What Is Prophecy Today?
Pastor John, in the last podcast episode, episode 214, you addressed recent allegations claiming that, while you are open to prophecy and tongues today, you don’t seem convinced enough to advocate that others pursue these gifts. You corrected that, and you said there are good exegetical reasons for your confidence. Explain those reasons here for us.
Right. What I said was in 1 Corinthians 14:39, which says, “Earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.” And I said, I think that is a command that we should still obey today — and that I try to obey — and my way of understanding prophecy is not as infallible, Scripture-level, authoritative speaking, which is, I think, the way John MacArthur and other folks would take it.
I take prophecy as something that God spontaneously brings to mind in the moment. And because we are fallible in the way we perceive it and the way we think about it and the way we speak it, it does not carry that same level of infallible, Scripture-level authority. And here are some reasons for why I think that is true and why I think it is still valid today.
1. Test All Things
First Thessalonians 5:19–21 says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” Now that text is different from 1 John 4:1, where it says, “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” In the first text, you test a person to see if he is a false prophet, and you hold fast to the true one. Here, in the second, you test words or prophecies, and you hold fast to the ones that are good. Test all things, and hold fast to what is good. You are not choosing between people here, it seems to me. You are choosing between what they say, which you would not do if they spoke with infallible, inerrant, Scripture-quality authority.
“Because we are fallible in the way we perceive and speak prophecy, it does not carry Scripture-level authority.”
The issue here is that some in the church are despising not the prophets, but their prophecies. Now why would that be? My answer is probably because they are sometimes wacko. Despise is a very strong word. Paul says, “Do not despise” (1 Thessalonians 5:20). Somebody in the church at Thessalonica is saying, “Look. You told us that prophecy is a gift from God. Frankly, we are not liking what we are hearing, because it is stupid. It is weird. I mean, they are saying things that are off the wall.” So, they are tending to despise them. And Paul seems to be trying to keep the people from throwing the baby of true prophecies out with the bathwater of weird ones. So that is my first observation from 1 Thessalonians 5:19–21.
2. Women Prophesy
Here is the second one: “Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife [or woman] who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (1 Corinthians 11:4–5). Now I don’t see how women prophesying in the assembly fits with an infallible, Scripture-level authority when Paul forbids that kind of authority to be exercised over men by women in the church in 1 Timothy 2:12.
Instead, the picture here seems much more spontaneous and mutual, as it is described in 1 Corinthians 14:3: “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Now that would just make sense. If God brought to the mind of a woman — say, in a small-group gathering — something she felt would be incredibly helpful to somebody as long as she does it in a way that is culturally appropriate (that she is not undermining the authority of the men; I think that is what the head stuff is all about), then she is free to do that. This is what men and women do in smaller worship settings, and the gift of prophecy would be when God does that. He brings something to mind with an extraordinary timeliness or suitableness and exerts the power for upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.
So, the fact that women are encouraged to prophesy, and yet women are told not to exercise authority over men, says to me that we have something else going on here besides what others say is Scripture-level authority.
3. Prophecy Will Pass Away
And here is a third one — this is the last one, though there are others — “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:8–9). That is a very crucial statement — “we prophesy in part.” Paul continues, “But when the perfect comes” — as though the prophecies were not that — “when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:10–12).
Now what is he talking about there? The future in view here I think is manifestly when Christ comes. When the perfect comes in the time of adulthood (when he is not speaking like a child anymore) the time of seeing face-to-face, not in a mirror anymore, but rather knowing fully even as I have been fully known — that is not any time in this age. That is the end of the age, when we will know fully even as we have been fully known. So that is when the gift of prophecy stops.
“The reason the gift of prophecy will pass away is precisely because prophecies are imperfect.”
So this text is a pretty clear argument, I think, that the gift of prophecy and tongues will continue until Jesus comes back. And it seems to me that the reason they pass away it says is precisely because they are imperfect. They are not Scripture-level authority, because 1 Corinthians 13:9 says, “we prophesy in part,” just like a little child trying to reason and think and talk. And when he grows up and becomes a man in the age to come, he won’t need that kind of help anymore.
Those are three reasons that I would say that the gift of prophecy is here until Jesus comes and that it doesn’t mean the kind of Scripture-level, inerrant, infallible, authoritative speech that some take it to mean.