When Will Prophecy Cease?

For two Sundays and two Wednesdays now I want to talk about the manifestation of the Spirit called prophecy. Today we will ask if there is a spiritual gift of prophecy still functioning or whether it died out with the completion of Scripture. Next Sunday I hope to ask what this gift of prophecy is and how it should be exercised.

Let me try to show you an interesting connection between gifts of healings (that we have been talking about for two weeks) and the gift of prophecy (that we will take up now for two weeks). Let’s start with last week’s text.

James 5:14–15 says, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man.” I suggested from this text that when the elders come to pray for a sick person, God sometimes gives them a gift of faith (1 Corinthians 12:9; 13:2) so that they can pray a “prayer of faith” for healing, and when they pray that kind of prayer, God heals the sick person. (He may also heal without that gift; but the promise of the text is made to “the prayer of faith.”)

In other words, I picture the elders standing or kneeling around the bed of the sick person praying and waiting on the Lord for some manifestation of his Spirit that would minister to this person. As they pray, God may stir up in them a strong faith that healing will be given. When he does this, their prayer becomes the prayer of faith.

“For faith to be faith and not sorcery, there must be some ground for it to rest on.”

Now what is really happening here? How does God stir up faith like that? It seems to me that faith must always rest in some revelation of God’s will. So the gift of faith seems to always involve some reminder or revelation of what God intends to do. 1 Corinthians 12:9; 13:2 tell us there is a gift of faith that can remove mountains (“if I have faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love . . . ”). But for faith to be faith and not sorcery or enchantment there must be some ground for the faith to rest on. And I take that to be the revelation of God’s will by the Spirit.

What this means is that for the elders to pray the prayer of faith in James 5:15, they must have a gift of faith, and to have a gift of faith, they must have some kind of revelation of God’s intention about the sick person in which to have faith. And one way of describing the revelation of God’s intentions is to call it “prophecy.” In other words, the possible link between gifts of healings and prophecy is this: healing is promised to the prayer of faith (James 5:15), the prayer of faith is based on the gift of faith (1 Corinthians 12:9), this faith must have a solid object or basis, and that basis is the revelation of God’s will concerning the sick person which we could call a “prophecy.”

A Parallel in 1 Timothy 4:14

Now I admit there is some guesswork going on here. James does not say explicitly that there was a prophecy given to the elders at the bedside of the sick person. I’m inferring that something like a prophecy happened from the nature of “faith” implied in the phrase “prayer of faith.” But the reason I feel confirmed in this inference is because the same sort of thing happened when the elders gathered in 1 Timothy 4:14.

In this text, Paul speaks of a role that the elders had when Timothy was set apart for the ministry. Paul says, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the [council of] elders laid their hands upon you.” Notice three things:

  1. The elders were gathered around Timothy to lay hands on him — a kind of ordination service at the outset of his ministry.

  2. During that gathering, God gave a gift of prophecy to one or more of the elders to speak about Timothy.

  3. In accordance with this prophecy, God gave Timothy a special gift for his ministry that he should now stir up and not neglect.

In both James 5:15 and 1 Timothy 4:14 the elders were gathered around someone and God gave a gift through the elders for the person they were praying over — the sick person in James 5 and the young minister in 1 Timothy 4. The fact that the ministry gift for Timothy came through a prophecy from the elders in 1 Timothy 4 at least opens the possibility that the healing gift for the sick person in James 5 also came through a similar gift of prophecy.

Focusing on the Gift of Prophecy

And so last week’s focus on gifts of healings does lead to our next focus on the gift of prophecy. The whole issue of knowing when and where and how to pray for healing, the issue of knowing when to ask God for some sign or miracle, the issue of making ministry decisions when you have exhausted your ability to apply Scripture and two courses of action seem equally wise — all these issues raise for us the question of the role of prophecy. Does God still speak today? Does he still give the gift of prophecy today? If so what is it like? How should we use it?

In 1 Corinthians 13:8 Paul says, “Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” So the question I want to try to answer today is: What time is referred to when Paul says, “Prophecies . . . will pass away”? Has it already passed away or will it pass away at some future time?

The next two verses (9–10) give the reason for why prophecies and knowledge will pass away: “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect [literally: For we know in part and we prophesy in part]; but when the perfect [or: mature, complete] comes, the imperfect [or: partial] will pass away.” So the reason prophecies will pass away is that a time is coming when the partiality and incompleteness of the gift of prophecy will be replaced by perfection and completeness and wholeness.

When Will Prophesy Cease?

One respected tradition says that the coming of perfection or completeness refers to the coming of the day when Scripture is complete, that is, when the last inspired writings are gathered into the Bible and the canon of Scripture is closed. Let me quote from one of these writers whom I highly respect:

“Healing is promised to the prayer of faith, which is based on the gift of faith.”

When Scripture is completed, then the church will have revelation thoroughly suited to her condition on earth. Our completed Bible is perfect in the sense that it is utterly sufficient revelation for all our needs. Paul is saying, “When the sufficient comes, the inadequate and partial will be done away. Tongues will vanish away, knowledge [and prophecies] will cease at the time that the New Testament is finished.”

So when verse 10 says, “When the perfect comes,” they say it means, “When the perfect New Testament comes.” Is that what Paul means by perfect? The other view says that the coming of the perfect refers to the experience of perfection at the return of Christ.

So you see what is at stake in these two interpretations. If the coming of the perfect in verse 10 refers to the finishing of the New Testament, then the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge have all passed away because that time came 1,900 years ago. But if the coming of the perfect in verse 10 refers to the second coming of Christ, then the natural understanding of the text is that the gifts will continue until Jesus comes.

Testing the Options

Let’s test these two suggestions by the rest of the passage.

‘When I Became a Man’

In the next verse (11) Paul says, “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.” Paul compares the experience of partial prophecy and knowledge to the experience of childhood, and he compares the passing away of these gifts to the experience of adulthood. That comparison doesn’t seem to decide the issue for us.

‘Face to Face’

Let’s go to the next verse. Verse 12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” Now this is really helpful in making our decision. Here in verse 12, Paul is describing what verse 10 refers to, namely, “when the perfect comes.”

I want to make sure that you see this. Notice the contrast in verses 9 and 10 between “our knowledge is imperfect” (verse 9) and “when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away” (verse 10). Then drop down to verse 12 and notice the same contrast in the second part of the verse: “Now I know in part” contrasts with “then I shall understand fully.” So verse 12 is clearly describing the coming of “the perfect” referred to in verse 10.

Now does the description of the coming of the perfect in verse 12 fit with the second coming or with the completing of the New Testament?

Let’s take the two halves of the verse one at a time. First it says, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” Is it more likely that Paul is saying, “Now before the New Testament is written, we see in a mirror dimly; but then when the New Testament is written, we shall see face to face”? Or is it more likely that he is saying, “Now in this age we see in a mirror dimly; but then when the Lord returns, we shall see face to face”? In the Old Testament, there are half a dozen references to seeing God “face to face.” Revelation 22:4 says that in heaven we shall see God’s face. 1 John 3:2 says that when Jesus appears, we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is.

My conclusion is that the contrast between seeing fuzzily in an old mirror made out of metal and seeing face to face is not a contrast between first century spiritual knowledge and the knowledge we have from the New Testament today, but rather it’s a contrast between the imperfect knowledge we have today in this age and the awesome personal knowledge of God we will have when the Lord returns.

‘Then I Shall Understand Fully’

The second half of verse 12 points in the same direction. It says, “Now I know in part [the very same words used at the beginning of verse 9]; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” Now is this a contrast between before and after the New Testament or before and after the second coming?

“Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.”

It’s hard for me to imagine Paul or any of us saying that after the New Testament was written, we now in this age understand fully, even as we have been fully understood. This surely refers to knowing in some sense the way God knows us — not omniscience; it doesn’t say we will know everything. But we will “be freed from the misconceptions and inabilities to understand (especially to understand God and his work) which are part of this present life . . . [Our knowledge] will contain no false impressions and will not be limited to what is able to be perceived in this age.”

At the End of the Age

So my conclusion on this question is this: Paul is saying that prophecies will pass away not when the New Testament is completed but when this age is completed at the second coming of the Lord from heaven. That’s when “the perfect comes” (verse 10). That’s when all speaking and thinking and reasoning like a child will be put away (verse11). That’s when we will see “face to face” (verse 12a). That’s when we will “know fully even as we have been fully known” (verse 12b).

What Difference Does This Make?

Now, what difference does this make for us? It means that the spiritual gift of prophecy has not passed away, but is meant for the good of the church until Jesus comes. Which leads us to the question: What is it? Is it what I do on Sunday morning — preaching? Is it a premonition that something terrible is happening in Guinea so that we can pray earnestly even before we get word from the missionaries? Is it a word of Scripture that God brings to your mind in such a way that it has tremendous effect in bringing someone to Christ? Is it God-given guidance for the leaders this afternoon as to which of the contractors would build the best building?

That’s what we will dig into next week. But to keep you from feeling like this is not quite relevant for you, look in closing at 1 Corinthians 14:1. “Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” If we are on the right track this morning, that command is still binding on all believers.

You should earnestly desire the spiritual gift of prophecy. Do you? And if you say, “I don’t even know what it means,” do you want to know what it means? Do you think that when you ask God for bread, he will give you a stone? Or do you trust him enough to say: If this gift would help me build up people and honor you, show me what it is and give it to me please?