The Making of a Prophet
By T. Austin-Sparks
Prophetic ministry has not developed with time, but is eternal. It has come out of the eternal counsels. When Adam sinned and was expelled from the garden, the Word simply says, God "placed at the east of the garden of Eden the Cherubim... to guard the way of the tree of life" (Genesis 3:24 NKJV).
Who or what are the Cherubim? Where do they come from?
They have no prior reference in Scripture – just this simple statement. God put them there to guard the way of the tree of life. They became the custodians of life, to hold things according to God's will and thought. For the thoughts of man's heart had departed from God's thoughts and had become evil; everything had been marred; and now the custodians of the divine thought, about the greatest of all things for man - divine life, uncreated life - the custodians of that, the Cherubim, were placed there.
Later we are given to understand what the Cherubim are like: this symbolic, composite representation has a four-fold aspect - the lion, the ox, the man and the eagle (cf. Ezekiel 1:4-14 with 10:14 and 15); and we are given to understand very clearly that the predominant feature is the man. It is a man, really, with three other aspects, those of the lion, the ox, and the eagle. The lion is a symbol of kingship or dominion; the ox, of service and sacrifice; the eagle, of heavenly glory and mystery.
The predominant aspect of the Cherubim is that of a Man
Throughout Scripture the man takes the place, in the divine order of things, of the prophet, the representative of God. The representation of God's thoughts is a man. That was the intention in the creation of Adam in the image and likeness of God - to be the personal embodiment and expression of God's thoughts. That is what man was created for. That is what we find in the Man, who was God manifested in the flesh. He was the perfect expression of all God's thoughts.
Where has this symbolism of the Cherubim come from? It is simply brought in. It comes out from eternity. It is a divine, eternal thought, and it takes charge of things, to hold things for God. So that man - and we know that phrase "the Son of man" (cf. Ezekiel 2:3,6,8; 3:1,3,4,10,17,25 etc) - is peculiarly related to the prophetic office, and the prophetic function which is an eternal thing that just appears. It is, in its very nature, the representation of divine thoughts, and it is to hold God's thoughts in purity and in fullness. That is the idea related to the man, to the prophet, and is the prophetic function and nature.
The Identity of the Prophet with his Message
Here we come to the most important aspect - the absolute identity of the vessel with the vessel's ministry. Prophetic ministry is not something that one takes up. It is something that one is. No academy can make you a prophet. Samuel instituted the schools of the prophets. They were for two purposes - one, the dissemination of religious knowledge, and the other, the writing up of the chronicles of religious history. In Samuel's day there was no “open vision”; the people had lost the Word of God. They had to be taught the Word of God again. The chronicles of the ways of God had to be written up and put on record for future generations. The schools of the prophets were instituted mainly for that purpose.
But there was a great deal of difference between those academic prophets and the living, anointed prophets. The academic prophets became members of a profession and swiftly degenerated into something unworthy. All the false prophets came from schools of prophets, and were accepted publicly on that ground. They had been to college and were accepted; but they were false prophets. Going to a religious college does not of itself make you a prophet of God.
My point is this - the identity of the vessel with its ministry is the very heart of divine thought. A man is called to represent the thoughts of God, to represent them in what he is, not in something that he takes up as a form or line of ministry, not in something that he does. The vessel itself is the ministry and you cannot divide between the two.
The Necessity of Self-Emptying
This explains everything in the life of the great prophets. It explains the life of Moses, the prophet whom the Lord God raised up from among his brethren (Deut. 18:15,18). Moses essayed to take up his life work. He was a man of tremendous abilities, "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7:22), with great natural qualifications and gifts, and then somehow he got some conception of a life-work for God. It was quite true; it was a true conception, a right idea; he was very honest. There was no question at all about his motives; but he essayed to take up that work on the basis of what he was naturally, with his own ability, qualifications and zeal, and on that basis disaster came upon the whole thing.
That is NOT how prophets are made. That is NOT how the prophetic office is exercised. Moses had to go into the wilderness and for forty years be emptied out, until there was nothing left of himself upon which he could have confidence to do the work of God or fulfil any divine commission. He was by nature a man "mighty in his words and works"; and yet now he says, "I am not eloquent... I am slow of speech..." (Exodus 4:10). There had been a tremendous undercutting of all natural facility and resource, and I do not think that Moses was merely disagreeable in his reply to God. He did not say in effect, 'You would not allow me to do it then, so I will not do it now.' I think he was a man who was under the divine discipline and yet on top of it.
A man who is really under things and who has become petulant does not respond to little opportunities of helping people. We get a glimpse of Moses at the beginning of his time in the wilderness (Exodus 2:16,17) which suggests that he was not of that kind. When there was difficulty at the well, over the watering of the flocks, if Moses had been in a bad mood, cantankerous, disagreeable because the Lord had not seemed to stand by him in Egypt, he probably would have sat somewhere apart and looked on and done nothing to help. But he went readily to help, in a good spirit, doing all he could. He was on top of his trial. Little things indicate where a man is.
We go through times of trial and test under the hand of God, and it is so easy to get into that frame of mind which, says in effect, 'The Lord does not want us, He need not have us!' We let everything go, we do not care about anything; we have gone down under our trials and we are rendered useless. I do not believe the Lord ever comes to a person like that to take them up. Elijah, dispirited, fled to the wilderness, and to a cave in the mountains; but he had to get somewhere else before the Lord could do anything with him. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (I Kings 19:9). The Lord never comes to a man and re-commissions him when he is in despair. 'God shall forgive you all but your despair' (F. W. H. Myers, 'St. Paul') - because despair is lost faith in God, and God can never do anything with one who has lost faith.
Moses was emptied to the last drop, and yet he was not angry or disagreeable with God. What was the Lord doing? He was making a prophet. Beforehand, the man would have taken up an office, he would have made the prophetic function serve him, he would have used it. There was no inward, vital relationship between the man and the work that he was to do; they were two separate things; the work was objective to the man. At the end of forty years in the wilderness he is in a state for this to become subjective; something has been done. There has been brought about a state which makes the man fit to be a living expression of the Divine thought. He has been emptied of his own thoughts to make room for God's thoughts; he has been emptied of his own strength, that all the energy should be of God.
Is not that perhaps the meaning of the fire and the bush that was not consumed? It is a parable, maybe a larger parable, but I think in the immediate application it was saying something to Moses. 'Moses, you are a very frail creature, a common bush of the desert, a bit of ordinary humanity, nothing at all of resource in yourself; but there is a resource, which can carry you on and on, and you can be maintained, without being consumed, by an energy that is not your own - the Spirit of God, the energy of God.' That was the great lesson this prophet had to learn. 'I cannot!' 'All right', said the Lord, 'but I AM.'
A great deal is made of the natural side of many of the Lord's servants, and usually with tragic results. A lot is made of Paul. 'What a great man Paul was naturally, what intellect he had, what training, what tremendous abilities!' That may all be true, but ask Paul what value it was to him when he was right up against a spiritual situation. He will cry, "Who is sufficient for these things? ... Our sufficiency is from God" (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5). Paul was taken through experiences where he, like Moses, despaired of life. He said, "We... had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead" (2 Cor. 1:9).
The Message Worked Out By Actual Experience
The principle at work all the time is that God is going to make the ministry and the minister identical. You see it in all the prophets. The Lord stopped short at nothing. He took infinite pains working even through domestic circumstance and the closest relationships of life. Think of the tragedy of Hosea's domestic life. Think of Ezekiel, whose wife the Lord took away in death at a stroke. The Lord said, 'Get up in the morning, anoint your face, do not allow the slightest suggestion of mourning or tragedy to be detected; go out as always before, as though nothing has happened; show yourself to the people, go about with a bright countenance, provoke them to enquire what you mean by such outrageous behaviour.' The Lord brought this heartbreak upon him and then required him to act thus. Why? Ezekiel was a prophet; he had to embody his message, and the message was this: 'Israel, God's wife, has become lost to God, dead to God, and Israel takes no notice of it; she goes on the same as ever, as though nothing had happened.' The prophet must bring it home by his own experience. God is working the thing right in. He works in deep and terrible ways in the life of His servant to produce ministry.
If we are under the Holy Spirit, God is going to make us prophets; that is, He is going to make the prophecy a thing that has taken place in us, so that what we say is only making vocal something that has been going on within us, that has been done in us. God has been doing it through years in strange, deep, terrible ways in some lives, standing at nothing, touching everything; and the vessel, thus worked upon, is the message. People do not come to hear what you have to teach. They have come to see what you are, to see that thing which has been worked by God. What a price the prophetic instrument has to pay!
So Moses went into the wilderness, to the awful undoing of his natural life, his natural mentality; to be brought to zero; to have the thing worked in him. Was God justified? After all it was a question of resource for the future. Oh, the strain that was going to bear down upon that life! Sometimes Moses almost broke; at times he did crack under the strain. "I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me" (Num. 11:14). What was his resource? Oh, if it had been the old resource of Egypt he would not have stood it for a year. He could not stand provocation in Egypt, he must rise up and fight. He broke down morally and spiritually under that little strain away back there forty years before. What would he do with these rebels? How long would he put up with them? A terrific strain was going to bear down upon him, and only a deep in worked something that had been done inside, would be enough to carry him through when it was a case of standing against the stream for God's full thought.
With us, too, the strain may be terrific; ofttimes there will come the very strong temptation - 'Let go a little, compromise a little, do not be so utter; you will get more open doors if you will only broaden out a bit; you can have a lot more if you ease up!' What is going to save you in that hour of temptation? The only thing is that God has done this thing in you. It is part of your very being - not something you can give up; it is you, your very life. That is the only thing. God knew what He was doing with Moses. The thing had to be so much a part of the man that there was no dividing between them. The man was the prophetic ministry.
He was rejected by his brethren; they would not have him. "Who made you a prince and a judge over us?" (Ex. 2:14). That is the human side of it. But there was the divine side. It was of God that he went into the wilderness for forty years. It had to be, from God's side. It looked as though it was man's doing. But it was not so. These two things went together. Rejection by his brethren was all in line with the sovereign purpose of God. It was the only way in which God got the opportunity He needed to reconstitute this man. The real preparation of this prophet took place during the time that his brethren repudiated him. Oh, the sovereignty of God, the wonderful sovereignty of God! A dark time, a deep time; a breaking, crushing, grinding time; emptied out. It seems as if everything is going, that nothing will be left. Yet all that is God's way of making prophetic ministry.
A Messenger Divinely Attested
I expect that Moses at the beginning would have been very legalistic, laying down the law - 'You must do this and that' - and so on; an autocrat or despot. When, after those years, we find him coming off the wheel, out of the hands of the Potter, he is said to be "very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth" (Num. 12:3), and God could stand by him then. He could not stand by him on the day when he rose up in a spirit of pride, arrogance, self-assertiveness. God had to let that work itself out to its inevitable consequence. But when Moses, as the meekest of men, the broken, humble, selfless man, was challenged by others as to his office - at such a time Moses did not stand up for his position, his rights; he just handed the matter over to the Lord. His attitude was, 'we will allow the Lord to decide. I have no personal position to preserve: if the Lord has made me His prophet, let Him show it. I am prepared to go out of office if it is not of the Lord.' What a different spirit! And the Lord did stand by him marvellously and mightily on those occasions, and terribly so for those who opposed themselves (Numbers 12:2ff.; 16:3ff.).
Prophetic Ministry, A Life, Not Teaching
Well, what is a prophet? What is the prophetic function? It is this: God takes hold of a vessel (it may be individual or it may be collective: the function of prophetic ministry may move through a people, as it did through Israel), and He takes that vessel through a deep history, breaking and undoing, disillusioning, revolutionising the whole mentality, so that things which were held fiercely, assertively, are no longer so held. There is developed a wonderful pliableness, adjustableness and teachableness. Everything that was merely objective as to the work of God, as to divine truth, as to orthodoxy or fundamentalism, all that was held so strongly, in an objective, legalistic way, as to what is right and wrong in methods - it is all dealt with, all broken. There is a new conception entirely, a new outlook upon things; no longer a formal system, something outside you which you take up, but something worked in an inward way in the vessel. It is what the vessel is that is its ministry. It is not what it has accepted of doctrine and is now teaching.
Oh, to get free of all that horrible realm of things! It is a wretched realm, that of adopting teachings, taking on interpretations, being known because such and such is your line of things. Oh, God deliver us! Oh, to be brought to the place where it is a matter of life - of what God has really done in us, made of us! First He has pulverised us, and then He has reconstructed us on a new spiritual principle, and that expresses itself in ministry: what is said is coming from what has been going on behind the scenes, perhaps for years and even right up to date.
Do you see the law of prophetic function? It is that God keeps chosen vessels abreast of truth by experience. Every bit of truth that they give out in word is something that has had a history. They went down into the depths and they were saved by that truth. It was their life and therefore it is a part of them. That is the nature of prophetic ministry.
A Prophet, Tolerant But Uncompromising
Reverting to what I was saying about the change in Moses: you can see a reflection of it in the case of Samuel. I think Samuel is one of the most beautiful and lovable characters in the Old Testament, and he is called a prophet. Do you notice that although his own heart is utterly devoted to God's highest and fullest thought, and inwardly he has no compromise whatever, yet he shows a marvellous charity toward Saul during those early months? (It seems not to have gone much beyond a year, the first year of Saul's reign, during which it seems that Saul really did seek to show some semblance of good.) And yet we must remember that Saul represents the denial of the highest of all things - the direct and immediate government of God. Such government was repudiated by Israel in favour of a king - "Make us a king to judge us like all the nations", they said. God said to Samuel: "They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me" (1 Samuel 8:5-7).
Kingship was a Divine principle as much as prophecy was. The lion is there with the man. The monarch, representing God's thought of dominion, is there. But with Saul it is on a lower level. His coming in represented the bringing down of that Divine thought to the level of the world: "like all the nations" - a divine thought taken hold of by carnal men, dragged down to the world's level; and Samuel knew it. In his heart he could not accept that, and he complained to God about it; he was against this thing, for he saw what it meant; but how charitable he was to Saul for as long as he could be!
Why do I say that? Because there is a condition like that existing today. Divine things have been taken hold of by carnal men, and brought down to an earthly level; the direct government of the Holy Spirit has been exchanged for committees and boards and so on. Men have set up the government in divine matters and are running things for God. The way of the New Testament, that in prayer and fasting the mind of the Lord is secured, is hardly known. Well, those who are spiritual, who know, who see, who understand, cannot accept that. But they are very charitable. A true prophet, like Samuel, will be charitable as long as possible, until that wrong thing takes the pronounced and positive form of disobedience to light given. The Lord came to Saul through Samuel and gave him clearly to understand what he had to do. It was made known to him with unmistakable clarity what God required of him, and he was disobedient. Then Samuel said, 'No more charity!' He was implacable. "Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you from being king" (I Samuel 15:23). Samuel went as far as he could. That is charity.
Of course, types are always weak and imperfect, but you can see the truth there. The prophet Samuel showed a great deal of forbearance with things that were wrong, even while in his heart he could not accept them. He hoped that light would break and obedience follow and the situation be saved. We have to be very charitable to all that with which we do not agree.
The point is this – Samuel (and Moses) had to learn these things. They had to be made like that. We are better fitted to serve the Lord's purpose, we are truer prophets, when we can bear with things with which we do not agree, than when in our zeal we are iconoclasts, and seek only to destroy the offending thing. The Lord says, 'That will not do.'
In all that we have said we have emphasized only one thing - that prophetic ministry is a function. Its function is to hold everything in relation to God's full thought - but not as holding a 'line' of things, in an objective and legalistic way. You do not take something up. You can only do it truly as God has worked into you that thing for which you are going to stand, and in so far as it has been revealed in you through experience, through the handling of God - God has taken you through it, and you know it like it is. It is not that you have achieved something, but rather that you have been broken in the process. Now you are fit for something in the Lord.
About the author
T. Austin-Sparks became a Christian at 17 while listening to young street-preachers in Glasgow. Ordained a Baptist pastor at 24, he led three congregations in London. In 1926, he broke with this organisation, resigned his Baptist ordination and established a conference and training centre in southeast London. Among the many books which he wrote, at least three are regarded as Christian classics: The School of Christ, The Centrality and Supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and We Beheld His Glory. The golden chord which runs through Sparks' books is the exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ. T. Austin-Sparks died in 1971. www.austin-sparks.net