an essay by Kent A. Philpott
Doesn't the prophet foretell the future?
God gave to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, the words He wanted the people to hear. For example we find: "Thus says the Lord God: 'It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin'" (Isaiah 7:7). Here the God of Israel had a message for Ahaz, the king of Judah, spoken to him by Isaiah the prophet.
Prophets declared the word of the Lord to whomever the Lord directed. Many of these prophecies had to do with the coming of the Anointed One (or Messiah from the Hebrew mashiach, or Christ from the Greek christos). Here is another example by the same prophet: "The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
There are hundreds of prophecies in Scripture, found from Genesis to Revelation. My favorite is in Genesis where the LORD God spoke to the serpent (Satan) and said, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring, he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Genesis 3:15). At this point in the early history of humankind, we find a prophecy of the final victory of the offspring of the woman, the son of the virgin, Jesus Christ Himself, over the serpent who had enticed Adam and Eve to disobey their Creator.
The prophets spoke of what was coming, that which was 'new', but in many ways little was really new since the basics of what God was going to do had already been made clear in Genesis and Exodus.
Here are the salient points of what the early biblical material said was going to take place: God made a covenant with Abraham which created a new nation of people starting with him. That nation became Israel. God later made a covenant with Israel through Moses, who led them out of slavery in Egypt. The covenant that the LORD gave at Mt. Sinai involved a set of laws, by which the people were defined for a long time. Every time they drifted away from following God’s Law, the LORD sent prophets to the people to remind them of that law and to tell them about what would happen if they continued to be disobedient. Little that the prophets said was ‘new’, since God had already made clear the basics of what He was doing and was going to do in the future from early in Genesis and into Exodus.
One thing, however, that was clearly new was the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31-34, in which he revealed that there would be a new covenant or testament: "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jeremiah 31:33). The Law of Moses was external; the new covenant would be internal, that is, it was the indwelling of each individual by the Holy Spirit, sometimes known as regeneration or the new birth. The arrival of the Messiah would institute this.
The Word become flesh
That which the Old Testament prophets spoke of was realized with the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem of Judea. Jesus was born of Mary the virgin, and now the Immanuel spoken of by Isaiah was actually with us – God in the flesh. As the Apostle John put it, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). In Jesus, the prophecy and the prophet are made actual, and He spoke the clear and perfect Word of the Lord, because He was and is the Word.
This changed everything. The writer of Hebrews masterfully marked the extreme paradigm shift:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. Hebrews 1:1-3
Would the office of prophet disappear now that the Messiah had arrived? No, in fact the work of the prophet, though slightly different, would take on much greater importance.
The new prophets
There was no new truth, not even any 'improved' truth, but the truth that came with Jesus Christ must be told, and this is the ministry of the new prophets, who are the preachers, the forthtellers, of the New Testament era.1
Just prior to His ascension back to the Father in heaven, Jesus instructed His followers to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20a). In John's Gospel, we have this: "As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you" (John 20:21). And then there is Luke's commission: "And you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
My contention is that those disciples, the sent ones and witnesses, were the prophets of the Messiah who no longer needed to foretell the future but received the command and commission to forthtell the deeds and words of the Word become flesh. And the company of prophets is not limited to the original apostles; indeed, every Christian of every era inherits the command and commission to witness to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Jesus gave some to be prophets
In Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of gifts given to Jesus’ followers: "And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers" (Ephesians 4:11).2 Some Christian commentators refer to the list as 'offices' in the Church, but the concept of 'offices' is merely imported into the text and not explicit.3
The apostles are the sent ones. Apostello is a Greek verb meaning "I send." The sent ones may then be termed apostles. Missionary is a term derived from the Latin that is equivalent to the Greek for apostle. Apostles and missionaries are sent to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ to those who do not know Him. Therefore, when apostles carry the message of Jesus and proclaim Him, they act as prophets – forthtelling the Gospel rather than foretelling the future.
Apostles. The original apostles were those who knew Jesus personally in the flesh and whom He specially called and commissioned as His disciples. The question is, may there be other apostles? No and Yes is my answer. No, in that only the ones originally appointed by Jesus are the apostles on whom the Church is founded, but Yes, in that many are yet sent out to proclaim the Gospel and are, in a real sense, also apostles.4
Prophets. There are also prophets given to the Church, which is clear from Ephesians 4:11. What do these prophets do? They proclaim the message of the Gospel; the prophet is the preacher or forthteller.
A problem of identification
Prophet is a word often taken to mean foretelling the future and many automatically assume the same when the word is found in the New Testament. But mostly, almost entirely, the word prophet should be identified with preacher. The preachers of the Church are the biblical prophets. If I were to critique the commonly held charismatic/Pentecostal view of prophets from any other position than that which is stated above, I would end up in a quagmire, attempting to state that the future telling prophetic movement ended with the death of the Twelve Apostles and the publication of the New Testament. Let me explain what I mean.
We have all we need. We read of Jesus in the Gospels; we learn of what He did and what He said. Then, other apostles and disciples of apostles interpreted and applied what Jesus said and did in real life situations, which we find in the epistles or letters of the New Testament. Indeed, there are prophecies about the wrapping up of history, which we see much of in Matthew 24, 1 Thessalonians 4, and the Book of Revelation, but there are no new doctrines, theologies, or ideas that differ one bit from what we already have. Nothing else need be said of the future; the believer's work is to watch and wait and tend to the harvest.
I did not always understand the work of the New Testament prophet. During the days of the Jesus People Movement, roughly 1967 to 1972, I was impacted by the influence first of the Catholic Renewal, which was essentially charismatic, and the general charismatic movement that swept through America during that time. Though I resisted the charismatic/Pentecostal doctrines at first, I slowly fell in line. Toward the middle of the 1970s I began to regard what I saw as charismania and began to disassociate myself from it. Though it is painful now to admit, I prophesied over hundreds of people with words like, "God gave me a message for you," or "I had a dream and you should…," or "You are called to be a missionary," or "You will be greatly used of God," and so much more.
Many of my associates from that time have also distanced themselves from what can be called charismatic, but growth in charismatic practice has mushroomed, to say the least. In my opinion, this emphasis is decidedly off track, despite its popularity.
Many among us see the dreadful direction the charismatic/Pentecostal movement has taken. Perhaps the best statements challenging this are in John MacArthur's book, Strange Fire, published by Nelson Books, an imprint of Thomas Nelson, in 2013. However, there is a critique concerning MacArthur's views that I would like to make.
Cessationism versus Continuationism
Cessationism is the view that the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit that are listed in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 are no longer in operation. The supposition is that they ceased to be operative in the Church after the Apostolic period and the creation of the New Testament.
Continuationism is the view that the charismatic gifts, including the "power gifts" continue to this day.
Some in each camp have moved toward the center, to a moderation of each position, which considers that only the so-called power gifts, namely speaking in tongues, their interpretation, miracles, healing, and prophecy ceased, but that others such as faith, service, teaching, exhorting, contributing, leading, acts of mercy, wisdom, knowledge, and discernment (distinguishing between spirits) are still evident in the Church as normative and operative.5
I am not alone in holding the following view; however, it is beyond the scope of this essay to describe the details and nuances of other various views and the authors involved.
Briefly, my view is that the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit continue just as they have since the Day of Pentecost but that we see them mostly or only in times of awakening and revival. In my book, America's Awakenings and the Jesus People Movement, it is noted that there were various charismatic gifts in the first two awakenings, but few if any were evident in the third.6 During the JPM (Jesus People Movement), I personally witnessed many miracles, among which were the multiplication of food, words of knowledge, healings, and other more common and mundane gifts.7 Prior to the JPM I did not see or experience the continuation of charismatic gifts, and after 1972, a date which is often noted as the beginning of the end of the JPM, the charismatic gifts began to be less frequent until they ceased all together – in my experience.
This view may be termed semi-cessationist or semi-continuationist, though different from the moderation position described above. It is understood that these designations are not biblical categories; rather, they are philosophical constructs intended to describe theological views.
Out of respect for many in the Reformed tradition, where I do find myself since 1995, I have attempted to validate cessationism. I cannot help but report that I find nothing in the Scripture, which clearly and unequivocally proves that the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit stopped after the Apostolic era and the publication of the New Testament. There are passages that are cited as pointing in that direction, but, in my view, concrete evidence that is necessary and determinative simply is not there.
Paul and prophecy
Paul has a great deal to say about prophecy in his first letter to the Corinthian Church, other than what we find in the lists of the charismatic gifts found in chapter 12. In fact, he has two lists in that same chapter. The second is 1 Corinthians 12:27-31:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, and then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
This passage is reminiscent of Ephesians 4:11: "And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers." In 1 Corinthians 12:28 the word "appointed" (the transliterated Greek word is etheto) could be translated "placed" as well; in Ephesians 4:11 the word "gave" is used (the transliterated Greek word is edoken), and appointed and placed are essentially synonyms. It must be noted that the "gave" of Ephesians 4:11 is not at all the same as gifts (the transliterated Greek word is charismaton) found in 1 Corinthians 12:4 or the charismata of Romans 12:6.
"Prophets" appears in both 1 Corinthians and in Ephesians and are not designated as charismatic in nature. Many commentators over the centuries have designated the lists in Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:27-31 as offices or officers within the Church. My question is: What do these prophets do? Do we suppose an office or position so important that it is listed next to apostles in both places, to be nothing other than foretelling events? If so, where do we see this ministry in operation? The instance of Agabus prophesying that there would be a famine (see Acts 11:28) and that Paul would be made captive if he went to Jerusalem (see Acts 21:11), which were stereotypically prophetic in the Old Testament style, does not justify or explain the prominence of the office of prophet in the Church.
Furthermore, let it be pointed out that in neither the 1 Corinthians nor Ephesian passage is there any indication that the prophets’ work would be phased out or temporary. These ministries in the Church are universal and in operation until the second advent of Jesus. But what does the prophet do?
Peter is a prophet to the Gentiles
The account of the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius shows Peter acting as a prophet. In Acts 10 is the story of God calling Peter to Caesarea to declare the Gospel of the risen Christ to a Gentile, even a military officer in the hated Roman occupying army.
God used dreams and visions to accomplish His work in this seminal event (and notice there was nothing of a trance state involved for either Peter or Cornelius), but Peter simply arrives at the proper place, and Cornelius invites Peter to speak. Luke concludes the content of Peter's message with, "To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (Acts 10:43).
The "him" the prophets bore witness to is Jesus, and here Peter is the prophet who declares the word of the Lord to Cornelius. Prophets remind people of what God has already said and done, and Peter does the very same thing.
All prophets declare the message and word of God; this is their work, and most "thus saith the Lord" passages in the Hebrew Bible are of this nature.
Paul and 1 Corinthians 14
Paul addresses the ministry of prophecy very directly in the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. In the first verse he encourages the pursuit of love (agape love), and he said to "earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy." One Greek word pneumatika is translated here as "spiritual gifts," but it does not require the use of "gifts" but could instead be “spiritual things,” meaning the things of the Holy Spirit.
Paul goes on to show the greater value of prophesy over tongue speaking.
For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 1 Corinthians 14:2-3
What future event needs to be prophesied? The Church was already aware of the return of Jesus, the Day of Judgment, the great resurrection day, and more. What the Church needed, and always needs, is the proclamation of the words and deeds of Jesus. In verse 4 Paul then says, "The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church."
Paul does not prohibit tongues, and this is a controversy that I will not entertain here, since my focus is on prophesy, but he wanted more than anything for the Corinthians to prophesy (see verse 5).8 He even says in that same verse, "The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up."
Paul simply wants the gathering of believers to be orderly and beneficial for both the believers and for those who are not. Paul is the one who is convinced of the priority of Gospel preaching. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16). Then in Romans chapter ten, he asks, "How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" (verse 14). He succinctly states the supremacy of preaching when he says, "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17).
The last phrase in verse 17, "through the word of Christ," uses a derivative of the Greek word hreima for the written or spoken word, with the implication that preaching is meant.
"Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said" (1 Corinthians 14:29). The worship services may have been much longer than in many churches of our day, including the church that I pastor, but it might be that there were two or three sermons or words given by prophets.
Paul concludes his teaching on tongues and prophecy by saying, "So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues" (1 Corinthians 14:39). Here I am convinced that the tongues speaking was nothing approaching ecstatic utterances but was prophesy in foreign tongues. In any case, the emphasis on prophecy is unmistakable.9
The Command and Commissions of Jesus
All Christians are aware of or become aware of the commands Jesus gave to be His witnesses to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The witness will proclaim, testify, preach, declare, describe, and so on, the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ. This means prophets prophesying. Some are specially called to be preacher/prophets, and all are called to witness by virtue of just being a follower of Jesus.
There is nothing new to add to the Scripture; all has been revealed and we simply watch and wait for the final events. We know all we need to know, and faith carries us the rest of the way.
May it be that we all earnestly desire to prophesy.
The Prophet… is...The Preacher
2 In verses 8 and 11 the words "gifts" and "gave" are found but the Greek words in the text and not associated with charismata, which word Paul does use in Romans 12:6 and 1 Corinthians 12:4 -- the lists of the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit.
3 Some commentators speak of four 'offices' while others mention five. There are five titles, but the last two, pastors and teachers, are linked by the Greek coordinating conjunction kai and thus are seen as one 'office'.
4 Matthias replaced Judas and the Eleven became the full Twelve again (Acts 1:21-22). Paul and Barnabas are later referred to as apostles in Acts 14:4 and 14. James, the half-brother of Jesus, is also named an apostle in Galatians 1:19. Paul calls himself the apostle chosen "last of all" in 1 Corinthians 15:8. Some commentators include Silas (Silvanus) among the apostles (see Acts 15:22, 32; Acts 15:40; 1 Peter 5:12; 2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; and 2 Thessalonians 1:1).
5 These gifts are found in Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-11. It may be argued that the second description of cessationism, allowing for the non-power gifts to yet be in operation, is more properly called “semi-cessationism.”
7 The healings were apparent, lasting, and personal. Twice my son Vernon was healed right in front of me, and he still remembers these, though he was only about five years old at the time. I was healed, and remarkably so, one time that I am sure of. Some healings were verified by means of medical examinations. Not all who requested healing and had hands laid on them for healing were in fact healed, but some were. I was always skeptical of healings and did not trust the healing ministries of Oral Roberts or Kathryn Kuhlman for example; nevertheless, as time wore on, I came to admit and accept healings that I could verify for myself.