What is Prophecy?
“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.” — 1 Corinthians 14:1
Paul has spoken of how men and women (particularly husbands and wives) are to approach prophecy in church (1 Corinthians 11), he’s called prophecy and those who prophesy ‘gifts’ of the Spirit for the body (1 Corinthians 12), and now he says prophecy is a gift to be especially desired.
But what is prophecy?
Here’s a working answer to this question that we’ll unpack with some of the data from 1 Corinthians, and a quick survey of the rest of the Bible.
“A timely proclamation of salvation and judgment in Jesus applied directly to people and their circumstances by the Spirit.”
Let’s unpack that for a moment — prophecy is dynamic, in that it comes from a speaker for their immediate audience, but prophecy, if legitimate, has a descriptive quality that speaks beyond that moment to eternal truths about God. It dynamically draws people to those truths that God, through Jesus, is judge and saviour. Prophecy interprets the times (and cultures) — circumstances — and makes an assessment of the times for God’s people in a way that engages and speaks to people outside the people of God such that it plausibly describes their reality, and God’s reality, in a way that convicts.
Let’s work at building this definition…
Prophecy in the Corinthian Church
- Prophecy is a thing the whole church is able to do, and that Paul would like everyone to engage in, appropriately (1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 1 Corinthians 14:5, 24).
- Prophecy is a gift of some sort of speech that comes from the Spirit and is to be desired (1 Corinthians 14:1, 39)
- Prophecy edifies the church, and is for our strengthening, encouraging and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:4).
- Prophecy is nothing without love (1 Corinthians 13:2)
- Prophecy will ‘pass away’ upon the completion of all things — it points to ‘when completeness comes’ (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)
- Prophecy convicts the unbeliever of sin and judgment, and that God is really amongst his people, leading them to worship (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).
- Some people are given to the church in a role tied to the gift of prophecy (but not exclusively that gift, nor is prophecy exclusively for those people) (1 Corinthians 12:10, 28-29, 14:4-5, 24)
- Prophecy is to be weighed up with discernment by other prophets (1 Corinthians 14:29-32)
Prophecy in the rest of the Bible
Here’s some of the data to pull together for assessing how prophecy works in the rest of the Bible.
- The words of the prophets, especially those recorded in the ‘prophetic’ books are the ‘word of God’ proclaimed to his people about their circumstances and what is happening in the world (— Zechariah 1:1, Hosea 1:1, Joel 1:1, Zephaniah 1:1, Ezekiel 1:3, Jeremiah 1:4, Micah 1:1, Jonah 1:1, Amos 1:3, Malachi 1:1, Habakkuk 1:1). Prophecy is not just speech about God, but speech considered to be God speaking.
- These prophets typically speak to Israel (and especially the kings of Israel), and in some cases the leaders of other nations, about God’s law, his judgment, and his mercy. The end of 2 Kings considers why it is that Israel ends up in exile, and sums up its history saying:
“The Lord warned Israel and Judah through all his prophets and seers: “Turn from your evil ways. Observe my commands and decrees, in accordance with the entire Law that I commanded your ancestors to obey and that I delivered to you through my servants the prophets.” But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their ancestors, who did not trust in the Lord their God. They rejected his decrees and the covenant he had made with their ancestors and the statutes he had warned them to keep. They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the Lord had ordered them, “Do not do as they do.” — 2 Kings 17:13-15
- The writings of the prophets are ultimately fulfilled in Jesus (Matthew 5:11, Luke 24:44).
- The writer of Hebrews says that “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2), so we might say that any continuation of prophecy beyond this point should in some way reflect this ultimate revelation by God.
- There are some prophets in the book of Acts (Acts 13:1-12, Acts 15:32, Acts 21:8-11), but apart from these 4 passages, the other 26 mentions of the prophets in Acts are demonstrations of the Luke 24 approach to the Old Testament prophets. Acts 2 links the coming of the Spirit with prophecy (as a description of the preaching in Acts 2 being the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel):No, 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 prophesy. (Acts 2:17-18)
In Acts 13 there’s a list of prophets including Paul (Saul) and Barnabas (Acts 13:1) who are set apart by the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2) who then prophecy against Elymas the Sorcerer aka ‘Bar-Jesus’ the false prophet (Acts 13:6-12). Paul’s prophecy is a direct pronouncement of God’s immediate judgment on Bar-Jesus with immediate results, as Bar-Jesus/Elymas is struck blind and his master, Sergius Paulus, becomes a believer because of this act of prophecy (13:12); which fits both the 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 picture and the definition of prophecy at the start of this post.
In Acts 15:32, Judas and Silas are called prophets and they “say much to encourage and strengthen the believers” (which fits 1 Corinthians 14:4).
In Acts 21:9, Philip the evangelist’s four daughters are described as women who prophesied, and then a man named Agabus, a prophet, comes and says that the Holy Spirit declares Paul will be bound and handed over to the Gentiles; a prediction of the immediate future (Acts 21:10-11).
- Peter says of prophecy: “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 Peter 1:21)
- This link between prophecy and Jesus is consistent with a statement in the book of Revelation, another book that the words prophet and prophecy occur regularly. In Revelation 11:7-12 the faithful witnesses — two of the seven churches of Revelation — are described as prophets, then in Revelation 19:10, John says:“At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.”
Let’s draw out some implications from these passages about what prophecy is and what it does.
- Prophecy is speech from the Spirit that says true things about God.
- Prophecy points forward to Jesus in the Old Testament, and often reveals the resurrected Jesus after the Gospels, at times it points to particular events and connects them to God’s actions in the world.
- When prophecy occurs it says true things about God, the world, and us, and causes repentance (a turn to the living God), a hardening of the heart (judgment), or encouragement and edification of the faithful.
Prophecy produces divine results; miraculous results, it has the capacity to bring the dead to life. This is what Paul says the outcome of prophecy is for unbelievers in 1 Corinthians 14.
“But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” — 1 Corinthians 14:24-25
Prophecy in our church?
So what does prophecy look like now? How does it work in 21st century Australia? What does it look like at Creek Road? What does it look like in the life of our community? In growth groups? In our Sunday gatherings?
Especially if prophecy is for everyone and must be weighed up and discerned; especially if women are able to prophesy (1 Corinthians 11)? Prophecy does sound very much like part of what happens in preaching in our Sunday services, but perhaps preaching is more than prophecy, and prophecy is more than preaching.
These are big questions for us to grapple with as a church, especially if the picture of the church functioning is as a body that is united in mission and purpose by the Spirit; if the mouth of the body speaks with the support and involvement of all the other parts of the body. This is part of how we think of team preaching — that one person’s voice on a Sunday is the result of the discerning of the ‘prophetic speech’ of many in our planning process, but is also how we understand contributions to our Sunday services from women in, for example, videos that feature as part of our bible talks. This is an ongoing conversation that we are committed to in our leadership team.
Prophecy certainly happens in the life of the church beyond Sundays, as we speak to one another, by the Spirit, in growth groups, in one to one relationships, and in all the opportunities we have to speak truths about God to one another, and the world, that edify and encourage believers or potentially convict our non-believing friends about the ‘secrets of their hearts’ and the incredible goodness of God.
Nathan Campbell – Campus Pastor, South Bank