What do you think of when I say “prophet”? Maybe you think of a fortune-teller–someone who can predict the future or a palm-reader or some lady dressed funny with a crystal ball. Maybe you think of someone who can do miracles–or at least someone who makes it look that way.
What is a prophet in the Bible? A prophet has many “jobs”, but the major job of a prophet is to be a spokesperson for God. A prophet hears from God, then speaks to the people the words that God told him to speak. There are numerous examples of this in the Bible. Think of all the times someone writes “The word of the LORD came to…” (In most translations, if the word LORD is in all caps it refers specifically to the name God gave Moses at the burning bush). All of those individual speakers are prophets–Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc. So one role of a prophet is to be God’s spokesperson.
Sometimes a prophet does tell the future, although that is not true in many cases. Other times, a prophet tells what God might do if something doesn’t change. We think of Jonah preaching to the Ninevites what will happen if they don’t repent. Still other times, prophets are told specifically to act out certain things, almost as a dramatic parable, as a symbol to the people. One example of this is Jeremiah 13, where God commands Jeremiah to bury a linen belt, so that it will get ruined. This was to represent the way God would ruin Judah’s pride.
So the role of the prophet is to be God’s spokesperson. Sometimes this involves speaking of the future, although this isn’t necessarily the case. This speaking for God can be literally, in that the prophet speaks the words of the Lord, or this can be symbolically, in the “dramas” the prophet is called to act out.
This role of prophet is ultimately taken up in the New Testament by none other than Jesus Christ. Jesus in the New Testament becomes what the prophets were in the Old Testament.
Jesus of course becomes a spokesperson for God (not to imply he isn’t God himself). It is made pretty clear that the local Jews understood Jesus to be a prophet. In the story of the men on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, the men understand Jesus to have been a prophet.
Jesus also speaks the words of the LORD. There are many examples of this, but if we look to Jesus’ prayer for his people at the end of His life, it is made pretty clear. In John 17:7 & 8 Jesus prays, “Now they (Jesus’ followers) know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.” Jesus says that God gave him words, and that he spoke the words to the people. What were the words? All of the sermons Jesus preached. All of the parables Jesus told. There were times, too, when Jesus spoke of the future–see Matthew 24. These were the words of God that Jesus gave to the people.
Not only this, though. Jesus also performed prophetic signs. There weren’t a lot of them, mind you, but they were there. Maybe the most obvious example is when the woman is caught in adultery. The leaders bring the woman to Jesus to ask if they should stone her, and what does Jesus do? He bends over and draws in the sand. Strange! We don’t know what he drew. But the leaders did. And as a result they dropped their stones and walked away.
Another example of a prophetic sign could very well be the way he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. In some ways, of course, this would be reminiscent of a king riding in to the praises of his people. In other ways, though, it was symbolic, because Jesus wasn’t a king (at least not a king like the people expected–more on that in a future post).
It could very well be that Jesus’ clearing the Temple could be a third prophetic sign.
So while the role of the prophet is most often associated with the Old Testament, it exists throughout the whole Biblical story. And like many other things, the role of the prophet is ultimately filled in the person of Jesus Christ.