Can God still use prophecy in the lives of Christians today? Did prophecy end with the early Apostles? Is prophecy something dangerous or suspect?
In a general sense, all Christians have a role as prophets as we proclaim the truth of God’s Word and share the Gospel. But additionally, when the New Testament teaches about spiritual gifts given to the church, we see prophecy mentioned in multiple places. We also see other gifts related to prophecy – such as tongues, interpretation, wisdom, knowledge, and discernment – but here, we are focusing on the gift of prophecy.
What is the purpose of prophecy?
As Wayne Grudem explains in Systematic Theology, the ongoing gift of prophecy in the church should not be equated with the work and words of Old Testament Prophets (capital “P”). To do so creates major confusion. Before the time of Christ, Prophets spoke the very Word of the Lord with authority. They often introduced their messages with “thus says the Lord” – an introduction not used with New Testament prophecy. (Of course Moses expected the Israelites to evaluate all prophets because false prophets would rise up and their false messages needed to be weeded out (see Deuteronomy 13:1-5, 18:20-22).)
After Christ, it was the Apostles (capital “A”) who carried the authority of the Old Testament Prophets into the first century. These Apostles were witnesses to the resurrected Christ and were commissioned to speak with God’s authority to formulate Church Doctrine (see for example the Apostle Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and his declaration that Gentiles were equal partners in the Christian faith). The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:37-38 that those who think they are prophets or highly spiritual need to submit themselves to his teaching as “a command of the Lord.” So then, we must maintain from the onset that the ongoing gift of prophecy in the church today does not carry the authority of the Old Testament Prophets or the Early Church Apostles, nor speak the infallible “Word of the Lord.”
Additionally, we should not assume that all, or even most, prophecy is meant to predict the future. If we look at the book of Acts, we see that while prophecy can be used in this way (see Agabus in Acts 11:28), the gift has a more regular function to strengthen, encourage, and console believers. In Acts 15:32, Judas and Silas were prophets who “encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words.”
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul unpacks the responsible use of prophecy (and tongues) in the corporate gathering of believers. It is worthwhile to read the whole chapter, but for now, let’s look at verses 3-5 to learn about the proper use of prophecy in the church.
“On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.”
As we see, the one who speaks prophetically shares a pertinent word to build up (strengthen), encourage (edify, exhort), or console (comfort) the church. 1 Corinthians 14 identifies this prophetic word as a “revelation” (vv. 26,30). These prophetic revelations come by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, but they do not carry Divine Authority. On his blog, Sam Storms clarifies that there are different senses in which God “reveals” something:
“In Philippians 3:15 he tells the church that “if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” And in Ephesians 1:17 Paul prays that a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” would be granted to believers…The point is simply that not all “revelatory” activity of God comes to us as Scripture quality, divinely authoritative, canonical truth. Prophecy, therefore, is not based on a hunch, a supposition, an inference, an educated guess, or even on sanctified wisdom. Prophecy is not based on personal insight, intuition, or illumination. Prophecy is the human report of a divine revelation.”
So, we can define the gift of prophecy as the Spirit-filled ability to share a revelation that God brings to one’s mind, or lays on one’s heart, to build up the church. Because these prophecies are not infallible, nor carry the authority of God’s Word, they must be evaluated according to the standard of God’s Word. In the context of the local church gathering, the elders hold the responsibility to monitor and judge prophecy. We see the call for prophecy to be judged and evaluated in 1 Corinthians 14:29-32:
“Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 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.”
God’s Special Revelation, the sixty-six books of the Bible, is the full, final, sufficient, infallible, authoritative Word of God. Any other ideas or messages a believer has in his own mind or communicates to others – whether a personal thought, a word of encouragement for a friend, or a lesson for your small group – needs to be submitted to the final authority of the written Word of God. Any revelation believers receive from the prompting of the Holy Spirit is always in harmony with and rooted in the foundational truths expressed in Scripture. The ongoing gift of prophecy in the church today will not bring any new or universal revelations outside of what is in God’s Word. The Holy Spirit speaks and leads his people by bringing doctrinal clarity, practical insight, situational guidance, personal relevance, and specific application concerning what he has revealed in his Word.
A prophetic word will never undermine, conflict, or challenge the full and final authority of God’s Word. True prophecy stirred by the Spirit of God is never in tension with the Word of God, because the Spirit is the one who wrote the Bible! Jesus spoke to the Apostles what is true for us as well: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak” (John 16:13).
When will prophecy end?
Some Christians who love Jesus and believe the Bible dismiss the ongoing legitimacy of prophecy in the church today. They claim that since the Scriptures are the final, sufficient, authoritative written revelation, God no longer uses prophecy to speak to his people. Their concern is that opening up the possibility of God speaking, bringing revelation, or giving prophetic words to believers today undermines the sufficiency and authority of God’s Word. But it is precisely because of the sufficiency and authority of God’s Word that we recognize the Spirit’s ongoing work through the responsible use of the gift of prophecy. After all, as we have seen, this is what the Bible itself teaches!
Those who hold to cessationism argue that the gift of prophecy (and other so-called miraculous gifts) ceased with the end of the Apostolic Era (once the Bible was complete). But this is contrary to what the Bible itself teaches. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 explicitly tells us when the prophetic gifts—such as prophecy, tongues, and knowledge—will end:
“As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
So, the gift of prophecy does not cease at the end of the Apostolic Era, but when the “perfect comes.” This is a reference to the return of Christ, the Perfect One. In verse 12, the passage looks ahead to the time we’ll see “face-to-face” and we will “know fully, even as I have been fully known.” When we see Jesus face-to-face, and know all the fullness of God fully, we will no longer need the prophetic gifts! (Of course the point of the passage is that love will never end!) The belief that all the gifts mentioned in the New Testament will continue for the life of the church is called continuationism.
How should prophecy be used?
Let’s say you have the gift of prophecy, or you have the desire to be used by God in this way, what should you do? First, like any spiritual gift, you need to be a good steward and use it for the good of the Body (1 Peter 4:10). Romans 12:6 says, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith.” Like all the gifts of the Spirit, prophecy is a tool to be used. Think about how someone with the gift of teaching or leadership practices his gift and gets more effective over time. The believer can either neglect his gifts and let them wither, or utilize them and get better over time. As Paul encouraged Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God,” we should be purposeful to stir up our gifts (2 Timothy 1:6).
We have defined the gift of prophecy as the Spirit-filled ability to share a revelation that God brings to one’s mind, or lays on one’s heart, to build up the church. Grudem and Storms indicate that prophecy is reporting something that God has “spontaneously” brought to mind. However, the idea that prophecy needs to be “spontaneous” seems unhelpful. God certainly can work in a sudden, unexpected way, but as believers we should be active to prepare our hearts and ready our minds for God to use us. As we anticipate God empowering the spiritual gifts he has entrusted to us, we should be still and wait before him. We should be “praying at all times in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:18), attentive to his guidance and his voice.
A major part of being equipped for prophecy and sharing revelations that God has laid on your heart, comes by reading, studying, memorizing, and mediating on the Word of God. As we store up God’s Word in our heart (Psalm 119:11), we ready ourselves for the Holy Spirit to bring a revelation – an illumination or application of Scripture – pertinent to the situation and people around us.
Like all spiritual gifts, prophecy can be used to serve a group of believers or an individual. This might mean you are praying with a friend, and the Spirit prompts you to share a specific word of encouragement that pierces her heart. Or perhaps in the context of a small group gathering, you are stirred to offer Spirit-led words of comfort to those who are grieving. Or in a corporate worship service, the Spirit might lead you to read a Scripture and give a brief exhortation (under the guidance and order set out by the church elders). As we see in the Bible, the Spirit may speak to you by bringing to your memory a dream you’ve had or by stirring up a vision or mental image.
Having the gift of prophecy means that you are actively attentive to the Spirit, eager to share revelations from the Spirit, and the Spirit is regularly bearing fruit through you. But, even if you don’t have the gift of prophecy, that doesn’t mean God can’t work in your life in these ways. That’s like saying that a Christian could never teach without the gift of teaching, or never serve without the gift of serving, or never show mercy without the gift of mercy! So stay open, and be ready for God to use you in all sorts of ways!
In summation: far from being strange or dangerous, prophecy can be a great blessing to believers! As we seek to be faithful with all our spiritual gifts, we should be active in prayer and reading the Word, and attentive to the Spirit and the people around us. As 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 teaches, prophecy is something we should welcome, not scorn: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.”