The Gift of Prophecy in the Church Today
Someone asked me about my thoughts regarding the gift of prophecy in the Church today. Several weeks ago, I wrote a post called, “Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?” In it, I wrote that there are Cessationists who believe these gifts were only for the Early Church, Continuationists who believe these gifts are for today, and everyone else who stand in-between.
I placed myself in this last group as one who does not see the Bible stating explicitly that the gifts were only for the Early Church, yet not won over by the evidence of those claiming to have these gifts. I explained that though we might not be convinced one way or the other at this time, we could go to the Biblical record to determine what the gifts looked like if they were to be used today. Then, I used the gift of Tongues to make this point.
Today, I want to do the same with Prophecy. What would the gift of prophecy in the Church today look like? What did it look like in the Bible?
Wayne Grudem, A Continuationist
According to Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology, “a fresh examination of the New Testament teaching on this gift will show that it should be defined not as ‘predicting the future,’ nor as ‘proclaiming a word from the Lord,’ nor as ‘powerful preaching’ – but rather as ‘telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind.’”
He goes on to explain that the counterpart to the Old Testament Prophets, who spoke and wrote the literal word of God, would be the New Testament Apostle, who spoke and wrote the literal word of God. Grudem explains what the term prophet meant at the time of the Bible, “one who speaks on the basis of some external influence,” and gives an example from Titus 1:12, “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said…” He also gives examples of this usage for the term from other extrabiblical writings.
Hence, Grudem teaches that the New Testament prophet is not at all like the Old Testament prophet. In the Old Testament, the prophet spoke the word of God, “Thus says the LORD,” and therefore, if they were wrong, they were liars and to be stoned. Instead, the New Testament prophet gets a vision or a revelation from the Holy Spirit and shares their interpretation of what was revealed to them the best he or she can.
A Biblical Example
An example of what the gift of prophecy in the church today might look like comes from the Book of Acts.
On the next day we left and came to Caesarea, and entering the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we stayed with him. Now this man had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. As we were staying there for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And since he would not be persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, “The will of the Lord be done!” – Acts 21:8-14
Notice that there were five prophets together. One of them, called Agabus, gives a prophecy from the Holy Spirit. The prophecy is not quite right, though it is in the ballpark. He prophesies that the Jews will hand Paul over to the Romans. Instead, the Romans stop the Jews from killing Paul. He prophesies that the Jews would bind Paul. The Jews did not bind Paul. The Romans did.
Earlier, when they had landed in Tyre, we read:
After looking up the disciples, we stayed there seven days; and they kept telling Paul through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem. – Acts 21:4
The disciples told Paul through the Holy Spirit not to go to Jerusalem, but Paul went anyway. He went because he was told by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem.
And now, behold, bound by the Spirit, I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit solemnly testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions await me. – Acts 20:22-23
The Holy Spirit told Paul to go to Jerusalem but apparently, the Holy Spirit also told several others that Paul should not go. What is going on here? Is the Holy Spirit confused?
Of course not.
The Revelation of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit gives visions, revelations and inklings. Then the people to whom He gives these must interpret the meaning. In this case, the Holy Spirit told Paul he should go to Jerusalem, which would result in tribulations. To the others, the Holy Spirit showed them the tribulations Paul would suffer. They interpreted this to mean he should not go. Agabus interpreted his vision of Paul being bound to mean the Jews did it and would hand him over to the Romans.
Notice how Paul dealt with this. He listened and tested what they said. He compared it with what the Spirit told him, an Apostle. Then, he chose to keep what was good and discard the rest. This is his teaching to the church as well. In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, we read:
Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.
If the prophetic word still exists, we must recognize it would not look like what many charismatic churches are presenting today. It is not, “Thus says the LORD.” God does not speak to us today in the same way He spoke to the people of Israel in the Old Testament.
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, – Hebrews 1:1-2a
Hence, should the Holy Spirit reveal something to us today, we are called to share that thought. Yet, this would not look like an Old Testament prophecy. Instead, we should know that these prophecies are revelations that need to be interpreted and presented. Once this interpretation is spoken aloud, the hearers must use discernment to determine whether it is good or evil and hold on to the good but abstain from the evil.
Finally, this discernment is based on the unchanging word of God. For us, the Bible is the same as the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets. They come to us from the Apostles who are speaking and writing the literal word of God (2 Timothy 3:16). Therefore, everything should be tested against this, including prophecies.
This is what Prophecy looked like in the Early Church. This is what the gift of prophecy in the Church today would look like as well.