New Testament Restricts Authority of Modern Prophets

Yes, prophets of a certain sort rightly exist today, biblically speaking. However, errors are committed in many churches today, usually by “youtube” and “facebook” prophets. They are unscripturally concentrating too much authority in themselves. A closer reading of the New Testament, however, restricts them, their authority, and their ministry.

In their enthusiasm and enormous self-confidence, they seem to stomp on this verse: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). They seem to believe they prophesy in full. Many youtube and facebook prophets post their words online, sitting in hotel rooms or their microphoned studios or dining rooms or home offices, untethered from their local church. And the few who prophesy in their local church and post on social media don’t appear to allow their prophecies to be judged or are surrounded with “yes men.”

All that is a big problem. Let’s see if we can come up with solutions.

This post covers questions like, who were the OT prophets, contrasted with the prophets of today? Does America have a special covenant with God, as ancient Israel did? How did the NT writers handle prophets and their prophecies? What about inaccurate prophecies? Is decreeing the same as prophesying? Can we decree Scriptures at will?

The ESV and NIV are used here. Readers are encouraged to look at other translations at biblegateway.com.

Let’s get started by distinguishing between a biblical covenant and early American compacts.

America ≠ Ancient Israel

Yes, I believe my country has a special calling. (Like many of you, my family has a long history here.) However, America–and any other nation on the planet throughout history–has never had the Sinai Covenant, which ancient Israel had. Even the seventeenth-century compacts which the pilgrims set up before God is not the same as God thundering down the covenant on Mt. Sinai. The directions are different. Sinai came from God, the pilgrim compacts came from men. This is true even if the pilgrims called their compact a covenant. It is like this:

God to Moses and ancient Israel:

God

Moses and Ancient Israel

Pilgrims’ Compacts with God:

God

Pilgrims

Therefore:

Pilgrims’ Compact ≠ Sinai Covenant

Yes, the pilgrims were righteous and perceptive enough to set up their commitment to God; it shows their admirable devotion and the right perspective. Their fledgling communities would belong to God. And personally I believe that God endorsed their initiative to spell out their compact with him. But it is still not the same as God initiating a covenant with Moses and Israel.

Therefore, modern American prophets don’t have the same authority and ministry as the OT prophets had, since Israel was unique. God gifted his ancient Israelite prophets with miraculous powers seemingly to call down fire from heaven and seemingly to stop the rain. Yes, there are some similarities, as we shall see, but NT prophets have a different kind of authority and power, which are restricted. The authority and power of the OT prophets are now out of the reach of modern prophets. Different covenants.

See my post:

The Sinai Covenant

The NT tones down the example of OT prophets

The difference between the ministries of the OT prophets and today’s prophets are profound and decisive.

Let’s take Elijah as an example.

At first glance, Elijah seems to have acted by himself to “decree” a drought, but look how James reinterprets this (apparent) prophet-initiated “decree” from the fiery OT prophet.

Elijah and Rain

1 Kings 17:1; 18:41-45

James 5:17-18

 Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (17:1, ESV)

………………

41 And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” 42 So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. 43 And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look toward the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. 44 And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” 45 And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. (18:41-45, ESV)

17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. (ESV, emphasis added)

In comparing the two columns, 1 Kings 17:1 now has to be be reinterpreted. Elijah was not acting unilaterally and decreeing without God’s permission, as if God’s hand was forced to obey a human prophet. No. We now have to fill in the blanks in 1 Kings 17:1 and 18:41-45 with James 5:17-18. Elijah actually prayed, though 1 Kings 17:1 does not record the prayer. Elijah submitted to God; God did not submit to Elijah. The NT clarifies what prophets today can and cannot do (see below for more details).

Does Jeremiah’s authority actually belong to modern prophets today?

Modern prophets often point to Jeremiah to claim authority beyond what God gave them in the New Covenant. But let’s look more carefully at his ministry in its own context.

The LORD himself touched Jeremiah’s mouth and called him to speak God’s words to the nations, not his words (Jer. 1:9-10). Jeremiah was not a loose cannon who had authority in himself. He really just said, “The Lord says,” like all the other OT prophets.

Also, his words landed him in trouble and a mud pit. Are prophets today willing to have Jeremiah’s ministry?

Further, it is clear from the whole context of Scripture at the time of Jeremiah’s ministry that it was God himself who plucked up, broke down, destroyed, overthrew, built, and planted. Jeremiah was simply repeating God’s words. Jeremiah’s authority began and ended with God. God was the sources of his words, not the prophet’s own decrees.

Prophets today have to be careful about speaking their visions coming from own minds and not God’s words (Jer. 23:16). It is no good claiming Jeremiah’s authority if a modern prophet does not also want to suffer the consequences of punishment and judgment, including death (Deut. 18:20-22), from the Lord when the modern prophet misses it. Fortunately we live in another and better covenant, and modern prophets don’t have an OT prophet’s authority, requirement of total accuracy, and possible punishment. That heavy responsibility is beyond them.

OT prophets were inspired to speak and write Scripture

This section is decisive. Modern prophets do not have Jeremiah’s authority or calling (or any other OT prophet’s authority or calling) because OT prophets were inspired to speak and write Scripture.

Peter writes:

20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Pet. 1:20-21, NIV)

And this verse is talking about the OT Scriptures: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV).

Modern prophets are not inspired in that way. (No wonder why OT prophets could be punished with death!) Modern prophets don’t have authority to write Scripture. They are excluded.

Praying ≠ Decreeing

Please see this post:

Is ‘Decreeing’ Biblical?

Speaking to Existing Obstacles ≠ Decreeing

Please see this post:

Is ‘Decreeing’ Biblical?

A word about “decreeing” Scripture

Please see this post:

Is ‘Decreeing’ Biblical?

Who modern prophets are and are not

The New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament) put limits on the office of the prophet both in the NT and especially today.

First, foundation prophets are different from “church prophets” who prophesied in the local congregations, as the Corinthians did. 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).

Some say that the apostles in those two verses were also prophets, so they were apostle-prophets. The foundational prophets established doctrines about Christ. Congregational or church prophets, as we shall see, below, are different from foundational prophets.

Jesus is the chief cornerstone of the foundation, and if modern apostles and prophets were to lay down another foundation, then they would need another cornerstone. Jesus would not accept their invitation! He does not like presumption. The foundation has already been laid down; now we build on it and in conformity to it, not reinvent one.

Second, what is the office of the prophet?

Paul lists the prophetic office among the apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11). Is this office the same as the foundation prophets who spoke the mysteries about Christ to establish doctrine? It is difficult to draw the line. Some may have been foundational, and others may have been “church prophets.” But the office is still situated in the local church, in a team, and his prophecies can be judged, just like anyone else’s prophecies can be judged. Today those who claim the office of the prophet are not foundational prophets. That ship has sailed two thousand years ago.

For further explanation see my post:

Do NT Prophets and Prophecy Exist Today?

Third, who are the “church prophets” (1 Cor. 14:29, 32, 37)? They can also be called “congregational prophets” (and other such terms). Let’s look at three verses in 1 Corinthians.

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 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.

Fourth, so, then, what is the difference between foundation prophets and church prophets (congregational 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 did not necessarily have authority to be part of the foundation, 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 of doctrine.

The foundation prophets are first-tier prophets, and the congregational prophets are second tier. The Corinthian prophets were second-tier prophets. Paul seems to have had a casual view of them and their prophecies, teaching and correcting them. Once again, this Scripture: “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.

Fifth, who are some examples of foundation prophets in the New Testament?

See my post here to answer that question:

Do NT Prophets and Prophecy Exist Today? (and scroll to II. C. 5)

Sixth, it works out like this:

1.. Old Testament prophets (now out of reach to prophets today)

2.. Foundation prophets only in the first-century (now out of reach to prophets today)

3.. Today’s prophets

 Or like this:

1.. Old Testament prophets (now out of reach)

2.. First-tier prophets in the first-century church only

3.. Second-tier prophets in the church from the first century to right now

If you don’t like the terms “first tier” or “second tier,” then come up with your own terms. Just don’t deny that these distinctions exist.

What modern prophets are permitted to do

The NT restricts what a modern prophet can say or do.

First, prophets are mostly restricted to a three-fold purpose, which 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)

Here’s Paul writing about personal prophecies to Timothy:

18 Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well … (1 Tim. 1:20, NIV)

Personal words edify, encourage, and comfort, as they did for Timothy. If prophecies are for that purpose, then those three elements guide the prophets too.

Second, 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 that 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 in 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!

Third, prophets can predict.

Agabus predicted (not decreed it or called it into existence) that a famine was about to happen, and it did (Acts 11:27-30).

Fourth, prophets can warn and rebuke.

Agabus and his team warned Paul what would happen when he got to Jerusalem, and they were right (Acts 21:10-11). John the Baptist, a transitional prophet from the Old to the New, rebuked Herod Antipas and paid with his life (Matt. 14:1-12). But he spoke to his ruler, much like modern prophets can speak to politicians and their good or bad policies.

Fifth, prophets can offer revelations

This is not the same as Scripture—not even close!—but revelations come in all sorts of sizes and purposes (1 Cor. 14:26). Scripture is flawless (Pss. 12:6; 18:30; Prov. 30:5). Prophecies from modern prophets are not. Scripture is inspired in a special way (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Modern prophets’ inspiration does not rise to that level. Therefore, 1 Thess. 5:21 says prophecies must be tested and proven. These revelations do not lay down a new foundation; they occur in the local church, and they are judged by the church.

Guidelines for predictive and personal prophecies

First, Deut. 18:20-22 say that if a prophet speaks anything in God’s name which 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. Untrue predictions and preaching false gods–combined–make for a false prophet.

Second, however, grace is needed in the New Covenant. The passage in Deut. 18 needs to be filtered through the New. Yes, sometimes 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? No, for grace is needed, again.

Third, note any pattern of failed predictive prophecy. 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 and social media platforms or shut down his blog. Further, someone going on youtube and writing on his blog or posting on facebook shows an untethered, unchurched, independent prophet in the first place. Bad news. Heading for trouble, eventually. I urge people not to obey or put much confidence in this independent prophet, until he can prove that he belongs to a Christian community who regularly judge his prophecies.

Fourth, evaluating prophecies is necessary. 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. There doesn’t need to be a “team of prophets only” to judge them. This shows too much self-interest and self-protection. It’s a potentially dangerous clique. Don’t pastors and other church leaders get to judge the prophecies? Of course they do. They would be derelict in their care for the church if they did not.

Summary and Application

Everyone who claims to be a prophet today belongs only to the second tier (“church” prophets), not the first (foundational prophets). And he certainly does not belong to the class of OT prophets. If he claims to hold the office of a prophet, he is still not a foundational prophet. His ministry office is located within the Christian community and his prophecies are to be judged in the Christian community and by the Christian community.

And for sure the prophet today does not come up with new doctrines. Dangerous.

We can learn numerous and valuable lessons from all of the biblical prophets of any generation in the Bible, whether OT or foundational. Therefore, don’t insulate the first two classes in a super-sacred category that is irrelevant for our spiritual growth 2000 (plus) years later. James said Elijah was a man with a nature like ours and he prayed; then God listened (5:17). Therefore, we can learn from him and every other prophet in Scripture.

Just because today’s prophets (second tier) are of a lower order than OT prophets and foundational prophets (first tier) does not mean modern prophets cannot speak to the nations or have no authority. Stated more forcefully, prophesying and predicting is in the modern prophets’ jurisdiction, if they are confident God spoke to them. And even then they have to submit their word from the Lord to evaluation and proving in and by the Christian community. And the judging community should not be churlish or controlling but give the prophet room to exercise his ministry. Everything must be done in love and encouragement.

So it works out like this (the single arrow just means a sequence without causing anything):

God Reveals → Prophet Prophesies the Revelation → Local Christian Community Judges the Revelation → On Approval, Prophet Goes on His Media Platform to Prophesy the Revelation

That sequence is the most biblical, according to 1 Thess. 5:19-20 and 1 Cor. 14. Now God alone will bring it to pass or cause it to happen. There is nothing in that sequence about decreeing or a prophet’s words causing it to happen. The prophet’s authority begins with God and ends with him.

And so modern prophets must know their place, or else they will become arrogant and unhealthily independent. They should not instantly go on youtube or facebook and speak, once they get their dream or vision or word from the Lord. This is happening too often these days. Rather, their place is in the church as one among many, and their prophecies are to be judged each time they speak. They should be willing to have their prophecies, judged, too, and admit when they missed it. But will they submit and admit? We shall see.

Humility, self-restraint, and community (the opposite of independence) will cure many problems today among modern prophets.

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