Volume 44 - Issue 2

Towards a Definition of New Testament Prophecy

By Richard M. Blaylock

Many evangelicals might be surprised to discover that prophecy remains an elusive concept among academics.1 Despite a number of recent proposals, scholars have yet to reach a consensus regarding what the New Testament prophets were actually doing when they were prophesying. I attempt to address this problem by seeking to answer two questions. First, what kind of an activity was NT prophecy? Second, what kind of authority did NT prophecy involve?

1. The Activity of NT Prophecy: Recent Proposals

In the past fifty years, various attempts have been made to define NT prophecy. Of these, five suggestions stand out for their influence or their originality. While much of the work behind these studies is stimulating and judicious, I hope to demonstrate that each of these proposals is ultimately found wanting.

1.1. Prophecy as Inspired Exegesis

Earle E. Ellis has contributed to the discussion of prophecy by hypothesizing that the interpretation of Scripture is a key feature of prophetic activity.2 He argues that there is OT precedent for this view in the work of Daniel and in other instances of OT prophets making use of OT texts. He notes that the evidence from Qumran should caution scholars from distinguishing too sharply between prophetic functions and teaching functions, thus undermining the argument that biblical interpretation belongs to the latter. He suggests that Jesus’s common practice of expositing Scripture in the synagogue reflects his role not only as teacher, but also as prophet. Ellis also understands James to be prophesying at the Jerusalem council, and he thus concludes that the decree of Acts 15 serves as evidence that prophecy involves biblical interpretation.3 Lastly, Ellis contends that the many instances of NT interpretation of the OT are prophetic because (1) NT prophets would have had similar hermeneutical convictions to the teachers at Qumran and (2) introductory formulas like λέγει κύριος (“the Lord says”) functioned to mark prophecy.4

Though carefully argued, Ellis’s proposal falls short of being persuasive. An examination of the verb προφητεύω (“to prophesy”) in the NT reveals no clear references to charismatic exegesis.5 In fact, Ellis does not provide a NT example wherein the exposition of Scripture is explicitly tied to the act of prophecy.6 While Ellis has shown that prophets do interpret the Scriptures, he has not demonstrated that they do so specifically as an expression of their prophetic role. As he himself is aware, many leaders of the early church wore multiple hats. To prove that prophecy can be synonymous with biblical interpretation, he would have to demonstrate that Paul, Barnabas, Peter, James, and others exposited the Scripture as an expression of their prophetic office; needless to say, Ellis does not prove this point.7 Lastly, Aune and others have rightly argued that λέγει κύριος often marks a simple reference to Scripture.8 Thus, it seems unwarranted to call charismatic exegesis (in-and-of itself) prophecy.

1.2. Prophecy as Pastoral Preaching

David Hill has argued that NT prophecy should fundamentally be understood as pastoral preaching.9 Hill begins by explaining that a functional approach to the question is most likely to bear fruit.10 He therefore focuses on the activities of those he identifies as NT prophets in order to determine their essential function.11 First, he looks at the book of Revelation and concludes that paraenesis is basic to John’s understanding of prophetic activity.12 Second, Hill argues that, in the book of Acts, prophetic ministry always involves pastoral encouragement.13 Third, Hill reads 1 Corinthians 14:3 to equate prophecy and exhortation.14 On this basis, Hill explores the use of παρακαλέω (“to exhort”) and παρακλήσις (“encouragement”) in Paul’s letters and posits that these have a special connection with prophecy.15 Lastly, Hill cites the book of Hebrews itself as an example of prophecy because it is called “the word of exhortation” (τοῦ λόγου τῆς παρακλήσεως, Heb 13:22).16 These sorts of arguments lead Hill to conclude that “as pastoral preachers the New Testament prophets teach and give instruction on what the Christian way requires of individual believers and of the community as a whole.”17

As others have noted, Hill’s definition of prophecy is not without problems. First of all, much of his case is built upon what Moo calls “argument by association.”18 That is to say, Hill assumes that the mention of phenomena associated with the prophets or with prophetic activity (like the Holy Spirit for example) also implies the presence of prophecy; the conclusion however does not necessarily follow.19 Second, his definition does not account for all the data.20 In fact, several prophetic activities in the NT call his definition into question. To provide just two examples, it is hard to see how Agabus’s famine prediction (Acts 11:28) or his foretelling of what would befall Paul (Acts 21:11) could be thought of as pastoral preaching.21 Lastly, Hill’s argumentation seems circular at a few points. So for instance, Hill cites Acts 13:17–41 as part of his argument for characterizing prophecy as exhortatory preaching. He notes that nothing about the form of the homily suggests a prophetic character and yet, based solely on “the presence of the exhortation to repentance and obedience,” he says that “we can discern the utterance of a prophetic spirit.” This is hardly convincing in my estimation.22 These shortcomings make it unlikely that Hill is correct to define prophecy as exhortatory preaching.

1.3. Prophecy as Exposition of the Kerygma

A third approach to the problem is espoused by Thomas W. Gillespie.23 He believes that prophecy (at least in Paul) must be understood as the inspired exposition of the ethical and theological implications of the kerygma.24 Gillespie argues that Paul sets the gospel itself as the criterion for judging prophecy, which then implies that prophecy must itself be gospel proclamation.25 He reads 1 Corinthians 12:1–3 as teaching that the gospel-confession “Jesus is Lord” is what marks all true prophecy.26 Additionally, Gillespie believes that in both Romans 1:2 and 3:21, Paul closely associates OT prophecy with gospel proclamation.27 Lastly, Gillespie relies on 1 Corinthians 14:3 to further his case, as he states that edification (οἰκοδομή), exhortation (παρακλήσις), and comfort (παραμυθία) name “the action of the Spirit that is grounded materially in the gospel and mediated through its proclamation.”28

Though Gillespie’s case is appealing, it too faces difficulties. To begin with, Gillespie defines prophecy in a way that would imply that Paul was at odds with other OT and NT writers. After all, both the OT and the NT recount prophetic activities which would be difficult to describe as gospel proclamation.29 Second, Gillespie’s argument from Paul’s references to the OT prophets in Romans 1:2 and 3:21 is unconvincing because in both texts, Paul likely speaks of the OT canon as a whole.30 Lastly, the premise that the kerygma is the criterion by which one identifies true prophecy does not logically necessitate the conclusion that prophecy is itself kerygmatic proclamation. A criterion may limit a concept without necessarily defining that concept. So for instance, the author of the Didache distinguished between true and false prophets by claiming that the former never received payment. However, it would be a mistake to conclude on the basis of this criterion that prophetic ministry is to be equated with unpaid ministry. Unfortunately, Gillespie’s construal of prophecy is the result of this kind of misstep.31 These points lead me to reject Gillespie’s definition of prophecy despite its initial appeal.

1.4. Prophecy as Interpretation of Inspired Thoughts

Terrence Callan describes prophetic activity by saying, “Prophecy was the result of inspiration in the form of an inner, divine ‘voice,’ comparable to one’s ordinary thoughts and differing from them mainly in being sent by God rather than arising in the usual way. The prophet then interprets these inner promptings, chiefly by expressing them in speech.”32 Wayne Grudem explains NT prophecy similarly. He argues that 1 Corinthians 13:9 implies that the prophet had to interpret the revelations he received, and that he in fact did so with great difficulty.33 Thus, with respect to Acts 21:10–11, Grudem says “Agabus had a ‘revelation’ from the Holy Spirit concerning what would happen to Paul in Jerusalem, and gave a prophecy which included his own interpretation of this revelation (and therefore some mistakes in the exact details).”34 Reports by charismatics of their own experiences of prophecy reveal similar ideas regarding prophetic activity.35

The view that prophecy refers to interpreted divine revelation is intriguing but speculative. While Callan and Grudem are right to tie prophecy and revelation together, the NT itself does not disclose the “psychological” relationship between the two. Furthermore, the few glimpses we have into the inner-workings of prophecy (like Acts 21:11 and Rev 2–3) run counter to their suggestion that prophecy involves the fallible human interpretation of divine revelation. In addition, Grudem’s proposal regarding 1 Corinthians 13:9–12 is problematic because, if it is correct, then Paul indicts his own prophetic ministry: in these verses, Paul uses first-person plural verbs (γινώσκομεν: “we know”; προφητεύομεν: “we prophesy”; βλέπομεν: “we see”) and a first-person singular verb (γινώσκω: “I know”). Significantly, 2 Peter 1:20–21 explicitly states that “no prophecy of Scripture ever came about by someone’s own interpretation; for no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”36 For these reasons, I have little confidence that prophecy should be defined as the human interpretation of divinely inspired thoughts.37

1.5. Prophecy as Mediation

Perhaps the most provocative proposal comes from Clint Tibbs, who defines prophecy as “the gift of becoming a medium through whom spirits can speak the mother tongue of the spectators.”38 Tibbs regrets that 1 Corinthians has been read through 4th century Trinitarian lenses;39 as a result, interpreters blind themselves to the “spiritism” which characterizes Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12–14.40 According to Tibbs, anarthrous occurrences of πνεῦμα must mean “a spirit” rather than “the Spirit.”41 Even when “spirit” is accompanied by the article in fact, no reference to “the Holy Spirit” is intended;42 instead, Paul must be speaking of “the spirit world” because “in the NT, the world of good spirits was frequently denoted as a corporate plurality.”43 Tibbs also points to 1 Corinthians 14:12 and 32 for corroboration, arguing that πνεύματα cannot be understood as anything but “spirits.”44 Further evidence comes from first-century figures like Plutrach, Josephus, Philo, and Pseudo-Philo, who all testify to spirits speaking through human mediums.45 Tibbs concludes therefore that prophecy is the work of various holy spirits who possess mediums in order to proclaim Christ.

Tibbs refers to his own work as a “maverick interpretation.”46 It most certainly is maverick, but it is also untenable. His grammatical arguments fail because anarthrous nouns are regularly definite, especially when they occur in prepositional phrases or when they are modified by a genitive noun.47 He provides little-to-no evidence for his claim that τὸ πνεῦμα should be read as a collective noun referring to the spirit world.48 Despite his best efforts, Tibbs cannot account for the fact that Paul speaks of “the same Spirit” and “one and the same Spirit” in 1 Corinthians 12:4–11.49 He does not take into account the OT testimony to the unique Spirit of God.50 He simply assumes that Paul would conceive of prophecy similarly to Plutarch, Josephus, Philo and Pseudo-Philo, when in fact, Paul demonstrates vast differences from the four on the topic of prophecy.51 Lastly, Tibbs flounders to explain how the early church fell upon the idea of “the Holy Spirit” if in fact “a unique, uncreated Holy Spirit … is neither a tenable prospect for πνεῦμα in the NT nor indigenous to the NT period.”52 For all these reasons, Tibbs’s treatment of prophecy has little to commend it in my estimation.

2. The Activity of NT Prophecy: Analysis of Biblical Evidence

As I have shown, several attempts have recently been made to define NT prophecy. However, my survey of these proposals suggests that a truly satisfying definition has yet to be formulated. Thus, there remains a need to revisit the NT afresh in order to answer the question, “what kind of an activity was NT prophecy?”

In order to maintain a proper focus on prophetic activity, I have considered two kinds of NT texts: those which refer to prophecy explicitly and those which do so implicitly. On the one hand, texts in which either the verb προφήτευω or the noun προφήτεια occur are obviously crucial to exploring the meaning of prophecy in the NT. On the other hand, some passages without the words προφήτευω or προφήτεια may still involve prophetic activity. In order to determine when this is the case, I have employed two criteria: (1) the text must refer to an activity performed by a person designated a “prophet” (προφήτης or προφῆτις), and (2) the activity reported must share significant similarities with the kinds of activities referred to by the verb προφήτευω or the noun προφήτεια. The first condition provides an objective, lexical basis for narrowing the scope of potentially relevant passages. However, since prophets presumably engaged in prophetic as well as non-prophetic activity, the first condition is not sufficient by itself to ensure that a passage involves prophecy. Therefore, the second condition must be added. By using these two criteria, I hope to include implicit references to prophecy while also guarding the study from the taint of false positives.53

2.1. Prophetic Activity in the Synoptics and Acts

The synoptic writers refer to prophetic activity several times in their works.54 Each of them indicate that prophecy involves a miraculous element.55 The events after Christ’s trial testify to this point, as Jesus was asked to demonstrate his prophetic abilities by identifying his assailants without the normal means of doing so.56 Matthew 7:22 associates prophecy with casting out demons and performing miracles, while Acts 2:17–18 links it with the reception of dreams and visions. In addition, Luke highlights the involvement of the Spirit of God in the act of prophesying.57 Thus, the gospel writers seem to agree that prophecy is supernatural.

These writers also concur that prophecy was an act of communication. Matthew (13:14, 15:7) and Mark (7:6) refer to Isaiah’s speech as prophecy. In Matthew 26:68 and Luke 22:64, Christ’s abusers imply that prophecy involves communication when they ask him to prophesy by identifying who hit him. In Luke 1:67, Zechariah prophesies by announcing the meaning and significance of his son’s birth. If Judas and Silas are prophesying in Acts 15, they do so with “many words.”58 Furthermore, there is some evidence that the Holy Spirit is ultimately responsible for the words of prophetic communication. So for example, provided that Acts 13:2 refers to prophecy,59 Luke says that “when they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul….” And again, in Acts 21:11, Agabus introduces his prophecy with the formula, “The Holy Spirit says this” (τάδε λέγει τὸ πνευμα τὸ ἅγιον). 60 And though the Holy Spirit is not explicitly credited with the prophetic words in both Luke 1:67 and Acts 11:28, he is depicted as closely involved in both prophecies. Lastly, Luke intimates that prophecy could be delivered spontaneously. So for instance, Zechariah’s prophetic speech in Luke 1:67 was clearly unprepared and unrehearsed. The prophecies in Acts 19:6 were delivered suddenly, through a dramatic work of the Spirit. And while we cannot be sure, it is certainly possible that Agabus prophesied spontaneously in Acts 11:28 and 21:10–11.61

This overview provides enough information to make three broad statements regarding prophecy according to the synoptic writers. First, prophecy is miraculous and could be spontaneous. Second, prophecy is an act of communication. Third, prophecy involves the work of the Holy Spirit, which may extend to the actual words spoken by the prophet.

2.2. Prophetic Activity in Pauline Literature

Paul provides much information regarding prophetic activity. To begin with, he clearly views prophecy as an act of communication. The apostle makes this explicit when he says in 1 Corinthians 14:3, “The one who prophesies speaks to men.” Several other Pauline texts serve as further evidence: (1) as seen in 1 Corinthians 14:1–6, Paul prized prophecy above tongues because the former was intelligible while the latter was not; (2) according to 1 Corinthians 14:20–25, unbelievers who enter the assembly may comprehend prophecies, but they may see tongues as evidence of insanity; 62 (3) in 1 Corinthians 14:31, prophecy results in learning and in encouragement; (4) prophecy can be “weighed” by “others” (1 Cor 14:29), which probably implies a judgment based on content; and (5) the prophecies received previously by Timothy could be recalled and were about him (1 Tim 1:18–19).63 Prophecy according to Paul therefore undoubtedly referred to the communication of intelligible content.

Like the Synoptic writers, Paul also ascribes prophecy to the power of the Holy Spirit. Prophecy is among the χαρίσματα (“gifts”), which are distributed by “one and the same Spirit.” It is included among the πνευματικά (“spiritual gifts”; cf. 1 Cor 14:1), indicating a close connection with the Spirit. Furthermore, Paul’s instructions in 1 Thessalonians 5:19–20 seem to link quenching the Spirit with despising prophecy.64 Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12:7–11 that prophecy is one manifestation of the Spirit’s power for the common good. This link between prophecy and the Holy Spirit need not imply a “possession trance,”65 or a state of ecstasy;66 prophets still had full control of their faculties, which is why Paul expects them to maintain order when the church gathers together (1 Cor 14:29–33).

In several texts, Paul also ties prophecy to divine revelation (ἀποκάλυψις). For example, 1 Corinthians 14:29–30 says, “Now let two or three prophets speak and let the others distinguish. If [something] is revealed to another while he is sitting, let the first be silent.”67 This text also suggests that the revelation is spontaneous: it is not the direct result of preparation or study.68 The connection between prophecy and revelation is also indicated in 1 Corinthians 14:6, where an abab pattern links revelation with prophecy and knowledge with teaching.69 And despite being hyperbolic, 1 Corinthians 13:2 also suggests that prophecy involves receiving revelation. However, given the dominant characterization of prophecy as communication, it seems safe to conclude that revelation by itself is not prophetic: prophecy always involves the communication of said revelation.

On the basis of this overview, I suggest that the activity of prophesying according to Paul (1) involved the communication of intelligible content, (2) was empowered by the Holy Spirit, and (3) was done in conjunction with the spontaneous reception of divine revelation. Paul, therefore, presents prophetic activity similarly to the Synoptic writers.

2.3. Prophetic Activity in Johannine Literature

The beloved apostle is a unique source of information on the nature of NT prophecy.70 In fact, John has bequeathed to the church its only sure and lengthy example of prophecy from the NT period: the book of Revelation.71 Given its significance for the topic at hand, I will begin my study of John’s writings with his Apocalypse.

Let us begin with the obvious: according to John, prophecy originates in divine revelation. The opening of the book makes this crystal clear: “The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him in order to show his servants the things which necessarily will come to pass soon.” This verse establishes that the entire work, which John calls a prophecy (see Rev 1:3, 22:7, 22:10, 22:18–19), is based on divine revelation.72 Like Paul, John indicates that God is the ultimate source of the revelation (Rev 1:1). Uniquely however, John tells the recipients of the letter that Christ mediated the revelation to the church. Thus, both God (presumably the Father) and the risen Lord act in revealing these mysteries to John.73 In addition, John also hints at the involvement of the Spirit in the revelation; for he says in 1:10, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day and I heard a loud voice behind me like a trumpet.”74 Revelation 1:10–20 also implies that the revelation came spontaneously: John did not come to the disclosure little by little, but it came to him suddenly and unexpectedly. John therefore agrees with other NT writers that prophecy includes a spontaneous element (i.e. the ἀποκάλυψις), but he uniquely emphasizes the Trinitarian character of the prophetic act.

To state a second self-evident observation: the book of Revelation as a whole demonstrates that prophecy is an act of communication. According to Revelation 1:3, prophecy consists of words which can be read, heard, or written down.75 John’s statements in 22:7 and 22:10 have a similar import. Revelation 10:11 implies that prophecy has communicable content because John is to prophesy “concerning many peoples and nations and tongues and kings.”76 Prophecy in John however is not just any communication; it is sacred communication. In 22:18–19, John sternly warns the recipients of the book not to treat the words of this prophecy with contempt or with apathy.77 John demands that this book be revered because he is not Revelation’s ultimate author; John’s prophecy is simultaneously his message (Rev 1:4), “the word of God” (Rev 1:2), “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:2; cf. 19:10), and “what the Holy Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:11, et al.). This tells us two things: (1) prophecy is Trinitarian at heart, and (2) prophecy embraces the actual words used by a prophet.78

Up until this point, John’s testimony has closely resembled what we’ve seen in other NT writings. The beloved apostle does however make two idiosyncratic statements regarding NT prophecy. First, he seems to call the universal church’s testimony to Christ prophecy. He does this in Revelation 11:3–13, where the church is depicted as two witnesses prophesying for the duration between Christ’s resurrection and his return.79 In all likelihood, this text should not be understood to refer to the spiritual gift of prophecy.80 After all, John speaks of the prophets as though they were a distinct group within the church (Rev 11:18, 16:6, 18:20, 18:24, 22:9),81 while Paul explicitly asserts that the gift of prophecy is not given to all Christians (Rom 12:3–8; 1 Cor 12:27–31). Thus, in Revelation 11:3, John is probably using the language of prophecy in a figurative or expanded sense in order to describe the church’s role as Christ’s spirit-empowered witness in the world.82 The second example of John’s unique testimony is found in John 11:51. Here he records the curious case of Caiaphas, who unwittingly “prophesied” regarding Christ’s substitutionary death. I have not found any other cases of inadvertent prophecy in the canon. This seems to be another example of analogical language; John uses the word “prophecy” to claim that, through divine providence, Caiaphas spoke better than he knew.83

In sum, John confirms much of what we have already seen while adding his own nuance to our study of prophetic activity. First, he affirms that prophecy originates in spontaneous revelation. Second, he agrees that it is an act of communication. Third, he posits the Trinity to be ultimately behind the prophetic act. Lastly, he credits God with responsibility for the very words of the prophecy.84

2.4. Prophetic Activity in the Rest of the NT

Of the remaining NT materials, only 1 Peter 1:10, 2 Peter 1:20–21, and Jude 14–15 directly describe or report prophetic activity. Though none of these verses focus specifically on NT prophecy, they may still provide information relevant to the topic at hand. For this reason, I will deal with each text briefly.

First Peter 1:10–11 provides a fascinating glimpse into OT prophecy. Peter notes that the Holy Spirit was directly involved in revealing a message to the prophet, even as the prophecy’s most intriguing details remained obscure. He also claims that prophecy had cognitive content, as it concerned “the grace which was for you” (περὶ εἰς ὑμας χάριτος) and “the sufferings of Christ and glories which come after these things” (τὰ εἰς Χριστὸν παθήματα καὶ τὰς μετὰ ταυτα δόξας). A complementary picture emerges from 2 Peter 1:20–21. Peter explicitly denounces the notion that prophecies are the result of human will or interpretation. Instead, the Holy Spirit controls the prophetic activity so that those prophesying “spoke from God.” Jude meanwhile provides less information regarding prophecy. Nevertheless, we can deduce from Jude 14 that it involved supernatural communication, as he believes words spoken hundreds of years before were being fulfilled in his present day.85 Thus, Peter and Jude describe prophecy in a similar manner as the other NT writers.

2.5. Summary of Findings

Thus far, my study has shown that the NT writers understood prophetic activity similarly. In fact, enough unity exists to posit a working definition for NT prophecy. NT 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, so that (4) the prophetic words spoken (or written) could be attributed to any and all members of the Godhead. However, in order to round out this definition, there is one more key issue that must be examined.

3. The Authority of NT Prophecy

Scholars do not only debate the nature of prophetic activity; they also disagree with respect to the extent of prophetic authority. On the one hand, some propose that NT prophecy was a mixed phenomenon that carried different degrees of authority.86 On the other hand, several scholars contend that NT prophecy was always entirely authoritative.87 If my analysis of prophetic activity is accurate, the NT data would seem to support the latter position. But before a conclusion can be reached, it will be necessary to examine the arguments made on both sides.88

3.1. NT Prophecy with Limited Authority

Proponents of the limited authority view regularly put forward the following arguments to make their case. First, they claim that prophecy throughout biblical times has always functioned with different levels of authority.89 Some who make this argument claim that the OT texts themselves reflect different levels of authority;90 others disagree, asserting that the canonical OT writers always prophesied with divine authority.91 Nevertheless, these scholars all argue that OT prophecy was not always authoritative and that NT prophecy should be understood similarly. Unfortunately, little evidence has been mounted to demonstrate the existence of non-authoritative OT prophets. The OT passages put forward as proof of non-authoritative prophecy are inconclusive at best (e.g. Num 11:24–30, 12:6; 1 Sam 10:5–13, 18:10–11, 19:20–23; 1 Chr 25:1–7). Since none of these verses actually mention downgraded authority, appeals to such texts are not compelling.92 Additionally, no biblical author acknowledges the existence of genuine OT prophecies that lacked authority.93 Thus, I suggest that more evidence would be required for this argument gain traction.

As a second argument, some have suggested that the NT counterparts for the authoritative OT prophets were the apostles rather than the prophets.94 On the one hand, Grudem appeals to Luke 11:49 and 2 Peter 3:2 in order to argue this point.95 On the other hand, Carson describes the NT prophets as being afforded less respect than NT apostles; this is taken to mean that the former enjoyed less authority than the latter.96 The problem with this line of argumentation is similar to the last: greater evidence is needed to warrant such a conclusion. The burden of proof weighs heavily as the very choice of the term προφήτης strongly suggests that NT prophets were the counterparts of the OT prophets. Luke 11:49 may not even be referring to OT prophets (the use of the future tense suggests a reference to NT prophets; see also Matt 23:34–36) and 2 Peter 3:2 does not actually speak to the relationship between OT prophets, NT prophets, and the apostles. In addition, even if the apostles were presented as counterparts to the OT prophets, that would not require the conclusion that NT prophets did not prophecy with divine authority. The positive statement that apostolic ministry corresponded with OT prophetic ministry need not imply the negative statement that NT prophetic ministry did not.97 As for Carson’s suggestion that NT prophets were not afforded respect, Paul himself had to defend his authority on numerous occasions (1 Cor 4:1–5; 9; 2 Cor 10–12; Gal 1–2). Thus, even if Carson is correct in his reconstruction of the setting behind 1 Thessalonians 5:20, it would not prove his point.98

Third, several proponents of the limited authority view find support in texts that teach the church to test prophecies.99 According to their reading, these verses (especially 1 Corinthians 14:29) instruct the congregation to discern which parts of each prophecy were true and which parts were false. However, 1 Corinthians 14:29 probably refers to making distinctions between prophecies rather than within prophecies.100 This type of instruction would be expected given the dangers of false prophets.101 And in light of the repeated warnings regarding this threat, it is telling that the apostles never provide explicit indications that true prophets may be dangerous as well.102 Moreover, when the Bereans sifted the apostles’ message in Acts 17:11, their authority was not thereby called into question.103 In fact, Paul himself admits that his proclamations needed to be consistent with the gospel if they were to be received (Gal 1:8–9).104 On analogy then, the testing of prophecies does not necessarily imply the existence of non-authoritative prophets.

Fourth, Grudem argues that the silencing of prophets in 1 Corinthians 14:30 would be deeply troubling if they spoke God’s actual words. He believes it more likely that Paul’s willingness to lose these prophecies evinces their limited authority. As Grudem says, “If prophets had been thought to speak the very words of God, we should have expected Paul to show more concern for the preservation of these words and their proclamation.”105 But if this argument holds, it would prove too much because the vast majority of Jesus’s words have not been kept either. Furthermore, it seems undeniable that the apostles made decisions as to which of Christ’s discourses to relay and which ones to omit. Thus, one cannot argue that Paul’s instruction necessarily implies a low view of NT prophecy. Instead, the instruction in 14:30 reflects Paul’s desire that no prophet dominate the congregation and that the church remain sensitive to the stirring of the Spirit.106

Fifth, several scholars believe that the prophecy of Agabus in Acts 21:11 confirms the limited view. They claim that the prophet was wrong to predict that Paul would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles; according to their reading, the apostle was in fact bound by Romans who rescued him from the Jews. It is argued that such inaccuracy must exemplify fallible NT prophecy.107 Several problems plague this line of argumentation. First of all, the prophet explicitly claims that he spoke the words of the Holy Spirit (τάδε λέγει τὸ πνεῦμα). If Agabus prophesied falsely, it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Holy Spirit was also culpable.108 Second, Luke seems to portray Agabus in light of the OT prophets by reporting the sign act that he performed. If this is true, it is highly unlikely that Luke thought of his prophecies as being inaccurate. Third, as Robertson points out, there is no guarantee that Paul was not in fact bound by the Jews and handed over to the Romans.109 Paul’s words in Acts 28:17 may echo Agabus’s prediction, indicating that the apostle was satisfied with the prophet’s accuracy.110 Finally, as many have noted, this interpretation is in danger of resulting in a kind of pedantry that would also call into question canonical prophecies. As Gentry warns, “if [Grudem’s] argument were valid, then much of predictive prophecy from the Old Testament could be discounted (and has been discounted by liberal theologies) on this basis.”111

The final argument put forward for the limited authority of NT prophecy involves Acts 21:4. Some see Paul’s response in this verse as a deliberate repudiation of a prophetic word.112 At this point, Luke reports that some disciples told Paul “through the Spirit” (διὰ τοῦ πνεύματος) not to proceed to Jerusalem. Paul however decides not to heed their warning, which suggests to some that NT prophecy is not always authoritative.113 This is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of this view. However, it is not altogether clear that this verse refers to prophecy at all. The speakers are identified as disciples, not prophets. The phrase “through the Spirit” is used only four times in Acts, making it difficult to claim a technical function for the construction.114 Furthermore, Acts 21:11–14 seems to report a similar situation, thereby illuminating the circumstances of 21:4.115 In Acts 21:11, Agabus predicts the suffering that will befall Paul in Jerusalem. In response to the Holy Spirit’s words, the disciples plead with Paul to remain. And when they see his resolve to proceed, they submit to God’s purpose saying “Let the will of the Lord be done.” It is likely that a similar scenario was playing out in Acts 21:4. Perhaps a prophet among the disciples prophesied that suffering awaited Paul. Because of their love for him, the disciples responded to this divine disclosure by imploring him to avoid the road to Jerusalem. If this reading is faithful to Luke’s intention, then these verses do not in fact report Paul disobeying a prophetic word. At the very least, Acts 21:4 cannot be said to provide a clear example of prophecy with limited authority.

Despite the popularity of the position, the evidence in favor of NT prophecy with limited authority is slim. At the end of the day, the case rests too heavily on arguments from silence, on an over-reading of texts, and on a selective use of data. But can a better defense be mounted for the full authority of NT prophecy? I believe this question can be answered in the affirmative.

3.2. NT Prophecy with Full Authority

There are at least four reasons to believe that NT prophecy should be viewed as fully authoritative. First, the book of Revelation stands as an argument for authoritative NT prophecy. Revelation should not be treated as a “special case.”116 It is significant that John, though an apostle, did not appeal to his apostolic office to assert the authority of his words; instead, he emphasized their prophetic character.117 The best explanation for this is that the NT church understood genuine prophecy to be entirely authoritative. Furthermore, as Aune and others have noted, the distance between John and the rest of the NT on the matter of prophecy has been greatly exaggerated.118 The book of Revelation functions to exhort, encourage, and comfort saints under persecution, which is precisely what we would expect given Paul’s description of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:3.119 The fact that some churches were slow to accept Revelation into the canon may suggest that it too was tested, which would be consistent with Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14:29 and 1 Thessalonians 5:20–21.120 Also, since other NT prophets spoke the words of the Spirit (Acts 13:1–2, 21:10–11), we cannot assume that this was unique to John. I thus conclude that Revelation is representative of NT prophecy, which should therefore be understood as authoritative.

Second, some scholars argue that Peter’s announcement of the fulfillment of Joel 2:28–29 strongly suggests the divine authority of NT prophecy.121 They rightly point out the unlikelihood that Joel had in mind the kind of prophecy described by Grudem and others. Ironically in fact, Grudem himself makes this point when he says, “The distinguishing characteristic of a true [OT] prophet was said to be this: he did not speak his own words or ‘words of his own heart,’ but words which God had sent him to deliver.”122 If this is true (and I believe it is), could it really be the case that Joel was predicting that God’s people would be provided with prophets who would at times misinterpret divine revelation? It is more likely that the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy involved authoritative NT prophets.

Third, in addition to the book of Revelation, the other examples of NT prophecy recorded in the Scriptures also attest to divine authority. Agabus’s prediction of the famine in Acts 11:28 is said to have come to pass in the days of Claudius. The words of the Holy Spirit for Barnabas and Saul are relayed by prophets in Acts 13:1–2. Agabus is recorded as speaking the words of the Holy Spirit in Acts 21:11. Since the NT does not present these as special cases, it seems best to view them as representative of NT prophecy.123

Lastly, the foundational role assigned to the NT prophets in Ephesians 2:20 suggests prophecy with divine authority.124 Ephesians 2:19–20 says, “Therefore then, you are no longer strangers and aliens but you are fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God, because you have been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” It seems unlikely that the prophets would be afforded such a crucial ministry in the life of the church if their prophecies could be mixed with error.125

3.3. Refining the Definition

It seems then that we can add one more nuance to our definition of NT prophecy. NT 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 members of the Godhead and which therefore (5) must be received by those who hear or read them as absolutely binding and true.

4. Conclusion

In this study, I have attempted to define NT prophecy by answering two fundamental questions: (1) what kind of an activity was it? and (2) what kind of authority did it involve? After interacting with recent scholarship and exploring the data afresh, I believe I have arrived at a definition that better captures what prophetic activity consisted of during NT times. If my proposal is correct, then NT prophecy should be understood to refer to the authoritative disclosure of God’s words. This in turn has ramifications for other discussions related to the matter of prophecy.126

[1] I’d like to express my deepest thanks to both Tom Schreiner and Jarrett Ford for their feedback on an earlier draft of this article. I am also grateful to Brian Tabb for his helpful suggestions and for his generosity in providing me with an early manuscript of his book All Things New: Revelation as Canonical Capstone.

[2] Though charismatic interpretation does not exhaust prophecy in his view, Ellis’s inclusion of inspired exegesis within the umbrella of prophetic activity separates his perspective from that of other scholars. For a more complete account of his understanding of prophecy, see E. Earle Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutics in Early Christianity: New Testament Essays, WUNT 18 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1978), 130–44.

[3] See Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 134–38.

[4] Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 148–50, 172, 184.

[5] The verb occurs 28 times in the NT and in only one of these occurrences is it possible that the verb refers to the interpretation of Scripture: Luke 1:67–79. However, it is more likely that Zechariah was demonstrating that his prophetic word regarding John was the fulfillment of God’s promises of old; it does not seem to be the case that the prophecy itself consisted of the interpretation of the OT.

[6] As Forbes states, “The weakness in Ellis’ position is that he can find no cases in Acts (his chosen field) in which anyone both functions as an expositor of Scripture and is described as a prophet. Nor, for that matter, is the role of biblical exposition ever directly linked with a person being described as a prophet in Acts.” For his full critique, see Christopher Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech in Early Christanity and Its Hellenistic Environment, WUNT 2/75 (Tübingen: Mohr, 1995), 232–36.

[7] So also Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 233.

[8] David E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 343–45; David Hill, New Testament Prophecy (Atlanta: John Knox, 1979), 106–7; D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 92; Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 135–36.

[9] See Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 128. Both Martin and Garland basically adopt Hill’s views; see Ralph P. Martin, The Spirit and the Congregation: Studies in 1 Corinthians 12–15 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 14; David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 632. For a more recent defense of this position, see Chris Knights, “Prophecy and Preaching: Does What Paul Calls ‘Prophecy’ in 1 Corinthians 14 Include What We Would Today Call ‘Preaching’?,” ExpTim 130 (2018): 72–79.

[10] For the full discussion regarding his adopted method, see Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 2–9.

[11] Hill is aware of one weakness of his own approach: namely, that it allows one to confuse a prophet’s activities with prophetic activity. After all, not everything a prophet does should be called prophecy. Thus, Hill rightly notes that researchers themselves must decide how they are to identify what is fundamental to prophetic activity. For his part, Hill believes that he can overcome this difficulty by comparing prophets to see which activities distinguish them from other functionaries. See Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 4–5.

[12] Hill also says that in Revelation at least, prophecy involves (1) the interpretation of history in light of redemptive history and (2) pronouncements of divine judgment. See New Testament Prophecy, 85–87.

[13] According to Hill, Acts depicts Stephen, Philip, Paul, Barnabas, and Agabus as prophets. Both Stephen and Philip are included because each is said to be full of the Holy Spirit. In addition, like the prophets of old, Philip experienced the “sudden and dramatic interventions of the Spirit’s action.” For the full discussion, see Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 99–109.

[14] Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 122–23.

[15] This connection leads Hill (New Testament Prophecy, 128) to claim that 1 Thessalonians 2:12 bears witness to Paul’s prophetic ministry in Thessalonica. At this point, Hill seems to build upon Ellis’s prior work on παρακλήσις and prophecy. See Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutics, 130–32; Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 101–3, 122–29.

[16] Hill also suggests that Barnabas, the son of encouragement (ὁ υἱὸς παρακλήσεως, Acts 4:36) could have been the author of the book. Thus, if Hill is correct about Barnabas’s prophetic ministry in Acts, it becomes more likely that Hebrews is an act of prophecy. See Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 141–46. The problem with his suggestion of course is that it is unlikely that the debate regarding the authorship of Hebrews will ever be resolved.

[17] Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 129 (Emphasis original).

[18] Douglas J. Moo, “New Testament Prophecy,” JETS 23 (1980): 164.

[19] So for instance, Hill (New Testament Prophecy, 99–100) uses the link between prophecy and the Holy Spirit to demonstrate that Stephen and Philip are prophets since they are both filled with the Spirit. But this does not follow, for the Spirit in Luke-Acts empowers different kinds of activities (see Max Turner, “The Spirit of Prophecy and the Power of Authoritative Preaching in Luke-Acts: A Question of Origins,” NTS 38 [1992]: 72–76). A similar critique can be made regarding Hill’s use of παρακαλέω and παρακλήσις to define prophecy. As Godet (Commentary on First Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1977], 695–96) says of arguments of this sort, “This reasoning is as just as it would be to say: he who runs, moves his legs; therefore whoever moves his legs, runs.”

[20] Unfortunately, Hill seems to commit the fallacy of selective and prejudicial use of evidence. See D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 54–55.

[21] Furthermore, neither the Sanhedrin nor the chief priests (Matt 26:68; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:64) were asking for an exhortation when they mockingly commanded Christ to prophesy.

[22] See Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 121. For a similar critique, see also M. Eugene Boring, “New Testament Prophecy,” JBL 100 (1981): 301.

[23] Though sharing some similarities with the previous proposals, Gillespie still charts an original course. Unlike Ellis, Gillespie posits the kerygma itself as the object of the prophet’s interpretation, not the Scriptures. And Gillespie distances himself from Hill when he says, “prophetic proclamation, at least according to Paul, was related to the gospel materially in a way that escapes attention when it is defined as pastoral preaching, and is thus tilted in the direction of moral exhortation that merely presupposes the basic kerygma of the early church.” See Thomas W. Gillespie, The First Theologians: A Study in Early Christian Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 28.

[24] As he states, “According to the apostle Paul, the early Christian prophets were interpreting theologically the inherent implications of the kerygma when they were prophesying.” See Gillespie, The First Theologians, 32.

[25] Gillespie believes that both Romans 12:6 and 1 Thessalonians 5:21 set content-restrictions on prophecy. Romans 12:6 is especially important to Gillespie’s argument. He interprets the phrase κατὰ τὴν άναλογίαν της πίστεως as a reference to the standard regarding what must be believed (“according to the analogy of faith”). The content of this “faith” is then drawn from Galatians 1:23, Romans 10:8, and Philippians 1:27, leading Gillespie to conclude that “when Paul uses hē pistis to denote the content of Christian belief, he has in mind the substance and structure of the gospel.” See Gillespie, The First Theologians, 56–61.

[26] Gillespie presents a novel historical reconstruction to explain 1 Corinthians 12:1–3. In sum, he believes that the Corinthians did not distinguish between tongues and prophecy. Even more, they assumed that unintelligible, inspired speech served to validate prophetic declarations. This resulted in much confusion when a prophet cursed Jesus and confirmed his prophetic word with glossolalia. As a result, Paul had to write a letter to convince them that tongues and prophecy were separate, that the former did not validate the latter, and that the gospel was the criterion by which they could determine who was speaking from the Spirit. See Gillespie, The First Theologians, 78–96.

[27] Gillespie, The First Theologians, 134–36.

[28] Gillespie (The First Theologians, 142–50) reasons that prophecy must involve the proclamation of the gospel since edification is tied closely to the gospel (Rom 15:20; cf 1:15) and prophecy must produce edification.

[29] The OT for instance refers to predictions and to announcements of judgment as prophecies (examples include 1 Kgs 22:12; Jer 14:14–15, 19:1–20:1, 25:30–38, 26:9–11; Ezek 20:45–48, 21:2–17; Amos 7:10–17). Deuteronomy 18:22 asserts that, at least part of the time, prophecy will involve foretelling; the activity of several OT prophets confirms this reading (see 1 Kgs 13:1–25, 21:17–24, 22:17–18). In the NT, Luke described Agabus as a prophet though his prophecies in Acts 11:28 and 21:10–11 did not seem to include gospel explication. In Matthew 13:14–15, Jesus cites Isaiah 6:9–10 as a prophecy, though it would be difficult to read the latter text as an explication of the gospel.

[30] Thomas Schreiner says that Romans 1:2 “should not be limited to only a portion of the OT Scriptures. The intention here is to designate all of the OT as prophetic in nature” (Romans, 2nd ed., BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018], 42n29). That Paul believed that the prophetic writings as a whole (i.e. the OT) testified to the gospel does not imply that he also thought every occurrence of prophecy involved an explication of the gospel. See also Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 43–44.

[31] Another clarifying example can be found in Deuteronomy 18:21–22, where Moses makes future fulfillment a criterion of true prophecy. It would be wrong to conclude from this that prophecy is prediction. The Didache also includes various criteria for true prophets (Did. 11:8–12).

[32] Terrance Callan, “Prophecy and Ecstasy in Greco-Roman Religion and in 1 Corinthians,” NovT 27 (1985): 138.

[33] Wayne A. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1982), 149–50. It is important to note that Grudem’s description of prophetic activity is closely related to his perspective on the authority of NT prophecy. He argues that it is theoretically possible for prophecy to carry an “authority of general content,” which refers to an authority limited by the fact that “only the general content of [the prophet’s] prophecy was of divine origin.” This would mean that the prophet may misunderstand what was revealed to him and that his prophecies could be errant. See The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 9–10.

[34] Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 81; see also Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 135; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 97–98.

[35] Mark J. Cartledge, “Charismatic Prophecy: A Definition and Description,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 2.5 (1994): 82–88.

[36] All translations of texts are my own.

[37] Grudem (The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 175) argues that 2 Peter 1:20–21 has no bearing on the question of NT prophecy, because it speaks of OT prophets. Though Peter undoubtedly had OT prophets in mind, it is unwarranted to limit the import of his statement since he says “no prophecy was ever produced (ἠνέχθηποτέ) by the will of man.” Furthermore, to adopt Grudem’s explanation, one must already be convinced that either (1) a disjunction as to the nature of prophecy exists between the OT and NT, or (2) that essentially different kinds of activities were called prophecy in the OT and NT. I find neither proposal promising. So also F. David Farnell, “The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament,” Master’s Seminary Journal 25.2 (2014): 61–62; Kenneth L. Gentry, The Charsimatic Gift of Prophecy: A Reformed Response to Wayne Grudem, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999), 48–50; O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2011), 98–126.

[38] Clint Tibbs, Religious Experience of the Pneuma, WUNT 2/230 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007), 207.

[39] Tibbs, Religious Experience, 70.

[40] According to Tibbs, Paul did not use πνεῦμα not to refer to “the Holy Spirit,” but to speak of a “spirit world.” The spirit world was inhabited by both good and evil spirits, which could take possession of a medium’s vocal chords to deliver messages. Tongues were messages spoken by a spirit in a foreign language, while prophecy referred to spirit-messages delivered in the congregation’s mother tongue. See Tibbs, Religious Experience, 182–84, 219–27.

[41] So for instance, Tibbs translates 1 Corinthians 12:3, “For this reason, I want you to know that nobody through whom a spirit of God is speaking can say, ‘Jesus is accursed,’ and only a holy spirit speaking through someone can say ‘Jesus is Lord.’” For his defense of this translation, see Religious Experience, 170–74.

[42] Tibbs (Religious Experience, 272) goes so far as to say that “πνεῦμα in the texts of the NT reflects little, if any, of the fourth-century theology on the Deity and Personhood of the Holy Spirit.”

[43] Tibbs, Religious Experience, 14; unfortunately, no references to biblical texts are provided.

[44] Tibbs, Religious Experience, 53.

[45] Tibbs, Religious Experience, 115.

[46] Tibbs, Religious Experience, 23.

[47] As a result, Tibbs’s translation of 1 Corinthians 12:3 is at best unlikely. See Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 245–54; A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 3rd ed. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1914), 790–96; Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920), 288–89.

[48] His treatment relies on speculation and bare assertions. To provide just one example: even after acknowledging that in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, πνεῦμα is “active and personal,” he concludes that “this source [of spiritual gifts] may be construed as a spiritual ‘realm’ of spirit beings.” I fail to see how a ‘realm of spirit beings’ can actively and personally distribute endowments to Christians. See Tibbs, Religious Experience, 181–84.

[49] Tibbs (Religious Experience, 188–95) claims that the expressions refer to the unity of the spirit world.

[50] Wilf Hildebrandt counts 107 references to the Spirit of God in the OT. See “Spirit of Yahweh,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets, ed. Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 747–48.

[51] For instance, Pseudo-Philo (LAB 28:10) claims that inspiration leads to the mind’s departure so that one does not remember what was said or seen during that state; no such notions are found in Paul. Philo celebrates Bacchic frenzy and commends the abandonment of reason (see Her. 69–71); Paul does no such thing. Josephus (Ant. 4.6.5) claims that a man inspired by “a spirit of God” is no longer conscious of what he says or does; Paul expects prophets to remain orderly and in control (1 Cor 14:29–33). For the many differences between NT prophecy and the Greco-Roman perspective, see especially Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 288–315.

[52] Amazingly, Tibbs claims both that (1) no NT support for the idea of the Holy Spirit exists, and that (2) the fourth-century church came to this “theological invention” through exegesis. See Tibbs, Religious Experience, 70–71.

[53] The inclusion of extraneous materials is no benign matter, but could unduly influence one’s understanding of prophecy. In fact, I would argue that studies on prophecy which take a purely functional approach have been particularly prone to making this mistake. For a similar perspective, see Ulrich Luz, “Stages of Early Christian Prophetism,” in Prophets and Prophecy in Jewish and Early Christian Literature, ed. Joseph Verheyden, Korinna Zamfir, and Tobias Nicklas, WUNT 2/286 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 60.

[54] In keeping with my adopted method, I include in my purview Matthew 7:22, 11:13, 13:14, 15:7, 26:68; Mark 7:6, 14:65; Luke 1:67, 22:64; Acts 2:17–18, 13:2, 15:32, 19:6, 21:9–11.

[55] Other texts in the gospels and Acts associate prophets with miracles (see Mark 6:14–15; Luke 7:12–16, 24:19). Furthermore, Luke 7:39 suggests that prophets were expected to have access to supernatural knowledge. For a defense of the miraculous nature of prophecy, see F. David Farnell, “When Will the Gift of Prophecy Cease?,” BSac 150 (1993): 171; Farnell, “The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament,” 45–55.

[56] For a similar reading, see Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1995), 802.

[57] Examples of this connection would include Luke 1:67, Acts 2:17–18, 11:27–28, 13:1–2, 19:6, 21:10–11.

[58] While there is not enough data to be certain, two observations suggest that Judas and Silas were prophesying. First, Luke explicitly designates them to be prophets before describing their actions. Second, Paul ties the work of encouragement closely to the act of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:3. The matter is not crucial however, as Acts 15:32 does not contribute anything original to the discussion.

[59] There are two reasons this statement should probably be understood as a prophecy: (1) Luke explicitly designates the five men involved in this episode as prophets in verse 1, and (2) Luke has already established a close relationship between prophecy and the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:17–18, 11:27–28, 13:1–2, 19:6, 21:10–11). See Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 46; Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 361; Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity, 265; Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 105; Craig Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012–2015), 2:1993–94; John B. Polhill, Acts, NAC (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 289–90; James D. G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles, Narrative Commentaries (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, 1996), 173.

[60] Almost all scholars acknowledge that Acts 21:11 depicts a prophetic word. There are at least four reasons that this assessment is correct: (1) Agabus is explicitly identified by Luke as a prophet, (2) Agabus models himself after the OT prophets by performing the symbolic act of tying his hands and feet, (3) Luke associates the Holy Spirit closely with the gift of prophecy, and (4) OT and NT literature include predictions within prophetic activity.

[61] Contra Turner, “Spirit of Prophecy,” 74. It is noteworthy that prophecy in the Synoptics and in Acts never occurs as a result of preparation or study. For similar conclusions, see Schreiner, Paul, 361.

[62] It seems likely that Paul’s use of μαίνεσθε in 1 Corinthians 14:23 refers to insanity. For those who take this position, see Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 173n52; Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1979), 104; Schreiner, Paul, 365; Laura Nasrallah, An Ecstasy of Folly: Prophecy and Authority in Early Christianity, HTS 52 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 73; Tibbs, Religious Experience, 255; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 651–52; Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 704–6; Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 133, 155.

[63] I understand 1 Timothy 1:18b to read, “according to the previously delivered prophecies concerning you” (ἐπὶ σέ). BDAG notes that when ἐπι takes an accusative, it can indicate “the one to whom, for whom, or about whom something is done” (emphasis mine). Smyth agrees as he lists “reference” as a category for ἐπί with the accusative; see Greek Grammar, 379. This is significant as it shows that the content of prophecy was not limited to the interpretation of Scripture or the exposition of the gospel.

[64] So also F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, WBC (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 125.

[65] For a discussions of “possession trance,” see Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity, 86; Robert R. Wilson, “Prophecy and Ecstasy: A Reexamination,” JBL 98 (1979): 325–28.

[66] See Grudem’s excellent discussion in The Gift of Prophecy, 103–8.

[67] Paul is not explicit regarding the object and the import of διακρίνω (“I distinguish”). Unsurprisingly, commentators disagree over how to understand the apostle’s statement. For my discussion of this issue, see page 18.

[68] See James D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 228; Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 117; Forbes, Prophecy and Inspired Speech, 228; Schreiner, Paul, 261. Strangely, Knights overlooks 1 Corinthians 14:30 in his study; as a result, he mistakenly downplays the importance of spontaneous revelation with respect to prophecy in “Prophecy and Preaching,” 76.

[69] So also Tibbs, Religious Experience, 224; Schreiner, Paul, 360–61; Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 47; John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle, Calvin’s Commentaries 20 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 438.

[70] I am assuming the traditional position on the authorship of Revelation. For a defense of this position, see Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction: Hebrews to Revelation (Chicago, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1962), 254–69. For alternative views, see Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, ABRL (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 802–5; David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 893–96.

[71] Texts like Revelation 1:3 indicate that the book as a whole is prophetic. It reads, “Blessed is the one who reads and who hears the words of the prophecy and who keeps the things written in it, for the time is near.” See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, NTT (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1–5.

[72] As Boring states, “The prophet is one who speaks because he or she has been given his or her message directly from God. The prophet speaks on the basis of revelation.” See M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1989), 24–25.

[73] See Craig R. Koester, Revelation, AB (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 211. The fact that other mediators are involved does not detract from the divine disclosure. Even though Christ sends his angel to bring the message to John (Rev 1:1), the prophecy is still “the word of God” and “the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:2). Revelation 10:8–11 may reflect similar ideas, although the identities of the different persons involved are debated.

[74] See also Revelation 4:2, 17:3, and 21:10. Brian J. Tabb helpfully argues that the phrase “in the Spirit” (ἐν πνεύματι) functions to reinforce John’s status as a true prophet. See All Things New: Revelation as Canonical Capstone, NSBT 48 (London: Apollos, 2019), 70–72.

[75] I tend to agree with Wallace and Aune that the construction τοὺς λόγους της προφητείας (“the words of the prophecy”) employs a genitive of apposition. Thus, the written words of the book of Revelation are an example of NT prophecy. For substantiation, see David E. Aune, Revelation 1–5, WBC (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 7; Wallace, Greek Grammar, 95–100.

[76] I agree with BDAG that ἐπί in this instance is referential. Though it is possible that John was to prophesy “against many peoples and nations and tongues and kings,” the allusion to Revelation 5:9 and God’s overall attitude towards these groups keep me from adopting this interpretation. See also Koester, Revelation, 493–94.

[77] I agree with commentators who view the warning as directed both towards readers and towards scribes. See Koester, Revelation, 845; G. K. Beale and David H. Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 524–27; David E. Aune, Revelation 17–22, WBC (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 1231.

[78] As Revelation 1:1–3 and 22:18–20a indicate, the very words of the book were divinely authored. See also Aune, Revelation 17–22, 1230; G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St John the Divine, 2nd ed., Black’s New Testament Commentary Series (London: A & C Black, 1984), 288; Boring, Revelation, 225; Beale and Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, 527. Bauckham also perceptively notes that John models his own accounts of his prophetic experience after the OT prophets; by doing so, John seems to portray the entirety of his work as being inspired by God’s Spirit (The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 4–5, 116–17).

[79] See Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 113–15; Tabb, All Things New, 72; Koester, Revelation, 496–97; Beale and Campbell, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary, 220–22; Caird, Revelation, 134.

[80] Contra Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 89–90.

[81] See Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 119–20.

[82] Such figurative language would be in keeping with the highly symbolic nature of the section (see Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 84–88).

[83] I agree with John Calvin, who says of this verse, “[Caiaphas] spoke what was his own opinion. But the Evangelist means that a higher impulse guided his tongue, because God intended that he should make known, by his mouth, something higher than what occurred to his mind. … God turned his tongue to a different purpose, so that, under ambiguous words, he likewise uttered a prediction.” See John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, trans. William Pringle, Calvin’s Commentaries 17 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 453. Keener claims that he has found other cases of unwitting prophecy in other first century sources. For his discussion, see Craig S. Keener, Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 2:856–57.

[84] Revelation also suggests that the spontaneous element within prophetic activity refers to the divine revelation and not necessarily to the delivery of the prophecy. Since the book of Revelation is a literary work, it seems reasonable to conclude that reflection and forethought were required to write it. At the same time, Revelation is rightly called prophecy because it is rooted in spontaneous divine revelation and because the very words written by John could be attributed to God. See Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 2–5.

[85] Space does not permit the discussion of the problems created by Jude’s citation of 1 Enoch. Bauckham is insightful when he says, “While this word indicates that Jude regarded the prophecies in 1 Enoch as inspired by God, it need not imply that he regarded the book as canonical Scripture.” See his discussion in Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, WBC (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 96. For early evidence that Christian scribes did not believe 1 Enoch to be canonical, see Charles E. Hill, “‘The Truth Above All Demonstration’: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 68–69.

[86] See Carson, Showing the Spirit, 94–100; Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 55–113; Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 135; John Penney, “The Testing of New Testament Prophecy,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 5.10 (1997): 36; Gerhard Friedrich, “προφήτης,” TDNT 6:849; Martin, The Spirit and the Congregation, 80; Cartledge, “Charismatic Prophecy,” 19; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 662; Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 252.

[87] See Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 59; Robertson, Final Word, 14–18; Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 2; Schreiner, Paul, 362–63; Farnell, “The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament,” 45–46; R. Fowler White, “Gaffin and Grudem on Eph 2:20: In Defense of Gaffin’s Cessationist Exegesis,” WTJ 54 (1992): 313–15; Calvin, First Corinthians, 461; Robert L. Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts: A Verse-by-Verse Study of 1 Corinthians 12–14, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999), 133–42.

[88] It goes without saying that others deny the legitimacy of any claims of prophetic authority. For a representative of this perspective, see Nasrallah, Ecstasy of Folly, 1–26.

[89] See Penney, “Testing,” 38–46; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 98; Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 33–38.

[90] See Penney, “Testing,” 38–46.

[91] Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 21–26; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 98–99.

[92] Additionally, there is some question as to whether Numbers 11:25–26 and the sections from 1 Samuel are portraying prophetic activity at all. In these verses, the verb נבא is used in the hithpael stem. Wilson (“Prophecy and Ecstasy,” 330–37) has argued that in the hithpael, verbs with nominal counterparts (like נבא) often mean “to act like” something; in this instance, “to act like a prophet.” If he is correct, then most of these verses just mentioned would not even be relevant to the discussion of prophetic authority.

[93] Likewise, I do not know of any examples in the OT of Israelites refusing to heed prophecy without negative consequences. Additionally, Jesus and the apostles give no indication that they saw differing levels of authority in the prophets of old.

[94] See Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 27–49; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 94.

[95] See Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 28–29.

[96] Citing 1 Thessalonians 5:20, Carson infers that the prophets possessed such a low profile that Paul actually had to instruct the church not to treat their prophecies with contempt. He sees a similar reality behind 1 Corinthians 14 (Showing the Spirit, 96–97).

[97] In fact, NT prophets are reported doing the same things that OT prophets did. They predict the future (Acts 11:27–30), speak the words of God (Acts 21:10–11, Rev 22:18–20), and they write canonical books (i.e., Revelation).

[98] For a different historical reconstruction, see Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 65–66.

[99] Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 58–67; Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 135; Martin, The Spirit and the Congregation, 80; Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1140; Penney, “Testing,” 60–61; Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 252; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 632.

[100] See Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 70; Robertson, Final Word, 101; Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 68–69; Campbell, “Charismata,” 9; Luz, “Stages,” 67; Gene L. Green, “‘As for Prophecies, They Will Come to an End’: 2 Peter, Paul and Plutarch on ‘The Obsolescence of Oracles,’” JSNT 82 (2001): 121; Hays, First Corinthians, 242; Calvin, First Corinthians, 461; Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 235.

[101] See Matt 7:15; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; Acts 20:28–30; 2 Pet 2:1; 1 John 4:1; Rev 16:13.

[102] I would also point out that warnings against false prophets continue in the post-apostolic church; I am unaware however of any instructions given that the proclamations of true prophets are to be sifted as well. In fact, the Didache explicitly forbids judging a prophet while he was prophesying (Did. 11:11). For a discussion of the evaluation of prophets in the early church, see Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity, 225–29.

[103] Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 71.

[104] As others have noted, OT prophecy was also subject to testing. See Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 68–69; Schreiner, Paul, 363.

[105] Grudem The Gift of Prophecy, 62–63.

[106] As Dunn helpfully states, “The authority of the prophet was authority to prophesy under inspiration; his authority was the authority of his inspiration and did not extend beyond his inspiration.… Hence, too, one prophet must give way to the inspiration of another – the individual prophet as prophet was subject to the charisma of prophecy.” See Jesus and the Spirit, 281.

[107] Carson (Showing the Spirit, 97–98) goes so far as to state, “I can think of no reported Old Testament prophet whose prophecies are so wrong on the details.” See also Penney, “Testing,” 67; Hill, New Testament Prophecy, 107–8; Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 77–83.

[108] Grudem’s treatment of this passage is unpersuasive. In his dissertation, he argued that Agabus falsely portrayed himself as carrying the authority of OT prophets (The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 81–82). Nothing in the book of Acts however hints at a criticism of Agabus’s character. In a later work, Grudem speculates that the phrase τάδε λέγει τὀ πνευμα τὸ ἅγιον may mean “this is generally (or approximately) what the Holy Spirit is saying to us” (The Gift of Prophecy, 81–83). This is unlikely since, as Wallace (Greek Grammar, 328) notes, “The pronoun [i.e. ὅδε] is used to add solemnity to the prophetic utterance that follows.” In fact, in the LXX, the expression commonly introduces the very words of God. Grudem’s argument that the phrase τάδε λέγει also is used to quote human speech is irrelevant; what he must demonstrate is that the phrase occurs without its solemn tone and without the expectation of complete accuracy in the reported speech. Grudem provides no evidence of the sort. Furthermore, every other occurrence of τάδε λέγει in the NT involves the disclosure of divine words (Rev 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, and 14). Thus, to import a sense of vagueness into Agabus’s speech can only be described as special pleading. For more convincing readings of Acts 21:10–11, see Darrell L. Bock, Acts, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 638; Schreiner, Paul, 361–63; Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 65; Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 41–43; Thomas, Understanding Spiritual Gifts, 137–38; Mikeal C. Parsons, Acts, Paideia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 297; Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts, ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 857.

[109] Robertson, Final Word, 113.

[110] Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 65–66.

[111] Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 42; see also Schreiner, Paul, 361–63; Robertson, Final Word, 114; Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 65–66.

[112] See for instance Carson, Showing the Spirit, 97; Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 75–77.

[113] See Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 75–77.

[114] As Longenecker points out, διά could be functioning to indicate that the disciples were responding to the Holy Spirit’s unction regarding the suffering that awaited Paul. See Richard N. Longenecker, The Ministry and Message of Paul, Contemporary Evangelical Perspectives (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 78.

[115] So also Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 447; Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 39–41; Robertson, Final Word, 111; Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 66.

[116] Grudem for instance says, “Because its author was an apostle, and because it is unique, it does not provide information directly relevant to the gift of prophecy as it functioned among ordinary Christians in first-century churches.” This casual dismissal of Revelation is unwarranted and unfortunate. Aune has in fact persuasively shown that the Apocalypse is a representative example of NT prophecy. See David E. Aune, “The Social Matrix of the Apocalypse of John,” in Apocalypticism, Prophecy and Magic in Early Christianity, WUNT 199 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 180–82.

[117] I assume the traditional position that the apostle John penned Revelation. However, it is worth pointing out that the authorship of Revelation is disputed, even among evangelicals. Those who deny the apostolic character of Revelation have even less reason to distance the work from NT prophecy in general.

[118] See Aune, “Social Matrix,” 182; Luz, “Stages,” 65.

[119] See Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 617–29; G. K. Beale and Sean M. McDonough, “Revelation,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 32–34.

[120] See Aune, “Social Matrix,” 181–82.

[121] Robertson, Final Word, 11–12; Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 8; F. David Farnell, “Fallible New Testament Prophecy/Prophets: A Critique of Wayne Grudem’s Hypothesis,” Master’s Seminary Journal 2.2 (1991): 170–71; see also Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 170–74.

[122] Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 15.

[123] It is gratuitous to suggest (as Grudem does in The Gift of Prophecy, 47–49) that there were at least two kinds of prophets in the NT: authoritative prophets and non-authoritative prophets. Since every example of prophetic ministry recorded in the NT fits nicely with the former group, the latter group seems to be superfluous.

[124] Schreiner, Paul, 362.

[125] Grudem (The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, 97–105) famously argues that the construction τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ προφητων (“the apostles and prophets”) should be rendered “the apostle who are also prophets.” Wallace however has shown that Grudem’s grammatical argument is flawed. See Wallace, Greek Grammar, 284–86.

[126] For instance, the conclusion raises questions for those who argue that the continuation of NT prophecy throughout the church age does not threaten the unique authority of the Scriptures. If my work is on target, continuationists will have to reassess how the existence of authoritative prophecy does not undermine the place of the Bible. For arguments against the continuation of the gift of prophecy, see Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2018), 155–69; Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 93–102; Gentry, Charismatic Gift, 26–35; Robertson, Final Word, 115–16; White, “Gaffin and Grudem on Eph 2:20”; Farnell, “When Will the Gift of Prophecy Cease?,” 171; Luz, “Stages,” 74.

Richard M. Blaylock

Richard Blaylock is a PhD candidate in Biblical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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