This will attempt a simple examination and contrast between the Old Testament office of ‘The Prophet’ and the New Testament teaching on ‘prophecy’ used in Church today.
It’s hard to find common ground and consistent connections between Old Testament Prophets. However a good place to start is this:
A Prophet in the Old Testament always did three things:
- They reminded of and reinterpreted the past
- They spoke into and clarified the present
- They predicted and proclaimed the future
This could have been about judgments, promises, blessings, comings, goings, wars, peacetimes, crop growths, etc. They could be given to whole nations, individuals, kings, commoners, other prophets, the prophet themselves, or to the whole world. Pretty varied stuff.
An OT prophet was an official office that once their words had been spoken they could be taken as canonical, that is could be included in scripture. We don’t have the same office anymore, thus cannot add to the Bible.
It’s generally understood that the last OT prophet was probably John the Baptist, however the last OT-style prophecy given was probably at Pentecost. Here, Peter pointed back to the past – specifically to Jesus. He spoke into the present – explaining what was happening to the Apostles. He finally predicted the future – speaking about Jesus’ second coming.
In the New Testament prophecy is just as often refereed to as preaching or teaching as it is to passing on divinely given messages. There are again a few common traits which we can take from NT prophecy into our Church life today:
Prophecy is mostly public in nature. Prophecy is most often (if not exclusively) used to bring a public encouragement, or rebuke, or clarity. It’s not generally a one-on-one type thing. This doesn’t exclude personal prophecies, but they should have a knock-on encouragement to build up the body.
Prophecy is church building and supporting. It’s given at specific times, to those whom God chooses (not necessarily those with ‘the gift of prophecy’) in order to build up the body, that is the Church as a whole.
Prophecy is not infallible. It doesn’t carry the same authoritative weight of the OT Prophecies, and doesn’t hold the same water as the Bible. Inbetween God and the message(/prophecy) given there’s a sinful person in the middle clouding things up. If it did carry the same weight it could be added to the Bible.
It doesn’t tend to follow set patterns. It can be broad or specific, noetic or natural, deliberate or passive (i.e. through teaching), public or personal. It should always be checked against scripture by the body and should always be taken carefully. Prophecy is to be eagerly desired as it serves the body.
Prophecy can be massively powerful and very helpful for a church. Paul tells us that we should eagerly desire it. But let’s know what we’re asking for. We’re looking for more communication and confirmation from God in various ways which moves us on and builds us up as individual Christ followers and the Church as a whole body. We’re not seeking an office, or a authority beyond the Bible. We’re not asking to be OT-style prophets either.
Lets not make prophecy too prescriptive or office based when the Bible is deliberately organic about it! We should eagerly desire prophecy, but not personal authority.