The Spiritual Gift of prophecy is easily one of the most controversial spiritual gifts in the New Testament. It has been both abused and feared in the contemporary church. Some have used the belief in prophetic gifting as a means to manipulate others, acquire power and prestige, and to control churches. As a result many have become so fearful of the gift that they run from, hate it, mock it, or even outright deny it. Both extremes are wrong, and both stem from faulty understanding of the nature and function of prophetic gifts. When we understand the function of the Spiritual Gift of prophecy we can more fully appreciate and utilize it within the contemporary church.
Last week I pointed out that the New Testament prophecy is different from both Old Testament prophecy and the written Word of God. It does not possess the same level of authority as Scripture and is, therefore, always subject to Scripture itself. Not only can no one claim “Thus Says the Lord” apart from reading Scripture (or even “God told me…”), but we can never use prophecy as a justification for contradicting Scripture. We are not infallible and our understanding of prophecies is therefore not infallible. We must interpret and explain prophecies with humility and in subordination to God’s Holy written Word. If, however, prophecies aren’t the same as Scripture what exactly is the function of the prophetic gift? This is an important and crucial question for us to answer.
We should begin by defining and determining what prophecy is and isn’t. Much that goes by the name “prophecy” isn’t actually consistent with Scriptural teaching. Prophecy is “revelatory” in nature (1 Cor. 14:30). Sam Storms defines it as “a human report of a divine revelation” (Practicing the Power, 82). Paul further states that prophecy exists to build up, encourage, and console the church (1 Cor. 14:3). Our identification of prophecy, then, must include both of these elements. Prophecy is not the same as simply speaking, preaching, or teaching, nor is all encouragement, upbuilding, or consolation prophetic. There is a distinct nature to the spiritual gift of prophecy. The Lord may put a burden on your heart – that doesn’t mean you have been given a prophetic word. You may “sense that the Spirit is saying…” – but that’s not the same thing as prophecy. The Scriptures, sermon, or worship song may have prompted a conviction in your heart about something – but that is distinctly different from the prophetic. These are all important elements of our spiritual sensitivity, but they are not prophecies. They are not any less spiritual in nature, nor any less significant, but they are different. We must rightly identify prophecy if we are going to rightly affirm it.
The Bible gives us a few clues as to how we ought to distinguish prophetic gifts from other spiritual works of God. Paul indicates that prophecy includes an element of spontaneous revelation by the Spirit of God. So, in 1 Corinthians 14 we read:
But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (v. 24-25)
Paul speaks here of a the “secrets” of the unbelievers heart been disclosed to others in such a way that he knows it must be from God. It is Spirit generated and spontaneous revelation. It is the sort of thing that Spurgeon recounts when he describes being suddenly made aware that there was a thief in the audience (see here for more detail). It is also the same sort of thing that we see happening in Acts 5:1-11. In that context the Apostles are made aware of the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira who “lied to the Holy Spirit.” The New Testament recounts many similar examples of information being imparted to the disciples by means of the Spirit of God, granting them specific and detailed insight into individuals and situations that they didn’t otherwise know.
Note several key things about these examples and this definition. First, prophecy is new revelation in one sense, but not contradictory revelation. The point of difficulty most people have with prophetic words is not with their content. Vern Poythress has pointed out that often the content of a prophetic word is “not very different in content from information obtained through obvious channels” (“Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit within Cessationist Theology”). So, Spurgeon could have learned from someone else, though he didn’t, that there was a man in the crowd he had just stolen someone’s gloves. Or, consider someone who receives a revelation that a church in Shanghai is experiencing immense persecution and so he calls upon the Christians in his church to pray for that other congregation. It’s possible that this person could have received a phone call from someone at that church telling them about the persecution and asking for prayer. The content itself is not disconcerting. We don’t object to the details of the revelation, we express concern about the manner in which it arrives.
We grow uncomfortable with the idea of prophecy because we believe that God’s direct involvement necessitates that this revelation be equal in authority to Scripture. But note that the nature of the content doesn’t challenge Scripture at all. The revelation that a man stole gloves doesn’t undermine what the Scriptures says, nor does the revelation that a church in another part of the world is experiencing persecution. The revelation is not on par with Scriptural authority, we’ve argued already, but we note also that it doesn’t actually challenge in any way shape or form the content of Scripture. Vern Poythress attempts to ease our discomfort when he writes:
Situations like these are not as difficult as we might suppose…In the case from the life of Spurgeon, the congregation gets an illustration of the general lesson that all the assembled people are being addressed by God concerning their particular needs and sins. If Spurgeon is right and there is a young man with stole gloves, the young man knows it and gets addressed very particularly. If Spurgeon is wrong (which he may be in his fallibility), there is no one who is so addressed, but the general lesson for the whole congregation remains. Moreover, we can pray for a situation without knowing for certain whether the situation is exactly what we think it is. We can pray for the young man, knowing God knows what the situation actually is. We can pray for the sister church in Shanghai.
The nature of the content helps us to note the difference between modern-day prophecy and Scripture. We don’t need to fear their conflation when we rightly understand them.
Modern day prophecy serves the church by giving spontaneous, Spirit-initiated information to build up, encourage, and console the church. The content is not on par nor does it conflict with Scripture and therefore we don’t need to fear its use. When we rightly understand the nature and function of the Spiritual Gift of prophecy we can note specific uses that benefit the church. This clarity on the gift allows us to denounce abuse, because prophecy is not the same as Scripture, and to denounce fear. This is a good spiritual gift when understood and used rightly.