What “prophet” means


All through my time at Asbury Seminary, across the courtyard or from down the hall, I would occasionally hear this word ring out in a rich baritone. It came from the African-accented voice which belonged to a fellow student Monroe who was from Liberia, and he was calling out to me. From the moment at new student orientation that I introduced myself to Monroe, I don’t remember a single time that he called me “Nathan.” Always “Prophet!”

A visual representation of a prophet.

A visual representation of a prophet.

Being called “Prophet,” however, had nothing to do with any clairvoyance on my part. I’m not really known for my ability to tell the future or to read your mind. This is not surprising. What actually may be surprising is that in the biblical tradition, people like Isaiah or Micah aren’t called prophets because of their clairvoyant ability, either.

We often think of prophecy as being about telling about the future, but our English word “prophet” comes from the Greek word “prophetes.” While we don’t have a very good idea of where the Old Testament Hebrew word navi comes from, this New Testament Greek word comes from its two components: “pro,” which means “for,” and “phemi,” which means “to speak.” While we have to be careful to not immediately equate where a word comes from with its meaning, this is good evidence that what the word prophetes means is “one who speaks for (someone else).” And in the Bible, that someone is God.

As it happens, this God is someone who is much more interested in wanting to have a conversation about the present than he does about the future.

The reason Monroe called me Prophet is because my name comes from the guy in the Old Testament who doesn’t come on the scene during the story of David’s adultery to tell the future as much as he comes on the scene to tell a story illustrating how God feels about what has already happened, and, what this means for David’s life in the present–“in the now time,” as Paul describes it–that slice of  time marked by the urgency which comes from God’s activity in the world.

(What this also means is that our prophecy material in the Bible, such as Ezekiel or Habakkuk in Old Testament, or Revelation  in the New Testament, isn’t primarily about telling the future, either. Let’s just let that point soak into our popular conception of biblical prophecy, with its electronic banking or Social Security numbers being the mark of the beast or Gog and Magog having something to do with Russia.)

That God wants to talk about what’s going on now says something to us and about us. It means that what God has to say isn’t about granting us secret foreknowledge. It means, as it meant for David, that what God wants to say to us challenges and disciplines and scolds us, and that it guides and encourages and comforts us. It doesn’t put us “in the know,” as much as it exposes us as people who are known.

Such is what happens when someone speaks for God.

What does God need in someone for him or her to speak for him? Special abilities? Or, a willing heart?

As J.D. Crossan writes, “An obedient prophet is a redundancy. A disobedient prophet is an oxymoron.”

Monroe called me Prophet because of my name, but if he called me “Prophet” because of anything about me, he would have been on the right track to do so because of something he would’ve seen about my character; Rightly or wrongly, it would have been a comment–or a challenge–about my openness, willingness, and humility to obey God.

Whatever category or function Jesus fulfills, he is always the ultimate representation. What this means is that Jesus was not the ultimate fortuneteller, but that he is the ultimate speaker for God.

What “prophet” actually means, then, shows us much about God–as he is situated within human life, in the present time, in this world–and it show us much about our own willingness to both speak for, and listen to, this God who speaks.