Question: What does the Bible say about the gift of prophesy? What exactly does it mean to prophesy? Does it look different today? Can we accept that the gift of prophecy is still alive today without "despising prophecies" and "quenching the spirit"?
For some context, prophecy originated in the Old Testament. Hebrews 1:1-2 says, “God, having spoken long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2in these last days spoke to us in His Son…” In the Old Testament, God spoke through prophets to bring forth divine revelation. We see that all throughout the Old Testament from prominent people like Moses, to the major and minor prophets that make up the larger portion of the Old Testament. As Hebrew’s 1 states, in the last days, God spoke to us in His Son. However, Jesus was not merely a prophet, he was God in flesh. After Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, he sent the Holy Spirit. John 16:7 says, “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” We see this come true on the day of Pentecost recorded for us in Acts 2:2-4, “And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues like fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” At this point in time, whoever believed in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior was given the Holy Spirit.
The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy
The Holy Spirit gives gifts according to the will of God. 1 Corinthians 12:7, says, “ But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for what is profitable.” Paul gives a list of various gifts, one being in verse 10, “…prophecy....” Paul concludes in verse 11, “ But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” There is another mention of this gift in Romans 12:6, “but having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: whether prophecy…” We also see it mentioned in Ephesians 4:11, “And He Himself gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers…”
These verses spark much controversy in today’s culture. So first, we must define prophecy, and with that definition, determine if it looks different today and answer your final question.
The Greek word for prophesy is propheteia, which is composed of two words, pro, meaning forth, and phemi, meaning to speak. In the context of Biblical teaching, prophecy is to speak forth divine revelation. In our culture, many people believe prophecy is the ability to predict the future. While knowing something about the future was often divinely revealed to God’s prophets, one pastor noted, “the gift of prophecy, was primarily a gift of proclamation (“forth-telling”), not prediction (“fore-telling”).” Again, prophecy at its foundational meaning is
to speak forth God’s divine revelation. 2 Peter 1:20-21 says, “Know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes by one’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever made by the will of man, but men being moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” There is one more important aspect of true prophecy and that found in Revelation 19:10, “For the witness of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” Simply put, Jesus Christ is the central theme of true prophecy. He is the source and substance of all prophecy.
Does it Look Different Today?
To know if this gift looks different today, with the right definition of prophecy, we have to look at the New Testament to see why this gift was used. Ephesians 2:19-20, “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone…” The reason for the gift of prophecy in the New Testament church was to lay a foundation for the church. The early Christians did not have the complete Bible. So, until the completion of Revelation in the late 1st century, God used the gift of prophecy to lay a foundation for the church until God’s complete divine revelation was completed. If the foundation for the church was laid by apostles and prophets, and then was fully revealed at the completion of the Bible, then the gift of prophecy, in terms of speaking forth new divine revelation has ceased. It isn’t needed anymore. Peter makes this point plainly in 2 Peter 1:19, “And we have as more sure the prophetic word, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.” So the only difference today is that the gift of prophecy is used as a pastor/teacher proclaims, explains, and teaches God’s divine revelation that is found in the written Word of God, the more sure prophetic word.
The reason for the gift of prophecy is indeed different today; however, we also must look at how the gift of prophecy was used in the New Testament. The purpose of prophecy in the New Testament church was to:
Edify, Exhort, and Encourage, 1 Corinthians 14:3, “But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and encouragement.”
Lean and be Exhorted, 1 Corinthians 14:31 says, “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted.”
Convict, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that surely God is among you.”
Guide or Call, 1 Timothy 4:14, “Do not neglect the gift within you, which was given to you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.”
Strengthen, Acts 15:32, “And both Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with a lengthy message.”
Warn and Admonish, Acts 21:10-11, “10 And as we were staying there for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” (See also, Acts 20:23, Acts 11:27)
Evidence of Holy Spirit, Acts 19:6, “And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.”
When a pastor/teacher proclaims, explains, and teaches the written Word of God, do these actions continue to occur today? The answer is YES! This is the purpose of preaching, teaching, and evangelizing just as was the purpose of the gift of prophecy outlined above. And that purpose has no different than today. Again, the only difference in terms of the gift of prophecy is how God reveals Himself. Today, God reveals Himself through his written Word, apart from that there is not new revelation. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be equipped, having been thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The foundation was laid by the apostles and prophets, and now we can continue building on that foundation by the direction, guidance, wisdom, teaching, and obedience of God’s Word. God completed his revelation. 1 Peter 1:2-3 says it beautifully, “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the full knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; 3seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the full knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.”
Despising Prophecy or Quenching the Spirit
The mystical and loose understanding of prophecy today has mainly come through the misunderstood or misapplied verse of 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, “Do not quench the Spirit; 20 do not despise prophecies, 21 but examine all things; hold fast to that which is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.” This is an incredible verse as Paul explains the expectations of the New Testament Church. As we have studied, the gift of prophecy at that time laid the foundation of the church along side the apostles. If they were not careful, they could quench the Spirit by foolishly despising prophecy that was given by the Holy Spirit. We see an example of this in 3 John 1:9-10, “I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not welcome what we say. 10 For this reason, if I come, I will bring to remembrance his deeds which he does, unjustly disparaging us with wicked words. And not satisfied with this, he himself does not welcome the brothers either, and he forbids those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.” This man was limiting the Spirit’s work in that church. This is what it means to despise prophecy. There is no testing, there is no examination, there is only rejecting. Paul teaches that a believer should not reject, but test or examine all things. Jesus himself warned in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”
This teaching is clear throughout Scripture. The early church had to seriously test the spirits of that time. 1 John 4:1 warns, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to
see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” What Paul is teaching back in 1 Thessalonians 5 is that if someone in the early church came saying they have a “Word from the Lord”, it shouldn’t be rejected immediately. It shouldn’t be despised immediately. It should be tested. Paul says similarly in 1 Corinthians 14:29, “And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.” Any prophecy by man needs to be judged, tested, examined, and determined in wisdom to be good or evil. If it’s good, they hold fast to it. If it’s evil, they abstain from it.
Today, that verse still impacts us today. When any pastor, teacher, evangelist, or any believer speaks, preaches, teaches, or proclaims divine revelation rooted in the written Word of God, we must not despise or reject it, but test it. However, there is an easier way to test and see if it is good or evil. We have God’s Word in our hands: The Bible. Since we have the complete revelation of God in His Word, we can be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11, “…they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” As we studied earlier, prophecy today looks different than prophecy then, in terms of their reason for prophesying. If they claim to have new revelation, or predicting the future, we know that needs to be rejected because God gave us his more sure prophetic word, which is the Bible. However, the purpose of prophecy is the same today, to build up, edify, teach, and preach so that the church continues to build upon the foundation of the apostles, prophets, and above all, the cornerstone, which is Christ.