Wednesday, July 7, 2010

“Modern-day Prophets”

Published in the Fiji Times, 6th July 2010 as "The Roles We Play" - Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan

For the last few months and increasingly during last month, I was constantly asked about a certain “prophecy” regarding the end of Fiji as we know it on or about the 23rd of June at approximately 2.30pm.

Shaking hands with the congregation after church services I would be asked, “What do you think about this prophecy?”

In Bible Study meetings, “Padre, what about the prophecy?”

On Facebook, “Rev. don’t you think if this was a true prophecy, more of us would be ‘getting the message’?”

Well the 23rd of June came and went, and I am sure you are familiar with the outcome of this not-quite-mass hysteria.

However, on reflection, I realised that the role of prophets or perhaps the understanding of the word “prophesy” may be largely misunderstood. I offer my own understanding of these terms in today’s column.

From a Judeo-Christian perspective, prophets are “proclaimers,” referring to Hebrew word for prophet, nabi. In the Hebrew/Judaic understanding, the prophet was not merely a man or woman enlightened by God to foretell events, but more of a supernaturally enlightened herald sent by God to interpret and communicate the divine will and intent to the people of Israel.

While the prophet’s task may have included “foretelling,” which is prediction; this was part of a bigger task, “forth-telling” or “speaking out”. The prophet was tasked with maintaining an developing the knowledge of the Covenant (between the people of Israel and God), leading these “Chosen People” back to the terms of the Covenant when they strayed and gradually prepare the way for the new kingdom of God on earth to be inaugurated by the Messiah.

The common understanding of “prophecy” signifies the supernatural message of the prophet and more especially, from custom, the predictive element of the prophetic message.

The prophet generally displayed a sense of divine calling, intelligent (sometimes tough) decision-making, understanding, a sense of responsibility, persistence, organizational skills, credibility, technical skills, sociability and high levels of motivation. The prophetic gift rested upon the fundamental need for communication to take place between the Deity and the fallen family of humankind. God’s call to humanity to enter in communion with the Divine was revealed through the prophets as a call to righteousness and holiness.

In this regards what ever truth was spoken and whatever consequences were heralded (prophesied), were spoken in love. This included divine judgement or punishment through natural disasters such as drought or through military conquest by foreign powers. However along with these admonishments were also given messages of hope and restoration, again reflecting Divine love.

One of the more prominent messages of the prophets was a call for social justice. Key to this prophetic message was the understanding that there was a link between ritual and ethical standards, so that sacrifice, in the temple for example, without justice for the under-privileged members of society was worthless (Isaiah 1:17; Amos 4:1, 5:10; Jeremiah 7:5; Ezekiel 34). Righteousness, materialism and idolatry (serving other gods) also related to social justice but were often addressed in terms of fidelity to the Covenant between God and Israel.

The call to righteousness (seakah) and justice (mishpat) by the prophets is fulfilled by brotherly love and kindness (hessed) and holiness, which is defined by Isaiah as justice and mercy (Is 1:17). The prophetic call to holiness, while still associate with the issue of sacredness and purity in relation to humankind’s relationship to God, is achieved not merely through the rituals of the priests and temple but through ethical conduct.

When the prophets of Israel spoke it was understood that they were speaking the word of God: “Thus sayeth the Lord…” For Christians, the Christ embodied the Word of God in humanity.

So we find the prophetic words of Isaiah: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7 NIV) being echoed and lived out in the life and ministry of Christ: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)

This paradigm shift of the combination of divine word and deed in Christ results in a new gospel imperative (command): prophetic action.

Such action defines the modern-day prophet such as Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the “rebel rouser for peace” Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the 20th century. King’s concept of the prophetic role of the modern-day Church held that the churches must affirm that, “every human life is a reflection of divinity and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.

Archibishop Petero Matca once said to me, “The truth gives joy and it an also hurt. But the must be told. Hence the truth is prophetic. So when the news media reveal the truth it has a prophetic voice in society. The news media need reporters and journalists who are committed to finding and reporting the truth.”

In the midst of these statements of prophetic action and speaking the truth in love (forth-telling), the question still remains, ‘what of those who prophesy (fortell) of events that do nothing but cause fear and panic?’

We all dream, and for the most we can remember the vivid ones. However not all of us understand our dreams and visions, whether divinely inspired or otherwise. We interpret our dreams, from our individual contexts and understanding.

For those who believe that they receive visions and dreams from God, I urge, I plea for careful understanding, for educated inspiration and above the deep discernment of God’s will in one’s own life before that of others.

May the rest of your week be blessed with love, light, peace and commitment to prophetic action.

* Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with. Email:

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