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When is art prophetic?

Does the difference between Christian art, Biblical illustration, Iconic images, and Prophetic art confuse you? You are not alone.

Worship Art (Art Worship) and Prophetic Art were all terms floating around several years ago to describe the (relatively) new phenomena of visual artists producing art during the Church worship service. Eventually, calling it ‘prophetic art’ became popular around 2005-2010. The term comes from Paul’s exhortation of prophecy in Corinthians. Christian art, Biblical illustration, Iconic and Symbolic art are terms also used, much to the confusion of many who try to separate and categorise them.

A painting with a Bible verse attached is not automatically prophetic.

An illustration from a Bible story is not automatically prophetic.

A Christian symbolic icon is not automatically prophetic.

The question “Is it prophetic?” can be put to all these painted images and it is not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. Biblical illustrations (which are pictorial scriptural stories, poetry and history, and therefore not future prophecy) and Christian iconic and symbolic imagery (which are the images of contemporary parable, such as keys, doves, eagles,  lions, grapes, wine, wheat, crosses, etc) are not necessarily prophetic, but they can be … and therein lies the confusion.

A piece of art becomes prophetic by definition when it strengthens, encourages, and comforts. In that regard, anything can be used and anointed by the Holy Spirit, even gravel on the roadway! Random images that meant nothing to me have become pathways into someone’s heart and spirit when in the hands of the Holy Spirit.

The prophetic element does not rely on the image but on the anointing it carries.

A painting with a Bible verse attached CAN be prophetic when the Holy Spirit chooses to anoint it. A symbolic image, colour or number CAN be prophetic. An illustrated parable CAN be prophetic. There is no restriction on how the Holy Spirit embodies imagery.

Strengthen, encourage, and comfort sounds simple, doesn’t it? But Prophetic Exhortation (encouragement) is more than human encouragement, exhortation is a ministry of the Spirit. It emboldens a believer with the wisdom and love of God. The art doesn’t do its prophetic work until the Holy Spirit enters.

The prophetic part of an image, whether accompanied by words or not, is in the “triangle” – the interaction between God, the art, and the viewer. Therefore, the prophetic element rests upon the viewer’s encounter and interpretation. You can have one person looking at the art and wondering when lunch is served while the person beside them is taken up into a heavenly encounter. You can have one person saying it’s just a pretty painting or just pink elephants and another hears the hallelujah chorus when they see it. God speaks to each individually. Thus is the mystery of walking in this gift!

A Christian congregation is often comforted by the Christian icons. Evangelist Smith Wigglesworth wrote in “The Fullness of Spirit” that prophetic ministry was for the Church, to edify, exhort, and comfort the Church, and yet we often use prophetic art as a tool of evangelism. However, the Christian icons are an in-house language and like when Christians speak “Christianese” they are not easily or automatically understood by those outside the church. Still, our beloved symbolic images strengthen our hearts and give peace to our minds whenever we see them.

Meanwhile, Christian Art and the Church have a 2,000+ year history and we have used the label ‘prophetic art’ for a mere 20+ years. Labelling art does get muddy! Also, we must remember the label and language is from our Western cultural perspective.

I believe it is possible we may swing away from this label, as it has come to be applied to any art with content that is remotely religious or Christian, but for now, it is the label we use. We are called to look beyond the label and seek the heart of the message within the work. Remember, even stick figures prophesy.

The prophetic side of prophetic art is similar to the spoken prophetic ministries. There are three levels (plus many transitional stages) and moving from one level to another isn’t necessarily connected to the number of years, but similar to other prophetic ministries, it is connected to the time spent as a disciple of someone who has journeyed the path before us.  

Beginning with the Gift of Prophecy. This prophecy is a gift of BLESSING. It is available to everyone and encouraged by Paul (1 Cor 14) “But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort”. These messages personally strengthen, encourage, and comfort individuals. It is generally accepted that a prophet would exercise this gift over 5-7 years (with discipleship and mentoring) before entering the next level.

Secondly, the Ministry of Prophecy. A prophetic ministry is BUILDING Kingdom; one would exercise this gift 7-10 years. These prophetic messages go beyond personal ministry to congregations and groups. These messages may be directive and prescriptive but are usually specific.

Finally, the Office of Prophecy. Someone standing in the Office of the Prophet is one whom God has given a global influence and ESTABLISHES Kingdom.

We must realise that many unseen elements are in motion. As an onlooker, we cannot judge the prophetic component of an artwork by its content. Only the Holy Spirit knows exactly what image will resonate so deeply within a person that they cannot deny it is God speaking to them. As prophetic artists, we are simply called to hear and obey and paint from the Spirit.

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