I’m one of those people who likes to be independent. When my wife and I are going on a trip, I lay out our route myself rather than have someone else tell me how to get to our destination. But even I have to admit that the GPS is one of the greatest conveniences of our time.
The GPS my wife and I use most often is an app on her mobile phone. She just tells the phone where we want to go and it plans the trip for us, telling us approximately how long it will take us, alerting us to each turn we need to make and even announcing when we’ve arrived at our destination. And if we go off the route it has given us, it immediately compensates, adjusting its instructions to get us to our destination despite the detours we’ve taken.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had something that would guide us through life that way?
Well, as you might have guessed, I believe we do. Prophecy is one of the gifts God has given to us, and its primary purpose is to guide us through this life and into eternity.
The primary job of the prophets was to deliver the messages God gave them to the people He meant them for. In general, these messages told people what God wanted them to do—how He wanted them to live. Or they warned people who were rejecting His guidance—who were sinning—about the inevitable consequences.
Of course, many people learned these things, yet didn’t become prophets. The genuine prophets were those God called to do that particular job, to be His spokespersons. He told them what to say and to whom. Actually, “told” isn’t adequate here. God did convey His messages to some prophets through speaking, but He also used other methods of communication. In fact, He used at least six different modes.
Sometimes God didn’t deliver the message to the prophet Himself. Instead, an angel made the delivery. The first two verses of the book of Revelation give us an example of this: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He [Jesus, or perhaps God] made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (Revelation 1:1, 2; emphasis added).
But while God sometimes used angels as messengers, most of the time He communicated His message to the prophet Himself. He did this in the following ways.
This is like a sort of divine video—one that reaches into the prophet’s mind and places pictures that convey the message God wanted the prophet to deliver. This mode of communication and the one following differ from each other mostly in the time of day when they occurred. The biblical book of Daniel gives us examples of both of them.
The first major prophecy in Daniel’s book was delivered through dreams. Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor of Babylon, had a dream that he realised was important. But the dream was symbolic and Nebuchadnezzar didn’t know what the symbols represented, so he called on his heathen advisors for their help.
When they failed, God, working behind the scenes, put Nebuchadnezzar in touch with Daniel—an advisor-in-training, who worshipped God. Daniel prayed for God’s help and that night God gave him the same dream He’d given Nebuchadnezzar—but this time He included the interpretation as well. Daniel passed this information along to Nebuchadnezzar—and to us—in chapter 2 of his book.
God also used visions to get His messages to His prophets. Visions can be thought of as dreams that God sends to people during the day rather than at night. The prophet receives the vision while he’s awake rather than asleep. (In Daniel 7:1, the prophet equates dreams and visions.) And in the New Testament, the author of the book of Acts wrote that while the deacon Stephen was on trial for his faith, he saw a vision of “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).
4. A disembodied voice
At times, God speaks to the prophet without revealing any part of Himself other than His voice. Samuel was still a child the first time he heard God speak to him. He had just crawled into bed one night when he heard someone calling him, so he went to the priest Eli, with whom he was staying, and asked him what he wanted. Eli said he hadn’t called Samuel and sent him back to his bed.
This sequence was repeated several more times and finally Eli told Samuel that the next time he heard the Voice, he should say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9). When Samuel heard the Voice again, he replied as Eli had instructed him and God gave him a message that he was to deliver to Eli and his family.
5. Face to face
When God called Moses from his safe, quiet life to lead Israel out of Egypt, Moses agreed to do it even though he would rather have stayed where he was (Exodus chapters 3, 4). Moses was clearly one of God’s prophets and he had such a close relationship with God that the person who wrote his obituary said, “Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).
Lastly, Jesus delivered the most accurate picture of the life God wants us to live by living that life Himself. The disciples, who later as apostles were also prophets, learned God’s will by observing Jesus’ life and they bore their witness to it through preaching about it and writing about it in the Bible.
Why did God convey His message to the prophets in different ways? Perhaps because the prophets had different personalities. Or maybe God wanted the messages to be shaped in the way that would be the most likely to catch the attention of those who were to receive them.
But a more important question: Why has God sent the messages He wants us to receive through prophets? Why doesn’t He just speak to each of us directly?
God has always spoken to people directly as well as through prophets and He’s still doing that. He speaks to us through nature, through our relationships with others, through the Holy Spirit and through the Bible. And He has especially spoken to us through Jesus, in both the Old Testament and the New. But we don’t always listen, so sometimes we get things mixed up. (In fact, we even manage to get things mixed up when we do listen!)
Through the gift of prophecy—God’s GPS—we get a trustworthy version of God’s guidance; one that will take us through this life and to the ultimate destination—God’s own home, where He says there’s room for us throughout eternity. As King Jehoshaphat put it: “Have faith in the Lord your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful” (2 Chronicles 20:20).