Many Renewalists say yes for prophecy. The biblical evidence favors them. Now what about prophets?
In fact, prophecy happens so often in our churches that we believe their biblical validity is a done deal. Questioning this is like asking whether the sun shines. We are so-called “continuationists” (those who believe the gifts of 1 Cor. 12:7-11 continue today), so this post won’t debate that topic (but see I. E. 3., below).
But what about the office of the prophet? Paul wrote: God gave “some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers” (NET). If the latter three gifts or offices are going strong, why not the prophets (and apostles)? Does the prophet still exist today? Does Eph. 2:20 and 3:5 close the door to them today? Those questions will be explored thoroughly in this post.
I use the outline format just for clarity and conciseness. If you would like to see the verses, you can go to biblegateway.com and type in the references.
First, let’s look at prophecy. Then we’ll look at prophets.
I.. The Gift of Prophecy
Do we understand this gift before we exercise it?
A.. The Validity of Prophecy
1.. Women may prophesy in public in church.
In 1 Cor. 11:5, in a discussion on head coverings, Paul assumes, matter-of-factly, that a man and woman prays or prophesies in church, so he sees that prophecies spoken by women are valid in the assembly.
2.. Prophecy as a gift of the Spirit
In 1 Cor. 12:10, prophecy is one of the nine gifts, and it is just as valid as the other gifts.
3.. Prophecy at Thessalonica
In 1 Thess. 5:12, Paul orders the Thessalonians not to despise prophecies. It is easy to reach the conclusion that some people may have been despising them, though that is, ultimately, an argument from silence (what a text does not say). In any case, we are not to despise prophecies.
4.. Prophecies at Corinth
The key chapter is 1 Cor. 14. Paul starts off by saying that we should earnestly desire spiritual gifts, particularly that we should prophesy (v. 1). This desire differs from our desire to speak in heavenly languages in the assembly because no one understands them without an interpretation. In contrast, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their edification; they can understand the words (v. 3).
5.. The incomplete disciples at Corinth
Acts 19:6 is about twelve disciples who knew only John’s baptism, but when Paul laid hands on them, they spoke in their Spirit-inspired languages and prophesied.
6.. Philip’s four unmarried daughters
In Acts 21:9 they prophesied. They seemed to do this regularly, and one gets the impression from the context that they were prophetesses. Teachers teach regularly, and prophets (or prophetesses) prophesy regularly.
B.. The Source of Prophecy
Acts 2:28 says the Spirit is now poured out in the last days, so the sons and daughters shall prophesy. The Spirit is the source.
Further, in 1 Cor. 14:26 prophecy may be equated with a revelation, and that goes beyond just study and using the natural mind. The whole context of Chapter 14 is the charismata (Spirit-inspired gifts) in action, not scholarship and Greek and Hebrew word roots, for example (though study is valuable in itself). The Spirit gives the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:7-10). It does not originate in the mind after studying Scripture.
C.. The Purpose of Prophecy
1.. Three-dimensional purpose
This is seen in 1 Cor. 14:3, using these translations:
Edify, exhort, and comfort (KJV)
Edification, exhortation, and comfort (NKJV)
Strengthening, encouragement, and consolation (NET)
Strengthen, encourage, and comfort (NIV)
Edification, exhortation, and consolation (NASB)
Grow in the Lord, encouraging, and comforting (NLT)
Strength, encouragement, and comfort (NCV)
Helped, encouraged, and made to feel better (CEV)
Upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation (ESV)
Grow, be strong, and experience his presence with you (MSG)
2.. Revealing the heart’s secrets
In 1 Cor. 14:24-25, one purpose of prophecy is that when a newcomer enters the assembly, he hears words that disclose the secrets of his heart. He will then fall on his face and worship God and declare God is among the believers assembled together. This idea runs counter to the claim that prophecy is just proclaiming the gospel, for the secrets of the heart are not necessarily disclosed, while a prophecy can do that in detail.
The prophet is permitted to speak predictions. Agabus and his team predicted a famine, which happened (Acts 11:27-30). He prophesied predictively that Paul would be put in chains and taken into custody in chains (Acts 21:10-11).
D.. Guidelines for Predictive Prophecy
1.. Deut. 18:20-22
Those verses say that if a prophet speaks anything in God’s name that God has not commanded or in the name of other gods, then he shall be put to death. And how does one tell whether he has spoken what God has not commanded? If what the prophet proclaims does not come true. He also must not tell the people to follow other gods.
2.. Grace is needed in the New Covenant
The passage in Deut. 18 needs to be filtered through the New. Yes, many times prophets today predict things that do not come true, like this or that candidate wining or not winning the presidency or some such thing. Should the church stone them to death? Of course not. We live in the New Covenant. Grace is needed. Should we consider him a false prophet if even one predictive prophecy does not come true? Not necessarily, for grace is needed, again.
3.. Evaluating prophecies
Prophets can speak two or three in sequential order, and others can weigh or judge what they say (1 Cor. 14:29). The church should judge the prophecies.
1 Thess. 5:21 says that the church should test everything, in the context of prophecies. Note that it says things, not persons, so the procedure Paul offers differs from the OT which says to test prophets as well as their words. Grace is needed.
4.. Pattern of failed predictive prophecy
But what do we do if the prophet develops a pattern of untrue predictive prophecies? Clearly when his predictions regularly don’t come true, he is speaking from his own soul, not from the Spirit. Someone needs to speak into his life and tell him to get off of youtube or shut down his blog.
5.. Learning from an accurate prophet
Agabus seems like an interesting character who circulated throughout the Christian community in Judea (Acts 21:10) and in Antioch of Syria, a long distance from Jerusalem. Too bad we can’t interview him to find out how to do the ministry of the prophet today. No doubt he submitted to the church leaders in Jerusalem. He was also part of a team of Messianic Jewish prophets. He was not an independent operator. His predictions came true. Is there a connection between being part of a team of prophets and accurate predictions? Probably. Teamwork keeps one safe from self-delusion and soul power, as distinct from the Spirit’s power.
E.. Prophecies Are for Today
1.. Two key verses
Eph. 2:20 says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (NIV). The key word for our purposes is the foundation.
And Eph. 3:4b-5 says, “… the mystery of Christ … has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” (NIV).
Do those verses put prophecy in such a high and exclusive class that it no longer exists because the foundation has been laid in the first century? The next points answer the question.
2.. In the first century, prophecies spoken by ordinary prophets are different than those spoken by the foundation prophets.
Please scroll down II.C for a discussion, but basically the NT distinguishes between foundation prophets and ordinary ones in the first century.
3.. The gift of prophecy (and gifts generally) has not ceased
1 Cor. 1:7 says the Corinthians are not lacking in any gift, as they wait for the revealing (coming) of Jesus. In other words, Paul assumed that the gifts would keep going until Jesus returned. He has not returned; therefore the gifts keep going.
1 Cor. 13:8-10 says that prophecy will pass away, and so will the gift of prayer languages and knowledge. We know in part and prophesy in part. When the perfect comes, the partial or incomplete will pass away. It is impossible to interpret the “perfect” in any way other than the coming of Jesus, when we combine it with 1 Cor. 1:7. At his coming we will have new, transformed bodies—including our brains. Only then will the knowledge we have now and how we acquire this knowledge will pass away because it will be old and useless for our new existence. We will enter a new level. Yes, I imagine we will remember our former earthly existence, but the usage of our old natural knowledge will be to no effect in eternity. For this reason, the “perfect” cannot be Scripture, when Paul knew nothing of the closing of the canon.
II.. Office of the Prophet
Recall Eph. 4:11, quoted in the Introduction. If evangelists, pastors and teachers exist today, why not prophets?
Further, in 1 Cor. 12:28 Paul wrote that “God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, leadership, different kinds of tongues” (my translation). That verse seems to open the door to prophets existing today because of how easily Paul shifts from the people (apostles, prophets, teachers) and then the activities. Everything is open to us today.
Nonetheless, let’s understand this office first and then firmly answer whether it exists today. If it exists, then surely prophecies exist today, too, which further supports I., above.
A.. Biblical Validity of the Office
1.. Prophets received in churches (In Matt. 10:41):
Jesus said prophets exist, and when we receive a prophet (in our churches and homes), we will receive a prophet’s reward. Matthew may have included this verse because prophets ministered in the earliest communities, so he teaches us to show them hospitality and to show respect. This statement is general enough that it does not speak about OT prophets or prophets in Judaism before the cross, but then they disappear after the birth of the church; they do not (consider Agabus in Acts 11:28 and 21:10, next). Jesus was speaking to his kingdom community, then and now.
2.. Agabus and his team (Acts 11:28-30 and 21:10-11):
Agabus and his team predicted a famine, which happened (Acts 11:27-30) and Paul would be put in chains and taken into custody, which also happened (Acts 21:10-11). Going around in teams is beneficial. Jesus sent out his missionaries two by two (Luke 10:1). Teamwork keeps one humble and teachable and safe.
3.. Prophets in Antioch of Syria (Acts 13:1-3)
Prophets and teachers sent off Paul and Barnabas for the mission to which God called them. Again these prophets were part of a team.
4.. Judas and Silas were prophets (Acts 15:32):
In Acts 15:32 Judas and Silas were sent by the Jerusalem (Messianic) Council to encourage and strengthen the believers in Antioch of Syria with many words. Then they were sent off by the brothers there.
5.. The foundation of the prophets (Eph. 2:20 and 3:5):
Recall that Eph. 2:20 says that the church in Ephesus and the other churches that received the encyclical letter were built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Eph. 3:5 says that mystery of Christ was revealed by the holy apostles and prophets. We discuss this class of prophets more thoroughly, below (C.1).
6.. The prophets in church leadership (Eph. 4:11):
Paul lists one of the offices of the prophets among the apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers.
7.. Prophets at Corinth (1 Cor. 14:29, 32, 37):
1 Cor. 14:29 says that only two or three prophets should speak, one at a time. Is this an office, or just some individuals who prophecy regularly? Where do we draw the line? Renewalists who believe in the office of the prophet in the New Covenant community would read the word literally—prophets = office of prophet.
In 1 Cor. 14:32, the spirit of the prophets is under control of the prophets. In other words, they do not have uncontrollable urges to disrupt and dominate. They can keep quiet and be in order. But it does say prophets, not the the circumlocution “those who prophesy.”
In 1 Cor. 14:37, Paul writes that if anyone thinks he is a prophet, let him acknowledge that the things Paul is writing is a command from the Lord. His letter takes priority and authority over these prophets.
B.. Purpose of the Prophet
1..Prophets serve a three-fold purpose.
Prophets are to speak for comfort, edification, and exhortation (1 Cor. 14:3). (See I. C. 1., above, for more translations of those three key words.) If prophecies are for that purpose, then those three elements guide the prophets too.
2.. Prophets can reveal the hearts of others.
They can reveal the heart of the people (1 Cor. 14:24-25). This may be considered personal prophecy. The prophet speaks accurate words about a man’s heart, and he falls down and worships God, proclaiming God is among the believers. But personal prophecies must be used with extreme caution. Sometimes prophets speak from their own soul and their words are not pure, but tainted. If your heart does not already have a conviction, then put the prophecies on the shelf. Don’t act on it. This is especially important for relationships. If your heart is not into a man (or woman), but a prophet tells you that you will marry him (or her), then put it on the shelf. Don’t act on it. Caution!
3.. Prophets can predict.
Agabus predicted predicted a famine, and it happened (Acts 11:27-30).
4.. Prophets can warn.
Agabus and his team warned Paul what would happen when he got to Jerusalem, and they were right. (Acts 21:10-11)
5.. Prophets can offer revelations
This is not the same as Scripture—not even close!—but revelations come in all sorts of sizes and purposes, as seen in the previous points in this section (1 Cor. 14:26).
C.. Does the Office of the Prophet Exist Today?
The answer to that question depends on one’s interpretation of Eph. 2:20 and 3:5, which say the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (2:20), and the mystery of Christ has been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets (3:5).
1.. Restrictive interpretation
If the interpreter believes the prophets in those verses were in a class apart and only for the foundation and initial revelation in the past only, then the interpreter will say the office of prophet is not for today. No prophet today can be that foundation or receive a “new” revelation about the mystery of Christ.
2.. Freer interpretation
If an interpreter claims that prophets in congregations in the first-century churches differ from the foundation prophets in Eph. 2:20 or 3:5, then those two verses do not exclude the prophets today.
3.. Differences between foundation prophets and church prophets
The foundation prophets fulfilled their role in earliest Christianity. In contrast, if a prophet is someone who prophesies regularly, then the prophets mentioned in 1 Cor. 14:29, 32, 37 fit in this category. They did not have authority to be part of the foundation stone, but they simply prophesied regularly and therefore can call themselves prophets. Paul taught that people prophesy regularly as a gift, much like teachers teach and servants serve (Rom. 12:6-7). Therefore, people who are gifted to prophesy regularly can call themselves prophets (1 Cor. 14:29, 32, 37). All prophets prophesy, but not all prophets laid the original foundation.
The foundation prophets are first-tier prophets, and the congregational prophets are second tier. Also, 1 Cor. 12:28 opens the door to the latter group.
Let’s open up the idea of first-tier and second tier, more thoroughly.
Wayne Grudem in his book The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (pp. 45-65) argues that apostles and prophets in 2:20 and 3:5 should be read as apostle-prophets, as one group, not two. He offers evidence from other verses that say two different words can function for one group or one person (Rom. 16:17; Eph. 6:21; Phil. 2:25; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 5:12; Tit. 2:13; Phm. 1; Heb. 3:1; 2 Pet. 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:11). His goal is to prove that the foundation prophets were of a higher order than the prophets, say, at Corinth. He sees a first tier and a second tier (my words, not his).
5.. Apostles and prophets were different groups.
This is my opinion. And Prof. Grudem assures us that if we do not combine apostle-prophet, then the prophets in Eph. 2:20 and 3:5 still share apostolic authority (or just below), since they are part of the foundation. As noted, I call these the first tier.
In contrast, the prophets, say at Corinth, do not seem to share the same authority as the foundation prophets. Paul—an apostle—seems to treat the Corinthian prophets like regular church members, whom he can command (1 Cor. 14:37). They were not like the ones in Eph. 2:20 and 3:5 who are on the same level as the apostles (or just below the apostles). As noted, I call these Corinthian prophets second tier. (We could include the Thessalonians, too, for they had prophecies going on in their churches, and presumably this means there were prophets, much like the Corinthian prophets.
Grudem does not, however, offer any names as to who these foundation prophets were (or maybe he did and I missed it). Perhaps Agabus, who was likely known in Jerusalem, since he came from Judea, may qualify. After all, the apostle Paul accepted his prophecy as authoritative (Acts 21:10-11).
See my post:
5.. Judas and Silas were only two examples of foundation prophets.
Judas and Silas were first-tier prophets. They were sent from the Jerusalem (Messianic) Council (Acts 15) with an authoritative letter that changed earliest Christianity (Acts 15:27), and they were called prophets (15:32). It is entirely probable that Paul heard these men prophesy, since Paul and Barnabas journeyed with them to Antioch of Syria (15:25) and were in Antioch together. Silas and Judas were known to the Council and had authority that the Corinthian prophets did not seem to have. The Council itself may have even recognized their prophetic ministry and called them prophets. These prophets were establishing doctrine or practice with their letter.
Further, Silas may have been considered an apostle, since Paul says, “even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority…” (1 Thess. 2:6, NIV, emphasis added); “we” would include Silas (1:1). Since Silas and Judas were sent from Jerusalem (Acts 15:27), they may have lived in Jerusalem for a long time and may have seen the risen Christ with the 500 (1 Cor. 15:6), but this is not certain. Silas certainly went on a missionary journey with Paul (Acts 15-18). He was with Peter (1 Peter 5:12). So in that sense he was apostolic. His title is for sure prophet (Acts 15:32), and he helped Peter write his epistle, which would give him extra-authority and endorsement from Peter himself, who considered him a “faithful brother.”
6.. The Corinthian prophets were second tier
In contrast, the Corinthian prophets were second tier prophets. Paul seems to have had a casual view of them and their prophecies, teaching and correcting them. “If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing is the Lord’s command” (1 Cor. 15:37, NIV). Then Paul announces his capacity to ignore these prophets: “But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored” (v. 38, NIV). Their prophetic words would be shunned.
Paul, however, submitted his teaching to the brothers in Jerusalem, for fear that he had been running in vain and his gospel was wrong (Gal. 2:2; cf. Acts 15:1-4). When Judas and Silas returned with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch with the good news that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised, Paul did not correct or guide Judas and Silas, but let them minister and then go on their way (Acts 15:32-33). Yet, in Paul’s and Silas’s traveling together as a team, Paul was the senior partner (cf. Acts 17:15). But then Paul was the hero and main focus of the rest of the book of Acts. Therefore, the Corinthian prophets were not the foundation prophets of Eph. 2:20 and 3:5. They were local Christians who simply prophesied (regularly) in their own congregation.
In contrast, clearly Silas and Judas (and possibly Agabus) qualify as being prophets occupying the foundation stone with the apostles. Paul surely had them (and others unknown to us, but known to him) in mind when he wrote Eph. 2:20 and 3:5.
A.. Therefore the Office of Prophets Exists Today
1.. However, prophets of today are not on the same high level as the foundation prophets mentioned in Eph. 2:20 and 3:5. Those prophets existed only in the first century. They are first-tier prophets. They established doctrine and unfolded the mystery of Christ. The prophets of today are second tier, just like their Corinthian forebears. The door to foundation prophets was shut 2000 years ago.
2.. As Scriptural proof, Paul taught that people prophesy regularly as a gift, much like teachers teach and servants serve regularly (Rom. 12:6-7). Therefore, people who are gifted to prophesy regularly can call themselves prophets (1 Cor. 14:29, 32, 37). All prophets prophesy in the first century and today (second tier), but not all prophets laid the original foundation in the first century (first tier).
B.. Make Biblical Distinctions
1.. If you do not like the labels “first tier” and “second tier,” then come up with your own names, like “foundation prophets” and “today’s prophets.” You can even add the earliest category “Old Testament prophets” before the first two.
2.. It works out like this:
a.. Old Testament prophets
b.. Foundation prophets only in the first-century
c.. Today’s prophets
3.. Or like this:
a.. Old Testament prophets
b.. First-tier prophets in the first-century church only
c.. Second-tier prophets in the church from the first century to right now
Everyone who claims to be a prophet today belongs only to the second tier, not the first tier.
C.. The Main Points
1.. The foundation prophets no longer exist today because they lived in the apostolic generation at the beginning of the New Covenant. They were establishing doctrine and the foundation of the church. They were revealing the mysteries of Christ doctrinally. We cannot do that today. We have Scripture.
2.. And OT prophets cannot be duplicated because they belonged to and ministered in the old Sinai Covenant in the nation of Israel which also belonged in the Sinai Covenant. America or anywhere else in the world does not have this covenant. These prophets still establish the foundation about the Messiah and moral law and other such principles. They establish doctrine. We are excluded from this group.
3.. However, “church prophets” or “congregational prophets” or “everyday prophets” or “today’s prophets” (you pick one of these terms or come up with your own) do exist.
4.. Therefore, the office of the prophet exists today, but it is of a lower order than the first two groups.
D.. We Can Still Learn from Any Biblical Prophet
1.. We can learn numerous and valuable lessons from all of the biblical prophets of any generation in the Bible, whether OT or foundational.
2.. Therefore, don’t put the first two classes into a super-sacred category that are out of our reach and irrelevant for our spiritual growth 2000 years later.
3.. James said Elijah was a man with a nature like ours (5:17). Therefore, we can learn from him and every other prophet in Scripture.
4.. Just because today’s prophets (second tier) are of a lower order than OT prophets and foundational prophets (first tier) does not mean the prophets of today cannot speak to the nations or have no authority.
5.. Today’s prophets should speak out to the nations and churches and individuals with God’s backing and calling and authority. But they must know their place, or else they will become arrogant.
How does this post help me grow in Jesus Christ and his gifts?
Since moderated prophets and the office of prophet exist today, how do we ensure that they don’t go astray? Let’s spell out five key points from Scripture.
First, Agabus worked in a team. Teamwork keeps the extra-charismatic safe from errors, in doctrine, character, and in doling out predictive prophecies and personal words to the church.
Second, the rest of the church is supposed to weigh prophecies. If a prophet is unwilling to submit to this weighing, then he has become a loose cannon and should be avoided.
Third, the Corinthian prophets were part of the local church. Prophets today must function in a body. I suggest traveling prophets check back in regularly to their home church. It would be arrogant of them to wander off on their own with their prophetic ministry. It might quickly go from prophetic to pathetic. They must not ruin their own life by crashing and burning with their private ministry, as they wander from church to church. A word to them personally: Don’t ruin the lives of your victims with your independence and your words. They don’t know you.
Fourth, they must submit their prophesies to Scripture. It is flawless (Pss. 12:6; 18:30; Prov. 30:5); their minds are not. It has stood the test of time; they have not. It is inspired with certainty; they are not. It guides them; they do not guide it. It is the boss; they are not its boss.
Fifth and finally, here are some sobering words from Jeremiah’s days. Let’s hope they will never apply to God’s prophets today.
They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord (Jer. 23:18, NIV).
More from the same chapter:
I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy delusions of their own minds … Let the prophet who has a dream recount the dream, but let the one who has my word speak it [the word] faithfully. … Therefore, declares the Lord, I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes, declares the Lord, I am against the prophets who wag their tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams, declares the Lord. They tell them and lead them [my people] with reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least, declares the Lord. (Jer. 23:25-26, 28, 30-32, NIV).
Prophetic ministry must be exercised with the greatest of care.
Let’s end on a positive note from the other direction. We are not to treat prophecies with contempt (1 Thess. 5:20). But we are to test them all and hold on to what is good (v. 21). Tested and proved prophecies can be a blessing for your life.