The question of whether God continues to speak to His church through modern prophecy is an issue that currently divides many Christians. This is a question of utmost importance for any believer. After all, if God is still giving revelation to His people today, then they must not ignore it. However, if the prophetic gifts ended with the last of the apostles, and God’s people are to be lead exclusively by God’s written word, then they must reject any claims to further revelation. What is the nature of biblical prophecy? How can we tell the true from the false? And, most importantly, is this gift still operative in the church today? This article will attempt to answer these questions.
The Nature of Prophecy
Are the prophetic gifts claimed by many today even remotely similar to those in the Bible? To answer this question we need to examine the main features of biblical prophecy. First, a prophet was one who spoke for God. The definitive text for the role of the prophet is the account of the commissioning of Moses and Aaron in Ex. 4:10-17; 7:1-7. Concerning this text, the great Princeton theologian, B.B. Warfield wrote:
Here in the most express words, Jehovah declares that He who made the mouth can be with it to teach it what to speak, and announces the precise function of a prophet to be that he is “a mouth of God,” who speaks not his own, but God’s words…In no case does a prophet put his words forward as his own words (The Works of B.B. Warfield, Baker, 1981, vol.1, p.19).
So we see that a true prophet only spoke God’s words. Second, the criteria for determining whether a prophet was truly speaking for God is given in Dt. 18:15-22. According to this text, a true prophet is known by the fact that his entire prophecy comes true, often within his lifetime (cf. Jer. 28:9), and a false prophet is marked out by unfulfilled prophecy. Notice that there is no margin for error, or partially fulfilled predictions. The penalty for a false prophet was death. Third, the messenger formula, Thus says the Lord, is used hundreds of times by the prophets.
The use of this formula informed the hearer that they were not merely receiving the words, impressions, or opinions of the messenger, but the very words of the one who sent him, be He God, or a pagan king (Num.22:15-17). The prophet clearly intends to bring his hearers face to face with God Himself. Finally, the divine authority of the prophet is seen by the judgment which falls upon those who ignore, reject, or oppose the words of God spoken through them. Egypt is devastated because Pharaoh rejects God’s command. Ahab is killed when he rejects the warning of Micaiah (1 Kgs.22:13-40). Stephen reviewed the sorry history of Israel in Acts 7. Because of their rejection of the prophets, and ultimately their Messiah, judgment comes to Israel (Hb 3:7-19; 12:25).
Prophecy in the New Testament
In recent years, many theologians have tried to assert that prophecy as practiced by the first century church underwent a significant change. One such immanent scholar, Wayne Grudem, has attempted to redefine New Testament prophecy.
Prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but was simply a very human – sometimes partially mistaken – report of something the Holy Spirit brought to someone’s mind (The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, Crossway Books, 1988, p.14-15).
Does the New Testament share this reappraisal of the prophetic gifts? Let us see. The key features of Old Testament prophecy are also seen in the New Testament prophets. First, New Testament prophets, just like the Old Testament prophets, received divine revelation (1 Cor. 14:30; Gal 1:12; Eph.3:5; Acts 11:28; 21:10-11; all of Revelation), which was considered authoritative Scripture, i.e. the word of God (1 Tim.5:18; 2 Pet.1:20-21; 3:16).
Second, the purpose for testing a prophet’s predictions in the New Testament, just as in the Old, was to distinguish the true from the false (Matt.7:15-20; 1 John 4:1-6). No margin for error is allowed. Third, the New Testament prophet also used the messenger formula, Thus says the Holy Spirit (Acts 21:11). The conclusion must be that the prophecy found in the New Testament is of the same essential nature as that found in the Old Testament. There is no foundation for the assertion that New Testament prophecy is held to a lesser standard.
The prophecy of both the Old and New Testaments is divinely inspired, and therefore inerrant. Nowhere in Scripture is prophecy a mixture of divine words and human speculation which is subject to error. How does modern day prophecy hold up when compared to this standard? Not very well; actually not at all. The prophecy of the Charismatic movement bears no resembleance to the infallible prophecy of God’s Word. A few quotes from Charismatic leaders will illustrate this point:
Prophecy can be impure – our own thoughts or ideas can get mixed into the message we receive – whether we receive the words directly or only receive a sense of the message (Bruce Yocum, Prophecy, Word of Life, 1976, p.79).
The content of many prophecies is a mixture of divine and human origin (Clifford Hill, Prophecy Past and Present, Eagle, 1989, p.303).
Uncritical acceptance must not be given to the prophet’s words…For although the prophet is the instrument of the Spirit of God he is not infallible, for he is still human and he may err. The discerning congregation must therefore be ready to correct him (Donald Bridge and David Phypers, Spiritual Gifts and the Church, Inter-Varsity, 1973, p.41).
Most charismatic teachers today would agree that contemporary prophecy is not equal to Scripture in authority…there is almost uniform testimony from all sections of the charismatic movement that prophecy is imperfect and impure, and will contain elements that are not to be obeyed or trusted (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity, 1994, p.1055).
Were the prophecies of New Testament prophets to be taken with a grain of salt? The early church did not think so concerning Agabus’ famine prophecy. Rather, they immediately sought to provide relief (Acts 11:29). If modern prophecy is so unreliable, what use is it? Does it edify, or harm the local congregation? Much of it is incapable of being tested by Scripture because it deals either with current affairs or local congregational matters. The type of prophecy which these authors have in mind is, by any biblical standard, false prophecy, and the perpetrators of such are false prophets. Under the old covenant they would have faced the death penalty. One wonders how much prophecy would be taking place in the church today if the same penalty applied.
The greatest dangers to the church posed by the charismatic idea of continuing prophecy is that it undermines the sufficiency of Scripture, and, as God Himself declares, it leads people away from Scripture and away from a dependence on Scripture (Jer 23:27). Its origin is not the mouth of God but the mind of the individual (Jer 23:26), and provides no benefit to the body of Christ (Jer 23:32). It either implicitly or explicitly denies the wisdom of the Bible to meet all our deepest needs. God’s revelation is complete, “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The Christian needs no other revelation. Prophecy, along with other revelatory gifts, ceased with the close of the apostolic age.