Spiritual giftedness is a topic often met with varied reactions and assumptions. Many of these assumptions are formed out of personal or communal experiences, theological presumptions, and our wrongful polarization of reason and imagination. Growing up in a Church of Christ, our theological assumptions, our communal experiences, our history of reason, and our traditions—with Scripture used as scaffolding—led us to believe that not all gifts mentioned in the New Testament are accessible or repeatable.
Thus when reading a passage like 1 Cor 12, the message of unity in the faith community was rightfully upheld, while the verses mentioning particular gifts (which we supposed to be no longer in use) were neglected. We paid no mind to the Christians all around the world who had experienced these particular gifts. In fact, we paid no mind to some of our founders of the Stone-Campbell Movement who experienced some of these gifts. We failed to honor their lived experiences and their pursuits of knowing God. I am not suggesting that Christian groups should never critically assess one another’s beliefs or interpretations. I believe iron sharpens iron. I am merely clarifying that it was due to my particular upbringing in the church that I grew up with the belief that prophecy was no longer given to people. And this belief, I later discovered, was founded on a crude misunderstanding of not only modern representations of prophecy, but biblical prophecy as well.
The misunderstanding emerged in early childhood. I had been taught in elementary school some very basic (and perhaps unfortunate) biblical apologetics. How do we know that Jesus was the Messiah? Well according to my teachers, we knew Jesus was the Messiah because all of those Old Testament prophets predicted his arrival and ministry. So apparently, the validity of Jesus’ status as Messiah rested in the ability of some people in the Old Testament to predict the future. The fate of my belief in Jesus was nestled in the palms of fortunetellers.
As a child, this explanation was actually quite captivating. There was something magical and anticipatory in believing that ancient communities had looked into the future seeing (quite literally) Jesus, seeing salvation, seeing heaven—maybe even seeing me. However, this understanding was eventually burdened by my continued reading of Scripture. I kept reading about the gift of prophecy granted to a lot of people throughout Scripture. I looked around at modern prophets attempting to predict the end of the world, attempting to predict lottery numbers and natural disasters. Was this really the same ability granted to Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, Anna, and many others?
Certainly fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy factors largely into the rhetoric of the Gospel writers. But I don’t think the significance of fulfilled prophecy rests in the magic of fortunetelling. I think what would have stirred the hearts of the first century audience would have been the beautiful continuity of the story. Seeing how Jesus’ life and ministry actually coincided with the story the prophets told would have helped the first century audience to connect Jesus with the specific theological context of the Old Testament. The story that was begun so many centuries previous was finally finding resolution in Jesus.
So if prophecy is not about predicting the future, what is it about? At the beginning of his book, No god but God: The Origins and Evolution of Islam, Reza Aslan opens with a helpful note about prophets in general. He says, “Prophets must be understood as reformers who redefine and reinterpret the existing beliefs and practices of their communities” (p. 1). In his book, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann writes:
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us…. It serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move. (p. 3)
On these two premises we surmise that a prophet’s ministry and utterances are inextricably linked to their historical and cultural placement. We can also surmise that the work of prophecy is not to make detached predictions about the future, but rather to cast a vision. The gift of prophecy is a gift for projecting a hopeful vision that God has for a community. This vision is oriented toward a future flourishing of God’s creation, and a prophet is gifted with the ability to courageously call the community and the powers that be to reject the “dominant culture” in exchange for the alternative consciousness and perception offered by God. A prophet’s goal is not to predict the future; a prophet’s goal is to help transform the present in wisdom and hope into a future that is strongly anticipated.
In reality, my church growing up did embrace the gift of prophecy. We just did not always know to call it prophecy. Our prophets were often called preachers. Perhaps not all our preachers were gifted with prophecy, but some were. I believe it is in some part by the work of these prophet preachers that our Christian narrative has endured over time. We have always had prophets helping to project an image of future flourishing—raising the spiritual and religious bar for the rest of us. In this sense, prophets throughout Judeo-Christian history did look toward the future and they saw a Messiah, they saw salvation, they saw heaven, and in a sense they saw me. The ministry of the prophets helped to create a future where my faith was possible.
So with this thought I am compelled to ask, who are our prophets today? If prophets are those who anchor themselves in the vision of God for the church and for all of creation, and are then able to partner with God to refine the community into that vision, who among us has been gifted with prophecy?
If you have been gifted with prophecy, it is likely that you dread it at least a little bit. Most biblical prophets tend to bemoan their circumstances. If you look at our broken world with a heavy heart, and the contrast of God’s Word burns in your bones like fire, you are in good company with prophets like Jeremiah. If the vision of God is simultaneously sweet on your lips, yet churning your stomach, you might identify well with John the Revelator. If you possess the wisdom and the courage to challenge the societal and religious structures that exist, and if you possess the pastoral sensibilities to urge a community toward God, you might have the gift of prophecy.
Our communities are in deep need of prophets who will risk everything to speak for peace and mercy. In a world where bloodshed is commonplace and arguments over the most trivial matters find precedence over a world that is starving for justice, we need to develop the faith community into a snapshot of heaven. We need to be reminded of God’s vision.
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:4-7)