The Gift of Prophecy
The gift of prophecy is a miraculous act of intelligible communication, rooted in spontaneous, divine revelation and empowered by the Holy Spirit, which results in words that can be attributed to any and all Persons of the Godhead and which therefore must be received by those who hear or read them as absolutely binding and true. Evangelicals disagree as to whether this gift is limited to the founding era of the Christian church or whether it is currently operative in the church now.
The gift of prophecy remains a controversial one among evangelical churches, concerning both the nature and duration of the gift. The Old Testament regards prophecy as an act of intelligible communication that bears divine authority, although it also allows for the possibility of false prophets. The New Testament bears remarkable continuity with the Old Testament concerning prophecy, and the NT authors regard the messages of the prophets to be the very words of God. As such, the NT seems to assume that genuine prophecies always warranted complete trust and obedience. However, the NT clearly expects the gift of prophecy to be done away with at some point in time. On the one hand, continuationists believe that the gift will continue functioning until the second coming of Christ. On the other hand, cessationists believe that the gift was tied to the authority of the founding leaders of the early church and has therefore ceased to function in the church today.
Both the nature and duration of prophecy remain controversial subjects among evangelicals. That is to say, no consensus exists regarding (1) what prophets were doing when they prophesied and (2) whether or not the gift of prophecy remains active throughout the church age. This debate is unlikely to be resolved any time soon; therefore, this essay aims to briefly explore both the nature and duration of prophecy from a cessationist perspective.
Scholars continue to debate the nature of prophecy. Some describe prophecy as the gift of inspired scriptural interpretation; meanwhile, others claim that it refers to the act of preaching. Today, a popular position defines prophecy as the act of declaring in fallible human speech what God has brought to mind. While each of these proposals has been ably defended, none of them adequately summarizes the biblical teaching regarding the essence of prophetic activity.
In the Old Testament, a prophet was a man or woman called by God to deliver His words to His people. Since Israel could not bear to hear the Lord’s voice directly (Exod. 20:18–19), God established the prophetic office as an answer to their request that the divine word come to them through human mediation (Deut. 18:16–18). As such, while OT prophets had secondary functions (like intercession; cf. Gen. 20:7; Exod. 32:30–31; Num. 14:17–19; 1 Sam. 12:23; 1 Kings 13:6; Jer. 27:18, 37:3), their main role was to act as spokespersons on the Lord’s behalf. This role is well-illustrated by the task given to Aaron in Exodus 7. There, God assigned Aaron to be Moses’s prophet; as such, Aaron was to communicate to Pharaoh what Moses had relayed to him. Just as Aaron was called to speak Moses’s words to Pharaoh, so the prophets were called by God to speak only His word to His people (Deut. 18:18–20).
Given this description, it should come as no surprise that the OT depicts prophecy to be an act of intelligible communication. So, for instance, when prophets were commanded by God to prophesy, they were told to proclaim words that the Lord had given them (cf. Jer. 19:14–15, 25:30ff, 26:12; Ezek. 3:17, 6:2ff, 11:4–12, 13:2ff, 20:46–48; 21:2ff; Amos 7:14–17). Moreover, when receiving their prophetic commission, the prophets are commanded to take God’s words and herald them to His people (cf. Isa. 6:8–9; Jer. 1:4–8; Ezek. 2:8–3:4). Furthermore, those who opposed the prophets did so because they heard the words of their prophecies (Jer. 20:1–2, 26:7–11, 26:20–23; Amos 7:10). In fact, even the “prophetic” activity of false prophets involved verbal communication (Deut. 13:2, 18:20–22; 1 Kings 22:10–12; Jer. 23:16). While the prophets did occasionally employ sign acts (cf. Isa. 20:1–3; Ezek. 4:1–13, 5:1–6, 24:15–24; Hos. 1:2), even these were accompanied by divine words to disclose their meaning. Therefore, it seems best to understand OT prophecy to refer to the communication of God’s words in either spoken or written form.
In addition to being communicative acts, genuine prophecies in the OT always carried divine authority. Those who prophesied did so through the power of the Spirit of God (Num. 11:24–29; Joel 2:28; cf. 2 Pet. 1:20–21) and spoke the very words that God had put in their mouths (Deut. 18:18; 1 Kings 22:14; Jer. 1:7–10; Ezek. 3:4, 3:10–11, 3:17). As a result, genuine prophecies were not merely human words but were the very words of God. This is why the prophets frequently introduced their speeches (or their books) with declarations like “thus says the Lord,” “an oracle of the Lord,” or “hear the word of the Lord.” Moreover, because true prophecy in the OT referred to the Spirit-empowered communication of God’s words, those addressed by God’s prophets were expected to receive their messages with reverence and trust (Deut. 18:15). The refusal to attend to the words of the prophets was equivalent to despising God’s own word; therefore, those who failed to heed YHWH’s prophets were subject to divine judgment (Deut. 18:19; cf. 1 Kings 13:4, 20:35–36; 2 Kings 17:13ff; Isa. 30:8–14; Jer. 29:17–19, 35:15–17, 36:27–31; 43:9–22, 44:4–6; Zech. 1:4).
It must be noted, however, that not all scholars conceive of OT prophecy as being completely authoritative. On the contrary, some believe that prophecy in the OT was a mixed phenomenon; as such, even genuine prophecy could contain errors and did not always warrant absolute obedience. Some appeal to Numbers 12:6–8, claiming that the text distinguishes between infallible prophecy and fallible prophecy. Others claim that the “band of prophets” in 1 Samuel 10:5–10 and 19:20 should be understood as members of the fallible class of prophets. Still others argue that prophets whose words are never recorded in Scripture should be viewed as having prophesied with less authority. Upon analysis however, one finds that the exegetical foundation for this perspective is slender at best. With regard to Numbers 12, it is not at all evident that the passage has two kinds of prophecy in view; instead, the text merely sets Moses apart from all other prophets. Furthermore, since God revealed himself to canonical prophets through visions, one cannot read Numbers 12:6 as a reference to fallible prophecy without also casting doubt on their authority (cf. Isa. 1:1, 2:1, 6:1–7; Jer. 1:11–14, Ezek. 1:1 8:3, 40:2; Amos 1:1–2, 7:1–9, 8:1–3, 9:1ff; Obad. 1:1; Mic. 1:1; Hab. 1:1; Zech. 1:7–11, 2:1–5, 3:1ff, 4:1ff, 5:1ff, 6:1ff). Similarly, texts like 1 Samuel 10 and 19 simply do not address the issue of prophetic authority. In fact, the passages that reference these prophetic groups say very little about them; thus, one must resort to an argument from silence if one is to see these texts as evidence for fallible prophecy. Lastly, those who argue for less-authoritative prophecy on the basis of exclusion from the canon mistakenly conflate authority with canonicity. While the two concepts are related, they are not identical: prophetic words which were not recorded for posterity could very well have been fully authoritative for their original audiences.
While the OT regards highly the authority of true prophets, it also acknowledges the reality of false prophets. Fundamentally, a false prophet was someone who claimed divine sanction for his words though neither he nor his message had been commissioned by YHWH (Deut. 18:20; Jer. 14:14, 23:21–22, 28:15, 29:8–9). According to the OT, God Himself allowed for the presence of false prophets either to test the faithfulness of His people (Deut. 13:1–3) or to bring judgment upon them (1 Kings 22:19–23; Ezek. 14:9). Scripture describes such false prophets as speaking from their own imagination rather than from divine inspiration (Jer. 23:16; Ezek. 13:2–3). At the same time, certain passages also reveal evil spirits to be the source of false prophecies (1 Kings 22:19–23). Already in the book of Deuteronomy, God had told Israel how they were to recognize and deal with false prophets. For instance, Israel was to reject any so-called prophet who called them to follow after other gods; moreover, such a man or woman was to be executed for enticing rebellion against the Lord (Deut. 13:1–3). In addition, Israel could distinguish true from false prophets by attending to whether or not their predictions came to pass (Deut. 18:22; cf. 1 Kings 22:28; Jer. 28:9). Prophets who were revealed to be illegitimate by mistaken predictions were also to be condemned to death because they had presumptuously spoken in the Lord’s name (Deut. 18:20–22; cf. Jer. 28:15–17).
An examination of the NT data regarding prophecy reveals significant continuity with the picture painted by the OT. First of all, the NT also treats prophecy as an act of intelligible communication. For instance, the synoptic Gospels refer to Isaiah’s words as an example of prophecy (Matt. 13:14, 15:7; Mark 7:6). Zechariah’s speech is called a prophecy in the book of Luke (1:67–79). Though he incorporates a sign act, Agabus uses words when he delivers his prophecy to Paul (Acts 21:11). Paul explicitly describes prophecy as a communicative act when he says, “The one who prophesies speaks to men” (1 Cor. 14:3). And importantly, the entire book of Revelation presents itself as a prophecy (Rev. 1:3, 22:18–19).
Like the OT, the NT also portrays prophecy as being divinely inspired. The synoptic Gospels along with the book of Acts associate prophets with miraculous activities (Matt. 7:22; Mark 6:14–15; Luke 7:12–16, 24:19); in addition, Luke describes prophecy itself as being empowered by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:67; Acts 2:16–17, 19:6). In fact, he goes so far as to claim that, when prophesying, the prophets were speaking the very words of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:1–2; 21:11). Paul shares similar convictions as he ties prophecy to divine revelation (1 Cor. 13:2, 14:29–30) and views prophecy as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s power (1 Cor. 12:7–11; cf. 14:1; 1 Thess. 4:19–20). And while Peter does not address the topic at great length, he does affirm that the Holy Spirit himself inspired and superintended the very words of the prophets (1 Pet. 1:10–11; 2 Pet. 1:20–21). Lastly, John also makes similar points regarding prophecy as he describes the prophetic nature of the book of Revelation. He notes that the message of the book came to him through divine revelation when he was “in the Spirit” (Rev. 1:1, 1:10). But John stresses the Trinitarian quality of prophecy more than his apostolic contemporaries. Thus, the book of Revelation is simultaneously his message (1:4), “the word of God” (1:2), “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:2; cf. 19:10), and “what the Holy Spirit says to the churches” (2:11, et al.).
This brief survey demonstrates that the NT and the OT alike regard true prophecy as from God. Moreover, the NT similarly regards the messages of the prophets to be the very words of God. As such, the NT seems to assume that genuine prophecies always warranted complete trust and obedience. While some dispute this point, the biblical material provides strong evidence in this direction. First, the book of Revelation itself stands as a witness to the authoritative nature of NT prophecy. Second, since Joel probably had in mind infallible prophecy, the apostolic claim that the promise of Joel 2:28–29 has been fulfilled strongly implies that NT prophets ministered with full divine authority. Third, the other explicit examples of prophecy in the NT are also characterized as being fully authoritative and trustworthy (cf. Acts 11:28, 13:1–2, Acts 21:11). Lastly, this portrait of NT prophecy is suggested by the fact that NT prophets functioned alongside the apostles as the foundation of the church (cf. Eph. 2:20).
We are now in a position to answer the question, “What sort of activity was prophecy?” An overview of the biblical data leads to the following definition: prophecy can be defined as (1) a miraculous act of intelligible communication, (2) rooted in spontaneous, divine revelation and (3) empowered by the Holy Spirit, which (4) results in words that can be attributed to any and all Persons of the Godhead and which therefore (5) must be received by those who hear or read them as absolutely binding and true. This leads to the second question: should we expect the gift of prophecy to continue to operate in our churches today?
The NT clearly expects the gift of prophecy to be done away with at some point in time. However, Christians disagree as to when prophecy should be expected to cease. Continuationists argue that the gift of prophecy will continue to be provided to the church until Christ returns. Most of those who adopt this position do so on the basis of 1 Corinthians 13:8–13, where Paul states that “when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away” (NASB). Continuationists understand “the perfect” to refer to the second coming of Christ; therefore, they argue that only when Christ returns will prophecy (which is included in “the partial”) be done away with. While this is certainly a possible reading, cessationists are not convinced that the passage specifically addresses the temporal duration of prophecy. A look at the text reveals that it does not specify that everything “partial” will be done away with simultaneously. That is to say, 1 Corinthians 13 leaves open the possibility that some of these “partial” gifts will expire before others. Therefore, these verses do not necessarily teach that the gift of prophecy will itself be done away with at Christ’s return. Moreover, cessationists argue that Ephesians 2:19–20 is more relevant to the question at hand than 1 Corinthians 13. In the former passage, Paul asserts that the prophets and the apostles played a foundational role in the establishment of God’s church. Since the church has in fact already been established and since the apostolic office has been done away with, cessationists would argue that the gift of prophecy is also no longer operational in the life of the church.
The issue of prophecy is complex, and Bible-believing Christians can (and do) disagree regarding the nature and duration of prophecy. While I believe that the cessationist position is more likely to be correct, evangelicals should beware of making the issue a point of division within churches. For those who desire to explore the matter in more depth, the following list of resources should provide a good place to start.
Nature of Prophecy
- D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14
- David Hill, New Testament Prophecy
- Earle Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutics in Early Christianity: New Testament Essays
- John MacArthur, “Prophecy Redefined: A Response to John Piper”
- John Piper, “What is Prophecy Today?”
- Richard M. Blaylock, “Towards a Definition of New Testament Prophecy” in Themelios
- Sam Storms, “Prophets and Prophecy”
- Thomas Gillespie, The First Theologians: A Study in Early Christian Prophecy
- Wayne Grudem, “Prophecy, Prophets” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, pp. 701–710
Duration of Prophecy
- David Farnell, “When Will the Gift of Prophecy Cease?”
- Kenneth Gentry, The Charismatic Gift of Prophecy: A Response to Wayne Grudem
- Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today
- Fowler White, “Richard Gaffin and Wayne Grudem on 1 Cor 13:10: A Comparison of Cessationist and Noncessationist Argumentation”
- Richard Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost
- Sam Storms, “Ephesians 2:20 – The Cessationist’s ‘Go-To’ Text (An On-Going Response to Strange Fire)”
- Sam Storms, “Why I Am a Continuationist”
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter. See an Author Interview here.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, “Why I Am a Cessationist”
- Thomas R. Schreiner, “It All Depends upon Prophecy: A Brief Case for Nuanced Cessationism” in Themelios
- Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today
Prophecy in Light of Extra-Biblical Backgrounds
- B. Buller, “Prophecy, Prophets” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch
- Christopher Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christianity and its Hellenistic Environment
- David Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World
- Edward J. Young, My Servants the Prophets
- Geerhardus Vos, “Part Two: The Prophetic Epoch of Revelation” in Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments
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