The Gift of Prophecy: What Is It?


      One of the biggest factors in the attempt to make prophecy an exercise and a gift that is not restricted to direct revelation from God is the desire for mysticism. Many people who profess to be Christians long to feel God's presence; they wish to be spiritual (roll the "r" when you say "spiritual"!, and make sure the word has four distinct syllables!); they want to hear that still, small voice of God speaking to them. They cannot accept that God may have given direct revelation only to specific individuals.
      There is no reason in the New Testament Scriptures to suggest that prophecy be understood in a way different than in the Old Testament. And, in fact, if we limit our study of prophecy to what actually appears in the New Testament our result will be similar to what is in the Old.
      The gift of tongues is a subject of great division today, and we do not need to document its impact here. But in my opinion, our views on the gift of prophecy may be even more intrusive and destructive than the tongues' divisions. These views are more subtle, and they lead well-meaning Christians away from the Scriptures, away from the solid, objective foundation of the written Word to the subjective, experiential, "God told me so" phenomena which are immediately "precious" and of little lasting value.


      The Apostle Paul began the three-chapter discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians with a clarifying warning at the beginning of chapter 12. It's obvious that the Corinthians were excited about the more external, supernatural gifts (more about that later). They lived in a culture which did not communicate with God or any of the gods except through media which resided at various places of idol worship.

      Ancient Greece and Rome had many oracles. The most famous was that of Apollo at Delphi, where the medium was a woman over 50 called the Pythia. After bathing in the Castalian spring, she apparently would descend into a basement cell, mount a sacred tripod, and chew the leaves of the laurel, sacred to Apollo. Her utterances, which were often highly ambiguous, were interpreted by priests. Other oracles, including those at Claros (Apollo), Amphicleia (Dionysus), Olympia (Zeus), and Epidaurus (Asclepius), were consulted through various other methods; for example, the oldest of the oracles, that of Zeus at Dodona, spoke through the whispering of the leaves of a sacred oak. At some shrines, the inquirer would sleep in the holy precinct and receive an answer in a dream. (Britannica 2006 Desktop Encyclopedia)
Now that the Corinthians had believed in Christ and thereby come into a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit, they should all be able to receive a word from God. Very exciting stuff! But Paul cautions them that content is more important than communication. He disagrees with the emphasis that was widely heralded when I was in graduate school that the medium is more important than the message. Not so then or now. And not that God has failed to communicate, but even in the early days of the Church, not everyone was a prophet or prophetess. High on the list still is the need to watch closely the content.
      When spectacular communication gifts did take place, were they necessarily provided by the Holy Spirit? The answer is a clear "No." The opening verses of 1 Corinthians 12 make that clear, as well as does 1 John 4:1-6. So a spectacular communication gift, such as prophecy, might be distributed by the Holy Spirit, but, as indicated, it might also be enabled by a different spirit. And anyone should be able to determine what a spirit is that is replacing and, in fact, opposing the Holy Spirit. Again, the content was a key indicator as to source.


      In 1966 Dr. W. Harold Mare, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, wrote an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society entitled "Prophet and Teacher in the New Testament." He examined the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the New Testament to determine, if possible, whether prophets were viewed as identical to other speakers, especially teachers, or whether they were different. He found a similar emphasis throughout, and that was that prophets were distinct from other speakers, and that the view discovered there was in harmony with the Old Testament.
      The New Testament, where our focus currently lies, indicates that something separates prophets from other speakers. The prophetic word is God's message (2 Peter 3:2; Acts 28:25). Scripture was written by prophets (Romans 16:26; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5). The word of prophets is dependable (Acts 10:43; Luke 24:25; Acts 2:30; 2 Peter 1:19). This is especially significant in Acts 10:43 where we should believe that forgiveness is found in Jesus Christ because prophets said so. And the word of prophets must be fulfilled (Matthew 2:5; 1:22; 5:17; Luke 24:44; Revelation 22:6; Matthew 24:15). The significance of other speakers does not rise to this level. (When I mention 'speakers' here one could also include writers.)


      Recently I read one article that proposed a prophet to be someone who thinks he is speaking from God. Frankly, that definition is dubious. The legitimacy of a prophet had best not be left to the subjective opinion of an individual himself or herself. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says, "The essential idea in the word is that of authorized spokesman." To round that out a bit we may say that a prophecy is a message from an authorized spokesman for God, or, from a little different perspective, that it is the communication of a message received directly from God or revealed directly by God to the speaker. God appears to be the initiator determining who actually becomes a prophet or receives the prophecy gift.
      Some have attempted to arrive at a broader definition by observing that the prophets were involved in two activities, that of fore- telling and that of forth-telling. In fact, we might even conclude that a larger portion of their message was forth-telling. It may be an obvious fact. But the test for the genuineness of the prophet in the Old Testament was the fore-telling (Deuteronomy 18:16-22). We cannot simply set that aside because of the percentage of forth- telling and assume that the prophet was no different than another speaker, for example, a teacher. If the prophet prophesied falsely (the fore-telling not coming true, or even it coming true but his prophecy encouraging movement away from the true God) even once you need not pay attention to his message and, in fact, he was to be executed (in the Israelite theocracy). So wisdom would suggest here that we should not be quick to claim to be prophets unless, of course, we are ready to risk our lives on statements we make about the future.

Context (historical)

      I have enjoyed personal involvement with motorcycles, and a bit of information in the history of motorcycles caught my attention. In 1909 Harley-Davidson produced a motorcycle which had an engine of about 500 cc displacement. It had an intake valve that operated automatically depending on the vacuum or pressure created by the piston. It was a neat, simple design, but it worked only up to about 500 rpm. The bike also had a flat leather drive belt. It also had pedals which were used to start and helpful to motor up hills. The horsepower was rated at four, and speed on excellent road surfaces might approach forty-five mph. The question I ask is this: Why is no one seeking to invent this engine today? Bikes today may easily have 125 horsepower or more and run sometimes up to over 20,000 rpm and 200 mph. The answer is that that was in the infancy of Harley- Davidson and of motorcycling in general. No one wants to go back there, and that particular motorcycle is mostly of museum interest.
      The same point can be made about the gift of prophecy. In 1 Corinthians 12:7-8 the expression is given appears twice. That expression is present tense and likely was used by Paul to indicate how the Holy Spirit was at the specific time of writing equipping the church at Corinth. He was not suggesting that the Holy Spirit would equip all churches of all time in that fashion, but in the infancy of the Church it was useful and appropriate. 1 Corinthians 13:8 indicates that gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge would not continue indefinitely. It is fascinating to note that the list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 divides easily into three groups: the intellect group, the effect group, and the communication group. The three gifts in 1 Corinthians 13:8 represent these three groups and sum up the entire list that Paul indicated the Holy Spirit was at that time distributing to the church in Corinth.
      Compare that list with the list in Romans 12:6-8, and the only gift that appears in both lists is prophecy. The Romans list is the only list appearing in a book that was not written to deal with certain problems but that was a general setting forth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Prophecy would be on its way out so that all the other gifts in Romans 12 are the norm for the mature Church Age. That means that the entire list in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 is irrelevant for the Church today. It is valuable for the principles of how the Spirit distributes and how the Church as the body of Christ is designed to operate, but the list itself is archaic, just as the motorcycle engine of 1909 is no longer the norm for the twenty-first century.
      Is there any other evidence that those gifts were for the infancy of the Church? Yes. Hebrews 2:1-4 gives insight. The author separates himself from the time of the apostles indicating that he lived in the generation following, at least speaking in terms of the spread of the gospel. He goes on to state that the gospel of Christ was confirmed in that earlier time of the apostles by means of signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit (those terms indicate the same kinds of gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10). To be able to write that implies that those phenomena were no longer taking place; otherwise he would not be able to separate out such as providing a significant confirmation at the earlier time. And once the message was confirmed, it did not need to continue being confirmed--it just needed to be proclaimed.


      The gift of prophecy cannot be divorced from the prophet who functioned under the direct control of God. Because of that, prophets are recognized as those who wrote Scripture. The word of a prophet was dependable. I have heard prophecies so-called proclaimed on television such as that someone would have a successful ministry in the coming year. Perhaps the result could be disputed, but even if there is such success, we can hardly put such a 'prophecy' on the level of Scriptural inspiration, and we shouldn't use the 'prophecy' terms to describe it. However successful it is, it is something different, perhaps not much different than an educated business prognostication.
      There were those who approaching the change from 1999 to 2000 made predictions that did not come true, even insisting that they would in a few months be doing something entirely different because of the problem of Y2K. They should be doing something different now, not because of the Y2K problem, but because their prophecies did not materialize. Why someone would continue to listen to and follow them is a mystery.
      And beyond that, we should recognize that there is no subjective experience that can equal the authority and value of the written Scriptures. We should ignore mystical impressions and rather pursue the instruction of the written and tested Bible. Where it doesn't speak, God has promised wisdom to those who ask and do not doubt (James 1:5-8).
      If you have further questions or wish to discuss this further, feel free to e-mail the author at