But just what is prophecy, and what purpose did the prophet play in history? Like usual, Scripture gives quite clear answers.
The Bible describes the prophet as having a very specific purpose, prophets were not people who simply predicted the future as is commonly thought these days. To use a modern example, the prophet can be compared to a ‘lawyer’ which God used to prosecute people and nations that that had sinned against Him. So just as a modern lawyer will represent the government in charging a criminal for a crime, God also sent His prophets to lay charges against people and nations.
At the start of Ezekiel’s prophetic mission, God used a very clear definition of what prophecy exactly is:
“When I say to a wicked person, “You will surely die,” and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.” Ezekiel 3:18-19.
Here we see four clear things about prophecy: 1) a sin is identified, 2) the prophet calls the sinners to repent of their sin, 3) punishment is predicted if there is no repentance, 4) the prophet is accountable for doing his job properly.
So while a prophet certainly does predict the future, this is only a small part of what the prophet does. It is important to note that the prediction of the future always dependeds on whether the people repented or not. If the people did repent of their sin, then God would not punish the people. We see this in the story of Jonah’s prophecy.
1 Corinthians 14:3-4 gives another good guide to what a prophecy should do; “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort”, and “he who prophesies edifies the church”. So we see that prophecy also contains encouragement and comfort as well as warnings of God’s wrath. Both are important parts of prophecy. Also the Old Testament prophecy contained a lot of encouragement and comfort too (Hos 11:14, 14, Joel 3:17-21, Amos 9:11-15, Mic 7:8-20).
The Bible makes it clear that there are just as many false prophets as true prophets, so we need to be careful when listening to anybody who claims to be speaking prophecy. The two best ways to tell a true prophet from a false prophet are:
1) see if the prophecy comes true. “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously” Deuteronomy 18:22.
2) “By their fruit you will recognise them.” Matt 2:15,16. The fruit of the spirit is of course a reference to Gal 5:22-23, which is in contrast to the works of the flesh Gal 5:19-21, which are the fruits of the false prophet.
Also prophets are always described as spreading their message on the streets, pleading to all the people in a confident way. Prophets do not whisper their message in a church corner.
So in summery we find a number of principles in the Bible for telling apart true and false prophets. These are the characteristics that the Bible describes of a true prophet:
1) The prophet must be prophesying directly to the people
2) Specific sins will be identified
3) The prophet will call the people to repent
4) Specific punishment will be identified for unrepentant sin
5) Specific blessings with be identified for repentance
6) The prophecy must identify a path to improvement
7) The prophecy must come true
8) The fruit of the prophet must be of spirit, not of the flesh
It is obvious from all this that prophecy isn’t just the prediction of future events- this is called a ‘revelation’- but instead true prophecy will include the principles that are listed above which come from the Bible. Also it is very important to note that an extremely high responsibility is upon the shoulders of the prophet to do his job properly. This should serve as a dire warning to anybody who wishes to call their words prophecy; it is not a risk-free and glamorous job, and God holds you responsible as well. So people should be totally sure that it is God’s words that they are speaking and not their own. God takes prophecy extremely seriously:
“Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing!”, “My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations” Ezekiel 13:3, 9." But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’" Deuteronomy 18:20
The whole modern understanding of ‘prophecy’ seems to be based on a confusion between ‘prophecy’ and ‘revelation’. If someone is only predicting a future event, then this is revelation, NOT prophecy. The two are totally different things.