Biblical Perspectives on Prophecy
Published in Church & Society, Vol. 6, No. 3, December 2003.
What is Prophecy?
The subject of prophecy is a very popular and attractive one. The idea of being able to predict the future is particularly fascinating. It suggests and adds a dimension of the extraordinary and the supernatural to the mundane and human humdrum of life. It finds expression in mysticism, the occult, science fiction, television and the movies which make popular characters like Nostradamus, a supposed 16th Century seer of the Renaissance. The study of trends and possibilities has turned into futurology in some universities and the experts are futurologists. John Naisbitt and his book, Megatrends, could be counted as a trend-setter of this trend. This is in effect the secular version of the subject. The current scenario is that this subject has many up-to-date proponents and practioners as can be found through any good internet search engine on futurology.
It is therefore vital for us to note that the biblical definition of prophecy is vastly different from the popular one. 2 Peter 1:20-21 makes it plain that the only true source of prophecy is God Himself. God alone gives prophecy its content. The interpretation of prophecy has to come from the Holy Spirit of God. This definition holds good for all prophecies and prophesying in the Bible. Any true prophet and any true prophecy today, or at any time, have to be true to these criteria of prophecy and prophesying.
Therefore a true prophet is never original! If a proclamation is the person’s own idea or projection, it has already failed the criteria of a true prophecy. A true prophet hears or receives from God His message and speaks it in His Name.
The Nature of Prophecy in and between the Testaments
Prophets and prophecies of the Old Testament are often characterised as dark and stern. They tell people of their sins. They warn of disasters for disobedience. They are judgmental and fearsome.
In contrast, New Testament prophecies and teachings are often characterised as being loving and encouraging. They are words of comfort and non-condemnatory. They do not keep speaking of sin or keep warning of disasters but are tender and gentle.
No Essential Difference in the Nature of Prophecy between the Testaments
Counter to the Popular Characterisations
A proper study of both testaments would yield a very different picture. All features of prophecies are found in both in the Old and the New Testaments.
In Isaiah 55 we find many refreshing words of encouragement. In Jeremiah 33 there is a call for hope in God’s restoration in the midst of disasters. In Ezekiel 47 we have a wonderful picture of a life-giving river that flows out of the Temple to bless many lives. In Hosea 11 we have the exhortation to God’s undying love for His people. These are but a small sample of the many vital and powerful words of love, hope and encouragement in the Old Testament proclaimed by OT prophets.
Conversely, we find in the NT some significant words of judgment and rebuke. In Acts 5:1-11 God pronounced through Peter His death penalty on Ananias and Sapphira for their lying to the Holy Spirit. Similarly, in Acts 8:18-22 Peter was led to rebuke severely Simon the Sorcerer for supposing to get spiritual gifts with money. We also find Paul, in Acts 13:4-12, prophesying judgment on Elymas the Sorcerer for his attempted deception of the proconsul.
The Essential Features of Prophecy is the Same in Both Testaments
We can see, therefore, with reference to 2 Peter 1:20-21 noted earlier, that the essential features of true prophecy are the same in both testaments. God is the source and God gives the content. Additionally, a prophecy is mainly meant to be spoken to the recipients in the Name of the LORD. This is noteworthy as the prophecies in the Bible are all recorded as spoken words delivered by the prophets to the recipients to whom God directed them to speak. Paradoxically, the prophecies in the Bible were not only spoken but are written down for our benefit. Yet it is clear from the Bible’s own testimony that prophecies are essentially meant to be spoken, even though they may also be recorded in a written form.
It is also noteworthy that Revelation 19:10c tells us that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy”. This means that all the prophecies in the Bible and all true prophecies that meet biblical criteria has always to do with Jesus and His ministry and mission. It is not an accident that the Old Testament points to the coming of Jesus Christ while the New Testament is a record of His coming.
Difference lies in the Difference between the Testaments
At this point some of us may very well raise the point that there are differences between the way prophets and prophecies operate in the Old and the New Testament. This is correct but the principal point of note that I raise is that the difference does not lie in the nature of prophecy itself or in prophesying but in the change that has taken place between the way God works in the Old and the New Testaments.
Christ the Final Word
Hebrews 1:1-4 makes it clear that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the Final Word of God’s revelation. He is The Prophet. In Him, the godhead, the message of God, the revelation of God and the messenger of God converge into one. Hebrews 3:1-6 and Deuteronomy 18:15-19 make it clear that Moses, the key prophet and leader of the Old Testament, is a type of the Christ. The Person of Christ is the Final and Ultimate Prophet and Prophecy. Given this great truth, prophets and prophecy would not function in the same way between the Old and the New Testament, even if only in the fact that the OT prophets needed to point forward to Christ while the NT prophets need to speak according to Christ who has come. Even so, this is a change of function and not a change in what prophecy is. For the essence of prophecy must always be that it is God’s word delivered through His chosen human servant and not man’s word.
Qualitative Change Before & After Christ
There is thus a vital qualitative change in God’s dispensation before and after Christ. The OT is the dispensation of God before Christ and pointed to Him and to His coming. Galatians 3:19 to 4:7 teaches us that the Law was given as a teacher to guide us until Christ came. Hebrews 9:1 to 10:18 explains that the OT tabernacle and priesthood are but shadows and pointers to the reality that is Jesus Christ, His Person, teachings, death and resurrection.
The NT consists of records and teachings of who He is, His mission, message, death and resurrection. It emphasises grace over justice for John 3:16-18 tells us that Christ came to save and not to judge, for we are already judged to be sinners deserving of death. Yet this is not an elimination or reduction of divine justice. Hebrews 3:7 to 4:13 notes that the disobedient in the OT did not enter God’s rest in Canaan. Even less would the disobedient of the NT enter the eternal rest of the new heaven and new earth. Hebrews 12:25-29 warns that rejecting the call of Christ is worse than rejecting the call of Moses, bringing even more certain punishment.
Prophets and prophecies in the NT and today would of necessity take account of this fundamental dispensational change. No longer is there a need for prophecies or prophets to point forward to anything more important or final than what has already been revealed with Christ. Instead it would function as a ministry that guides and empowers His people with the immediacy and reality of His Presence with us now.
Qualitative Change Before & After Pentecost
Acts 2:14-21 which records Peter’s quote and usage of Joel’s prophecy to explain the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost after Christ’s ascension is a vital passage to enable us understand the change in the ministry and exercise of prophesying. First and foremost, it specifies an immense increase in the scale and range of prophesying. What was confined to OT prophets has now become an anointing or gifting of the whole body of believers. Great as this change is, it is not a change in what prophecy is but a change in who would be enabled by the Spirit to prophesy. This is a tremendous enlargement of those whom God would use as His channel to speak His word in His Name. There is also, therefore, now a collective and corporate dimension to prophesying and prophecies that did not exist in the OT. In that the OT prophet was sovereignly enabled and authorised by God to speak in His Name, there is no human group or person that he can turn to for counsel, testing or review. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the whole Church as the Body of Christ is so enabled and authorised to speak in His Name. There is now a collective, corporate and collaborative process within the communion of saints to hear and speak rightly in the Name of the LORD. Therefore prophets and prophesying in the NT and today operate in a new corporate environment of a prophetic people that are able to collectively hear, test and speak the word of the LORD.
Difference in OT Israel & NT Church
The introduction of the corporate dimension to prophecy and prophesying points to another major change between the Old and the New Testament. This change has to do with the nature of the People of God. In the OT, the People of God was a sovereign nation with it own religious, political, legal, social and economic order. In the NT, the People of God consists of gatherings of those who believe and commit to Christ as their LORD and Saviour across all nationalities, ethnicities, languages, social stratas, localities and socio-demographic divides. It is centred on the LORD who is in heaven, not on earth. Therefore the religious, political, legal, social and economic order of the OT Israel cannot directly apply to this new situation and dispensation. For example, it is not legally legitimate for the Church to carry out capital punishment. In this sense, the OT test of a false prophet, that he be stoned to death cannot be carried out by the Church. The discipline that applies for the NT Church in case of unrepentant members is excommunication.
The Formation of the Bible as Scripture for the Church
Another highly significant factor, albeit one not explicit in the Bible itself, is the formation of the canon of Scripture. This is closely related to the fact that Jesus Christ is the Final Word of God. The Church in its early history, as led by the Holy Spirit, has come to recognise the Bible as the rule of life and faith. Central to this principle is that the Bible records the words and works of Jesus Christ and proclaims Him as God come as man, the Messiah, the LORD and Saviour of all humanity and all creation. In that Jesus Christ is the Final Word, so we have in the closed canon of the Bible, the definitive Scripture that identifies and circumscribes for us the authoritative books that record and proclaim this Final Word.
Are Words of Prophets Scripture?
One valid and vital issue of concern regarding prophets and prophecies today is whether any of such may be able to give us new Scriptures or new revelations that are the equivalent of Scripture. We shall tackle this issue at this point:
The quick answer to the question is, “NO.” Scripture is formed by a Spirit-led communal process of recognition that certain WRITINGS (not spoken words) are in fact God-inspired (God-breathed – 2 Tim. 3:16) and carries CANONICAL Authority. Therefore no one, even if the person is truly speaking in the Name of the LORD, can claim to be giving Scripture.
The principal point of note for us is that the formation of Scripture is a UNIQUE process and work of the Holy Spirit that is understood by the universal Church as completed in about the first 400 hundred years of its history.
OT prophets & NT apostles seem to be able to require obedience because the words they speak are commandments of the LORD. Yes, but this is NOT Scripture! Some, not all of what they commanded or spoke, become Scripture AFTER they have been written, not just spoken, and circulated widely throughout the Church and then became recognised as Scripture. We simply do not have all of their spoken teachings or prophecies; only those recorded in the Bible.
Not even all the words of Jesus are Scripture! No scholar would claim that we have in the NT every word that Jesus ever taught or proclaimed. John 16:12-13 & 21:25 clearly indicate that there were much more that Jesus would want to say or have said that are not recorded and therefore are not in the Bible.
There is a definite process of selection by the Holy Spirit, among all prophecies, teachings and historical records, as to what actually goes into the Bible to become Scripture.
In a related area, some scholars believe that OT prophets and NT apostles speak with a level of authority not found in NT prophets and therefore suggest that only OT prophets and NT apostles, but not NT prophets, could speak with an authority equal to Scripture. This, I believe, is not accurate:
We have already dealt with the fact that not even the commandments of OT prophets or NT apostles are Scripture in B. 1. above because the formation of Scripture is a unique process.
Nor is it clear or helpful to say that a command is the equivalent of Scripture. The meaning is too vague. Is it to say that the command has universal application? Many of the commandments in the Bible were addressed to a particular situation and not meant for universal application. Does it require obedience of the believer? If this is its meaning, does it follow that we can ignore the guidance of the Spirit because it is not in the Bible? Surely not. So it is not meaningful to say that a command is the “equivalent of Scripture”. Either it is Scripture or it is not. Every genuine command and word of the Spirit, whether or not it is in the Bible, is for the party so addressed to obey.
Ephesians 2:19-20 says that God builds the Church with the apostles & prophets as the foundation and Christ as the cornerstone. Ephesians 3:4-6, especially verse 5 which refers to the NT revelation of the Holy Spirit, makes it very clear that “prophets” in Ephesians 2:20 do not refer to OT prophets but NT prophets. On this basis it is unsafe to make a gradation of authority between NT apostles and NT prophets.
The ministry of prophesying is not confined to NT prophets. Apostles and members of the congregations (according to Acts 2:17) also prophesied. The key issue is not who prophesied but whether the prophecy is from God and what is it that He has said. It is the word that God chooses to speak through the person of His choice that makes his ministry or office; not the reverse. As long as the word is truly from God it needs to be appropriately heeded.
It is of significant note that, whether in the Old or New Testament, there are explicit teachings that all prophets & prophecies are to be tested! Deuteronomy 13 & 18; Matthew 7:15-23; 1 John 4:1-6 and 1 Corinthians 14 are all quite explicit on this.
In that we are called to test every word that is claimed to be spoken in the Name of the LORD, while it is true that prophets or apostles in the Bible do sometimes directly declare that some specific words they speak are commandments of the LORD, it is wrong to assume that these are not to be tested.
It more accurate to understand that a sound test would confirm a true word and expose a fake one. This is something we as listeners are all called to do to be sure that it is the LORD who is speaking. If indeed the prophet or apostle has spoken rightly in the Name of the LORD we would most certainly need to comply.
The claims and words of prophets or apostles in the Bible, whether OT or NT, are very frequently challenged. Yet because they did truly & accurately speak in the Name of the LORD, God vindicated their words and punished those who rejected them. The fundamental issue is whether their words are in fact true with the Holy Spirit’s attestation and confirmation. A true word spoken by a true servant of the LORD is unafraid of tests or challenges. It can only be affirmed or confirmed by such. Even Jesus called for His words to be tested (John 7:16-19; 10:34-39) in order for it to be obeyed.
The Wider Meaning of Prophecy
We have noted that the essential meaning of prophecy is to speak forth the word of God. The meaning can be restricted to a specific message received at a specific time to be spoken to a particular recipient to a particular occasion and purpose. This is essentially what happens when a prophet is said to have received a word from the LORD to speak. It can also be expanded to include any message or revelation that is truly from God. The broader meaning would include the preaching of the Gospel and the preaching and teaching of the Bible.
A. The Gospel is Prophecy
The Gospel is God’s revelation of His salvation for all mankind in Christ and calls for the response of every human being. Revelation 19:10c which says that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy makes this connection.
B. The Bible is Prophecy
The Bible is canonical Scripture. It is the measure and test of every revelation of God to humanity. It is written revelation that is to be proclaimed and taught to every generation of believers as the People of God as an article of faith and life; and to every generation of human beings as the revelation of the one and only true and living God for truth and salvation.
Features of Biblical Prophecy
It is appropriate that we now examine the types and contents of prophecies in the Bible. This guides us as to what the LORD may say through prophecy today.
A Very Brief Summary of Prophecies in the Bible
The most obvious examples of what God spoke through His prophets in the OT are the books of the Major and the Minor Prophets. Yet we are not confined to these OT books. Moses (Deuteronomy 18) is recognised as the principal OT prophet. In Acts 2:29-30 and in other NT passages we find David and many of his psalms are recognised as prophetic.
It is highly significant that in the NT prophesying is not confined to NT prophets. Jesus prophesied. The apostles, not confined to the Twelve, but extending to Paul and Barnabas and others, prophesied. Acts 2:17, 1 Corinthians 12:10 and 1 Corinthians 14 teach that many Christians are given the gift of prophecy by the Holy Spirit. In spite of this widening of the prophetic gift and ministry, it is noteworthy that Ephesians 4:11 continues to lists “prophets” as a NT office. We can look at what is recorded in the NT of what is prophesied by any of these persons as a study of what God spoke through them.
We have already earlier made the point that such a study would show that the features or characteristics of the content are essentially of the same very extensive range.
Types and Features of Prophecies
The Outpouring of the Spirit
Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 and Mark 16:14-18 clearly teach and expect the Church as a Body to be exercising the gifts of the Spirit. Acts 2:17-18 is particularly explicit that the Church should prophesy because the Holy Spirit is now poured out. In my study and analysis of Acts 1:4-5 and 2:1-21, it is my view that what happened at Pentecost was that what was confined to the prophets of the OT is now poured out on the whole of Church of Christ in the NT. Prophecy is the primary emphasis in this event as explained by Peter through Joel’s prophecy. The Church is a Prophetic People even as it is a Holy Priesthood. It comes about by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling and in-filling. Indeed, the prophetic dimension is not confined to prophecy alone but to the entire ministry of the prophet. All signs and wonders in the OT were done by the prophets of God. Now signs and wonders is part and parcel of the life, ministry and mission of the Church in the world in the Name of Jesus Christ. This is brought out especially by 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 and Mark 16:14-18. The former is in a pastoral setting while the latter is in an evangelistic and missionary setting.
Contents of the Messages of the Prophets & Prophecies– OT & NT
In light of the outpouring of the prophetic ministry upon the Church by the Holy Spirit we see a correlation between all the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 with what was prophesied and exercised by OT prophets:
The Gift of Prophecy is listed here as one gift among the others. If we read 1 Corinthians 12:10 in relation to 1 Corinthians 14 on prophecy, we can surmise that Paul had in mind messages or words of exhortation and encouragement. This is clearly a narrower usage of the meaning of prophecy. NT prophets such as Sila and Agabus and the OT prophets clearly had ministries far more extensive than this gift alone. However, it is highly notable that many OT prophecies included many extensive passages of words of exhortation, hope and encouragement.
OT and NT prophets and apostles clearly exercised ministries that included all the other gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11. Those that are spoken are
Word of Wisdom – divinely given counsel on what is right to understand and to do
Word of Knowledge – divinely given revelation of facts and events. This would therefore include foretelling and forewarning – God’s indication of events in advance of their occurrence
Discernment of spirits – divinely given discernment of the spirit behind events, proclamations and actions
Speaking in Tongues and Interpretation of Tongues – these are two gifts for which there is no clear OT equivalent although it is possible that it is included in some instances of prophesying (such as Saul with the prophets in 1 Samuel 10:5-11). If these were indeed absent in the OT it is a further mark of the increased prophetic ministry of the Spirit in the NT over the OT.
Besides those that are spoken, other gifts of the OT prophets are also poured out on the NT Church and its leaders:
Gifts of Healing – healing the sick goes hand in hand with preaching the word in the NT and was certainly exercised by many OT prophets
Gift of Miracles – again something that in the OT was exercised only by the OT prophets but now poured out to the Church
Gift of Faith – another gift exercised by OT prophets, for example Jeremiah’s purchase of the field at Anathoth (Jeremiah 32), that is now given to the Church
Prophets & Prophecy Today
For the sake of study and comparison, Wayne Grudem and Jack Deere are two recent writers who also affirm that prophecy and the gifts of the Spirit are in operation today. However in other respects their perspectives may differ from this writer’s. Given our study above, we can now look at prophets and prophecy today.
Do they exist?
Yes. There is nothing in the Bible that suggests that these would end except when Christ returns. Many NT Scripture point to their continuation. The point that the Holy Spirit is now poured out on the Church with an enormous expansion of His empowering for the whole Body is a certain mark that the Church is expected to proclaim and prophesy the word of God and exercise all the gifts of the Spirit.
Are they important?
Yes. Given our answer to A., it is our LORD’s intention and purpose that we use the gifts He gives to proclaim Him and build up one another in Him. But no prophecy is a substitute or an addition to Scripture. It has to operate according to and in agreement with Scripture and is under the authority of Scripture.
What is their function?
It is to enable us to hear and obey our God who is now living in us and with us. It helps us as His People to hear and receive His guidance, counsel and encouragement or rebuke and correction and know His specific and current plans & actions in particular situations and for particular times. This is true whether it is at the corporate or the personal level. It helps us to soundly apply the truths of the Bible today.
How do we respond?
We are always to test everyone who claims to speak in the Name of the LORD and to discern if they are indeed speaking in His Name and truly sent by Him. If the word is true we would obey. If the word is false we will reject and ignore.
The Office of the Prophet in the NT & Today
In our final section we will look at the office of the prophet today, how it functions and how we are to respond to it. We shall do it in a summarised way in the light of what we have already covered:
Firstly, it should be clear to us that the office of the prophet is a NT office that still operates. We find this in Ephesians 4:11 which list “prophets” among the offices that Christ gives to His Church to equip it to serve Him as His ascension gift. These are ascension gifts in that Ephesians 4:7-8 point out that He gave these as He “ascended on high”. This can only mean that they are to continue to operate after His ascension. 1 Corinthians 12:27-31, especially v. 29 lists “prophets” among the offices that some are given. In Matthew 7:15-23 Jesus taught His disciples to discern who may be a true prophet. This is obviously because there is a need to apply such a test as there are those whom He will call to be such in time to come as well as false ones.
While there is No Difference in Nature of Prophecy there is A Difference in the OFFICE of the Prophet.
Here we are adding to the points made in section II. D., amplifying the difference that applies because of the difference between OT Israel and the NT Church and how God works through each:
OT Prophets stand and operate in the following ways:
ALWAYS National figures because Israel is a sovereign nation
Directly Raised Up by God
Recognition of the Prophets’ Office is national and official; often international
Prophetic Office is particular to persons directly chosen by GOD with no one else competent to serve as they do
Signs & wonders, gifts of the Spirit exercised ONLY by the prophets (anyone who exercised such abilities would be recognised as a prophet even if he was not one before!)
Death penalty administered according to Law by the appropriate competent national authority – e.g. the king or a true prophet of the LORD (e.g. Elijah against the prophets of Baal)
NT Prophets stand and operate in the following ways:
Congregational & Communal because the Church is such
Church is multi-national on earth, albeit one nation under God
NT prophets are nurtured from within the Church, albeit truly called by Christ to be prophets; unlike OT prophets who are called without human agency in their nurture
The gifts of the Spirit, signs & wonders, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, is shared with the entire Church so that the Spirit may enable any one He wants to exercise some such abilities; a fundamental change not to the nature of prophecy but to the gifting of the Body by the Spirit from Pentecost onwards
Recognition of the prophets’ office is congregational & may be uneven; some places & churches may recognise the prophet but not others because they may be unknown to them; in contrast to the national standing of OT prophets
There is wide gradation of function from the congregation member to elders who may have the gift of prophecy to prophets & apostles who exercise the prophetic ministry or office
Death penalty cannot be administered by the Church which is not a single sovereign nationality but an international community of congregations; excommunication is the appropriate penalty for a false prophet
Death penalty may be administered by the LORD himself directly – such as He did on Ananias and Sapphira through a prophetic pronouncement through Peter
Relationship to Scripture
We have covered this in “Are Words of Prophets Scripture?” above. No prophets or anyone who prophesy in the Name of Christ can add to or speak Scripture. They must act in accord to it and under its authority.
BOTH OT & NT give TESTS for Prophets
We have covered this in “Are Words of Prophets Scripture?” Point 4 above. It is worth adding that true prophets would be recognised & proved through their life and ministry with the attestations of the Holy Spirit.
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