I Have Something to Tell You
How does prophecy work? Should we be practicing it today? Prophecy is an intimidating word to some and a compelling one to others, but what does it really mean?
There are few words in the New Testament more widely disagreed on from denomination to denomination than the word prophecy. Depending on the kind of church you go to will determine the way this word is used. Some churches argue that prophecy is still in use today as it was in the Old Testament. You will hear people say, "Hey, I have a word from the Lord for you," or even something as bold as, "Thus say the LORD, ____." Others argue that prophecy is merely proclaiming the Scriptures. And still, others will argue that it is no longer a gift being used. You'll hear it said, "God doesn't speak through prophecy anymore." But how is prophecy used in the New Testament, and what application does it have, if any, in the church today? In order to really develop an understanding of the New Testament practice of prophecy, we need to draw some distinctions between some Old Testament and New Testament terms.
Prophets in the Old Testament
There is no shortage of prophets in the Old Testament. The Torah was written by and centers around the ministry of the greatest prophet in all of the Old Testament (Deut. 34:10). One whole section of the Old Testament, the Nevi'im (prophets), is committed to the prophetic writings of the so-called major and minor prophets. Even in the historical narratives, prophets show up to give warning to the many different kings of Israel and Judah.
Prophesies are held to a standard of perfection in the Old Testament. If a prophet gives a prophecy that does not fully come to pass, they are to be put to death (Deut. 18:20-22). Additionally, if a prophet speaks and the prophecy does come true, but they attempt to sway the people into idolatry, they are to be put to death as well (Deut. 13:1-5). Why? Because prophets speak on behalf of God Himself (Deut. 18:18-19; Num. 22:38; Jer. 1:9; Ezek. 2:7). Prophets of the Old Testament are the mouthpiece for God to communicate divine revelation to His people. To disobey a prophet is to disobey God Himself. So their clarity and precision is necessary to prove their veracity as a prophet.
The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament
Because of this, it is not uncommon to hear the same type of restrictions applied to the gift of prophecy in the New Testament. Paul mentions the gift in 1 Corinthians 12:10 in a list of a bunch of different spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are endowed to believers when they come to faith, and not every believer has every gift (Anyone who tells you that you must enact any one gift in order to be truly saved is simply wrong). With that said, some will presumably be given the spiritual gift of prophecy, and this is where the controversy begins. How does this gift work, if at all, and how do we know?
The Same Standard?
If the gift is practiced in the modern church, how binding is it? In other words, should believers in the New Testament age and on who possess the gift of prophecy be held to the same rigorous standard as the prophets of the Old Testament? My answer is, no they should not. The practice of the gift of prophecy appears to be markedly different in New Testament than the examples from the Old Testament, both in function and standard.
My reasoning comes from at least a couple of examples in the New Testament, as laid out by Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology. Grudem defines prophecy as: "Telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind." This definition I think is quite helpful, and is supported by the following examples.
1. Acts 21:4: In this portion of the story, Paul is told by the disciples in Tyre to not journey forward to Jerusalem. While the word prophecy is not used, it captures the essence of prophecy:
"And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem."
Now, if these prophets were held to the same standard as the Old Testament prophets were, that also means that Paul should be held to the same standard as the hearers of an Old Testament prophet. What did we say earlier? "To disobey a prophet is to disobey God Himself." And yet, shockingly, Paul does not listen to them!
2. Acts 21:10-11: Next, Paul comes into contact with an actual prophet named Agabus (Acts 21:9). Agabus warns Paul that the Jews in Jerusalem would bind him and "deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles." This prophecy is almost correct, but not quite. It is actually the Romans who bind Paul, and the Jews, instead of delivering him voluntarily, are actually the ones who try to kill him.
3. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21: Paul in this passage tells the Thessalonians:
"Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good."
How can Paul tell the body to test prophecies and only hold to those which are true and good, if all prophecy must be fully true? This passage only makes sense if there is an assumption that portions of prophecy will be true and others might not be. This also means that prophecy in the New Testament does not hold the same kind of authority as it did in the Old Testament.
4. 1 Corinthians 14:29-38: Again, Paul says something that would be confusing if prophecy in the New Testament were the same as the Old Testament:
"Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh (or evaluate) what is said."
Why would there be any need for an evaluation if everything a prophet said was fully true?
A New Testament Equivalent?
If the prophets of the New Testament are not the same as the prophets of the Old Testament, another question might be: Is there another spiritual office that is the same as the Old Testament prophet? My contention is, yes, there is. The apostles. Anytime Paul appeals to his God given authority, he does so by appealing to his apostleship (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1, 9:1-2; 2 Cor. 1:1, 11:12-13, et al.). It is the apostles, not the prophets, who have the authority to write God's words that form the New Testament Scripture. To disobey an apostle is to disobey God Himself. They are endowed with miraculous signs and wonders in the same way that the Old Testament prophets were, to establish their authority as they warn the people to turn from their sin and back to their Creator. This is why Paul says in Ephesians 2:19-20:
"Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
God's divine family is built on the foundation of both the prophets of the Old Testament as well as the apostles of the New Testament, both authoritative in their own right, and proclaiming Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone. This means that, in a sense, it is not incorrect to say that proclaiming Scripture through the practice of preaching is prophetic. I would say, it is prophetic in the Old Testament sense, but not in the New Testament sense. When you proclaim Scripture, it is completely accurate, binding, and to disobey it is to disobey God Himself. This is different than practicing the spiritual gift of prophecy. If that's the case, how do you practice the spiritual gift of prophecy?
Putting It in Practice
Ok, so what does this all mean? Here are some quick thoughts.
1. Prophecy is not speaking on behalf of God, so don't treat it as such:
Anytime someone says, "God wants you to do ____," they are wrong unless that blank is filled with Scripture. The gift of prophecy is never meant to be a binding, authoritative message or command. If we go back to the definition given above, it is simply, "telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind," and it's usually not super clear. So humility should be practiced. Something like, "Hey, I'm not sure if this holds any value or will mean anything, but I feel like is telling me to tell you ____." If it is prophetic, their spirit will bear witness with your spirit and they will be able to evaluate it and hold fast to that which is true.
2. Authority comes from Scripture:
Scripture is "God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16), and we are to, "rightly handle the word of truth" as believers (2 Tim. 2:15). That means, if someone does tell you something they feel was from the Lord, it should always be measured and weighed in light of Scripture. A prophetic utterance will never contradict God's Word.
3. Seek the gift-giver, not the gift:
Prophecy plays a pretty insignificant role when you consider the New Testament as a whole. It is not a major focal point of the development of the church, and so it should never be magnified or elevated above what it was intended to be. Churches that center themselves around this gift are, in my opinion, missing the mark. We are to seek the gift-giver, Christ, not the gift itself. Be wary of those who emphasize this gift, and pressure you to practice it. You may not even have it, which brings me to the fourth thing.
4. Not everyone has the gift of prophecy:
Like all spiritual gifts, not every believer will be endowed with the gift of prophecy. Paul's direction to the Corinthian church indicates that there were only a handful (2 to 3) prophets in their congregation. You may not have the gift, and that is ok. God has intended you to serve the body in a different and equally important (maybe even more important) manner.
5. It is beneficial when it is practiced biblically:
When prophecy is held within its biblical bounds, it can actually be really encouraging and edifying to the body of Christ. There have been times in my life when people have felt led to tell me something that they believed God had spontaneously brought to mind, and it didn't really speak to me. I assume those were not really prophetic. There have been other times, however, when it had to do with something I was already working through or thinking about, and it felt as if though God was trying to get my attention. Those moments led me to the Scripture and to wise counsel to verify whether I was on the right track. The reality is, we serve a supernatural God. God can, and sometimes does, use prophecy to edify.
The way the body of Christ utilizes the spiritual gifts will greatly impact the unity, harmony, and overall healthy of the body. Don't despise prophetic utterances, as Paul said, but don't glorify them either, and understand that they might not always be totally accurate, so test them. They are not the same as the prophetic utterances of the Old Testament, nor are they the same as the binding authority of the Scripture. When someone spontaneously tells you something that God has brought to mind, 1. Weigh them against Scripture, 2. Evaluate them as a body, and 3. Hold fast to that which is good, edifying, and biblical.