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Change in the Prophetic Role
The gift of prophecy is manifested in a variety of ways in the Bible. But first we need to define the word "prophet" from the Bible and note the different ways the word is used at various periods of biblical history.
The first time the word is used is in reference to Abraham where Abimelech is told that Abraham is a prophet (Genesis 20:7). Here the word nabi is used, which is the usual Old Testament word for describing a prophet. More meaning is established in Exodus where, after Moses declared his lack of eloquence, God said to him that He would appoint Aaron his brother to act as his prophet (nabi). "See, I have made you like God to Pharoah, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet. You are to say everything I command you, and your brother Aaron is to tell Pharoah. . . ." (Exodus 7:1-2).
The nabi then was one who spoke on behalf of God. From the experience of Samuel we learn that the nabi was one to whom God revealed Himself and received messages directly from God (1 Samuel 3:7, 21). In the case of Samuel it was information that had contemporary relevance and was not a result of his own meditation or philosophical speculation. During the time of Samuel the period of the Judges gave way to the monarchy. At this time we see two distinct types of Old Testament prophets develop. Samuel takes on the title of seer (roeh and chozeh are the words usually translated as "seer") which seem to be used interchangeably with nabi to describe the work of Samuel.
Clifford Hill suggests that during this time the seer was primarily the solitary contemplative figure while the nabi became primarily associated with bands of roaming prophets who had more ecstatic types of experiences.66 He also notes that the nabi during this time had
ecstatic experiences that, on one occasion, were shared by Saul. These prophets would go about in procession from the high places playing musical instruments while they were prophesying.
Music appears to have played an important part in their style of prophesying. Later David set apart the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals (1 Chronicles 25:1). Prophecy appears now to have become an attempt to enter the presence of God both to worship and receive guidance from Him. Prophetic activities in the Old Testament appear to include not only receiving messages from God, but also include some forms of music and praise. Samuel joined in with other prophets and it seems that prophesying could come upon people involuntarily at times, as in the case of Saul and his messengers (1 Samuel 19:20-23).
Leon Wood builds a strong case to show that these OT experiences were not ecstatic frenzy. "In the first of the two instances regarding Saul (1 Sam. 10), the thought would be that the prophets, coming down from the high place with musical instruments, were again rendering praise to God. They could well have just been dismissed from class, as noted earlier, and they could have had the custom of singing as they walked together to their place of residence. This would account for Samuel's knowing ahead of time that they would be so engaged when Saul met them. Then as to Saul's action when he did encounter them, the thought would be that he simply joined in singing with them. The astonishment of those seeing him, when he did so, would have been due to his otherwise timid nature. They had been accustomed to seeing him standing aside watching such activity, rather than joining in with it."67
The understanding of prophecy developed to include not only a revelation from God; but included people praising God in worship. This is consistent with New Testament usage as well.
David Aune summarises the variety of prophets found in the Old Testament: "Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, combined the characteristics of the holy man, the sage, the miracle worker, and the soothsayer . . . they were associated with the holy places and religious ritual. . . . and could combine the roles of priest and prophet like Samuel. . . . they were itinerants and moved about with some freedom, apparently living off the gifts and offerings of those they served. Master prophets
were given the title 'father.'. . . And presided over the prophetic guilds called 'sons of the prophets.'. . . . these prophets would often prophesy in groups. . . .
"Cult and Temple Prophets. . . . Since priests were primarily attached to sanctuaries and to the temple cult in Jerusalem. . . . many psalms, which were certainly part of the temple ritual appear to have had a prophetic origin. . . . Court Prophets. . . . There are many references to Israelite prophets who convey divine messages for Yahweh to the reigning monarchs. . . . Free Prophets. . . . the phenomenon of 'free prophecy', in contrast to temple and court prophecy developed dramatically during the mid-eighth century BC. These prophets . . . were reformers . . . to call Israel back to the ancient covenant traditions. . . ."68
The writer to the Hebrews correctly said, "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways" (Hebrews 1:1).
New Testament Prophecy
New Testament prophecy commences with the appearance of John the Baptist. In his dress and solitary style of ministry he would appeal to the populace as being a prophet after the tradition of the Old Testament. In addition he denounced immorality and wickedness and demanded repentance in view of the fact that God was about to send His long awaited Messiah, who would punish the ungodly. In doing this he met the Old Testament expectations of prophetic activity. This, with the power seen to attend his work, caused many to accept him as a true prophet.
Although Jesus did not claim to be a prophet, many saw Him as such. His disciples saw Him as the fulfilment of what Moses said regarding how God would raise up a prophet like himself (Deuteronomy 18:15, Acts 3:22-26). That Jesus expected His followers to have prophetic inspiration is clear from Matthew 10:19-20: "But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you." In John 16:12-15, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would still speak to His followers after He has departed. But when the followers of Christ say words, caused by the prompting
of the Holy Spirit, it does not necessarily make them prophets. All the followers of Christ are able at times to say words prompted by the Spirit. (Perhaps we could label them "prophetic statements"). This does not necessarily make a person a prophet. We will see that this term seems to be used in the biblical passages to describe those who are especially called and used by God for a prophetic ministry.
A useful way of defining prophecy in the New Testament context is by saying it is the Spirit of God revealing to believers what they need to know to meet specific situations. This is now a possibility for all believers; but there are some specially chosen individuals who will receive the prophetic gift.69 As such they will be used more frequently and be recognised as having the prophetic gift.
In contrast to the Old Testament, the New Testament anticipates that the gift of prophecy will become more widespread. It will not be limited to the Hebrew race alone nor to a few select individuals as in the past. The opening of the Christian era was accompanied by a powerful manifestation of the Gift of Prophecy.
Peter gave meaning to the outpouring of God's Spirit at Pentecost by saying, "This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophecy" (Acts 2:16-18).
Peter is saying clearly that from now on God is going to pour out His Spirit upon all people regardless of race, gender, age or social standing. The Holy Spirit will now abide in every believer. Ministries of ancient prophets, priests and kings have now passed into the lives of ordinary people (Revelation 1:6, 1 Peter 2:9-10, 1 Corinthians 14:1).
James Dunn reflects upon the significance of Pentecost: "This application of the Joel prophecy to the infant community in Jerusalem undoubtedly reflects the high spiritual enthusiasm which must have marked these days—so rich and varied were their experiences of inspiration, the revelations given to them by God, that it seemed evident that not just one or two had been singled out to manifest the prophetic gift, but all had been anointed as prophets—the end time had come."70
Gerard Friedrich summarises the differences between the new gift of prophecy and the Old Testament gift of prophecy: "The prophets of the NT have much in common with those of the OT and they rightly bear the same name. Agabus, like the OT prophets . . . uses a symbolic action to intimate Paul's imprisonment. . . . The vision of prophetic calling in Rev 1:9ff reminds us of the visions of the OT prophets in Is 6:1ff and Ez. 1:1ff . . . .
"But there are also differences between NT prophecy and that of the OT and Judaism. In the OT and Judaism only a few were called to be prophets apart from the prophetic groups mentioned in the historical books of the OT. . . . Now some NT prophets are given prominence, e.g. Agabus . . . Barnabas and Silas . . . the four daughters of Phillip. . . . Fundamentally, however, prophecy is not restricted to a few men and women in primitive Christianity. Acc. to Ac. 2:4; 4:31 all are filled with the prophetic Spirit and acc. to Ac. 2:16ff. It is a specific mark of the age of fulfilment that the Spirit does not only lay hold of individuals but that all members of the eschatological community without distinction are called to prophesy. In Corinth there was obviously a greater number of prophets, for those who spoke at divine service had to be limited to two or three, 1C.14:29. In spite of this, Paul urges the Corinthians to strive after the charisma of prophecy, 1C14:1,5,12,39. It is not the gift of a chosen few. It can be imparted to any man even though in practice it may be limited to a comparatively small circle.
"In comparison with OT prophecy the work of the NT prophets has undergone both an extension and a restriction. . . . the NT prophet does not enjoy such unlimited authority as the Jewish prophet. . . . He is not an unrestricted ruler over others. He is subject to their judgment. . . . He does not stand above the community; like all the rest, he is a member of it. Closest to Jewish prophecy in this regard is the prophet of Rev. . . . Here there can be no question of testing the correctness of his sayings . . . since they are declared to be reliable and true by the supreme authority, God Himself . . . criticism of what he says is impossible."71
The Pentecost fulfilment indicates a wider number of people will now experience this gift. Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:1 encourages all believers to "eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy." At the same time he states that not all will have this gift
(1 Corinthians 12:29). Paul does, however, rank the gift of prophecy over all the other gifts of grace. In 1 Corinthians 14:1 he admonishes them to desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy. When he mentions the gifts he repeatedly lists prophecy after the apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11). Evangelists, pastors and teachers are always listed behind prophets. In Ephesians 2:20 the prophets are with the apostles listed as part of the foundation of the church.
There is a wide divergence in the way the gift operates in the New Testament. Wayne Grudem puts forward a proposition, supported by D. A. Carson,72 suggesting that the successors to the Old Testament classical prophets were the Apostles who were also prophets. Grudem gains support for his idea from the Greek form of expressing apostle/prophets in Ephesians 2:20 as signifying the one person. However, although the Greek language does allow for this concept it does not mean this understanding is watertight. His strongest argument comes from the fact that it is the Apostles who are like the Old Testament prophets in that they are the authors of the Scriptures. Luke being an exception.
He also argues that because of the widespread use of the gift of prophecy in the New Testament the word prophet does not have the same authority as in the Old Testament, but the word Apostle carries immense authority. Paul never claims authority on a basis of his being a prophet; but always on his apostleship (1 Corinthians 9:1-2).
Ben Witherington III adds, "On the issue of the office of prophet, Paul has little to say. He seems strangely reluctant to use the term prophetes as a way of characterizing who he is and what his role is in the churches. This contrasts dramatically with his use of the term 'apostle.' This reluctance is understandable when we recognize that NT prophets did not have the same status, standing, or unquestioned authority as some of the OT prophets. Rather, there is evidence from Paul suggesting that the utterances of Christian prophets needed to be weighed, since it was possible for their prophecy, in the enthusiasm of the moment of revelation, to exceed the proportion of their faith and understanding. Thus, on the one hand, Paul has to encourage even the 'charismatic' Corinthians to seek to prophesy, and on the other hand, he has to urge the Thessalonians not to despise prophecy or quench the Spirit. The prophet, it seems, did not have the highest honor rating in
Paul's communities. Yet Paul clearly rated prophets as very important to the early church, placing them behind only the apostles in his lists of church roles and functionaries."73
Paul also clearly pulls rank on local prophets in 1 Corinthians 14:36-38 where he says, "Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored." Paul sees himself as one who passes on the words of Christ and calls for the local prophets to acknowledge what he says; if not they will be ignored. It does appear that there are different levels of the gift of prophecy operating in the New Testament.
Levels of the Gift of Prophecy
It is to these levels of the gift of prophecy we need to turn to understand the different functions and manifestations of the gift in the New Testament. At perhaps the lowest level are some who are given a revelation. There is no record of them receiving another and they are not called prophets. If a person is recognised as a prophet the biblical text will usually stress that they are a prophet. However there are times when believers will make prophetic statements. That is, a statement prompted by the Spirit.
For instance: There is a prophetic utterance by Mary (Luke 1:46-55). Zechariah the father of John the Baptist makes a prophetic speech about Jesus (Luke 1:67-79). Simeon makes a prophetic speech also about Jesus (Luke 2:25-35). Even Caiaphas the apostate high priest unwittingly makes a prophecy about the significance of the death of Christ (John 11:49-52). Ananias received a prophetic revelation regarding the life and work of Paul; yet he is not called a prophet. He is simply called "a certain disciple" (Acts 9:10).
From these experiences we see that the Gift of Prophecy move upon a variety of individuals who may, consciously or unconsciously, make prophetic statements. This may or may not happen to them again. None of those mentioned here are ever called prophets. However, they gave prophetic messages.
All believers are encouraged by Paul to eagerly desire spiritual gifts especially the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1). He also stated that not all will have this particular gift (1 Corinthians 12:29). According to the statement made by Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21) we can expect a widespread use of the gift now that we are in the age of the Spirit. However nowhere in the book of Acts do we find all of God's people exercising this gift. It is reserved for those whom God chooses,
1 Corinthians 14 seems to be laying down the way in which the gift should operate at the local church level. Some would call this congregational prophecy. The gift of prophecy is said to be for "strengthening, encouragement, and comfort" (1 Corinthians 14:3). This gift includes a revelation (verse 30) and the prophet is in control of his/her mind (verse 32). They must also speak in harmony with what Paul has previously taught (verses 36-38). This form of prophecy operates when the congregation is assembled. It may be personal encouragement or public testimonies.74 It must be a revelation to be a prophecy or it is simply a teaching.75
When prophesying, the local congregational prophets always have control of their minds.76 For the most part, Christian prophecy is not a mindless experience, as often happens in paganism and the occult. At the same time we must remember that John the Revelator seems to have an ecstatic experience when he says he was "in the Spirit" (Revelation 1:10; 4:2; 17:3 and 21:10). He sees and hears what is beyond the normal comprehension of the senses. Paul also seems to have had an ecstatic experience when he relates his vision of 2 Corinthians 12:1-4.77
But for local prophets found in congregations Paul infers that there is no such ecstatic experience (1 Corinthians 14:32). Instead they are to be in control of their senses. They are fully aware of what they are doing and, if speaking, can stop and hand over the right to speak to someone else. Some may have been given their content before coming to the meeting. Some may be given their revelation while the meeting is on and feel a compulsion to be given a hearing. The one who is prophesying must be in control sufficiently to be able to bring his revelation to a halt in order to give way to another.
Chris Forbes comments on Christian prophecy and its relationship to preaching and teaching: "It seems to have been far more 'for immediate consumption.' It was something about a particular time and place,
at that time and place. Was Christian prophecy basically the same as preaching? Probably not. As far as I can tell it wasn't a matter of reading Scripture and expounding its meaning. The two examples in Acts certainly aren't exposition of Scripture and don't even quote it. In fact, you never find prophecy in the New Testament closely linked with expounding the Word of God. They were different things. Teachers and preachers expounded Scripture. Prophets passed on direct revelations from God. . . . It was immediate, verbal, direct, about the congregational situation. It wasn't of long term relevance."78
Ephesians 5:19 admonishes local Christians to "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord. . . ." Andrew Lincoln understands this as "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and songs inspired by the Spirit. . . . 'spiritual songs' to snatches of spontaneous praise prompted by the Spirit. . . . the songs which the believers sing to each other are spiritual because they are inspired by the Spirit. . . . Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; Eph 5:14; 1 Tim 3:16 may provide some examples which have found their way into the NT, to snatches of song freshly created in the assembly. . . . Believers who are filled with the Spirit delight to sing the praise of Christ, and such praise comes not just from the lips but from the individual's innermost being, from the heart, where the Spirit himself resides."79
This singing would possibly be the same singing that Paul refers to when he says, "So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind" (1 Corinthians 14:15). No doubt the singing brought spiritual encouragement to the congregation in harmony with what prophecy was meant to do as outlined in 1 Corinthians 14:3.
Paul also encourages the Thessalonians to treat this form of prophecy with respect (1 Thessalonians 5:20).80 For those used by God to prophesy on a regular basis, it would seem they are actually called prophets. This could include some at the local church level as pictured in 1 Corinthians 14 or even an itinerant prophet like Agabus (Acts 11:27). It seems that the early church had a good supply of people who were recognised as prophets. Acts 13:1)
At the higher level were the Apostles who were also prophets (Ephesians 2:20). Paul uses an authority unlike any other New Testament
prophet. For instance, "Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?" (1 Corinthians 4:21). "Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:20).
If we see the Apostles as the successors of the Old Testament prophets we should not expect to treat their messages with any less respect for they are the conveyers of Christ to us. They were instructed directly by Christ. Paul is conscious of this When he states "For I received from the Lord what I passed on to you. . ." (1 Corinthians 11:23).
Paul zealously defends his authority not on the basis that he is a prophet; but an apostle. "Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lordů." (1 Corinthians 9:1). "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:11-12). Paul's authority as an apostle means his writings have become an important part of the Bible. To argue against his teachings would be in defiance of the fact that the apostles were men taught directly by Christ and commissioned by Christ.81
Peter sees that the authority of the Old Testament prophets has been passed on to the New Testament apostles: "I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Saviour through your apostles" (2 Peter 3:2, emphasis added).
In New Testament times the status of the Old Testament prophet was given to the apostles who had seen Christ in the flesh and been taught by Him. They had also been witnesses to His resurrection (Acts 1:21-22; 1 Corinthians 9:1
Chris Forbes offers a summary of early Christian prophecy with the following observations, "For most scholars early Christian prophecy, like Gaul under the Romans, is divided into three parts. There are said to be wandering Christian prophets, who travel from place to place, staying for differing periods with Christian groups as they go. . . . There are said to be Christian prophets resident within congregations whose ministry does not normally extend beyond those congregations. . . . Finally there are those Christians who, though they
are not considered 'prophets' in any regular or official sense, non the less occasionally prophesied. . . . The evidence here is the theological conception of the New Testament writers that in some sense 'all the Lord's people are prophets.'. . ."82
No doubt Forbes has in mind wandering Christian prophets like Agabus who seemed to have others accompany him. (Acts 11:27) Then there would be those who belong to local congregations. (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Thessalonians 5) and others such as Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon who we have mentioned.
It is a mistake to use the word "prophet" in Old Testament times and equate their function with the word "prophet" as it appears in the New Testament. It is true that certain functions of Christian prophets do remind us of Old Testament prophets:
Yet to equate prophets in both testaments as being essentially the same is to miss the importance of Acts 2:17-21 which implies the gift of prophecy, since Pentecost, will become more widespread and diverse. The New Testament says that all God's people are potentially prophets. Not all will exercise this gift, yet they are encouraged to seek it. Various individuals may be used as the Spirit selects them. They may be used once or many times, or may be so used in a way which enables them to be called prophets. The real successors of the classical prophets of the Old Testament are the Apostles in that they were taught directly by Christ and were used of God to give us the sacred canon.
66 Clifford Hill, Prophecy Past and Present. An Exploration of the Prophetic Ministry in the Bible and the Church Today. (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1989). He states that this was only a temporary distinction as a later editorial notes states in 1 Samuel 9:9 ". . . because the prophet of today used to be called a seer." pp. 13-15. [back]
67 Leon Wood, The Holy Spirit In The Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), p. 112. Wood devotes two whole chapters in his book to deal with the question "Were Israel's prophets ecstatics?". He builds a powerful case to show they were not in a state of ecstatic frenzy and as such were distinct from the pagans around them who frequently had ecstatic experiences when prophesying. [back]
68 Aune, pp. 83-85. [back]
69 1 Corinthians 12:29. [back]
70 Dunn, p. 27. [back]
71 Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Ed Gerhard Friedrich. Translator and Editor. Article "Prophets," by Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 849. [note: The set is dated 1964 though some individual books may carry a later date.]. [back]
72 D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, (Homebush West, NSW, Aust.: Lancer Books, 1988), p. 94. [also published in the United States, same pagination, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), p. 94]. [back]
73 Ben Witherington III, Jesus The Seer, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), p. 316. [back]
74 Michael Green, To Corinth with Love, (London, England: Hodder & Stoughton, 1982). Also republished as The Corinthian Agenda, (England: Victoria, 2004). Speaks of this form of prophecy as follows "Prophecy is not the equivalent of Scripture. Prophecy is a particular word for a particular congregation (or person) at a particular time through a particular person. Scripture is for all Christians in all places at all times." p. 75. [back]
75 1 Corinthians 14:24, 30 seems to teach prophecy has to do with receiving revelations and making known secrets of people's hearts. [back]
76 1 Corinthians 14: 32 "The spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of the prophets." This seems to infer that prophecy does not involve the surrendering of the mind to another power. Always the prophet is in control. [back]
77 Ecstasy is a vague term open for different meanings. It needs to be qualified as there are many degrees ranging from mild dissociation to extreme uncontrollable frenzy. [back]
78 Chris Forbes, On being, April, 1991, "Straight From God", p. 13. [back]
79 Andrew Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary, Ephesians, No. 42, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1990), pp. 345-346. [back]
80 John Stott, The Message of Thessalonians, "This form of prophecy was not considered to be a message which brought the very words of God to the people. It was rather a timely word of instruction, encouragement or rebuke which brought the general thrust of God's guidance to the church in each particular situation." p. 128. [back]
81 Apostles were men taught directly by Christ. Paul argues this way to defend his apostleship in Galatians 1:1, 11, 12. In Acts 2:21-22 it was seen as a necessary in finding a replacement for Judas. [back]
82 Forbes, pp. 292-293. [back]