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Prophecy, Prophets and the Holy Spirit Lifestyle


Table of Contents

Abundant Prophecy and Abundant Problems
OT and NT Prophecy
National vs. Congregational Prophets
The NT Congregational Prophets
NT Prophecy and Predicting the Future
Imparting Spiritual Gifts/Ordination
Prophetic Abuse
Conclusion

One of the great changes that came about in the new Christian community on the day of Pentecost was the emergence of prophecy as a common Christian experience. After 400 years of prophetic silence (until John the Baptist) a new phenomenon emerged after Pentecost. Now that all believers had access to God through the one Spirit (Ephesians 2:18) we can receive inspiration and revelation from God. We have received the "spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him". (Eph 1:17, 1 Cor 2:9-16). The sheer largesse and abundance of this is almost too much to comprehend. It all starts with Peter's bold interpretation of a prophecy of Joel.

(Acts 2:16-18 NASB) but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: {17} 'AND IT SHALL BE IN THE LAST DAYS,' God says, 'THAT I WILL POUR FORTH OF MY SPIRIT UPON ALL MANKIND; AND YOUR SONS AND YOUR DAUGHTERS SHALL PROPHESY, AND YOUR YOUNG MEN SHALL SEE VISIONS, AND YOUR OLD MEN SHALL DREAM DREAMS; {18} EVEN UPON MY BONDSLAVES, BOTH MEN AND WOMEN, I WILL IN THOSE DAYS POUR FORTH OF MY SPIRIT And they shall prophesy.

Prophecy would now be abundant. Their sons and daughters (verse 17) and their men-servants and maidservants (verse 18) would prophesy. Prophecy did indeed become common so that when Paul was writing to the church in Corinth ( and we need to remember these were house churches) he wrote:

(1 Corinthians 14:29-33 NASB) And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. {30} But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent. {31} For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; {32} and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; {33} for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

Here Paul was saying that only two or three prophets should speak at one time, and that one at a time and everyone can wait their turn to prophesy. Wait a minute - two or three prophets, at least, in every house church! This is astonishing! This is a massive outbreak of prophecy. Paul even tells the Corinthian believers to seek the spiritual gift of prophecy as if it was fairly commonly available, in the process he contrasts it with the gift of tongues.

(1 Corinthians 14:1-5 NASB) Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. {2} For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. {3} But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. {4} One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. {5}Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.

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Abundant Prophecy And Abundant Problems

This outbreak of prophecy soon had its problems and discernment was needed so that Paul would write phrases like "let the others weigh what is said", 'don't despise prophetic utterances' and "hold to what is good, reject what is evil" in regard to NT prophecy. ( 1 Corinthians 14:29, 1 Thessalonians 5:20,21). Prophecy is not without its problems today especially if we try to use an OT model as the standard for NT prophecy. We soon end up with questions like:

Are NT and OT prophets the same or different?

Are NT prophets adding to Scripture?

Can NT prophets say "Thus said the Lord"?

If everyone can prophesy are we all prophets like Isaiah was?

Do NT prophets predict long-range futures such as the return of the Lord or national destinies?

What is the role of the prophet in a local congregation and how is it different from the forceful prophetic leadership of national Israel?

Many of the abuses of prophecy today flow from importing an OT idea of prophecy into the NT idea of the prophetic. They are indeed similar but there are some HUGE differences. In the NT all things are made new - including the prophetic.

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OT and NT Prophecy

We saw earlier that the Law and the prophets prophesied until John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11-13). Whatever OT prophets were - they ceased then. There are no more OT style prophets today. Who then prophesies in the NT? If "the prophets" ceased with John the Baptist - who was Agabus and what shall we make of Revelation? I will have to take you into a very little bit of Greek and Hebrew and semantics so hold tight.

John the Baptist was the last of the Scripture writing prophets, the OT "nabi". The OT prophet was a very different figure to the NT prophet and perhaps we should not even be using the same English word for them. No-one can go around doing a "thus said the Lord" today or coming up with a new book of the Bible. No NT prophet wrote Scripture. Let's see why.

The NT prophet uses the Greek word "prophetess" a prophetess was an "inspired person" much as we might see a poet or an inventor as being inspired. Inspiration with a small "i" not the big "I" of the inspiration of Scripture. For instance Pythagorus the mathematician was called a "prophet" and Paul calls the Cretan poet Epiminedes a prophet when he quotes him in the first chapter of Titus. (Titus 1:12) . The word is a very general use of the term prophet.

One sub-set of the prophetess was the nabi - the OT prophet who spoke infallible words from God. If you think of the term prophetess as a very big circle with a wide range of meanings then right in the center is a very small circle containing the inspired, authoritative and inerrant ""nabi" of the OT. The term prophetess covers the "nabi" and a lot more besides. All nabi are prophetess but not all prophetess are nabi.

None of the NT prophets wrote Scripture. Not one word of it.(Agabus is reported in Scripture but he didn't write it) All writing of Scripture was done by the apostles. The prophets encouraged and exhorted the local congregations, predicted famines and tried to keep Paul in line unsuccessfully.

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National vs. Congregational Prophets

In the OT the national prophet was part of the system of prophet, priest and king and had a recognized role in anointing and appointing national leadership. The prophet prophesied the rise and fall of national groups (Jer 1:10) and was a political figure. When Samuel turned up there was fear and trembling. The prophets were given awe and respect and were not evaluated first. When they spoke you simply did what you were told.

In stark contrast the NT prophet is generally an apolitical person. She ministers in the local congregation and is judged by her peers. The NT prophet is not concerned with appointing national leadership, anointing Emperors or tackling the political reforms of the day. The nature of the Kingdom has changed. It is no longer a political Kingdom we belong to but a spiritual one and the prophet's role has changed accordingly. The NT prophet is concerned with God's people, generally in a local congregation of which they are part and in which they operate under submission and review (see the latter part of 1 Cor 14). Two mysterious prophets will rise up at the end time (Rev 11:3-6) with national and international significance but they are a rarity. The NT prophets of Acts, Corinthians and most renewal congregations today are not national or international prophets but congregational prophets and it is deeply risky for them to borrow the mantle of Elijah.

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The NT Congregational Prophet

The effects of prophecy on the unbeliever are perhaps a good place to start.

(1 Corinthians 14:24-25 NASB) But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; {25} the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.

The prophet, inspired by God, uncovers the secrets of the unbelievers heart so that he falls on his face in repentance and worships God. Here we see NT prophecy operating in a ministry of conviction.

Earlier in that chapter Paul speaks of the general role of prophecy in the congregation. The role of the prophet is to edify the church with words of exhortation and consolation.

(1 Corinthians 14:3-4 NASB) But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. {4} One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.

In contrast to tongues prophecy ministers to people generally. It is other-centered. It builds up the body of Christ which is why Paul valued it so highly.

(Acts 15:32-33 NASB) And Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message. {33} And after they had spent time there, they were sent away from the brethren in peace to those who had sent them out.

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NT Prophecy And Predicting The Future

Prophecy can also be used to predict the future. Agabus is the best known example for his two prophecies in Acts. Such prophecies of the future seem to be mainly a) personal destinies or b) short-term futures only. There is no example of them prophesying the future hundreds of years in advance as Isaiah or Daniel did.

(Acts 11:27-28 NASB) Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. {28} And one of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius.

(Acts 21:10-11 NASB) And as we were staying there for some days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. {11} And coming to us, he took Paul's belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, "This is what the Holy Spirit says: 'In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'"

These predictions of the future are delivered in situations where they are immediately relevant. They are not stored up for many years hence. The future predictions of a famine was so the church could prepare in the present and Agabus' prediction of Paul's fate was an attempt to get Paul to see reason at that point in time. Both future prophecies were relevant to the congregation or individual at the moment in time when they were delivered.

We have no examples of NT prophets predicting national destinies or giving new light on the return of the Lord - that is always done by the major apostles. Congregational prophets do not establish new doctrine concerning Christ and when they do predict the future it is relevant to the life of the church at that point in time.

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Imparting Spiritual Gifts/Ordination

Just as the prophets were involved with sending out Paul and Barnabas they were involved with imparting a spiritual gift to Timothy. Notice also the plurality of prophets in the Acts reference which is also implied in 1 Timothy.

(Acts 13:1-4 NASB) Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. {2} And while they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." {3} Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. {4} So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus:

(1 Timothy 4:14 NASB) Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery.

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Bearers of Inspiration From God

In the light of the above, the NT prophets can perhaps best be described as "bearers of inspiration from God for the need of the moment". They bring inspiration from God into the center of the congregation of believers which then works out as a prophetic utterance that convicts, exhorts, and consoles . The NT prophet also sees personal destinies and short-term futures and imparts spiritual gifts to those set aside for the work of the gospel.

The clearest examples of this "bearing of inspiration from God for the need of the moment" can be found in the "Pentecosts" in Acts, the Jewish one in Jerusalem and the Gentile one at Cornelius' house and the mysterious one with John's disciples in Ephesus.

(Acts 2:3-11 NASB) And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. {4} And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. …..-- we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God."

(Acts 10:44-48 NASB) While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. {45} And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. {46} For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, {47} "Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?" {48} And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

(Acts 19:6 NASB) And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.

When the new Christian community is created it is created as a Spirit-filled community that receives inspiration from God that results in the new believers bursting out in praise and glorifying God. This is seen as a prophetic act in that Peter stands up as says of this activity "This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel you sons and daughters shall prophesy.." while the speaking in tongues and praising God was going on all around him. By the time we get to Acts 19 Luke is directly describing it as prophesy. It fits the Jewish tradition of prophesy in that it is similar to quite a few prophetic incidents in the OT such as:

(Numbers 11:25 NASB) Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him; and He took of the Spirit who was upon him and placed Him upon the seventy elders. And it came about that when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do it again.

(1 Samuel 10:5-7 NASB) "Afterward you will come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is; and it shall be as soon as you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with harp, tambourine, flute, and a lyre before them, and they will be prophesying. {6} "Then the Spirit of the LORD will come upon you mightily, and you shall prophesy with them and be changed into another man. {7} "And it shall be when these signs come to you, do for yourself what the occasion requires; for God is with you.

This informal definition of prophesying seems much closer to what happened in the NT church.

Thus congregational prophets are bearers of inspiration from God and form part of the spiritual heart of the new community called the Church. They glorify God in the Spirit and bring conviction, exhortation and consolation. They are the Holy Spirit speaking through Christians to the present needs of the moment.

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Prophetic Abuse

If someone says "I prophesied, therefore I am a prophet, therefore I am infallible and I can tell you what to do with your life with a "thus said the Lord" then that person is in serious error. Prophetic abuse is common today as the revival of prophecy combined with the homogenizing of OT and NT that is common in so many pulpits leads to disaster. I'll get to the point here and perhaps be a bit blunt.

You cannot say "thus saith the Lord", the closest the NT comes is "thus saith the Holy Spirit" (Acts 21:11) and that was from a tried and tested prophet.

Not all who prophesy are prophets. Many Christians prophesied but the office of prophet was next to that of apostle and was an itinerant and probably full-time ministry. Paul says bluntly "not all are prophets" ( 1 Cor 12:28-31) yet seems to imply that the gift of prophecy can be sought by most Christians. (1 Cor 14:1-5) Phillip the evangelist had four virgin daughters who prophesied but they are not called prophets. (Acts 21:9) Women prophesied in Corinthians but were explicitly not to be given authority in the Corinthian church. ( 1 Corinthians 11:3-5, 14:34,35) Thus for some reason these women who prophesied in that church were not given the office of prophet in that church. The gift and the office are different.

NT prophecy was not infallible but had to be judged by others (1 Cor 14:29) was sometimes a mixture of good and bad (1 Thess 5:21) and was such that it could even be despised - presumably because of its eccentricity (1 Thess 5:20).

Prophecy is for the building up of the church not for the personal domination of individual believers by the "prophet". You have freedom to disregard even the best prophets as Paul disregarded Agabus and went on to Jerusalem. (Acts 21:10-14)

NT prophecy seems mainly to have been bringing God's inspiration, through the Holy Spirit to people at a particular place and point in time. It was very much grounded in edifying God's people for the immediate task at hand and imparting wisdom and spiritual gifts so it was achieved. Perhaps a bit like Haggai prophesying about the rebuilding of the Temple. Day by day prophecy to get the job done. Prophecies which purport to give the fate of America or the nature of the end times are, in my view, highly suspect - that is unless the person or group receiving the prophecy is somehow directly connected with these things and needs that word. We have enough in Scripture to give us a good idea of such things, let us turn to that instead. We cannot take the OT national prophet model and impose it on the NT congregational prophet.

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Conclusion

In the NT God has created His church to be a Spirit-indwelt community that directly receives revelation from Him (1 Cor 2:9-16, 1 John 2:10,27). The receiving of such revelation and passing it on to the community is the role of those who prophesy. Such revelation needs to be properly discerned and tested. Prophecy is now generalized and no longer the province of national prophets of immense status who spoke the infallible words of God. NT prophecy has more to do with God's will in the present moment and glorifying Him in worship. There are very significant differences between OT prophecy and NT prophecy and we cannot use the OT model as normative for the NT phenomena.

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