Are We a Non-Prophet Ministry?
I Corinthians 14:29-33
June 17, 1990
What image comes into your mind when you hear the word prophet? If you are like most people, several images may flash across your mental screen. You may think of a white haired old man in a prison cell on an island in the middle of the ocean. With wrinkled face and a long white beard, he ponders the mysteries of the universe and writes them down on a piece of yellowed parchment. Or perhaps you think of a younger man, a preacher, a strong man standing in the wilderness outside the city of Jerusalem, preaching the message of God to an unrepentant generation. Or perhaps, your mind pictures one of those wild-eyed fellows down on State Street who pass out little pieces of paper and wear those sandwich boards that say, “Repent. The End is Near!” Or perhaps you think of Jeane Dixon or Joan Quigley or maybe you think of those pictures on the front of the “National Enquirer” that say, “10 Psychics Predict the Future.”
On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that none of those things comes to your mind. Perhaps you simply draw a blank when it comes to the word prophet. If so, please don’t feel embarrassed about that. I’m sure that’s what most people think of when they think of the word prophet. They run through several images and finally come to nothing because they’re not sure what to think when they hear the word prophet.
Needed: A Firm Biblical Footing
This morning I want to explain what the Bible means when it talks about a spiritual gift called prophecy. This is an important issue because the New Testament clearly describes a gift called prophecy and clearly talks about people called prophets. In fact, the spiritual gift called prophecy is one of the clearest spiritual gifts in all the New Testament. Unlike some of the others I have mentioned which are only found in one place in the New Testament, this is a spiritual gift that is found in at least three different places.
Let’s begin by simply listing those three passages in order to help us gain a firm biblical footing. This spiritual gift is first mentioned in Romans 12:6, “If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.” The second mention is in I Corinthians 12:28, “In the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets.” The third mention is in Ephesians 4:11, “It was he (the ascended Christ) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets.”
So, we have three different places in the New Testament where the gift of prophecy is clearly and unambiguously mentioned. If that’s true, why is it that when we talk about this spiritual gift we’re not sure what to say about it? I think it’s partly because in the Christian world today there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty, confusion and misinformation about this spiritual gift.
Two Extreme Positions
In fact, if I were going to characterize the viewpoint of the Christian church about this particular gift I would say that there are basically two extreme positions about the gift of prophecy today. One position basically argues that the gift of prophecy is not for today. Those who hold this position would say that there are prophets in the Old Testament and there were prophets in Jesus’ day and there were prophets in the early days of the church. But this position—which is generally speaking the conservative, evangelical, traditional position—says that the gift of prophecy was a first century gift which is not found in later years in the Christian church.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those people who believe that the gift of prophecy not only is for today but that Christians should prophesy. There are even those who believe that God speaks with immediate, direct, infallible revelation to the prophets of today, just as he did through the prophets of the Old Testament and just as he did through the prophets of the first century.
In short, some argue that the gift of prophecy is not for today. Others say that God speaks through prophets today just as he did in the Old Testament.
Seeking The Middle Ground
Most of us in the evangelical world muddle around somewhere in the middle between these two positions. We hear both sides and we don’t know what to believe. There are numerous books on both sides of the issue. Some seminaries teach one view; some teach the other view; some teach both. There are well-known pastors and TV evangelists in both camps.
It is no surprise that the people of God are confused about the gift of prophecy.
The reason I mention all of that is to say I think it’s a great shame that we have allowed the extreme points of view on this issue to take away the clear teaching of the New Testament. I think that in churches like Calvary, we’ve heard this view and we’ve heard that view and we’ve heard the views in between, but because we’re not really sure, when we talk about spiritual gifts we don’t know what to do about prophecy, so we take it and push it back to the side. We talk about the gifts we do understand like teaching, helps, service, and administration. Those we can get our hands around. Prophecy we don’t know what to do with so we push it off to the side.
A Personal Confession
I also need to add a personal note at this point. In my study of this particular spiritual gift I have come to change my position. Through all my life, from the days when I first started studying the Bible up until now, I have been taught that prophecy was a first-century gift of the Holy Spirit which is not present in the church today. That’s what I was taught at Dallas Theological Seminary—that the gift of prophecy was a first-century gift, a foundational gift that had to do with the writing of the New Testament and the authenticating of the Apostles, and a transitional gift. I was taught that it was a gift that happened 2000 years ago but that it was not for today.
As I have studied the matter for myself, I have changed my position. It’s not that I don’t believe there is truth in my original view. I believe that the kernel of truth in that position is exactly right and I’m going to explain what I mean shortly. But I do want to say that I think the view that prophecy was just for the first century does not do justice to the full range of what we see in the New Testament. It has taken me a long time to come to that. In fact, when I taught the spiritual gifts a couple of years ago, I didn’t preach on prophecy because I wasn’t sure what I believed. But I have come to some settled convictions and so that is why I’m sharing them with you this morning.
No, Yes And Maybe
So the question before the house is very simple: Is the gift of prophecy for today? I want to give you three definite answers to that question. I want to say first, no. Then I want to say second, maybe. Then, I want to say third, yes. And in exactly that order. No and maybe and yes.
Is the gift of prophecy for today? I want to say no because that’s what the traditional view teaches. There is no prophecy today if you define prophecy as that action whereby holy men of God spoke direct revelation from God so that what they spoke was a direct communication from God to man, with the result that there was no error or impunity or no humanness diluting the message, so that when they spoke, they spoke the very words of God. If you mean prophecy like that, then I would affirm the position that there is no prophecy like that today. None whatsoever.
Nobody can stand up today on their own and give a message and say, “Thus says the Lord.” And if they say such a thing, they most certainly are not speaking for God. This is how Dr. Charles Ryrie puts the matter.
The gift of prophecy included receiving a message directly from God through special revelation, being guided in declaring it to the people, and having it authenticated in some way by God himself… . This too was a gift limited in its need and use, for it was needed during the writing of the New Testament and it usefulness ceased when the books were completed. (The Holy Spirit, p. 86)
Here’s another statement of that view:
Prior to the availability and completion of the New Testament, the gift of prophecy must have been indispensable. As there is no further revelation given today, since the canon of scripture is complete, the gift is no longer present with us nor has it been present since the days of the early church. (William MacRae, Dynamics of Spirituals Gifts, p. 47)
I agree and disagree with that statement. I agree with that statement in the sense of prophecy that he is talking about. I absolutely agree that there is no prophecy in the world today in the sense of an authoritative, inerrant revelation from God. We don’t need that because we have the written Word of God. I think that’s the reason men want to preach the traditional view. They want to protect the uniqueness and the authority and the integrity of the written Word of God. So do I.
One Foundation Is Enough
Ephesians 2:19-20 explains why there are no prophets giving direct revelation from God today: “Consequently you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the Apostles and the Prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” There you have Jesus as the cornerstone and the apostles and prophets as the foundation. I would translate this as “the apostles who are the prophets.” I think it’s a hendiadys—two words which describe one group of people. Built on the foundation of the apostles, who are the prophets. That’s the foundation of the Christian church.
If you’re going to build a building, you put the cornerstone down, you lay the foundation and then you begin to build on top of it. But you don’t get up to the twentieth story and lay the foundation again. That’s why we say that we don’t need apostles and prophets today because they are foundational to the establishment of the Christian church.
II Peter l:19 offers another reason why we don’t have authoritative and inerrant prophets today. We don’t need them because, Peter says, “We have the word of the prophets made more certain.” We don’t need modern day infallible, inerrant prophets to speak as God’s mouthpieces because we have the word of the prophets “made more certain and you will do well to pay attention to it.” What’s “it?” “It” is the word of the prophets.
Finally we ought to consider Revelation 22:18-19. This is the way John ended his book. It is an appropriate ending for the entire word of God. This functions as a divine copyright notice. This is God’s way of saying, “Don’t change this.” “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes away words from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” If you add anything to God’s written revelation, if you subtract anything from it, if you change it, if you dilute it, if you mix anything into it that is purely human, God will take away your share in the tree of life and will add to you the plagues described in the book of Revelation. That’s pretty serious stuff.
What I’m saying is that when you speak of prophecy as direct communication from God whereby a man of God would stand up and deliver God’s very words, that kind of prophecy does not exist today because we have the written Word of God. Therefore, if you ever hear someone who purports to stand up and say, “This is the Word of the Lord,” and they claim a kind of infallible authority for what they are saying, you are to reject that person as a false prophet. They are adding something to the Word of God. So, to the question, is the gift of prophecy available today? In that sense, no.
Is the gift of prophecy for today? The first answer is no, not in the sense of authoritative, inerrant revelation from God. The second answer is maybe. I begin with a simple question. Did you know that the words prophet, prophecies, prophesy and prophesying are used over 200 times in the New Testament? The whole notion of prophecy and prophesying is a big part of the New Testament. It’s not a minor doctrine. It’s a major teaching of the New Testament.
More Than One Kind Of Prophecy
That leads me to tell you about two books that have changed (or at least broadened) my thinking in this area. The first book is by Graham Houston— Prophecy: a Gift for Today ? He is a pastor in Scotland. The second book is by Dr. Wayne Grudem, who is a distinguished professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield. He wrote a very excellent book called The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today. Essentially what Dr. Grudem says is this: If you look at the full teaching of the New Testament, it is very clear that there are different kinds of prophecy.
It is clear that when the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles prophesied, they spoke God’s very words. They were God’s mouthpieces. They were loudspeakers for God, so that what they said was infallibly and inerrantly true.
But Dr. Grudem argues that this is not the only kind of prophecy in the New Testament. He suggests that the New Testament also speaks of what he calls “congregational” prophecy. This “congregational” prophecy must be tested and analyzed. It must be judged against the written word of God. It is not inerrant or infallible. A “prophet” in this sense would not be a “loudspeaker” for God. He would be more like a translator who may or may not get all the words right.
Dr. Grudem makes this distinction: When the apostles spoke, they were “speaking God’s very words.” (p. 25) When the “congregational prophets” spoke, they were “speaking merely human words to report something God brings to mind.” (p. 67)
In “congregational” prophecy, certain gifted believers will sense that God is speaking to them in a given situation. It may be intuition or a sudden thought that comes to mind. How it happens is not the issue. They sense that God is speaking to them and they express what they believe to be the will of God, but they express it in their own words. Which means that when they speak their understanding of what God is saying may be completely true, or partly true and partly false, or it may be somewhat confused or anywhere along the continuum.
With that as backgrounds, let’s turn to I Corinthians 14 and see if we can back up what Dr. Grudem is suggesting. He says that the prophecy in I Corinthians 14 is a human report in human words of something which has been impressed upon a person by the Holy Spirit. As such, it is not infallible, it is not inerrant. We pick up the story in verse 26: “What shall we say then, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.” It’s a picture of the very informal nature of early Christian worship. Then we drop down to verse 29. This is how “congregational” prophecy works: “Two or three prophets should speak and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” Note the phrase “should weigh carefully”. It’s the Greek word diakrino. It has the idea of sifting or analyzing, of putting under a magnifying glass and discriminating. It is what you do when you separate the wheat from the chaff. It means to come to a good conclusion based on a thorough sifting of the evidence.
What does it mean? When the prophets speak, the congregation is to “judge” their words. You don’t do that if the prophet speaks as the mouthpiece of God. You don’t “judge” God’s words; you obey them. When God speaks, “judging” is out of the question. Obedience is the only issue. But Paul very clearly told the believers in Corinth to “judge” the words of their own prophets—that is, to sift through the messages, sorting out the wheat (which is from God) from the merely human chaff.
I Thessalonians 5:19-22 seems to suggest the same thing: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. Do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” The message is clear. When the fire of the Holy Spirit burns in a person’s heart, they will feel compelled to share their insights with others. The command is clear: Don’t despise them or their words. But don’t take them as the literal words of God. Both extremes are wrong. Test everything you hear. Hold on to that which is in accordance with the Word of God. Reject everything that contains evil in any form.
A Rationalistic Faith
These passages suggest that there are at least two senses of prophecy in the local church. First, there is the sense in which a man speaks directly for God in an infallible and inerrant way. That had to do with the writing of Scripture and no longer exists today. Second, there may be a kind of “congregational” prophecy whereby in the meeting of the congregation a brother or a sister (prophecy is clearly open to women in I Corinthians 11) could rise and say (for instance), “I believe, God is leading this church to do so-and-so,” and we would listen and judge that suggestion on the basis of common sense, the consensus of the people of God and on the written Word of God.
Part of our problem is we have been so scared off by other people, we hardly believe God does things like that nowadays. We have developed a completely rationalistic Christian faith, a faith that says God does not speak directly to his children today. I don’t believe that for a minute. I believe that God is able to speak to his children today. He is able to give them guidance and direction as they meet together in the assembly of believers.
How does that really work out? Let me tell you how Dr. Grudem explains it in his book.
In practical terms, this would mean allowing more time for “listening” for God or “waiting” on him, mixed in and added to our regular times of Bible reading, intercessory prayer, and verbal praise. Then also, some of the more informal times of corporate worship should allow for periods of quietness and receptivity to such promptings from the Holy Spirit. If God should bring something to mind in these times, then the person receiving such revelation should tell the congregation what it is. Yet, that report … should not be regarded as “God’s very words,” nor should the speaker preface his or her remarks with “Thus says the Lord,” “Hear the words of the of God,” etc.—those statements should be reserved for Scripture, and Scripture alone. Something like, “I think the Lord is showing me that …” or, “I think the Lord is indicating that …” or, “It seems that the Lord is putting on my heart a concern that …” would all be much more appropriate, and far less misleading. (Grudem, pp. 132-133)
Then he gives an example we can easily understand:
For example, an unplanned but urgent request may have been given to pray for certain missionaries in Japan. Then, much later, those who prayed discovered that just at that time the missionaries had been in an awful accident or at a point of intense spiritual conflict, and had needed those prayers. Paul would call the sense or intuition of those things “a revelation” and the report to the assembled church of that prompting would be called a “prophecy.” (Grudem, p. 133)
Such an intuition is not equal with scripture; it’s simply a person being led by the Lord. At Calvary Memorial Church, we believe in being led by the Lord. We’ve just never called it prophecy before. I’m not really teaching you anything new. I’m not asking you to do anything new. I’m just suggesting that what we have called the leading of the spirit is basically equivalent to what Paul calls prophecy in I Corinthians 14 and I Thessalonians 5.
Grudem also gives another good example:
Sometimes in church prayer meetings, for example, someone may have felt unusually “led” or “prompted” by the Holy Spirit to pray for a particular matter—perhaps one that had not recently been on his or her mind, at least not this extensively. And perhaps that prayer has brought an unusual response of the hearts of many others present. I would not hesitate to say that this seems to be the result of a “revelation” from the Holy Spirit by which the topic to pray for, and perhaps several specific aspects of how to pray, were brought to mind by the Holy Spirit just before or during the time the person was praying.” (Grudem, p. 255)
Let me share one final example.
This can happen when Christians gather more informally, perhaps on Sunday evenings or at other times for the singing of hymns, the reading of Scripture, and expressions of prayer and praise to the Lord. It may be that there have already been times in our recent memories when the Holy Spirit would bring to the minds of several different people exactly the same hymn to choose, or reading of Scripture from various passages, all of which were on the same theme, or even a common sense of the tone or direction of worship which the Holy Spirit was giving to the meeting—perhaps sometimes an attitude of reverence and silence before the Lord, sometimes one of brokenness and repentance for sin, sometimes one of heartfelt intercession for a particular need, sometimes one of overwhelming joy and thanksgiving and praise. It was this kind of sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit which has often given great vitality to the unstructured worship services of the Plymouth Brethren, for example, with everyone present sensing that the Holy Spirit was working among his people in a perceptible way. (Grudem, p. 256)
I like that. First, because we have a number of people in this church who have come from a P. B. background, so they already understand what I’m talking about. Number two, because the Plymouth Brethren traditionally have been among those who believe that the gift of prophecy was for the first century only. It doesn’t matter. In their practice they have been doing what the Corinthians and Thessalonians were doing 2000 years ago. But they didn’t call it prophecy.
Listen! God Is Speaking
In the very same way, when you have a small group, God may speak to someone in your group and that may be a form or function of the working of prophecy. We shouldn’t be alarmed about that. It’s just the Lord speaking to his people. As a practical matter, I think it would be good if we deliberately structured more times where God’s people could share informally together. We need more times where God’s people can informally share prayer requests, Scripture passages and what God is teaching them. Our church would be stronger if we would do that. It would be good if in our small group times we gave more opportunities for prayer and for God to speak in our small group observances. It would be good if all of us were open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in whatever way he wants to speak to us. I believe that’s biblical. I don’t believe that’s heresy. I don’t even think it’s that much different from what we’ve always believed. I’m just saying that prophecy is a bigger concept in the New Testament than we have assumed in the past.
Is the gift of prophecy for today? I said no, in the sense of divine, inerrant prophecy. Nobody can claim to do that today. I then said maybe. I really mean yes because I agree with what Grudem is saying. Third, I answer with a definite yes, because there is a third sense in which there clearly is a gift of prophecy today. Virtually everyone agrees on this. This third sense comes from the meaning of the verb “to prophesy.” It is prophemi – pro meaning “before” and phemi meaning “to speak.” It means to speak for someone else, or to speak on behalf of someone else. In that sense Dr. Ryrie is entirely right when he says “there is a general and specific sense of prophecy.” In fact, Dr. Ryrie puts the matter this way,
The word prophecy is used in a general and a limited sense. In a general sense it means to preach; thus, generally speaking, preaching is prophesying, and the preacher is the prophet in that he speaks a message from God. (Ryrie, The Holy Spirit, pp. 85-86)
In the Spiritual Gifts Inventory, we define prophecy this way: It is “the special ability God gives to certain members of the body of Christ to proclaim God’s truth with power and clarity in a timely and culturally sensitive manner for correction, repentance or edification.” That definition ties in with this third definition of prophecy. Prophecy is proclaiming God’s truth with power and clarity in a timely and culturally sensitive manner, for correction, repentance or edification. And in that sense Billy Graham is a prophet. In that sense Chuck Colson is a prophet. This week I’ve been reading the biography of Keith Green, entitled No Compro-mise. His friends repeatedly called him a prophet to his own generation.
In that sense anybody is a prophet who takes the word of God and applies it with power and accuracy to the needs of society. We could use a few more prophets today. How we need lay men and lay women who will rise up with the word of God and will apply it to the contemporary social issues of today. Just think about abortion, pornography, gay rights and the drug problem and scandals in our society. We need Christians all over Oak Park and River Forest and Chicago to take the Word of God and boldly proclaim it. That is an example of the gift of prophecy at work.
One More Time: Is The Gift Of Prophecy For Today?
Let me summarize everything I’ve said and then offer a word of application.
Is the gift of prophecy for today? No, if by prophecy you mean the ability to speak inerrant revelation from God. That kind of prophecy ended 2000 years ago. Is the gift of prophecy for today? Yes it is in the sense that God can move upon the hearts of his people to reveal his will to his people. When that will is revealed today it will always be in complete accordance with the written Word of God. Is the gift of prophecy for today? Yes it is and you and I are prophets every time we take the word of God and speak for God to our own genera-tion.
Here are my words of application. First, I want you to go home and take your copy of God’s word and I chal-lenge you to search the Scripture and see if these things are so. I know that what I have said this morning is at least partly controversial. I don’t want you to believe what I’ve just told you just because I am your pastor. I’m not a prophet in the first sense. I am not speaking inerrant revelation. What I said today could possibly be wrong. I haven’t always held this view. Be a Berean Christian. Go home and search out for yourselves and see what God’s word has to say about the gift of prophecy.
Second, keep the Bible as the center of your life. We have the word of the prophets made more certain to us. We have the Word of God, inerrant, infallible, God-breathed. This book is to be believed, obeyed, loved, cherished, read, memorized and shared with other people. Keep this book in the center of your life. Don’t let any man-made revelation ever come above or equal to what God has said in his Word.
Third, pray for courage. We need more prophets today. Are we a non-prophet ministry? I hope not. We need more men and more women who will take the clear message of God’s word from here out into the world and declare it to a lost and dying and confused generation. Pray for courage. Take the word of God out into the streets. Speak for God in your world. Do it in Jesus’ name.
Our heavenly Father, we thank you again that your Word is sure and certain. We thank you that we have the word of the prophets made more certain to us. We have not believed cunningly devised fables nor myths, nor the dreams of fallible men, but we have your Word. Help us to stand upon it. We thank you that there is yet more light to break forth from your Word. We thank you that you can and do speak through your people. Lord, make us open to the working of your Holy Spirit in our midst, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.