A prophet’s primary function in the Old Testament (OT) was to serve as God’s representative or ambassador by communicating God’s word to his people. True prophets never spoke on their own authority or shared their personal opinions, but rather delivered the message God himself gave them. Several texts make this explicit. God promised Moses, “Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say” (Exod. 4:12). God assured Moses, “I will raise up for [my people] a prophet like you . . . and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him” (Deut. 18:18). The Lord said to Jeremiah, “I have put my words in your mouth” (Jer 1:9). God commissioned Ezekiel by saying, “You must speak my words to them” (Ezek. 2:7). And many of the OT prophetic books begin with the words, “The word of the LORD that came to . . .” (Hos. 1:2; Joel 1:1; Micah 1:1; Zeph. 1:1; cf. Jonah 1:1). Amos claimed, “This is what the LORD says” (Amos 1:3).
Prophetic ministry was not restricted to men in the OT, however. Moses’s sister Miriam is called a “prophet” (Exod. 15:20), as are Deborah (Judg. 4:4) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14–20). We occasionally read of groups or bands of prophets ministering in Israel (1 Sam. 10:5; 1 Kings 18:4), referred to as “the company of the prophets” (2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7; 4:38). The Bible doesn’t explain how the word of the Lord came to a prophet, although in addition to the audible and internal voice of God there are a number of instances in which the Lord revealed his will through visions (1 Sam. 3:1,15; 2 Sam. 7:17; Isa. 1:1; Ezek. 11:24) or dreams (Num. 12:6).
Those who claimed to speak for God were held to a strict standard of judgment. Even should an alleged prophet perform a sign or wonder or accurately predict the future, if he says “Let us follow other gods . . . and let us worship them” (Deut. 13:2), he is to be rejected (Deut. 13:3). Likewise, if the word he speaks “does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken” (Deut. 18:22; see also Jer. 14:14; 23:21, 32; 28:15; Ezek. 13:6). The punishment for speaking falsely in God’s name was death (Deut. 18:20).
After Samuel anointed Saul and throughout the time of Israel’s monarchy, prophets largely advised the king, delivering words of warning, divine guidance, and encouragement. Nathan’s well-known rebuke of David for his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his complicity in the death of her husband is a case in point (2 Sam. 12).
In the eighth century BC the focus of the prophet’s message turned more to the people at large. It would be a mistake to think of prophets in the OT as only predicting the future. Their primary role was to make known the holiness of God and the covenant obligations; to denounce injustice, idolatry, and empty ritualism; and to call God’s covenant people, Israel, to repentance and faithfulness. In the period leading up to the exile and Judah’s deportation to Babylon in the sixth century BC, the prophets often delivered messages denouncing rampant social injustice and the oppression of the poor. In the postexilic period, the prophets turn their attention more specifically to the promise of national renewal and the spiritual blessings that come with trusting God and obeying his will.
Being a mouthpiece for the word of the Lord was often a dangerous calling. People frequently mocked, rejected, persecuted, and even killed God’s prophets (2 Chron. 36:16; Jer. 11:21; 18:18; 20:2, 7–10). Stephen, the first martyr of the new covenant, pointedly asked, “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?” (Acts 7:52).
New Testament Prophecy
Although it would go beyond the evidence to declare all prophecy ceased in the life of Israel around 400 BC only to reappear in conjunction with the incarnation of Christ, there can be no doubt that the voice of the Lord was rarely heard during what we call the “intertestamental” period. The most prominent prophetic voice in the New Testament (NT), aside from Jesus himself, was John the Baptist (Matt. 11:9; Luke 1:76). On the day of Pentecost, Peter declared that unlike the more limited exercise of prophecy during the time of the old covenant, God would henceforth pour out his Spirit “on all people” (Acts 2:17). Peter said the result would be a fulfillment of God words: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17–18).
Prophetic ministry in the early church was widespread and diverse. A band of prophets traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch, and one of them, Agabus, “stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world” (Acts 11:28). Prophets were active in the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1), Tyre (Acts 21:4), and Caesarea, where the four daughters of Philip prophesied (Acts 21:8–9). Prophecy, one of the gifts of the Spirit designed for edifying the body of Christ, was also utilized in the churches at Rome (Rom. 12:6), Corinth (1 Cor. 12:7–11; 14:1–40), Ephesus (Eph. 2:20; 4:11; see also Acts 19:1–7; 1 Tim. 1:18), and Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:19–22).
The extent to which prophecy in the new covenant differs from its exercise under the old covenant is disputed. Many contend that prophecy under both covenants functioned in essentially the same way. Thus, the NT prophet received inspired words from God, and what he declared was as equal in authority as the words, say, of Isaiah or Amos. The words of the prophets thus served to lay the foundation of the church by articulating the theological truths and ethical principles binding on the universal body of Christ (Eph. 2:20). According to this view, to embrace contemporary prophecy may undermine the finality and sufficiency of Scripture; therefore, the gift of prophecy likely ceased with the death of the last apostle or the inspiration of the last canonical book.
Others insist that whereas in the old covenant a failure to speak with complete accuracy brought the alleged “prophet” into judgment (Deut. 13:2; 18:20–22), with the new covenant and the distribution of the Spirit among all God’s people, certain changes came into play. Although God is the inspirational source of all prophetic revelation, its communication by individual prophets is not in all cases protected from error or human admixture. Thus it must be judged or weighed to determine what is “good” and what is “evil” (1 Thess. 5:21–22). According to this view, the gift of prophecy is still potentially available to the church until the return of Christ and is no threat to the finality of the biblical canon.
Gift of Prophecy
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul encourages everyone to pursue the gift of prophecy (v. 1). The primary purpose of prophetic ministry is to strengthen, encourage, and comfort believers (v. 3). In other words, “the one who prophesies edifies the church” (v. 4). Prophecy may also bring conviction of sin to unbelievers who happen to be visiting the gathering of God’s people, as “the secrets of their hearts are laid bare” (vv. 24–25).
Paul envisions prophetic utterances teaching others (1 Cor. 14:31) and even serving as the means by which certain spiritual gifts are identified and imparted (1 Tim. 4:14). Luke describes situations in which prophecy serves to provide divine direction for ministry (Acts 13:1–3) as well as to issue warnings to God’s people (Acts 21:4, 10–14).
In any particular church meeting, “two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Cor. 14:29). The most likely interpretation of the controversial passage concerning the silence of women in 1 Corinthians 14:33b–35 is that women may prophesy (see Acts 2:17–18; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5) but may not publicly judge the prophetic words of men in the congregation. Prophets were always to be in control of their speech (1 Cor. 14:32) as an expression of God’s desire for peace (1 Cor. 14:33). And as important as this ministry is in the body of Christ, even those claiming to be prophets must be subject to the final authority of the apostles (1 Cor. 14:36–38).
Prophecy and the Church
Some have mistakenly equated NT prophecy with preaching, but Paul declares that all prophecy is based on a revelation (1 Cor. 14:30; cf. 1 Cor. 13:2). The NT’s use of the noun “revelation” or the verb “to reveal” actually reflects a wide range of meaning and need not be taken as referring to the sort of authoritative revelation that would undermine the finality of the canon. Rather, the apostle likely has in view the sort of divine disclosure or unveiling in which the Spirit makes known something previously hidden (e.g., Matt. 11:27; 16:17; 1 Cor. 2:10; Gal. 1:6; Eph. 1:17; Phil. 3:15). Thus, prophecy is not based on a hunch, supposition, inference, educated guess, or even sanctified wisdom. Prophecy is the human report of a divine revelation. This is what distinguishes prophecy from teaching. Teaching is always grounded in an inspired text of Scripture. Prophecy, on the other hand, is always based on a spontaneous revelation. Thus Paul clearly distinguishes between coming to the corporate meeting of the church with a “word of instruction” and coming with a “revelation” (1 Cor. 14:26).
As helpful as prophecy is to the church, Christians are not to gullibly embrace all who claim to speak on behalf of God. Rather, the church must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Here John is concerned with whether the “prophet” affirms the incarnation of God the Son in the person of Jesus Christ (1 John 4:2–3; 2 John 7–11). This may be, at least in part, what John has in mind when he writes that “it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.” (Rev. 19:10). In other words, all true prophecy bears witness to Jesus Christ. Prophetic revelation is not only rooted in the gospel of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; its ultimate aim or primary focus is also to bear witness to the person of the incarnate Christ. Prophecy, therefore, is fundamentally Christ-centered.
- How to Read the Bible and Do Theology Well by D. A. Carson
- The Story of the Bible: How the Good News About Jesus Is Essential by Tim Keller
- The Sin-Crushing King and Our Destined-to-Die Conqueror by Kevin DeYoung
- Don Carson on the NIV Zondervan Study Bible by Ivan Mesa