For the past number of weeks I’ve tried to lay out why we can obey Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 14:1, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” However, there’s one other part of that verse that I want us to look at this morning. After all, 1 Corinthians 14:1 doesn’t end where I stopped quoting. Paul doesn’t simply exhort us to pursue love and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts. He adds, “especially that you may prophesy.” Obviously, then, Paul elevated prophecy to a high level among the spiritual gifts and wanted the Corinthians to especially desire this particular gift. Therefore, I want to take a Sunday and look at this gift specifically.
Let me begin by giving a working definition of prophecy. Wayne Grudem, who has done more study and writing on the gift of prophecy than most other evangelicals, defines prophecy simply as “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind.”1
And thus far I’ve shared some stories in my own life and experience that I would label this gift of prophecy (or a manifestation of the Spirit in terms of giving a word of prophecy – I’m still working out how to talk/think about this). Now, as I said last week, some might say that what I and others have experienced shouldn’t be called “prophecy” but simply “impressions,” “promptings,” or “guidance” from the Spirit, and though I think we can say more than that, I rejoice that we can agree that the Spirit works in this way for the encouragement, edification, and consolation of the church.
So, this morning, as I talk about prophecy I would obviously prefer for us all to be okay talking about the gift of prophecy, but if you’re not, hear this as my lecture on promptings, impressions, and guidance from the Spirit. And I want to make a few notes about the gift of prophecy.
The gift of prophecy is fallible (i.e. possible to be in error) and not authoritative
Now, I know that some cessationists have argued that the Bible only has one kind of prophecy, and that’s the kind of prophecy that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets shared where when they spoke, they were sharing the infallible, authoritative Word of God. Therefore, they argue that the gift of prophecy can’t be around today because it would be in competition with and detract from the Word of God. And here’s my first response to that: if indeed the only kind of prophecy in the Bible is what Isaiah or Jeremiah did, then I agree, the gift of prophecy is not around today. However, I want to challenge the idea that the only kind of prophecy is Jeremiah-type prophecy. Rather, I think that the gift of prophecy today and the gift of prophecy in many places in the Bible was a kind of fallible and non-authoritative kind of prophecy.
I want to give you a list of reasons why I think that,2 but before giving that list, let me set it up a bit. Keep in mind that most (if not all) cessationists deny the gift of prophecy could function in our day because they think that the Bible only talks about one kind of prophecy, namely, what Isaiah or Jeremiah did. So, for example, Doug Wilson3 says with regard to gifts of prophecy, “We must treat such words as the Word of God, which means that we must treat them as Scripture.”4 But if that is the case, then all words of prophecy given in the New Testament were infallible and authoritative words of God, without error and demanding obedience. So, let me tell you why I have trouble believing that, and show you why I think that the gift of prophecy was a lesser gift than what Isaiah (and other OT prophets) had and was fallible and non-authoritative. Here are my list of reasons:
1) If only Isaiah-type prophecy was around, then hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of believers were prophesying like Isaiah in the New Testament.
Even if people are cessationists, arguing that the gift of prophecy isn’t functioning today, it certainly was functioning in the times of the New Testament. We know it was functioning at Corinth. We know Phillip’s daughters prophesied (Acts 21:8-9). We know that prophecy was functioning at the church at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:19-22). And we know that it functioned in regard to men who prophesied to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:18). And there are other examples. Do we really think that all these examples of prophecy were Isaiah-type prophecy?
2) Paul would have been encouraging all believers to prophesy like Isaiah did.
Paul wants everyone to prophesy. Multiple times in 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul encourages the whole church to desire to prophesy. It’s hard for me to believe Paul would be encouraging all people to speak Scripture-level prophetic words.
3) However, no words of prophecy were written down as Scripture.
Just picking up on the last point, if indeed all these words of prophecy going around in New Testament times were infallible, authoritative, Scripture-level words of prophecy, doesn’t it make sense that even one of them would be written down in Scripture? John MacArthur, in his book, Strange Fire, says, “If the Spirit were still giving divine revelation, why wouldn’t we collect and add those words to our Bibles?”5
Good question. So, let’s take his logic and answer affirmatively, “Yes, they should be written down and added to the Scripture.” Do we ever have an example of any word of prophecy – whether from Phillip’s daughters, or the Corinthians, or the Thessalonians, or countless others in Scripture – written down? No. Not one. Perhaps it’s because the gift of prophecy in the New Testament wasn’t infallible, authoritative, Scripture-level prophetic words but something less than that.
4) If Phillip’s daughters and other women were permitted to prophesy in the church (and they were according to 1 Cor. 11), then why weren’t they permitted to teach?
You see, Paul makes clear that women weren’t allowed to teach men and exercise authority over men, yet women were permitted to prophesy (1 Cor. 11:5). If prophecy were authoritative, infallible, Scripture-level speech, then why would women not be permitted to teach men or exercise authority over them? The answer, I think is because the prophecies these women were sharing weren’t authoritative words at all.
5) If prophecy was only infallible, authoritative, Scripture-level speech, then why would Paul tell the Thessalonians not to despise prophetic utterances, especially when they loved God’s Word?
In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21, Paul writes, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything: hold fast to what is good.” Now, if you had people who didn’t think highly of God’s Word, that exhortation might make sense if prophecy was authoritative, infallible, Scripture-level speech. But the Thessalonians loved God’s Word, accepting it as it really is: God’s very Word (1 Thess. 2:13).
6) Finally, I think there’s an example of the fallibility of prophecy in the New Testament itself.
I mentioned this last week, so I won’t repeat it again, but look at my notes then to see my comments about Acts 21:4. I will simply remind us that this is, I believe, a Scriptural example of a prophetic word that contained error because it was coming through fallible people who loved Paul and didn’t want him to suffer.
And I think this is why Paul tells the Thessalonians not to despise prophecies, to test everything, and to hold to what is good. It’s because you might have times where you’re tempted to despise prophecies because they’ve been delivered to you incorrectly, need to be tested, and at times have some good mixed with some bad. In this sense, it’s not unlike preaching or teaching, is it? I would say of any teaching or preaching done in this church: don’t despise it, but test it, and hold fast to what is good.
So, first, those are my reasons why I think that the gift of prophecy in our day isn’t infallible, authoritative, Scripture-level speech but is rather something the Spirit spontaneously brings to mind that we speak to another for their consolation, edification, and encouragement, but that can be in error and is never authoritative.
I will say, however, that it does seem like there may have been some OT types of prophets in the NT. Well at least I can point to one. Agabus is an interesting fellow in Acts, and he even begins prophecies with, “Thus says the Holy Spirit” (Acts 21:11). So, I think this is perhaps an example of an Isaiah-type prophet living in the days when the prophets were passing off the scene, as the apostles did. And this is why Paul can mention in Ephesians 2:20 that the church was founded on the apostles and prophets. It was men like Paul and Peter and, so it seems, Agabus that the Lord built the church on in the early days of the NT, but clearly the kind of prophecies Paul was desiring everyone to practice, per 1 Cor. 14:1, were something less than that, even as the teaching he was commanding was something less than the authoritative, infallible teaching he did as an apostle.
Let me then give us some other notes, however, concerning prophecy. I think this first one goes without saying in light of the previous point and what we know of Scripture, but …
Prophecy is always subject to the Word of God and should always be tested against God’s Word
What I mean is if anyone says, “I was praying for you this morning, and I think the Lord laid on my heart that …” then what follows needs to be heard as something subject to God’s Word and tested against God’s Word. I’ve already noted the 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 text where Paul encourages us to test everything and hold fast to what is good. But we can also note that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:37-38, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” So, clearly words of prophecy are always subject to God’s Word and must be tested against God’s Word, and if they’re ever in disagreement with God’s Word, then you should not only disobey the thought shared by your brother (as Paul disregarded the words of his brothers in Acts 21:4) but you should lovingly point out that your brother is contradicting God’s Word and needs to give himself to knowing God’s Word.
Prophecy is not on the level of teaching
Prophecy is an amazing, edifying, and encouraging gift, but it’s not on the level of teaching. I’ve already noted that women can prophesy in the church (1 Cor. 11:5) but aren’t allowed to teach men in the church, according to 1 Timothy 2:12. Moreover, Paul repeatedly exhorts all of us earnestly to desire to prophesy, but James tells us that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). And teaching is the regular, God-ordained means by which people are instructed, learn, and grow in knowledge of God and his Word, not prophecy. We can even add that an elder must be able to teach, but if one is not able to teach and yet is greatly gifted in the gift of prophecy, he is not qualified to serve as an elder.
I don’t think that someone sharing with you a word of prophecy is the normal means by which God gives us guidance, but he will, I believe, on occasion use it as a confirming word
Let me explain what I mean. I think the normal way we know what we are to do in life is by knowing God’s Word first of all. Many times and in many situations, we think we have no clear guidance when the Word of God speaks directly to our situation, and we’re just ignorant of it. And where the Word does not directly address our situation, we can often see principles that should be applied. Moreover, the Lord wants more for us than simply having the right answer to what our next step should be, so he allows us to cry out to him in prayer, wrestle before him, and longingly look to him. He does this because he wants to mold us and shape us through the process of life, conforming us to the image of his Son, not simply have someone come along and share with us the answers to what we need to do next. That would be counter-productive to God’s desire for us, I believe.
But I do think the Lord uses prophecies at times as confirming words. What I mean is that I don’t think it’s common that the Lord would give a word of prophecy through a brother or sister concerning something he’s leading you to do that he hasn’t already guided you to first. Now, this is simply my experience and the experience of some others I know, but I think it’s reasonable. And one reason is because the Lord wants you to seek his face.
In the early spring of 1999 I went on my first date with Lili. I had long heard of her, had gotten to know her a bit, and had plenty of people exhorting me to pursue her. In fact, one night at church I shared with a girl at church that I was considering asking out a girl who was the godliest girl I knew at Union and she exclaimed, “You’re going to ask out Lili Myatt?”
Well, I asked her out on a date, and she said yes. And I had been praying for a long time, and I really thought that this was the Lord’s guidance for me. We had a nice date, I came back to my dorm room, and I woke up the next morning, rolled out of bed, and began praying that the Lord would continue to confirm whether or not I needed to continue pursuing Lili. While I was praying, the phone rang. Now, at that time, phones had cords coming out of them, plugged into walls, and were loud. And the phone would ring like seven times before voicemail would pick up, so I decided it was better just to answer it than to try to ignore its loud ringing as I prayed.
So, I answered the phone, and it was my dad. He asked me what I was doing, and I said, “Actually, I was praying about a girl I went out on a date with last night.” And he responded, “Well, that’s interesting because that’s why I called you.” He then said that he had regularly prayed that God would bring me a wife, but on that particular morning as he prayed, it seemed like the Lord was moving him not to pray, “Bring him a wife,” but “Open his eyes to see who she is.” And I said, “Dad, I think I may know.” Then, only two to three weeks later, I went with three other men from the church to meet with a perspective past in Arkansas (I was the lone college student on a pastor search committee at that time), and it was probably the most impactful experience I’ve known in regard to prophecy with that brother, but I’ll just share with you one aspect of that day. In the midst of talking with us he said, “Lee, I think the Lord has brought something to my heart. You’ve got a girlfriend … well, she’s not your girlfriend, but you’ve gone out on dates a few times.” I said, “That’s right.” Then he said, “You know that this one’s special right?” I said, “I think I do, Sir.” Then we went on. He didn’t know me from Adam.
Now, I kept pursuing Lili and eventually married her not because my dad felt like the Lord brought something to his mind or a man I’d never met in Arkansas told me that she was different from my other dating relationships. I pursued her and married her because I knew that she had so many elements the Scripture said I should desire in a wife, and I thought pursuing her was God-honoring. But I can’t tell you how encouraging and kind of the Lord it was to have words of confirming along the way. It was a reminder that God was aware of and cared about the details of my life.
Let me end this morning asking why we should earnestly desire prophecy. If it can be wrong, if there need to be warnings against despising it, if it’s not on the level of teaching in the church, then why would we even mess with it? I will give two answers:
The Lord has commanded us to desire earnestly to prophesy, and we never want to be found trying to be wiser than God
Multiple times the Lord commands us to desire earnestly to prophesy. In 1 Corinthians 12:31 Paul says, “Earnestly desire the higher gifts,” which as you read on through chapter 14 you’ll see that prophecy is perhaps at the top of the list of those higher gifts. In 14:1 we read, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” In 14:5 Paul writes, “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.” And in 14:39 Paul says, “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”
So, if the Bible tells us repeatedly that we are to desire earnestly to prophesy, then it isn’t up to us to decide whether we think it’s worthwhile to desire earnestly to prophesy. We don’t want to be like Eve in Genesis 3, trying to evaluate whether we think God’s command is good or bad for us. God has spoken. The issue is decided. And if there’s a voice saying, “You know, if you obey the Bible here, it’s going to be bad,” then I can’t help but think that sounds a lot like the serpent in the garden.
That’s the main reason we should earnestly desire to prophesy. But I want to list another.
To prophesy is to build up our brothers and sisters in Christ, so love should compel us to desire to prophesy.
The reason Paul elevates prophecy so much in 1 Corinthians 14 is because it is edifying to the church. He writes in 14:3, “On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement, and consolation.” And we should be driven by our love for one another to cry out consistently to the Lord, “Equip me and gift me by your Spirit to ministry to my brother/sister. Give me a gift of prophecy if it my build them up, encourage them, or console them.” That should be our prayer. And when we experience that, it is indeed edifying to them and us, and it is a reminder that the Lord pays attention to and cares about even the details of our lives. What a kindness from our Lord.
1 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1049.
2 I believe that all of these arguments can be found in Wayne Grudem’s book The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today.
3 The following quotes from Doug Wilson and John MacArthur come from Sam Storms article, “Why NT Prophecy Does Not Result in ‘Scripture-Quality’ Revelatory Words (A Response to the Most Frequently Cited Cessationist Argument against the Contemporary Validity of Spiritual Gifts).”
5 John MacArthur, Strange Fire (Thomas Nelson, 2013), 69.