Gifts of the SpiritThe gift of Prophecy
The gift of prophecy is the primary gift to the church. Of all the ministry gifts, it is the most important. As with most of the "gifts", it is difficult to define exactly the nature of the gift. It obviously entails the personal ability of an insight into, and declaration of, the mind of Christ. It is a gift of ministry for expounding, imparting, and forcefully applying the truths of scripture as they relate to the kingdom of God in the here and now, as well as the future.
Prophecy in the Bible
1. The Old Testament
The Old Testament gives a very clear picture of the nature of prophecy, a picture which expands our understanding of the New Testament gift, and of its use today. A failure to recognize the close relationship between New and Old Testament prophecy produces an unbiblical view of the gift.
Prophecy in the Old Testament was a word from God to the human situation, in the context of the Kingdom of God, now and in the future. Old Testament prophecy was highly practical, strongly ethical, contextual and exhortatory. The message always concerned the Kingdom of God, in particular, its relationship to the present situation and to the future. At times there would be specific predictions of events, but normally the future was painted in generalized terms. So foretelling was not the prime purpose of prophecy. Forthtelling was a more predominant feature. The prophet was in the business of revealing the nature and will of God.
Old Testament prophecy concerned the Kingdom now (emphasizing faith and obedience, or repentance), and the Kingdom to come (God's eschatological framework, ie. His ultimate plans for mankind).
The form of Old Testament prophecy ranged between precise detailed teaching and exhortation, eg. Deuteronomy, to visions, eg. Ezekiel.
It needs to be remembered that the predictive element is only one part of prophecy. Moses is the prime example of a prophet, and the book of Deuteronomy that of prophecy. Moses spoke forth all that God had commanded him, Deut.18:15-22.
At the close of the Old Testament period, two truths become obvious. First, Old Testament prophecy ended with John the Baptist, Matt.11:13. Second, Old Testament prophecy culminated and was fulfilled in Christ, Lk.4:17f, 24:25f.
2. The Gospels
John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, stressed repentance and ethics (new life-style) within the framework of the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus Christ, the greatest of the prophets, did not even claim the title of prophet, but he is rightly recognized as such by his own generation, and is the fulfillment of the promise in Deuteronomy, a prophet like unto Moses, Deut.18:18.
Jesus fulfills a prophetic role by declaring the character and mind of God with directness and authority. His words are highly ethical (life-style orientated ) demanding a response of repentance and faith, and are couched within the framework of the coming Kingdom of God, cf. Mk.13, Matt.24-25.
The coming of the Kingdom of God, in its present spiritual form, was associated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The sign of the Holy Spirit was seen in an outbreak of prophecy, Act.2:1-21. On rare occasions all the disciples prophesied, Act.2:17. On most occasion the gift was for a selected group - he prophets, 11:27, cf. 13:1, 15:32, 21:9.
As with the Old Testament, the form of prophecy ranged from ecstatic, visionary ie. tongues, to straight exhortation.
The nature of the prophetic ministry in Acts involved the following: Leadership, 15:22; Prediction, 11:28, 20:23; Declaration of Divine judgment, 13:11, 28:25-28; Specific directions to the church, 13:11, 15:27; Teaching by means of the exposition of scripture 14:22, 15:32.
The roles of prophet and teacher are linked. This parallels the Old Testament (Daniel 9:2, 2:4), as well as the ministry of Jesus who interpreted the scriptures with authority and power, Lk.24:27. In fact, prophecy in Acts seems to overlap the roles of apostle, leader, and teacher.
Earle Ellis defines the ministry of prophecy thus, "The prophet in Acts is the Lord's instrument, one among several, by whom Jesus leads His church. The prophet is one who makes known the meaning of the Scriptures, exhorts and strengthens the congregation, and instructs the community. The Christian prophet manifests, in the power of the Spirit, the character of his Lord, who is the prophet of the end time."
4. The Letters
In the epistles a similar picture of prophecy emerges in line with the rest of scripture. Note the following:
i] A gift of primary importance, Eph.2:20, 1Cor.14:1, 1Cor.2:28.
ii] Classed as a "gift" from God, Rom.12:6, etc.
iii] Prophets are also leaders, Rom.12:6, 1Cor.12:10-28, Eph. 3:5, 4:11.
iv] Primary role is to forthtell, 1Cor.14.
v] Prophets receive revelations to make known hidden things, 1Cor.14:30, Eph.3:5.
vi] Potentially a gift for all Christians, 1Cor.14:1.
vii] Varied in form. Closely related to tongues, 1Cor.14. It can vary from clear instruction "done decently in order", to visionary ecstatic utterances (tongues) bringing "confusion".
Thus, in the epistles, prophecy tends to be inspired preaching and teaching, ministered at times by the whole congregation, but on most occasions by specifically gifted members.
The book of Revelation describes itself as prophecy, 1:3, 10:11, 22:7. It follows typical apocalyptic form (ecstatic prophecy, foretelling, predictive, etc.) eg. Daniel. Yet it is still closely related to the present time. It consoles those who face evil times, it calls for repentance, 11:3, and encourages the faint hearted 2-3.
The purpose of New Testament prophecy
1. For the church
i] Edification, 1Cor.14:3. To build up and strengthen the church.
ii] Encouragement, 1Cor.14:3. To help Christians stand firm through times of trouble.
iii] Consolation, 1Cor.14:3. To calm and comfort fears.
iv] Conviction, 1Cor.14:24. To authenticate the Christian faith.
v] Instruction, 1Cor.14:31.
2. For unbelievers, 1Cor.14:24-26.
The nature of New Testament prophecy
The nature of prophecy in the New Testament is similar to the Old. It serves as a proclamation of revelation:
1. The message
Its message content centres on the Kingdom of God, and particularly how the Kingdom impacts on disciples now and in the future, Eph.3:3-6 cf. 1Cor.14:24-26. The apostle tells us that the prophet's message can convert the unbeliever. This shows us the close relationship that exists between a prophetic message and a gospel message. Presumably the prophet concentrated on specific truths within the theology of the Kingdom of God, applying them forcefully and pointedly, while the evangelist proclaimed the present reality of the Kingdom, calling on the lost to enter through repentance and faith.
2. Primary and secondary revelation
In similar fashion to the prophets in the Old Testament, Jesus revealed new insights into the Kingdom of God, new revelations from God. In fact, we usually say that Jesus completed God's revelation to mankind. It is also clear that primary revelation continued in the New Testament church, Eph.3:3-5. Yet the New Testament prophet was also involved in secondary revelation:
i] The instruction, exhortation and application of God's revealed truths contained in the scriptures, eg. Acts 15:32, 35.
ii] The local application of those truths, ie. how God intends a certain truth to be fulfilled in the local situation, Acts 21:10-12.
3. Foretelling and forthtelling
Although there were occasions of miraculous foresight into God's intentions for his church, the general thrust of New Testament prophecy is in line with the Old Testament as a declaration of God's will for his people.
Prophecy in the New Testament is described as strong exhortatory preaching. It can be distinguished from teaching by its spontaneity, directness, and immediacy, and from tongues by its intelligibility, 1Cor.14.
Due to false prophecy, the New Testament regulates it's use.
1. The Prophet
i] A gift for all, 1Cor.14:31. All church members should be allowed to prophesy without the domination of strong personalities.
ii] Controlled, 1Cor.14:32. Prophecies should be (and can be) controlled re: length, intelligibility, accuracy etc.
iii] Ordered, 1Cor.14:29. One by one, not all at once.
iv] Free expression, 1 Cor. 14:30-31. A planned prophetic address must welcome fresh insights by members of the congregation.
2. The Congregation
i] Listen and learn.
ii] Test, 1Cor.14:29, 1Thess.5:19-21.
a) Does the prophecy edify the church?
b) Does it line up with the commands of the Lord? 1Cor.14:37-38, 1Jn.4:1-3 cf. Deut.13:1-5, 18:20-22.
c) There is the possibility that the gift of "discerning the spirits" is a gift that may help distinguish between true and false prophecies.
Prophecy for today
As with most of the gifts in the Spirit, there is a range of views concerning the gift of prophecy today. On the one hand Charismatic Christians tend to define it as "An unpremeditated expression of the mind of God." On the other hand there are those who define it as "Primary revelation" and therefore not in operation today. (The Bible is God's complete revelation to mankind).
It is very dangerous to give modern prophecy equal status to the scriptures. The mysteries of the Kingdom are now revealed in full and are contained in the Bible. Prophecy today functions on a secondary level by proclaiming revealed truths contained in the scriptures and applying those truths to a local situation.
Index of studies. Resource file.
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons