I just finished up teaching a class on a topic I’ve had my teeth in for a good while – God speaking. In fact, I wrote my master’s thesis on it as I described in this post here.
Naturally, a component of how God speaks today depends on how you consider New Testament prophecy. Just on the surface, when reading though the New Testament, especially Acts and 1 Corinthians, it does seem reasonable to conclude that we should expect that people would deliver prophecy just like they did in the Bible. In fact, I have spent much of my Christian life in churches where delivering prophecies was quite normal. Prophecies would range from exhortation to rebuking to foretelling what was in store for the church. It was also no uncommon for people to give private prophecies to individuals that typically included some type of foretelling, “look out for _____” or “in this season God is going to _______.” If you were to ask someone how did they know this was from God, a typical response would be “I just felt in my spirit.” In other words, there was some type of strong feeling that whatever words were being formed in one’s mind was God wanted to communicate.
However, the more I examine the New Testament, and specifically 1 Corinthians 14, the more I question this methodology of evaluating prophecies. I use this particular chapter as an example because I think it provides the clearest picture what transpired in the early church regarding the practice of prophecy to the body of Christ. In this regard, I think it can present the biggest challenge to a cessationist position that concludes that prophecy no longer exists, or at least the office of prophet no longer exists.
Without going too in depth and explaining in a cursory way, what I argue in my thesis and further developed in preparation for this class is that New Testament prophecies were proclaiming what the testimony of the apostles meant for the church. Keep in mind that during the New Testament accounts, the church had the Old Testament Scriptures, the testimony of the apostles and the word of the prophets. There was not a completed Bible. However, a holistic understanding of God’s self-revelation to humanity will see that the foundation of Old Testament provided the basis for what would be fulfilled in Christ, who completely and ultimately expresses the mind, will, character and plan of God. All New Testament activity portrayed in the epistles must rightly find their place in what God has done through the Son.
In light of this connection between Old and New Testaments, John Child, professor of New Testament studies at George Whitfield College in South Africa, states this in a fabulous essay entitled Towards an Evaluation of Charismatic Prophesies;
Since prophets claim their prophecies are from God and should be heeded, we should expect them to be tested under the new covenant We should expect the theological test to reflect theological development from old to new covenant; not just a fidelity to Yahwey but to Jesus Christ, not just to content in keeping with the Torah or Old Testament but in keeping with the progressive revelation or full revelation in the New Testament.
The full revelation is found in Christ (Col. 2:9). So it seems reasonable that whatever is being communicated in the New Testament is in line with his revelation.
We cannot negate that there were prophets who spoke on behalf of God in the early church. But we don’t have a record of what is being prophesied. So we can imagine that pretty much anything is up for grabs in terms of what God wanted to communicate. It could have been very much like the prophecies we see today, including a good dose of what God wants to do with his people.
However, I think there are some clues in the text ought to temper this expectation. First, we see in vv 24-25, that what was being communicated caused the hearer to fall on their face and worship. While it may seem reasonable that just believing it was God speaking would generate this response, we also have to consider what would cause us to turn our hearts towards God. It is who he is and what he accomplished through the Son and what that means for us. In other words, if I looked at the bulk of what passes for prophecy today especially regarding foretelling what will happen in all kinds of randomness, I have to question of this is something that would cause this reaction.
Secondly, in vs 29, Paul said, “Let two or thee prophets speak, and let others weigh what is said.” By what measure were they evaluating prophecies to know if it was from God? Surely, it wasn’t based on some subjective criteria like how strongly they felt but based on what had objectively already been revealed. Again, what had already been revealed was not some series of random speeches based on whatever one believed the Lord was doing but based on what he already did in accordance with Old Testament promises. Therefore, all speech had to find their locust in Christ as the fulfiller of the Law and Prophets (Matt. 5:17) and all the promises of God (2 Cor. 1:20). This fulfillment was amplified and explained by the apostles words. Is it any wonder that there are so many Old Testament quotes in the New Testament? Because the apostolic witness provided clarity on what this meant in light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ in relationship to Old Testament activity. There was always a Christ-centered focus to the apostles teaching. This same teaching is ensconced in a completed New Testament. What more do we need? Even if you do hold to a continuationist position, when correlating prophecies today with what transpired in the early church, we have to conclude that whatever is spoken cannot exceed the bounds of what has already been spoken.
Now, I know that some vary in their definition of prophecy. Wayne Grudem, a theologian who believes in the continuation of gifts states this;
Most charismatic teachers today would agree that contemporary prophecy is not equal to Scripture in authority. Though some will speak of prophecy as being the ‘word of God’ for today, there is almost uniform testimony from all sections of the charismatic movement that prophecy is imperfect and impure, and will contain elements that are not to be obeyed or trusted…
But it must be said that in actual practice much confusion results from the habit of prefacing prophecies with the common Old Testament phrase, ‘Thus says the Lord’ (a phrase nowhere spoken in the New Testament by any prophets in the New Testament churches). This is unfortunate, because it gives the impression that the words that follow are God’s very words, whereas the New Testament does not justify that position and, when pressed, most responsible charismatic spokesmen would not want to claim it for every part of their prophecies anyway. So there would be much gain and no loss if that introductory phrase were dropped. (1055-1056)
While I don’t agree with his definition of New Testament prophecy not having the same criteria as Old Testament prophecy as the word of the Lord, even in his continuationist position, there is still a caution that we cannot go about insisting that whatever is subjectively felt is something the Lord is communicating to us. In fact, Grudem equates Old Testament prophecy with the New Testament apostles, in that it is the apostles who spoke the word of the Lord. The apostles instructions provided the church with everything they needed for faith and godliness (2 Peter 1:4).
If that is the case, does that not provide the parameters for what New Testament prophecy should be? Do we still need to emulate gatherings like that described in 1 Corinthians 14? If you say yes, does that not run the risk of ascribing to the Lord words he has not said or even worse, negatively impacting the faith of dear brothers and sisters in Christ because of something that is subjectively felt?
Although I no longer am part of circles that regularly engage in producing some kind of prophecy in the vein of what transpired in the New Testament epistles, I do recall years of hearing so called “word from the Lord” that actually was a regurgitation of Scripture mixed in with some kind of “this will happen.” And I continue to get a good dose of so-called proclamations from the Lord through social media. It makes me continually ask why engage in a deciphering activity to determine if something is from God when realizing that authentic prophecy will speak in accordance to what has been spoken. So why not just rely on the sure word as I wrote about in A Sure Word? While this may seem spiritual to hear the voice of God through some kind of prophecy, I think we cannot dismiss that all prophecy points towards Christ, our life in him and that he has sufficiently spoken.
“The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10)