What Is the Nature and Purpose of the Gift of Prophecy?
One area where cessationists and continuationists can find themselves in sharp disagreement is around the topic of prophecy. In Understanding Spiritual Gifts, Sam Storms addresses common questions and misunderstandings around the topic from a continuationist perspective. The following post is adapted from this work.
The nature and purpose of the spiritual gift of prophecy
One would be hard-pressed to identify a more controversial and disputed spiritual gift than prophecy. There is a sense in which it has become the focal point of debate among Christians who differ on the perpetuation and validity of spiritual gifts today.¹ My hope is that a careful analysis of what the New Testament says about prophecy will help diminish some of the heat that it provokes and heal the divide that it has caused among otherwise unified evangelical believers.
My approach will be to delineate several distinguishing characteristics of this spiritual gift. And it would appear that the place to begin is where the New Testament does: on the day of Pentecost.
Prophecy at Pentecost
We learn from the events described in Acts 2 that one of the primary characteristics of the Spirit’s work in “the last days” is empowering people to prophesy. Citing the words of Joel, Peter declared,
“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.’”
There is much to learn from the events of Pentecost, but our concern at this stage is the way Peter described what is to be characteristic of the present church age.
Contrary to what many Christians have been led to believe, “the last days” is not a reference to the final days or even years immediately preceding the second coming of Christ. The “last days” that Joel had in view when he uttered this prophecy back in the late seventh or early sixth century BC was the entire present age in which we now live. In other words, the “last days” began on the day of Pentecost and extend all the way until Jesus returns. The “last days,” or the era of the new covenant, have now extended for nearly two thousand years (see 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:1–2; 9:26; James 5:3; 1 Peter 1:20; 1 John 2:18; cf. also 1 Cor. 10:11; 1 Tim. 4:1).
It is during this present church age that the Spirit will be poured out “on all flesh,” that is to say, not just on kings and prophets and priests but on every child of God: every man and woman, every son and daughter, young and old (see Acts 2:17). Peter’s (and Joel’s) language is unmistakable when it comes to this new covenant universalizing of the Spirit’s empowering presence: “all flesh” (v. 17), that is, irrespective of age (“old men” and “young men”), gender (“sons” and “daughters” and “male servants” and “female servants”), social rank (“servants”), or race (“all flesh”; cf. v. 39; i.e., both Jew and Gentile).
I need to explain my use of the word characteristic when I speak of prophecy in the church age. This is justified in light of Peter’s reference to the “last days.” Some have tried to argue that the events that occurred on the day of Pentecost in the first century were designed solely to launch or inaugurate or in some sense jump-start the age of the new covenant. Now, make no mistake, the coming of the Spirit in power on Pentecost most assuredly did inaugurate the new covenant age in which we now live. But what the Spirit did on that day centuries ago is also designed by God to characterize the experience of God’s people throughout the course of this age until Jesus comes back. In other words, what we are reading in Acts 2:17–21 is a description of what the Holy Spirit does in and through and on behalf of God’s people throughout the entire course of this present age. Prophecy, whatever it may mean, is designed by God to be a normative experience for all God’s people in this age in which we live, as we await the return of the Lord.
Prophecy and revelation
The foundation or basis of all prophetic ministry is the revelatory work of the Spirit. In other words, prophecy is always the communication of something the Holy Spirit has “revealed” or disclosed to a person. In Acts 2 this revelatory work of the Spirit is expressed in dreams and visions (Acts 2:18).
In 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul said that when Christians “come together” for a corporate assembly, “each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (emphasis mine). Later, in 14:30, Paul made it clear that a person prophesies upon reception of a spontaneous revelation from the Spirit. I use the word spontaneous in this case because Paul envisions “a revelation” coming to someone sitting in the meeting while yet another has already begun to speak.
Evangelicals often have a knee-jerk reaction to the use of the word revelation based on the mistaken assumption that all divine revelation is canonical. The idea that God might still be providing his people with “revelation” of any sort is thought to suggest, if not require, a repudiation of the notion that what we have already received in canonical and inspired form in the Bible is sufficient. If God has supplied us in Scripture itself with everything necessary for life and godliness, what need would there be for him to reveal anything beyond what we already possess?
Part of the problem is in the way that we employ the term revelation and the verb “to reveal.” The verb “to reveal” (apokaluptō) occurs twenty-six times in the New Testament, and the noun “revelation” occurs eighteen times. In every relevant instance, the reference is to divine activity; never to human communication. However, not every act of divine revelation is equal in authority.
The tendency among some is to improperly assume that anytime a “revelation” is granted, it bears the same universally binding authority, sufficient to warrant its inclusion in the biblical canon. But divine “revelation” comes in a variety of different forms. For example, consider Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:15. There were present in Philippi some who took issue with certain elements in Paul’s teaching. He appealed to all who were “mature” to “think” as he did. If some did not, Paul was confident that “God [would] reveal” to them the error of their way and bring them into conformity with apostolic truth. We see from a text like this that God can “reveal” to a Christian or in some manner disclose to their minds truths that no one would ever regard as canonical or bearing the authoritative weight of inspired biblical texts. The Spirit, instead, would bring something to mind spontaneously, some insight or truth designed exclusively for them and never intended by God to be taken as universally authoritative or binding on the conscience of other believers.
Jesus employed the verb “to reveal” to describe his own gracious activity in making known the Father to those who previously had no saving knowledge of him (Matt. 11:25–27). But surely no one would insist that the insight given to such folk should be written down and preserved as canonical for subsequent generations of Christians. Paul again used the language of “revelation” to describe the activity of God in making known the reality of divine wrath against those “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Thus, God’s act of divine disclosure is again unrelated to the inspiration of texts that carry an intrinsic authority.
In view of this, D. A. Carson has rightly pointed out that not all “revelatory” activity of God comes to us as Scripture-quality, divinely authoritative, canonical truth. Thus, says Carson, “when Paul presupposes in 1 Corinthians 14:30 that the gift of prophecy depends on a revelation, we are not limited to a form of authoritative revelation that threatens the finality of the canon. To argue in such a way is to confuse the terminology of Protestant systematic theology with the terminology of the Scripture writers.”²
Prophecy vs. preaching
We’re now able to define prophecy more specifically as the speaking forth in merely human words something the Holy Spirit has sovereignly and often spontaneously revealed to a believer. 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. This is what distinguishes prophecy from teaching. Teaching is always based on a text of Scripture. Prophecy is always based on a spontaneous revelation.
Some have tried to make the case that prophecy is actually just another name for preaching. For numerous reasons we cannot equate the two. First, as we’ve already noted, in Acts 2 Peter, quoting Joel, declared that prophecy is the direct result of revelatory visions and dreams and is the experience of young and old, both male and female.
We also see that in Acts 13:1–2 there were in Antioch both “prophets and teachers” (v. 1). If all teaching/preaching is an expression of prophecy, this seems odd. On what basis or for what reason would Luke have drawn a distinction between the two if they were essentially synonymous? Note also Luke’s reference in Acts 21 to four daughters of Philip, all of whom had the gift of prophecy. Are we to conclude that his daughters regularly preached in the local church of which they were a part? Whereas evangelical egalitarians are inclined to say yes, we who are complementarians would embrace another perspective.
Another hint that prophecy and preaching cannot be equated comes from what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:6. There he differentiated between “revelation” and “knowledge” and “prophecy” and “teaching.” As noted earlier, prophecy is based on a “revelation,” whereas teaching is rooted in a text.
We also saw that in 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul described how Christians are to approach the corporate gathering of the local church. “Each one,” said Paul, “has a hymn, a lesson [lit., a teaching], a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” Here he clearly differentiated between a “teaching” and a “revelation.” The former is based on a biblical text while the latter is the basis for prophecy. As noted above, this is confirmed in 1 Corinthians 14:29–30 where Paul explicitly said that prophecy is based on a spontaneous revelation from the Spirit. Teaching/preaching, on the other hand, is the exposition and application of a biblical text.
If prophecy and preaching or teaching are synonymous, one must explain why Paul differentiated between “prophets” and “pastors and teachers” or more likely “pastor-teachers” in Ephesians 4:11. Two passages in 1 Timothy also strongly suggest that prophecy is not preaching but the report or exhortation or encouragement given by one individual to another for the latter’s edification. Paul encouraged Timothy to draw upon the prophecies spoken over him as a way to “wage the good warfare” (1 Tim. 1:18). And in 1 Timothy 4:14 he urged him not to neglect the gift he had that was given to him “by prophecy” when the council of elders laid hands on him.
Finally, there are those instances in Acts that, although not explicitly called prophecies, appear to be such—things such as Peter’s supernaturally given knowledge about the sin of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11), the revelation from the Spirit that Paul and Barnabas were to be set apart for missionary service (Acts 13:1–3), Paul’s awareness that a paralyzed man had faith to be healed (Acts 14:8–10), the counsel given to Paul by disciples at Tyre (Acts 21:4), and the word given to Paul by Agabus (Acts 21:7–14).
Thus, preaching/teaching is grounded in an inspired text. Prophecy is the fruit of a revelation that often (but not always) comes spontaneously to a person. People may “learn” (1 Cor. 14:31) from prophecy no less than from preaching, but the fact that the results of each may be identical does not mean the roots are.
Who can prophesy?
There is nothing in Scripture to indicate that the gift of prophecy is gender specific. In fact, several texts explicitly speak of women prophesying to the edification of other believers (see Acts 2:17–18; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:2–16). This does not necessarily mean that everyone, both male and female, will in fact prophesy. As Paul made clear, not all are prophets (1 Cor. 12:29). At the same time, he expressed his desire that “all” would prophesy (1 Cor. 14:5) because “the one who prophesies builds up [edifies] the church” (1 Cor. 14:4). In two other texts he seemed to envision the possibility that any Christian might speak prophetically (1 Cor. 14:24, 31). But again, we shouldn’t conclude from this that everyone will. My sense is that Paul was drawing a distinction between, on the one hand, “prophets” who consistently display a facility and accuracy in this gift and, on the other, those who merely on occasion “prophesy.” Thus, not all will be “prophets” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:29; Eph. 4:11), but it would appear that all may prophesy.
The content of prophetic words
What might God disclose that would serve as the basis for prophetic utterances? The Scriptures provide us with few examples, but among them are revealing the “secrets” of the unbeliever’s heart (1 Cor. 14:24–25), and a warning about impending persecution (Acts 21:4, 10–14). It may be that the Spirit would bring to mind a Scripture passage that applies especially at a particular moment in time to a person’s life. Paul explicitly stated that whatever form prophetic revelation might take, it will typically serve to exhort, edify, and console another person (1 Cor. 14:3). In Acts 13:1–3 it appears that a prophetic word served to disclose the Spirit’s will for the ministry of Saul and Barnabas. As Paul was preaching, he was the recipient of a revelation that a paralyzed man had the sort of faith that would lead to healing (Acts 14:9–10). And it would appear that it was by means of a prophetic revelation that Timothy received a spiritual gift (1 Tim. 4:14).
I see no reason why we should limit the range of prophetic activity to these few examples. The Spirit could conceivably make use of this gift to accomplish any number of goals. Although some believe the incident in Acts 5 is an example of the gift of word of knowledge, it is just as likely that the Spirit’s revelation to Peter of the heart motivation in both Ananias and Sapphira was the basis for his prophetic discipline that ensued.
What is the purpose of prophecy?
Paul said that prophecy builds up (edifies), encourages, and consoles (1 Cor. 14:3). When people are suddenly confronted with the inescapable reality that God truly knows their hearts and has heard their prayers and is intimately acquainted with all their ways, they are encouraged to press on and to persevere. I have often spoken with believers who, in spite of what they knew theologically to be true, felt as if God had forgotten them. Their prayers seemed never to be heard, much less answered. Then, often quite without warning, they receive a prophetic word from a total stranger that could be known only by God himself, and their faith is bolstered and their spirit consoled.
Prophecy can also function to disclose the secrets of the hearts of the unbelieving, leading them to repentance and faith in Christ (1 Cor. 14:24–25). On occasion a prophetic word can provide us with specific guidance on when to go, where to go, and with whom to go (we see this in Acts 13:1–3). Some suggest that Paul and Barnabas already knew they were called on mission and even where they were to go. This prophetic revelation was simply confirmation to them of what God had already revealed. We must remember that while God can make use of a prophetic revelation to guide and direct us, prophecy is not the primary means by which we make decisions in the Christian life. Prophecy is often more of a confirmation to us of what we have already discerned in reading Scripture or have heard from the wise counsel of close friends.
Yet another function of the prophetic gift is to provide us with the resources to wage war against Satan and the flesh and to encourage us in the Christian life. Consider what Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:18–19. There we discover that prophecy is one of the most powerful and reassuring tools God has given us by which we are to wage war in our ongoing battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil. “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them [i.e., by means of the “prophecies” spoken to you] you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience” (vv. 18–19a, emphasis mine).
Paul’s appeal to young Timothy resounds with ear-shattering clarity: “Timothy, please, I implore you as my spiritual son, don’t even think about trying to fight Satan, the enemy of our faith, without drawing strength and encouragement and power from the prophetic words delivered to you! Never attempt to face opposition in the church apart from the reassurance that flows from those revelatory words you received. Timothy, there is strength and confidence for you in the truth and certitude of those Spirit-prompted utterances that came to you at your ordination. By all means fight. Never fear. But fight fearlessly through the power of those prophetic words.”
How do you wage a good war? How does one fight and resist the seductive allure of the passing pleasures of sin? By “holding faith and a good conscience.” Paul had in mind both theological and ethical integrity, both right belief and right behavior, both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, both truth in our doctrinal affirmations and purity in our lives. This is no easy task! We are assaulted daily by those who would undermine our confidence in God and his Word. We struggle with anxiety, with provocations to lust, with greed, with despair and doubt and the temptation to quit. With what shall we fight? What shall we bring to bear against the deceitful promises of sin? Paul was clear: it is by means of the prophecies made about you that strength to stand firm is found.
Paul’s exhortation is quite instructive given the fact that many think the spiritual gift of prophecy is inconsistent with sound doctrine or that if too much emphasis is placed on it that a person will go soft on theology and emphasize only experience. But Paul couldn’t have said it with any greater clarity: The way you hold to the foundational truths of the Christian faith and resist the temptation to abandon them, the way you maintain a good conscience before God, is by thinking about and reflecting on and drawing strength from the prophetic words given to you by the Spirit!
We don’t know what these prophetic utterances were, but there is no shortage of possibilities. Paul may have had in mind certain spiritual gifts that were promised to young Timothy, gifts on which he could rely and should now draw strength to fulfill his calling. Perhaps prophetic words were spoken over Timothy related to ministry opportunities or open doors that would expand his influence. There may well have been simple affirmations of Timothy in terms of his identity in Christ and God’s purpose for his life.
I’ve known people who received unique prophetic promises of God’s presence and protection in the face of unusual danger. In Timothy’s case, perhaps someone spoke powerfully of a biblical promise, drawn from a particular biblical text, that applied directly to him. Someone may have had a vision or dream that reinforced to Timothy his fitness and giftedness for ministry that would prove especially helpful when those older than him began to question his qualifications. We could speculate further, but no need. Timothy obviously would have known what Paul meant, even if we don’t.
How does one appeal to such prophetic words to wage a good war? By constantly reminding oneself of God’s commitment and presence and unshakable purpose to enable Timothy (and us) to fight doubt and anxiety and fear and despair. It is incredibly reassuring to recall tangible, empirically verifiable evidence of God’s existence and power and presence communicated through a prophetic utterance.
I suspect that, perhaps long ago, some of you received words you believed were from God. But for whatever reason you’ve lost confidence in his promise. You’ve begun to wonder if it was really the Spirit who spoke. I encourage you to recover and revisit those words, rehearse them in your mind, meditate on them, put legs under them to see if God intended all along for you to be the means by which they are fulfilled. Pray them back to God (as did David in the Psalms) and hold him to his word. But whatever you do, never attempt to fight the battles of faith apart from the strength such words provide.
Learn more in the Understanding Spiritual Gifts series on MasterLectures.
- Hence the title to Thomas R. Schreiner’s article “It All Depends upon Prophecy: A Brief Case for Nuanced Cessationism,” in Themelios 44.1 (2019): 29–35.
- D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14 (1987; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 214.
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