God's Special Spokesmen: The Prophets

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In our study of salvation history we see that men called prophets have played an important role in the dealings which God had with the Jews.  Many people misunderstand what a prophet is.  Most think that it means a person who foretells future events in strange and mysterious ways.  While it is true that part of a prophet's mission may be to predict future events, this is not the main purpose of these holy men.  A prophet is someone chosen by God to speak a message from him to the people.  Usually this message is about their present concerns, something that they need to hear for their spiritual well-being.  The prophet speaks these words with the authority, or permission and power, of the Lord.

This Mission of the Prophets in Israel

God sent many such men to his people.  They were sent to remind the Jews about the covenant by which they were bound to God.  The prophets told the people to be faithful to the Law and to refuse to worship false gods as their pagan neighbors did.  By doing these things the prophets were really preparing the Jews for the coming of the Messiah, a name which means "the Anointed One."  In Greek the word for "Anointed One" is Christos, from which we get "Christ".  As we learned in the previous chapter, "anointed" means someone chosen by God for a special role; in this case, the Anointed One is the Redeemer whom God promised to send to the human race, Jesus Christ.

The prophets encouraged the people to trust in God, not in the powerful nations of the earth, for peace and protection.  They warned them that God would punish them if they did not live as his holy people, observing the Commandments of the Law.

The Prophets Proclaimed God's Message in Many Ways

The prophets delivered the Lord's messages in many ways.  They spoke the words, put them into poetry, and sometimes even acted them out in little skits!  They were so devoted to God and to their mission that they used any method they could to get the people to hear God's Word and obey it.

The Different Kinds of Prophets

The spokesmen of God whom we know most about are those whose prophecies (messages from God) and lives are recorded in the Old Testament.  They are divided into two groups: the major and minor prophets.  The major prophets are those who wrote a lot; their names are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.  The minor prophets, whose writings are not as abundant, are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

The Prophets Elijah and Elisha

There are two very great prophets who are not included in the above lists because they did not leave us any of their writings.  But their lives are recorded in the Bible and they are very important in salvation history.  Their names are Elijah and Elisha.  Elijah, who was always considered the greatest prophet of them all, was very devoted to God.  He most famous for a contest he held with some pagan priests on Mount Carmel.  He wanted to prove to the people that the God of the Israelites was the one true God, so he told the pagan priests to set up altars of sacrifice and ask their gods to set these altars on fire.  Of course no matter how long they prayed nothing happened.  However, when Elijah set up his altar and asked God to set it on fire, behold! a blaze came down from Heaven and consumed the animal that was on it!  Elijah's holiness drew many men to him; they wanted to serve God too.

The most important of these men was Elisha.  He lived with the holy prophet Elijah and saw him taken up into Heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:11).  Elisha continued serving God with the same love and devotion that had filled the heart of his master, Elijah.  He worked many miracles, one of which was multiplying bread for the hungry, just as Our Lord did centuries later.

Elijah and Elisha are especially important to the Catholic Church because one of its greatest religious orders, the Carmelites, owes its existence to the disciples of these prophets.  The priests, brothers, nuns, and lay people who belong to the Carmelite Order dedicate their lives to offering prayers and sacrifices to God for the needs of his people, just as the holy prophets had done centuries ago.

The Prophet Isaiah

A most important prophet for Christians is Isaiah, who lived eight hundred years before the birth of Christ.  More than the others, Isaiah spoke about the coming Messiah.  Here are some of his prophecies about the Redeemer:

The Messiah's virgin mother: "The virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and him name shall be Immanuel (which means, God-with-us)" (Is 7:14).

The Messiah will be a great light: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom (sinfulness), a light has shone" (Is 9:1).

The Messiah will be a great ruler: "For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.  They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.  His dominion is vast and for ever peaceful" (Is 9:5-6).

The Messiah shines in glory upon the people: "Rise up in splendor!  Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. . .Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance" (Is 60:1, 3).

We use these and other prophecies about the Messiah from Isaiah in our Advent and Christmas liturgies in the Catholic Church.

Saint John the Baptist, Herald of the Messiah

The last of the Old Testament prophets and the only one who is present in the New Testament, is Saint John the Baptist.  He was a "bridge" between these two parts of salvation history, and it was his privileged mission to prepare the Jews for the public ministry of Our Lord.

John was born only six months before Jesus, and he was Our Lord's cousin (his mother was Mary's relative).  His parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were elderly and had no children.  They wanted a baby so badly!  One day, when Zechariah was in the Temple worshipping God, an angel appeared to him with this happy message:  Do not be frightened, Zechariah, your prayers has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth shall bear a son, whom you are to name John.  Joy and gladness will be yours at his birth; for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord (Lk 1:13-14).

At John's birth the Holy Spirit inspired his father with wonderful words about the little boy.  He revealed to Zechariah that John was to be the forerunner and herald of the Messiah.  A forerunner is someone who goes before another person to prepare the people for his coming; a herald is someone who announces the coming of a royal person.  The Holy Spirit gave Zechariah these words about John:  You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepared his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins (Lk 1:76-77).

When John grew up he began his mission in the area around the Jordan River, not far from the city of Jerusalem.  He would tell the people to repent (to give up their sinful desires and actions).  John is called the "Baptist" (or the Baptizer) because he would pour water upon those people who wanted to give up sin, as a sign of their desire to repent.  He would often say to the crowds that came to him: "I am baptizing you with water, but there is one to come who is mightier that I. . .He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit" (Lk 3:16).

John was speaking of Jesus, who was soon to make his appearance among the people.  Like all of the other prophets sent by God, John was a victim of persecution.  King Herod, who was living a sinful and impure life, did not like to hear John say that his actions were wrong.  He had the Baptist thrown into prison and later sentenced him to be beheaded.

John didn't care that he was to die, for he had finished the work that was his to do.  He had faithfully prepared the people for Jesus' preaching, and he was ready to meet death with a loyal heart.  Saint John the Baptist is one of the most important saints of the Church, and, after Our Lady, he receives the most honor in the Church's prayers and liturgy.

 Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534

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