CHAPTER XII: The Prophets, from "The Christian Ministry According to the Apostles" by Thomas Hughes Milner
Ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner, Eph. ii. 19, 20.
1. A PROPHET is commonly understood to be one who foretells future events, but this is neither the meaning of the Hebrew navee, nor the Greek propheetees. The first meaning of the Greek prefix pro is “before,” not in the sense of time, but place, as “in front of.” Though the prophets of the true God did predict future events, yet the idea of prescience is not a necessary concomitant of prophecy. For example, Jesus had said nothing respecting futurity to the woman of Samaria when she exclaimed, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet, and it was simply because he had raised the dead man to life that the people glorified God, saying, A great prophet is risen among us! A prophet is expressly one who reveals the will of God, whether the revelation bear respect to past, present, or future time. Hence the familiar Old Testament formulas––The word of the Lord by the prophet Isaiah,...The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, Thus saith the Lord, &c. Thus also James v. 10 describes the prophets as those who have spoken in the name of the Lord. And Peter is still more particular, for he says, The prophets, who prophesied of the favour to be shewn to the disciples of Jesus, searched and enquired diligently as to the time and manner of time which the Spirit of Christ that was in them did signify, when it testified before-hand the sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow; unto whom it was revealed, that not unto themselves, but unto us they did minister the things now reported by those (the apostles) who have preached the gospel with the holy Spirit sent down from heaven. The Spirit of Christ being in them, and so testifying through them, constituted them prophets, as this same apostle says explicitly in his second epistle, that the prophecy came not at any time by the will of man, but that holy men of God spoke, moved by the holy Spirit. These simple and explicit testimonies are better than whole volumes on the question of inspiration. They tell so unequivocally the facts of the case, that speculation is utterly vain. The holy men who spoke were moved to utter what they did not by their own will, or by that of other men, but by the moving of the Spirit of Christ which was in them.
2. Since it was thus by the will of God,––by divine impulse, that prophecy came, the idea of some pious persons that there are no prophets now, because of the unfaithfulness of the church, is evidently mistaken. That we have no seers as of old, is not because God’s people are less faithful, but because God willed to complete his revelations in the time and manner that he did. That it was God’s purpose to complete the revelation of his will with the introduction of the Messiahmic age, appears from a comparison of Dan. ix. 24, with 1 Cor. xiii. 8, and Rev. xxii. 18. Gabriel said to Daniel, Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy. Within the time thus indicated, the Messiah was to appear, and be cut off, and consentaneous with the completion of his mediatorial work on earth, as intimated by the above varied phraseology, the vision and prophecy were to be closed, terminated, sealed. When, therefore, Paul says, Love never faileth, but prophecies shall fail, tongues shall cease, knowledge shall vanish, he certainly does not mean that the prophecies would fail in fulfilment, but in respect of their being no longer uttered; for, adds he, we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. God having completed the revelation of his will, so far as the present dispensation is concerned, prophecies of course ceased. And John, therefore, as the last of the prophets, solemnly and fittingly closes the apocalypse with the words, I testify to every man that heareth the words of the prophesy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book; and if any man shall take away from the words of the prophecy of this book, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things that are written in this book.
3. The prophesying “in part,” of which Paul speaks, refers undoubtedly to the direct, special, oral deliverances of the individual prophets, comprised among the gifts of the first churches. In the same connexion the apostle says, He that prophesieth edifieth the church. While at this time the whole counsel of God was not revealed, as it shortly afterwards came to be made known by the apostles, the utility and necessity of teachers so gifted is altogether apparent; for how could converts gathered from the lowest depths of heathen obscurity, ignorance, and vice, stand perfect and complete in all the will of God, except by listening to the oracular deliverances of living prophets in their midst, or by the perusal, study, and exposition of the apostolic writings? But as these writings were then only very partially supplied, the former were unquestionably requisite for the time being.
4. The oracles of these prophets, equally with those of the written word required interpretation or exposition. We have seen from Peter that the ancient prophets did not themselves understand fully what they uttered; they enquired and searched diligently as to what the Spirit of Christ signified in testifying through them the sufferings, and consequent glory of the Messiah. So Daniel for himself says, that he understood by books the time, &c., of the fulfilment of the predictions. In like manner there were associated with the prophets in the edification of the first churches interpreters and teachers. And this was the more needful when we consider that the revelation came sometimes in a tongue which was foreign alike to the speaker and the church. Hence the injunctions: Let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret...But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church.
5. Then again we have to notice, that while prophecy in its primordial acceptation signifies more than mere teaching, so that we have, as in Acts xiii. 1, prophets and teachers so mentioned together, as to shew that they were distinct gifts; yet, again, it is equally plain, that in some cases prophecy merges into teaching. All prophets are indeed teachers, but all teachers are not prophets, except in the subordinate sense that we now point out. In the quotations following, the secondary acceptation is certainly included, if not that which is alone meant: He that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort: he that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church...I would that ye all spoke with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied; for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying. Again, Ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and that all may be comforted. And, again, Wherefore brethren, covet to prophesy. If he that prophesies speaks to edification, exhortation, and comfort, he that so speaks is in this respect a prophet. And when it is said, “ye may all prophesy,” it is plain that a function of ministry more under the control of the brethren, is referred to, than was that higher prophesying which came not at any time by the will of man, but solely by the impulse of the Holy Spirit. And we trace the like distinction in the prophesying spoken of in Rom. xii. 6, Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the analogy of the faith. The judgment of the prophet is here consulted in the prophesying, which, as we have seen, was not the case with the greater prophets. It were vain to have instructed Isaiah or Jeremiah to prophesy according to the analogy of the faith, for they, in many things, understood not the oracle––they delivered it simply as the word of the Lord came to them; like the apostles, they spoke in words which the Holy Spirit taught them to employ; they were simply the vehicles of the divine utterances. Yet, that the prophesying of Rom. xii. is distinguishable from teaching, appears from the fact, that it is distinguished, for in the immediate context we have the words: Or he that teacheth, on teaching, or he that exhorteth, on exhortation. We apprehend the difference to be somewhat of this sort; while the teacher simply instructed the brethren of their duties from certain acknowledged truths of the Christian faith, and the exhorters called the disciples to the performance of them by appropriate appeals, the prophet presented the truth of God to the minds of the faithful, in such a variety of phases and relations, in which it might not have been seen before, as that the church was thereby edified, comforted, and exhorted, just as now, by the happy and skillful exegesis of a long familiar portion of the Word, so much light may be struck out of it as to give the feeling of an almost entirely new discovery of truth, though, all the while, it is felt that the truths illuminated were previously known, though not to the same fulness nor in the same breadth of relation.
6. In this same sense it would be no stretch of language to speak of the critically exact expositor as a prophet. His is a gift much more rare, and certainly greater than that of the ordinary teacher. When we reflect how much more largely the church is indebted for the mount of light it now enjoys to accurately critical expositions of the word divine, than to the far more common works of a merely dogmatic and didactic kind, we perceive at once the vast superiority of the former gift. And, if there be one thing which more than another, gives promise of the steady progress of the truth of God, it is the growing appreciation of strictly exegetical studies over the once all but omnipotent, but now greatly fallen, and still falling teachings of the sectaries.
7. Though we have thus endeavoured to indicate the position which the subordinate prophets filled in the Christian ecclesia, and have come to the conclusion that the critical expositor now supplies the place of such a one as was to see that he prophesied agreeably to the analogy of the faith, we do not say that the one arrives at his important position, by precisely the same steps as the other. We have no evidence that the laborious research needful to the modern expositor, was necessary to the early prophets, yet that the greatest of them were ardent students; we have seen and we are confirmed in the correctness of the analogy we have instituted from the words of 1 Cor. xiii. 2, Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge. The association here of the gift of prophecy with the understanding of secrets, and the possession of knowledge, certainly points out the prophetic endowment as one in kind with that clearness of perception and just discrimination which mark the genuine expositor, and enable him to perceive at a glance, and expound with a stroke of his pen, what appears to others as almost impenetrable mysteries.
8. But though a most important, this is also a dangerous gift. For while “love builds up, knowledge puffs up.” So that while the injunction to the whole brotherhood is to covet earnestly the best gifts, and in particular to covet to prophesy, the apostle with consummate wisdom intervenes the caution, yet I shew you a more excellent way, and points out that the possession of the most transcendent endowments leaves the possessor nothing if he have not love. This all-balancing power is the never-failing safeguard of the aspirant to intellectual and spiritual honours. We cannot too highly estimate the wisdom which combined in one indissoluble congeries the gifts and graces of the twelfth of Romans, and that gave the thirteenth of first Corinthians love as its theme, while spiritual gifts were the theses of the chapters on either side. Let the Bible student not this, and read, study, and act accordingly.
9. But though the difference as to the gifts enjoyed by the church now were much greater than it is as contrasted with the richly endowed congregations of the apostolic age, the general character of the ministry would remain entirely the same but for the unfaithfulness of men. That we have not so many or so high endowments as were at first enjoyed is no reason for the displacing of the divine order of ministry by a mere human substitute. The fewer our gifts, the more need there is for the employment and development of them all. It is a strange oracle that argues, Your gifts are small and few, therefore, do not use them at all, give the whole ministry into the hands of one person! What is this but the fulfilling of the parable of the servant with the one talent? Be it never forgotten that to him that hath shall be given by the faithful use of what he has, and that from him shall be taken away even that which he has, if he employ it not.