The Study of the Bible
God's Self-Revelation through Prophets
The Spoken Word of God
by James T. Bartsch
A prophet is someone who receives messages directly from God and communicates them to people. Words for prophet in the Old Testament include "prophet" (nabi, 5030) and "seer" (roeh, 7203). In the New Testament, a "prophet" is prophetes (4396), "to prophesy" is proheteuo (4395) and a "prophecy" (propheteia, 4394) is that which a prophet utters. Sometimes, but not necessarily always, that which a prophet uttered from God was written down, either by the prophet himself or someone else. That oral prophecy would then become part of the Written Word of God. It is doubtful that any true prophets exist today, for nothing has been added to the Written Word of God for nearly two millennia.
In Judaism, Tanakh is the appropriate name for the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Masoretic Text, or Miqra, "That Which is Read." The word Tanakh is an acronym for the three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible. These three components include the Torah (the five books of Moses), the Nevi'im (the Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Writings). The Nevi'im include "the Books of Joshua, Judges, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, II Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habukkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. (The last twelve are sometimes grouped together as "Trei Asar" ["Twelve"].)"
In Christian thinking, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Lamentations, and Daniel are called the "Major Prophets," not because of their importance, but because of their length. By contrast, Hosea through Malachi are called the "Minor Prophets," again, not because of their importance but because of their length.
Prophets in the Old Testament include both non-writing prophets, such as Abraham (Gen. 20:7) Elijah and Elisha, and writing prophets, such as Moses, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel. There are certain phrases that often characterize a prophet’s writings. Frequently we read, “The word of the LORD came to” the prophet (1 Kings 18:1; Isa. 38:4; Jer. 1:1-4; Ezek. 1:3; Jonah 1:1; Hag. 1:1), or “Thus says the LORD” (Ex. 4:22; Josh. 24:2; 2 Sam. 12:7; Isa. 37:6; Jer. 2:1-2; Ezek. 2:1-4; Amos 1:1-3).
In the New Testament, there were prophets such as Agabus (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-11). The evangelist Philip had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21:8-9). Men like Matthew, John, Paul, and Peter were apostles of Christ as well as prophets (Eph. 2:20), and each of them wrote documents that are part of the New Testament. Luke wrote his gospel and his history under the tutelage of the Apostle Paul. Mark was associated with the Apostle Peter. Jesus, of course, is a prophet as well as a priest and a king.
Some mistakenly believe that being able to predict the future is the distinguishing characteristic of a prophet. That is not really true. What makes a prophet a prophet is that he speaks on behalf of God messages which he receives directly from God. On the other hand, prophets frequently did predict the future because God wanted to communicate future events to readers of the Bible. But there was also a sign value to predictions. A prophet who could predict something in the future could be validated as a genuine prophet of God (Isa. 7:10-17; Matt. 1:18-23; Micah 5:2; Matt. 2:4-6).
Teachers, as opposed to prophets, expound on prophecies given by prophets. In other words, teachers receive messages from God indirectly through prophets who have written Scripture.
Prophets have zero margin for error. There can be no mistakes or inaccuracies in a Biblical prophet. To err in a statement or a prediction is to invalidate oneself as a prophet and to be liable to be put to death (Deut. 18:20-22). Prophets have a sacred trust to convey accurately the words God has spoken. No Biblical prophet has ever spoken as an act of his own will. These holy men were moved by the Spirit of God and spoke from God (2 Pet. 1:20-21).
(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB.)
Published November 28, 2011
Updated January 27, 2022