Prophecy in church can be a nightmare! How do we use it and should we? Is it a free for all, thus-saith-the-Lord frenzy or a snuffed down ‘if-you-ain’t-quoting-scripture-in-context-keep-yer-gob-shut’ gathering of mutes.
I don’t like getting stuck in semantics gymnastic poses but a lot of this comes from our terminology. We have people in our churches claiming to be prophets, and other people claiming ‘the books shut, so should you mouth be’ cessationism.
We need to figure out what we mean when we talk about prophets and prophecy. If we start with what God means when he talks about it then we should start with the Bible.
To hopefully shed some light on this I will attempt a basic examination and contrast between the Old Testament office of ‘The Prophet’ and the New Testament teaching on ‘prophecy.’
Old Testament Prophets
So Lets start with the Old Testament. What did all the OT Prophets have in common?
Alongside the slightly mental activities of some of them, an OT Prophet always did three things:
- They reminded people 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, global recession, the iphone 6 – anything!. They could be given to whole nations, individuals, kings, commoners, other prophets, the prophet themselves, or even to the whole world. Pretty varied stuff but always past, present, and future – much like a predictable Dickens novel.
An OT Prophet was an official office that once their words had been spoken they could be taken as canonical; that is that they could be included in scripture. We don’t have the same office anymore. If there were still OT-style Prophets then we could be constantly adding to the Bible…. the last verse in it has things to say about that!
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 by St. Peter. 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.
So thats the OT Prophets, whom we don’t have anymore. What then about New Testament ‘prophecy’?
New Testament Prophecy
In the New Testament, prophecy is a word that’s pretty loosely used and means a whole bunch of stuff… helpfully.
It is often refereed to as simply preaching or teaching. It can just be personally speaking to others. It also can be a divinely given message. As long as it contains the passing on of God’s word in some way the NT could call it prophecy.
When it does talk about the ‘word from God’ messages that we have for other people (for instance 1 Cor 14) 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 as a whole.
Prophecy is not limited to specific people. It’s given to anyone available that God chooses in a moment of need. They don’t necessarily have to have ‘the gift of prophecy’ to do this; they don’t even need to know that’s what happened. Some people may do this more than others because of God’s calling and equipping, but it’s not limited to these people.
The Gift Of Prophecy can be passive as well as active. When we tend to think of the gift of prophecy, we think of an ability that God gives to some fortunate people. You could make a pretty strong argument though, that the gift of prophecy is a gift given to the word-hearer rather than the word-speaker – it’s them that God spoke to afterall! The speaker is just the delivery for the gift.
Prophecy is not infallible. It doesn’t carry the same authoritative weight of the OT Prophets, and doesn’t hold the same water as the Bible. In-between God and the message(/prophecy) given there’s a sinful, human person in the middle clouding things up. If it did carry the same weight it could be added to the Bible – and the book’s big enough! If you think God is telling you something to tell someone, start with ‘I think God might be saying…’ rather than ‘God told me to tell you…’
It doesn’t follow set patterns. It can be broad or specific, noetic or natural, deliberate or passive, 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, but not packaged and labeled.
Prophecy can be massively powerful and very helpful for a church. St. Paul tells us to eagerly desire it, but we should know what we’re asking for! We’re not seeking an office or a authority beyond the Bible. We’re not asking to be OT-style Prophets. We are asking for God to speak to us in various relational and revelatory ways that encourage and build up the Church. We are asking for a deepening of community relationship with our maker. We should eagerly desire prophecy but not personal authority.
Let’s not make prophecy too prescriptive or office based when the Bible is deliberately organic about it.