When average Christians hear the word prophecy, they probably think of the end-times teachings that have been popularized by some Christian writers and TV preachers. Cleverly applying Bible passages to events described on today’s news broadcasts can lead to intriguing (and occasionally terrifying) ways of seeing the world. But a little study of these passages in their Biblical context reveals how far-fetched these ideas usually are.

Actually, the concept of prophecy in the Bible does not focus on foretelling the future, though this is sometimes part of a prophet’s message. The major idea behind prophecy is forthtelling, not foretelling. It’s announcing something rather than predicting something. The prophet has been given the gift of seeing things from God’s point of view. In his forthtelling, he shares what he sees, often introducing it with words such as, “Thus says the Lord.” There’s no equivocation, no debate — just a straightforward expression of what God has allowed him to see.

There’s another important thing about Biblical prophets: there have been lots of them. Of course, those of us who are familiar with the Bible know about the prophets whose writings are included among the “books” of the Bible: the four Major (just because they’re longer) Prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel; and the twelve Minor (just because they’re shorter) Prophets (the last twelve books of the Old Testament). But if you read the historical books (Samuel, Kings, Chronicles), you’ll find that Samuel, Elijah and Elisha were probably more important to their time than most of the so-called “writing” prophets. Even more surprising is how broadly the term was applied in Biblical times. Abraham and Moses are referred to as prophets, and even Adam and Noah are described by this term. As a matter of fact, 60 individuals are identified by name in the Old Testament as prophets. Most are men, but a few are women. Add to this the people referred to as prophets in the New Testament: John the Baptist and Jesus himself, as well as some people in the early church who had gifts of prophecy. So, there wasn’t an exclusive Prophets’ Union that a certain class of people belonged to. God might enlist anybody to be the forthteller of his word for people in a particular time and place.

There is a pattern throughout the Biblical record of prophets and prophecy: the message that was forthtold always met with resistance. Sometimes it was passive — the people simply turned a deaf ear and ignored the message. But sometimes it could be violent, even leading to the prophet’s martyrdom.

A prophet receives a new infusion of spiritual vitality and can’t help but express it through forthtelling. It’s like a new branch in springtime, sprouting from a tree; It has to sprout. There’s no stopping it; because of the pressure from within, the important “Thus says the Lord” bursts into life.

Along come the self-appointed Gardeners, pruners out, trying to cut off the new growth. It was the Pharaoh of Egypt in Moses’ day. It was the priestly caste in Jeremiah’s time. It was the Orthodox teachers of the Law in Jesus’ experience. It’s always the Establishment, the religious, governmental or social leaders who have carved out their place in the status quo and are threatened by any change. As soon as a new prophetic bud sprouts, out come their pruners. They see their role as cutting off the unwelcome new growth so the tree fits in with the old garden. They want to domesticate the wild prophet. They can be ruthless.

God is speaking to us today. He speaks through the prophets of the past, whose inspiring lives and words are captured in the Bible. But there’s so much he has to say that he also uses many other forthtelling agents to get his word out: nature, including our environment, climate change, diminishing resources, endangered species; also, world events, including politics and wars, insightful people who can help make sense of this confusing world. And God also speaks to each of us directly, through our conscience, our common sense, and our rational mind. We should be listening carefully for God’s prophetic word in the midst of the chaos of modern life. Maybe he’s asking us to be forthtellers and pass his message on.

But don’t be surprised if there are Gardeners. They’ve already got their pruners out, looking for your new growth.

Here’s a reassuring word from the New Testament book of Hebrews:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

The Gardeners hung him on a tree to symbolize their triumph over the Ultimate Prophet.

But three days later . . . . “Thus says the Lord!”

— Pastor George Van Alstine