Another part of Adventist identity is our understanding of the gift of prophecy. As a first installment I offer an article I wrote, published in the October 2012 issue of Signs of the Times.
During World War I, the Seventy-Seventh Division, with more than 555 men under the command of Major Charles Whittlesey, advanced into the Argonne forest in France. Their advance was to have been supported on the left by a French unit and on the right by an American one. Unfortunately, the attacks by their flanking units failed, but headquarters could not reach the Seventy-Seventh to inform them of their situation and authorize a retreat. Isolated, and far in advance of other friendly units, enemy forces quickly cut off and surrounded the Seventy-Seventh Division. For six days they fought and died alone—the “Lost Battalion.”
Runners sent to inform headquarters of the Seventy-Seventh’s location and plight repeatedly lost their way or were captured by the Germans. For their part, headquarters did not know where the Seventy-Seventh was, or even if they still existed as a fighting force. To make matters worse, on the third day of their ordeal, Allied artillery began falling on the Seventy-Seventh. In desperation, Whittlesey began releasing carrier pigeons. The first, carrying the message “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate,” was shot down by surrounding German troops. Whittlesey released a second pigeon with the message “Men are suffering. Can support be sent?” That bird suffered the same fate as the first. The third and last pigeon, named Cher Ami, was released carrying the following message: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it!”
Cher Ami also fell, but somehow managed to take flight again. The blood-covered bird made it back to headquarters about an hour later, despite being blinded in one eye and having its right dangling by a tendon. The artillery barrage stopped moments later. The men themselves credited the carrier pigeon Cher Ami, and the message it carried, with saving all those who survived.
Finally, after six days, relief reached the Seventy-Seventh Division, who by this time had run out of food and nearly out of ammunition. Of the more than 555 men who walked into the Ardennes less than a week earlier, only 194 walked out. All the rest had been killed, wounded, or were missing.
The “Lost Battalion” found itself alone and in mortal danger because it could no longer receive instructions from command headquarters. Communications are essential to every human endeavor, but especially in conflict.
God’s communication system
Of course, God knows this. He knows that as long as evil exists, those who try to follow Him will be involved in conflict. He also knows that those involved in that conflict will need continual instruction from headquarters, which is why God gave His church the gift of prophecy.
Probably the majority of people, when they hear the word prophecy, think of predictions, such as predictions about the end of the world. The Bible does contain many prophecies about the future. But the work of a prophet is much broader than merely foretelling the future. The prophet’s most important work is to speak God’s words to His people and the world. We see this in Exodus 7, where “the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet’” (verse 1). God did not mean that Aaron would be a prophet in the sense of predicting the future.
Scripture shows us that prophets communicate all kinds of messages from God to His people. Sometimes these messages involve predictions, but most of the time they deal with instruction, reproof, encouragement, or reassurance.
There’s a tendency to think that we know the names of all the prophets because they have books named after them—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Jonah, and so on. But, in fact, the Bible mentions a number of other prophets who either never wrote out the messages God gave them or, if they did, their writings are not included in the Bible.
One of these was a prophet named Nathan, who repeatedly appears in the story of David. Nathan’s story is also helpful because it provides us an example of the work of a prophet. His prophetic ministry included few predictions, but he continually provided advice and counsel to David about God’s will for Israel and for the king himself. It was Nathan whom God used to confront David about his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite.
Another prophet who never wrote a book of the Bible is Elisha, who performed more miracles than any other person in the Bible except for Christ. However, like Nathan, he seldom made predictions. Thus, it’s evident that the biblical prophets exercised their gift more often to give advice and counsel than to make predictions.
And that makes a lot of sense. Any business owner or administrator of a large institution will tell you that it’s more useful to have advice about which course to take today than to be given a detailed knowledge of tomorrow.
Some people claim that the gift of prophecy no longer manifests itself on the earth—that, in fact, from the time that the New Testament was completed and the canon of Scripture was closed, there can be no more prophets. In some ways that makes sense. After all, if the Bible is to be our guide, and if it was completed long ago, what would be the need of more prophets?
Nevertheless, the gift of prophecy remains necessary because, as the experience of the Lost Battalion tells us, in a hostile environment we need more than predictions about what our allies or enemies will do weeks or months from now. We need what is called “actionable intelligence”—information that tells us the best course of action—now. We continue to need instruction, reproof, encouragement, and reassurance.
And Scripture makes it clear that we will continue to receive this important advice. Paul wrote that Christ Himself “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–13).
Notice that these gifts are given until “we all reach unity in the faith and . . . become mature, attaining to the . . . fullness of Christ.” A few moments spent at any church board meeting will likely reveal that we have not yet achieved these goals, even within a local congregation, let alone the entire spectrum of believers that make up the body of Christ. So as long as we continue to need “instruction, reproof, encouragement, and reassurance,” we will continue to receive essential assistance through the gift of prophecy.
What about predictions?
Will this gift of prophecy include prediction? Will there yet be among us those who bring predictions about the future from God? While I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, I say that, should God see that His people need new predictive prophecy, He will supply it.
And in the end, that knowledge is itself reassuring. We who are Christians need never fear that we will become like the Lost Battalion, cut off and surrounded by hostile forces, and without instruction or encouragement from our heavenly headquarters. For as long as we remain in this struggle between good and evil, God will continue to speak to us through the gift of prophecy.