There is a fascinating passage in Ephesians chapter four:
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (~Ephesians 4:11-16 NIV)
The idea is that God places certain gifted individuals to sharpen and upgrade the rest of us. The outcomes in these relationships tend toward a dramatic increase in unity, knowledge, maturity and stability. We grow up to a point of love where we are no longer infants in our thinking or ability, but will come to a place of maturity and proper place in the world at large.
So, continuing with prophet (and their biblical examples of Samuel, Elijah, Elisha and Peter, James, Paul…) what can we say about this gift?
Henrietta Mears, in her famous book What the Bible is All About talks about prophets having a three-fold role in their prophetic voice.
1. They talk about what God did in the past.
2. They talk about what God is doing now.
3. They talk about what God will do in the future.
In classical literature, the seer or sage is a mysterious figure, providing ominous portents of the future that almost always contain an element of malevolence or danger. Think, the witches in Macbeth here. Looking into the future is a compelling and scary business, not to be taken lightly. Partly because of our fascination with this, we attach to the “future speaking” role of the prophet with perhaps too much attention, while ignoring the other two critical pieces of their role.
In the Hebrew Bible, it most often sounded something like this:
Remember when God called Abraham? Remember when He called you out of Egypt? Remember when He fed you for a generation and then led you into the promised land? That same God is calling you today… to turn away from the not helpful activity you are engaged in and turn back to God and His word to You. He loves you dearly and doesn’t want you to reap the harvest that will come from the very bad seed, in the very bad field, where you are currently busy. And someday, God will come again, to make (in Tolkien’s phrase) everything sad come untrue. He will reset the scales and rule us with wisdom and justice forever.
Past. Present. Future. Cool isn’t it?
In thinking about this, I’d like to take the angle that we did before, of considering some things about the prophet we might not ordinarily know, and take a look at how best to support them in their gift. Let’s start here:
- The prophet gift, like apostle and evangelist and all the rest, is not a guarantee of character, or maturity or primary calling in regards to our own repentance and personal relationship with God. The reality is that, even a gifted individual can fail, can have serious issues of character or personality and is not, by default, any more capable or wise in handling the sin in their lives than you are in yours. They will react badly in response to trauma, and will need to grow out of that, just like anyone will. My point is that their gift is not a pass related to holiness or judgment.
So cut them some slack. They need grace just like the rest of us, in spite of the power of their gift and the doors that their gift will tend to open. They will need prayer, and friendship, and someone who can tell them to cut it out… just like the rest of us do.
- The prophet will prophecy to himself, maybe moreso than to others. That’s just the nature of spiritual gifts I think. The teacher learns more than anyone in their preparation, chasing down lines of thought and inquiry that never see the light of day in their public presentation. The blessing and curse of prophecy is the seeing of what God is doing before, during and after and it is a lens that will be pervasive to them, even outside of the specific role of MESSAGE TO BE DELIVERED WITH HOLY WEIGHT RIGHT NOW.
So know, that when the prophet gets harsh with a group or with an individual… that they will tend to be even more harsh with themselves. They are speaking, not out of an entitled, condescending, holier than thou perspective - but from a place of urgency, knowing firsthand that if God’s perspective isn’t heeded, the consequences can be devestating.
- The prophet will seem like a contrarian, even when their message starts to resonate. Because of their “lens” as it were, they will have a really odd response to many situations. Yes, but… will come out of their mouths a lot and they will seem to disagree for the sake of disagreeing. It’s not that exactly. It’s more that they see, by their nature, what others will tend to miss - and they will want the full picture in play. Another piece of this is timing. The prophet will often see the next step, way before the next step is ready to deploy. So the frustration of waiting for a year, two years, sometimes more… until their context “catches up” with them can sometimes put a little edge on their communication.
Also, expect an eye roll and a careful blank look when the thing they have been saying for 30 months is suggested by someone else, and suddenly everyone starts clapping like seals and starts to jump onboard.
So what do we do with our prophet here? Affirm them. Notice that they "called that one" quite some time ago and honor them for it. Also, when they start to speak in weird ways, ask probing questions to clarify what they are seeing but may have trouble expressing in an understandable way. Resist the urge to move on too quickly when they hit you with a non sequitur. Take the time to understand where they are leading… and if it isn’t time yet - think about how to prepare for the thing they are seeing downstream.
- The prophet will be lonely. Nathan poking at the king and Jeremiah in the rubble and Ezekiel taking shots at everyone is not the Dale Carnegie process for friends and influence. The nature of their role and speaking will alienate a lot of normal social connections that would otherwise be in play for them. They will need friends and they will need people to reach out to them more than you might think. Don’t assume that their vision and lightning like power in perspective will replace their need for simple community.
Make a place for your prophets and let them know they are loved.
- Listen to them. They can be as wrong as anyone in terms of priority, emphasis, or saying a right thing in the wrong way as anyone else can. But very often, the nature of the prophet will have them trying to express an ineffable but critical idea to an audience that just doesn’t get it. When you get the spiritual sense that something is afoot - help them make the connection to the larger group. Understand the scope and limits of what they are saying and go with them.
God uses this gift to shift the window, to further the horizon and to change perspective. Maybe more than any other gift, this one involves change, and discomfort and the cost of transition that often brings.
So lend them your ear and your heart and the depth of your understanding as much as possible - you’ll be glad you did.
There is a fascinating passage in Ephesians chapter four:
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
(~Ephesians 4:11-16 NIV)
The idea is that God places certain gifted individuals to sharpen and upgrade the rest of us. The outcomes in these relationships tend toward a dramatic increase in unity, knowledge, maturity and stability. We grow up to a point of love where we really love, not just telling people what they want to hear… but setting the broken bone when needed. If we don’t get this right, our works of service are of diminished value.
These equipping gifts and their influence are the very foundation of our ability to speak the truth in love. As Timothy Keller pointed out throughout his career, only love will try to avoid hurting the beloved at all costs - and only truth can be harsh and cold while being completely correct. Only when we have both do we find a depth of meaning and real relationship that lasts.
So, starting with apostle (and their biblical examples of Peter, James, Paul…) what can we say about this gift?
- Apostles will be great at starting things
This gift will tend to serial entrepreneur endeavors. They will see the opportunity no one else sees and they will get it started in some form faster than anyone would believe. They will be excellent at beginning and adjusting on the fly. And they will have to resist the urge to stay with the new work too long. The new faith organization they begin will be exceedingly vulnerable in the beginning; this is the nature of anything new. They will tend to be quickly pulled to the next new thing so leadership development and transition planning will be paramount for their success (and sanity!)
- Apostles will defy normal demographic boundaries
This one is really fun.
These guys will have connections with churches from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Mexico City, the local Farsi community and will be teaching a class of Chinese immigrants English, using the Gospel of John. It will be bananas! They will be surrounded by a storm of very weird intersections, pretty much all of the time.
Things that would normally be a barrier for connection, communication and stability related to culture, language or particular ethnic expression will be all but a non-issue for the apostolic gift.
Their connections, while incredibly diverse and chaotic, will feel like the most natural thing in the world, and God will kick open doors for them.
Something to consider here is giving them excellent second level support. Here’s what I mean by that in terms of direction:
Why is God connecting this particular group with our Apostle?
What do they need? Or what opportunity for something amazing do they represent?
Because of this gift, they will make excellent cross cultural missionaries - leaving behind a leadership network of indigenous and trained ministers in their wake. They will also spark unusual connection between need and resources - so look to jump in and help where you can!
- Apostles will be highly attractive to a variety of people
When they start something, they will almost magically have 20-50 people who will appear to help them or be a key part of the new group. Leaders will want to support them (and sometimes, exploit them for their own agenda). New leaders will find great work to do as they grow and develop. People looking for purpose and calling will be pulled into orbit almost by default. Again, this is really fun and we should look to support the Apostle in downstream effort to stabilize, fund and train the new wave of people.
- Apostles will be overloaded with opportunity
Make them take a day off and be unavailable. They’ll be more effective with a true Sabbath to power down than without one. But they will feel tremendous pressure to talk to one more person on the day that they really need to just spend with their family and friends.
This is the dark underbelly of the amazing ability to see and connect cross culturally. The reality is that there is a ton of heavenly opportunity around us all the time, but Apostles will be unusually connected to see it and do something about it. If they can find a balancing idea… something like, “we can’t do everything, but we can do something” it will help greatly.
Resist the urge to process them to death to reduce the chaos. They will flourish with the blank, undefined, open page.
- Apostles will have unusual gravitas, and will often be local in activity
Watch them in a group of leaders. When they speak, everyone will stop and listen, perhaps without even knowing why. And to be sure, they make excellent national class leaders with corresponding gifts of administration and experience managing groups of people.
The thing to remember (with say, Paul as an example) is that of lot of their activity will be most fruitful in the mode of the small business owner, “boots on the ground” sense. They will roll into a city, walk around, talk to some people and get a lay of the land. Then they will form a plan and people will appear to help them flesh it out. Sometimes this will be Peter on Pentecost with a huge revival of thousands that jump-starts the work in a generation.
But more often it will be tent-making and helping the small church core get going over a period of months to years. They will be the warm and personable “Mr. Mayor”, the guy who knows everyone, who everyone loves, who will have a meaningful conversation with a guy at a stop light with his window rolled down. They will comfortably hang with the corporate execs and the janitors coming in for the night shift to clean. The apostle will be extraordinary in making one to one connections with people, so be careful to keep that opportunity for connection as a key part of their weekly set.
This took an interesting turn as I was writing it. We can inspire leaders to lead. We can give permission for leaders to speak deeply into our lives and influence us for the good.
So my question for me and for you is this.
What can you do to help, encourage, and respond to the Apostle in your life and orbit?
At The Surge we love doing things together... that includes writing a blog! Here are a few of our main contributing authors:
Our fearless leader, Dwaine is the lead pastor at The Surge. His experience in counter terrorism with the CIA prepared him for ministry and he likes dogs and babies even more than E does.
E (short for Eric Reiss) is the Wingman at The Surge and likes dogs, music, Mexican food, his wife Karen and his little girl Evangeline... not necessarily in that order.