The gift of prophecy seems to be misunderstood by many Christians. Those against it say that it undermines Scripture; some of those for it treat it as if it can partially replace Scripture, thus rolling up ammunition for the other side. A proper biblical understanding of the gift avoids this problem - prophecy sits alongside Scripture quite happily as it addresses a different need.
The view of prophecy outlined here is essentially that of Wayne Grudem. The value of his work on this seems to be insufficiently recognised by both charismatic and cessationist churches.
The gift of prophecy is the ability to say what God wants to say. It is the opposite to intercession: intercessory prayer speaks to God on behalf of Man, prophecy speaks to Man on behalf of God. Prophecy is not the same as preaching, although the best preaching will often contain a prophetic element. Preaching is the delivery of a (long) message prepared from Scripture; prophecy is the delivery of an unprepared (short) message given directly from God.
Prophecy appears in both the Old and New Testaments. This allows confusion, as some people assume that it must operate in exactly the same way in both. There are similarities, but also important differences. Prophecy provides a means for God to speak to his people about their current situation. Some of this prophecy then becomes part of Scripture, so that later generations can benefit from it. Other prophecies are quite local and temporary, and may only be recorded as a teaching example of prophecy itself. God used prophecy both to establish eternal truths, and to encourage or warn his people.
It is unclear exactly how the gift functions. Does God give the prophet the exact words to say, or does he give an impression which the prophet has to render into his own words? It may be a bit of both, but with a leaning towards 'words' during the Old Testament and 'impression' during the New Testament. In the OT period, a prophet had to be judged: if he was a true prophet then the people had to obey him, but if he was a false prophet then they had to stone him to death. In the NT period it is the prophecy which is judged, rather than the prophet: a process called 'weighing' should sift out the genuine (from God) which has to be obeyed, from the imagined (from the prophet) which can be safely ignored. An OT prophecy is either true or false. An NT prophecy may be a curate's egg.
NT prophecy is thus not a direct descendant of OT prophecy, but something new. It is not restricted to a few special people, but widely available. There is a direct descendant of the OT prophet: this is the NT Apostle.
There seem to be a number of purposes:
NT prophecy must never be used to teach morality or doctrine; that is the function of Scripture. However, prophecy may sometimes powerfully apply existing biblical teaching to a particular person or situation. Prophecy must always be in agreement with, and subject to, the Bible.
There are examples in Acts of NT prophecy. God used a prophet to warn the church that there would be a famine, so they had time to arrange a collection and send a gift to the affected area. Paul was warned that he faced arrest in Jerusalem. Interestingly, the latter is a good example of NT prophecy in that the general drift of the prophecy was correct but almost every detail was wrong! For example, Paul was not handed over to the Romans by the Jews but was taken into protective custody. I suspect that Agabus was given a vision of Paul under arrest, which he then misinterpreted. This incident exhibits another aspect of prophecy: a warning about future difficulties could either be a matter of guidance ("don't go there") or an instruction to prepare for hard times. Fortunately, God had already spoken to Paul so he knew how to react to the prophecy.
Paul teaches about prophecy. He encourages its use in public church meetings, as this demonstrates that God is present and active. It may convict sinners about their position before God. I once knew someone who was saved in this way. He had been dragged along to an evangelistic meeting by his Christian girlfriend. The visiting speaker, who knew neither of them, pointed straight at him in the congregation and said "Young man, you need to be born again!" Somewhat surprised, that is exactly what he did. Our preaching and good works will convince some people and lead them to Christ, but the danger is that we will be seen as offering just a new set of beliefs and morality: both can be man-centred ("what I think; what I do"). Other people offer new beliefs and morality; which is true? Genuine Christianity is about an encounter with the living God, and a continuing relationship with him: prophecy is one of his means to stop people in their tracks and gain their attention. He had to do that with Saul/Paul.
There is not the slightest hint in Scripture that NT prophecy was a gift which was only intended for the early church. Therefore we must assume that it continues. Paul says quite explicitly in 1 Corinthians 13 that gifts such as prophecy will continue until Christ returns, but we must keep things in perspective. Given the (false) choice between gifts and love, Paul would always choose love. Fortunately we do not have to make that choice. God intends that we use gifts as a way to express our love. Ignoring gifts thus limits the expression of our love towards God and his people. Churches which ignore or oppose the use of prophecy are being unbiblical.
Are all modern claims to prophecy genuine? I think not. My experience is that the churches where prophecy is encouraged do not always understand the limited nature of NT prophecy. As a result, they can fail to properly weigh a prophecy. False prophecies may be uncritically accepted, while true prophecies may be largely ignored. Astonishingly, some church leaders may try to ban 'negative' prophecy!
Some people raise various objections to the continuation of the NT gift of prophecy. In most cases I think that they decide they are against it, then search around for reasons to support this decision. This can be seen when a person remains against it even when all objections have been biblically dismissed!
Correctly understood, NT prophecy cannot undermine Scripture as agreement with Scripture is one of the tests to be applied when weighing a prophecy. Prophecy cannot deny Scripture or add to it. Prophecy can apply Scripture to a personal or local situation. Any claims to revelation of new doctrine or new morality may be safely ignored.
There is a practice in some groups of circulating prophecies in written form, far away from the situation where they were originally delivered. This seems to treat the prophecy as though it were an addition to Scripture. Great care needs to be taken, if the authority of Scripture is not to be undermined. While such circulation may sometimes be justified (e.g. if God wishes to speak to the whole church in a nation), it is generally best avoided.
"Revelation 22:18 says that we should not add anything to the Bible, therefore we cannot accept present-day prophecy." There are two problems with this:
Prophecy, when correctly understood, does not extend Scripture so does not violate the meaning of this verse. Its purpose and authority are quite different from Scripture so it can happily sit alongside it.
"Prophecy was an interim measure to teach morality and doctrine which we now find in Scripture." The original purpose of prophecy was not simply to teach morality and doctrine, which was then written down for us in the Bible. It also addressed local issues, such as future famines or evangelism strategies. All the examples we are given in the New Testament are of this latter type, so it is possible that prophecy never brought new teaching to the church - that was for Apostles, not prophets, to do. We still need guidance, warnings, encouragements etc. so there is still a need for prophecy. What type of Father refuses to speak to his children, but merely directs their attention to things he has already said?
People sometimes say this when they want to have their cake and eat it too: they don't want to be called cessationist, so they redefine the charismata to get rid of the supernatural element. Scripture always maintains a distinction between prophecy and preaching. Preaching is prepared, while prophecy is spontaneous. Women may prophesy (e.g. Philip's daughters) but not preach.
Some people claim "we don't know exactly what the Bible means by NT prophecy, but its effects look very much like the effects of preaching (people are built up in their faith), so it must be the same as preaching". This is simply untrue. The Bible includes examples of NT prophecy. It is reasonable to assume that there is a connection between prophets and prophecy, so when we are told that a prophet arrived and spoke (e.g. Agabus) we can assume that what he said should be understood to be a prophecy. When Agabus predicted a famine he was not preaching. When Cornelius and his companions praised God at the point of their salvation and filling with the Holy Spirit they were not delivering a prepared sermon. Paul's careful teaching in 1 Corinthians 14 about the superior usefulness of prophecy over public use of tongues must not be distorted into "preaching is the most important gift; tongues is fine but don't do it in church" (for example, hear Paul Baxendale (18 April 2010) on this passage). Paul was sorting out a problem with supernatural manifestations of the Spirit at Corinth; he includes prophecy and tongues in his list of charismata, but not preaching. This is because preaching is not one of the charismata, it is a human activity. An unbeliever can preach a sermon (and many do!) but we do not call it a fake sermon, although we may describe its content as false teaching. On the other hand prophecy and tongues are both things which in their genuine form cannot be done by unaided humans: speaking a message directly from God or speaking a language which has not been learnt clearly require supernatural intervention.
The best preaching will be done by those with a gift of teaching (so they teach the truth in a way which is easy to understand and respond to) and a gift of prophecy (so their choice of topic and application of it are relevant to the current situation). Note that teaching has a valid natural counterpart; we all know gifted teachers in other fields who are not Christians. There is no natural counterpart to prophecy: prophecy is genuine (from God), fake (from a human) or counterfeit (from a lying spirit). Claiming that prophecy is preaching and it is the most important gift is simply false teaching! (We should always be wary of people who tell us that the gift they claim to possess is the most important gift, whether it be tongues or 'preaching'.) Fortunately for us, God is full of grace and power and can even use preachers who are mistaken about prophecy to speak to his people; he can insert words into their sermon so they are prophesying while remaining blissfully unaware of this, but he shouldn't have to work so covertly among his own people. Remember, he only spoke through the ass because Balaam wasn't listening!
This strange view is based on a single sentence: "For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." Revelation 19:10b (NIV). It is poor exegesis to use an obscure verse from a difficult book to direct our understanding of clearer verses in plain teaching or historical narrative. This seems to be a sign of desperation rather than wisdom! Which part of the gospel was Agabus declaring when he warned of a famine? Declaring the wonders of God is an aspect of prophecy (as at Cornelius' house), but it is not the whole - even there it was clearly a spontaneous utterance rather than a carefully prepared statement of belief.
This is not a biblical argument! Our feelings may be based on experience, but our beliefs and practice must be based on Scripture. Far too many Christians seem to spend their time reacting against real or perceived error in others, rather than positively declaring and living the truth as set out in the Bible. If you have seen others do it wrong, then the best response is for you to do it right.
Some people want to affirm the power and sovereignty of God, but they don't accept that prophecy is part of normal everyday biblical Christianity. So they believe that God can speak directly to his people, but think this happens so rarely and at such special times that for most of church life we can safely ignore such things. There are two problems with this view. Firstly, it is arguing from experience rather than Scripture. Secondly, it may be making the common evangelical mistake of separating belief from experience: I want to believe (so I am 'sound'), but I don't want to experience anything supernatural (so I am 'safe').
If prophecy is rare, why is the Bible so full of examples of it? Why does Paul regard it as a normal part of a church meeting, a sign that God is present with his people, and a useful tool for convicting sinners who are present? How can he encourage public use of prophecy in preference to tongues, if it is something that only happens very rarely? No, prophecy is normal and not rare.
How often should we expect to hear prophecy? The experience of many Christians is that hearing from God happens on timescales of weeks or months, not the decades assumed by doubters.
People from a Christian tradition which ignores NT prophecy may find a couple of examples helpful. These will not convince a sceptic or unbeliever, but that is not my aim. Unbelievers must be convicted by Scripture and the Holy Spirit.
After preaching one Sunday morning, I invited people to respond by requesting prayer - this was the normal practice in that church. A lady came forward and described her request. She had been witnessing for many years to her neighbours, and I knew that they saw her and her home as a place to find practical help and godly wisdom, but she was concerned that none of them had turned to Christ. She was feeling quite discouraged, and asked me to pray that she would not give up. Before praying for her, I asked the Lord if he had anything to say. I then said something like this: "God has seen your faithful sowing over many years, and is pleased with you. However, you will soon move from a season of sowing to a season of reaping. You will see neighbours come to Christ. So continue what you are doing." I then prayed for her, that what I believed God had said would come to pass. Predictive prophecy is always a dangerous thing to do, so in such cases I always double-check with the Lord before I speak. What happened? Well, she went away very encouraged and later told me that I should never give up prophesying to people (interestingly, this was just before I moved to a church where such prophecy might not be welcome - she was now prophesying to me). Some months later a few of her neighbours started coming to church, went on Alpha courses and were saved.
A lady in my home group was due to go on a short overseas trip to a country where the gospel is not welcome. The purpose of the visit was to encourage the church there, and carry out clandestine intercessory prayer. As was our practice, the group gathered round her to lay on hands and pray for her before the trip. She had done many such trips before, so was quite experienced in both encouragement and intercession. I felt I should say to her "On this trip you will find yourself using new gifts, so don't be afraid if you find yourself in new situations. Be bold!" When she got back she reported that she had found opportunities to witness to and pray for total strangers; this was quite different from her usual activities on such trips. She now does this regularly in the UK city where she lives.
Why did God choose to speak to these people via prophecy? In both cases, what they were asked to do can be found in Scripture. Isn't that enough? Well, how does a father encourage and train his children? Does he speak to them, or just issue a big book of rules and principles for them to follow? A good father will set out basic principles, but then will talk to his children and guide them from day to day in their application of those principles. Only a fool would try to make a binary choice between hearing what the father is saying, and reading what the father has said, yet that is what many Christians seem to want to do. Why choose one, when God intends that we benefit from both?
Prophecy is not restricted to 'Christian' activities. God cares about every aspect of the lives of his people, so he may speak to them about other things such as employment or relationships.
back to Bible home, becoming a Christian, receiving the Spirit, listening to God?, starting with the gifts, the gift of tongues
updated 25 Jan 2012: expand on 'prophecy is not preaching'