Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Every Christian Should Desire the Gift of Prophecy - Part 1, The Biblical Data

In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, in his discussion of spiritual gifts, the apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth: 
8 For to one is given a word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another a word of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 and to another workings of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another distinguishing between spirits, to another kinds of languages, and to another interpretation of languages.” 
“Languages” here refers to what is commonly known as speaking in tongues.

At the present time, an increasing number of Christians worldwide are accepting that these gifts continue to be available, and that God wants us to seek them from Him. These Christians are known as continuists, or sometimes as continuationists.

Others say that these gifts ceased to be available around the time that the New Testament was completed. These Christians are known as cessationists.

One of the gifts listed in the above passage is prophecy, and it is this that I would like to focus on in this article. Continuists claim that God is using prophecy today to build His church. Cessationists, by contrast, claim that all those who claim to be prophets are mistaken or even conscious deceivers.

I believe firmly that the continuist position is correct, and in what follows I will do three things:

First, I will discuss the most important biblical passages that have a bearing on this topic. Second, I will answer objections to the continuist position that cessationists often make. Third, I will give some testimony of how I have seen God use the gift of prophecy.

Let’s turn, then, to a consideration of this issue:


When thinking about any topic, the most important thing to do is see what the Bible itself has to say about it. Scripture is our God-given “Manual for the Human Life,” and what it teaches must be given priority. So we will begin with this.

1 Corinthians 14:1, 39

A good place to begin our discussion is 1 Corinthians 14:1, 39.

In 14:1 Paul instructs the Christians in Corinth: 
“Pursue love, and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” 
And then in 14:39 he tells them: 
“Therefore, my brothers, eagerly desire the ability to prophesy . . .” 
We need to look at these verses in two stages. First, we will consider what they tell us about what starting point to take as we examine the issue of whether God gives the gift of prophecy today. And second, we will consider what evidence these verses provide that He still gives this gift.

(1) A starting point

Let’s begin, then, by asking what 1 Corinthians 14:1, 39 tells us about what our starting point should be as we examine this issue. At this stage, we are not looking for any evidence that God gives or doesn’t give the gift of prophecy today. We are just thinking about where to start as we look at this topic.

At the outset, it is important to understand that Paul’s instructions in these verses must have applied to all Christians in the 50s of the first century, when he wrote 1 Corinthians. Clearly, these commands to eagerly desire the gift of prophecy were given to all the Christians in Corinth. And there is no reason whatsoever for thinking that Paul or God would have wanted anything different in other churches at that time. We should therefore have no doubt that in the mid first century God wanted all Christians to eagerly desire the gift of prophecy.

As our next step, let’s think about what the Bible is. It is something that God created to direct His church down through the centuries. So when we find instructions in Scripture that applied to all Christians when they were written, by far the most natural way of understanding them is as commands that apply to all Christians in all centuries of the church. Therefore, anyone who claims that today we should not obey a command that applied to every Christian at the time of writing needs to have a very strong argument indeed to support their view.

There are many Christians today who disregard the commands in 1 Corinthians 14:1, 39 in a very free and easy way. You will sometimes hear them say something like, “We have the Bible today, so we are not supposed to seek the gift of prophecy.”  And for them that settles the matter.

Brushing aside biblical commands in this way is unacceptable. Not to obey an instruction that applied to all Christians when it was written is a massively unnatural way to use the Bible. So if we are going to make a conscious decision to do this, we need to have a powerful, razor-sharp, biblically-based argument why we should set aside what Scripture teaches. Anything less than that will simply not do.

If we can’t come up with a powerful reason not to obey these commands in 1 Corinthians 14, then we should aim to obey them to the best of our ability. This outlook should be our starting point for thinking about this issue.

(2) Evidence provided by these verses

Secondly, we need to consider whether 1 Corinthians 14:1, 39 provides any evidence that God gives the gift of prophecy today.

I believe these verses do provide evidence, in the form of an argument from probability.

If we consider the rest of the New Testament, it contains hundreds of commands that applied to all Christians at the time they were written. I am not aware of a single one of these that no longer applies to Christians today.

If it is correct that every other NT command that applied to all Christians at the time of writing still applies today, then, all other things being equal, it is highly probable that the commands in 1 Corinthians 14:1, 39 also still apply. And this argument from probability carries considerable weight, although I admit that it doesn’t prove outright that God gives the gift of prophecy today.

Even if I am mistaken about other NT commands, and there are a few that applied to all Christians when they were written but no longer apply today, the number of these is surely very few. So the argument from probability would still carry some weight, although admittedly not nearly so much.

1 Corinthians 13:8-10

Another passage that supports God giving the gift of prophecy today is 1 Corinthians 13:8-10.

Here Paul states: 
8 . . . if there are prophecies, they will be done away with. If there are languages, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will be done away with. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when what is complete comes, what is partial will be done away with.” 
Paul clearly believes that a time will come when prophecy and other gifts of the Spirit will no longer be used. And he seems to imply that this will happen “when what is complete comes.”

Cessationists often argue that the time Paul is referring to in this clause is the point at which the New Testament was completed.

This, however, is simply not a credible interpretation of the passage. “When what is complete comes” is certainly not referring to any experience that can be found in this world of ours. Rather, it has in view a time after Jesus has returned to earth.

The context of verses 8-13 confirms this. In these verses, Paul contrasts a present state and a future state. The present state involves knowing in part and seeing indistinctly. The future state, which begins when what is complete comes, involves knowing fully and seeing face to face. Paul is clearly contrasting the present experience of Christians with our future state of existence. So “when what is complete comes” is definitely referring to a time after Jesus has returned to the earth.

Therefore, when Paul says that partial things like prophesying will be done away with “when what is complete comes,” he is most naturally suggesting that prophesying will continue until Jesus returns.

It is true that Paul is speaking very concisely here. And it is true too that his main focus in this passage is not on precisely when the gifts of the Spirit will cease being used. Again, I am not saying that this passage proves outright that the gift of prophecy should be used today. But Paul’s words certainly fit better with this gift continuing until Jesus returns than ceasing centuries ago.

Acts 1:8

Another verse that fits awkwardly with cessationism is Acts 1:8. Here the risen Jesus tells the 11 apostles: 
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the furthest reaches of the earth.”  
The receiving power Jesus speaks about here certainly refers to the events on the day of Pentecost described in Acts 2:1-41.

Those events included speaking in tongues, which was in this case actually a kind of prophecy (verses 4-12). And we should note too that Peter relates the events of Pentecost to Joel’s prophecy of prophecy in Joel 2:28-32 (verses 16-21).

This must mean that the receiving power that Jesus refers to in Acts 1:8 includes the ability to prophesy.

Although Acts 1:8 was spoken to the 11 apostles, it seems natural to broaden its application to the whole church:

The first thing we need to recognise is that this verse strongly implies that the 11 will be Jesus’ witnesses in the power they will receive. Jesus is not just telling them two separate things, one, that they will receive power and, two, that they will also be His witnesses. There is a much closer connection between the two clauses than that. The witnessing will be done in the power they receive.

Secondly, note how Jesus tells the 11 that they will be His witnesses “to the furthest reaches of the earth.” However, the good news was not taken this far before the 11 were all dead. So it makes sense to think that the witnessing in power would be continued by other Christians after the 11 had died. This is supported by the fact that in Acts itself we find Christians other than the apostles receiving power from the Spirit and acting as Jesus’ witnesses.

Most naturally, then, Acts 1:8 suggests that witnessing in power will last until the good news has gone to the furthest reaches of the earth, which really means until Jesus returns. And because this power includes the ability to prophesy, most naturally we would expect this gift to be used until the Lord returns.

Acts 2:16-18

The quotation of Joel’s prophecy in Acts 2:16-21 doesn’t just help to show that Acts 1:8 is difficult for cessationism. This quotation counts against cessationism in its own right too.

Here is the text of verses 16-18: 
16 But this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
17 ‘And it will be in the last days,’ says God, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people. And your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy.’” 
Peter is saying here that the events of the Day of Pentecost are the beginning of the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. Joel prophesied that God would pour out His Spirit, says Peter, and this has now come into effect. And the text makes it clear that pouring out the Spirit involves the ability to prophesy.

But note the time reference in this passage. It states that God will pour out His Spirit, and prophecies and visions will take place, “in the last days.” The last days here is the period of time that began with the crucifixion-resurrection-giving of the Spirit complex and will end with the return of Christ.

But if the gift of prophecy ceased in the first century, this would mean that in fact it was only in the very first part of the last days that God poured out His Spirit as Joel and Peter describe. And this does seem a rather awkward interpretation of the text. Acts 2:16-21 therefore fits more naturally with the view that the ability to prophesy is something that lasts throughout the church age.

Ephesians 2:19-20

One passage that is often said to prove that God no longer gives the gift of prophecy is Ephesians 2:19-20.

Here Paul, speaking to Gentile Christians, states: 
19 So then, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with the Messiah Jesus Himself as the cornerstone.” 
Cessationists often argue that the fact that prophets (and apostles) are referred to as a foundation shows that they had a role only in the early stages of the church.

This is not a forced or unnatural way of taking Paul’s words. Nevertheless, it isn’t the only way they can be interpreted, as I will argue below.

Before I give an alternative interpretation, I want to make some preliminary points about this passage. I won’t try to defend them, because in all of them I agree with at least the majority of cessationists.

(1) We should understand the foundation in this passage to consist of the apostles and prophets (and Jesus). It is not something that is laid by the apostles and prophets.

(2) Although Paul doesn’t refer to the church explicitly in these verses, that is what he is talking about. And he is saying that the apostles and prophets (and Jesus) form a foundation, on which the rest of the church is built.

(3) The apostles and prophets here are two separate groups, as in Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28-29. The text is not referring to a single group of Christians, each of whom is both an apostle and a prophet.

That is not to say that no Christians fell into both categories. But basically, Paul is referring here to two groups of Christians.

(4) The prophets in view are Christian prophets, not Old Testament prophets.

(5) The foundation is apostles and prophets who ministered in the early decades of the church. The idea is not that apostles and prophets who minister throughout the church age are a foundation.

(6) Although in the Greek text there is a definite article before “apostles” but not before “prophets,” “prophets” should be regarded as a definite noun. The text could just as easily have been written, “the apostles and the prophets.”

(7) From other passages of Scripture, I accept that there have been no apostles, in the full sense of the word, since the original apostles. I also believe that Ephesians 2:20 is referring only to apostles in the full sense, not to any lesser sort of apostles (whether or not lesser apostles have ever existed). I therefore believe that this verse has in view all the apostles, in the full sense, that there have ever been and that they all lived in the first decades of the church age.

(8) As a related point, I accept that Ephesians 4:11-13 doesn’t prove that apostles and prophets exist throughout the church age.

These are the preliminary points, and in all of them I agree with at least the majority of cessationists.

Let’s turn now to the alternative interpretation.

I believe that this is the scenario underlying this passage:

Apostles, in the full sense of the word, had a role only in the early stages of the church. Prophets exist throughout the church age (although much more commonly at some times than at others). But crucially, the most important prophecies were all given in the first decades of the church age, meaning that all the most important prophets lived at that time.

It is entirely plausible that this scenario could be expressed by saying that the church is built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” as we find in Ephesians 2:20. It simplifies things somewhat, but that shouldn’t be an objection. Scripture often makes similar simplifications.

Importantly, the purpose of this short phrase is to tell Paul’s readers that apostles and prophets had key roles in the early stages of the church. There is no attempt to comment on the roles, or lack of roles, of apostles and prophets after the early stages. That is not Paul’s real concern.

It is therefore reading too much into these few words to claim that the gift of prophecy can only have been available in the early stages of the church. The upshot is that Ephesians 2:20 is not a problem for the view that God gives gifts of prophecy today.

For a more detailed discussion of this passage, see my article: Does Ephesians 2:19-20 Prove That God No Longer Gives the Gift of Prophecy?

Hebrews 2:3-4

Hebrews 2:3-4 is another text that is often said to show that God no longer gives the gift of prophecy. Here the author writes: 
3 . . . how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? This salvation was first announced by the Lord, and then it was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, 4 while God added His testimony by signs and wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will.” 
Cessationists often argue about this passage in this way:

If the author believed that gifts of the Spirit, including prophecy, were still given at the time of writing, we would expect him to have concentrated on God testifying to the message by these gifts in the present rather than at some time in the past. Therefore, this passage strongly implies that prophecy and other gifts were no longer in operation at the time of writing.

I admit that this argument isn’t one that should be easily dismissed. Nevertheless, there are a few points to make here.

(1) The passage is too indirect and brief for us to reach clear conclusions on what the author believed about the existence of prophecy at the time of writing.

(2) It is possible that the author felt that after mentioning Jesus and the first generation of Christians, he had done enough to make his point.

In Hebrews 2:1-4 he is aiming to convey to his readers what an enormously important thing the Christian message of salvation is. So he tells them that no less a person than Jesus began announcing the message. And then he goes on to say that people who heard Jesus themselves were the ones who passed on the message to the author and the readers. He also notes that God accompanied this passing on of the message with gifts of the Spirit (and miracles) to validate it.

Maybe having said all this, he thought that he had said enough to persuade his readers that the message of salvation was extremely important. If so, then he could have chosen not to move on to speak about the time of writing, even if he was aware that God was still giving gifts of the Spirit in his day.

(3) In Hebrews 6:5 the author refers to Christians generally as people who have “tasted . . . the powers of the age to come.”

This could well suggest that gifts of the Spirit, including prophecy, were in operation at the time of writing.

(4) I think it is quite possible that at the time this letter was written, gifts of the Spirit may have been a lot less common than they were earlier in the first century. And this could have motivated the author in Hebrews 2:3-4 to focus on gifts among the first generation of Christians.

I will say something about the frequency of prophecy throughout church history in part 2 of this article, and I refer the reader to the discussion there.

(5) Even if this passage does more naturally seem to suggest that prophecy was a thing of the past, we need to beware of drawing conclusions based on one or two proof texts.

An example of the dangers of this can be seen in Colossians 1:19-20, where Paul writes: 
19 For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him [Christ], 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace by the blood of His cross – whether things on earth or things in the heavens.” 
In this passage, Paul explicitly says that God was pleased “to reconcile all things to Himself.” And the “all things” he has in mind are described as “things on earth or things in the heavens.” There can be no doubt that he is including human beings in what is talking about. So the most natural reading of this passage is that all human beings will be reconciled to God through Christ.

However, Paul cannot have meant that, since it would contradict so much else in his letters. See, e.g., Romans 2:5, 9; 2 Corinthians 2:15-16; Galatians 6:8; Philippians 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9.

Instead, he must mean that all things will be reconciled to God apart from one unexpressed, exceptional group of beings, comprising some people and some angels, that will experience eternal destruction.

The most natural reading of Colossians 1:19-20 is therefore not the correct one. And the same could potentially be true of Hebrews 2:3-4.

All things considered, then, Hebrews 2:3-4 falls a long way short of proving that God no longer gives the gift of prophecy.

Summing up

Various other Bible passages have some relevance for the topic we are considering, but I have given the most important of them. The above discussion has shown that on balance Scripture fits better with the continuist position on prophecy than with the cessationist position. Most naturally the Bible seems to suggest that the gift of prophecy is one that God will use until Jesus returns.

I said above that we should only choose not to obey a biblical command that applied to all Christians when it was written, if a compelling case can be made from Scripture for not obeying it. Not only is there no such case that can be made, but the weight of evidence actually points in the opposite direction. We should all therefore certainly obey the commands in 1 Corinthians 14:1, 39 to eagerly desire the gift of prophecy.

In part 2 I will move on to discuss objections that cessationists make to the continuist position.

See also my articles:

Baptism in the Holy Spirit Is for New Christians