Jesus without a preacher, but rather how can they hear Jesus Himself without a preacher?
“For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”
Revelation 19:10 (KJV)
To What End?
So these are the elements that make up the prophetic word. But there is one more thing for us to consider. What does the prophetic Word do?
The prophetic Word is the leaven of movements, the shaper of civilizations, the catalyst of eras. The prophetic Word is the creator of worlds.
The world that now exists had all the raw material laid out on the bench at the very beginning. But how was that raw material laid out? By means of the Word. All things were made through the Word, and without him nothing was made (John 1:3). If it was made, then the Word made it. The sun, moon and stars came about through the Word (Heb. 1:2). The chaos of the deep upon which the Spirit moved was brought out of nothing by the Word (Col. 1:17). The protons at the center of every atom, the position and velocity of every asteroid in the great darkness beyond Mars, and the awesome intricacy of the double helix . . . . all of it, spoken into existence by the Word, and sustained by that same Word.
Now when the Word spoke galaxies into being, when the Word moved Elijah to confront Ahab, and Latimer to challenge Henry, it was always the same Word, anointed by the same Spirit. It was not always doing the same thing, obviously, but it was always the same Word. And that Word is always driving in the same direction—the formation of the world that will come about as a result of the Word’s authority.
The Word is always first. The Word comes prior. Those who want conservative political reforms to carve out a safe little spot where preachers to deliver tame lectures do not just have the cart before the horse, but have actually loaded the horse up into the cart, and are waiting for the day when God grants what they imagine revival to be like. They want to see the cart rolling along by itself, with the horse in it. Do you want the world to come to Christ? Preach it. Declare it. Summon it.
Someone is sure to say that this particular flight of fancy is not scriptural. Where do we find in Scripture anything like this? Oh, I don’t know. The kingdom is near (Luke 10:9). The kingdom has come (Matt. 12:28). The kingdom is coming (Matt. 6: 10). The kingdom is within you (Luke 17:21). The kingdom is what we preach (Acts 20:25). And as we preach Christ crucified, with no man having the authority to forbid, the kingdom takes shape and form. It has to. The Word has spoken.
“For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”
1 John 5:4 (KJV)
“For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.”
Romans 4:13 (KJV)
“And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.”
Revelation 6:2 (KJV)