I’m inviting Coram Deo Church and any other interested folks to join me in reading through the Bible in 2015. We’ll be using a genre-based plan that I adapted and modified from Michael Coley at Bible-Reading.com (warning: website design fail!! Visit at your own risk). We’ll read the Epistles on Sundays; the Pentateuch on Mondays; Historical books on Tuesdays; Poetry & Wisdom on Wednesdays; Prophecy on Thursdays; and Gospels & Acts on Fridays. Saturdays are a catch-up day. And we’ll read the Psalms every day.

Here is a PDF copy of the plan for those who want a hard copy. You can have the daily readings delivered to your Twitter feed every morning by following me (@bobthune).

In 2014, we’re preaching through the book of Isaiah at Coram Deo Church. Here’s a little essay I wrote to help explain the nature of prophecy to those who are less familiar with this genre of biblical literature.


When we hear the word prophecy, all kinds of strange connotations come to mind. Some of us immediately think of crazy-eyed modern “prophets” predicting the end of the world. Others – especially those from charismatic/Pentecostal traditions – think of people receiving a “prophetic word” or “walking in a prophetic anointing.” What is a prophet, anyway? Did the Old Testament prophets share anything in common with these modern manifestations?

Four contrasts will help us understand the role of the biblical prophets more clearly.

Not Foretelling, but Forth-Telling

Many people assume that the job of a prophet was to foretell or predict the future. But that’s only a small part of the prophet’s role. Dr. Richard Pratt explains:

The Greek word prophetes from which we derive our English word “prophet” is a rather flexible term… On the one hand it may mean to “speak beforehand” or “predict,” and on the other hand, it may simply mean to “speak forth” or to “proclaim” something that is not even a prediction at all. A prophet then can be someone who predicts or simply someone who proclaims. In reality, Old Testament prophets did both. They spoke of the future, but they also spoke boldly about their own days. (Pratt, He Gave Us Prophets: A Prophet’s Job, http://thirdmill.org/seminary/course.asp/vs/hgp, accessed 31 December 2013).

We should understand the biblical prophets, then, not as “foretellers,” but as forth-tellers. Their job was to speak forth the word of God.

Not Soothsayers, but Covenant Servants

Another common term the Bible uses to designate the prophets is the Hebrew word ‘ebed, which means servant. “This title is important for prophets, because it often bore the connotations of an official or an officer, especially an officer of a royal court… [Prophets] served as representatives of the heavenly throne. They were official servants who spoke in the name of the Great King” (Pratt, He Gave Us Prophets: A Prophet’s Job, http://thirdmill.org/seminary/course.asp/vs/hgp, accessed 31 December 2013).

One way the prophets serve God is to represent him as prosecuting attorneys. God, the Great King over heaven and earth, has made a covenant with his people. He has pledged himself to them as their God, and he expects them to be faithful to him as his people. When they are unfaithful – when they disobey and disregard their covenant relationship with him – he “takes them to court.” He sends prophets to present evidence of the people’s sin and call them back to repentance and fidelity.

Another way the prophets serve God is by serving as a means of checks and balances. Throughout most of the Old Testament, God’s people were ruled by kings. And those kings were sinful human beings. They often abused power, served idols, and acted corruptly. God sends prophets to confront the kings’ disobedience, to call them to repentance, and to warn them and their followers of God’s impending judgment on their sin.

Not Certainties, but Contingencies

Many people wrongly assume that the biblical prophets spoke in certainties. Behind this view is a misunderstanding of Deuteronomy 18:22: “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously.” Does this mean that everything a prophet says is certain to occur?

Not at all. Rather, biblical prophecy always involves contingencies. Remember, the prophets are God’s covenant servants. They don’t speak God’s words into empty space; they speak to God’s covenant people, with the goal of arousing a response in those people! When they warn of God’s judgment, their goal is to elicit a response of repentance. When they promise blessing, their goal is to secure continued obedience. Thus, almost every prophecy in the Bible is contingent upon the response of the people.

The clearest example of the contingency of prophecy is the short little book of Jonah. Jonah is sent to Nineveh with this simple message: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). No stated conditions, no exceptions – just a clear word of impending judgment. Yet the people of Nineveh repent. “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). But why? Is God going back on his word? He said he was going to overthrow the city! Why would he not do so? Answer: because God’s warning to Nineveh contained an implied condition. Forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown – [unless the people repent and turn to God]. How do we know this condition exists? Because Jonah himself knew it. In Jonah 4:1-2, we read: “[Jonah] was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Jonah understood that his entire mission was conditional. God’s message of judgment was not a certainty, but a threat: if the people repented, God would graciously spare them. That’s why he sent Jonah in the first place.

Not Mechanical Dictation, but Organic Inspiration

“When it comes to Old Testament prophets, we frequently treat them as if they were passive instruments of revelation, mere mechanical mouthpieces of God,” observes Dr. Richard Pratt. “[But in reality], when God inspired the writing of Scripture he used the personalities and the thoughts and the outlooks of human writers… If we hope to understand Old Testament prophecy, we must reject a mechanical understanding of their experience and begin to look for the ways God inspired them as full, thinking human beings” (Pratt, He Gave Us Prophets: Essential Hermeneutical Perspectives, http://thirdmill.org/seminary/course.asp/vs/hgp, accessed 1 January 2014). God didn’t take over Isaiah’s lips and force them to move, or catch him up in a trance that bypassed his natural faculties. Rather, the prophet “was so wrought upon and superintended by God that the human words which expressed the message (words natural to that man at that time with that personality) were also the very words of God himself” (Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 31).

Prairie_Whole“Like the world we live in, Christian discipleship is often fragmented and disjointed, separating body and soul, calling and the earth, creation and community.” So writes Phillip Jensen in the prospectus for a very unique internship program. If you’re a student looking for a spiritually and personally formative summer internship, look no further than the Earthen Institute Prairie Apprenticeship.

I first met Phillip last year when he came to Omaha to sit down and talk church planting. We have some mutual friends (Phillip is a graduate of Covenant Seminary), and he wanted to discuss the possibility of rural church planting in Iowa. But after hearing what he was doing – and the significant ministry opportunities God was opening up to him – I encouraged him to stay right where he was. The Holy Spirit has affirmed that calling. And in the process, he’s strengthened Phillip’s vision for using farming as a means of “discipleship in an instant society” (to borrow a phrase from Eugene Peterson).

Phillip runs Prairie Whole Farm, a sustainable farm and CSA cooperative in Ida Grove, Iowa. He spends his days planting crops, weeding gardens, and tending a herd of heritage hogs, not to mention raising a family, mentoring a cadre of troubled teens, and contributing thoughtfully to evangelical theology. He’s not a farmer; he’s a pastor who happens to farm. Or maybe more simply: he’s a gospel-transformed Christian living a theologically integrated life. And he’s charting a course I hope to see many others follow: integrating work, faith, and life in a way that appreciates and enters into the “liturgy of creation.”

Download the prospectus for the Prairie Apprenticeship Program here. And as you think of it, pray for the work of the Prairie Whole Farm. I anticipate that this small farm in rural Iowa is going to have a big influence in reforming our practices of discipleship and spiritual formation.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.
(Isaiah 62:1)

Isaiah 62:1 is a neglected biblical emphasis today… So many Christians today are living a conveniently free-floating way of life [that] it doesn’t feel misaligned. It feels normal, and costly involvement feels like a super-spiritual option. But to God, church-hopping, self-protecting, me-first Christianity isn’t even recognizable. “For Zion’s sake” defines a way of life that works and prays and tithes and gets involved. Church membership vows could be summarized with these three words: “for Zion’s sake.” But our generation is disinclined to that kind of gusty intentionality.

What’s happening to us? We’re being changed not by the gospel but by the hyper-individualistic ethos of devotion to self. Complicating that is the fact that many people have been wounded by the church. Personally, the worst experiences of my life have been within the church. Why go back in? Because of God. God has made an everlasting covenant with his church, and her salvation will go forth like a burning torch. That’s the future of the world.

…Maybe you need to embrace Christ by re-embracing his church. If your relationship with your church is ambiguous and sporadic and subject to convenience, the problem is not your relationship with your church. The problem is your relationship with Christ. He has made his loyalty clear. He even delights in his church. He is committed to the revival of the world through the revival of the church. To God, the most important thing in all of created reality is his church, a crown of beauty in his hand. Your own greatest happiness is the revival of your church. Are you praying for your church? Are you praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Or will God have to wait to find people who will share the burden of his heart?

…If God were to pour out his power upon us, would we use it for Zion’s sake? Or would we use it to reinforce patterns of religious selfishness that know nothing of his cross? Maybe our first step toward revival is recommitment to our own membership vows. God has made a vow, and he’s calling us to join him in his resolve.

(Ray Ortlund, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, 414-415)

Ray Ortlund will preach the first sermon in the Isaiah series at Coram Deo on February 23, 2014.

As a preacher, I want to consistently be honing my craft. I’m always striving to become more gospel-fluent, more interesting, and more persuasive as a communicator of God’s Word. If you’re a preacher, I pray that you share those longings.

I’ve read many books on preaching, and I find them both helpful and discouraging. Helpful, because they always deepen my understanding. Yet discouraging, because each author seems to have his own “take” on the craft that never fully resonates with my skill set or situation.

So over the years, I’ve distilled my own set of “best practices” from the many authors who have influenced me. Not a single aspect of what’s below is original. I owe a great debt to Tim Keller, Bryan Chapell, Haddon Robinson, Mark Driscoll, Ray Ortlund, Jack Miller, and my good friend Will Walker. This is their stuff.

Below are three charts I have taped to the wall of my study which serve as reminders and guides as I strive to prepare a gospel-centered sermon. I trust younger preachers will find them helpful as they seek to “inhabit the tradition” and build on the work of those who have gone before.

Preachers: what resources have you found helpful that aren’t reflected below?

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