There’s no one-size-fits-all description for what every prophet is like or what they’re called to do. Here’s how God can use ordinary people to do powerful things, and how to test between true prophets and false prophets.
When you hear the word “prophet,” what comes to mind?
Do you think of a person with some kind of mystical powers that allow them to see the future?
Do you think of someone odd, reclusive, or awkward, only able to carry on conversations about whatever prophecy they’re currently proclaiming?
Maybe your mind goes straight to the Bible, thinking of high-profile prophets like Daniel, John the Baptist, or Elijah.
The word “prophet” probably isn’t one you use very often in regular conversation, but as you read through the Bible, you’ll come across numerous stories of everyday people—rich and poor, young and old, men and women, charismatic and shy—who were called upon by God to serve as prophets.
But what is a prophet, really?
Do they all talk about the future? Do they have to be really good people first? Do they have to be likeable or influential? What’s on the prerequisites list for becoming a prophet?
The actual definition for “prophet” is simple, but serving in that role can mean many different things—it’s not all about proclaiming a prophecy or two in front of a group of people. Just as each human being is unique, each prophet is unique. And their God-led influence has accomplished amazing things throughout history.
Definition of a prophet
Most dictionaries agree—a prophet is a person who receives a divine message and speaks to other human beings on behalf of a deity.
Read more about Understanding Prophecy in the Bible
The Bible’s definition, based on how prophets are described throughout Scripture and what they are tasked to do, isn’t much different than what the dictionaries say. It’s like being God’s spokesperson for a given time and place.
“Then the Lord put forth His hand and touched my mouth, and the Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have put My words in your mouth. See, I have this day set you over the nations and over the kingdoms to root out and pull down, to destroy and to throw down, to build and to plant’” (Jeremiah 1:9-11, NKJV).
However, the word “prophet” does have connotations that can distract from the original meaning. For example, if you look at a thesaurus, “prophet” often gets lumped in with words like “seer,” “astrologer,” “fortune teller,” “soothsayer,” or even “witch!”
But before this starts to sound too eerie, this is where the Bible’s definition strongly disagrees. In fact, several Bible verses describe how things like sorcery or divination are forbidden. God specifically instructs His people to stay away from such practices and the people involved in them (Zechariah 10:2; Isaiah 8:19-20; Acts 8:9-24).
The definition of “prophet” is simple, but the significance is powerful. Being chosen as a prophet is considered an honor, and it demands courage, diligence and selflessness—not easy things for imperfect humans to consistently maintain. Fortunately, one of the perks for prophets was God was with them every step of the way, so they didn’t have to rely on their own human strength or confidence.
Who were the prophets of the Bible, and what were they like?
While all prophets in the Bible communicated God’s words to people, their specific roles varied. God used many different methods of communicating with the prophets, and the types of prophecies they were to share had different purposes, themes, and conditions.
Most prophets were sent to inspire action or change
It’s easy to think of prophets as individuals propped up on an elevated step, rock, platform, etc., proclaiming a big, grand message to the crowd. Many prophets, however, had an intended audience of ten, three, or even one. It depended on where the motivation and inspiration was needed most.
Moses was an early Old Testament prophet and leader called by God to save the entire Israelite nation from slavery in Egypt. To start that process, however, he and his brother, Aaron, had to confront one person, the Pharaoh, to convince him to release the Israelites.
Pharaoh refused, so God used Moses to perform miracles (well, plagues), demonstrating that Pharaoh was up against more than a couple strong-willed humans. Nope, he was messing with God’s people. Yet it still took many confrontations with Moses, as well as several more plagues, to get Pharaoh to relent (Exodus 7-11).
The prophet Jonah was sent to the city-state of Nineveh to warn them of impending destruction if they continued in their wickedness. Fortunately, they whole city listened, and they repented of their sins.
During the time of King David, God sent the prophet Nathan to him to tell him a parable, effectively convincing King David of his guilt from his recent actions in murder and adultery. The king repented and accepted his consequences (2 Samuel 12).
The prophet Samuel, only a boy at the time, was sent by God to confront the high priest, Eli, about his sons’ sacrilegious actions. Unfortunately, in this case the recipient of the prophetic message did not follow through on the changes asked of him and his sons. Each of them met untimely deaths (1 Samuel 3, 4).
Even with a divinely inspired call to action, the choice to follow God’s way or their own way still belongs to the human being.
There was no prophet “type.” God used all types of people.
Depending on the situations that called for a prophetic voice to cut through the noise, God used different types of people for different amounts of time.
Samuel, mentioned earlier, was used as a prophet throughout his whole life as he served at the temple for his career.
Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah was a priest, and ended up being used by God as a prophet for most of his life.
Ezra was an Israelite scribe and teacher sent by God—and King Cyrus of Persia, as predicted1 by the prophet Jeremiah—to bring Israelites out from Babylon, back to Jerusalem, and teach them more about the Scriptures (Ezra 7-10).
Deborah was a judge over Israel, settling the disputes of the people. After God called her as a prophet, her leadership inspired the military leadership of her general, Barak, who refused to go into battle without her (Judges 4).
Before he was a prophet, Moses was a prince of Egypt, then a runaway shepherd, then a slave. Amos and Elisha were farmers (Amos 1:1; 1 Kings 19:15-21).
But the strangest prophet is probably Balaam. He was not an Israelite—in fact he worked with those who wished Israel harm. Yet he received messages from God and recognized his authority. Though when Balaam started going his own way instead of God’s way, God had to set him back on the right path—by talking through his donkey (Numbers 22).
Some prophets received visions.
God often spoke to His prophets directly (“the Word of the Lord came to [prophet]”), but when He had complex concepts to convey, God often gave His prophets visions. One such vision was given to Joseph in a dream. He was shown how his brothers (who were jealous of him and treated him poorly) would one day bow down before him (Genesis 37:5-11). This happened eventually when he became a prominent official in service to the Pharaoh (Genesis 42).
God also used Joseph to interpret the dreams of others, like he used Daniel later on (Daniel 2:22-49). Joseph was imprisoned at the time (Genesis 40), and God have him the interpretation of two fellow prisoners’ dreams. Later on he was given the interpretation for the Pharaoh’s dream about skinny cows devouring fat cows, which signified times of future surplus and of famine so they could plan ahead (Genesis 41).
Ezekiel was called to be a prophet for a rebellious Israel (Ezekiel 2) and received several elaborate visions about the siege of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4), as well as how Israel would be judged by God if they didn’t return to His ways.
John the Revelator, as mentioned before, was shown prophetic symbols in vision so the end of the world could be studied and understood.
Some prophets performed miracles
Sometimes, to really pack a punch with the message God delivered through His prophets, there were miracles involved. These usually happened with more extreme situations, when it was dangerous for the prophets to proclaim these prophecies.
Several well-known miracles were performed by God through Elijah, most notably during the “showdown” between an animal sacrificed to God, and an animal sacrificed to the idol Baal. To demonstrate God’s power, Elijah called for God to send fire down from heaven, signifying acceptance of the animal sacrifice. That fire ended up burning up the entire altar along with the slaughtered bull (1 Kings 18:16-19). God also had Elijah raise a widow’s son from the dead! (1 Kings 17:17-24)
Elisha, the protégé of the prophet Elijah, also had miracles to note in his prophetic career, from making an axe head float in water (2 Kings 6:1-7) to curing someone of leprosy (2 Kings 5).
Some prophets did prophesy about the future.
Even though the foretelling of future events is not even the primary function of a prophet, there’s a reason it’s common for people to think this is the defining characteristics of prophets. Several of the most famous prophets of the Bible revealed important aspects of the future to their intended audiences.
Daniel, a Hebrew prophet during the time the entire nation Israel was held captive by Babylon, prophesied directly to several kings of Babylon their reigns were coming to an end (Daniel 2, 5). He proclaimed to everyone in Israel and Babylon that God had very specific plans for Israel—plans that would restore their independence and break them free from oppressive rule.
Daniel also was given prophecies that had to do with the distant future of the earth (Daniel 7-12), similar to John of Patmos, often nicknamed “John the Revelator,” who wrote most of the prophetic words in the book of Revelation.
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Another John, famous for preparing others for the future, was John the Baptist. He preached in the wilderness to anyone who would come out to listen, sharing the message of hope that the Messiah was coming soon.
Additionally, this predicting prophet was even predicted himself! The prophet Isaiah wrote about “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord,’” referring to John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:3).
Are there…bad prophets?
So far we’ve talked about prophets in a positive light, but the Bible also tells us to be wary of “false prophets.”
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15, ESV).
Hold on, though. If a prophet is someone playing the part of God’s mouthpiece, what would a false prophet be?
You can probably deduce that false prophets would be acting against prophets of God, wanting people to believe something opposite or irrelevant to the messages God sends through His prophets.
In one situation, false priests and prophets were evil enough to pronounce a death sentence on the prophet Jeremiah, just because they didn’t like what the prophecy said about their city! They claimed to still be followers of God, but their interests were their own.
But not all false prophets are this easy to recognize. False prophets have been used by the Devil to spread lies, mixing truth with error in order to seem more convincing.
That is why God provided various “tests” for a prophet.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1, ESV).
“YOU will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16-17, ESV).
To sum it up, here are ways you can test a prophet to see if they are really speaking for God:
- Their prophecies should honor God, not themselves or any other human being.
- Prophecies should always be in line with what has already been written as Scripture.
- Prophecies should never add anything to Scripture, but only refer back to it for the purpose of reminding or expounding upon it.
- If they do make predictions, they must come to pass as spoken (Jeremiah 28:9; Deuteronomy 18:22).
- Prophecies often point out the sins of the people and tell them how to change
- What they prophesy must never contradict that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the earth (1 John 4:1-3).
- A person’s “fruits” are what they repeatedly do. When working for God, prophets should generally demonstrate a Christ-like character.
Can there still be prophets today?
While the idea can feel a little strange, according to the Bible, prophets can still be called by God anywhere and anytime.
“In the last days, God said, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2: 17-18).
A prophet today might “look” different than those you read about in the Bible, since society, communication methods and other factors will come into play. But remember the simple definition: someone who receives a message from God and tells it to the intended audience.
God is just as active today as He was when the Bible was written, and He still longs to communicate with His children in the most effective way possible. So if you do hear of a modern-day prophet, you will know how to test them based on their message and their habits.
You can understand even the strangest in biblical prophecies.
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- 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Jeremiah 25