- Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church: first are apostles, second are prophets, third are teachers, then.… (1 Cor 12:28)
- Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. (Eph 4:11)
- …if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. (Rom 12:6)
- He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy.… (1 Cor 12:10)
Paul continues his list of offices: “second prophets” (δεύτερον προφήτας, 1 Cor 12:28), which is also listed as a non-office gift in each of the other Pauline gift lists. Prophecy came first in the list in Romans 12, which reflects the high estimate that the New Testament church had for it (1 Cor 12:28–30; 1 Cor 14; Eph 2:20; 4:11).
Nature of the Gift
Some believe the gift of prophecy still functions, but only through anointed preaching. But that reduces the gift to the point that we hardly need to call it a revelatory gift at all. However we see it functioning—whether in pulpit, at a lectern, or from the pew—we should acknowledge that by this gift God still speaks to his church with revelatory authority and power. That doesn’t threaten the unique authority of Scripture; it doesn’t take prophets out from under the authority of the church. New Testament prophecy is subject to the spiritual judgment of the church, but that’s always been the norm, not a New Testament innovation.
When Paul told the Corinthian church to judge the prophets (1 Cor 14:29), he was only continuing a longstanding biblical mandate. The Old Testament people of God were told to reckon with the authority of the prophet’s message, but only if was true prophecy. That meant two things: prophecy that didn’t violate Scripture (Deut 13:1–5) and predictions that came to pass (Deut 18:9–20). They were given standards for judging, and were expected to do so. Likewise in the New Testament. Paul said, “Let two or three people prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said” (1 Cor 14:29). And don’t you suppose that this might be a key function of those who have the gift of discerning spirits?
In the Old Testament, examples of prophecy are so numerous that we couldn’t begin even to survey them.
Sign of Anointing
It would be good to note some Old Testament examples of true prophecy that didn’t entail the production of infallible Scripture. Some didn’t even necessarily involve propositional revelation at all.
Think of the seventy in the wilderness plus Eldad and Medad prophesying as a demonstration that they were anointed to serve alongside Moses in leading Israel (Num 11:25–29). Or think of Saul and his messengers prophesying (1 Sam 10:9–13; 19:20–24). Nothing they said ends up in the Scriptures preceded by “the word of the Lord came to…” or the proclamation, “Thus saith the Lord!” Indeed, nothing they said is even recorded—if they even said anything when they were prophesying.
In Saul’s case, prophetic activity involved musical performance and laying “naked on the ground all day and all night” (1 Sam 10:5–7; 19:21). It just provoked people to ask if Saul were a prophet (1 Sam 10:10–12; 19:24). These were cases of what classical Pentecostals often describe as the “initial physical evidence” of the Spirit baptism. The only information this prophesying was intended to convey to God’s people is that Saul was anointed—as their king, not as a prophet.
Revelatory but Not Canonical
Even prophecies that were intended to convey information were not necessarily canonical, or even generally authoritative. Think of the example of a young Saul and his companion who were seeking out a prophet and paying him to inform them where to find some lost livestock (1 Sam 9:6–9)—or would this be a word of knowledge? Or think of Agabus, who prophesied the great famine (Acts 11:28) and Paul’s captivity (Acts 21:10–14). And even when they were intended to be authoritative, even that didn’t constitute a claim on canonicity for the prophet (e.g., 2 Chr 24:20).5 To say nothing of the frequent references to this or that prophet anonymously as “the man of God.”
Responding to the Gift
Abuse of the Gift
Some charismatic circles abuse personal prophecies to manipulate fellow believers. For example, I know of one congregation in the 1970s where you couldn’t change jobs, choose a wife, or make a major purchase or sale without a “prophet” giving you the go-ahead. After awhile, it just looked like a cult-like device for controlling people, rather than empowering them—the very opposite of Moses’s wish for the democratization of prophetic gifting among the people of God (Num 11:25–29).
Of course, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that God might give such specific guidance through the gift of prophecy. For example, see the prophecies of Joseph about Egypt’s famine (Gen 41) or of Agabus about the famine in apostolic times and about Paul’s imprisonment (Acts 11:28; 21:10–11).
Testing the Prophets
If you do receive prophetic guidance, test it. Check it out according to the twofold test from the Old Testament (Deut 13:1–5; 18:9–20). Ask other spiritual people to join in judging the utterance, especially people that you know to exercise the gift of discerning between spirits. And settle it that it is something with which your own obedient spirit bears witness. In Paul’s case, he heard the prophecy about what Jerusalem Jews would do to him, which prompted the Christians to try to talk him out of going there (Acts 21:10–12). But Paul had already testified, “I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me” (Acts 20:22). After hearing Agabus’s prophecy of what awaited him, Paul said, “I am ready,” so his fellow believers said, “The Lord’s will be done”—and he left for Jerusalem (Acts 21:10–15).
Prophets vis-a-vis Canon
The ongoing existence of prophets doesn’t imply an open canon of Scripture.Some claim that this foundational role was an office with canonical authority like that of Old Testament writing prophets. By this definition, they infer that the office ceased sometime around the end of the apostolic period, with the closing of the New Testament canon. Among Bible believing Evangalicals, this conclusion is motivated by the laudible concern to acknowledge the unique authority of Scripture, over against any ongoing prophetic claims. But defending the idea of ongoing existence of prophets doesn’t imply an open canon of Scripture.
Even during the Old Testament age, relatively few prophets contributed to the canon, and fewer still from those who experience the democratization of the prophetic gifts throughout the New Testament age. Moses wished, and Joel prophesied, that all God’s people would be prophets (Num 11:25–29; Joel 2:28–32). That surely didn’t promise seventy books added to the Old Testament when Moses got help in the wilderness and a hundred and twenty books added on the day of Pentecost—to say nothing of millions of books added to the New Testament since the day of Pentecost. We can be fairly certain that Moses wasn’t wishing for two and a half million Old Testament books to follow his own five.
Modest Understanding of Its Authority
Prophecy doesn’t necessarily involve predicting or prescribing the future at all; rather, it’s speaking for God to explain his ways with man. It might indeed deal with future matters, but it might just as well explain the present or even the past. It’s quite appropriate to call some of the Old Testament historical books the “former prophets,” and the Chronicler makes occasional reference to the prophetic sources he used to write his postexilic history (1 Chr 29:29; 2 Chr 9:29; 12:15; 32:32; 35:25).
And we’ve already noted that something that provides the ongoing equivalent of canonical revelation. But it is certainly something more than human assessment of the situation—even from a point of view inculcated by Scripture and enriched by a disciplined spiritual life. Wayne Grudem defines New Testament prophecy this way:
Paul is simply referring to something that God may suddenly bring to mind, or something that God may impress on someone’s subconscious in such a way that the person has a sense that it is from God. It may be that the thought brought to mind is surprisingly distinct from the person’s own train of thought, or that it is accompanied by a sense of vividness or urgency or persistence, or in some other way gives the person a rather clear sense that it is from the Lord.1Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan 1994), 1056.
I’m not sure that “suddenly” is necessary, especially if “vividness or urgency or persistence” keeps a prophetic message on your mind for hours or days before you deliver it to the congregation. I don’t know that any attempt to explain the psychology of the prophetic experience will give us sure guideline for judging whether what we speak is prophetic, but the truth of prophetic self-apprehension must lie somewhere along the lines Grudem outlines.