What does the New Testament gift of prophecy look like when it’s being exercised today? This is the sincere question of many evangelicals. Some are exploring the possibility that this gift continues in the church, and others have become convinced exegetically that it does, but would be helped by some examples.
But others have different questions. Why do we even need the gift of prophecy now that we have the Bible, the closed canon of the Old and New Testament Scriptures? Why would we “earnestly desire” fallibly-delivered “prophetic words” when we have the infallible word of God at our fingertips? Aren’t the Scriptures enough for us? These are sincere questions for many evangelicals who either believe prophecy has ceased or that the Bible just reduces its importance.
All of these are important questions and deserve answers. So what I’m going to do is provide three examples of well-known preacher-teachers exercising the gift of prophecy, and then use them to explain why this spiritual gift plays an important ongoing role in the life of the church — a role that doesn’t replace Scripture but fulfills it.
On the 34th Floor
When John Piper is about to preach, he says he frequently prays something like, “Lord, bring to my mind truths about yourself and about this text and about this people that I will be able to say in such a way that they will pierce with unusual — I might say prophetic — power into their lives.”
One Sunday, while preaching, he was encouraging the people of Bethlehem Baptist to be involved in small groups and start evangelistic Bible studies. At one point he said, “You might be working on the 34th floor of the IDS Tower, and maybe you should call your people together to have a small group meeting.” After the service a woman, who had been sitting in the area where he looked, came up to him and said, “Why did you say that? I work on the 34th floor of the IDS Tower, and I’ve been praying about whether to start a small group.”
What was that? It was the New Testament gift of prophecy. When that thought came into John’s mind, he wasn’t consciously aware that the Spirit was revealing specific information to him regarding a specific individual, but the Spirit was. And the Spirit wanted to encourage this woman to move forward by answering her prayer in a way that would strengthen her faith. That’s one of the Scripture-defined purposes of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:3).
His Soul for Fourpence
Here’s a similar example that gets even more specific. Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) once shared this remarkable story:
While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, “There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!”
A city missionary, when going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked the question, “Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?” “Yes,” replied the man, “I have every reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and, under his preaching, by God’s grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place; Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul.” (Grudem, 357)
In this case, the Spirit revealed very specific details to Spurgeon in order to disclose the secrets of a man’s heart and, in kindness, lead him to repentance (Romans 2:4). How do we know this is prophecy? Because the Scripture calls this precise phenomenon “prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:24–25).
Secrets of the Heart
Here’s one more example of this “secret-disclosing” sort of prophecy, but in a more personal context. John Wimber (1934–1997), one of the formative leaders of the Vineyard church planting movement, once described an experience he had while on a flight from Chicago to New York. Shortly after takeoff, he casually glanced across the aisle and was startled by seeing the word “adultery” in clear letters across the face of the middle-aged businessman seated across from him.
The man saw John looking at him oddly and snapped, “What do you want?” As the man spoke, a woman’s name came clearly to John’s mind. So John cautiously said, “Does the name [blank] mean anything to you?” The man went pale (his wife was sitting next to him). The man responded, “We need to talk.”
They moved to the plane’s lounge where the man confessed to having an affair with a woman whose name had come to John’s mind. John ended up leading the man to Christ, and then the man returned to his seat, confessed to his wife, and led her to Christ (Power Evangelism, 74–76).
Again, this is an illustration of 1 Corinthians 14:24–25 prophecy in action. But here, Wimber was conscious that the Spirit was revealing information to him, and he shared the information with the man. And there’s little doubt the whole experience resulted in the man and his wife being built up and encouraged and consoled (1 Corinthians 14:3).
Not Replacing Scripture
These three examples illustrate that the new covenant spiritual gift of prophecy isn’t a replacement of Scripture. That’s not its role. As I’ve explained elsewhere, from its inception, this spiritual gift was never intended to overrule the authoritative, infallible testimony of God’s chosen contributors to Scripture.
It’s important we understand that prophecy is not offering something more than Scripture offers, as if it’s some kind of improvement on Scripture. Rather, Scripture says prophecy is one of the means of grace God has given to the church. In other words, prophecy is not Scripture’s competitor, but its prescription.
Like the three stories demonstrate, prophecy provides both the recipient and the giver an experience of God’s real presence among us (1 Corinthians 14:24–25). It helps us experience personally the Scripture-revealed reality that God does indeed know when we “sit down” and when we “rise up,” that he is “acquainted with all [our] ways,” that “even before a word is on [our] tongue, behold, [he knows] it altogether” (Psalm 139:2–4).
It’s not that the experience of prophecy is more true, or more wonderful, than the inspired word of God. It’s one of the gifts the true, wonderful, inspired word tells us is available to us. God’s authoritative and sufficient word, delivered through his Old Testament prophets and Christ’s New Testament apostles, is final and decisive for his church. But we must remember that it’s this final, decisive word that introduces us to a category of New Testament “prophecy” — something Christ wants his church to “earnestly desire” (1 Corinthians 14:1). Jesus wants us to experience a reality testified to in his living and active word (Hebrews 4:12). Our Father wants to give us glimpses of just how fully we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
I have found this gift to be a great mercy to me and many others. As frail and broken as we are, as prone to unbelief, and as confused and disoriented as we can become in this devil-ruled world (1 John 5:19), God loves to give his children very personal upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation (1 Corinthians 14:3). God has given the church the gift of prophecy, because he loves us. It’s one way he expresses his joy in loving us.
I know the gift of prophecy, like every gift God gives, has been (and is) abused. I know that some can put too much stock in subjective prophecies, or find them more exciting than Scripture. But in my personal experience and observations of others, I have found it rare that prophecy devalues Scripture for those who experience it. Rather, it has almost always heightened their love of, and trust in, Scripture’s authority and sufficiency. Because the God of Scripture has acted for them in a way they recognize from Scripture, reinforcing the final truth and power of Scripture.
One last thing. As I observe it in the Bible, church history, the lives of others, and in my own life, the gift of prophecy is exceptional — not the normative way God speaks to and leads us. God wants us to live by every revealed, authoritative, infallible word he has spoken (Matthew 4:4). Paul tells us to earnestly desire to prophesy for the benefit of others, but he also tells us that Scripture is God-breathed and “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).
So let us do what the Scripture instructs for the purpose Scripture defines: let us “earnestly desire” the spiritual gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1) for the “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” of God’s saints (1 Corinthians 14:3). But let us be careful to do so in the ways (and proportions) that Scripture teaches.