As we examine the responsibility of prophets, we arrive at a situation that is unique in two different ways. First, the New Testament provides us with a simple and concise definition of the task: (I Cor.14:3) “The one who prophesies [delivers God’s message] is speaking to people: edification, admonition, and encouragement.” And secondly, this definition departs markedly from the classical usages of the word as recorded in L/S: “the keepers and spokespeople of an oracle, who speaks for the god; the highest order of the ancient Egyptian religion; a foreteller of the future; an herbalist or quack doctor”!
The only firm parallel between these two is the idea of speaking for (a) God. The foretelling of future events was common as a part of prophetic messages under the old covenant, but even there “foretelling” was primarily connected to an exhortation to return to God’s ways, not merely the display of occult predictive powers. In the New Testament, any reference to the future had either a very practical connection to specific instructions, as when “prophets from Jerusalem” came to Antioch and warned of an impending famine, in order that these distant brethren might send relief (Ac.11:27), or a specific intention to encourage beleaguered disciples to confident faithfulness (Mt.10:18). Sadly, many who claim today to “speak in the Lord’s name” fit more clearly into the ancient pattern of purported future-telling, than the prescribed New Testament mandate for “edification, admonition, and encouragement”. Please note also that Paul’s definition makes no reference to an attempt to frighten one’s hearers into compliant submission to the speaker’s agenda!
Chronologically, the first prophet we meet in the New Testament is Zachariah (Lk.1:67), when his son John was born. He simply reported what he had been told about the child and his assignment. The second is elderly Anna, specifically identified as a “prophetess”, in the temple after Jesus’ birth (Lk.2:36-38). Besides these two, most of the gospel references are to the Old Testament prophets, relating their messages to Jesus himself, or to John the Baptist. A notable exception is Caiaphas’ cynical statement of Jesus’ fate (Jn.11:51), where John offers his opinion that the high priest had no clue of the implication of his words.
At Pentecost, however, everything changed! The gift of the Holy Spirit’s coming is related, by Peter, to the earlier prophecy of Joel (Ac.2:17-18), that now all God’s people may prophesy! Old and young, sons and daughters, share in this gracious gift, in order better to serve each other and their world. Suddenly, “prophets” seem to be cropping up all over! Our Lord now intends to speak to all of us through all of us!
Ac.13:1 mentions “prophets and teachers” (both plural, please note) in the congregation at Antioch, having a prayer meeting when Barnabas and Saul were commissioned for their first journey by a perceived word from the Holy Spirit.
Later, in his beautiful description of a “coming together” for worship, in I Cor.14:26-33, Paul clearly assumes that everyone is eligible to participate: (v.31: “You can ALL prophesy [speak for God], one at a time, so that all may learn and all may be encouraged.”) This is not a free-for-all: in v.29, he gives very careful instructions for the evaluation and orderly control of participation. But clearly, everyone is expected to be involved.
Some folks are inclined to get bent-out-of-shape (in both directions!) over the following section about women. Please see chapter 13 of Citizens of the Kingdom for a discussion of this. Here, I will simply remind you that just a few chapters earlier (I Cor.11:4-5), their participation in the “praying and prophesying” is assumed.
In I Cor.14:39, Paul closes his treatise on prophecy by urging the whole congregation to seek earnestly for that privilege. Anyone may prophesy. But not all are called “prophets”(I Cor.12:29). Although several folks are designated “prophets” in addition to those already mentioned – Judas and Silas (Ac.15:32), Agabus (Ac.21:10), and the four daughters of Philip (Ac.21:9), among others, there is no record of anyone being chosen for the job by anyone else. They just emerge. A person seems to have acquired that label by consistent, trustworthy exercise of the gift.
Prophecy appears on all the lists of gifts of the Holy Spirit (see W.S.#25) – Rom.12:6, I Cor.12:10, Eph.4:11, and I Pet.4:10-11. Clearly, it was expected that both the brotherhood as a whole (Ac.13:1-3) and individuals (I Tim.4:14) would receive the Lord’s instructions through the carefully evaluated exercise of prophetic gifts in the group.
One does not “decide”, “plan”, or choose to prophesy. Please notice that in no instance is a “prophecy” represented as a carefully prepared study-paper or sermon. “God’s message [prophecy] didn’t come from a person’s own desire, but people spoke from God, as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet.1:21). That is not to deprecate the value of study or sermons: these belong more in the category of “teaching” – see the next posting – which is also necessary, and may include a prophetic word on occasion, but is an entirely different form of contribution. Likewise, “preaching” (see previous post) is not prophecy, although it may, on occasion, contain it.
In I Cor.14:6, Paul lists “a revelation, knowledge, prophecy [a message from God], and teaching” as useful contributions to the welfare of a brotherhood. All are necessary for healthy growth – a “balanced diet” for the Body of Christ.
Prophets and teachers, although occasionally itinerant, are the only functionaries besides the ubiquitous elders, who are assumed to exist in every congregation.
Claiming to “prophesy in Jesus’ name” is no guarantee of authenticity (Mt.7:2). Jesus, Peter, and John all warned the faithful to be discerning of false prophets (Mt.7:15, 24:11, 24; Lk.6:26, Ac.13:6, II Pet.2:1, I Jn.4:1, Rev.16:13, 19:20, 20:10). Counterfeits are easily detected by people who are well acquainted with the genuine article. The counsel and wisdom of experienced elders is extremely valuable in such situations.
It behooves us to heed that wisdom, rather than, as some have done, to conclude out of sheer frustration that “the time of prophecy has passed.” True, this gift is not permanent (I Cor.13:9), and it is only partial – but it will only be superseded when we are all directly with the Lord.
Perhaps it is just such a dilemma that Paul had in mind when he wrote (I Th.5:20) “Do not scorn prophesying [messages from God].” A faithful brotherhood must evaluate, not automatically discard, what may be a prophetic word.
Paul’s definition with which we began, serves as a valuable measuring tool. Genuine prophecy [messages directly from God] speaks to people for
– edification – being “built” into the Body the Lord intends,
– admonition – instructions for faithful life and interaction, and
– encouragement – sometimes translated “comfort”; I frequently use “coaching”.
Any message that does not meet these criteria may safely be discarded, with confidence that it is not from God!
But don’t forget that Paul admonished the entire group at Corinth (I Cor.14:1) “Strive for spiritual things – especially that you all may prophesy [speak for God]!”
Hearing our Master’s voice, and sharing the insight thus received, as we interact with our brethren, is a large and much needed part of the Lord’s plan for the faithful functioning of his Body in the world.
May we determine to handle it faithfully!