Is the Gift of Prophecy for Today?
Part 2 (of 4 parts):
"The Gift of Prophecy in the Old and New Testament"
Crucial to understanding New Testament prophecy is the direct relationship this gift sustains to Old Testament prophecy. New Testament prophecy did not develop in isolation from the phenomenon of Old Testament prophecy. As noted in the previous article in this series, the postapostolic early church affirmed the idea of a fundamental continuity between Old and New Testament prophets. Montanism or the "New Prophecy" was labeled a heresy because of its departure from standards of prophecy reflected in the Old Testament. The church judged New Testament prophets on the basis of its understanding of Old Testament prophetic phenomena and requirements. Current novel attempts at redefining the nature of New Testament prophecy (dividing it into two contrasting forms) result from an erroneous assumption of a sharp discontinuity between New Testament and Old Testament prophecy. An examination of the relationship between the two is needed to understand properly the nature and function of prophecy in the New Testament church era.
That examination finds that the miraculous gift of prophecy operative in the Old Testament economy was the same miraculous gift operative in the New Testament economy. Any differences may be measured by the manner of expression in a theocratic community (Old Testament prophecy) versus the manner of expression in the Christian community (New Testament prophecy). However, such differences do not militate in favor of the existence of any qualitative differences between Old and New Testament prophets and prophecy, especially in their accuracy and authority. This continuity between Old and New Testament prophecy can be demonstrated in a variety of ways in the New Testament. The following are a few examples.
The Promised Revival of the Old Testament Prophetic Gift
During the intertestamental period, Israel as a nation longed for the revival of the prophetic voice of Yahweh. Between the time of the last canonical prophet, Malachi and the advent of the Messiah, in the period known as the "Four Hundred Silent Years," prophecy ceased in Israel. Though claims to the prophetic gift may be seen in the literature of this time, the Jewish people as a whole never accepted them as legitimate. In fact those claims emphasize the absence of the Spirit of Yahweh from His people and Israel's longing for the promised return of the prophetic gift when God would once again speak. This desire remained intense through those silent years, until the silence was shattered by the advent of the Messiah.
The revival of the prophetic gift was promised in Joel 2:28-32. Earlier in that chapter, desolation in the eschatological "day of the Lord" was promised for the nation because of their failure to repent (vv. 1-11). Yahweh pleaded for His disobedient and idolatrous people to return to Him (vv. 12-14). The prophet cried out for the people to gather in a solemn assembly as an act of repentance, so that Yahweh would spare them (vv. 15-17). Pity was promised to the people if they would respond to the Lord's instructions (v. 18). Immediate deliverance was promised in Joel's day (vv. 19-27), and Yahweh also proclaimed that His program for Israel had important eschatological implications and blessings. He had not forever rejected His disobedient people, for He would greatly bless them in the future. In the latter half of Joel (2:28-3:21), two important prophetic features are emphasized: the promise of Yahweh's personal provision in the lives of the people (2:28-32); and the prediction of His final triumph on behalf of Israel at the culmination of human history (3:1-21).
In Joel 2:28-32, Yahweh promised Israel that in a future time He would pour out His Spirit in abundance on His people. A spiritual abundance is predicted that would be far greater than any mere physical blessings that could be associated with the promised "latter rains" (vv. 22-26). The Holy Spirit would be given in unparalleled power and ways in the land of Israel. This spiritual restoration and outpouring of Yahweh's Spirit on His people is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. The same Spirit who empowered the Old Testament prophets is promised once again to return.
However, in light of Joel 2, the Holy Spirit would not be poured out on a select individual or group, as in the Old Testament prophets, but on all believers regardless of their status. This work of the Spirit would bring about spiritual renewal, with the gift of prophecy receiving special emphasis. Because of this promise, the remnant of Israel eagerly and longingly awaited this renewed sign of Yahweh's presence among His people by the revival of the prophetic gift. According to Joel, the same prophetic gift that was empowered by Yahweh's Spirit among the prophets would be restored in even greater measure.
Joel said that the eventual deliverance of the nation of Israel would occur in the period known as the "day of the Lord." The outpouring of the Holy Spirit would accompany this event in "the last days." Later Judaism applied this text to the promise of a renewed heart in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:33) and the dispensing of God's Spirit in future messianic times.
Acts 2:17-21, a strategic passage, quotes Joel 2:28-32. Luke wrote that certain manifestations of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues and prophesying) were witnessed by Jewish onlookers outside the circle of the 120 Christians who had been gathered for prayer on the day of Pentecost. Some outsiders were amazed, while others mocked and said the disciples were "full of sweet wine" (i.e., new wine, Acts 2:13). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Peter stood and offered an explanation by relating the phenomena being witnessed at Pentecost to the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32.
The phenomena at Pentecost were connected by Peter to the expected messianic times in the "latter days" (Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:28). Emphasis on fulfillment is heightened by his use of "the latter days," which brings out the meaning of "afterwards" in the Masoretic and Septuagint texts. As Marshall notes, "Peter regards Joel's prophecy as applying to the last days, and claims that his hearers are now living in the last days. God's final act of salvation has begun to take place."
This emphasis on fulfillment is also heightened by Peter's particular focus on the revival of prophesying, which was promised in the Old Testament. He did this by adding the phrase "and they will prophesy" in Acts 2:18 to highlight the restoration of the Old Testament gift of prophecy. Patterson notes,
The precise applicability of Joel's prophecy to Pentecost can be gleaned from some of the Petrine interpretive changes and additions to Joel's text. Thus under divine inspiration Peter added to Joel's words relative to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit kai prophteusousin ("and they will prophesy"; cf. Joel 2:29 [3:2 MT] with Acts 2:18). The intent of Joel's prophecy was not only the restoration of prophecy but that such a gift was open to all classes of mankind. The Spirit-empowered words of the apostles on Pentecost were, therefore, evidence of the accuracy of Joel's prediction (They were also a direct fulfillment of Christ's promise to send the Holy Spirit; see Luke 24:49; John 14:16-18; 15:26-27; 16:7-15; Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:33).
The solemnity and importance of these words regarding the restoration of the prophetic gift are accentuated by Peter's addition of λεγει ο θεος ("God says") at the beginning of the quotation in Acts 2:17. It is highly significant that Peter tied this beginning of New Testament prophecy with prophetic phenomena of the Old Testament. The word profhteuvw ("to prophesy"), which Peter used in Acts 2:17, is also used in the Septuagint in Joel 3:1 (2:28, Eng.).
By quoting Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:17-21, Peter demonstrated that the early church was experiencing an unprecedented outpouring of God's Spirit, which was manifested through the return of the prophetic gift among God's people. This return of prophecy was a direct result of Jesus' ascension and exaltation to the right hand of God as the promised Messiah (Acts 2:33).
In light of this, Joel 2 and Acts 2 establish a fundamental continuity between Old and New Testament prophecy. "Thus, here we have prophecy of the Old Testament type entering into the New Testament era. And this is according to Peter's divinely inspired interpretation of Joel ... This establishes a fundamental continuity linking Old and New Testament prophecy. ... This divinely expected prophetic gift appears in numerous places in Acts, 1 Corinthians, and other New Testament books." New Testament prophets and prophecy stood in direct line with their Old Testament counterparts who proclaimed God's message and will to the people of God. Therefore New Testament prophecy is fundamentally a development and continuation of Old Testament prophecy.
Prophetic Personages in the New Testament
The direct continuity of Old Testament and New Testament prophets is reinforced through prophetic personages in the New Testament. The Old Testament had predicted the coming of Elijah to prepare the people spiritually for the advent of Messiah in the era of the New Covenant (Mal. 3:1; 4:4-6). Jesus related John the Baptist directly to the prophecies about the return of Elijah (Matt. 3:3-17; Mark 1:3-8; Luke 3:4-17; cf. Isa. 40:3; Matt. 11:14; 17:12-13; Mark 9:11-14, etc.). Also Jesus declared that John was the greatest of all the prophets, "thus placing him in line with the Old Testament prophets" (cf. Matt. 11:9-11). John served as the prophetic bridge between the periods of the Old and New Testaments (Luke 16:16).
In striking similarity with the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Isa. 55:7; Ezek. 33:11-15; Hos. 14:1; Joel 2:12), John the Baptist called for repentance on the part of Israel (e.g., Matt. 3:2; Mark 1:4). His ascetic dress was similar to that of Elijah (e.g., 2 Kings 1:8; Matt. 3:4; Mark 1:6), which was the typical garb of Old Testament prophets (Zech. 13:4). John also resembled Elijah by his sudden appearance on the scene, his solitary life, and his uncompromising message.
This continuity between Old Testament and New Testament prophecy is also demonstrated by Agabus. Agabus modeled his prophetic style directly after the Old Testament prophets. As Bruce notes, "The mode of his prophecy is reminiscent of much Old Testament prophecy; it is conveyed in deed as well as in word." This can be seen in several ways. He introduced his prophecy with the formula, "This is what the Holy Spirit says" (Acts 21:11), which closely parallels the Old Testament prophetic formula of "thus says the Lord" so frequently proclaimed by Old Testament prophets (e.g., Isa. 7:7; Ezek. 5:5; Amos 1:3, 6, 11, 13; Obad. 1; Mic. 2:3; Nah. 1:12; Zech. 1:3-4). This same introductory phrase introduces the words of the Lord Jesus to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation (cf. Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). Like many Old Testament prophets, Agabus presented his prophecies through symbolic actions (Acts 21:11; cf. 1 Kings 11:29-40; 22:11; Isa. 20:1-6; Jer. 13:1-11; Ezek. 4:1-17; 5:1-17). Like the Old Testament prophets, Agabus was empowered by the Holy Spirit as the prophetic messenger (Acts 11:28; cf. Num. 11:25-29; 1 Sam. 10:6, 10; 2 Sam. 23:2; Isa. 42:1; 59:21; Zech. 7:12; Neh. 9:30). Like the Old Testament prophets, Agabus's prophecies were accurately fulfilled (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-11; cf. 28:17).
In the Book of Revelation, the angel who functioned as a revealer to the Apostle John placed him in company with the prophetic line from the Old to the New Testament. In Revelation 22:7-9, John is identified among the prophets by the phrase "your brethren the prophets," and his prophetic power is linked to "the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets," the same Source who empowered the prophets of old (v. 6). Though John was an apostle, he is also placed among the line of Old Testament and New Testament prophets, since it was most likely through his possessing the prophetic gift that he was the recipient of divine revelation (vv. 9-10). As Thomas notes, "Since John was a member of the body of Christ and since his prophecy was overwhelmingly similar to the spiritual gift of prophecy . . . John produced this prophecy [the Book of Revelation] through the use of that gift."
Like Old Testament prophets, John used the phrase ταδε λεγει (Rev. 2-3); he reflected a similar vision of the prophetic calling (Rev. 1:9-16; cf. Isa. 6:1-13; Ezek. 1:1-28); he swallowed a small book (Rev. 10:8-11; cf. Ezek. 2:8-3:3); and he measured a temple (Rev. 11:1; cf. Ezek. 40:3-42:20). Geisler aptly summarizes this continuity.
The Old Testament predicted the prophet John the Baptist (Malachi 3:5). Jesus declared that John was the greatest of the prophets (Matt. 11:11), thus placing him in line with the Old Testament prophets. John the apostle spoke of "the prophecy of this book [of Revelation]" that he wrote (Revelation 22:7). And the angel from God that spoke to him placed him among "the prophets" such as the other "servants" God used in the Old Testament (22:6). And John said of himself, "I am a fellow servant with . . . the prophets" (22:9). So from John the Baptist to John the apostle, New Testament prophets stood in continuity with Old Testament prophets. And their revelations from God were both authoritative and infallible (see Revelation 22:18-19).
New Testament prophets directly inherited the prophetic vocation of the Old Testament prophets. This strongly suggests that the gift of prophecy in the New Testament was the same as that in the Old Testament.
Similarity of Vocabulary and Phraseology
New Testament terminology is the same when referring to prophets and prophecy, whether from Old or New Testament times. "The early Christian application of the designation profhvth" to individual Christians . . . was originally determined by the prevalent conception of the prophetic role of the Old Testament."
This correspondence is evident throughout the New Testament. Προφητης and its cognates are used in fulfillment formulas in New Testament citations of Old Testament prophets. According to the New Testament writers, the Old Testament prophets proclaimed the very words of Yahweh in their prophecies (Rom. 1:2; Matt. 1:22; 2:15; Acts 3:18, 21; Heb. 1:1). Such prophecies were filled with predictions about Christ (e.g., Matt. 1:23; 2:5-6; Luke 18:31; 24:25-27). Old Testament prophets were seen as writing the very words of the Lord regarding future happenings. According to Peter, such prophets and prophecies were guarded from error by the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).
Προφητης and its cognates refer to early Christian prophets as well. The first instances of New Testament prophecy occur in the Lucan birth narratives. Luke prefaced Zacharias's prophetic declaration with the words, "Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied" (Luke 1:67). According to this phrase, the basis for Zacharias's benediction was not personal thanksgiving nor a literary product taken from tradition but a prophecy inspired directly by the Holy Spirit.
Anna is called a προφητις (Luke 2:36). With this appellation she is accorded a rare recognition in Jewish history, for rabbinic material indicates that only "seven prophetesses have prophesied in Israel. . . . Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther." Prophetesses functioned in both the Old and New Testaments (Exod. 15:20; Judg. 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Neh. 6:14; Isa. 8:3; Acts 2:17; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5). Anna seems to have been called a prophetess because of her gift of foreseeing future events (Luke 2:38).
The Jews and Jesus considered John the Baptist to be a prophet (Matt. 11:9-14; Luke 20:6). The people of Palestine thought Jesus was a prophet (Matt. 16:14; 21:46). Some recognized Him as the fulfillment of the promised great prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15 (John 6:14; 7:40; cf. Acts 3:19-22). The Jews also believed that the test of a true prophet included the miraculous ability to prophesy accurately and correctly even under difficult circumstances (e.g., Matt. 26:67-68; Luke 7:16, 39; 9:8, 19; John 4:19).
Also προφητης and its cognates are used to refer to contemporary New Testament prophets in the church (Acts 11:27-30; 15:32; 21:10-11; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 2:20; 3:5-10; 4:11; Rev. 22:6-10). Clearly the New Testament makes no distinctions in vocabulary or phraseology between references to Old and New Testament prophecy or prophets.
The Evaluation of Prophets
In the Old Testament those who claimed to have the prophetic gift were to be evaluated by the people of Israel to determine whether they and their prophecies were legitimate. The Old Testament gives important principles for distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable prophets and prophecies.
Deuteronomy 13:1-13 and 18:20-22 are major passages dealing with the question of true and false prophets. Any so-called prophet who enticed the nation or individual Israelites to worship a god other than Yahweh was to be removed from the community by the severest penalty, namely, death (13:5). The reaction Israel exhibited toward false prophets was viewed as a test to determine whether they desired to follow and love Him exclusively (13:3).
Any prophet who spoke presumptuously or falsely in Yahweh's name but had not been genuinely called to that office or inspired by His Spirit was to be put to death (Deut. 18:20-22). A sign of a true prophet was that his prophecies actually came true, implying that if Yahweh was behind the prophetic commission, He would not let His words spoken through the prophet fail.
The Old Testament frequently emphasized the requirement of accuracy for verifying a true prophet. Since a genuine prophet was empowered by Yahweh's Spirit, any deviation from truth or accuracy would be a sign of a false prophet. False prophets were to be summarily rejected by the nation. The one who spoke presumptuously was to be distinguished from the one who spoke through the Spirit of the Lord. And the true prophet was to be distinguished from the false prophet on the basis of whether his proclamations were true or false.
Yet even if the prophet's words came true, this did not necessarily mean he was a genuine prophet (Deut. 13:1-4). False prophets could sometimes feign true prophecies. The source of the prophecy had to be determined. Was it genuinely from God, or from the imagination of the false prophet ("spoken presumptuously," Deut. 18:22), or even demonic (1 Kings 22:20-21; 2 Chron. 18:19-22)?
Even a true prophet could apostasize and declare something that was not truly from Yahweh's Spirit (1 Kings 13:11-25). Therefore continued vigilance and constant evaluation of every prophet's words were needed. The difference between a genuine and a false prophet could be determined only by careful examination of the prophet's life and message in accord with the written Word of Yahweh (Deut. 13:4, 18). The reputation of the true prophet could be established only over a period of time.
No tolerance of a false prophet or prophecy was to be allowed, as seen by the severe penalty of death for such an infraction (Deut. 13:5; 18:20). This was so severe because someone who spoke as a prophet in Yahweh's name was claiming the high honor of being Yahweh's spokesman who had direct contact with Him. As such a representative, the prophet could demand obedience from his hearers. False prophets could potentially do much damage to the theocratic community in leading the people astray from Yahweh.
These rules in Deuteronomy 13:1-13 and 18:20-22 were applicable even to established prophets like Samuel and Isaiah. Even if an Old Testament prophet gained a reputation so that he may not have been formally or constantly evaluated, he was still subject to the background requirements of Deuteronomy 13 and 18. At the very least, the stated requirements served to reinforce the genuineness of the true prophet, because a true prophet must accurately proclaim the truth (e.g., 1 Sam. 3:19).
Sadly, Old Testament prophets often became revered only by later generations. Frequently Israel failed to expose false prophets while persecuting Yahweh's true prophets (e.g., 1 Kings 19:10; Jer. 37:1-21). Only as later generations realized that their ancestors had been disobedient idolaters who failed to recognize the prophets' advice (cf. Ezra 9:1-15; Neh. 9:30-31; Dan. 9:6) did the prophets ascend to a place of esteem. This latter thought was reinforced by Jesus when He recalled that Israel had consistently despised, rejected, and killed her prophets: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her" (Matt. 23:37).
The apostles, being Jews who were keenly aware of the Old Testament, remembered the admonitions to evaluate those who claimed to have the prophetic gift. The New Testament furnishes no indication that the Jews in that day, particularly those who became apostles in the early church, considered the requirements for prophets to have been abrogated or substantially modified. Just as evaluation was needed in the Old Testament to determine genuine prophets from false prophets so evaluation was needed in the New Testament.
The critical need for evaluating New Testament prophets should also be understood in light of Jesus' warning in Matthew 24:11. "Many false prophets" He said, would arise and deceive people.
In light of the promised return of prophecy, as seen in Joel 2:28-32 and Acts 2:17-21, the prophetic Holy Spirit had been poured out on the people of God once again. While not all in the New Testament era could claim the prophetic gift (because of God's sovereign distribution of spiritual gifts; 1 Cor. 12:4-31, esp. v. 29), a much larger group of potential prophets became possible because of the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost ("I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy," Acts 2:17; cf. Joel 2:28).
With a larger number of genuine prophets, the potential for false prophets and prophecies increased. This expanded sphere of prophetic activity increased the need for care in discerning true prophets from false prophets. As noted in the previous article in this series, the early church struggled with a growing wave of false prophecy, especially during the latter half of the first century. "Many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1; cf. 2 Pet. 2:1-3; 2 John 10-11; 3 John 9-10; Jude 8-23). Such false prophesying, with its accompanying false profession, would have created confusion and uncertainty in some areas of the church regarding the truths of Christianity. Eventually this wave of false prophecy led in the second century A.D. to the prophetic crisis known as Montanism.
The marked increase in the number of prophets caused the early church to exhibit a cautious attitude in accepting the prophecies of those claiming the prophetic gift. Need for caution is especially seen during the period of the formation of the doctrine of the first-century church. Such care is also evident by the fact that, along with apostles, New Testament prophets served a vitally important role in the foundation of the early church, according to Ephesians 2:20. Through the apostles and New Testament prophets, the first-century church received its revelatory/doctrinal information and guidance (cf. Eph. 3:5-10; 4:7-16) so that the church could reach maturity and understanding in the faith (4:12-14).
Paul's stipulations in 1 Corinthians 12-14 for evaluating prophets and their prophecies were based on Old Testament admonitions for such evaluation, Jesus' warning about false prophets, and the increased number of potential prophets. Just as the Old Testament prophets were to be examined, so too the New Testament prophets were to be evaluated.
The increased potential for false prophets created the need Paul attempted to meet in 1 Corinthians 14:29-31. The larger the group of prophets, the more potential there was for the abuse of prophecy by those who were not New Testament prophets. Just as false prophets of old opposed the divinely chosen leaders and spokesmen (prophets) of Yahweh in ancient Israel, so false prophets and teachers challenged apostolic authority and doctrine (Gal. 2:4-5; 2 Tim. 2:18; Jude 3). Such false prophetic activity in the early church pointed up the need to heed the Old Testament admonition to evaluate prophets. Just as the Old Testament commanded the theocratic community to evaluate all alleged Old Testament prophets, so Paul gave the Christian community a corresponding admonition to evaluate all so-called New Testament prophets. As Saucy remarks, "Some evaluation of the content of Old Testament prophecy was required even as Paul instructed in the church. To be sure with the increase of prophetic activity in the church with the coming of the Spirit under the new covenant, evaluations might be more frequent. But the principle does not appear to be different than that in the Old Testament."
First Corinthians 12:1-3 sheds additional light on the situation addressed in 1 Corinthians 14:29. Apparently false prophets had preached that Jesus was "accursed" (12:3) even though they professed to be true prophets. The person making such a startling statement must have been a professed Christian. Otherwise his statement would not have been tolerated in a Christian assembly and would not have been attributed to the Holy Spirit, as apparently claimed ("No one speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus is accursed,'" v. 3). In the face of such starkly erroneous prophesying, Paul warned the congregation to evaluate each prophecy carefully to ensure that a genuine prophet was speaking. Some recognized voice was needed to declare that the Holy Spirit was not the source of such a statement and that the person voicing it was a false prophet. First Corinthians 14:29 does not necessarily mean that established prophets had to be verified continually. Yet the general rule that any potential prophet needed to be scrutinized by other prophets is stipulated. The evaluative process laid down by Paul emphasizes the need for careful analysis of any prophet who claimed to speak by the Spirit of God. According to 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, even false prophets had potential to feign a true prophecy (cf. Deut. 13:2). So Paul encouraged a continued vigil. The regular ministry of prophets was to ensure the genuineness of prophets and prophecies as a safeguard against doctrinal heresies.
Paul also laid down the guideline that genuine prophets and prophecy are to be in agreement with apostolic doctrine. Since apostolic doctrine and true prophets have their source in God, one evidence that a prophecy was genuine would be its agreement with apostolic truth (1 Cor. 14:37-38; cf. Gal. 1:8-9). While false prophets challenged apostolic authority, the true prophet would recognize Paul's words and commandments as coming directly from the Lord Jesus Christ. Any alleged prophet opposing apostolic standards and elevating himself to the role of God's only spokesman (1 Cor. 14:36) was to be recognized as false and his authority rejected (v. 38).
In summary, the early church, in evaluating prophets, was heeding the warning of both the Old Testament and Jesus. Such a careful evaluation also reflected the increased sphere of prophetic activity in the New Testament era.
Empowered By The Spirit Of God
Prophets in both the Old and New Testaments were empowered by the Holy Spirit in the exercise of their gift. An intimate relationship existed between the Holy Spirit and the prophet of God. Old Testament prophets prophesied as a direct result of the empowerment and influence of the Spirit of Yahweh (see, e.g., Zech. 7:12). The Spirit of Yahweh is the Spirit of prophecy (see, e.g., Neh. 9:30).
According to Peter, the Holy Spirit was the Source of the prophet's inspiration: "No prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Pet. 1:21). As such, the Holy Spirit also guaranteed the accuracy of the prophecies because He was the prime Motivator of the prophet (2 Pet. 1:19; 2 Tim. 3:16). Because the Holy Spirit guided and guarded the men involved in giving prophecies, these predictions were accurate down to the very words (Matt. 5:18; John 10:35; 2 Tim. 3:16).
The Holy Spirit's empowering of prophets continued into the New Testament era. The coming of the prophetic gift on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:17-21 was a direct result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of prophecy ("I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy"). The prophet Agabus predicted a coming famine through the agency of the Holy Spirit and, as a result, the prophecy was accurately fulfilled (Acts 11:28). Again Agabus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, warned Paul about his fate if he should enter Jerusalem (21:11). His prophecy was accurately fulfilled (21:27-22:29; 28:17).
In addressing the abuse of the spiritual gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12:3, Paul stressed that "no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus is accursed.'" No one who prophesies under the power of the Holy Spirit will issue such erroneous prophecy. The Holy Spirit is the one who guards genuine prophecies. This is in keeping with the Old Testament teaching that a prophet was considered false if his prophecies did not come true (Deut. 18:22) or if they led away from worship of the Lord (13:1-2).
Paul made known that early church prophets, along with the apostles, received the important revelation of Gentile inclusion in the church (Eph. 3:5-10). This revelation came through the Holy Spirit.
In 1 John 4:1-3, Christians are urged to "test" the source behind the prophet to determine whether the source is from God or is demonically influenced (v. 3). According to John, the true prophet brings forth genuine prophecy which has its source in God, while the sign of a false prophet is false prophecy. Again the Old Testament admonition to test prophets is reflected.
The Holy Spirit maintained an intimate relationship with prophecy in both the Old and New Testament economies. Because the Holy Spirit is the Source behind the prophet of God in both, the Spirit serves as the sovereign Guardian of the accuracy of prophecies from God (cf. Heb. 6:18).
Prophetic Voice for the Community
Prophets in the Old Testament served as the voice of Yahweh to the theocratic community of Israel. They were recipients of revelations directly from Yahweh, which revelations they proclaimed to the nation (Isa. 6:8-13; Jer. 1:5-10; Ezek. 2:1-10).
Just as the Old Testament prophets served as the prophetic voice of communication and instruction from Yahweh, so New Testament prophets functioned in the same capacity. Ephesians 2:20 points out that New Testament prophets too functioned as prophetic voices for the believing community. However, this verse is not without interpretive problems.
In the phrase "foundation of the apostles and prophets", does the word "prophets" refer to prophets of the Old Testament or the New Testament? Some commentators say it refers to the Old Testament prophets. Two arguments are usually cited in support of this view. (1) The New Testament apostles added their testimonies to that of the Old Testament prophets in the revelation they transmitted concerning Christ. (2) The metaphor of a building foundation suggests that Gentiles are now being added to Old Testament Jews, as part of the same spiritual building. A similar metaphor is seen in Romans 11:17-24.
Other commentators understand "prophets" to refer to New Testament prophets. Certain arguments militate against the former view and support the view of New Testament prophets. (1) The word "apostles" comes before "prophets." If Old Testament prophets were in view, "prophets" should have preceded "apostles". (2) Ephesians 3:5 relates that the mystery of Gentile inclusion was not previously made known as it has now been made known ("to His holy apostles and prophets"). The prophets are clearly perceived as the inspired contemporaries of the apostles, enjoying similar revelations of truth from the same Holy Spirit. This mystery was not revealed to Old Testament prophets, for it is only "now" in the Church Age that this mystery has been revealed (3:10; Col. 1:26). The nuvn in Ephesians 3:10 and Colossians 1:26 marks a contrast between the two ages. This mystery was unknown to former generations, but it is now revealed to the apostles and New Testament prophets. (3) The phrase in Ephesians 4:11 that Christ gave "some apostles and some prophets" also supports the view that New Testament prophets are meant in 2:20 and 3:5. In Ephesians 4:11 the New Testament prophets are seen as a special class who ranked next to the apostles. (4) The context of Ephesians 2:20 also favors the view that New Testament prophets are meant. If Old Testament prophets were meant, it is difficult to account for Christ being the Cornerstone, that is, the first stone laid in the foundation. Christ, as the New Covenant Mediator, is in view in verses 14-18, and He came in that role long after the Old Testament prophets. The fact that a cornerstone of a building is laid before any other stones suggests the chronological order of first, Jesus, then the apostles, and then New Testament prophets. (5) The "new man," a reference to the uniting of Jew and Gentile into one body, the church, is completely distinct from the old order, which entailed enmity between Jews and Gentiles because of the Law (Eph. 2:15).
Hence it seems probable that "prophets" refers to New Testament prophets. They, along with the apostles, received the revelation of the mystery of the church in the present age, which had been hidden in days past (Eph. 3:5; 4:11).
Another important issue pertaining to Ephesians 2:20 is how the phrase "of the apostles and prophets" modifies "foundation." Is it a subjective genitive, "the foundation which has been laid by the apostles and prophets," or is it an appositional genitive, "the foundation which consists of the apostles and prophets"? In the first view "foundation" refers not to the apostles and prophets themselves, but to their preaching and teaching, or their activity of receiving and proclaiming the gospel, or their ruling and guiding activity in the New Testament church.
However, the following may be noted in response to the first view. (1) The wording in Ephesians 2:20 requires that the building consists entirely of persons. This can be seen by the fact that the plural participle "having been built upon" most naturally refers, not to the house which is built, but to "you" as implied by εστε ("you are") in the previous verse (v. 19). Thus the Gentile converts are added to the foundation of the apostles and prophets. This can be further demonstrated by the fact that Christ is best understood as the chief "cornerstone," the primary Stone of the foundation. Therefore the metaphor in Ephesians 2:20 points to components of the dwelling place of God (v. 22): the Gentiles, the Jewish apostles and New Testament prophets, and Christ. All these elements are individuals who are joined together in a new house.
(2) The metaphor of a living, growing house (v. 21) in which God dwells (v. 22) fits with a picture of a house consisting of persons, but it fits poorly with the picture of a house having components that are impersonal teachings or activities (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4-8). No explicit mention is made in the context of teaching activity or Christian doctrine or any other impersonal factor.
(3) Passages cited as parallels to Ephesians 2:20 do not actually support the view that the foundation is laid by the apostles and prophets (viz., 1 Cor. 3:10-11; Rom. 15:20), for they are not true parallels. In 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, Paul stated directly that he laid the foundation, but in Ephesians 2:20 he did not say this. First Corinthians 3 discusses building works on the foundation (Christ) in light of the Judgment Seat, whereas Ephesians 2 contains no mention of building works on a foundation. The foundation in Romans 15:20 is that of developing new local churches, but in Ephesians 2:20 the universal church is in view.
The second major view of the genitive phrase in Ephesians 2:20 is that it is appositional, that is, the foundation consists of the apostles and New Testament prophets. This seems to be the more natural interpretation, for it fits well in the immediate context of 2:19-21. As stated earlier, persons are in view in the formation of the building: the Gentiles, the apostles and prophets, and Christ. Here the metaphor expresses the fact that the church's foundation, the apostles and New Testament prophets, needed to be correctly aligned with Christ, the chief Cornerstone. This view also makes sense in the context of Ephesians 4:11, where the apostles and New Testament prophets are seen as gifted men given to the church as its "foundation" (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28).
Ephesians 2:20, then, points to the strategic, foundational role played by New Testament prophets in the formation of the church. The prophets, in association with the apostles, held the important status of helping lay the church's foundation. This would indicate the high degree of prestige enjoyed by New Testament prophets in the Christian community. Their ranking in the list of gifted persons in 1 Corinthians 12:28 places them second only to the apostles in usefulness to the body of Christ. Moreover, Paul urged his readers to desire prophecy above the other gifts (cf. 1 Cor. 14:1).
While several apostles received divine revelation (e.g., Paul, John, and Peter), New Testament prophets also received revelation and gave immediate and temporal advice to local congregations. That is, many New Testament prophets gave oral rather than canonical revelation. Since, however, such canonical books as Luke-Acts, Mark, and Hebrews (Heb. 2:3-4) were written by nonapostles and their books were canonically received, most likely the New Testament prophetic gift was involved in their composition. Apostles also probably received their inspired and authoritative revelations through exercising of the same prophetic gift exhibited by New Testament prophets like Agabus.
Much as Old Testament prophets functioned as the prophetic voice in the theocratic community, receiving direct revelations, so apostles and New Testament prophets were vitally involved in the formative, revelatory period of the early church. Prophets were vehicles for revelation from God and held a high profile among early Christians for this reason.
The fundamental continuity of Old Testament and New Testament prophecy was demonstrated in several ways in the New Testament. As such, it stands in direct contradiction to recent attempts to bifurcate the New Testament prophetic gift into two distinct forms such as authoritative apostolic prophecy and nonauthoritative congregational prophecy. The case for nonauthoritative "congregational" prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and elsewhere in Scripture incorrectly posits a strong discontinuity between Old Testament and New Testament prophecy. Such a view does injustice to the fact that New Testament prophecy is founded on and has a significant continuity with the Old Testament prophetic phenomena and experience. Such a dichotomy also results in the assertion that New Testament prophecy contained fallible revelation, which in itself is a contradiction in terms. In light of this, the third article in this series will deal with the hypothesis of Wayne Grudem, who offers the most current attempt at justifying two forms of New Testament prophecy.
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Copyright (C) 1992 by F. David Farnell
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Bibliotheca Sacra / October - December 1992
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