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Understanding the Prophetic Today

July, 2001

By Dr. Mary Craig

Who do you believe? And what do you believe? Different messages, differing advice, all claiming to be the truth. What word do you swallow? What word do you follow?

Lately, I have noticed much confusion and abuse in the area of prophetic gifting. I find people claiming to be in the office of prophet clinging to OT ways, misunderstanding the office for today. I find others wounded by "words" taken as the very Word of God from the mouths of "prophets." I find abuses of the phrase, "the Holy Spirit says," "I speak for the Holy Spirit and God," "I am the voice of God to you," etc.

The problem has been around from the beginning. Eve heard "another word", and seeking wisdom, seeking something to gain when she already had Christ, the Anointed One, the Wisdom of God, she swallowed the lie of the Serpent. The occult source is always ready with its counterfeit, its deception, its perversion, its profanity, its corruption, its pepper in the salt shaker. It was hard to tell, especially when prophecies were yet to be fulfilled.

God established tests in the OT:

      1. Speaking in the name of another god. (Deuteronomy 13.1-5, 18-20b)
      2. The words do not come to pass. (Deuteronomy 18.22)
      3. Not speaking in conformity with previous revelations. (Deuteronomy 13.5; Isaiah 8.20)

In the throws of battle, the Serpent set forth his spokesperson and Jehovah set forth His, the Word. One gave a false word, and one is the true Word of God. You couldn’t tell by the "Thus saith the Lord" routine, or by someone just calling themselves a prophet or prophetess, or by them saying they had a dream or vision or an oracle from "God." Yet it was important. Your life could depend on it. The course of history could depend on it. Salvation depends on it.

So, let’s look at the prophets, what motivates, the character of their person and work, the consequences of their ministries, and the gist of their messages.

I. Motivations

No one should assume the role of speaking for God. Jezebel calls herself a prophetess. The true prophet finds that the Word of the Lord comes to him. The true prophet is called, commissioned, separated, compelled. Paul said, "For necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is me if I preach not the gospel." (1 Cor. 9.16) The Word was like fire in Jeremiah’s mouth. He had the weighty presence of the Lord’s Word coupled with the sense of the people’s need. He saw sin. He saw the Holy One of Israel. Without repentance, God would not relent of the judgment on evil. The message has always been, repent or perish. (Jeremiah 26.2, 3) and "why will you die, O house of Israel?"

False prophets have a different motive. They seek personal gain (hawking the Holy Spirit, the Word of God today) and acceptance by others. Micah 3.5 catches it for us: "As for the prophets who lead My people astray, if one feeds them, then they proclaim ‘peace’; if he does not, they prepare to wage war against him." Personal provision and comfort. Pay up or feel the wrath of Satan. Personal gain. They’re out there for money, for food, for bread, for personal advantage. They are the pretenders, not the contenders for the faith. Their concern is to advance their cause, their ministry, their church, their radio show, their T. V. appearances, their resume, their denomination, their own glory. They speak from themselves, seeking their own glory, not the glory of the only Righteous One. (John 7)

People are happy hearing what they want to hear. Micah says again, "If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophecy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ he would be just the prophet for this people." (Micah 2.11) People say they want a true Word from the Lord, but they really want approval of their own ideas and promotion of the lifestyle and decisions they have made for themselves. " That’s just the way I am. I like it. Do you agree? Great, you are a true prophet!" The false prophet’s stamp of approval on the people will bring the people’s stamp of approval on the false prophet. Never a negative word. Is that how God is? But then, do you really want a god like the God of the Scriptures? So sovereign? So powerful? So right?

The true prophet had to deliver the Word of the Lord exactly as it came to him or her regardless of the consequences…to his own life…to history. One speaks with the audience of the people in mind. The true prophet speaks with the audience of God in mind. The false fears the judgment/decisions of the people. The other fears the judgment/decisions of God. One is a pretender, putting on the mask. The other has no mask. Money motivates the one who masquerades in a reflection of light. (1Timothy 6.3-10) Truth motivates the true to be true through and through. (1 Timothy 6.11-16, 20,21)

II. The Character of Their Person and Work

The false prophet is a liar. (John 8) He lives a lie and tells lies (Micah 2.11; Jeremiah 23.14, 16) He is a person of the lie. He can appear very righteous, very concerned about evil. He calls good evil and evil good. He accuses. He makes you sick and you don’t know why. He can be beautiful, like Lucifer, charming, seductive, deceiving you. He speaks as though his words were from the true God, the true Word. To the innocent, the words of the false prophet come as truth. If the innocent ignore the word, they risk disobedience to their Creator. Life hinges on obedience. Life hinges on obedience to truth.

Behind the lying is an attitude of presumption and rebellion. The false prophet does not stand in the counsel of the Lord yet he presumes to speak as one understanding the mysteries of God (Jeremiah 23.16, 22; 1 Timothy 4.1-5). They talk about the dreams they have had (Jeremiah 23.5), when in fact, they are declaring the delusions of their own hearts (Jeremiah 23.26). They are not sent, but they go (Jeremiah 23.21). They are self-proclaimed masters of your destiny, seeking to control by domination and manipulation.

False prophets are abusive. They use and abuse. They intimidate true prophets (Jeremiah 23.14) and abuse positions of trust (Jeremiah 23.10). Their words do not nourish, but choke and starve (Jeremiah 23.26; John 10.10). False prophets seek to steal the truth from believers, casting doubt. The true Word feeds, nourishes, refreshes, sanctifies, builds, cleanses. It is not always positive in appearance, but it is always positive in its desired end. It has power. It is like fire and a hammer (Jeremiah 23.26). It can crack the hardened heart and melt hostility in the heated passion of the expression of God’s love. It is the Word that will judge in the last day. (John 12.48)

The true prophet is like Micah: "filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin." (Micah 3.8) The Spirit of the Lord is with him, coming to him, on him. There is a moral might, an inner strength. Liars rebuke to abuse, to control through guilt, to condemn you to spiritual death by beating you into the dust, desirous that you join in the curse on the serpent. Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of the beloved city of Jerusalem. You were supposed to cry "Peace" to Jerusalem, weren’t you? Peace and safety.

False prophets will confront true prophets in power encounters. (2 Timothy 2.24-26) They will be "in your face" telling you that you have no place in the kingdom of God, that you are the false one, that you have no right to speak for God. Jeremiah was told to strap a yoke about his neck, symbolizing the bondage to be experienced. In spite of servitude to Babylon, they were to submit to this yoke. "No," said Hananiah. The nations would be spared the domination of Babylon. Within two years treasures taken from the Lord’s house by Nebuchadnezzar would return to Jerusalem. The exiled king Jehoiachin would be released and restored in the land. Hananiah stood before all the people and broke apart the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck. He called good evil. Then Jeremiah said Hananiah acted presumptuously and prophesied lies and preached rebellion against the Word. He would die within the year. Within two months, the false prophet was dead. (Jeremiah 28)

In Amos 7, we have another great example to learn from. Amos is the shepherd from Tekoa. When confronted by the priest of Bethel, the priest of the independent religious system established by Jeroboam king of Israel, the northern kingdom, Amos says he was neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son. He was just a shepherd and someone who took care of sycamore-fig trees. But the Lord took him from that and told him to leave his home in the south, in Judah, and go to the northern kingdom with a message from the true God of Israel. Amos was delivering those judgments, first on Israel’s neighbors, then on Israel. But then the Sovereign Lord showed him things concerning Judah, and Amos prayed. His appeal was the size of Jacob, it was so small. Okay. But then came that plumb line, and that was it. God does not keep what He’s doing from His servants, the prophets, but He does bring them around to His heart, mind, and will. This they must proclaim, regardless. Amaziah wants Amos thrown out. He’s just ruining everything!

While the false prophet speaks the agenda of the Serpent, trying to get the people to curse God and die or to be cursed by God and die for their disobedience and unbelief in the truth, the true Word, God says the false prophet is cursed. (2 Timothy 3) As you do, God will do.

Now let’s look at some characteristics of the OT Prophets.

1. Sensitivity to Evil.

Unlike philosophers who provide us with orations on metaphysics and the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, the prophets speak about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and business in the market place. Instead of taking us through elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums. To the philosophers, the world is a proud place, full of beauty. Prophets are scandalized, and rave about apparently paltry things, expounding with excessive language about apparent trivialities.

Poor people are being treated unfairly by the rich. Some old women find pleasure in worshiping the Queen of Heaven. What horrifies the prophets are even today daily occurrences all over the globe. Look at Amos 8.4-6, for example.

We would call this merely social dynamics. A single act of injustice—cheating in business, exploiting someone weaker—is no big deal. Injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people, but certainly not the disaster and deathblow to existence the prophets make it out to be. To us, it’s an episode. To the prophets, it is a catastrophe threatening the world. Consider Amos 8.7, 8 and Jeremiah 2.12, 13.

Why destroy Jerusalem and send a nation into exile for some minor acts of injustice inflicted on the insignificant, powerless poor? Why such indignation and outrage? Why such harsh rebuke and relentless pleas to "return to God?" Why do the prophets cry against indifference to evil? Amos 6.6 gives an example.

We fail to see the depth of misery caused by our own failures. We corrupt ourselves according to scripture. Our eyes witness the callousness and cruelty of man, but our hearts rationalize to obliterate the memories, cam the nerves, and silence the conscience.

The prophet is someone who feels fiercely. God thrusts a burden upon his/her soul such that the prophet is stunned at humanity’s greed. The prophet fears for the agony of man as one who knows the terror of God. The prophet speaks to the silent agony, the voice of the hearts of the plundered oppressed, to the profaned riches of the world. The prophet hears the cries of those living in quiet desperation. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and humanity. God rages at the corruption and injustice in the prophet’s words.

2. Taking trivialities seriously

Plato: "Human affairs are hardly worth considering in earnest, and yet we must be in earnest about them—a sad necessity constrains us." Plato apologizes for his "low opinion of mankind" as he compares men with the gods. "Let us grant, if you wish, that the human race is not to be despised, but is worthy of some consideration." (Laws, VIII, 803)

Cicero: "The gods attend to great matters; they neglect small ones." (De Natura Deorum, II, 167)

Aristotle: The gods are not concerned at all with the dispensation of good and bad fortune or external things. (Magna Moralia, II, 8, 1207, 1208, 1209)

The Prophets: We must consider the plight of man. His mind is preoccupied with man, with concrete actualities. In the eyes of God nothing that has bearing upon good and evil is small or trite.

God through the prophet expresses sadness as man forsakes Him in rebellion. Man is shown his full iniquity in God’s expression of love for him so that repentance may come and wrath averted.

3. Intensifies situations to give God’s perspective

The prophets rail with a disquietude sometimes amounting to agony. Yet in the midst of anguish come interludes of God’s eternal love and light. The prophet’s language is emotional, imaginative, concrete in diction, rhythmical in movement, artistic in form, in short…poetic, but not tranquil. The prophets’ style does not reflect a state of inner harmony or poise. The style is charged with agitation, anguish, nonacceptance. The prophet’s concern is not with nature but with history, a history devoid of poise.

The prophet speaks as one involved with the life of the people. His life and soul are at stake in what he says and in what is going to happen to what he says. The prophet, the people, and God Himself are all involved in what the words of the prophet convey.

Prophetic utterance is urging, alarming, forcing onward, as words gushing forth from the heart of God seeking entrance in the hearts of man. They carry a summons with explosive but enlightening accuracy, firm and contingent, harsh and yet compassionate.

The prophet seldom tells a story. He casts events. He castigates. He is not as the Greeks, seeking to purge emotions through a story/script of tragedy. His images burn.

The prophet intensifies responsibility out of impatience of excuse. He expresses contempt for pretense and self-pity. His tone is rarely sweet, rarely caressing. His words slash, shock, pierce as a sharp sword, striking the heart. (Isaiah 49.2) (Isaiah 32.11) The words of the prophets strain the emotions, wrenching the conscience from a state of suspended animation.

4. Holds people to God’s standards

The prophet hears what is imperceptible to others. The house may look clean, the city distinguished, yet the prophet walks through distressed. See Habakkuk 2.6, 9, 11-12. The world exalts architects who build our great cities. Woe to him? We are intoxicated with success. Deep within we worship the imposing, the illustrious, the ostentatious. Poets coming to Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom, would have written songs exalting the magnificent architecture, the beautiful temples, the monuments. Yet when Amos came to Samaria he cries out with dismay over moral confusion and oppression in the name of the Lord (Amos 6.8). Didn’t Amos see the beauty of the city?

The ancients cherished wisdom, wealth, and might. To the prophets, such infatuation was ludicrous and idolatrous. Isaiah 10.13; Isaiah 29.13, 114; Jeremiah 8.9; Hosea 12.8; 10.13, 14; Jeremiah 9.23, 24; Zechariah 4.6 What is the highest good?

5. No concessions; no compromise

We look at the moral state of society and it seems pretty much okay. We don’t give it much thought, really. To the prophet it is dreadful. We see a lot of charity done, and seek to balance the scales. The prophet doesn’t accept that. It’s prudish and fleeing from responsibility. "Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent." (Heschel, page 9)

The prophet sees the world reeling in confusion. He makes no concession to man’s capacity and exhibits little understanding for human weakness. Man is responsible.

The prophet is sleepless and grave. Perfume cannot cover up the stench of cruelty. Pomp, the scent of piety, mixed with ruthlessness, sickens the prophet. The prophet sees unnoticed malignancy, cancers in society, secret obscenities. Jeremiah 11.18. The prophet hears the silent sigh.

In much of philosophy, the physical world is devoid of value—unreal, a sham, an illusion, merely a dream. In the Bible, the physical world is real, the creation of God. Power, offspring, wealth, prosperity, these are blessings, yet if one boasts as if these came by one’s own triumphs and might, it is nothing. Isaiah 40.15, 17

The world is not, as Plato thought, the shadow of ideas, but real. The world’s reality is contingent upon compatibility with God. The prophet sees an end. (Jeremiah 4.23-26) The prophet experiences moments that defy our understanding, that assault our mind. His words burn where conscience ends. He is not a singing saint. He is not a moralizing poet. He speaks for God.

6. One who exposes

The OT prophets challenged the apparently holy, revered, and awesome, challenging beliefs cherished as certainties. They exposed institutions and pretensions. Their words often sounded blasphemous. (Jeremiah 6.20, 7.2-15, 21-23) They revealed the distortions, perversions, false testimonies, injustices, false piety.

In the pagan world, the god depended on the people. The people had to triumph, or they would get rid of that god. The true prophets of Israel proclaimed that their enemies may be God’s instrument (Isaiah 10.5, 13.5; 5.26; 7.18; 8.7), the rod of His anger. Instead of cursing the enemy, like false prophets, they condemn their own nation. The true God is sovereign over the nations, not in subjection to their whims and notions.

7. Goodness and Severity

True prophets have words that can be stern, sour, and stinging. Yet behind the words is compassion. (Ezekiel 18.23) The exhortation is to repentance, returning to God. True prophets begin with a message of doom and gloom, but end with hope of restoration if there is repentance.

8. Sweeping Allegations

True prophets placed all in a category liable. (Jeremiah 5.1, 5; 6.13; 8.10; 6.6; Hosea 4.1, 2) Amos condemns the rich for oppressing the poor. Isaiah calls Judah a "sinful nation…laden with iniquity." (1.4), "a people of unclean lips," (6.5).

Tell the righteous that all shall be well with them,
Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him,
For what his hands have done shall be done to him, (Is. 3.10, 11)

9. Everyone else appears blind and deaf

For the prophet, few may be guilty, but all are responsible. Others might judge a human being just and pure, but God does not. (Job 4; Job 15; 1 Kings 8.46; Eccles. 7.20) People go around praising each other, yet God may reprove them. The true prophet calls the people to society’s corruption, to awaken from indifference to suffering, to be uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, and to be concerned for God and all creation.

The prophet hears when others do not, sees what others see not. The purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change people on the inside, to revolutionize history.

10. Lonely, miserable, and embarrassed

Prophets used the word and prophetic acts to illustrate the content of their message. Predictions did not always serve to verify the prophet’s word, because many did not come to pass within their lifetimes. Few miracles are ascribed to the prophets (Isaiah 38.7, 8; Deut. 13.1-3). Some receive signs (Isaiah 7.11; 1 Samuel 12.18; Judges 6; 1 Kings 18) when imploring God for miracles. Magicians could duplicate miracles (Exodus 8), so the miracles did not always determine true from false.

True prophets are hated and abhorred. (Amos 5.10). They sit alone. (Jeremiah 15.17) They are reproached and persecuted (Jeremiah 20.9). They are despised and rejected of men (Isaiah 53). Others fight against them (Jeremiah 15.20). They entertain no illusions about their mission (Ezekiel 2.4-6; 3.8-9, 27). True prophets speak whether the people hear or don’t hear (Ezekiel 33.6, 7; Jeremiah 25.3-7).

Who were the prophets of the OT?

To patriots, they seemed pernicious. To pious folk, they seemed blasphemous. To those in authority, they came across as seditious. Their words were as fire. The prophets were watchmen (Hosea 9.8), servants (Amos 3.7; Jeremiah 25.4; 26.5), messengers of God (Haggai 1.13), "an assayer and tester" of the people’s ways (Jeremiah 6.27). OT prophets experienced a fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with God’s heart, a communion with God’s consciousness and mind. The OT prophet lived not only his own personal life but also the emotional life of God, hearing God’s voice and feeling His heart, imparting the pathos of the message together with its logic. He speaks with sympathy, yet speak he must for God.

III. Consequences of Ministry

Talk is never cheap. The spirit world operates on words, the manifestation of words. The words of a prophet must be the Word of God. The words of prophetic intercession must be the Word of God, without presumption, without pretense, without a lie, without corruption, without compromise, without a mixture of human reasoning and thought and God’s thoughts.

Talk influences. Ephesians 4 tells us that no corrupt communication is to proceed out of our mouths, but only that which is for the use of edifying, that it might minister grace to the hearers. False prophets dishearten the righteous and encourage the wicked not to turn from their evil ways and so save their lives (Ezekiel 13.22). A person proclaiming a lie in the name of the Lord wounds the heart of the believer. Confusion sets in. There is a subtle seduction to sin, to continue in rebellion. There’s more talk about sin than about the Savior. There’s more talk about the self than the Sovereign Lord. There’s more talk about the past than about the present move of God and your destiny in Christ. There’s more discussion about what Satan can do than about what Satan cannot do! False prophets are godless people, spreading wickedness in the Lord’s holy temple. (Jeremiah 23.9-20). False prophets encourage the silencing of true prophets (Jeremiah 26.1-4, Jeremiah 11.18-23). False prophets spare those of their own kind and kill those of the truth (Ezekiel 13.19). False prophets encourage apostasy, lawlessness, injustice in the land.

Not only are there consequences for the hearer, but there are consequences for the one who presumes to speak for God. God makes their paths slippery and banishes them to darkness (Jeremiah 23.12). The sun sets and they are overcome with darkness (Micah 3.6). They will be ashamed, disgraced, dishonored (Micah 3.7). God stands against them. They are excluded from the blessings of the Lord (Ezekiel 13.8, 9). They experience the wrath of God (Ezekiel 13.15, 16).

The true prophet can expect trembling bones and a broken heart because of the Lord and His holy Word (Jeremiah 23.9). He can expect to be challenged, told to shut up and go home (Amos 7.12, 13). He will be accused publicly by authorities before authorities (Jeremiah 26.11). He will undergo false accusation and threats against his life (Amos 7.10; Jeremiah 26.11). He can expect physical abuse and possibly death, having to flee for his life to foreign countries, pursued to the death (Jeremiah 26.20-23). The Word will burn inside as a fire, stirring the soul, superintending the spirit. He will not escape the mission of his message. He will both show and tell, whatever the cost.

The true prophet proclaims the love of God, consolation and good hope by grace, that the hearers may be established in every good word and work (2 Thess. 2).

IV. The Message of the OT Prophets

Tension between God and man. The prophet speaks for God, and his words better speak right things about God. Yet before God, the prophet appeals for the people. Before the people, the prophet appeals for God.

The prophets were called, commissioned, summoned by God in response to specific historical situations. The message was not isolated to a single era, but frequently anticipated the future, and speaks pointedly across the generations. Prophets had visions, yet a vision of the Almighty was not essential to the call of a prophet. The prophets were often overwhelmed, brought to the brink of despair, struck with their inadequacy, yet not crippled by the awesomeness of the position.

The message was not religious philosophy and speculations about the nature of God and God’s relation to the world. The message pertained to specific historical events, not time-bound, yet concrete to people of their own times. Only because the Lord put words in his mouth could the prophet fulfill the office of prophet. Isaiah was a man of unclean lips. He understood that his heart disqualified him from being righteous as God is righteous. The prophet was not called because of personal religious piety, but to remain faithful in declaring the word of God exactly as delivered to him. Obedience to the commission meant success. Consequences were left in the hands of the Lord.

In the time before the monarchs, e.g., Moses and Deborah, the prophets functioned as mouthpiece-leader, speaking to the people as spiritual overseer, giving national guidance and maintaining justice. Samuel is the transition. During the pre-classical period, prophets like Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, and Micaiah, functioned as mouthpiece-leader speaking to the king and court, giving military advice, and pronouncing rebuke or blessing. Transition prophets included Jonah in the North and Isaiah in the South. During the classical period of the writing prophets, of whom Jeremiah is the best example, the prophets spoke as mouthpiece-social/spiritual commentators to the people giving rebuke concerning current condition of society, warnings of captivity and destruction, exile and promise of eventual restoration. They called for justice and repentance.

The prophets came with the indictment of God to the people and a call to repentance, to return to the Lord. With return, restoration would come. Without repentance, the people would suffer rebuke, correction, punishment for disobedience, judgment and wrath. Through judgment, deliverance came.

The indictment stated the offense(s), focusing primarily on idolatry, ritualism, and social justice issues, not giving proper honor to the Lord. The judgment was a punishment to be carried out, primarily political in nature, because of recent or current events. God provided instruction, His expected response, i.e., to return to Him and end the wicked conduct. The message affirmed a future hope or deliverance presented and understood as coming after an intervening period of judgment or as spanning a protracted time period. Change spiritually would lead to potential socioeconomic change and eventual political change.

V. Looking at the gift of prophecy today

In his Systematic Theology, Dr. Wayne Grudem has an excellent chapter (chapter 53) on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In his section on prophecy, he defines prophecy today as "telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind."

In this section, I will be summarizing much of Dr. Grudem’s position, but I encourage readers to read his book, published by Zondervan Publishing, 1994.

OT prophets spoke and wrote words that had absolute divine authority, words that were the very words of God for all time (Numbers 22.38; Deut. 18.18-20; Jeremiah 1.9; Ezekiel 2.7, e.g.). To disbelieve or disobey a prophet’s words equaled disbelieving or disobeying God. (Deut. 28.19; 1 Samuel 8.7; 1 Kings 20.36, e.g.)

The NT counterpart to the OT prophets are NT apostles, a new term used by Jesus, who is The Apostle. (1 Cor. 2.13; 2 Cor. 13.3; Gal. 1.8-12; 1 Thess. 2.13, 4.8, 15; 2 Peter 3.2) Apostles, not prophets have authority to write the words of NT scripture. When establishing their unique authority, the appeal to themselves as "apostles." (Romans 1.1; 1 Cor. 1.1; 9.1, 2; 2 Cor. 1.1; 11.12-13; 12.11, 12; Gal. 1.1; Eph. 1.1; 1 Peter 1.1; 2 Peter 1.1; 3.2;, e.g.)

Dr. Grudem asserts that Jesus may have chosen the new term apostle to designate those having the authority to write scripture because the Greek word prophetess carried a broad range of meanings at the time, i.e., "one who speaks on the basis of some external influence." (See Titus 1.12, Luke 22.64; John 4.19.) The term prophet in everyday use simply meant "one who has supernatural knowledge" or "one who predicts the future" or "spokesman." (TDNT 6, p. 794)

NT prophets did not speak with authority equal to the words of scripture. In Acts 21.4, e.g., Paul was told "through the Spirit" not to go on to Jerusalem. Paul disobeyed this word. In the same chapter, Acts 21, Agabus prophesied about the Jews binding Paul and said they would "deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles." This prediction was nearly correct, but not perfect, something that would have called an OT prophet into question.

Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5.19-21 "do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good." The Thessalonians received and accepted God’s Word with joy from the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 1.6, 2.13, 4.15). So Paul implies that prophecies contain some things that are good and some things that are not good. No one would speak thus about OT prophecy from true prophets of God. Paul implies that we must discern what is of God and what is not of God, what is "flesh" and what is of the Holy Spirit.

In 1 Corinthians 14.29-38 Paul suggests that prophets should listen to other prophets and sift the good from the bad. Diakrino in Greek means to "weigh what is said." No OT prophet would stand for this! Paul commands believers to do this, suggesting that NT prophecy does not have the authority of God’s very words. Paul allows one prophet to interrupt another one in 1 Cor. 14.30. "If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one."

To the church that had much prophecy, Paul says in 1 Cor. 14.36: "What! Did the word of God come forth from you, or are you the only ones it has reached?" He then claims authority far greater than any prophet there. "If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized." (v. 37, 38)

At the end of his life, Paul points believers to the scriptures, encouraging them to rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim. 2.15) and pointing out the function of scripture, which is God-breathed, for "teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." (2 Tim. 3.16) (See Jude 3, 2 Peter 1.19, 20; 2 Peter 3.16 also.)

Most who move in the gift of prophecy teach that contemporary prophecy is not equal to scripture in authority, even if speaking of prophecy as the "word of God" for today. It is imperfect and impure.

Confusion comes from the habit of using the phrase "thus says the Lord," a phrase nowhere used in the NT by any prophets in NT churches. Agabus used "Thus says the Holy Spirit" in Acts 21.11, but the same word (Gk. Tade legei) are used by Christian writers just after the time of the NT to introduce general paraphrases of expanded interpretations of what is being reported, e.g., Epistle of Barnabas, Epistle to the Philadelphians. We could say that what is being conveyed is generally or approximately what the Holy Spirit is saying to us.

How should we begin our words? Grudem suggests, "I think the Lord is putting on my mind that…" or "It seems to me that the Lord is showing us…."

In what sense is prophecy from God?

God brings something spontaneously to mind. The person prophesying reports it in his or her own words. Paul calls this "a revelation." The word is used in a broader sense than how theologians might use it. (Phil. 3.15; Romans 1.18; Eph. 1.17; Matt. 11.27)

In 1 Cor. 14.25 Paul says if a stranger comes in and all prophesy, "the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you." We had this happen at a Bible study I was teaching on Worship recently. A man walked in, sat down, and just listened. At the end, as I was praying for people, the Lord revealed to me that this man was not a believer, though he went to church, etc. He was questioning what was of God and what was not because of experiences he had had in the church he was attending. The Lord revealed to me that today was the day of his salvation. As I related this to the man, he broke down and wept, telling his story. He prayed to receive Christ and actually declared that God was really among us! We saw this scripture fulfilled in our midst.

So, a person receives revelation from God and reports the revelation in his own words. It serves as a "sign" for believers (1 Cor. 14.22), a "sign" of God’s hand of blessing on the congregation. It also works for the conversion of unbelievers (1 Cor. 14.23).

Now just because we get a "revelation," does not mean it is necessarily from the true God. False prophets have demonic sources. False prophets deny the incarnation and do not abide in the doctrine of Christ. They lead many astray and show signs and wonders for the purpose of leading astray the elect.

What is the difference between prophecy and teaching?

NT "prophecy" was based on the spontaneous prompting from the Holy Spirit (Acts 11.28; 21.4, 10, 11; Luke 7.39; 22.63, 64; John 4.19, 11.51) "Unless a person receives a spontaneous ‘revelation’ from God, there is no prophecy," (Grudem, page 1058)

Teaching, however, is often simply an explanation or application of scripture (Acts 15.35; 18.11, 24-28; Romans 2.21; 15.4; 16.17; 2 Tim. 2.2; 3.19, e.g.) We would call it Bible teaching or preaching today.

Prophecy has less authority than "teaching," and prophecies are subject to the authoritative doctrines of scripture. Timothy was to teach Paul’s instructions in the church (1 Tim. 4.11, 6.2). Paul taught (1 Cor. 4.17). Believers were to hold to the traditions taught to them (2 Thess. 2.15). It was teachers, not prophets, who gave leadership and direction to the early churches.

Elder were to be apt teachers, those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Tim. 5.17, 1 Tim. 3.2; Titus 1.9). Nothing is said about prophesying. Timothy is to take heed to his teaching (1 Tim. 4.16), not to his prophesying. James warns those who teach, not those who prophesy (James 3.1).

Interpreting and applying scripture is teaching. If the message is the result of reflection on the text of scripture, containing interpretation of the text and its application to life, that is a teaching. If the message is the report of something God brings suddenly to mind, that is a prophecy. If someone is teaching and God suddenly brings something to mind, that is a "teaching" with an element of prophecy mixed in.

The gift of prophecy requires waiting on the Lord, listening for Him, checking all such revelation against the written and authoritative word of scripture. Seeking subjective messages from God to guide one’s life is dangerous. More emphasis needs to be placed on Scripture and seeking God’s sure wisdom written there!

Warnings for today.

Michael Harper, an Anglican charismatic pastor, says, "Prophecies which tell other people what they're to do—are to be regarded with great suspicion." (Grudem, page 1059) [end of Grudem summary]

Avoid the excessive desire for "messages" from "prophets." God has given us objective truth, enough to obey for a lifetime. Prophecy today may have predictions (Acts 11.28; 21.11), but also disclosure of sins (1 Cor. 14.25). Anything that edified could have been included. Paul says, "He who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation." (1 Cor. 14.3) Prophecy speaks to the needs of people’s hearts in a spontaneous, direct way. Many can prophesy. (1 Cor. 14.31) It is a gift believers should earnestly desire (1 Cor. 14.1, 39, 14.4).

We need to be sensitive to promptings from the Holy Spirit while being cautious to test all things and hold to the good. More emphasis should be placed on scripture and scriptural teaching than on prophecy. Those who prophesy should not overrate themselves as "special," but keep the focus on delighting in God.

The Prophet Today

Christ is enthroned at the right hand of the Majesty of God in the heavens. The Holy Spirit is here within the Church, the Body of Christ. Today what was prophesied by OT prophets is now being fulfilled, even in the youngest of believers. Because of Jesus, believers have the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is to us the Spirit of revelation, giving us spiritual vision. We are to see what God wants us to see. To have spiritual sight nullified was the judgment of God. When one is born again, one sees the kingdom of God (John 3.3; Acts 26.17, 18). Jesus opens the eyes of the blind. It’s part of the new birth.

With the faculty of seeing comes the object seen. The Holy Spirit enables us to see the significance of Jesus Christ and God’s eternal purpose. We see Jesus. What we see, we are to apprehend, lay hold of. We become what we behold. In seeing Jesus, we are emancipated. There is a price attached to seeing. Spiritual vision is to be personal and increasing in every believer. In order to keep spiritual vision alive, the Holy Spirit uses the instrument of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit removes everything that cannot come into the Kingdom of God, all that is dead, all that separates you from Him. God gets rid of the rubbish, putting to death the "old man" and all that corrupts the communication line.

On the other side is the resurrection and its power. It is the power of the Cross. Death is real, but God raises the dead. God clears ground for Himself, taking the land which is you, and then puts Himself there.

Instead of bondage, there is liberty. The Lord is the Spirit. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. Today we are dealing with the Holy Spirit. He wants free reign, hampered by nothing. He’s holy, and after holiness. Controversies with the Lord may come down to small matters, like dress or specific words, because we live with the Holy Spirit who guides with an inward witness as our Teacher.

The Holy Spirit leads God’s people to serve one another in love. He leads us to "Go out to all." To be governed by the Holy Spirit is to be concerned for all peoples everywhere. The Holy Spirit testifies of Jesus, pointing people to Jesus. The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.


Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets. Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2000.

Robertson, O. Palmer. Class notes, "OT Prophets," 1994 Knox Theological Seminary, Ft. Lauderdale, FL.

Sparks, T. Austin. Prophetic Ministry. Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc., 2000.

Walton, John H. Charts of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.

© 2001 Mary Craig Ministries, Inc.


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