In part one I argue that a fundamental distinction of prophecy under the New Covenant is that it occurs within a prophetic community, where every regenerate individual has the ability to hear God’s voice for him/herself. At the people’s own request immediately following the Sinai lawgiving, God agrees henceforth to speak to them through an intermediary, and not directly. The people agreed in return to heed the prophet’s word as God’s. They would fail to do so, of course. Nevertheless in Deut. 18:17, God calls this request a good one. Whether this represents His complete approval or merely acquiescence to their desire, He has something better for the Body of Christ, beginning with Pentecost.
This new thing, this better thing is the Spirit poured out on “all flesh,” every member of the redeemed community without distinction. All can hear God’s voice. Therefore, prophecies given within this prophetic community can be weighed (diakrino, 1 Cor. 14:29), and tested (dokimazo, 1 Thes. 5:21) by others, who also hear the Lord’s voice.
This was not possible of the Old Testament Israelites (except within the prophetic circle: 1 Kings 22:1-28). The general population depended on the few prophetic individuals, as intermediaries, and were obliged to obey them (Deut. 18:19). Consequently, the prophet wielded enormous power and authority in what he said, and was answerable to severe consequences for malfeasance.
Two particularly egregious deviations even represented capital offenses, according to Deut. 18: 2o:
- Wilful deception in presenting a message “in God’s name” when God never commended it; a violation of the third commandment, using God’s name in vain.
- Prophesying in the name of a false god, a violation of the first commandment, having another god before YHWH.
This passasge is not infrequently subject to a cursory reading, leading some spurious propositions, regarding prophecy, whether before or after Pentecost:
a. That this passage teaches that prophetic utterances are infallable or inerrant (like Scripture). This notion can be quickly dispatched by looking at the premise that v. 22 actually presents; any given prediction by a prophet speaking in the name of the Lord will turn out (a) true or (b) not true. This is not exacly the definition of infallable.
We need to understand that prophecy happens in two parts: First, the word of the Lord comes to the prophet (Jer. 1:4, and numerous other places). Second, the prophet proclaims to others what the Lord said to him/her:
But the LORD said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’;
for to all to whom I send you, you shall go,
and whatever I command you, you shall speak.
(Jeremiah 1:7 ESV)
The first part is an act of God, and therefore perfect. The second an act of man and subject to human frailty. It may be performed flawlessly or otherwise. The designation of the Scriptures as inspired (theopneustos, 2 Tim. 3:16), indicates that in the case of the Canonical text this second part was in fact delivered flawlessly. They are thus guaranteed to the reader. The Scriptures never give us such a guarantee of oral prophecy, whether in the Old or New Testaments. What the OT regulation does do, as opposed to the NT, is constrain obedience.
b. Another spurious proposition is that the death penalty attached to any imperfect act of prophesying. This is not what the text says, however. Deut. 18:20 specifies a presumptious act: “the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak…” The verb translated “presumes” is zud, which indicates insolent, proud, or arrogant action.
A few examples suffice to show the nature of such an act:
But if a man willfully (yazid) attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.
(Exodus 21:14 ESV)
So I spoke to you, and you would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of the LORD and presumptuously (tazidu) went up into the hill country.
(Deuteronomy 1:43 ESV)
This is about deliberate, premeditated disregard of God’s truth, not a mistake. Here is a clear example of this happening:
And he went after the man of God and found him sitting under an oak. And he said to him, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?” And he said, “I am.” Then he said to him, “Come home with me and eat bread.” And he said, “I may not return with you, or go in with you, neither will I eat bread nor drink water with you in this place, for it was said to me by the word of the LORD, ‘You shall neither eat bread nor drink water there, nor return by the way that you came.’” And he said to him, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the LORD, saying, ‘Bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.’” But he lied to him. So he went back with him and ate bread in his house and drank water.
(1 Kings 13:14-19 ESV)
Verse 22 gives a rough test, to distinguish when “the prophet has spoken it presumptuously.” The test is that an event predicted either happens as predicted or fails to do so. Clearly this makes sense, but we do have to consider its range of sensitivity and specificity. First as to sensitivity, even a fake prediction can “come true” by luck, through manipulation, or by simply being a clever guess. At any rate, the text doesn’t state that a prediction that does come true is by this fact a genuine word from God. Another text tells us as much:
“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
(Deuteronomy 13:1-3 ESV)
In regard to specificity, even some instances of true God-commanded prediction may fail to occur as predicted. For example, the prophet Jonah made a simple prediction: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4). This prophesied destruction did not happen. This was, however, because God relented, after the Ninevites repented. The prediction itself gave no hint of being conditional, but it was, by virtue of a principle that God enunciates elsewhere:
If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.
(Jeremiah 18:7-10 ESV)
Another interesting instance is 1 Kings 22:5-28. Here the true prophet Micaiah gives a sarcastic false prophecy: “Go up and triumph; the LORD will give it into the hand of the king” (v. 15), even though he has just promised: “As the LORD lives, what the LORD says to me, that I will speak.” (v. 14). The sarcasm appears to be plain to all, however, as the king doesn’t buy any of it. In fact, the king has the right idea:
But the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?”
(1 Kings 22:16 ESV)
Micaiah then goes on to deliver the actual prophecy, with dire consequences for the king. He even evokes the Deut. 18 test:
And Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me.” (1 Kings 22:28 ESV)
In another instance, the prophet Nathan spoke not presumptuously, but carelessly when David inquired of the Lord through him:
…the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the LORD is with you.”
(2 Samuel 7:2-3 ESV)
This was an error, but far from being stoned or rejected from ministry, God himself goes on to deliver a corrective message, and an edifying one, through Nathan, (2 sam. 7:4-17), an important Messianic prophecy.
There are then multiple ways for a prophecy to be delivered imperfectly, even in OT times, short of wilful deception: errors of hearing, errors of memory, of interpretation, of application. Though I’ve been using the phrase the voice of God, this “voice” is sometimes actually a visual perception. Micaiah, for example experienced both visual and verbal revelation:
And he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the LORD said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’”
(1 Kings 22:17 ESV)
The frequency of visual revelation is underlined by this editorial statement in 1 Samuel:
Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he said, “Come, let us go to the seer,” for today’s “prophet” was formerly called a seer.
(1 Samuel 9:9 ESV)
Accordingly the initial revelation may be a chalenge to “read.” Literally enigmatic:
And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”
(Numbers 12:6-8 ESV)
Paul directly alludes to this passage, speaking about prophecy in terms of “seeing”:
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.
(1 Corinthians 13:12 ESV)
Paul’s “face to face” is Moses’ “mouth to mouth.” Less obviously, Paul’s “dimly” (en ainigmati=Lit. “in an enigma) reflects the LXX of Num. 12:8 “in riddles” (di’ ainigmatôn). There is certainly no warrant for the baseless assumption of some that the voice of the Lord is always (or even frequently) audible. Or clear.
So when we come to a post-Pentecost example open to question, as the frequently cited prophecy of Agabus in Acts 21:
While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”(Acts 21:33 ESV)
at least one detail was technically inaccurate it would seem:
Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done.
The Romans not the Jews. Is this an error? Does it matter? Did Agabus hear the words “This is how the Jews etc.”? Or did he see a picture and describe what he thought he saw?
The general point was reinforced by multiple other prophecies:
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.
(Acts 20:22-23 ESV)
And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
(Acts 21:4 ESV)
Are these prophecies contradictory, that sending him to Jerusalem and those warning him to stay away? More likely the urging him not to go was the addition of well-meaning human hearts, though the revelatory information was real.
One thing is certain, Paul did not obey those prophecies warning him off. It is of course true that he was an apostle, and that trumps any number of prophets. However he had been perfectly willing to be led by prophetic words before (Acts 13:1-3). At any rate, prophetic words in these post-Pentecost times are taken seriously, seen as helpful, useful, vital, giving purpose, granting courage, allowing preparation. What they are not, particularly, is unquestioningly authoritative, not individually at least.
They are a function of the Body, the community: men, women, and children, not the hierarchy of the nation of Israel. Thus the number of prophetic voices increases greatly, even exponentially, with Pentecost. One might also say God threw the Spirit to the wind, landing on individuals of all kinds, and at all levels of maturity. Not so apostleship. Not so the place of the teacher.
The Pentecost event has rightly been called the “democratization” of prophecy. It has been detatched from the hierarchy. No longer the property of the generals, it has been given to the enlisted personnel–even buck privates.
So am I saying that in post-Pentecost prophecy the “standards” are lower? No, that is not what I am saying. But the dynamics of the process are different. God is as jealous as ever for every word that proceeds from his mouth, but it is protected now by the community of faith, not by a trained, professional elite. Prophecy is no longer a government function. It belongs to the people.
It is not “okay” to deliver an imperfect prophecy, but in God’s New Covenant arrangement, the whole range of Body members possess the ability to hear the voice of God and to speak prophecies. Necessarily, then, this includes the immature, the untrained, even those with questionable character and shaky theology. Even in the Old Testament era, prophets did not emerge fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. There was a learning process. We see a glimpse into what prophetic training consists of in 2 Kings 6:1-7, where we see Elijah with a band of disciples, the “sons of the prophets.”
Then as now, with prophecy as with any other skill, no one does it well who did not at first do it poorly. This is true with teaching, with evangelism, with administration, any function you can name within the Body of Christ. Why on earth would we imagine it any different with prophecy?
Again, what guards the integrity of the function is the multiplicity of practitioners. If it is true, as I am suggesting, that the “democratization” of this gift leaves any individual expression of it open to human frailty, the flip side is that “in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Proverbs 11:14 ESV) Indeed, a group function with weighing and testing, checks and balances should ultimately prove more reliable over the long haul than an authoritative elite, however tightly regulated.
In regard to the function of post-Pentecost prophecy in the twenty-first century, I contend that the function is still as vitally present as ever in the Father’s plan for the Body of Christ through the Holy Spirit. However, the question may legitimately asked how many, if any, are really exercising this gift well? It has to be admitted, that if there is indeed a learning component, the stream of discipleship in this area has been interrupted. If immature, imperfect practitioners can always be expected to exist, these have to be more numerous than otherwise in the current situation. Does this have to remain the case? I don’t think so.
But we should understand that prophecy in the New Covenant is a function of the forest, with variations occurring from tree to tree. We do need to give attention to our trees, however.