Prophecy in the New Testament Church
James R. Aist
In the last days it shall be,’ says God, ‘that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even on My menservants and maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)
It is not my intention here to attempt a comprehensive treatise on prophecy. Others more qualified and authoritative than I am have already done that. Mine is more of an introductory level treatment encompassing personal research and commentary that I have been motivated to explore, assemble and record here, for what it’s worth. Nor will I get deep into the ongoing controversy concerning whether or not prophecy is for today. Suffice it to say that the Scripture verses quoted above say that prophecy is for the Last Days, in which we live. Moreover, a great many born-again Christians, including myself, bear witness to the operation of prophecy in the Christian church today, so my interest lies mostly in understanding it and practicing it, insofar as God gives it to me and to my contemporaries of like faith.
Before Pentecost, God spoke to His chosen people, Israel, through a select, few individuals called “prophets” (Hebrews 1:1), who spoke to the people for God through the working of the Holy Spirit. The punishment for giving a false prophecy was, at that time, extremely severe, even death. But, at Pentecost, God did a “new thing”: He began to pour out His Spirit on all believers, not just a few, chosen prophets, such that all became eligible to prophesy. The old order of communication through a chosen few was replaced by a new order of communication through, potentially, all who would put their faith and trust in Jesus. Apparently, false prophecies were no longer to be punished by the death of the one prophesying; rather, the hearers were to judge the prophecies as to whether or not they were of God, and to firmly hold onto what is good. But, this does not mean that God is no longer offended by false prophecies. Pentecostal theology teaches that there is now sufficient grace to cover false prophecies, but if God were not still offended by them, why would grace be required in the first place? After all, false prophecies, being not really from God, are lies perpetrated about God, are they not, regardless of the good intentions of the prophet?
This “new thing” that God did ushered in a major prophecy makeover that is still in effect today. So, then, what is prophecy in the modern Christian church, and how can we judge whether or not the prophecies are of God?
A Pentecostal Definition of “Prophecy”
Dr. Cecil M. Robeck, Jr. has defined prophecy as “A spontaneous manifestation of God’s grace, received by revelation, (sometimes as a vision, at other times as impressions or thoughts) and spoken by the Spirit through a Christian who has been given a gift of prophecy in the language of those who hear the prophetic word spoken.” Such definitions apply specifically to prophecy in a meeting of a church body. A prophecy typically contains a revelatory prediction (foretelling) or an instruction or exhortation (forthtelling). In the New Testament, preaching and prophecy are two separate and distinct operations, although preaching can, and often does, incorporate prophetic messages.
From this definition, we can see that there are three things that must happen in order for the prophetic process to be complete: First, the Holy Spirit must give the gift of prophecy to a Christian of His choosing; second, the Holy Spirit must give to that person a revelation from God; and third, the revelation must then be spoken to those whom God wants to hear it. Thus, true prophecy is initiated by the Holy Spirit and manifests first as a revelation given by the Holy Spirit. The one prophesying then turns the revelation into a prophecy by speaking it to those who hear. In other words, the Holy Spirit operates the prophecy, while the human being merely co-operates with the Holy Spirit in the process.
Regarding the aspect of spontaneity in prophecy, let me first point out that spontaneity is commonly present as an element of true prophecy in the definitions of most Pentecostal and charismatic writers. As you will see in the Bible passages below, with true prophecy, the spontaneity is in the giving of the revelation to the human being, which is according to the will of the Holy Spirit, not the will of the human being. However, there appears to be flexibility in when the revelation is to be shared with those who are to hear it: if the revelation comes during the meeting, then it is to be given as soon as possible during the meeting. But if the revelation comes before the meeting, then one is to wait until the meeting has begun and then give it at an appropriate time.
Bible Passages on “Prophecy” in the Christian Church (with my personal commentaries in italics):
Acts 2:17-18 ‘In the last days it shall be,’ says God, ‘that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
All true believers are eligible to prophesy, because God has poured out His Spirit on all flesh. But, 1 Corinthians 12:10 says that they can only do so if/when the Holy Spirit chooses to use them in this way.
1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Examine all things. Firmly hold onto what is good. Abstain from all appearances of evil.
Examine all prophecies to see if they are from God. Accept those that pass the tests, and reject those that do not. The tests are the written word of God and the spiritual gift of discerning of spirits. Note that there is no explicit judgment of the prophet and no punishment specified for delivering a false prophecy…only grace, instead, according to Pentecostal Theology. But remember, that does not mean that we should celebrate false prophecies and take even more risks in prophesying, any more than we should “…continue in sin that grace may increase” (Romans 6:1-2).
2 Peter 1:20-21 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of the Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation. For no prophecy at any time was produced by the will of man, but holy men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
True prophecy does not proceed from the will or the imagination of human beings. Instead, people are moved by the Holy Spirit to relay a message from God. The Holy Spirit, not a human being, initiates and operates the process.
1 John 4:1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
Do not just believe that everything a prophet says is from God, really is from God; there are many false prophecies being floated around. Rather, test every prophecy and decide for yourself if it is from God. This rule applies to even the most famous and esteemed of “prophets.” The tests are the written word of God and the spiritual gift of discerning of spirits.
1 Corinthians 12:1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.
Paul is about to teach the Corinthians all they (and we) need to know about prophecy in the Christian church body. [If he were to leave out any essential information, then the Corinthians (and we) would still be ignorant after learning all that Paul teaches here.]
1 Corinthians 12:6 There are various operations, but it is the same God who operates all of them in all people.
It is the Holy Spirit, not the human being, who operates the gift of prophecy. We just co-operate with the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:10 …to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.
Note that “discerning of spirits” follows immediately after “prophecy” in this list. Perhaps this order of mention was meant to imply that to effectively “test the spirits to see if they are from God,” one needs to exercise the gift of “discerning of spirits.” The test of the written word of God should always be applied also. The gift of prophecy is not given to all Christians as a result of their conversion; rather, it is distributed only to some, according to the will of the Holy Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:10 But that one and very same Spirit works all these, dividing to each one individually as He will.
It is the Holy Spirit, not a human being, who distributes the gift of prophecy (cf. Hebrews 2:4) as He wills, and then He works them Himself. Prophecy doesn’t “just happen”; the Holy Spirit, not a human being, initiates the process by giving someone with the gift of prophecy a revelation from God.
1 Corinthians 14:1 Follow after love and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.
Of all of the spiritual gifts, prophecy is the one most to be desired. (One may wonder, then, if maybe some of the time and energy we Pentecostals have been focusing on the gift of tongues might have been better spent on the gift of prophecy. I’m just sayin’.)
1 Corinthians 14:3 But he who prophesies speaks to men for their edification and exhortation and comfort.
Apparently, these are the three main purposes that God has in mind for giving us prophecy revelation in and for the church body.
1 Corinthians 14:5 I desire that you all speak in tongues, but even more that you prophesy. For greater is he who prophesies than he who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edification.
Not only is prophecy greater than tongues, but the prophet is greater than the tongues speaker, unless there is an interpretation. A message in tongues with interpretation in a church meeting is a revelation from God to edify those present; it is man-ward directed, whereas tongues spoken privately is God-ward directed to give praise and glory to God.
1 Corinthians 14:12 So, seeing that you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that you may excel to the edifying of the church. (cf. Young’s Literal Translation: “So also ye, since ye are earnestly desirous of spiritual gifts, for the building up of the assembly seek that ye may abound.”)
I see in this verse something that goes beyond just “…earnestly desire to prophesy.” What I see here is a call to action, an instruction for us to make every effort to get better at discerning the voice of God, so that our prophecies are true. Thus, teaching about prophecy that is aimed at improving our ability to discern the voice of God may be both biblical and encouraged. (Caution: In my opinion, prophecy practice sessions are suspect at best, because they are based on the false teaching that it is a human being, not the Holy Spirit, who initiates the process of prophecy. See 2 Peter 1:20-21, above.)
1 Corinthians 14:24-25 But if all prophesy and there comes in one who does not believe or one unlearned, he is convinced by all and judged by all. Thus the secrets of his heart are revealed. And so falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.
Pentecostal Theology holds that “…the secrets of his heart…” refers to hidden sins. According to this view, prophecies in the church body can convict a hearer of sin.
1 Corinthians 14:26 When you come together, every one of you has a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation, and an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.
Tongues, with interpretation, is for the edification of the whole church, just like prophecy is.
1 Corinthians 14:29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge.
All present at the meeting are to listen to the prophecy, and judge what is said (to decide if it is from God). There is no mention of judgment of, or punishment for, the prophet if the prophecy is found to be false. Instead, according to Pentecostal Theology, there is grace to cover these human failures. But, that does not mean that we should celebrate false prophecies and take even more risks in prophesying, any more than we should “…continue in sin that grace may increase” (Romans 6:1-2). The two main tools that we have to judge prophecies are the written word of God and the spiritual gift of discerning of spirits.
1 Corinthians 14:30 If anything is revealed to another that sits by, let the first keep silent.
Some prophecy revelations are received during the meeting, and these are to be given priority in the order of presentation at the meeting.
1 Corinthians 14:31 For you may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged.
Prophecies are to be given one after another, not while others are being given, so that all of the prophecies may be heard and judged by all, and all may be encouraged.
1 Corinthians 14:37 If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that what I am writing you is a command of the Lord.
Paul has received these instructions directly from Jesus, so his teaching here about prophecy in the church body is, itself, a true prophecy. It is not subject to challenge.
General Commentary: Notice that all of these verses pertain specifically to the use of the gift of prophecy in the assembly of the saints for the edification of all assembled. Nothing is said here of either revelations about individuals, or whether or not we are to share such personal revelations with anybody. I am presently of the opinion that revelations from God about individuals are just words of knowledge to be kept to oneself, unless God instructs you to share the revelation with the individual or a group, in which case it then becomes a prophecy, by definition. I have yet to find in the Bible any instruction or permission to share God-given personal information about an individual to any group of people (e.g., a small group or class within a church body, an entire church body, a conference or convention of “prophets”, a TV audience, a book audience, the internet, etc.). Pentecostal Theology commonly refers to revelations from God about and for individuals as one example of “Rhema.” (For a sound, biblical teaching by Watchman Nee on the Rhema word, see text pages 51-59 at this link: https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/bfa-media/ebooks/TGC-eng.pdf)
Now I am going to tread briefly into an area of the current practice of prophecy (what I call the “modern prophecy movement”) with which I am, perhaps, less familiar. The New Testament clearly presented to the New Testament church the acceptable parameters and practices for true prophecy at that time. But, is God limited today by what He prescribed for the New Testament church regarding prophecy, or is He free to do another “new thing” now, if He wants to? The Bible says that God is in heaven and does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). So, I am currently of the opinion that God may be doing some new, “new things” regarding prophecy in His church, but only insofar as they do not contradict or violate what is written in the New Testament. God does not contradict Himself. So, our challenge and our charge today is to not quench the Holy Spirit as we test the spirits of prophecy and prophets to see if they are of God. And, I believe God would not require this of us if He would not enable us to do it. That said, I strongly recommend that we proceed with very careful scrutiny and great caution in evaluating where the new things in contemporary prophecy are coming from. Just because something is supernatural doesn’t necessarily mean it is of God; it could be of Satan, instead. Unfortunately, for many who are engaged in the modern prophecy movement, “prophecy” has become not only God speaking to man, but includes man speaking to objects and situations (e.g., word of faith, positive confession, fleshly predictions, guesses, name it and claim it, etc.). In this view, any believer can, of his own volition, declare things that are not as though they are, an attribute that the Bible applies only to God (Isaiah 46:11; Romans 4:17). Such a practice is clearly outside of any biblical definition of “prophecy”, was not what Peter had in mind in quoting the prophet Joel in Acts 2:17-18, and trivializes and grossly misrepresents the true meaning of “prophecy.” If it didn’t originate with God, then it is not prophecy, by definition; call it something else, please.
How to Recognize False Teachers and False Prophets
Unfortunately, there are many false teachers and false prophets in the present day Christian church, as Jesus warned us there would be (Matthew 24:11). To help us be prepared to recognize them as we encounter them, I have compiled the following list of Bible verses, with my personal commentaries:
- There will be many others like them (Matthew 24:11 and 1 John 4:1)
- By their own will they will produce prophecies (2 Peter 1:21)
- They will appear to be Christians; ie., they are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15)
- They will bear evil fruit (e.g., false prophecies) (Matthew 7:16-20)
- They will not endure (i.e., abide in) sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:3)
- They will gather to themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires (e.g., Prophecy Conventions?) (2 Timothy 4:3)
- They will teach what men, having “itching ears”, are eager to hear (2 Timothy 4:3)
- They will turn from the truth to myths (2 Timothy 4:4)
- They will be out of control (2 Timothy 4:5)
- They will manifest signs and wonders to deceive even the elect (Matthew 24:24)
- They will secretly bring in destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1; Jeremiah 23:14)
- Many will follow their ways (2 Peter 2:2)
- They will blaspheme the way of truth (2 Peter 2:2)
- They will be presumptuous and arrogant (2 Peter 2:10)
- They will revel in their own deception (2 Peter 2:13)
- They will forsake the right way (2 Peter 2:15)
- They will speak arrogant words of vanity (2 Peter 2:18)
- They will promise “freedom” (2 Peter 2:19)
- They will speak lies in hypocrisy (1 Timothy 4:2)
- They will put their own words into God’s mouth (Jeremiah 23:16)
No one will find it enjoyable to label a prominent personality in Christendom a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, but the many warnings in the New Testament about false teachers, false prophets and false doctrines in the end times are there for a reason and demand our careful attention and appropriate action. We are instructed in the New Testament to test all of these teachings and prophecies to see if they are from God…or not. God’s written word, or logos, is a test that should always be applied. The spiritual gift of discerning of spirits is also available to us and can be used to determine what is and is not from God. If you are not prepared, or willing, to make such determinations, as the Bible instructs us to do (Ephesians 4:11-16), then I challenge you to prepare yourself and muster the courage of your convictions to speak out so that others will not be fooled by the “wolves in sheep’s clothing” that you encounter. In my opinion, there is no better way than this for us to “defend the faith.”
Further Reading: If you are interested in further exploring the topic of prophecy in contemporary Christianity, I highly recommend “What does the New Testament really say about the gift of prophecy?” by Eddie Hyatt (click HERE).
(To read more of my biblically themed articles, click HERE)