The gift of Prophecy

What is the New Testament gift of prophecy? Since the birth of the charismatic movement, this question has been the catalyst for a great deal of debate among evangelicals, likely because our answers have such tangible practical implications. In his work “The Gift of Prophecy in The New Testament and Today”, Wayne Grudem argues for the existence of a prophetic gift which he defines as: “Speaking merely human words to report something that God brings to mind”. Practically, these prophecies are based on revelation from God and are given spontaneously as the church is gathered. Although based on divine revelation, the prophecies are muddied by the subjective experience and fallible reporting of the prophet. God does not provide erroneous promptings, but humans do report their revelations in earthly terms that may be in error. As such, prophecies should be weighed in order to sift the good from the bad.

This view comes from his sincere attempt to bring all the relevant biblical texts into theological harmony. I have great respect for many of his arguments and I am sympathetic towards many of his points, indeed my conclusions are somewhat like his. In this article, I will present a slightly different view of the relevant texts and draw some practical conclusions. The arguments surrounding this debate are quite complex, so I have kept things as short as possible and only addressed the issues that I find necessary.

Some Context

The book of Acts

In Acts, there are three ‘outpouring’ events. Many scholars observe that these events are not just incidental accounts that Luke throws in. Rather, they serve a purpose: To indicate that the commission of Jesus is being accomplished.

At the start of Acts, Jesus calls the disciples to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. The narrative of Acts goes on to tell us how this was accomplished. At each critical geographical turning point, there is a ‘Pentecost’ event. First, the disciples in Jerusalem receive the Spirit. Then, Peter witnesses the same phenomenon in the region of Samaria, and finally, Paul witnesses the phenomenon again in Ephesus.

These three key events are not arbitrary. They are big turning points of history as the Gospel breaks into a new sphere of humanity. As Carson states, each of these events is best understood as “a critical salvation-historical turning point, not a paradigm [for conversion]”.[1] With that in mind, let’s examine the specific cases.

Acts 2

In this passage, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the disciples and they “speak in tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. This brings amazement to many, but some accuse the disciples of drunkenness. Peter, in response, points to a prophecy from the book of Joel. “They are not drunk”, he says, “but this is what was spoken of by Joel”. The text he refers to is from Joel 2, where God promises that he will “pour out [His] Spirit on all flesh”. As a consequence, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy… Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

So the outpouring of the Spirit will lead to prophecy. But I have one question: who prophesied? Search the text and you will not find anyone prophesying (depending on your assumptions). This has led some commentators to conclude that tongues must be a form of prophecy[2]. But there is another, more likely, possibility. They did prophesy; and they did it when they “declared the wonders of God”.

As Grudem points out, the word prophetes had a wide range of meanings in the first century. It could indeed refer to supernaturally endowed knowledge, or could simply mean “spokesperson” or “proclaimer”. Paul himself uses the word in this way (Titus 1:12).[3] Thus, we must take great caution in our approach and be wary to give to the word more weight than is due.

In my view, the very act of declaring God’s wonders constituted prophecy. The disciples “proclaimed” God’s work. Piper says: “Prophecy, as it is used here… is primarily verbalising the great things you have seen of God”[4]. I couldn’t agree more. But is this consistent with the rest of the book of Acts?

Acts 10

In the second ‘outpouring’ event, Peter preaches the gospel to the household of Cornelius. As he speaks, the Holy Spirit “falls” on all who hear. Peter later describes this event: “the Holy Spirit came on them just as he had come on us”. This should give us a clue. What happened at the house of Cornelius is the same as what happened at Pentecost.

So then, note how it is that those present knew that the house of Cornelius had received the Spirit: “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.” Now if this is the same thing as Pentecost, I am led to believe that “Praising God” is also very closely related to (if not synonymous with) prophecy.

So to help us define prophecy, we now have two separate phrases in our repertoire: “Declaring the wonders of God” and “Praising God”. Perhaps the third and final ‘outpouring’ event will help us further.

Acts 19

Here, Paul finds some believing proselytes who have been baptized by John the Baptist, but have not heard the message of Christ. Paul gives them the good news and when he had laid hands on them, “The Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied”. This does not give us another phrase which to define prophecy, but it does serve to reinforce our earlier point: To declare God’s works and to Praise God is to prophecy. The reason prophetes is used here seems simple: we have already been told what those people who received the Spirit proceeded to do. Luke decides to be brief and just use one word. I think Luke uses these three expressions almost synonymously. They spoke in tongues and proclaimed, just like before.

Were these events ‘ecstatic’?

The answer depends on what you mean by ecstatic. But I do think there was a certain miraculous spontaneity that accompanied these ‘outpourings’. At Pentecost, over a hundred people spoke in languages they had never learned, and they probably spoke all at once. They were euphorically declaring great wonders and mysteries of God at the same time. If you call this ecstatic, I wouldn’t disagree. There had to be some reason why the surrounding people thought they were drunk.

Of course, because these events were special pivotal events in history, it would be unwise to attempt to emulate them. I will soon show that this was in fact the error of the Corinthians.

Corinthian Chaos

So we begin our examination of the critical text. First, some context. As Carson writes: “From chapter 7 on, Paul appears to be answering a series of questions put to him in a letter from the Corinthians”. This is integral to our understanding of the passage. Paul is not presenting some teaching by his own choice. Rather, he is responding to the Corinthians and dealing with their questions using their own terms. In fact, it appears that this discussion of tongues and prophecy was never a part of Paul’s original message to the churches. He never addresses it of his own accord; indeed no New Testament author does. That should give us some caution as we read the passage before us.

So what was happening in Corinth? We can learn something of their situation by inverting Paul’s rebukes. In each of Paul’s exhortations, it is safe to say that the Corinthians were doing the opposite. At the very least, then, we know that the Corinthians were all shouting in “unintelligible” speech, saying to each other “I have no need of you”, they were “thinking like children”, worshipping “without using the mind”, inciting outsiders to say they were “out of their minds”, failing to speak “one at a time”, stirring “disorder” and so on.

I take this to mean that the members of the church were obsessed with spiritual experiences. Surely this is what Paul means when he says that they are (literally) “zealots for spirits” (verse 12). They were trying to re-create what they thought were spiritual experiences, but were really ecstatic frenzies. They claimed that the Spirit was taking hold of them and that they couldn’t control themselves (which Paul dismantles in verses 31-32). They claimed that they were ‘in the Spirit’ and not in the mind (which Paul chides in verses 15-17). They were speaking in unintelligible language that would make it look like they were mad (which Paul rebukes in verses 9-11). They were shouting ‘prophecies’ all at once, so that no one could hear or learn (which Paul corrects in verses 29-30), and so on. This led them to disqualify their fellow brothers (which Paul exposes in chapter 12).

This conclusion is not new. MacArthur writes: “the Corinthians started to confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with the former ecstasies, frenzies, and bizarre practices they had known in the pagan religions from which they had been saved”[5]. But of particular interest is that the Corinthians seemed to be asking Paul specifically about tongues and prophecy[6]. Carson makes this observation: “That Paul should restrict the focus of discussion… to two [gifts], prophecy and tongues, strongly suggests that there was some dispute or uncertainty about these two in the Corinthians Church”[7]. Powers writes: “In these verses the one who speaks in a tongue and the one who prophesies are compared and contrasted”[8]. This is true for a large chuck of the text. Why were the Corinthians so interested in these two gifts?

I propose a reason: they had heard of the events of Pentecost and probably also the events at the house of Cornelius. They had been told of the outpouring of the Spirit and were trying to replicate the scenes they had heard about.

If this is the case, then the terms “praising God” and “declaring wonders of God” become directly relevant. So too the suggestion that “prophecy” could mean “heralder” or “proclaimer” in the first century. It seems to me that, as part of their disordered worship, the Corinthians were shouting praises and encouragements in a frantic, frenzied, chaotic way. The Spirit was revealing great truths to them, but they were more interested in boasting of their spirituality than in edifying others. I do not know exactly what words they used, but it may have been something as simple as “Jesus is Lord” (see chapter 12). This makes much more sense than any of Grudem’s examples. I don’t think the Corinthians were shouting “The Lord has put on my mind a tremendous concern for the believers in the Philippines”. Although I don’t deny that it is possible that the Spirit will give such a leading, this is not the kind of practical application I would make for a church setting. It doesn’t fit the text.

On the whole, it seems more appropriate to me to define prophecy as follows: “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to the church in a time of need”. I see this as primarily based on scripture. For example, “Hey everyone, I think the words of Peter might be applicable to this situation…”

Anomalous Agabus

Grudem points to the somewhat obscure character of Agabus (Acts 11 and 21) to support his position. He claims that two small mistakes (as he calls them) in the second prophecy of Agabus serve to back up his definition of prophecy as a fallible report of divine revelation. Agabus saw something from God, but said it wrong. He misinterpreted his vision. Thus prophecies need weighing.

But Grudem runs into a roadblock. Agabus’ use of the phrase “Thus says the Holy Spirit” gives him strong ties to the Old Testament Prophets (as this was a regularly repeated phrase in their infallible oracles). This is problematic for Grudem, and he struggles to find a solution, even suggesting that his words may be due to a “misunderstanding of his role”[9] as a prophet. That is, the gift had not been around long enough for Agabus to fully understand the lesser, fallible nature of New Testament prophecy.

I find this argument unconvincing. Much more likely is the notion that Agabus was a true Prophet in the Old Covenant sense. John MacArthur has described the book of Acts as an “incredible period of transition as the church was born”[10]. Luke records miraculous event and powerful demonstrations of the power of the gospel. I hardly think he would interrupt his miraculous narrative in order to detail a (partly) failed prophecy. If indeed the narrative describes a transition from “a body of Jewish believers to the body of the church”[11], then perhaps we may expect that some remnants of the old covenant would still exist. Even the symbolic mode of delivery (the use of the belt in 21:11) resonates with the sound of prophetic oracles of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

But there is an elephant in the room: The Agabus example is far divorced from Paul’s practical, ecclesiological guidelines to the Corinthians. Should the Corinthians sit down and predict who is going to die next, but do it “two or three at a time”? And if someone were to stand up and say “Beware, there is a famine coming!”, would this qualify as “strengthening, encouraging and comfort” for the whole church? Would we respond “gee, brother, I have really learned and been encouraged”? I think not. Grudem tries to squeeze Agabus into Corinthian categories, but he doesn’t fit. Agabus does not belong in Corinth.[12]

In fact, all of Grudem’s examples suffer from this same ecclesiological chasm. He refers to a prediction by John Knox (1514 – 1572) about the death of William Kirkaldy, and cites several other puritan and reformed writers that tell stories of “extraordinary men… receiving extraordinary revelations… foretelling diverse, strange and remarkable things”[13]. But these extraordinary examples are just that; extraordinary! None of them occurs in a church setting, let alone in an ordered and disciplined worship service, as part of the gathering. I don’t think this is what Paul has in mind when he says “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said”. The examples break down when applied to the church. Indeed, God can and does give revelations like these in extraordinary settings, but none of these examples actually helps Grudem’s point. I conclude that the Agabus events were unique. He was like an Old Testament prophet, and this form of prophecy did not continue in the church. Perhaps this is why Luke begins each Agabus narrative with “In those days prophets came down from Jerusalem…”

Any conclusions we make about New Testament prophecy, and any examples we use to support our position, must be consistent with the practices of the regular gathering of faithful believers. Grudem has not shown this.

Prophecy as teaching

Grudem insists that prophecy is different from teaching. He says that “teaching” or “teachers” generally refer to the regular, planned, expounding of the scripture in the church, whereas prophecy isn’t based primarily on scripture, but on spontaneous revelation[14]. You can see the false dichotomy here. I would say that prophecy can contain scripture, or be based on scripture, without being the same as planned, expository bible teaching. An unplanned encouragement based on God’s promises in Romans 8, for example, would not be called ‘Bible teaching’, but is still inextricably linked with God’s word. In my view, it would certainly be prophecy.

It seems to me that a person who prophecies is quite different from a teacher, but a prophecy will contain teaching. In the church, the teacher/preacher for the day will be appointed ahead of time. He will prepare his message and study the scripture intently. He will then address the church in a formal way from a pulpit for a set amount of time.

Someone who gives a prophecy, however, brings an encouragement that he felt was needed. It was an unplanned, spontaneous application of God’s truth. Prophecies contain teaching, after all, they are given so that “we can all learn”.

Prophecy as prediction

But doesn’t Paul refer to prophecy as a more predictive phenomenon in other letters? Perhaps. But we must remember, once again, that he is responding to the Corinthian practice, not describing his own. This famous passage is not a doctrinal treatise of Pauline theology; it is a response to Corinthian heresy using Corinthian terminology.

Now, Grudem rightly shows from the use of diakrino in verse 29 that prophecies are to be sifted for truth that may be mixed with error[15]. I submit to you that teaching can be weighed. Prediction can’t. Most of Grudem’s examples are un-weigh-able because they are un-test-able. There is nothing to test them against. But if prophecy is at least similar to teaching, then this exhortation to weigh prophecies makes sense. Remember, Paul places prophecy in the same category as teaching and knowledge (verse 6).

Furthermore, I struggle to see how predictions can comfort and edify. Paul says that the purpose of prophecy is “so we can all learn and be encouraged”. I believe that my definition of prophecy, as “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to the church in a time of need” seems more appropriate.

Supporting Scripture

Acts 15:22 supports my view. Here we are told that “Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them”. Here, it seems, Luke makes a direct link between the fact that these two men were prophets and the fact that they exhorted and encouraged their brothers. If anything, this is further evidence for the wide semantic range of the word prophetes in the first century, for here surely it means “proclaimer” or perhaps even “encourager”.

Conclusion

Based on these reflections in scripture, I define prophecy as follows: “A spontaneous encouragement or proclamation of God’s truth that was not prepared beforehand and was given to believers in a time of need”.

Some Pastoral Reflections

What then shall we do? Carson, Grudem and MacArthur give some good pastoral reflections that we should all chew on. I won’t reinvent the wheel but I will make a few points alongside these great men.

1: While they may be sincere, people or churches that try to create spiritual experiences are not mature. Perhaps the clearest lesson from our passage is that emotional experiences are not a reliable indicator of mature spirituality or even true faith. Those who want to grow and exhibit true out workings of the Spirit should be seeking to “strengthen, encourage and comfort”. They should use their minds.

By extension, this means that order is a mark of the true church. In a mature gathering, all words and deeds will be done in good order, with a view to help encourage and exhort others. It is important to remember that Paul accused the church at Corinth of “remarkable childishness”[16]. They were babies as far as Paul was concerned. Their practices, then, were not those of mature Christians. Mature Christians are sober and use their minds. “Edification demands intelligible content”[17]

2: Excessive deliberation over the exact form of prophecies is actually contrary to Paul. In 1 Corinthians, Paul takes the focus off the form of the gifts and onto the content of the gifts.

Whatever you are doing, if it doesn’t encourage and extort others, it isn’t biblical prophecy. Likewise, whatever you are doing, if it does encourage and exhort others, you are fulfilling Paul’s directives. Indeed, you have discovered the heart of Paul in this passage. We might say, “encourage and console your fellow believers, and so fulfill the heart of prophecy”.

So what is prophecy? That’s the wrong question. The right question, which will be seen as such by the mature, is “What can I do to edify and help my brothers and sisters in this situation?”.  In other words, Paul doesn’t tell them to seek to prophesy without a purpose. He encouraged it for a reason. That reason? Edification and consolation. I submit that we should be pursuing the reason, not the phenomenon. This was the error of the Corinthians. Let us learn from their mistake.

Brothers and sisters, when we stand before the throne of judgement, there will be many who had prophesied that will hear those chilling words: “I never knew you”. But there will be no one who “consoled”, “encouraged”,” edified” who will hear those words. Christ also is not looking for a phenomenon, he is looking for the reason behind it. In both Paul and Jesus, that reason is love.

3: Nobody denies that the Holy Spirit is able to give impressions and guidance for believers today, especially with regards to illuminating the scriptures. God can do what he wants. Grudem’s historical examples show this.

There is a difference, however, between accepting what God can do and expecting what God ‘should do’. Setting up yourself and your church to expect the extraordinary is unwise. Christ has told us how to live. His word contains “all we need” for life and godliness. It is our calling to seek to follow God in the ordinary. If he gives the miraculous, rejoice! But be wary of trying to conjure it. Walk according to his word, and it will be well with you. MacArthur says it right: “[True] spirituality is simply receiving the living word daily from God, and then living out that word in a moment by moment walk in the Spirit”[18].


[1] [Source 2], pp. 112. See also [Source 3] pp.150 “Acts provides not a paradigm for individual Christian experience, but the account of the gospel’s outward movement geographically, racially and above all, theologically”.

[2] See [Source 2] pp. 141 “Prophecy is an expression that embraces tongues”

[3] [Source 1] pp. 39

[4] [Source 4]

[5] [Source 4] pp. 108

[6] See [Source 2] pp. 22 “Is it really true that spiritual manifestations constitute unfailing evidence of spiritual people?”

[7] [Source 2] pp. 100

[8] [Source 5] pp. 309

[9] [Source 1] pp. 83

[10] [Source 3] pp. 102

[11] [Source 3] pp. 85

[12] I don’t mean to deride Grudem here. He himself admits that the case of Agabus is “difficult to classify” [Source 1] pp. 83

[13] [Source 1] pp. 352

[14] [Source 1] pp. 118-120

[15] [Source 1] pp. 58

[16] [Source 3] pp. 108

[17] [Source 2] p. 103

[18] [Source 3] pp. 183


Sources

[1] Wayne A. Grudem, The gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (2000)

[2] D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (1988)

[3] John F. MacArthur Jr., The Charismatics: A Doctrinal Perspective (1978)

[4] John Piper, This is What Was Spoken by the Prophet Joel (1981) https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/this-is-what-was-spoken-by-the-prophet-joel

[5] B. Ward Powers, First Corinthians: An Exegetical And Explanatory Commentary (2008)

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