prophets and priests

by Robert Brow   (web site -

The prophet Jeremiah was both a priest and a prophet (Jeremiah 1:1, 5). So he felt free to say some tough things about both of those functions in his day. "The priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded" (4:9). And the reason is that "prophet and priest ply their trade throughout the land, and have no knowledge" (14:18; 23:11). "From prophet to priest everyone deals falsely" (6:13; see 5:31; 8:10).

 At that time priests were responsible for the rituals of temple worship and teaching the law of God. Prophets were responsible for listening to what God might be saying about Israel and other nations. They were often in conflict with one another. And the struggle between these two aspects of ministry has continued in the Christian Church for two thousand years. Priests say "This is the way we have always done things." Prophets tend to say "But this is how God is now going to do things."

 Priestly ministry is bound to be conservative and it should stick to the written word of God. "The lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth" (Malachi 2:7). Prophetic ministry is unpredictable and unsettling. In the Exodus both Moses and his sister Miriam were prophets (Exodus 15:20; Deuteronomy 18:15), and they announced it was now time to move out of slavery in Egypt. In the days of the judges prophets encouraged the fight for freedom (Judges 4:4; 6:7). Prophets announced the end of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians, and then the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. John the Baptist had to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, and was beheaded for doing so.

 Six hundred years before the event Jeremiah had announced the Messiah's new covenant of the Spirit (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-13) when men and women, children and even slaves, would act as prophets (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17-18).

 The difference in the way God now began speaking through the new covenant prophets is striking. In the Old Testament period prophets were raised up for particular tasks in the nation. They had to point out the luxury, inhumanity, oppression, and military adventures of kings and nobles. When the nation's social fabric had become corrupt their task was to announce the inevitable consequences in a day of the Lord when God's wrath would be outpoured.

 In the new covenant churches God's people would gather and speak prophetically to one another. "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation" (1 Corinthians 14:26). New covenant prophecy had three functions. "Those who prophesy speak to other people for their up-building and encouragement and consolation" (1 Corinthians 14:3). And these three kinds of one on one prophetic ministry are also needed by Christians in our day.

 Up-building was for building the new temple of the Spirit (Ephesians 2:21; see 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16). This kind of building up required "the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual" (1 Corinthians 2:12-13).

 Prophetic encouragement was also by the Spirit. "You can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and be encouraged" (1 Corinthians 14:31; see Romans 1:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:13).

 In a world where there was constant persecution and an early death was frequent Christians needed to give each other consolation by the Spirit. "If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation (literal translation as in 1 Corinthians 14:3) from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy . . . " (Philippians 2:1).

 It therefore seems clear that in the early Christian gatherings there was an opportunity to share with each other prophetic wisdom in the Spirit: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom" (Colossians 3:16; compare the wisdom from on high in James 3:17). And some of this prophetic ministry was in song (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).

 This new kind of mutual ministry in the Spirit was prophesied by the prophet Joel, "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Joel 2:28). And on the Day of Pentecost Peter declared that this had now begun to occur (Acts 2:17). He underlines the fact that "even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit" (Acts 2:18; based on Joel 2:29).

 In our day many Christians are no longer content with just sitting and listening to long sermons. They want opportunities to share heart to heart with one another by the Spirit. And this is a powerful way of building up the body of Christ, and it is something that outsiders find very attractive.

 So it seems that Jesus, as Messiah, closed off the Old Testament type of prophetic activity in a nation, and began a new kind of Church. "The prophets and the law prophesied until John came." And "among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he . . ." (Matthew 11:11, 13).

 In the Old Testament there were two ways in which prophets heard and then declared what God was saying. Some of them were called "seers" because they first saw a vision or dream or picture, and then they were inspired to say what it meant (1 Samuel 9:9; 2 Samuel 24:11; Isaiah 30:10; Amos 7:12). Zechariah for example saw visions of a red horse, then of four horns, a measuring line, the high priest Joshua, a lampstand, a flying scroll, a basket, and four chariots (Zechariah chapters 1 to 6). And in each case he explained what the vision meant.

 The other way for prophets to receive a message was to hear God speaking, and then declare what God was saying to the people (Jeremiah 1:4, 6-7). Jeremiah describes this as eating the words of God. "Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart" (15:16). The message came by the Spirit from the depths of the prophet's heart. "Within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in" (Jeremiah 20:9; see Ezekiel 3:14). Or he may describe it as "the word of the Lord came to me" (Ezekiel 6:1; 7:1; 15:1; and many other references), or "the Spirit of the Lord fell upon me" (Ezekiel 8:1; 11:5).

 In some cases a false prophet may not understand or even receive God's message. Or he may lie about the message (Jeremiah 5:31; 14:14), or present it in a false light (Jeremiah 14:14). There is therefore a distinction between what God is saying by the Spirit, and what the prophet has to explain clearly to the people. The words as they come from God can be very sweet, but then there is the difficulty of having to declare them (Ezekiel 3:3-11).

 In 1 Corinthians Paul makes a similar distinction between a tongue and its interpretation. He seems to make a connection between speaking in tongues and prophecy in words than can build up the hearers (14:6-12). It is certainly possible to communicate in tongues on one's own with God (14:2). But in a gathering for mutual up-building those who receive a message from God in tongues should learn to interpret it in words that can be understood (14:5, 13, 14, 19). It is possible for another Christian to interpret what a person is hearing (14:5), but this should not happen more than two or three times in one gathering (14:27-28). As in Old Testament prophecy, the norm is for a person to express in ordinary language what the Lord seems to be saying, and then others should evaluate the message (14:29).

 We began with the fact that Jeremiah had harsh things to say both about priests and prophets in his day. We then noted some changes in the way prophecy by the Spirit works in the New Testament. We are now ready to explore an even greater difference in the way priests, priesthood, and temple worship are going to function in the new covenant churches of the Holy Spirit.

 When the children of Israel came out of Egypt they were told "The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). God loves and is interested in all people, but one nation was to have a special priestly function among them. Within this priestly nation the tribe of Levi was appointed to substitute for the firstborn sons and daughters of that nation (Numbers 3:12; see Exodus 12:12). The Levites had to take care of the movable place of worship (Numbers 1:48-54), and this continued later when a stone temple was built.

 From among the tribe of Levi the sons of Aaron became the priests who served at the altar and once a day entered the Holy Place (Numbers 3:1-5; some of their functions had been explained in Exodus 28:1-3; 30:1-37; and throughout the Book of Leviticus).

 The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that the ancient Aaronic priesthood was obsolete and would soon disappear (Hebrews 8:13). A new covenant priesthood would now serve under their Messianic high priest (4:14-15; 7:11-14; 8:1-13). The apostle Peter addressed all Christians as members of this new royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:5, 9; see Romans 15:16; Revelation 1:6; 5:10). In doing this he quotes the priesthood of the children of Israel, which was established at the Exodus (Exodus 19:6), and in that priesthood women and men were equally included (see Numbers 3:12-13; compare Exodus 12:29).

 Instead of functioning in one place the new royal priesthood would form themselves into temples of the Holy Spirit in each city and town throughout the world (Ephesians 2:20-22). In that sense all Christians are new covenant priests. For a time both kinds of temple overlapped as the early Christians in Jerusalem met in the temple courts (Acts 3:1,11; 5:20-21). But Jesus had himself announced that the Jerusalem temple built of stones was going to be destroyed in that generation (Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2).

 In the new temples of the Spirit, instead of worship based on animal sacrifice, Christians would gather around the bread and wine of the communion service. And once Christians begin having a regular communion service some form of new covenant priestly ritual is going to emerge. "This is the way we meet with the Lord."

 As the weekly gatherings become larger changes inevitably occur. At first all Christians could gather in one place for communion services in which both their priestly and prophetic functions could be exercised. These functions inevitably divided as Christians needed to meet in smaller groupings for mutual prophetic ministry to build each other up, encourage the fainthearted, and console the distressed (1 Corinthians 14:3).

 In this century of the Holy Spirit we have begun to learn that both formal public worship and small group gatherings are needed. We need the carefully prepared music and teaching, prayers, and sense of oneness with larger numbers. We also need to gather with a small number of friends with whom we can engage in loving fellowship.

 The tension between priestly and prophetic ministry has continued to this day. Those responsible for conducting ordered communion services are inevitably threatened by smaller gatherings where untaught and unlicensed men and women can engage in mutual prophetic ministry.

 When a church first begins in a city there is the assumption that all Christians in the city should gather for worship in one place. This was reflected in the second century by the emergence of city bishops who presided at the weekly eucharist or thanksgiving around the bread and the wine. But as numbers increased the city bishops soon had to delegate this function to those who could preside at communion services in other parts of the city and countryside. Unfortunately those who conducted these services were called priests. They were indeed priests, but this obscured the fact that all Christians were priests in the new royal priesthood.

 At first there was also the assumption that all communion services should be conducted in the same way according to some agreed pattern. When a variety of denominations began functioning in one city it became possible for Christians to choose among different kinds of worship. Some liked a high kind of ritual, some were low with austere simplicity; there was a choice of different kinds of music, and there were many ways of ordering the worship and experimenting with rules for who could participate. Some are more or less exclusive. Others like the Anglicans welcome people of all denominations to their communion, and also allow children to participate before they have had the formal instruction that used to be required. A variety of denominations also allow women to conduct their more formal services.

 Finally we wonder why the Messiah made such momentous changes in the generation of the first disciples, and then allowed radical change to continue. An easy answer is that the priests and prophets of Jerusalem were already behaving badly in the time of Jeremiah, and things became progressively worse. Even if they had all functioned perfectly, they would never have been able to offer the needed priestly and prophetic ministry that was needed among all nations.

 There is perhaps another reason for replacing the prophetic ministry of individuals in a nation by communities of the Spirit where mutual prophetic ministry is possible. The thunderings of the Old Testament prophets did not achieve the social change that was needed. But where Christians meet face to face to encourage one another in the love of God, social change begins to occur organically from the very hearts of individuals. Harvey Cox and others have noted how this occurs in the Base Communities of South America. And that acts as a powerful leaven in society.

 A deeper answer is that the Holy Spirit is creative. As we say in the Nicene Creed, he is "the Lord, the giver of life." Whether in plant or animal or human life he delights in a profusion of variety. There are many plants in a garden, many different kinds of fish and birds, and there is no reason for Christians to be drably dressed in one uniform. What is common to all of us is that the Holy Spirit uses both priestly and prophetic ministry to unite and perfect us in the love of God.


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