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.
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
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
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]”.
With that in mind, let’s examine the specific cases.
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.
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).
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”. I couldn’t agree more. But is this consistent with the rest of the book of Acts?
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
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.
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
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
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
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”.
But of particular interest is that the Corinthians seemed to be asking Paul
specifically about tongues and prophecy.
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”.
Powers writes: “In these verses the one who speaks in a tongue and the one who
prophesies are compared and contrasted”.
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…”
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”
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”.
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”,
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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
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”
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.
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.
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”.
 [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”.
 See [Source 2] pp. 141 “Prophecy is an expression that embraces tongues”
 [Source 1] pp. 39
 [Source 4]
 [Source 4] pp. 108
 See [Source 2] pp. 22 “Is it really true that spiritual manifestations constitute unfailing evidence of spiritual people?”
 [Source 2] pp. 100
 [Source 5] pp. 309
 [Source 1] pp. 83
 [Source 3] pp. 102
 [Source 3] pp. 85
 I don’t mean to deride Grudem here. He himself admits that the case of Agabus is “difficult to classify” [Source 1] pp. 83
 [Source 1] pp. 352
 [Source 1] pp. 118-120
 [Source 1] pp. 58
 [Source 3] pp. 108
 [Source 2] p. 103
 [Source 3] pp. 183
A. Grudem, The gift of Prophecy in the
New Testament and Today (2000)
 D. A.
Carson, Showing the Spirit: A theological
Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14
 John F.
MacArthur Jr., The Charismatics: A
Doctrinal Perspective (1978)
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
 B. Ward
Powers, First Corinthians: An Exegetical
And Explanatory Commentary (2008)