Gospel-Driven Prophecy: Understanding the Differences Between OT and NT Prophecy, Part 2

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Most germane to the discussion of cessationism and continuationism is the subject of modern day prophecy and how, if at all, it correlates to the acts of prophecy in the Scriptures. More than any other spiritual gift, this particular one raises more cause for concern, especially among sound evangelicals who identify themselves as cessationists or even those referring to themselves as “open-but-cautious.” That cause of concern has chiefly to do with the notion and/or accusation that continuationism calls into question the sufficiency and even authority of Scripture when it claims that the gift of prophecy is still in operation today in the local church. It is especially in light of this point that a fair, balanced, and legitimate observation of prophecy and prophets in the Scriptures should be presented. This is my desire in this brief article which, though I intend to provoke much though, study, and discussion, is not in any way intended to be a formal, theological presentation on the subject. In other words, this is fodder for the electronic debate on the charismatic gift of prophecy.

The Differences Between OT and NT Prophets and Prophecies

The first and oft-raised point of contention among cessationists is that their counterpart, continuationists, assert that the gift of prophecy in the OT and the gift in the NT are wrongly differentiated from each other. That is, the charge against the continuationist position is that they make a distinction between OT and NT prophecy where none is made biblically justifiable. This is the primary issue raised almost immediately among many of my personal cessationists friends, especially those who shared the same cessationistic seminary education with me. I’d like to submit that unless I have seriously overlooked something, the response I offer in this series of posts seems clear enough from a simple observation of Scripture on this area. And I’m open to further discussion in order to understand it better.

When I respond to my cessationist friends that the two gifts of prophecy and the two offices of prophet in the Old and New Testaments are different from each other, I am usually met with a raised eyebrow and a smile as if I were engaging in a bit of exegetical ballet. Perhaps I am unwittingly dancing with danger. Nevertheless, I present the differences here for anyone to observe and make their own conclusion upon. These differences speak for themselves and do not at all seem to point to some charismatic experience looking for a justification through hermeneutics, nor an attempt to cram a presupposed theology into a few texts of Scripture (as is often alleged by cessationists).
OT Prophets Were Rare
Old Testament prophets were rare and unique. A cursory observation reveals that they were rare simply because there just weren’t that many of them by comparison with the numbers of people alive during those days. Do you remember how many of them there were? By my count there seemed to be around two and a half dozen prophets ranging from Moses all the way down to Malachi, or even John the Baptist, if one counts him as the last OT prophet. This number would also include female prophets such as Hulda (2 Kings 22:14) and Deborah (Judges 4:4).

Added to this number of named prophets would be the unnamed prophets such as those whom Obadiah hid in the caves from Jezebel (1 Kings 18:4), the seven thousand prophets who did not bow the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18), or the prophets in the prophetic school led by Elijah and Elisha (2 Kings 6:1-5). So even though the OT prophets numbered into the thousands, they were still rare by comparison with the number of people they served. The fact was, not everybody in Israel was a prophet. And that leads into the second point.

OT Prophesies Were Unique
The fact that prophets were rare is inseparably connected to the nature of their prophetic messages. In short, OT prophets and their prophecies were unique. The majority of them lived during the monarchial period of Israel’s history, that season of several hundred years where the united and later divided nations of Israel and Judah had to live in the consequences they created for themselves when they demanded a king from the prophet Samuel. This is significant, for the official office of OT prophet seems to have arisen around the eleventh century, B.C., before the exile of both nations to Assyria and Babylon. There were a few prophets after the exile, but many, like Ezekiel during this time period, served a dual role as priests and prophets, functioning differently in the life of Israel. Malachi is the last OT prophet, dating somewhere around 450 B.C., after the return from exile.

The rarity and the uniqueness of the office form the basis for the two primary differences between OT and NT prophets. OT prophets were appointed and raised up by God, primarily during the monarchial period, to call the kings of both Israel and Judah (including various pagan nations as well) to repentance and to pronounce the impending destruction on these nations for their refusal to repent.

In a word, conflict with the governing rulers of God’s chosen nation was the most common experience of an OT prophet. Hardly a prophet is found during this long period of history where he was not in conflict with the kings of Israel and Judah. They seemed to operate as God’s counterbalance to the often unrestrained wickedness of the kings and rulers and false prophets. The last of these was, of course, John the Baptist whose conflict with Herod Antipas’ adultery and refusal to repent landed the former in prison and eventually executed.

Summary of OT Prophets and Prophecies
In summary, OT prophets were specially appointed by God and appointed by other prophets. Much of the prophecy of OT prophets was focused on calling rulers to repent, and calling people back to the worship of YHWH. All of it took place in the community or context of the nation of Israel, though often it was directed at other pagan nations, and yet even then because of their divine and sovereign connection to the discipline of God’s people. Further, very little of what these prophets prophesied is actually recorded for us in Scripture. And considering the fact that these prophets numbered into the thousands, this is very significant in light of the discussion at hand.
Read Part 3

Go To:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Conclusion

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