SO WHAT MAKES A PROPHET? [AN AFRICAN PERSPECTIVE, PART 1]

Good question I guess, at any time and in any context.

First, what triggered this subject in me? A deep sense of concern at a recent happening in Nigeria, W. Africa. For years thousands of people of all backgrounds and especially South Africans, including Calvinistic Afrikaners, have been visiting ‘Prophet’ TB Joshua’s megachurch in Lagos in hopes of physical healing and spiritual direction. Just a few weeks ago, a six storey accommodation centre on the Synagogue Church premises collapsed, killing some 115 people, 84 of them South Africans, with hundreds injured. As I write, the S.A. government is awaiting the Nigerian officials getting the bodies identified so that they may be brought home. Note that for most black Africans the physical remains of a loved one are particularly important and need to be buried at home, if the spirits are to be at rest. Negotiations are on-going but progressing at tortoise-like pace.

Some local believers continue to defend the Prophet, whereas others are questioning issues and remain shocked and even angry. How did this tragedy happen? Could it have been prevented? The press has been awash with questions like why were the ruins apparently shut off by church officials for a number of days, impeding urgent rescue attempts? Why was the Prophet quiet for days, at first not expressing condolences at the tragedy but declaring the collapse to be the work of satan, mention being made of the extremist Muslim group Boko Haram and a mysterious plane flying over the quarters several times on the day of the tragedy. Some officials have reported that the apartment block had been ‘sealed off’ to prevent further building operations, for fear that the foundations were inadequate for adding extra storeys, with this ruling apparently being ignored by the church officials.

Others have felt insulted by the Prophet calling those who died ‘martyrs’ of the faith. I have before me a newspaper clipping in which the brother of a dead churchgoer (his sister died under tons of rubble) exclaims, ‘My Sister was no willing martyr!’ I myself have had many questions, particularly with regard to the relatively belated concern expressed for the victims of the tragedy – there seemed to be more concern, initially anyway, for the Prophet’s reputation and ministry.

Recently Jacques Pauw, a respected South African journalist, wrote an article in the Afrikaans press with very negative comments based on his personal observations when visiting the ‘Man of God,’ admittedly fourteen years ago. On that occasion he accompanied Reuben Kruger, a Springbok rugby player who represented our country in 36 test matches. Kruger was suffering from a brain tumour and undergoing chemo therapy. After being prayed for in Lagos he was declared ‘healed,’ demons fled out of his brain, and he was encouraged to rub special oil on his head and not to continue with medical treatment. Some years later, Kruger died. Other S.A. sportsmen followed, e.g. Wium Basson who was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He was not prayed for because the Prophet did not feel compelled by God to do so, and he died a week later. As Pauw and his camera team were leaving, Joshua gave each member a wad full of dollar bills – Pauw and his colleagues returned the money as a matter of conscience. I guess many others would claim permanent healing at the hands of the prophet – I am not in a position to verify that one way or the other.

This past Sunday’s press reported that a team from the Prophet’s church have in the last few days visited the bereaved families in South Africa, offering each R. 5000 ($ 500 USD), some maize meal and a flask of ‘holy water.’

Did Joshua start out sincerely? Perhaps he did. In the mean time he is recognised as one of the 50 most famous people in Africa and, according to Forbes magazine, is worth about R. 170 million or $ 17 million US. Here is a truism: ‘it takes a steady hand to hold a full cup.’

In the second place, what does the Bible have to say about prophets and prophecies, etc? Consult any Bible or Theological Dictionary and you will be confronted with many pages of fine print on this colossal subject. Let me refer to the British Bible scholar J.A. Motyer, and give just the tiniest of summaries of his research. Maybe you ask ‘why bother?’ For a number of reasons:  there are apparently 1000’s of similar churches to Joshua’s in Lagos alone, many Nigerians are taking this message to other parts of the continent, including my own country, and theologians expect this kind of thing to increase rather than decrease. Note also, we cannot generalise:  I count among my very good friends a Nigerian couple doing excellent missions mobilisation in my home city. They are outstanding believers, and there are many like them!

Starting with the OT…

  • Prophecy’s normative form in the OT is the life and message of Moses, a standard of comparison for all future prophets. cf Dt. 18:15-19. It’s interesting that the term ‘man of God,’ so popular in Africa in describing a pastor (I have been called one myself!), was first used of Moses. cf Dt. 33:1.
  • Prophecy is by divine initiative and arises out of a profound encounter with God and his presence.
  • Moses was enabled to interpret history for the sake of Israel.
  • Prophets always displayed ethical and social concerns, with a compassion especially for the helpless. cf Dt. 24:19-22.
  • God’s prophets were not afraid to confront royalty, fearing God more than kings and queens.
  • Prophecies always exhibited a healthy balance between proclamation and prediction.
  • Prophets/prophetesses were often intercessors, conveying their message to the people via symbols.
  • Prophecies conveyed warnings, calling for moral responsibility rather than satisfying carnal curiosity. They were meant to inspire a hatred for sin and a love of holiness. Prophecies also conveyed comfort for the suffering people of God.
  • There are true prophets and false prophets, e.g. Micaiah and Zedekia. cf 1 Kings 22:1-28. They are to be evaluated theologically and by the life and standards of Moses.
  • There were corporate, ecstatic groups of prophets who ministered to God’s people from time to time. The terms nabi, roeh and hozeh are, at the end of the day, fairly synonymous.

And the NT?

  • “Prophecy and the prophets form the greatest line of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. The prophetic line did not end with Malachi, so to speak, but with John the Baptist. This is the express teaching of our Lord:  ‘For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John…'”  (Mt. 11:13)… We see in John, as indeed his father, Zacharias (Lk. 1:67-79), the pattern of Old Testament prophecy repeated:  the unity of proclamation and prediction. It was the prediction of wrath to come (Lk. 3:7) and of grace to come (Lk. 3:16; Jn. 1:29ff) that gave John such a potent message for his generation.”  (J.A. Motyer)
  • The NT stands in a relation of fulfilment to the actual message of the OT prophets. What God has said in the past he has now brought to pass. The OT prophets are raised to the level of proclaimers of eternal truth by the verification of their greatest words in the greatest of all events, the person and work of Christ. 
  • Every Christian is potentially a prophet. The outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh carries with it this result, ‘and they shall prophesy’ (Acts 2:18) (note Moses’ fascinating statement in Num. 11:29 of how he would have all God’s people be prophets and receive his Spirit). cf I Cor. 14:1, Acts 19:6 and 21:9, 1 Cor. 11:4-5, etc.
  • There are those specially gifted in terms of prophecy, and they number among other key functionaries like ‘apostle,’ pastor-teacher and evangelist in Eph. 4:11ff, given for the edification of the body. These gifts are horizontal functions rather than hierarchical offices or ranks in the body of Christ. One prophet mentioned in the NT is Agabus, very accurate in prediction (Acts 11:28, 21:10-11), giving spiritual guidance to the Church in a particular context viz that of imminent severe famine.
  • Prophecy is primarily for the encouragement and strengthening of the saints (Acts 15:32) (1 Cor. 14:3).
  • While prophecy may sometime come in an ecstatic and spontaneous way under the Spirit of God, all things are to be done in order. Also, the prophets were not to be given undiscerning credence at all times (1 Cor. 14:22-29). All things were to be tested by the discernment of other believers plus the apostolic deposit. NT prophets were not sources of new truth to the Church, but the expounders of truth otherwise delivered in both the OT and NT revelation of God.

Next time round we’ll give attention to the context of the prophet in Africa and in our postmodern world, also submitting a way forward for the Church if she is to be healthy and proclaim the kingdom of Christ to the ends of the earth.

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