Please bear with me on this post.
I know that’s not a stellar introduction, but I felt it was needed.
Every night at around 10:00PM I get an email from ICR in their Days of Praise publication. They often contain uplifting content, but I found last night’s email to be very discouraging. Perhaps the reason it bothers me is that these people normally take scripture so seriously. They are intent on a careful, no-beating-around-the bush reading of Genesis 1, which is why I subscribed to their email list. But in this case they have abandoned good hermeneutic and have fallen victim to the same tactics as those whom they are working against.
1 Thess 5:19-22 says:
Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. (ESV)
This quenching of the Spirit is what I sensed in the email. Having a title of “False Prophets and True”, the point of the email was an unfortunately all-too-common argument against the gift of prophecy being available for us today, having instead ended when the writing of scripture was completed.
It’s quite likely that no one wants to read about this topic. But again, please at least let your eyeballs take it in, and if you want to afterward you can forget about it and hopefully not think any the less of me. With the Easter celebration approaching, I’ve had a desire to take it seriously this year. I want to relish the work that Christ has done, and also ponder the life we now have in his Spirit. This is not a time to quench the Spirit, but to turn to him.
With that said, I want to address some concerning beliefs about prophecy today. There are two things that must surely sadden the Lord, three that must break his heart. These are as follows.
“Prophecy ended with the Apostles”
Books have been written about this, so I’ll keep it brief. The writer of the ICR email makes this claim:
The apostle Paul revealed also that such prophecies would cease once they were no longer needed. “When that which is perfect [or ‘complete’] is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10). Clearly in the context, this refers to the complete revelation of God. When the last book of the Bible was transmitted to the church by the last living apostle, the Lord warned us neither to “add unto” nor to “take away from the words of the book of this prophecy” (Revelation 22:18-19).
When you look at 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, however, an entirely different message is clear:
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (ESV)
It is abundantly clear here that Paul is talking about when we are with the Lord; this is when the “perfect” comes and prophecy, tongues, and knowledge will pass away. Otherwise, not only prophecy but also knowledge was done away with after the apostles! Read these verses again and tell me this is saying that prophecy ends with the apostles. It’s clearer than Genesis 1, which is why I was so troubled when I read it, and that the author said “clearly in the context…”.
“Prophecy is just reading or proclaiming existing Scripture”
This is one of the great tragedies of modern theology and I am honestly very perplexed by this point of view. Instead of prophecy being what it is (a new word from God), it is changed into another definition (the reading of existing words of God).
To say that prophecy is merely the proclaiming or teaching of existing scripture goes against the Bible’s clear portrayal of prophecy from cover to cover. It is a re-definition of reality based on our current situation and what we have personally experienced. For example, we might not see the gift of prophecy in our own sphere of relationships and yet, being unwilling to deny it, we take the “safe” route of simply redefining it. Both are equally a sin. Scripture alone should define our belief system, not our experiences. This is relativism knocking at the door.
Every picture of prophecy we have in the Bible (Old and New Testament) is that prophecy is a new word from God. It doesn’t even matter if this new word is a quotation of existing scripture or a totally unique message, the point still remains that it is God speaking to someone now (regardless of the content of the prophecy).
This speaking need not even be an audible voice, though there’s nothing to say it can’t be. We allow God to save us from our sins, and yet we are hesitant to allow him to speak with a voice. Which one is a greater task for him?
…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (1 Peter 1:20-21, ESV, emphasis mine)
Prophecy, therefore, isn’t something you can decide to do. It’s entirely dependent on God’s Spirit moving. When the prophets said, “Thus says the Lord”, it was prophecy. When Jesus spoke to Saul at his powerful conversion, it was prophecy. And when the Holy Spirit warned Paul of the sufferings he was going to encounter in his journey, it was prophecy. Now, if God moves you to share a particular scripture passage with someone, that may be a form of prophecy, as God might have a very specific intention in that case. But if you go on to offer your interpretation or teaching of that passage, this is not a wrong thing to do, but know that your own words are not prophecy. It is no longer God’s words but your own, unless he specifically instructs you to say those things.
Let’s keep “Thus says the Lord” to mean what it has always meant.
“Prophecy is not necessary or that important”
As I just stated, prophecy is not something you can decide to do. God is the one speaking, not you! That said, God has given us specific instructions:
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. (1 Cor 14:1, ESV, emphasis mine)
It almost seems like this verse does not exist in our Bibles. I assure you that I did not add it. We take such great care in our study of the scriptures, and yet we skip over verses like these. It is actually a command to specifically and especially desire the gift of prophesy. Again, this is not something you can decide to do, only God can do it. But you can certainly ask him! Have you ever asked him?
Perhaps our lack of this gift is the fact that no one is encouraged to desire it. In a way it is silently shunned. We look at the “far out there” churches who have completely abused the gifts and conclude that we’ll just avoid them altogether.
Understand that I do not write this as someone who even has the “gift” of prophecy. I have only had a few instances in my life where I was blessed by a prophecy (and no, they were not simply verses from the Bible). I will not list them here because I don’t think we should base our theology on any person’s experience, only on the scriptures. That said, I was profoundly encouraged in those circumstances and was enabled to grow in my faith in a way that I’m not sure I could have otherwise. Who knows how much blessing is missed because we feel we don’t need this gift which we are instructed to earnestly desire.
Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thess 5:19-22, ESV, emphasis mine)