The Role of Prophets Anciently and Today
God Speaks through Prophets
A prophet serves as God's messenger, receiving revelation and making known Deity's divine will. While all righteous men and women have the right to receive revelation regarding themselves or things over which they exercise a stewardship, God has chosen prophets through whom He reveals his will to his disciples, to nations and peoples, or to mankind in general. One of these ancient prophets tells us, "Surely the Lord God will do nothing, until he revealeth the secret unto his servants the prophets." (JST, Amos 3:7; italics added.)
Because of the rebelliousness of His children, God has at times in earth's history removed His prophets or His holy priesthood from among the people. For example, ancient Israel lost the powers of godliness associated with the higher priesthood when Moses and "the priesthood which is after the holiest order of God" were taken from their midst because of Israel's hard-heartedness. (D&C 84:18-26.)
Occasionally the prophets have remained among rebellious or unreceptive people but have been forbidden to preach to them. "I did endeavor to preach unto this people," said one of God's ancient servants, "but my mouth was shut, and I was forbidden that I should preach unto them; for behold they had wilfully rebelled against their God." (Morm. 1:16.)
Under such conditions, the illuminating rays of revelation are restricted, and the rebellious are left to grope in the ensuing spiritual darkness. An Old Testament prophet foretold of at least one such period: "The days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it." (Amos 8:11-12.)
One extended famine, a period without prophets, existed on the earth from essentially the time when the last of the biblical apostles of Jesus Christ were taken from among men until early in the nineteenth century. While it is true that the Apostle John (see John 21:20-23; D&C 7) and other chosen servants of God (see 3 Ne. 28:4-9) remained on the earth to continue their ministry, their work was limited. For nearly two millennia mankind in general was deprived of the blessings that come from priesthood and prophets.
A Latter-day Prophet Is Raised Up
Then one spring morning in 1820, the darkness dispersed as the heavens opened and mortal man once again heard the voice of God. A fourteen-year-old boy bearing the name of the ancient prophet Joseph (see JST, Gen. 50:25- 33; 2 Ne. 3:6-15) was called of God to be the prophet of the Restoration (see JSH 1:13-20). Just as his illustrious ancestor had risen from the chains of slavery and the darkness of a prison dungeon to save ancient Israel from physical starvation, this modern-day Joseph would throw off the shackles that bound men in spiritual darkness and offer modern-day Israel the chance to be saved from spiritual starvation.
In a later revelation given to this prophet of the latter days, the Lord announced to the world: "Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments." (D&C 1:17.) From the spring of 1820 through March of 1830, the young prophet was tutored by revelation and by heavenly messengers sent from God's presence. (See D&C 2-19; JSH 1:27-75.) Priesthood keys were restored (see D&C 13:1; 27:8- 9, 12-13), and additional scripturethe word of Godwas made available to mankind.
On April 6, 1830, the Lord Jesus Christ once again established His earthly kingdom among men through the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which He declared was "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth." (D&C 1:30.) During the next fourteen years of his life, Joseph Smith would continue to receive revelation and declare the mind and will of God to mankind. Additional keys of priesthood authority were received (see D&C 110:11-16), and the fullness of the gospel, including all of the covenants and ordinances of salvation, were once again available to mankind.
With the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1844, the mantle of authority fell upon another prophet called of God. To this day, the keys of priesthood authority have continued in an unending succession of prophets. Each succeeding prophet has been called of God through a divinely established pattern, consistent with the following statement of belief outlined by the first prophet of this last dispensation: "We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof." (A of F 1:5.)
Prophets Are Foreordained
Prophets are not chosen by chance. The circumstances of time, place, popularity, or association are not what bring them to their callings. Each was foreknown of God and fore-ordained to his calling long before he began his sojourn on earth. God said to the prophet Jeremiah: "Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations." (Jer. 1:5.)
The prophet Abraham was shown in vision "the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; and God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born." (Abr. 3:22-23.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith stated: "Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was. I suppose that I was ordained to this very office in that Grand Council." (History of the Church, 6:364.)
Each prophet is sent to earth at the predetermined time God has set for that particular prophet's training and ministry. There is no happenchance in this divine process. The Lord knows whom He wants to serve, when He wants him to serve, where He wants him to serve, and what He wants him to accomplish.
The prophets are responsible for carrying out God's will. Our responsibility is threefold: to know who God's prophet is, to gain our own witness of his divine calling, and then to follow the counsel he gives. Prophets speak with the voice and authority of God. The Lord has said: "Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same." (D&C 1:38.)
What Do Prophets Teach?
Prophets have long been famous for foretelling or prophesying future events. For example, Joseph's rise to power and prominence in ancient Egypt directly resulted from his prophecy of the seven years of abundance to be followed by seven years of famine. (See Gen. 41.) Joseph later prophesied of men and events that would help shape the history and destiny of the House of Israel and of mankind in general. (See JST, Gen. 50:24-36.) Other prophets like Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and John the Revelator are also well known for foretelling future events. This is the role in which the world generally views a prophet.
As a rule, however, a prophet is more of a forthteller than a foreteller. (See "Prophet," BD.) In other words, he spends more time teaching principles of righteousness, administering and authorizing ordinances of salvation, and preaching repentance (forthtelling) than he does predicting the future (foretelling).
Because many misunderstand the role of a prophet, they miss much of the important counsel on day-to-day matters that comes from these inspired servants of God. Some even lightly dismiss a prophet's counsel because they consider it insignificant or even foolishness. (See 1 Cor. 2:14.)
Do you recall the Old Testament story of Naaman? He was the "captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, . . . [and] was also a mighty man in valour, but he was a leper." (2 Kgs. 5:1.) Naaman sought to be healed by the word, or under the hands, of the prophet Elisha. He was disappointed and angry when the prophet failed to personally come to him but instead sent a servant to Naaman with instructions to have the leprous man cleanse himself by washing seven times in the Jordan River.
Fortunately, Naaman had some caring servants of his own who convinced their recalcitrant master to follow the prophet's counsel. "If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing," they asked, "wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?" (2 Kgs. 5:13.) Following their counsel, Naaman humbled himself and did as instructed by the prophet, and he was healed of his malady.
In 1982, citing counsel given by the prophet of the Lord who then stood on the earth, Elder Boyd K. Packer related a modern-day illustration of this story:
Human nature hasn't changed over the years. Even today some of us expect to be bidden to do some "great things" in order to receive the blessings of the Lord. When we receive ordinary counsel on ordinary things, there is disappointment, and, like Naaman, we turn away.
Let me give you a modern-day example. President Kimball has been President of the Church for eight years. In virtually every conference sermon he has included at least a sentence telling us to clean up, paint up, and fix up our property. Many of us have paid little attention to the counsel.
Question: Why would a prophet tell us to do that? Has he no great prophecies to utter?
But, is that not a form of prophecy? For has he not said to us over and over again, "Take good care of your material possessions, for the day will come when they will be difficult, if not impossible, to replace."
Already there is a fulfillment. Families who might have afforded a home when first he spoke now despair of getting one.
For some reason, we expect to hear . . . some ominous great predictions of calamities to come. Instead, we hear quiet counsel on ordinary things which, if followed, will protect us in times of great calamity. ("The Gospel," p. 85.)
There Is Safety in Following Prophets
Is an impending calamity needed for you to turn your ears, your eyes, and your heart to the words of counsel from God's prophet? During the 1990-91 crisis in the Persian Gulf, book stores were besieged by frantic people eagerly seeking information about the last days, Armageddon, prophecy, and anything that would shed light on the unfolding events in the Middle East, or looking for comfort to troubled hearts regarding the dangerous days at hand.
At the height of the hostilities, when the forecasters of doom predicted long-term economic hardships, including shortages of food and energy, there were many who wished they had listened to a prophet's counsel. As recently as April of 1988, the Lord's prophet, President Ezra Taft Benson, had asked: "Are each of us and our families following, where permitted, the long-standing counsel to have sufficient food, clothing, and, where possible, fuel on hand to last at least one year?" ("Come unto Christ, and Be Perfected in Him," Ensign, May 1988, p. 85.)
Because of the unparalleled shortness of the ground war, which lasted only one hundred hours until a cease-fire was declared, most people outside the war- torn area did not have to draw upon their reserve supplies of food, clothing, fuel, or savings. However, there were notable exceptions, such as the families whose main provider had been called up to serve in the military during the crisis and who consequently experienced economic difficulties because their normal income had been substantially reduced.
While most families did not have to draw upon such reserves, what about the next time world or local circumstances create such a need? And what about the many who are presently or someday will be underemployed or without work? Consider the advantage a family has that has prepared for such an emergency over one that has not.
Although the war with Iraq was brought to a quick and successful conclusion, we should develop a great hunger and thirst for a knowledge of God's words and ways and a recognition that there is safety in following the counsel of His prophets. President Harold B. Lee once reminded the Latter-day Saints that "the only safety we have as members of this Church is to do exactly what the Lord said to the Church in that day when the Church was organized. We must learn to give heed to the words and commandments that the Lord shall give through his prophet." (In Conference Report, Oct. 1970, p. 152; see also D&C 21:4-5.)
The Testimony of Jesus
The most significant message one could hearone that would bring great inner peace and comfort not only in times of turmoil and calamity, but also in every day of our livesis the testimony that we are God's children, that He lives, that He loves us, and that His Beloved Son is our Savior. The supernal calling of a prophet is to bear witness of these things.
Prophets today hold the holy apostolic office. This entails the responsibility to bear witness that Jesus is the Christ, meaning the Messiah or the Anointed One. Jesus Christ is the Savior of mankind. Prophets are "special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world." (D&C 107:23; italics added.)
Anciently, the Apostle John declared that "The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." (Rev. 19:10.) This was reiterated by a modern-day apostle and prophet of God. The Prophet Joseph Smith said: "Salvation cannot come without revelation; it is in vain for anyone to minister without it. No man is a minister of Jesus Christ without being a Prophet. No man can be a minister of Jesus Christ except he has the testimony of Jesus; and this is the spirit of prophecy." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938], p. 160.)
In this sense, then, all men and women should be prophets, possessing the spirit of prophecy. Each one should be endowed with the witness that will bring ultimate salvation, if the individual, through that testimony, receives the saving covenants and ordinances and endures in obedience to the end.
Moses understood the importance of having multiple witnesses of sacred things. He was instructed to select seventy men besides himself upon whom the Lord could send His Spirit. And "when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease." (Num. 11:25.) When the Spirit also came upon two others (who were not among the original seventy) and they began to prophesy, some in the camp of Israel began to complain. "Forbid them to prophesy," these murmurers said. Perhaps they were thinking, "Let's keep the original seventy as an exclusive group and not allow others to have this special gift."
Moses responded by saying, "Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" (Num. 11:29.)
What a marvelous message! All men and women should have the spirit of prophecy in bearing witness of divine truths, foremost of which is that Jesus is the Christ. Thus, while God selects a specific individual to serve as His official mouthpiece on earthHis prophet, seer, and revelator, and the one upon whom He bestows the keys of the priesthoodGod gives all mankind the opportunity to receive the testimony of Jesus and to share that witness with others as the Spirit directs.
The challenge of all men, women, and children throughout the world is to obtain the testimony of Jesus and also the witness of the Spirit that a prophet lives on earth today. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bear witness to the world that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God. He has established His church upon the earth and called a prophet to lead it. This prophet serves as the President of Christ's church, but Jesus himself is the head of His earthly kingdom. This knowledge is of the utmost importance to all mankind. For if what we say is true, and we testify that it is, then only within this church will one find the fullness of the saving principles and ordinances of the gospel.
Knowing the process whereby God's prophet is called is also vital, for there are many false prophets who would lead astray whomever they can. A major purpose of this book is to bear witness that a true prophet of the Lord lives on the earth today and to identify the inspired process whereby he is called to serve and to govern the affairs of God's church and kingdom on earth.