What Is Prophecy? (Part 1)

by Scott

Due to my post last week, I thought I would revisit some basic thoughts and teaching around the gift of prophecy. I’ve done something like this before, but I thought I would break it up into shorter posts and bring a few additional thoughts in as needed. But I think it safe to conclude that more and more of the church has awakened to the fact that this gift is both available and needed in shaping the body of Christ today.

There are a variety of ideas when it comes to the gift of prophecy, or the ministry of the prophet. I suppose some people have extreme ideas like that of a John the Baptist type figure living in the wilderness, eating locusts and honey, and having a large booming voice. For some who were once in a charismatic church expression, but have now left, they only have images of abuse and misuse. And I admit upfront there has been plenty of misuse and abuse of this much needed gift in the body of Christ. It does truly grieve me when the gift is abused. Still, from a level-ground, I always remind people of this: Abuse and misuse should not lead us to no use. Rather it should lead us to healthy and Christ-like use.

Yet, there are wounds that definitely need healing.

It’s true that the Bible doesn’t give us a lot of detailed instruction around this ministry and gift. What we have to do is read between the lines of the lives of the varying prophets and prophetic messages coming through the pages of Scripture (not to mention seeing the gift in action in our gatherings, for sometimes the best way to learn is through the proverbial ‘on-the-job training’). The best instructive teaching is found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. But even that does not address every detail possible. And we should expect such, since the Bible is not a kind of car instruction manual.

One of the things I find disheartening is that most people’s ideas of prophecy or prophet is founded mainly in the Old Testament. And it seems usually wrapped up in two chapters that I believe are misread at times, that being Deut 13 and 18. I have posted in the past on guarding against centring our main understanding of the prophet and prophecy in the Old Testament.

Additionally, as I shared in my previous post, I think some might lean towards building their conceptual framework from the Old Testament because they simply don’t realise the ministry continued into the new covenant. You’ve got people like Agabus (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-14), the prophets in Antioch who helped send off Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-3), Judas and Silas, being two key figures in helping disseminate the decisions of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:32), and Corinth had its fair share of prophets based upon Paul’s needed instruction to them (1 Cor 14). Oh, and don’t forget the apostolic prophet, John, better known as The Revelator.

There are others, but this at least gets our eyes and ears adjusted to the voice of the Lord coming through the early church congregations. And, to keep it simple, that is just what a prophet is – one who bears a specific message from the Lord. Or prophecy is – a specific message from the Lord.

But what we must bear in mind at all times is that prophecy is not essentially tied up into predicting the future. Sure, it could be. But a prophet mainly spoke into their own time. It was the word of the Lord coming into their day and situation, not an abstract future. Of course, the writers of what is now the New Testament definitely applied the Christ-centred focus of the words of the prophets of old. But those prophets of old firstly spoke into their day of old.

So maybe the question comes: If prophets and prophecy still exist today, then that means God is still revealing himself? Because the Scripture is God’s special revelation and we no longer need that anymore, since it is sufficient to tell us of God’s redemptive plan and revelation in Christ.

I know it’s quite odd to think that God still gives revelation today. And I think it is because we have built up such a spooky idea around this word, connected with the book by the very same name, Revelation. But neither revelation nor the book of Revelation were given to scare people. As the word of the Lord, they both come to ultimately strengthen and edify.

At it’s very foundation, the word revelation means an unveiling. It’s quite like a play starting off, the curtain is split open, moving to either side and, lo and behold, we find the characters and scenery of the theatre. It’s an unveiling, a revelation.

When God gives us glimpses into his work, his plan, his purposes, speaks his word, he is pulling back the curtains to let us see just a bit. For remember, we know in part and we prophesy in part (1 Cor 13:9).

So, then, again: Does this mean God is still revealing himself even after we have Scripture?

It most certainly does.

But what I will note is that I don’t believe God is laying out anything new in regards to his redemptive plan. Christ is the final word. Nothing need be added to that. But, what I am convinced of is that God continues to speak his word into our situations, continues to reveal into our local church settings, continues to bring forth the prophetic into our world.

Oh, and if one wants to quote Rev 22:18-19 as a hint of proof that God stopped revealing himself after these apocalyptic (meaning revelatory) visions to John, I would say they are grossly misusing the passage. First off, I doubt John realised his words would end up in a New Testament canon of Scripture. What John is referring to is his own revelatory prophetic words in what he has written. He doesn’t have in mind a leather-bound Bible. He expected nothing to be added or taken away from such words.

And the important thing, which I shared in the former post, was that God had always been communicating, speaking and revealing para-Scripture. Even while the authors and shapers of Scripture were penning and compiling what became the canon of Scripture, you had plenty of prophets, and others, communicating the word of the Lord to God’s people and beyond. There are plenty examples of the word of the Lord coming forth which never made it into Scripture. A couple of obvious examples can be found in 1 Sam 10:10-13 and 1 Tim 1:18-19.

But, in the end, the biggie that gets it for me is simply getting to the know the nature of our good God. He is a communicator, a speaker, a revealer. That’s what he’s been doing from the beginning. And, as far as I can tell, that’s what he’s been doing and will continue to do in the fullness of the new creation. So, if he spoke in days past and will speak in the age to come, then I suppose he would maintain his communicative-revealing nature during this middle period that we find ourselves in now.

Of course, I am well aware of Heb 1:1-2 – 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…

But all I would say is that it is interesting to note that, at the time the writer to the Hebrews was penning these words, God was actually still in the process of speaking to his people, both what would find its way into our canon of Scripture and that which would not. If the writer was trying to say God is all done with this stuff, in one sense you might argue that, even by the very act of his own words being included in Scripture, something does not line up.

The ‘last days’ entail the whole period launched by the Christ event. The last days includes the whole Messianic age, which we’ve been in for right around 2000 years. And so, Christ, the word of God incarnate, was the voice of God. But Luke tells us at the beginning of Acts that his first volume (the gospel of Luke) was all about the things Jesus began to do and teach (Acts 1:1). There was an expectation of continuance. And, knowing Luke was writing these words well after he had seen and heard the strong continuance of the word of the Lord, you better believe Luke was a continuationist, meaning he believed these Spirit and grace gifts were to continue into the future. The Holy Spirit, the prophetic Spirit of Christ, had been sent to continue the exact same work that Christ began. And it was going to be done through the church, Christ’s followers.

I’m not sure why God wants to continue to do this teamwork project with humanity? But it is his way and his ways are good.

I want belabour the point any longer in this article. But I’m setting the scene, laying out some initial thoughts to then begin to look at some practical details around prophecy. I am blown away by the fact that the Spirit of God is still speaking today, still communicating, still revealing. The prophecies of today need not be added into the canon of Scripture, for it serves its good purpose as the canon, our measuring stick. But we need the word of the Lord, the living and active word of the Lord, even today. Will we listen?

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