Prophets & Prophecy
The verb "prophesy" means "to speak before" (from Greek pro, before, and phemi, to speak). The gift includes both the idea of foretelling and forthtelling, predicting the future and preaching. A prophet was God's mouthpiece: he spoke for God and gave His message. Sometimes that message was regarding the future. Other times it concerned the present, even the past, or simply doctrinal truth, but it was always God's message spoken forth.
Some controversy arises at this point. Today's renewed interest and investigation of the spiritual gifts has seen many non-charismatics redefine the gift of prophecy. The Charismatics, of course, readily admit the revelatory nature of this gift and claim its operation today. Some modern non-charismatics have defined the gift in another way, resulting in an interpretation which allows the gift of prophecy today but not in its revelatory sense. They say that the gift of prophecy means only the ability to speak forth for God, to preach; it is not necessarily, they say, a revelatory gift, but the ability to preach the truth of God's Word with great power and insight.
The issue can be stated in the form of two questions: 1) Is it Scripturally allowable to limit the gift to only forthtelling (as opposed to predictive prophecy)? and, 2) Is there in that forthtelling nothing revelatory? That is, is it merely the ability to expound previously revealed truth?
So the question to clarify at the outset is one of definitions. The answer to this question will determine the course of the remainder of the study.
First of all, it must be recognized that one who prophesies is a prophet. This would seem obvious enough, but there are those who seek to support this idea of non-revelatory prophecy by making sharp distinction between these two -- a prophet being the one with the revelatory gifts and the one who prophesies being merely the preacher of previously revealed truth. This distinction is both gratuitous and impossible to demonstrate exegetically. One who teaches is a teacher. One who preaches is a preacher. And one who prophesies is a prophet. There is simply no evidence of any distinction between a prophet and one with the gift of prophecy.
There is no question or debate at all, among Bible believers, that the Old Testament prophets received direct revelation and were able to foretell the future. Their function, in part, was to reveal what God would do in the days or years that lay ahead. Their prophecies also dealt with matters of present concern -- what God willed for His people at that time. Their prophecies further concerned matters of doctrine: God revealed truth to them so that they, in turn, would "prophesy" it to the people. There were also times when God would give revelation concerning the past, telling them about some event otherwise unknowable to them; Nathan's confrontation with David over his sin with Bathsheba well illustrates this fact (II Samuel 12:1-12). The fact is clear: the Old Testament prophets both foretold the future and forthtold God-given truth, but both aspects unquestionably involved direct revelation. Their prophecy, whatever it concerned, was clearly revelatory.
Neither is there any indication of change in the character of New Testament prophecy, but rather its revelatory nature is clearly assumed. For example, when at His hearing before Caiaphas Jesus was spit upon and smote in the face while blindfolded, He was mockingly exhorted to "prophesy who it is that smote thee" (Luke 22:64). This prophecy would clearly involve direct revelation. When Jesus could tell the hidden past of the woman at the well, He was immediately recognized as a prophet (John 4:19). Agabas exercised the gift of prophecy in a predictive way: he foretold a coming famine and also Paul's coming sufferings (Acts 11:27-28, Acts 21:10-11). I Timothy 4:14 informs us of the same regarding Paul's gift of prophecy: God told him that Timothy was to receive his gift by the laying on of hands; it was direct revelation. Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 clearly associate the New Testament Prophets with receiving revelation directly from God, and that revelation is not necessarily regarding the future but rather doctrine.
I Corinthians 12-14
Furthermore, it must be recognized that the only passage in the New Testament which treats the subject of prophets and prophecy in an exhaustive manner is I Corinthians 14 (in its context, beginning with I Corinthians 12). In this passage as well, the revelatory character of the gift is clearly present. In I Corinthians 12:28 prophets are ranked as more important than teachers. In I Corinthians 13:2 the gift of prophecy is explained as "understanding all mysteries and all knowledge." A "mystery," in New Testament terminology, is a secret, something unknowable apart from direct revelation. The underlying assumption is that the gift involved special revelation.
I Corinthians 14:1 states the theme of the entire chapter -- the superiority of prophecy to tongues. Verse 3 mentions prophecy but not in a definitive way; it only states the results of the proper exercise of the gift, namely, edification. In other words, verse 3 explains exactly why prophecy is superior to tongues. The following verses expand that argument: prophecy is intelligible speech, and tongues is not; hence, prophecy is superior. And in that sense prophecy is associated with other intelligible speaking gifts, such as teaching (verses 6, 9).
In the following section of chapter 14 prophecy and tongues are associated in this very respect -- that they are both revelatory in nature (verses 26-30; cf., verse 2). Finally, verses 29 and 30 clearly demand that the gift of prophecy being exercised in the church of Corinth was revelatory; it plainly states that the prophecy was something "revealed."
It is clear enough that the gift of prophecy is not to be confused with the gift of preaching or teaching. That there is overlap between prophesying and preaching is obvious, but the difference is important: A preacher must take a text of previously revealed truth and seek to expound it, and his authority extends only so far as the correctness of his interpretation of that text. But one exercising the gift of prophecy takes no such text but rather delivers a new text, as it were. He delivers truth revealed by God. His authority, then, rests in the message itself: it is the very word of God. Accordingly, prophecy is ranked above teaching (I Corinthians 12:28). The closest anyone could come, today, to prophesying is not preaching, but simply reading Scripture ver batim.
The gift of prophecy was the ability to declare truth received directly from God, truth obtained by special revelation. The prophets were mouthpieces of God, speaking His word, to their world, regarding either past, present or future truth. They were men of inspired utterance.
The Importance Of The Gift
The gift of prophecy was very important in that it met a real and unique need of the early church. They were at a loss without any of this new revelation yet recorded and available, so God gave His word "part by part" (I Corinthians 13:9) through these gifted men until that written Word was complete.
The prophets' importance also is seen in that, along with the apostles, they were the foundation of the church. Upon the truth revealed through them, Christ's church is built (Ephesians 2:20). Accordingly, they are listed second in importance in I Corinthians 12:28.
The Validation Of Prophecies
I Thessalonians 5:19-20 commands the Christian to prove, or test, all prophecies. How? The apostles were able by their miraculous gifts to vindicate their own message, but no such provision was given the prophets.
To serve as a check against men who would claim the prophetic gift falsely, others were given the gift of discerning of spirits (see chapter 16). This gifted person would stand up and pronounce judgment on a given prophecy, declaring whether it was of God or not. An example of this is given in I Corinthians 14:29 where Paul commands that after the prophets speak, "let the other judge." The message of the true prophet was absolute, but it had to be established that it was in fact from God. This was the function of the discerner of spirits.
There was still another check given to validate the prophecy: complete agreement with the apostles was mandatory. "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual," writes the apostle Paul, "let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" (I Corinthians 14:37). This is the standard by which to "test the spirits" (I John 4:1). This test was final. If any man claimed to prophesy but was not in agreement with the apostles' teaching, that "prophecy" was not of God, no matter what else may have seemed to validate his claim. Agreement with the apostles was mandatory.
New Testament Examples
The gift is mentioned in all five New Testament lists (see chapter 2), but only a few New Testament prophets are mentioned. Agabus is one who had the gift. In Acts 11:27-28 he predicted a famine, and in Acts 21:10-11 he predicted Paul's coming sufferings, both of which came to pass as prophesied. (From this example it is clear that the gift of prophecy involved the ability to foretell as well as merely forthtell). Philip's daughters prophesied (Acts 15:32), but no details are given. Acts 13:1 mentions prophets and teachers in the Church at Antioch, although no details are given, nor does it say which men were prophets or which were teachers. Judas and Silas are designated prophets in Acts 15:32. Paul and the other apostles evidently had this gift as well (e.g., Acts 27:23-24).
Several factors demand that the gift of prophecy is no longer given to the church.
1) The most obvious reason that the gift is no longer given is that there is no need for it today. God has given a complete revelation which is altogether sufficient in all matters of faith and practice. The prophets met a unique need of that first century church, before this revelation was available. The church today does not need any prophets to give new revelation, only teachers and preachers to expose it to the Revelation already given.
2) No revelation is being given today (cf., chapter 13). No one today can add a verse to Scripture; no one today is receiving new truth.
3) The prophets were the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20), which is now complete (cf., chapter 13).
4) I Corinthians 13:8-13 specifically predicts their demise with the completed canon of Scripture. With a complete Scripture, the other prophecies are useless.
Prophecy was an important gift to the church and met a unique need in the early church, but it is no longer needed or given. Its "partial" messages (I Corinthians 13:9) have been replaced by the complete Revelation. The church today stands, then, at a great advantage without it.