Spiritual Gifts and the Sovereignty of God: The Gift of Prophecy in Scripture

Desiring God 1991 Conference for Pastors

Spiritual Gifts and the Sovereignty of God

Thank you for inviting me here and Greg for leading us in that worship time. I wish it could have gone on longer. Coming back to Minneapolis is, in many ways, like coming home for me for several reasons. Both my father and my mother grew up in Minneapolis and graduated from Roosevelt High School, I think in 1934 or 1935. My mother grew up in First Covenant Church just a few blocks from here, and my grandmother until her death in 1988 was one of the oldest living members of First Covenant Church.

One of my very early memories as a child was coming from our home in Wisconsin to visit my grandmother’s home on 5029th Avenue South and then, since it was Christmastime, going to Dayton’s to see the windows and visit the toy department. At age 13, I came from my Baptist church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin to a Billy Graham crusade in 1961. I was 13 years old, and though I had been baptized a year earlier on my profession of faith, nonetheless I felt the call of God in my heart and I went forward at that crusade to rededicate my life to Christ. That was here in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I know that not all of you are BGC (Baptist General Conference) pastors, but a number of you are. The Baptist General Conference has also been very significant in my life. Though I went away to college and seminary and graduate school, as John mentioned, I was ordained in 1974 in my home church, Salem Baptist Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where Neil Floberg was the pastor.

My first teaching job was in the Twin Cities from 1977 to 1981. Margaret and I and our family spent four and a half wonderful years at Bethel College where I was teaching as John’s colleague. He was in New Testament and I was in systematic theology. And we were members of Salem Baptist Church in New Brighton, BGC church, until we went to Trinity Seminary nine and a half years ago and that’s where we are now. Margaret and I are back here for these days. We love it here. We feel at home here.

You have an outline that has been handed out to you. I’m going to follow through that outline and talk about the gift of prophecy. We start out with what I call the big picture, and that is that God speaks. I know John prayed, but whenever I preach, I like to pray at the beginning of the time when we look at God’s words, so let’s bow and commit that time to him again.

The God Who Speaks

Before we talk about the gift of prophecy, we need to see what an amazing thing it is that God speaks, and then that he speaks to us. From the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 1:3 where God spoke and said, “Let there be light,” to the end of the Bible, the next to the last verse, Revelation 22:20, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon,’” we have a story in the Bible of God speaking repeatedly and powerfully to creation and then to his people. This shows how God is superior, far superior, to all the other aspects of the universe, particularly the subhuman parts of the universe. Rocks and hills don’t speak. Flowers and trees are beautiful, but they don’t speak. Birds chirp and dogs bark and cows moo and lions roar, but they don’t really speak, not in complex abstract language. You couldn’t assemble 140 dogs and have them listen for two hours to a lecture on the history of canine philosophy. Animals don’t speak in the complex language that God uses.

But God speaks, and his speech reveals his character. It reveals his wisdom and knowledge. It reveals his power. When we hear it, it reveals to us his love, his mercy, his justice, and his holiness. God’s speech reveals who he is. And since we are created in God’s image, he has reserved that gift of speech only for us and for angels out of all creation.

Now, I think that shows something of the wonder of our creation in the image of God; we can speak and we can listen. God says in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” And immediately after the creation of man in God’s image, we read Genesis 1:28:

God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth . . .”

Do you see what is happening there? God is addressing human beings as persons, as he is a person. He speaks to us as persons in the beginning of Scripture.

Our Continual Conversation with God

Immediately after that we see that Adam himself, created in God’s image, begins to speak. He names the beasts of the field. He names Eve, woman. He himself speaks, and then we find that Eve speaks. And so through the history of Scripture God speaks and he listens personally to us. I think we should realize how great a privilege that is. Out of all creation, God speaks personally only to men and to angels. He speaks words of redemption and of healing only to us, men and women created in his image.

Dogs and elephants and lions are wonderful creatures, creatures that God has made, but they have no Bible. There is no Bible for dogs or lions. Angels are amazing creatures, but they have no Bible written for them, though 1 Peter tells us they delight to peek into ours. But you and I, we can read the very words of God spoken for us and to us, and we can pray and know that God hears.

That’s the big picture. We have to start there. In the great drama of the history of the universe, from the creation onto the new heavens and new earth that will never pass away, God has a cast of millions and millions, but he has given human beings the leading role in that drama. And at the center of the universe there is the throne of God, and there you and I are welcomed, there you and I have access forever. Day and night, we can speak and God listens, and he speaks to us. Therefore, the Book of Hebrews encourages us:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith . . . (Hebrews 10:22).

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you (James 4:8)

This is a great privilege, a wonderful privilege that God has given us. He speaks and we listen, and then we can speak to him and he hears us. We need to rejoice in that and be thankful for it.

A Privilege and Great Responsibility

Really, we could say then, that this is the greatest privilege, the highest use of our abilities to speak and to listen. This God-like quality, this ability to speak and to listen, can be used in horrible ways, to blaspheme against God, to lie and curse other people, to spew forth filth and hatred, to entice people to sin, or to listen to evil, to listen to cursing and blasphemy and lies, to listen to or read endless descriptions of the works of Satan, like murder and lying and rebellion and adultery and theft and fraud and suffering and death. We can take our God-like ability to understand words and drag that ability day after day through the filth and sewer of humanity’s language, filling the mind with lust and envy and hatred and fear.

But there’s a far better use of our gift of language. We can use our words to speak words of grace, to speak the good news of redemption, to speak words of comfort to the suffering, to speak words of healing to those with broken lives. And we can listen to others tell about the wonderful works of God in their lives. We can listen to truth and descriptions of life and faithfulness and honesty and healing and redemption.

And yet, there is an even higher use of our gift of language, and that’s its highest use. It’s when we listen to God and speak to him, when we hear his words and we speak words of prayer and praise to God himself. We are created persons speaking to the person of our creator. I think that’s why we felt such spontaneous joy a few minutes ago when we were singing, “Lord, glorify your name in all the earth. Father, we adore You. We worship and adore you.” Something in us says, “This is right.” It’s the most right use of my gift of language that there is. There’s more joy in my heart when I’m singing praise to God than when I’m doing anything else with the words that I can speak, because God has made us that way, so that we sense the rightness and the joy of using our gift of language in that wonderful way.

Laying Groundwork in the Understanding of Scripture

Now, when we come to talk about the gift of prophecy, I just want to take a few minutes to lay some groundwork so that we are on common ground regarding our understanding of the unique nature of the Bible. You see, I’m going to say a little later that the gift of prophecy is simply reporting something that God spontaneously brings to mind. And so, that really is a form of listening to God communicate with us. But I’m going to say throughout this evening and then tomorrow that it’s far different from Scripture in its authority and in several other ways. So I want to put these points out before you right at the beginning so we understand the unique nature of Scripture.

First, Scripture is unique in its content. The content of Scripture is the central acts of redemptive history, those acts that God wants his people to know for all history and throughout the world.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Hebrews 1:1–2).

God’s speech to us in Old Testament through the prophets, in New Testament through the Son — that is, through the gospels that record the life and teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus, the Book of Acts that show how the life of Jesus was applied in historical narrative form to the early church, the epistles that show how the life and works of Jesus were applied to the church in doctrinal form, and the Book of Revelation that shows how the work of Jesus is going to be completed on into the future. That’s God speaking to us through the Son.

So we have the unique central acts of redemptive history recorded here in Scripture for all time. But the gift of prophecy is not that. The gift of prophecy may be used to bring healing in a remarkable way, to bring comfort, restoration, rebuke, or whatever is needed to people’s lives, but those aren’t events that God wants us today to be recorded in Scripture to be studied by all people for all time. That period of recording those has ceased.

The Preservation of Scripture

Second, it’s unique in its preservation. The words of Scripture are words written in what the Old Testament calls the Book of the Covenant. They are “forever firmly fixed in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89). Jesus says, “My words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). But no prophecy today is like that. No prophecy is to be added to the Book of the Covenant, to be laid up before the Lord. Nor did the early Christians ever do that with the gift of prophecy functioning in their churches.

The Authority of Scripture

Third, the authority of Scripture is unique. All the words of Scripture are the very words of God, and absolutely truthful. “All Scripture is God-breathed,” says 2 Timothy 3:16. Psalm 12:6 tells us that the words of the Lord are words that are “pure,” like “silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” Proverbs 30:5–6 says, “Every word of God proves true.” He’s a shield to those who take refuge in him. Titus 1:2 says that our God is the un-lying God, the God who never lies, and these are his words. So to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disobey or disbelieve God himself.

That means that Scripture is far different from the gift of prophecy today as well. I think it’s right for us to say this: It’s wrong for us to doubt any statement of Scripture or to think maybe it’s not true. But for a contemporary prophecy, it’s wrong for us not to do that. It’s wrong for us not to think that maybe it’s untrue. It’s wrong for us not to test and sift it because Paul tells us:

Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:20–21).

And he tells us:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said (1 Corinthians 14:29).

I’ll talk about that in more detail later, but the point is it’s different from Scripture. In Scripture, it’s wrong to pick and choose what we’ll accept or believe from this. But with contemporary prophecy, it’s wrong not to do that. It’s wrong not to test it, to sort it, to sift it, and to decide what to accept and believe.

The Necessity of Scripture

Fourth, the Scripture is unique in its necessity. It is necessary for awakening and maintaining spiritual life. Matthew 4:4 says:

Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that precedes out of the mouth of God.

But we don’t count prophecies in that category. We don’t write down contemporary prophecies on note cards and memorize them as we would Bible verses, or teach them to our children in Sunday school. We don’t feed our souls daily on the words of prophecies, but rather with Scripture which we memorize and treasure up in our hearts.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

Fifth, Scripture is sufficient. Scripture is unique in that it contains everything God requires us to believe and obey, or at least everything we need God to tell us about what we are to believe and obey. But as far as prophecy, prophecy today cannot and must not add to the moral commands of Scripture, which all Christians are bound to obey.

The Clarity of Scripture

Sixth, Scripture is unique in its clarity. It is not obscure, but it is able to be read and understood by God’s people. “It makes wise the simple,” Psalm 19:7. I’m skipping over some Bible verses on your outline on each of those points, but I’m just summarizing what I think we already would agree to be true. Scripture is not obscure but is able to be read and understood by God’s people generally. I think there is a difference here too in that in prophecies today some things may be puzzling or perhaps of uncertain significance or interpretation. At least we don’t have a guarantee, I think, that it will all be understandable. Though perhaps it may be in most cases. So those are some differences.

The Human Authors of the Bible

Now, what about the human authors of the Bible? Who were they? Who wrote the Bible? Well, in the Old Testament, primarily those who wrote the Bible were called prophets, and there were a few others especially appointed by God who were not called prophets. But sometimes the New Testament can refer to the whole Old Testament as written by prophets. For instance, of Jesus on the Emmaus road it says:

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27).

There’s that broader use. In the New Testament, however, those who write Scripture surprisingly are not called prophets. “Paul, a prophet of Jesus Christ to the church of Corinth,” you don’t read that, do you? “Peter, a prophet of Jesus Christ to the Church of God in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia,” you don’t read that. Rather, the term that Jesus gave, the new term that he applied to those who had the authority to write the words of God that were included in Scripture, was the term apostle. There were a few others under the supervision of the apostles, like Mark the evangelist and Luke and a few others, who were appointed by God and authorized by the apostles. But by and large it was the apostles.

The Office of Apostle and Prophet

Now, we go over to the next page. The New Testament apostles then are parallel to the Old Testament prophets. They are able to speak and write the words of God, which became the New Testament Scriptures. Regarding the New Testament apostles, I believe we have agreement on that and it’s something you are familiar with. I’ll just mention a couple of verses. Paul says, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 14:37–38:

The things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord (entolē kyriou). If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.

In other words, “If you don’t obey and follow what I’m writing to you,” Paul says, “you’re not recognized in the church. You’re out.” That’s an absolute authority that he has to speak and to write the words of God.cIn 2 Peter 3:2, Peter tells his readers to recall “the command of our Lord and Savior through your apostles.” Through the apostles, God gave his commands.

I think there are no apostles today in a narrow sense. I know people use the word “apostle” to refer to effective missionaries sometimes today, and that’s a question of wisdom and the use of words, but in the narrow sense, regarding apostles of Jesus Christ, there are no more today. There are no people today who are able to govern the church with absolute divine authority. There are no people today who are able to write the words of God which are equal to Scripture in authority. So the replacement for the apostles today in the church is the Word of God that they wrote. It’s the New Testament Scriptures.

I think it is significant that in the history of the church no recognized church leader has ever taken the title apostle for himself, including Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Witcliff, Whitfield, and Wesley. On and on you could go. No one has ever taken the title apostle for himself. Not even the pope has done that, he calls himself the servant of the servants of God or bishop of Rome. You see that immediately after the close of the New Testament in 95 AD, First Clement, and in 110 AD, the Epistles of Ignatius. They distinguish themselves very clearly from the apostles. They say, “They are apostles, listen to them, I am a convict, etc . . .” Through the history of the church, that is unique and I think there should be no use of the word apostle in this strong, authoritative sense of people today. It seems to be confusing.

New Testament Prophets

What about New Testament prophets? I want to think with you just for a few minutes about the word prophet. It’s the Greek word prophētēs. That Greek word had a very broad meaning at the time of the New Testament, and I think that was part of the reason, not all of the reason, why Jesus didn’t continue to use that title for the people who wrote Scripture and governed the church with absolute authority. The word had a very broad meaning. Another reason was to show some newness to the New Covenant church. I recognize that. And it was to show that they were sent out because the word “apostle” is related to the word *apostellō, which means “to send.”

But here at least there is one reason, that there was a very broad meaning to this word. Sometimes it referred to the Old Testament prophets, and in Jewish circles certainly it had that sense, but not entirely. Sometimes it could be used simply to mean spokesman, or herald, or proclaimer. In Titus 1:12, we see Paul using it that way. Paul wants to say something slightly derogatory about the Cretans, and he’s writing to Titus on the Island of Crete, and instead of saying it himself, he quotes a native Cretan. He says:

One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” . . . Therefore, rebuke them sharply. (Titus 1:12–13).

“I didn’t say it,” Paul said, “one of their own said it.” But he made his point. Now there he is using the word “prophet” simply to refer to this pagan writer, Epimenides, not referring to him as an Old Testament prophet in the sense of being able to speak God’s very words but simply a spokesman for these people, a proclaimer. In Luke 22:64, I think the verb is used that way when the soldiers who are mistreating Jesus and they mock him and blindfold him and strike him and say, “Prophesy to us, who hit you?” They’re not saying, “Declare to us the very words of God,” they didn’t think he could do that. They were just saying, “Give us some declaration because something has come to your mind or been revealed to you.” It’s in a broader sense.

Also, consider the woman at the well in Samaria in John 4:19. When Jesus says, “You have had five husbands and the one you are with now is not your husband” (John 4:18), her response is, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” (John 4:19). I don’t think she means, “I perceive that you are speaking the absolutely authoritative words of God,” but rather, “I perceive that you are someone who speaks on the basis of something that’s been revealed, something that’s been given to him, something that’s been brought to mind.”

The View of Prophets Outside the New Testament

Outside the New Testament, there are a number of examples like that. I think around the time of the New Testament these examples show something of the flavor that the word would’ve had in the first century world to people who spoke Greek.

I’ve taken some of the uses of “prophet” outside the New Testament from Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament in this article written by Helmut Kramer. A philosopher is called “a prophet of immortal nature,” by Dio Chrysostom, which was written from 40 to 120 AD. That’s very near the time of the New Testament. A teacher named Diogenes wants to be “a prophet of truth and candor.” That’s Lucian of Samosata, again between 120 to 180 AD. Those who advocate Epicurean philosophy are called “prophets of Epicurus.” That’s Plutarch, from 50 to 120 AD. Written history is called a “prophetess of truth,” by Diodorus Siculus. A specialist in botany is called a “prophet,” by Dioscurides of Cilicia. And a quack in medicine is called a “prophet,” by Galen of Pergamum between 129 to 199 AD.

So Kramer’s conclusion is that this word “prophet” (prophētēs), simply expresses the formal function of declaring, proclaiming, and making known. Yet because every prophet declares something which is not his own, the Greek word for herald (kerux) is the closest synonym. So we are speaking then of a word that at the time of the New Testament had a quite broad range of meanings. Sometimes it could apply to the Old Testament prophets, but sometimes it was just a spokesman or proclaimer.

The Overlap of Apostles and Prophets

This word prophet can be applied to the apostles if the context emphasizes that they’re speaking under an external influence, speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit, speaking under the influence of something that has been revealed to them. For instance, you see in Revelation 1:3, and at the end of Revelation, that it is called a “prophecy” — the whole book — because it has been revealed to John by God in a supernatural way. And so, John is there functioning as a prophet. He’s an apostle who is functioning as a prophet.

In Ephesians 2:20 and Ephesians 3:5, I believe that the word “prophet” is used that way too. I’ve argued it in some length in this book on the gift of prophecy that those verses should probably be translated, “The apostle-prophets,” in a hyphenated sense, or “the apostles who are also prophets.” The church is built on the foundation of the “apostle-prophets.” Most of you probably have had some Greek. The construction is the definite article followed by two nouns joined by and. It’s the same construction used in Ephesians 4:11 for the “pastor-teachers.” Many people would argue that that’s one office and should be a hyphenated phrase. Well, the Greek construction for pastor-teacher in Ephesians 4:11 is the same as the construction for “apostle-prophets” in Ephesians 2:20 and Ephesians 3:5. In Ephesians 3:5, it identifies these apostle-prophets as those to whom the mystery of the Gentile inclusion was revealed.

I think in a foundational sense that was the apostles. So it seems to me that at least those examples are examples where the apostles are referred to as prophets.

The Words of the Prophets and the Words of Scripture

Now, does that mean that all prophets at the time of the New Testament spoke the very words of God or wrote the very words of God? Just because the apostles when they were giving prophecies spoke the very words of God, does that mean that all who gave prophecies spoke the very Word of God? Not necessarily. It’s similar to the fact that the apostles can be called “teachers.” Paul talks about himself and he says, “Of this gospel, I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher” (2 Timothy 2:11). Paul is a teacher of the word of God.

Now, does the fact that Paul is called a teacher mean that all who have the gift of teaching write the very words of God? Certainly not. Many in the churches for the first century had the gift of teaching, but they didn’t write the very words of God. Many today have the gift of teaching but they don’t speak the very words of God. Similarly, the apostles could be called “prophets.” When they were prophesying, they were writing the very words of God or speaking them. But others can be called prophets and they aren’t speaking the very words of God. They have lesser authority to their speech. The apostles could be called “evangelists” in some sense. That doesn’t mean that every evangelist spoke the very word of God, all right? Other gifts could be used the same way.

I want to come back to Ephesians 4:11. I talked about it in connection with pastor-teachers a minute ago. I want to mention Ephesians 4:11 here with regard to prophets. There, the construction is different with regard to prophets because apostles and prophets are not joined together with that one definite article. They’re separated, the apostles and prophets. If you ask a question about it later, I have the Greek text on an overhead projector, transparency, and I could put it up, but I think I’ll hurry.

What is the conclusion? I think that prophētēs the word did not itself imply absolute divine authority. I think that’s a barrier that some of us need to get over in terms of our English use of the word *prophet. Sometimes we so identify the word prophet and the gift of prophecy with Old Testament prophets that we don’t recognize that at the time of the New Testament that word could have a broader meaning.

Prophets Without Absolute Authority

In fact, I think there are indications that New Testament prophets themselves did not speak with absolute divine authority. When we look at specific verses of how this gift was functioning, we find something different than the absolute authority with which the apostles spoke or the absolute authority of the Old Testament prophets.

We start with Acts 21:4–5. Maybe you want to look at these passages in your Bibles as we turn to them together. Paul is on his way to Jerusalem. He has stopped in Tyre, and it says:

And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey . . .

Now, it doesn’t use the word “prophet” or “prophecy” there, but it does speak about some kind of speech activity carried on through the Spirit. Most commentators, I think rightly, understand prophecy to be functioning here. It is speech through the Spirit, and through the Spirit these disciples at Tyre say to Paul, “Don’t go on to Jerusalem.”

Well, what does Paul do in the very next verse? He goes on. Now if that is prophecy, it’s interesting that Paul disobeys. If Isaiah the prophet had been standing before him and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Don’t go to Jerusalem,’” Paul wouldn’t have gone. He didn’t want to disobey God himself. But here at least is some kind of speech through the agency and empowerment of the Holy Spirit that Paul disobeys. Could there be a lesser authority to it? Seems to me there is.

We go on down to Acts 21:9–10. This is Philip the evangelist at Caesarea. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. Now, I just mentioned this in connection with 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 11:5, which is an indication, I think, that in the New Testament women can prophesy but not teach. They can’t do the authoritative teaching of the Word of God that Paul speaks of in 1 Timothy 2:12.

Therefore, it seems to me that the gift of prophecy has less authority than the gift of teaching in the church, and I would argue that at more length from the connection between teaching and having authority in 1 Timothy 2:12. I know that’s another discussion, I know there’s a lot of discussion about that and dispute within the church today, but perhaps just for this point, we could see that it’s certainly possible to see that Paul and Luke (traveling with him) see a distinction between prophecy and teaching, and perhaps a distinction that suggests lesser authority to the gift of prophecy.

Agabus and Infallible Prophecy

We continue on to Acts 21:10–11. Agabus comes up. He takes Paul’s belt and binds his own feet in hands and says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” Well, that sounds fine, except when we read on in the same chapter (Acts 21:32–33) that the Jews drag Paul out of the temple and they begin trying to beat him to death, but of the tribune it says:

He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains.

There’s the word bind again, which is the same Greek word, deō. And then over in Acts 22:29, it says, “The tribune was afraid for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.” That’s the same word, deō.

Now, Agabus was almost right. Almost. He said, “The Jews will bind Paul and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.” But in fact, what Luke reports twice in the subsequent narrative is not that the Jews bound Paul, but that the Romans bound him. And it wasn’t that the Jews delivered Paul over (paradidōmi). Every time it’s used in the New Testament it has the sense of voluntarily giving over something to someone else. It’s used of Judas betraying Jesus, giving him over. But the Jews didn’t really do that. Paul had to be taken by force with soldiers, centurions.

So Agabus was almost right, but not exactly. It was imprecise. Perhaps Agabus had had a picture, a vision of Paul standing before an angry Jewish mob, bound with chains and with a Roman centurion by his side or a tribune, and he had concluded, “Well, the Jews must have bound him and delivered him to the Gentiles.” His conclusion was close, but it wasn’t quite accurate. It seems there that this prophecy given by Agabus has some imprecision in it that at least in my mind would be uncharacteristic of the prophecies of Scripture. I would have a hard time reconciling that with my view of the inerrancy of Scripture, for instance, because the two central items binding and delivering weren’t quite fulfilled.

Do Not Despise Prophecies

We go on to 1 Thessalonians 5:20–21 where Paul says:

Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.

Now, how did the Thessalonians value the word of God? They esteemed it highly. Paul says:

When you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God . . . (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

He would not have had to tell them, “Do not despise the very words of God,” but he had to tell them, “Do not despise prophesying.” He must have known that they already realized that it had a lesser kind of character to it, a lesser kind of authority to it. It was, in fact, in danger of being despised. And so he says, “Don’t despise it, but test everything.” Test it, prove it. I think again this is implying that some of it would’ve been accepted and some rejected. They would have to test it all, suggesting that it was not all the very words of God, but it had a lesser authority to it.

The New Covenant Age

In Ephesians 4:11, I just mention that passage because prophets are mentioned as a gift. And in Romans 12:6 in the church at Rome, we find the gift was existing there because Paul says that he who “prophesies” is to do it according to his faith. In Acts 2:17–18, note that prophecy is one of these things that is said to be given to the church in general at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes in fullness. It says:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

It seems that in that passage we have something that is not simply restricted to the apostles or those who could write Scripture but is characteristic of the New Covenant age. God is going to pour out his Spirit on all, old men, young men, menservants, maidservants, sons, and daughters. It’s language that speaks of inclusivity for the whole of the Body of Christ that is going to be poured out on all kinds of people, and they will prophesy. It is indicative of the character of the New Covenant age.

Weighing Prophecies

Then we turn over to 1 Corinthians 14 where we have a more extensive discussion of the nature of several spiritual gifts, but we’ll focus here particularly on prophecy, to which Paul gives considerable attention. First Corinthians 14:29 says:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh (daikrinō) what is said.

Now that word “weigh what is said” has to do with sifting and sorting and evaluating. It could be used for sifting wheat from chaff, for instance, or soldiers coming into a crowd to sort out the troublemakers from the law-abiding citizens. In the Old Testament, the ear tests words. It has to do with a number of cases where there is a sifting or a sorting process. Yes, this, not that. This is good, that is not good. It’s that kind of thing.

Paul says, “Let two or three prophets speak and let the others (I think it means the whole church) evaluate.” Let them test, let them sort, sift the good from the bad, what applies and what does not. Now, again, that seems strongly to imply that the prophecies that he is speaking of here are not the very words of God. Paul couldn’t have said, “Read this letter and sort the good from the bad. Let everybody sift and accept what they think is right and reject the rest.” That’s not Paul’s way. He says, “What I’m writing to you is a command of the Lord. If anyone doesn’t recognize it, he’s not recognized. If anyone refuses to do what we say in this letter, have nothing to do with him.” There’s none of this thought of everyone sifting and sorting with regard to Paul’s own speech. But there is with prophesying.

Again in 1 Corinthians 14:30 says, “If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent.” I think the picture is this. Someone is standing up, let’s say like Dana Olson here in the church at Corinth. He’s standing up. God’s put something on his mind. He’s reporting what it is. He’s giving a prophecy. And all of a sudden, Brian has a revelation made to him. God brings something to mind. It’s from the Lord. So he stands up and motions. Paul says, “Dana, you sit down.” Let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. You may have more. God may have brought more to your mind, but that’s all right, forget it. We’re not going to get it all because we want several people to prophesy. I think, again, if this revelation and the report of it had been the very words of God, Paul wouldn’t have said, “Let the first be silent.” He wouldn’t have wanted it lost.

Paul seems to think there’s more that comes than is necessary for the proper functioning of the church. And then again, in 1 Corinthians 14:36, Paul says, “Or was it from you that the word of God came?” The implied answer is no. There are lots of prophets at Corinth, but the word of God hasn’t come from them. It never has. No words of God are coming from the Corinthian prophets. They come from Paul. So there’s a difference, a difference in authority. And in 1 Corinthians 14:38–39, he says:

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.

It seems to me that this is different from Paul’s approach in Galatians 2, where he recognizes that there is a divine authority given to the other apostles and there can be mutual correction among the apostles. He corrects Peter, for instance. He says he lays before them the gospel which he preached lest he should have run in vain. He has some sense of mutual accountability among the apostles and that possibility, but not from Corinth. They can’t correct him. Now, that may or may not be a weighty consideration. I put that last passage in with some hesitancy, but perhaps it is helpful. The others I think are quite strong.

Preparation for the Absence of Apostles

Third, notice the apostles’ preparation for their absence. There are many people who say or who have said prophets were going around in the early church speaking the words of God. These were the words that governed the early church until the Scriptures were complete. That’s a common view in some areas of New Testament scholarship. But it seems to me the text itself does not justify that view. Because when the apostles know that they’re going to leave a city or that they’re going to pass off the scene and they begin to give directions, they don’t say, “Give heed to the prophets that we left among your churches.” Never do they say that. Rather, they encourage giving heed to the teaching, to the traditions that have been received by the apostles, to the word of God that’s been made more sure.

So we see a number of verses. Second Timothy 2:15 says:

Present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

Second Timothy is Paul’s last epistle, and what does he emphasize?

All Scripture (not all prophecies) is breathed out by God . . . (2 Timothy 3:16).

Jude 3 says:

Contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints . . .

Second Peter 1:19 says:

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts . . .

There is prophecy or prophetic word used in a strong sense, the Scriptures. In 2 Peter 3:16, the words of Paul are classed with the “other Scriptures.” So the apostles tell the churches to give heed to the teaching or the apostolic tradition, but not to the prophecies. It’s about rightly handling the word of truth, not rightly handling prophecies.

The Place of Prophecy

Here’s the fourth argument: if someone wishes to argue that the gift of prophecy functioning in all these churches — Tyre, Caesarea, Jerusalem, Thessalonica, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, and the church in general — was speaking the very words of God to these churches, then that implies that there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of Christians with that gift. You have 5,000 of the church of Jerusalem from its beginning, and then there are hundreds of churches throughout the Mediterranean world, and all of those had the gift of prophecy, and so all those cities have the gift of prophecy functioning. There was an abundance of words coming forth from these prophets, and not one was preserved in our New Testament.

If these were the very words of God, doesn’t it seem strange that none were preserved, none? Doesn’t that again suggest that this gift of prophecy was something different from Scripture. It was something that had far less authority than Scripture. It wasn’t the very words of God.

So my conclusion is that the gift of prophecy in New Testament churches was not the ability to speak the words of God, nor is it today. I’m going to explain this a little more fully in a few minutes. Rather, it’s that God brings something to mind and we report it. But in that report there’s no guarantee of absolute truthfulness. We can misunderstand what God has brought to us. We can add our own interpretation. We can have something that God has brought to our mind, but something else that’s from us and we’re unsure. We’re never to treat it as the very words of God.

Therefore, those who use the gift of prophecy today, those who think that it is valid — if many of you would think that it would be useful to have in your church — then it should not be used with the introductory phrase, “Thus says the Lord.” I realize in saying that I am speaking in a way that is contrary to some traditional practice in Pentecostal and charismatic churches. Well, all right, it’s contrary to their practice, but I think there is a correction that is needed there.

If people begin to use this phrase, “Thus says the Lord,” and then report something that God has brought to mind, it’s misleading. It gives the impression that these are the very words of God and you have to obey. There’s all sorts of pressure that’s put on people that way. I think there’s a wrong kind of emphasis and it’s misleading. It leads to all sorts of abuse. So don’t do it. Why not say, “I think the Lord is showing us this,” or, “I think the Lord has brought something to mind,” or, “It seems like the Lord is saying this to us”? Give some sense of uncertainty about it, then fine. Well, people will say, “If you do that, it’ll lose all its power.” Well, not if the power comes from the Holy Spirit. If it’s really from the Holy Spirit, it’ll hit home. It’ll hit home with a lot of power, even if it’s spoken very gently.

A Word for a Pastor

Here are a couple of examples. About a year ago now, a prominent evangelical pastor from a large Baptist church in a very large city in Africa came with me to a vineyard church in Evanston, where I had been attending. He said he’d like to come, and I said, “Sure.” Well, there were 600 people there on Sunday morning. We went and sat two-thirds the way back. After the service he said, “I’d like to speak to the pastor.” Simultaneously, the pastor sought out Margaret, my wife, and said, “I’d like to speak to that man who came with you this morning.” So we introduced them and they just talked a minute and our pastor in Evanston said, “Can I pray for you?” This African pastor said, “Sure,” and Steve, our pastor, began to pray briefly. Then after he prayed a minute or two, he said, “I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I think God wants me to say something to you. I think you should take stronger leadership in your church.” Now, that’s as gentle as you can get.

But tears begin to stream down the face of this strong senior pastor. God made it hit home because unknown to this American pastor, the day before the pastor had left Africa, a missionary statesman whom he highly respected had been in his church and had said to him, “You need to take stronger leadership in your church.” Unknown to the American pastor, that African pastor had been in my office in the previous week talking about the situation in his church saying, “I just am struggling with my own leadership in the church and maybe I need to take stronger leadership in it.” And that little word, “I think the Lord wants me to say that you should take stronger leadership than your church,” was just like an arrow hitting his heart. It didn’t need to be, “Thus says the Lord: be a leader,” or something like that. The Holy Spirit used it and it confirmed what had already been going on in a marvelous way.

A Word for a Single Mother

Here’s another example, and there are many, but I’ll just use this one because it just happened in such a simple way. A friend of ours in our church, a woman who’s a single mother and works hard to support her son and herself, came by our home one afternoon because she had been troubled with a cough that wouldn’t go away for a couple of weeks. Her doctor had prescribed medicine and then stronger medicine, and it wouldn’t stop. There was a lot of congestion and he was sending her to the hospital for x-rays. On the way to the hospital, she stopped by our house and asked if we’d pray for her. So Margaret and I sat in our living room and prayed for her. I just asked that the Lord would take away the cough. And we waited quietly for a minute and then Margaret, my wife, who oftentimes has a lot more spiritual discernment than I do, said, “I keep getting this word anger.”

Immediately, just like that, this woman began to weep, she said, “That’s it. That’s it.” And she began to cry. And then it all came out. Ten years earlier when her son was born, her parents had not given her a baby shower because they disapproved of the marriage situation she was in. There was all sorts of family hostility. She had been hurt by that. And in the past two weeks she had been to two other baby showers involving close relatives, and her parents had been involved and all the old hurt had come up again and she began to weep. I said to her, “Mary, you need to confess that anger to the Lord and ask his forgiveness.” She did.

We can get into this more later, but I think sometimes where there’s longstanding anger or bitterness or something, then there can be a demonic component where I think an evil spirit will aggravate that situation. It’s not the primary cause. The primary cause is their own sin, but it can be aggravated and stirred up. So I just thought it appropriate and I said, “Any spirit of anger that’s been troubling this woman, I rebuke you in Jesus’s name. I tell you to be gone.” It was just as simple as that. And when I said that, she said, “I can breathe. For the first time in two weeks I can breathe.” So we just rejoiced. I prayed and asked the Lord to take away any remaining congestion or illness that was there. Then she went to the hospital and the X-ray showed nothing.

Now, Margaret didn’t have to say, “Thus says the Lord: you’re angry.” It was just that God brought something to mind and it was apart from her normal train of thought perhaps, and somehow she just said, “I keep getting the word anger.” The Holy Spirit took that and used it like an arrow again to pierce through her heart. So we don’t need to thunder in a loud human voice to let the Holy Spirit do his work.

is research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary and author of Systematic Theology. He co-founded the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and served as the general editor of the ESV Study Bible.