Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Does A Prophet Actually Do?

A friend of mine, who is only nominally a member of the LDS Church, recently posted this short (34 second long) video on Facebook. While I find the video to be a little childish, and feel that it shows a distinct lack of understanding on the part of its creators, I also find it useful as a gateway through which to address certain misconceptions in the world and among the members of the church concerning precisely what it is that a prophet of God does (and does not) do, how prophecy functions, and how each of us can recognize a true prophet at work.

This video was posted on Youtube by someone who goes by the name "Smithbusters," which by itself should tell you that it is not intended to flatter the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that those who posted the video hardly represent a credible or objective source. However it does raise some interesting questions like: "Why isn't General Conference filled with predictions about the next big financial crash or weather disaster?" or, "Why haven't there been any major changes to the standard works in 20 or more years?"

I feel that I should respond to these questions, and this video, by first stating that I feel that the people who posted the video do not have a proper understanding of what it is that a prophet actually does, but then again if they did, we wouldn't be having this discussion. More to the point, there are many people (including some members of the church) who are less than entirely clear as to what exactly it is that a prophet actually does.

For many people (in America anyway) this problem has much to do with the fact that, in my experience, most Americans seem to get the bulk of their religious knowledge from sources such as the movies, the History channel, and the Discovery channel.

If you rely on sources like these to get your knowledge, here is what you will learn:

The movies tell you that prophets have to look and act like this:

The History channel tells you that a prophet has to make cryptic and (apparently) frightening predictions about the future like the star of their network, Nostradamus:

And the Discovery channel tells you with great certainty that the world could end in 2012 based solely on the strength of the fact that the Mayans said it would:

Yes, I know this is an Aztec calendar.  I couldn't find a good image of a Mayan calendar.
I think that it might be helpful to throw your TV out the second story window--ahem...I mean, let's set "Television Religion" aside for a moment, so we can examine what the actual prophets in the actual scriptures can actually put on their resume.


1) Testifies of Jesus Christ and the power of His atonement.

Revelation 19:10
And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

Acts 10:38-43
How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree: Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly; Not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead. To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.

2 Nephi 25:26
And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

Jacob 4:4
For, for this intent have we written these things, that they may know that we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming; and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us.

"We bear testimony, as His duly ordained Apostles—that Jesus is the Living Christ, the immortal Son of God. He is the great King Immanuel, who stands today on the right hand of His Father. He is the light, the life, and the hope of the world. His way is the path that leads to happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come. God be thanked for the matchless gift of His divine Son."  (The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles)

D&C 76:22-24
And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!  For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.

2) Teaches us the commandments of God, and how we can best obey them.

Jeremiah 1:5-7
Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations. Then said I, Ah, Lord GOD! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child. But the LORD said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak.

Deuteronomy 6:1-3, 6-7, 17
Now these are the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments, which the LORD your God commanded to teach you, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go to possess it: That thou mightest fear the LORD thy God, to keep all his statutes and his commandments, which I command thee, thou, and thy son, and thy son's son, all the days of thy life; and that thy days may be prolonged. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the LORD God of thy fathers hath promised thee, in the land that floweth with milk and honey.

And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which he hath commanded thee.

3) Warns of the consequences of breaking God's commandments.

Romans 6:23
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Alma 41:10
Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness.

Ezekiel 2:7, 3:17, 19
And thou shalt speak my words unto them, whether they will hear, or whether they will forbear: for they are most rebellious. Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

4) Reveals new commandments/scripture as he is directed by God through revelation.

Amos 3:7
Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.

Deuteronomy 18:18-19
I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.  And it shall come to pass, that whosoever will not hearken unto my words which he shall speak in my name, I will require it of him.

Acts 1:2
The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:

Galatians 1: 11-12
But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 3:3-5
How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit;

2 Peter 1:19-21
We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

How does this apply to us to today?
So how does all of this actually apply to the questions raised by the video? The video appears to imply that, because the Prophet and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the other General Authorities give us the same counsel every year (at least according to Smithbusters anyway), and because their speeches generally don't include dire predictions about the apocalypse, they must not be true prophets.

Why do the Prophets and Apostles Seem to Repeat Themselves so Much?
I have no interest whatsoever in cataloging the sum total of all of the warnings and counsel that is given in General Conference (much of which I'll admit is repeated year to year, conference to conference.) However, I would like to point out that, as mentioned above, part of a prophet's job is to teach us the commandments. If we weren't such slow learners, maybe they wouldn't have to repeat themselves so much.

As an example, when the Lord speaks through Malachi in Malachi 3:8-11 to reprimand the people for neglecting to pay tithes, Malachi is, at least in substance, REPEATING a commandment which was recorded at least as far back as Moses' day, and observed by God's people as far back Abraham's day.

My point is that repetition does not invalidate or reduce the timeliness and applicability and especially the importance of the principle being taught, in fact it only serves to emphasize how strongly the Lord feels that we learn to live according to said principle.

If the Prophet says:

"Be good to your family."
It's good advice in general, but you can bet that it means that people are not being as kind, caring, and attentive to their family as the Lord expects them to be.

"Avoid Pornography."
It is probably important to follow this advice in any case, but it comes up in every conference because it is a huge and growing problem across the world both in and out of the church. Even if it wasn't, the counsel would remain the same, since God values chastity and purity of thought.

"Endure to the end."
Christ said it twice, and then his brother James said it again (in the New Testament). Maybe it bears repeating in our day too. Especially since I'm pretty sure Jesus wasn't joking around when he said  "...he that will endure unto the end, the same shall be saved."

"Pay tithing"
If God Himself declared that the failure to tithe amounts to robbing Him, then maybe we need a reminder now and then to offer it. I don't know for sure, but it sounds like God thinks that the whole tithing thing might be important for some reason.

There are many other examples of prophetic counsel that bear repeating, but I am sure that you get my point.  In addition, Elder Henry B. Eyring, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has pointed out that such repetition is often a sign that such counsel comes from the Lord, because (by virtue of such repetition) the prophets are effectively invoking the divine law of witnesses.

“In our own time, we have been warned with counsel of where to find safety from sin and from sorrow. One of the keys to recognizing those warnings is that they are repeated. For instance, more than once in these general conferences, you have heard our prophet say that he would quote a preceding prophet and would therefore be a second witness and sometimes even a third. Each of us who has listened has heard President Kimball give counsel on the importance of a mother in the home and then heard President Benson quote him, and we have heard President Hinckley quote them both. The Apostle Paul wrote that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Cor. 13:1).  One of the ways we may know that the warning is from the Lord is that the law of witnesses, authorized witnesses, has been invoked. When the words of prophets seem repetitive, that should rivet our attention and fill our hearts with gratitude to live in such a blessed time.” (Henry B. Eyring, “Finding Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, May 1997). 

Where Are the New Scriptures and Revelations?
So where is all of the revealing of new scripture and prophecy and so forth? This question is plainly and patently absurd; for to accuse (at least by implication) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of not receiving any (or enough) new and interesting revelation is like accusing Colonel Sanders of not making any (or enough) chicken. Whether you believe the things which we claim have been revealed by our prophets or not, obtaining new revelation is what Mormons do.

Of course the implication is, "What have you done for me lately?" Setting aside the fact that we have not one but three (counting the Pearl of Great Price) extra books of scripture in addition to the Bible, I want to point out that we added two sections to the Doctrine and Covenants as recently as 1981. Don't tell me that's not good enough for you! According to you, the heavens have apparently been silent for two thousand years, and yet now you try to tell me that thirty years isn't recent enough!?

Now I'm going to tell you that, at this very moment, the words of the modern day prophets are being distributed by means of various media throughout the world, and that these are a form of scripture. Now before you argue with me, let's think this through logically.

Let's look at the New Testament for a moment, for the sake of comparison. The books that make up the vast bulk of the New Testament are of two types:

1) Letters of instruction written by the apostles (and Jude-there is some debate over precisely what authority he held) to individuals or groups or groups of churches.  Or, in the case of James, 1 and 2 Peter, and probably at least a couple of John's epistles, their letters were likely addressed to the whole church.

2) Testimonies given by Apostles, or the men who taught alongside them, concerning the words, mission, and ministry of Christ (and His Apostles).

There is only ONE book in the New Testament that departs substantially in form from these two types, and that is The Revelation of Saint John. Setting aside that book of apocalyptic prophecy for a moment, let's see if we can find any latter-day church analogs to the letters and testimonies of the Apostles which are contained in the New Testament.

1) The letters in the New Testament contain doctrine and counsel given by the apostles to the members of the church in various regions. The doctrine and counsel of the modern day apostles (which is generally similar in content) is distributed in writing (more or less as it was in Paul's day, with a few refinements like the printing press and the computer) throughout the world, but their teachings are also broadcast all over the world in many new and different formats. Despite the changes in technology, God's method of transmission has not changed- God speaks to us through His prophets-they don't necessarily have to dictate his every word, but they do give inspired teachings, doctrine and counsel to as many members of the church as existing technology will allow them to reach.

Amos 3:7
Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.

D&C 1:37-38
Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled. What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.

So why aren't these modern teachings enshrined in a volume of scripture yet? The letters that are contained in our modern New Testament were just letters, and they weren't even a uniform collection of letters, until they were put together and bound in one book by a council of clerics who definitively defined what was considered canonical and what was not and then declared the canon closed in 367 AD (it took a few more similar councils before it finally took, but for simplicity's sake let's just leave it at 367 AD.) That means it took at least 260 years or so for the letters that the primitive apostles wrote to be cobbled together into a book of scripture. With that fact in mind, surely you can give us some leeway of at least fifty years or so before we have to officially "canonize" our modern prophetic writings.

2) The Living Christ is an excellent example of a witness given by the Prophets and Apostles of this day concerning the words, mission, and ministry of Christ.

As far as John's apocalypse is concerned, perhaps this cuts to the heart of my argument. Why haven't we had any recent books of scripture written lately predicting future events? Maybe it is because we have had MANY books of prophecy written already, including many that are contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, scripture that was introduced in the 19th century, and which did not arrive at its current level of completion until 1981. Has the plan for the future changed while I wasn't looking? Last I checked Christ is still planning to return for His second coming, just like all of those prophets predicted, and just like the modern prophets continue to predict, which brings me to my main point: the prophets of this age ARE making predictions ALL THE TIME. We just don't notice because they don't hold up a big sign that says PROPHECY whenever they give us a warning and talk about things to come. And of course a lot of people don't notice because they aren't paying attention.

Foretelling Vs. Forthtelling
This would probably be a good time to teach you about the difference between "foretelling" and "forthtelling". Prophets throughout every age of history tend to do both--a lot.

"Foretelling" is when a prophet walks up to you and says: "You're going to fall of a cliff in thirty days!"

"Forthtelling" is when a prophet says "If you keep riding your unicycle on the edge of the Grand Canyon, you are going to fall of a cliff!"

Foretelling tends to deal with big events like the second coming of Christ that are going to happen no matter how much you may whine about it.

Forthtelling tends to deal with things that can happen (or don't have to happen) as long as you choose to heed the prophet's warning or counsel.

Jonah is a good example of this. (The following is something of a loose retelling). Jonah (by way of the fish) shows up in Ninevah as commanded by the Lord to tell the people there that, if they do not repent, God will destroy them. Much to Jonah's surprise and consternation (Jonah is from the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Israelites don't care much for the people of Ninevah), the people of Ninevah choose to repent, and so they don't get destroyed. Jonah gets mad at God because he went all that way just to tell them that they were going to get destroyed, and then God didn't do it, and now Jonah thinks he has been made to look stupid. God responds to Jonah's complaint by making a gourd plant to give Jonah shade while he sulks in sackcloth and ashes outside the city, and then God sends a worm to wither the gourd and a "vehement east wind, and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live." God did all this so that He could teach Jonah this lesson:

And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death. Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

The reason why I tell you this story is because Jonah, who should have known better (Jonah does a lot of things which he should know better than to do, by the way), didn't understand the difference between foretelling, and forthtelling. Jonah thought that he was foretelling the destruction of Ninevah, when in actual fact he was only commissioned by God to forthtell the consequences should the people of Ninevah elect to reject his teachings and remain in their sins.

How does this apply to my argument? You can hear forthtelling a lot in any given general conference, but one of the best examples in print is in The Proclamation to the World on the Family.

"We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God. Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets."

Forthtelling is not as easy to spot as foretelling. Forthtelling tends to be couched in such terms as to make us take it for granted because it appears to be nothing more than a warning. Foretelling only sticks out when (or because) it can be held up against actual events after the fact and confirmed. That is why Christians can read the countless prophecies concerning Jesus Christ's mortal ministry in the Old Testament and wonder how the people of Christ's time could be so blind with so many plain and easy to understand prophecies to guide them. However, as in all things, hindsight is 20/20. I guarantee that there are many things that are said in conference which pass relatively unnoticed which foretell events which have yet to come to pass.

It is common for the general authorities to warn of coming economic hardship, or other calamities which we may face in the future. Such warnings are usually coupled with the repeated exhortation to stay (or get) out of debt, and to maintain our food storage. I feel that, because things like food storage and frugality (or paying tithing, or making your home a welcoming place for the Holy Spirit to reside, or dressing modestly, and so on) seem so mundane, it is altogether too easy to take such warnings for granted instead of recognizing them for what they are: the word of the Lord.

In many ways we are all like Namaan who travelled a great distance to ask the prophet Elisha to heal him of his leprosy, and yet he rebelled when Elisha instructed him to do something as absurdly simple as to wash himself seven times in the river Jordan. Fortunately for Namaan, he had wise (and brave) servants who reminded him of this profound and simple truth:

2 Kings 5:13
And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?

In the end, all I am really trying to say is that if you don't think that the Prophets and Apostles of this day are prophesying enough for your taste, then you simply aren't paying enough attention. Moreover, I would argue that if you aren't heeding the prophet's counsel, or worse if you are ridiculing the counsel that you do happen to hear, then you aren't WORTHY to receive more prophecy, much less more scripture. Each one of us has the great blessing and responsibility to choose to listen to, and to follow diligently, those things that God communicates to us through His prophets and apostles. Just think of it! We live in an age when a modern-day Moses walks the earth! We can learn from men who are inspired by the same spirit as were Isaiah and Elijah! We can be blessed at the hands of men who hold the same authority as Paul or Peter! I have come to know, through the witness of the spirit, that God has called a prophet to guide us in this day just as he has done in ages past. To have access to a Prophet of the Lord is a miracle beyond description and blessing for which I am eternally grateful.

For more on this subject I refer you to Ezra Taft Benson's seminal address "14 Fundamentals in Following the Prophet"

I also suggest watching this talk by Claudio R. M. Costa which was given at the October 2010 General Conference called "Obedience to the Prophets"

1 comment :

  1. I appreciate this response and review. Paul taught that the purpose of Christ's Church is
    11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
    12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
    13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
    -- Eph 4

    The Church's work is focused upon that, although we sometimes receive other information such as the 1830s foretelling of the US's Civil War.

    Why don't we have reams of new revelations? Are we fully living up to what we have? If not, maybe the Lord's grace includes not making us accountable for more that we wouldn't heed. We only have 1/3 of the text of the summary that was recorded on the golden plates from which The Book of Mormon was translated.

    Still, the faithful receive personal revelation far beyond what's given generally.
    9 And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.

    10 And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; and he that will not harden his heart, to him is given the greater portion of the word, until it is given unto him to know the mysteries of God until he know them in full.

    11 And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction. Now this is what is meant by the chains of hell.
    -- Alma 12

    D&C 50:24 That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day.

    - - - - -
    A minor note: Pres. Kimball counseled/corrected/chided Elder Benson about "14 Fundamentals in Following the Prophet" because of Pres. Kimball's concern that it would lead the Saints to become too dependent upon the Prophet.


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