Is the Gift of Prophecy for Today?

Part 4 (of 4 parts):

"When Will the Gift of Prophecy Cease?"

F. David Farnell [ 1 ]
Associate Professor of New Testament
The Master´s Seminary, Sun Valley, California

In discussing the cessation of New Testament prophecy, two essential areas should be examined. First, prophecy's miraculous nature must be stressed. Because prophecy is a miraculous gift mediated by the Holy Spirit, any attempt at describing or defining the gift without proper consideration of this element may result in a marked misunderstanding of the nature and operation of prophecy. Current novel attempts at defining prophecy impugn the miraculous nature of New Testament prophecy. True New Testament prophets declared Spirit-inspired messages that were fully authoritative and completely accurate-not "merely human words" that could be "mistaken" or accepted and rejected by the congregation on a "take it or leave it" basis.

Second, strategic arguments demonstrate that the gift of prophecy, like the other miraculous gifts of apostleship and tongues, has ceased. The gift of prophecy played a vital role in the foundational aspects of the church. With the church firmly established through the ministry of the first-century apostles and New Testament prophets, prophecy passed from the scene.

The Miraculous Nature of New Testament Prophecy

In both the Old and New Testaments, prophecy's essential nature is that of a miraculous gift involving the direct reception of revelatory information from God to the prophet. This miraculous nature of prophecy can be demonstrated in several ways. The following facts illustrate the supernatural character of the prophetic gift.

The Prophet as Spokesperson for the Lord

The chief function of the prophet (profhvth") or of prophecy (profhteiva) was not necessarily found in the element of prediction of future events. Though prediction was an important factor in the prophetic role, the predictive aspect is considered a later development in the significance of the word group.

A primary function of the prophet in both extrabiblical and biblical usage was to proclaim or announce the will of God to the people. As such, the prophet was the "immediately inspired spokesman" for God. Since every prophet declared something that was not his own, the synonym that comes closest to the primary function of the prophet is the Greek word kh'rux (verb, khruvssw), for the kh'rux also declared what he had received from another. Thus the profhvth" occupies a mediatorial role, for he was both the mouthpiece of and spokesman for God. In that role a prophet had the potential to claim much authority in a believing community, particularly since he announced the will of God to His people.

This primary function of the biblical prophet as spokesman or mouthpiece for the Lord also underscores the essentially miraculous nature of both Old and New Testament prophecy.

That is, the basic nature of the genuine biblical prophet was someone who, through the inspired prophetic state, was in direct contact with God in the performance of his gift in a way that others were not. Prophecy's miraculous nature centers strategically in the supernatural reception of revelation from God to the prophet. Importantly, such a gift had to be completely miraculous in character, for if that gift did not involve a Spirit-mediated, miraculous element, the community could not guard itself against doctrinal confusion and error.

Prophecy and Revelation

As noted in the second article in this series, prophecy is a sovereignly bestowed charisma through which revelations from God occur (1 Cor. 2:10; 12:10; 13:9; 14:6, 29). The same gift of prophecy was active whether the revelation involved canonical matters or the impartation of immediate guidance to the church (e.g., the writing of the Book of Revelation [Rev. 1:10] or the command of the Holy Spirit through church prophets to send out Barnabas and Saul [Acts 13:1-4]). Also the same gift was involved whether that revelation came from apostles who possessed the gift of prophecy or from nonapostolic New Testament prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 1 Cor. 14:29-31). For this reason prophecy involved speech based on direct reception of revelatory information from God through the prophet(s) which, in turn, guided the people of God in matters of faith and practice.

Furthermore the revelation did not have to entail exclusively predictive elements to be miraculous. Such a statement does not minimize the predictive characteristic exhibited in prophecy, for prophecy is frequently predictive, but it reduces prophecy to its primary characteristic of Spirit-inspired speech based on direct revelatory communication from God involving information which often could not be known on an ordinary, human basis. Even prediction involves the communication of divine truth which could not be known by ordinary means, that is, supernatural communication between God and the prophet.

Inclusion of Gentiles in the church (Eph. 3:5-10) illustrates this point. This concept, revealed through the apostles and New Testament prophets to the church, is primarily doctrinal and does not necessarily encompass prediction. The revelatory nature of Paul's message did not involve solely predictive elements but also reception of the true nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ and justification by faith (Acts 9:3-6, 20; Gal. 1:12, 16-17). In Acts 13:1-3, God revealed His will through the prophets regarding sending Barnabas and Saul on their first Gentile mission. In Matthew 26:67-68 (cf. Mark 14:65 and Luke 22:64), the Jews sarcastically asked Jesus to prophesy who hit Him, thus indicating supernatural discernment but not necessarily requiring prediction. In John 4:19 the woman at the well perceived Jesus to be a prophet, not on the basis of prediction, but because of His miraculous knowledge of her marital history. Luke 7:39 indicates that the Pharisees considered a prophet to have supernatural discernment of the true character of people. In 1 Corinthians 14:29-31 prophets are linked with the miraculous ability to determine true prophets from false prophets rather than merely setting forth predictive prophecies (cf. 12:10). Hence the miraculous nature of prophecy has its basis in the reception of revelation. Such revelation frequently involved the reception of information that exceeded normal human cognitive functions. As spokespersons for God, biblical prophets in both Testaments distinguished themselves as prophets primarily by the possession of a supernatural ability to receive revelations directly from God. Therefore prophecy, reduced to its basic function, is Spirit-inspired utterance based on the direct, miraculous reception of divine revelation.

Another important point about the miraculous nature of prophecy must be addressed, namely, wrongly equating prophecy with mere comfort, admonishment, or encouragement. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 14:3 in which Paul says that "one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation." However, Paul was not defining prophesy but, in context, "merely uses the fact that prophecy is understandable and therefore results in edification, exhortation, and encouragement." Since prophecy, in contrast to tongues, contributed directly to the understanding of the congregation, it had an edifying effect on the whole group, including the speaker (1 Cor. 14:4). Godet notes,

The conclusion is often drawn from this verse, that since to prophesy is to edify, exhort, comfort, whoever edifies, exhorts, comforts, merits according to Paul the title prophet. This reasoning is as just as it would be to say: He who runs moves his legs; therefore, whoever moves his legs, runs; or, to take a more nearly related example: He who speaks to God in a tongue, speaks to God; and therefore whoever speaks to God, is a glossalalete. No, certainly; one may edify, comfort, encourage, without deserving the title of prophet or prophetess.

These latter concepts are better viewed as the results of prophecy and not as references to the content of prophecy. Hence the result of prophecy was edification, exhortation, and comfort.

For example the Book of Revelation is labeled "revelation" (ajpokavluyi") and also as "prophecy" (profhteiva") that John the prophet received in the prophetic state (ejgenovmhn ejn pneuvmati, Rev. 1:10) directly from Jesus Christ or angelic ministers (1:1). Brown notes, "Although the words parakaleand paraklsis do not occur, the letters to the seven churches (chs. 2 and 3) and indeed the whole work constitutes a series of messages of consolation and exhortation. The work carries the authority of the exalted Christ, speaking through the Spirit (Rev. 22:18 f.)." The vast portion of the Book of Revelation exhibits the miraculous element of predictive prophecy in which John was transported to the future (chaps. 4-22). Even in the messages to the seven churches, which are considered "historical" in nature (i.e., chaps. 2-3 written to seven historical churches-"the things which are" [cf. 1:19]), miraculous elements predominate. For instance supernatural knowledge of the spiritual conditions of these churches emphasizes the miraculous nature of these messages (e.g., Rev. 2:2-6, 9-10, 19-28; 3:2, 4-5, 7-12, 15-18), which brought comfort to some churches (e.g., Smyrna, 2:8-11, and Philadelphia, 3:7-13) and admonishment to others (2:10; 3:14-19). Prediction also forms an important part in these messages to the churches. Smyrna was warned of impending persecution ("you will have tribulation ten days"); in Thyatira the false prophetess Jezebel would be cast on a bed of affliction and go into great tribulation for her wicked deeds; Philadelphia was promised deliverance "from the hour of testing which is about to come upon the whole world" (3:10) and those of the "synagogue of Satan" would be made to bow down at their feet (3:9).

Similarly Paul miraculously prophesied (predicted) in Acts 27:22-26 that not one life would be lost in the shipwreck on his journey to Rome. Not only did this constitute a marvelous vindication of Paul as God's prophet to the unbelievers who guarded him, but it also comforted and encouraged those who, along with Paul (e.g., Luke who wrote "we" in 27:27, 29), faced the ordeal.

In light of this, whether the information involved elements of prediction or resulted in edification, comfort, or encouragement does not militate against its essence as being the miraculous impartation of revelation to the prophet by the Holy Spirit which, in turn, is proclaimed to members of the Christian community. Therefore it is unlikely that a proclamation made apart from immediate revelation may strictly be termed "prophecy."

The Ecstatic State of the Prophet

The ecstatic or prophetic state of the prophet also demonstrates the unique revelatory role of the prophet as a spokesperson for the Lord. In the Old Testament certain stereotyped phrases reveal the prophetic state. For example "the Holy Spirit entered into" the prophet and that prophet received revelation (e.g., Ezek. 2:2; 8:3; 11:5-12, 24; 12:1), or "the hand of the Lord" was on the prophets when prophetic communication was received (e.g., 3:14, 22; 8:1; 33:22; 37:1). Sometimes the phrase "the Spirit of God came upon" is used to describe the revelatory state (Num. 24:2; 1 Sam. 10:10; 11:6; 19:20; 2 Chron. 15:1; Isa. 61:1), or the phrase "the word of the Lord came to" is used (1 Kings 19:9; 1 Sam. 15:10; 2 Sam. 24:11; Jonah 1:1; Hag. 1:1; 2:1, 20; Zech. 7:1; 8:1). Another phrase is "filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord" (Mic. 3:8).

New Testament prophets exhibited a similar prophetic state. In the state of ecstasy (e[kstasi") Peter received revelation regarding the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles like Cornelius into the fellowship of the church (Acts 10:10; cf. ejkstavsei in 11:15). Paul related that in the ecstatic state (ejkstavsei) he was warned to depart from Jerusalem because of the hostility of the Jews and was commissioned to be an apostle to the Gentiles (22:17; cf. 9:26-30). John was "in the Spirit" on the Lord's day (Rev. 1:10, ejgenovmhn ejn pneuvmati) and because of this prophetic state he was enabled to receive the contents of the Book of Revelation (cf. 4:2, ejgenovmhn ejn pneuvmati; and 17:3 and 21:10, kaiV ajphvnegkevn me ejn pneuvmati). "Through the Spirit" (ejshvmanen diaV tou' pneuvmato") Peter predicted the coming famine during the reign of Claudius (Acts 11:28). In the prophetic state Paul received "visions" (ojptasiva") and "revelations" (ajpokaluvyei") from the Lord (2 Cor. 12:1). Genuine New Testament prophets who were in the prophetic state (ejn pneuvmati qeou') were guarded from erroneous revelatory statements because of the intimate ministry of the Spirit of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:3). The Holy Spirit exercised sovereign control over the true prophet's prophetic activity. These verses also serve to stress the special relationship the Holy Spirit maintains to the prophetic state, which demonstrates the miraculous and rational nature that such experiences entailed for both Old and New Testament prophets.

In summary, prophecy was a Spirit-mediated miraculous gift. Several factors demonstrate this. First, the primary characteristic involved was Spirit-motivated speech centering in direct reception of revelation from God. Without such revelation, prophecy does not function. Second, supernatural discernment, insight, and knowledge were frequently involved in conveying information that could not have been obtained by ordinary human means. Third, prophecy often involved prediction. Prediction was a vital element in biblical prophecy in contrast to secular examples of profhteiva. Fourth, edification is better understood as the effect of prophecy on the listener rather than as its content. Fifth, the Spirit-mediated prophetic state of the prophet reinforced the supernatural element involved. This miraculous element of prophecy is frequently neglected in determining the meaning, nature, and function of the gift.

A Comparison of Prophecy to Related Gifts

A comparison of gifts related to the gift of prophecy is also needed since erroneous equations of the prophetic gift are made because of failure to give due recognition to the miraculous nature of prophecy.

The Prophet and the Teacher

Prophets and teachers are frequently mentioned as the most significant proclaimers of the Word in the church (Acts 13:1; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11; Rom. 12:6). Like teachers, prophets mediated knowledge, so that one could learn from them (1 Cor. 14:31; Rev. 2:20; cf. Didache 11.10-12). Prophets instructed the church regarding the meaning of Scripture, and through revelations they gave information about the future.

However, prophecy is not the same as teaching. Because it was based on direct divine revelations, the ministry of the prophet was more spontaneous than that of the teacher. Teachers, on the other hand, preserved and interpreted already existing Christian tradition, including relevant Old Testament passages, the sayings of Jesus, and traditional beliefs of earlier Christian teaching. Furthermore while the teacher considers the past and gives direction for the present on the basis of what took place or what was said previously, the prophet looked toward the future and guided the path of the believing community forward.

In the New Testament the presence or absence of revelation distinguishes prophecy from teaching. Prophecy always depended on a revelation from God, but by contrast no human speech act which is called a didachv or didaskaliva ("teaching") done by a didavskalo" ("teacher") or described by the verb didavskw ("to teach") is ever said to be based on ajpokavluyi" ("revelation"). Furthermore, no ajpokavluyi" in the New Testament is ever said to result in a "teaching" of one man to another. Instead teaching is put in contrast to divine "revelation." Teaching is simply an exposition or application of Scripture (Acts 15:35; 18:11, 25; Rom. 2:20-21; Col. 3:16; Heb. 5:12) or a repetition and explanation of apostolic instruction (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 14:17; 2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Tim. 2:2; 3:10).

The Prophet and the Preacher

Some commentators assert that prophecy is essentially another name for preaching. An example of this is Redpath, who asserts that prophecy "is the gift of the man who in the name of the Lord and in the power of the Spirit is able to speak with authority from the Book to the day in which he lives." MacArthur distinguishes between revelatory prophecy, which has ceased, and prophecy today, which he defines as "the ability to proclaim truth powerfully." Perhaps this association has been built up because of the "forthtelling" aspect in the prophetic activity of the prophet as the spokesman for God.

However, to equate preaching with the spiritual gift of prophecy is fallacious. Such an equation is also quite artificial. While preaching is essentially a merging of the gifts of teaching and exhortation, prophecy has the primary elements of prediction and revelation. As Friedrich notes, "All prophecy rests on revelation, 1 C[or.] 14:30. The prophet does not declare what he has taken from tradition or what he has thought up himself. He declares what has been revealed to him." Friedrich's further comment is relevant: "Whereas teachers expound Scripture, cherish the tradition about Jesus and explain the fundamentals of the catechism, the prophets, not bound by Scripture or tradition, speak to the congregation on the basis of revelations." Therefore, since the preacher is not in contact with God as was the prophet, the preacher is not the modern equivalent of a prophet. While both preacher and prophet proclaim, the reception of direct revelation from God is the crucial essence of the prophetic gift that qualitatively separates it from other forms of proclamation and preaching. Furthermore, while preaching includes teaching, the ministry of the prophet was more spontaneous, being based on direct divine revelation.

The Prophet and the Evangelist

Like the prophet, an evangelist (eujaggelisthv") utilizes proclamation. Similarly, prophecy is not addressed solely to Christians but may also have an evangelistic value for unbelievers (cf. 1 Cor. 14:24-25). This evangelistic value of New Testament prophecy is also seen in its Old Testament counterpart (e.g., Jonah 3:5). Yet important differences in the two gifts mark out their distinctiveness. Evangelism is addressed primarily to unbelievers who have not yet heard or accepted the message concerning Jesus Christ, while prophecy has its primary focus on believers in the congregation (1 Cor. 14:3, 29-37). The content of both gifts must also be distinguished. The evangelist proclaimed the content of the gospel, while prophecy is based on the miraculous impartation of immediate revelation which could not be known through ordinary human means (the "secrets of his heart are disclosed," 1Cor. 14:25).

The Prophet and Knowledge

First Corinthians 13:8-12 deals with prophecy and gnw'si" ("knowledge"). They are similar in that both are charismata of the Spirit, both are concerned with knowledge of mysteries, and both are fragmentary rather than definite or perfect (13:9). In contrast, however, gnw'si" is not superior to prophecy, but prophecy is the supreme gift of grace. Furthermore they differ in the way the knowledge of mysteries is attained and in the use to which this knowledge is put. Gnw'si" is a rational gift of the Holy Spirit which deals with the ability to grasp the logical nature and relations of truths revealed, whereas prophecy rests on direct revelation. Furthermore, while gnw'si" is individualistic, prophecy is by its very meaning and nature concerned with proclaiming to others.

Arguments for the Cessation of Prophecy

The temporary nature of miraculous gifts as espoused by many cessationists is based on theological deductions made from certain New Testament passages. Though many verses are sometimes used (e.g., Rom. 15:18-19; 2 Cor. 12:12; Rev. 22:18), two prominent passages will be discussed: Ephesians 2:20 ( ejpiV tw'/ qemelivw/ tw'n ajpostovlwn kaiV profhtw'n - the foundational nature of New Testament prophecy) and 1 Corinthians 13:10 (o{tan deV e[lqh/ toV tevleion - the temporal nature of New Testament prophecy). The theological argumentation for the cessation of prophecy also is enforced by a comparison of the biblical data regarding prophecy with current practices of so-called "prophecy" exhibited among noncessationist groups. Also in the same way Old Testament prophecy ceased and the canon of the Old Testament was closed, New Testament prophecy reasonably may be considered to have ceased following that same analogy.

Ephesians 2:20

An important verse arguing for the cessation of such gifts as New Testament prophecy is Ephesians 2:20. In verses 19-21 Paul, employing the temple structure as a metaphor to describe the church, distinguished between apostles and prophets on the one hand and individual Christians on the other by relating them to one another as a foundation is related to the walls resting on it (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4-8). Articles two and three in this series have demonstrated that Paul portrayed the apostles and New Testament prophets as comprising the foundation of the church (appositional genitive) with Jesus Christ as the chief Cornerstone. The entire church is said to be built on the foundation of those apostles and prophets and on no one else.

Ephesians 2:20 clearly refers to the universal church, not to some local church or mission field. Paul's predominant usage of ejkklhsiva elsewhere in Ephesians demonstrates this. In 3:5 he wrote that the apostles and prophets were closely related to the foundational revelation that Gentiles as well as Jews would be united in the one universal body of Christ (cf. v. 10). He also used this universal sense in 3:21. In 5:23-27 the illustration of the husband and wife shows Christ's relationship to the universal church. This universal church is described as "His body" (v. 30) and also as a mystery (v. 32), referring back to 3:5. Paul's words therefore cannot be properly applied to local or national churches throughout this age, inasmuch as Paul's representation of the church throughout this passage and elsewhere describes the church in the most universal and pervasive of terms (e.g., "God's people" and "God's household" in 2:19). Therefore Paul was referring to the foundation of the universal church in Ephesians 2:20. This foundation, by implication and by its very nature, can be laid only once since foundations are necessarily laid only once at the beginning of any structure.

Ephesians 3:5-10 helps interpret 2:20, for it deals with the revelatory impact the apostles and New Testament prophets had in the church. From 3:5 it becomes clear that apostles and New Testament prophets were of primary importance as vehicles of revelation, thereby providing the foundation for the church: the mystery (musthvrion) of Jewish and Gentile inclusion in the universal body of Christ, the church (3:9-10). This mystery was disclosed to the whole church, not to just a local congregation (1:8-10, 17, 18) through the apostles and prophets, of whom Paul was one (2:20). Paul said this revelation about Gentiles being included in the church had not been made known previously (3:5) but "has now" (wJ" nu'n) been revealed to the apostles and prophets and is contained in canonical revelation (e.g., Ephesians). This mystery was fully revealed to the body of Christ by the end of the apostolic era through proclamation (as evidenced in the Book of Acts and epistles like Ephesians). This first generation laid the foundation through the reception of such revelation. This can be seen by the wJ" nu'n, which contrasts the former age, in which people did not know of Gentile inclusion, with the present time of the writing of Ephesians, and also by the use of the culminative aorist indicative ajpekaluvfqh, signifying the attainment of effort or process. Once that revelation had been made, it no longer needed to be given by the Spirit again since it was proclaimed by the apostles, particularly Paul. Once a mystery is revealed, it is no longer a mystery and does not need to be revealed again.

Furthermore apostleship in Ephesians 2:20 must correspond to a narrow definition, being restricted to first-century apostles, especially since this verse is related to the apostles of 3:5-10 and the mystery of Gentile inclusion in the church is no longer being revealed. The direct relationship of 3:5-10 with 2:20 makes it most likely that the apostles mentioned in 2:20 were those commissioned directly by Christ, who received such important revelations (Acts 10; 2 Cor. 12:1-2; Gal. 1:11-12) and were the primary instruments in the spread of the gospel in the first century (to the Jews, Acts 2; to the Samaritans, Acts 8; to the Gentiles, Acts 10; and as far as Rome in the case of Paul, Acts 13-28). The term qemevlio" ("foundation") is a key term, for the foundation was obviously established during the first century when apostles, as eyewitnesses of Christ's ministry and commissioned by Him, were still alive (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-2; 15:8; 2 Cor. 12:12).

Moreover, the prophetic gift was closely associated with the gift of apostleship. Prophets are found alongside apostles in the New Testament as playing a special role in laying the foundation (Eph. 2:20) and in receiving revelation (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11; Rev. 18:20). This close association of the two gifts is verified by the Didache, Ignatius, and the Muratorian Fragment. To second-century writers, apostleship was a thing of the past. If the first century marked the end of the apostolic gift, it is probable that it marked the end of the prophetic gift also.

Since Paul was referring to the universal church in Ephesians 2:20 and the apostles and prophets laid the church's foundation by receiving and transmitting revelation (3:5), the strong implication is that once the church was established, the gift would be discontinued. By its very nature, a foundation cannot be continuously relaid. This verse clearly implies that Paul viewed revelation as occurring during a specific, nonrepeatable era, with the church of subsequent ages commanded to discover its foundation in those apostles and prophets, or more specifically, in their doctrine as it is recorded in the Scriptures. Since the passage labels prophecy in itself as a foundational gift, the inevitable conclusion is that New Testament prophecy ceased along with the gift of apostleship.

The major objection to this reasoning is that it is a theological deduction from the text and not something the passage explicitly states. Mallone argues, "The intention of this verse is not to say that these gifts have ceased but only that a gift exercised must be in harmony with the instruction of the founding apostles and prophets." In reply, it has already been demonstrated that Ephesians 2:20 signifies that the foundation consists of the apostles and prophets (appositional genitive) and does not refer to their teaching activities (subjective genitive). Since they are the foundation, the building illustration clearly seems to indicate the idea of the cessation of such gifts. While it is true that all teaching and instruction must be in harmony with that of the apostles and prophets, the central thrust of the illustration is the foundational role of such individuals in the church's formation and, as such, would indicate the temporary character of such offices by the very nature of the illustration. As already noted, once the foundation has been laid by the apostles and prophets of the first century it does not need repeated formation by others.

Some may respond by saying that perhaps the definitions of apostle and prophet are too restricted, and that other apostles and prophets may be a part of the superstructure besides those referred to by Paul here in Ephesians. True, apostleship can have both a general and a limited meaning. In a general sense, the word ajpovstolo" ("apostle") means "one who is sent" (from ajpostevllw, "to send"), or "a messenger." The Latin term is equivalent to the word "missionary." Hence in a general sense every Christian is a missionary or an apostle, because he has been sent into this world to render a testimony for Christ. Epaphroditus illustrates this idea, for the word "apostle" is used of him (Phil. 2:25).

However, in the specialized sense of the gift of apostleship, the word ajpovstolo" refers to the office of apostleship (Acts 1:20-26). Paul apparently had this specialized sense in mind in Ephesians 2:20. The apostles, like Paul and the Twelve, were a distinct group far different from those designated by any general usage of the term. The first-century apostles and New Testament prophets received special revelations and participated in the foundation (qemevlio") of the church (Eph. 3:5). Once that foundation had been laid by those in the first century who possessed the gifts of apostleship and prophecy, no further need to relay the foundation by subsequent generations is implied. Therefore no ground exists for seeing need for any further apostles and prophets since they have fulfilled their primary purpose and the church builds on that foundation as Ephesians 2:20 naturally implies. The burden of proof for seeing a general class of apostles and prophets continuing in the superstructure must rest on those asserting that such a class exists today. Furthermore such contentions go far beyond the purpose of Paul's illustration in the context and rest on tenuous definitions.

First Corinthians 13:8-13

Much of the controversy surrounding spiritual gifts, particularly the miraculous gifts like prophecy, tongues, and knowledge, has concentrated on 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 as providing a crux interpretum regarding the continuance or cessation of the gift. Both sides have centered on this passage to argue either for or against the cessation of the prophetic gift.

All groups would agree that 1 Corinthians 13:10 indicates that gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and knowledge are temporary. That such gifts will cease is not at issue so much as when those gifts will cease and what particular time is being indicated by the phrase o{tan deV e[lqh/ toV tevleion in 13:10. Whenever toV tevleion arrives, then these gifts will no longer be necessary. While the analyses of the passage have produced a variety of interpretations, the major views essentially reduce to two possible ways of rendering toV tevleion.

The first view understands toV tevleion in an absolute sense of "perfect" and has reference to Christ's Parousia. Here the significance of toV tevleion is identified as "the perfection" that will exist after Christ returns for His church, as seen in 13:12. At that time, all spiritual gifts, not just prophecy and knowledge, will cease. The only virtue which has permanent significance, is love (v. 13).

Several arguments are advanced in favor of this view. First, this view is the only one that adequately satisfies the explanatory confirmation of 13:12 where the ideal, final state is in view. Second, the meaning of "perfect" best describes the period after Christ's return. Third, the verb e[lqh/ can refer only to the precise moment of Christ's second coming. Fourth, Pauline statements of eschatological hope center in Christ's return (1 Cor. 1:7-9; 15:20-34; 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Fifth, Paul and other New Testament writers used the related term, tevlo", of the same period (Rom. 8:18-30; 1 Cor. 1:8; 15:24; Matt. 24:6, 13-14). Sixth, maturity and the end are related in Paul's writings (Col. 1:5, 22, 27-28).

The second view is that toV tevleion refers to what is "mature" or "complete" rather than "the perfect state." Understood in this sense, toV tevleion draws on the figure of the church as Christ's body collectively growing up during the age since the day of Pentecost. The gifts of 1 Corinthians 13:8-9 gradually ceased with the close of canonical revelation and the increasing maturity of the body of Christ (cf. Eph. 4:11-16, esp. v. 13, eij" a[ndra tevleion, "the mature man").

Admittedly any decision on these two options is not easy. However, the second view ("maturity") is the more viable. Arguments for the second view also constitute a rebuttal of the first view. First, Pauline usage of tevleio" never conveys the idea of absolute perfection, and such a philosophical meaning is also questionable in the rest of the New Testament. Only this view allows tevleio" a relative sense. Second, Paul's constant use of the nhvpio" . . . tevleio" antithesis supports this interpretation. Tevleio" elsewhere always possesses a relative meaning of "mature" when used in proximity to nhvpio" (13:11, o{te h[mhn nhvpio", "when I was a child"; cf. 1 Cor. 2:6; 3:1; 14:20; Eph. 4:13-14). Furthermore the occurrence of tevleio" is what suggests the nhvpio" illustration of 1 Cor. 13:11 (cf. Heb. 5:13-14). Whenever the adjective is used in connection with nhvpio", it always carries the connotation of gradual increase, not of an abrupt change. Third, this view gives an adequate sense to the illustrations of 1 Corinthians 13:11 and 12. In verse 11 a relative maturity is signified, while verse 12 indicates an absolute maturity. Provision also exists here for the ultimate state after the Parousia, according to the demands of verse 12, in that maturity is of two kinds: one that is constantly changing and increasing (v. 11), and the other that is final and absolute (v. 12). The latter type is viewed in 13:12 as a future goal.

Fourth, Ephesians 4:13-14 more explicitly presents the picture of the maturing of Christ's body collectively. A number of striking resemblances between 1 Corinthians 13 and Ephesians 4 tie these passages together in reference to gradual maturity. The parallels between these two passages are strengthened also by the historical connection of the writing of 1 Corinthians while Paul was ministering at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8). Since Ephesians 4:13-14 pictures a gradual development of Christ's body from the beginning to the end, Paul's picture in 1 Corinthians 13 would also convey the same concept. Fifth, this view provides for Paul's uncertainty as to the time of the Parousia and status of a written canon. Sixth, as already suggested in note 69, the contrast with ejk mevrou" in 13:9 requires a quantitative idea ("complete") rather than a qualitative idea ("perfect").

In light of this, Paul's development from childhood to adulthood in verse 11 illustrates the progressive growth of the church through the critical period of its history. Ultimate maturity is another matter, as is illustrated in verse 12, when growth reaches its culmination at Christ's return. Thus this view is comprehensive enough to embrace the relative maturity implied by the illustration in verse 11 as well as the absolute maturity depicted in verse 12. It pictures believers collectively growing up together in one body, beginning with the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost. The body of Christ attains different states of maturity during this period until complete maturity is reached at the Second Coming of Christ. The contrast in verse 13a is that gifts of the earlier part of the paragraph were possibly to extend only through a portion of the church's existence, whereas faith, hope, and love would characterize the entire earthly ministry. Beyond this, only one of the three virtues will survive the Parousia, and that is love itself. For this reason, it is declared to be the greatest gift. As Thomas concludes,

"When the mature comes" gathers together into one concept both the period of church history after the need for the gifts of direct revelation has ceased to exist (relative maturity illustrated in v. 11) and the period after the return of Christ for the church (absolute maturity illustrated in v. 12). By comparing these gifts to the maturity of the body of Christ Paul shows their temporary character (in contrast with love). A certain level of maturity has been reached once the N.T. canon has been completed and is in hand, and so the result is almost the same as that of [the completion of the New Testament canon view]. Yet Paul expected an imminent return of Christ and could not know, humanly speaking, that there ever would be a complete N.T. canon of 27 books before Christ returned. Hence, he was guided by the Spirit to use the more general language of maturity to allow for this.

Thus the gift of prophecy, along with tongues and knowledge, was a temporary gift which is no longer operative today.

The Argument from the Revelatory and Miraculous Nature of Prophecy

Much regarding this argument has already been hinted at in the discussion above and in this series as a whole. Current attempts at prophecy parallel one of the flaws displayed in the second-century heresy known as Montanism: the phenomenon of false prophesying. False prophesying was a strategic reason why the church soundly rejected Montanism's claims of being a genuine "prophetic" movement. Accordingly the New Testament (Acts 2:17-21) and the postapostolic early church saw a fundamental continuity, not discontinuity, between Old and New Testament prophets and prophecy. Therefore false prophesying still remains one of the key signals for detecting false prophets.

As this study has shown, according to both the Old and New Testaments the miraculous nature of genuine biblical prophets and prophecy is that true prophets are one-hundred percent correct in all that they prophesy. Either a prophet was always and completely accurate or he was to be rejected as a false prophet.

Stress also must be given to another often-neglected axiom of Scripture. Even if the prophecy of a so-called "prophet" comes true, no guarantee exists that such an individual is a true prophet, for even false prophets are capable of occasional true prophecies and "signs" or "wonders" (Deut. 13:2). While true prophets always prophesied accurately, false prophets sometimes prophesied accurately. The inaccuracy of the false prophets' prophesying constituted them as false prophets. Hence constant vigilance is required (1 Cor. 14:29-31). Prophets must be closely scrutinized. Any prophet who even once prophesied falsely was to be rejected summarily by God's people. "The prophet who shall speak a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak . . . that prophet shall die" (Deut. 18:20). Proponents of the current practice of "prophecy" attempt to assert that Old Testament commands no longer apply to present-day "prophets." However, as has been demonstrated in this series of articles, no evidence exists that the apostles, who were Jews steeped in the Old Testament, ever thought that such Old Testament requirements were substantially modified or abrogated in judging prophets. As stated in the second article in this series, Paul's warning in 1 Corinthians 14:29-31 to judge prophecies is a direct development from such Old Testament warnings and also corresponds to Jesus' warnings against false prophets who will try to deceive God's elect by false signs (Matt. 7:15-16; 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; 1 John 4:1; cf. Hos. 4:6). Constant vigilance and careful examination by God's people are required in dealing with prophets who prophesy falsely or who exhibit false "signs" and "wonders."

Geisler identifies a crucial issue regarding fallible prophets.

Many today claim to be receiving visions, dreams, and revelations from God. The problem is that their "revelations" are not infallible. Some of them are flatly wrong. But a fallible revelation from God is a contradiction in terms. . . .

The problem with making testable prophecies in the name of the Lord is that they might prove to be false. This might not seem to be too significant until we remember that the test of a prophet is not whether he is sometimes right but whether he is ever wrong. Moses declared, "If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously" (Deuteronomy 18:22). The penalty for false prophecy under the Old Testament law was death (v. 20). If that law were still in effect today, there would undoubtedly be far fewer persons claiming prophetic powers.

Several other recent works have also cataloged false prophecies by modern-day charismatic proponents who assert that the gift of prophecy is still active.

Any one claiming the prophetic gift today must be scrutinized in light of the nature of the gift as revealed in the New Testament. Those who assert such activity must be subject to the regulations set forth in Scripture. By claiming the prophetic gift, they are asserting that they have direct contact with Jesus Christ, which is nonnormative and unique among the rest of the members of the body of Christ. Prophecy involves a miraculous impartation of revelatory information not known on a mere human basis. This is further substantiated by the fact that the New Testament prophetic gift involved much more than teaching, preaching, evangelism, or the possession of certain kinds of knowledge. While these latter activities may be accomplished on a purely human level, the New Testament prophetic gift was a miraculous and supernatural revelatory gift that differed antithetically from what may be accomplished by naturalistic means. Because of the miraculous nature of prophecy, current novel attempts at defining prophecy have also impugned the basic substance of prophecy. That is, nothing miraculous exists in a gift that is conceptualized to include the possibility of "mistaken" prophecy whereby the prophet is sometimes accurate and sometimes not. Even modern fortune-tellers can claim varying degrees of partial or intermittent accuracy. However, genuine biblical prophets and prophecy are qualitatively different from any such novel practices. Recent attempts at redefining prophecy are directly contrary to its essential nature as a miraculous gift. Grudem, whose book constitutes the mainstay of defense for the Vineyard movement's approach to "prophecy," directly admits that Vineyard prophets can be and are mistaken at times. "Prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but was simply a very human-sometimes partially mistaken-report of something the Holy Spirit brought to someone's mind."

Any prophetic pronouncements must stand the test of accuracy and uniqueness found in such places as Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:20-22; 1 Corinthians 14:28-32; and 1 John 4:1-3. The moment that a prophetic pronouncement demonstrates itself as being inaccurate or wrong, then such prophecy must be labeled as a false prophecy given by a false prophet. It would seem reasonable to contend that no person today who would presently claim the prophetic gift could ever make claims to such an absolutely perfect record of supernatural and miraculous accuracy which is required of true biblical prophets. Indeed, a close examination would reveal an overwhelming trend to a great level of inaccuracy. If persons claiming prophetic status are evaluated on the basis of a correct understanding of the biblical data and requirements for prophets, the light Scripture sheds on such activity demonstrates that the genuine gift of prophecy has ceased.

The Argument from the Analogy of the End of Old Testament Prophecy

As noted in the second article in this series, Judaism as a whole in the time of Jesus held that prophecy had ceased since the time of Malachi. Though there were claims to prophetic activity (as in, e.g., the Essene community of Qumran), such claims need to be distinguished from genuine prophecy in terms of canonical recognition and general Jewish acceptance. Early Christians also knew the opinion of Judaism on this issue. If they viewed Old Testament prophecy as having ended, then it is reasonable that they also entertained the same possibility for New Testament prophecy.

Grudem attempts to escape this conclusion by his definitional bifurcation of the gift. He distinguishes between canonical revelation of the apostles and an alleged form of edifying prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12-14. He contends that because such prophets "mistakenly" misunderstood the nature of the prophetic gift as speaking the "actual words of God," which was reserved for apostolic prophets, they were eventually rejected by the church. However, as noted previously, Grudem's dichotomizing here is highly tenuous. Such distinctions in prophetic authority have been shown to be unsound. Contrary to Grudem, church history reveals that a rise of false prophecy led to the outright rejection of those claiming the prophetic gift, as especially evidenced in the church's decisive repudiation of Montanism. The first-century church and postapostolic church applied Old Testament standards to judge New Testament prophets and prophecy. Hence in light of the analogy of the end of Old Testament prophecy, the church increasingly emphasized the close of the New Testament canon as that canon was recognized.


From the nature of the discussion in this series, the evidence demands the view that the New Testament prophetic gift ceased its operation very early in the history of the church. Furthermore, although no one single argument alone demonstrates this, the aggregate weight of the total evidence decisively points to this conclusion. When claims to prophetic activity today (and indeed throughout church history) are compared to the biblical record, woeful inaccuracy and inadequacy of such practices are evidenced. If the data from Scripture regarding the nature and practice of the biblical gift of prophecy and the testimony of church history are used as the standard to judge claims of the present possession of the gift of prophecy, the Vineyard movement's practice of prophecy and the prophetic practices of "charismatic" groups as a whole show the need for the body of Christ to reject soundly such claims. It is of paramount importance to make a diligent, careful scrutiny of the scriptural evidence regarding such activities. Only by such a close examination can the body of Christ guard against serious doctrinal error and misunderstanding which can and does result from such concepts of "mistaken" prophecy. The sincerity of those claiming the prophetic gift today is not called into question by this series. However, the support for such claims is what is called into serious doubt and is completely rejected. When such an examination is conducted, contemporary claims are rendered entirely suspect.

Christ's warning to His church must be heeded: "Beware of the false prophets . . . You will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:15-16a; cf. 24:11, 24; Mark 13:22; Acts 20:28-31). While the cessationist camp arguably may have "survived" the tongues issue of previous years, this Vineyard and charismatic concept of a form of "mistaken" or fallible prophets and prophecy that is sweeping across traditional lines has the potential of doing untold harm to God's people (Jude 3).

[ 1 ] The autor, Dr. F. David Farnell, B.A., Christian Heritage College, M.Div., Th.M., Talbot School of Theology, Ph.D., Dallas Theological Seminary, went to The Master's Seminary in 1997 from Southeastern Bible College, in Birmingham, Alabama, where he chaired the Department of Pastoral Theology and Biblical Studies from 1991-1994. In addition, he served as Academic Dean at Southeastern from 1994-1997. During this time in Alabama, he also concurrently pastored Brook Highland Community Church.

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Copyright (C) 1993 by F. David Farnell
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Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (April-June 1993): 171-202
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