Holy Spirit

What is the gift of prophecy?

Maya prophecyThere seems to be a renewed interest in the more “supernatural” spiritual gifts among evangelicals.  Mark Driscoll, who calls himself a “charismatic with a seat-belt”, is no doubt a contributing factor.   I have recently posted about healing, miraculous gifts and speaking in tongues.  What remains is prophecy1

Prophecy in the Old Testament

Deuteronomy 18:18 describes the role of a prophet like this,

will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”

This gives us a clear definition of prophetic ministry. God put His own words in the prophet’s mouth. The prophet was moved by God and spoke the very words of God to the people of God. From Moses to Malachi, God spoke to his people through the prophets by their spoken and written word, publicly and privately.

How did you know if someone was a real prophet or not?  In a context where a prophet spoke God’s very words, the test of a true prophet was simple. Deuteronomy 13: 1-3 says,

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams.”

The prophecy must be in line with what God has already revealed.  But additional to that is that what he says must be 100% accurate.

Deuteronomy 18:21-22 says,

And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”

If a prophet claimed to speak from God and spoke something that was doctrinally untrue or something that didn’t come to pass, he was to be ignored.  But more than that, a false prophet was to be put to death.  (Cf. Deuteronomy 13:5)

Prophecy in the New Testament

The New Testament speaks of prophets, prophecy, and the gift of prophecy.  What is this phenomenon?  Pretty much exactly the same as the Old Testament.  The prophet was moved by God and spoke the very words of God to the people of God.  How were the early Christians to know what legitimate prophecy was and wasn’t?  The answer is simple.

 God had already given a definition of prophecy in Deuteronomy 18.  The rest of the Old Testament confirmed the definition. The fact that the New Testament didn’t give a new definition of prophecy tells us that no new definition was needed. The Old Testament definition of prophecy was assumed in the New Testament. Three New Testament passages point to the fact that the Old Testament standard of 100% accuracy was still valid in the New Testament era.

a)  The famine prophecy

The first is Luke’s account of Agabus, a prophet, who predicted a famine which would severely affect believers in Jerusalem.  Acts 11:27-28 says,

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius).”

The last line is really significant, “this took place in the days of Claudius”.  Why did Luke mention that? It was Luke’s confirmation that Agabus’ prophecy came true.  Luke was well aware of the Old Testament standard of 100% accuracy for prophets.

b) The staying alive prophecy

In Acts 27, in the midst of a terrible storm, God revealed to Paul that both he and his shipmates would be rescued from what seemed sure death. Notice how certain Paul was that this prophetic revelation would come true.  Acts 27:25 says,

So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told.”

c)  The “you will be bound” prophecy

A third passage that also confirms that criteria for prophecy remained unchanged from the Old Testament is Acts 21:11.  Agabus has a prophecy (again!) that Paul would be bound and imprisoned when he arrived in Jerusalem.  

Agabus introduced that prophecy with these important words: “Thus says the Holy Spirit”.  Not, “This is what I suppose could happen”.  Agabus understood that he was speaking the words of God Himself, by implication placing himself under the standards of Deuteronomy 13 and 18.

At the time of the early church God was still speaking directly to prophets to reveal more of himself and his will to his people. This fact made testing a prophet a relatively simple task.  If, when he claimed to be speaking for God, his words were 100% accurate in doctrine and fulfillment, then he was indeed a prophet of God.

The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament

Prophecy was a revelatory gift.   It was to be used to edify, exhort, comfort and build up the Christian Church.   (Cf. 1 Corinthians 14)  Paul says that the Corinthians should eagerly desire spiritual gifts, but especially prophecy.

The problem with the immature Christians in the Corinthian Church was that they were abusing the gifts, including prophecy.  Paul therefore laid down some careful guidelines e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:29-33.

Firstly, at the most three prophets were to speak in a church service.

Secondly, the other Christians were to pass judgment on each prophecy. This was a built in safety measure to avoid made-up prophecies.

Thirdly, the prophets had to take turns. The Corinthians were like hungry school children at the school tuck-shop—pushing and shoving, struggling to be first.   If another prophet in the congregation received a message, the one speaking had to allow the second prophet an opportunity to speak.  In 14:32, Paul gave the reason this patient, restrained taking of turns was possible: “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” The Christian person is always in control of him/ her-self.

These guidelines go against all those who, in the name of the Spirit, burst out in uncontrollable tongues, bark like dogs, fall on the floor, or some other spiritual ecstasy “in the Spirit.”   The-Holy-Spirit-made-me-do-it excuse has an ancient lineage – the Corinthians used it to defend their ungodly worship too. 

All of the prophecy in the early church had to be tested for 100% accuracy. 

Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21).

Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. ” (1 John 4:1). 

There was room for error with the New Testament gift of prophecy. The prophecies were to weighed, measured and tested, because not all of them were from God.

The Gift of Prophecy Today

With the completion of the New Testament canon, prophesying changed from declaring new revelation to declaring the completed revelation God had already given.   Jude 3 speaks of

the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”.

In other words, the faith to which we hold has been settled forever, and it doesn’t need the addition or refinement that comes from extra-biblical revelations.  Paul says that the gospel, 

has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:6, cf. Hebrews 1:1).

There is no new information or revelation that we need in order to know God, live according to his will, and to be completely satisfied in our relationship with him.  Ephesians 2: 20 explains why there are no prophets giving direct revelation from God today.  Paul says that the church is built on the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  A foundation is only laid once.  Paul did not say “prophets and apostles” meaning Old Testament prophets, but rather “apostles and prophets” meaning New Testament prophets (cf. Ephesians 3:4-5).  A major implication is that there are no longer prophets today.

The New Bible Dictionary

I think the New Bible Dictionary compromises the orthodox view at this point.  This is how the New Bible Dictionary2 puts it:

There appears to be no good reason why the living God, who both speaks and acts (in contrast to the dead idols), cannot use the gift of prophecy to give particular local guidance to a church, nation or individual, or to warn or encourage by way of prediction as well as by reminders, in full accord with the written word of Scripture, by which all such utterances must be tested”.

I think that the NBD is unhelpfully trying to keep both sides of the prophecy debate happy.  What in reality occurs when the gift of prophecy is advocated for today is that the Bible’s sufficiency and authority is down-played. 

What we find is Christian leaders sharing their own thoughts, ideas, (grandiose) ambitions and private concerns as “prophecy”.  The Bible is no longer God’s final, authoritative message to us.   Most times Christians who have had prophecies “over their life” or have been exposed to prophecy are left confused or anxious about what God requires of them.

Be very careful

There are many Christians out there who are so obsessed with getting a word from God that they wait expecting him to say something to them. You shouldn’t do this. If you’re desperate for a prophecy, you probably will get one, but it won’t be from God.  It will probably be your own  or someone else’s thoughts and desires, or worse, it could be Satan trying to mislead or distract you. Everything we need to know about God and how to live a life that pleases God is in the Bible. In all of life’s choices, in every situation, we have God’s very own words in the Bible.   

In 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul instructs Timothy to “preach the word”, not “call the prophet”.


1. This article is largely based on Alistair Anderton’s  sermon on the gift of prophecy.

2. The article on “Prophecy, Prophets” in the New Bible Dictionary, published by IVP.


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