The truth about prophecy

mayanMany Christian leaders today claim to be prophets or to have the gift of prophecy.  In many African cities you may feel inferior if your church doesn’t have a resident prophet.  Prophets are forever sharing the visions and messages they have apparently received from God.  The increase in the phenomena of prophecy is to a large decree caused by the decrease of sound biblical knowledge and spiritual maturity.   What does the Bible says about prophecy1?

1. God’s revelation is complete

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.  (Hebrews 1:1-2)

According to the New Testament, Jesus is God’s final and definitive revelation.  Since God has spoken finally and fully by his Son, and since the New Testament fully reports and interprets this supreme revelation, the canon of Scripture is complete.  No new books are needed to explain what God has done through his Son.

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 3)

Jude strongly urges his readers to contend for the faith against the subversive false teachers of the day.

Once for all delivered

“The faith” is the known and received body of truth about Jesus and salvation through him.  The faith was “once for all delivered to the saints”.  In other words, by the time that Jude wrote his letter, “the faith” had already been fixed and established in the apostolic teaching of the early church, and therefore could not be changed. 

Although the New Testament documents had not yet been collected into a complete canon, by this time the foundational New Testament teachings were circulating.   After the writings authorized by the apostles were included in the New Testament, nothing more could ever be added to the Bible, since the content of the faith had been delivered “once for all.”  “Once for all” implies something done once for all time – with lasting results; never needing repetition.  It was “delivered”, it is past tense, it has happened.

George Lawlor writes,

“The Christian faith is unchangeable, which is not to say that men and women of every generation do not need to find it, experience it, and live it; but it does mean that every new doctrine that arise, even though its legitimacy may be plausibly asserted, is a false doctrine.  All claims to convey some additional revelation to that which has been given by God in this body of truth (Bible) are false claims and must be rejected.”

Laying a strong foundation

[The church is] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.  (Ephesians 2:20)

The apostles and (New Testament era) prophets laid the foundation for the church.  Since a foundation is laid only once there are no more apostles or prophets today.  Their function of speaking the words of God has been replaced by the written Bible.  In the early church there was no compiled New Testament, so God raised up prophets (believers with the gift of prophecy) who spoke messages from God for the church – just like the Old Testament prophets.

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19)

God does not speak through a still, small voice in your head.  He speaks through what has been written.  If you want to hear what God has to say you need to do the hard work of reading and studying the Bible.  If you want to hear God speak audibly, read the Bible out loud.

2. God’s Revelation is sufficient

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching (what is right), for reproof (what is not right), for correction (how to get right), and for training in righteousness (how to stay right), that the man of God may be complete (not incomplete), equipped for every (!) good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

The Bible is able to make us complete and mature, prepared for every good work and able to live a righteous life.

3. God’s Revelation is inspired

2 Timothy 3:16-17 said that the Scriptures are God-breathed and therefore what was written is what God wanted written.

Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21)

When a true prophet spoke he spoke with the full authority and credibility of God; his words were God’s words and they needed to be obeyed.  Prophecy was so important in Old Testament they stoned false prophets.  However, today, so many Christian leaders claim to be prophets are their prophecies are far from being 100% accurate – as was the prophetic criteria.

4. The church was to desire prophecy in order to be built up

1 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. (1 Corinthians 14:1-5)

 Why would Paul have the church desire the gift of prophecy?

Christians

For Christians hearing the word of God through prophecy:

V3 the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding  (Literally, “house-building”, refers to growing, improving and maturing) and encouragement and consolation

V4 …the one who prophesies builds up the church

V5 …The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

V19 …I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

We are built up and encouraged as Christians, not by having a Bible under our pillow or by singing Christians songs, but by hearing, understanding and inwardly digesting God’s word.   Today that would mean, among other things, listening to biblical preaching.   Prophecy was not preaching.  Prophecy was declaring God’s word that was received directly from God.  Since the close of the New Testament era we are called to preach, not prophesy.  In 2 Timothy 4:2 Paul writes that Timothy should “Preach the Word”, not “Prophesy”. 

Prayer Book

A wise, well-known prayer in our denomination’s Prayer Book commends us to pray this:

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

We cannot grow as Christians apart from the Word of God.  The Corinthian church was to desire the gift of prophecy.  Today it would be equivalent to desire the gift of preaching.  Yet in many churches we see the exact opposite.  The Word of God is the ugly sister that gets ignored.  Nowadays the focus is often on the band, singing, dancing or video clips. A mature Spirit-filled church is a church that hungers after the word of God.

Non-Christians

But prophecy was not only for Christians:

23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed (conviction of sin), and so, falling on his face (realization that God is Holy and we are sinners), he will worship God (conversion!) and declare that God is really among you. (1 Corinthians 14:23-25)

The church’s most powerful weapon is not ecstatic experiences, but the clear proclamation of the powerful, piercing (Hebrews 4:12), transforming word of God.  Our desire should be that after every church service, people would say, “God was there.  We heard his Voice as the Bible was explained.”

5. Prophecy was to be in an orderly, self-controlled way

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.  (1 Corinthians 14:26)

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. (1 Corinthians 14:29)

If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.  For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. (1 Corinthians 14:30-32)

The prophets were in control of themselves all the time.  God does not bypass people’s minds either to reveal or teach his word.  There were no ecstatic, bizarre, trance-like experiences when it came to God revealing his word to the prophets, as in the trance-like demonic practice of the pagan, non-Christian religions of the day.

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Corinthians 14:33)

One of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control.   An ordered, peaceful service is an indication of the Spirit’s presence and influence.  A disordered, chaotic, out-of-control service is an indication of the Holy Spirit’s absence.

So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:39-40)

Implication

In our church services we do not have prophecy, but preaching from God’s complete, final, inspired, authoritative, sufficient, powerful Word.

 

1. The ESV Study Bible has been a great help in writing this article.