Field Guide to ProphetsBy Nathan Mates
The Bible's full of prophets, but they seem so rare today. Thus, a bit of a field guide to this unfortunately less-seen group of God's people is in order so that you'll know what to do if and when you meet one. First off, a definition of a prophet: a human, personally called by God to speak for him to others, usually about present sins or future events. Moses was the first prophet, and set the standard for all prophets that came after him until Jesus.
Moses's life started fairly unremarkably-- while he was raised in the Pharaoh's extended family, after killing an Egyptian, he fled into the wilderness for 40 years to raise sheep. [Exodus 2:11-25] Then, God spoke out of the burning bush, and changed the course of history. Moses was chosen to be the one to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave Egypt, and also to guide the Israelites through their next stage of development: receiving the Law (not just the 10 Commandments, but many other regulations), building of the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, and the establishment of most of the Jewish customs and traditions that exist to this day.
Moses did lots of miracles, talked with God, and laid down the rules for any prophets from God that would follow: "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, "Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die." The LORD said to me: "What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death." You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." [Deut 18:15-22]
This passage clearly points out that prophets are called by God, to speak his word to the people. And, a warning right from the start: if anyone claims to have a message from God about a future event, and if that event doesn't happen, that person's a liar and should be put to death. Getting an event right doesn't necessarily mean that the person is a true prophet, though-- they may have just gotten lucky, or are in tune with certain non-Godly elements.
God's serious about people who misuse his name, or lie about the sources of their messages. While the usual punishment in the Mosaic law for such sinners was to be hit with large rocks until dead, it's much harder for us today to administer such justice if we find such a liar who says "God says X will happen" and it doesn't, we can and should distance ourselves from them asap, and not trust their words at all while we pray for their demonstrated lack of salvation. Also, if you're in the habit of saying such things, I'd advise you to be very sure of the source of such messages.
After Moses, many other prophets are noted in the Old Testament. Some led fairly regular lives (Nathan in King David's court is one), and others were on the fringes of society, like Elijah and Elisha. All of them spoke for the Lord to others, and gave new commands and new guidance to their audience.
Another fulfillment of being a prophet, as opposed to speaking for yourself, or someone other than God is that all of the prophets embraced and extended God's word, as opposed to contradicting it. Moses spoke of false prophets as such: "If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, "Let us follow other gods" (gods you have not known) "and let us worship them," you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you." [Deut 13:1-5]
True revelations from God are in complete harmony with the rest of the scriptures, while false prophecies contradict it. Anyone denying Jesus's words that he is the only way to get to heaven, and instead trying to sell some mishmash of "everyone will be together in harmony, we'll unite all religions into one" that trades temporary Earthly happiness for being together in eternal condemnation because they didn't know Jesus is most certainly a false prophet. God is holy, i.e. separate from sin, and wants nothing to do with sin. As long as we are sinful (check your pulse-- if your heart's beating, you're still a sinner; if no pulse, seek medical attention or the pearly gates) we are separated from God, and there can be no oneness. Period.
Jesus came as our ultimate prophet: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." [Matthew 5:17] He spoke for God, and completed God's work of redemption on the cross. And, he promised the Holy Spirit that'd be in believers to help them speak God's word: "But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come." [John 16:13]
Prophecy didn't end with Jesus's ascension into Heaven almost 2000 years ago; the New Testament is clear on this. As noted above, with the Holy Spirit, every believer has the chance to prophesy, and this is made more explicit later: "At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, "Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy."" [Revelation 19:10]
In one of the larger passages on prophecy in the New Testament, Paul gives lots of instruction on its use in 1 Corinthians chapter 14. Paul rates it higher than untranslated speaking in tongues, as "He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church." [1 Corinthians 14:4] The entire church is blessed by regular prophesy in its midst, as the word of the Lord is given in a new way. Prophesy is just like the other spiritual gifts listed in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, such as teaching, serving, encouraging, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, healing, and the like. Most churches have some of those gifts, but not all. If you don't see all exercised, then I'd suggest times of acknowledging sins, repentance, prayer and fasting before God to ask him for the "cooler" gifts, or a full selection of them.