What Is Prophecy and Has It Ceased?

As Paul is describing the activity of prophets in 1 Corinthians 14:29–30, he writes, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.” 

From this statement, we know that (1) prophecy is revelatory because Paul refers to a “revelation” coming to a prophet. We also see from this that (2) prophecy is spontaneous, because these verses indicate that as one prophet is uttering a prophecy, another prophet gets an unexpected, unprepared revelation. This means that prophecy is not like teaching. Teaching is the communication of knowledge gained through study and preparation (cf. 2 Tim 2:15). I think it is also safe to say that (3) prophecy is inspired by the Holy Spirit, since prophecy is a spiritual gift (1 Cor 12:10). 

These points are generally agreed upon. Prophecy is Spirit inspired, spontaneous, revelatory utterance. The next question is whether the prophecies Paul is describing are like Old Testament prophecy. It is generally agreed that Old Testament prophecy is authoritative. Old Testament prophecy communicates the Word of God in the same way that the Bible communicates the Word of God. 

Wayne Grudem argues that NT prophecies like the ones Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14 are not like OT prophecies. Grudem thinks that NT prophecies do not carry the authority Scripture carries, that they can be wrong, and that prophecy is basically the Lord bringing appropriate thoughts to people’s minds. 

If Grudem is correct, then every Christian who has ever communicated a thought that the Lord brought to mind has prophesied. He may be right, but I think that Paul’s use of the word “revelation” in 1 Corinthians 14:30 makes Grudem’s view unlikely. It seems that “revelation” entails more than the Lord bringing a helpful thought to mind. 

I think that NT prophecies are like OT prophecies. If they are inspired by the Spirit, they will not be erroneous and they will have the same authority Scripture has. The “weighing” of these prophecies probably refers to establishing whether the prophecy was inspired by the Spirit or not, and thus whether it was a true or false prophecy. If it was a true prophecy, they probably then weighed how it was to be applied, since it was the authoritative word of God. Let’s recall that the Christians in Corinth to whom Paul wrote did not have the whole New Testament as we have it. Paul was sending parts of it to them! 

I agree with Richard Gaffin’s argument that just as the twelve apostles are unique and not replaced by successors in the history of the church, so also the prophetic activity of the early church is foundational for the church. Once the foundation is laid, it is not repeated. I think this is what Paul means when he refers to the church being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:20). Having discussed the exegetical issues in detail, Gaffin writes, “Consequently, a major conclusion in our study from Ephesians 2:20 is that the New Testament prophets, along with the apostles, are the foundation of the church. They have a foundational, that is, temporary, noncontinuing function in the church’s history, and so by God’s design pass out of its life, along with the apostles” (95–96). 

I don’t think anyone after Paul is an apostle of the Lord Jesus, and I don’t think the Lord is still giving revelations that carry the authority of Scripture. The canon, like the apostolate, is closed, which means that prophecy has ceased.

15 Comments

Filed under Bible and Theology, Spiritual Discipline, Worship

15 responses to “What Is Prophecy and Has It Ceased?

  1. patrick barrett

    What about tongues and/or private prayer languages? Sorry, I know this is a bomb….but I’m really interested in your thoughts because I respect them. Thanks so much for the blog.

  2. It seems to me that you’re implying that all prophetic speech is canonical. I’m with you in that it doesn’t make much sense to say, “this prophecy is from God, but it could be wrong.” If it’s from God, how can it be wrong? But does that make it canonical? It makes it authoritative, but not canonical (in my view). If it’s not canonical, then (again, to me) it submits, in a sense, to the foundation laid by the prophets (I take that to mean OT writers of scripture) and apostles and isn’t a threat the canon.

    Again, correct me if I’m mistaken, but you also seem to be equating apostlic writings and teachings with the (pardon the crass-ness) prophetic utterance by Joe Blow Christian during a worship serivce in Corinth. It seems to me that if a believer expressed a prophetic utterance during a worship service with the Apostle Paul present, I can’t help but think the congregation would turn to Paul looking for some validation, indicating a level of dependence on apostolic teaching.

    You say that the prophetic activity of the early church is foundational for the church, not just apostolic writings and teachings. How do we know this? We really don’t have anything that indicates this. And even if it is, we don’t know any of it and is of no help to us. Would this mean that if some of those prophetic utterances were recorded and found, would they be canonical? I don’t know, I struggle a little with your view.

    Also, the testimony of Christians who’ve either witnessed or experienced prophetic speech themselves is persuasive to me. While not ever having a prophetic moment (to my knowledge), I know brothers who say they have. They are godly, biblical men. So I’m left thinking, “Am I so sure that scripture indicates prophetic speech as non-existent today to say to these brothers, ‘you must be mistaken.'” That’s hard step for me.

    I don’t know… just some rambling thoughts.

  3. Jim,
    Would you say that every prophecy in the OT has come to pass and if not do you think they still will?

    Also I have a few questions that I hope you would answer honestly. They aren’t to start a debate because I’m not really interested in debating this issue, but they’re questions I’ve wondered for a while and have always wanted to discuss with those who seem to fall in the cessationist camp (I don’t know if you do but from this post you seem like you might) and have never been able to.
    Anyway here goes-
    Have you ever wondered how much of your upbringing, where you went to school, or the circles you run in has to do with your theological views and positions? Do you ever wonder if where you were taught and where you are (teaching, church, colleagues, friends), might have more to do with what you believe than actually looking at and examining the Biblical texts? Have you ever wondered what would happen in your relationships if you started being a proponent of modern day prophecy? Would things change in your professional or church relationships or would they stay the same?
    If you spoke what appeared to be a prophecy (according to the Biblical examples) what would you think of that experience or how would you explain it? Do you think your views on prophecy would change?
    I’m just curious because I do believe our experiences (including lack of experience) and peer-pressure often have more to contribute to our theology and exegesis than most of us would like to admit (especially if you are a Bible Scholar).
    What do you think?
    Blessings,
    Bryan

  4. Dr. Hamilton,

    I have two questions. I have, of late, run into a couple of problems in theological dialogue with friends concerning hermeneutics specifically pertaining to charismatic gifts and complementarianism. I’m hoping you can help me out.

    First, if we are seeking a correct historical/grammatical exegesis of the text based on authorial intent, on what biblical basis can we should not “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual {gifts,} but especially that you may prophesy. ” (1 Cor. 14:1 – NASB)

    Second, if we seek to appropriate a trajectory hermeneutic to suggest that we are living in a different dispensation aan are thus allowed to disregard (disobey?) the command the apostle Paul gives in 1 Cor. 14:1, why is it not acceptable for egalitarians to do the same thing with 1 Tim. 2?

    While I am a conservative complementarian, I find it very difficult to maintain this position exegetically when other conservatives apply a trajectory hermeneutic to other doctrines within the Scripture. More than before, I find that I have to make a case for extra-biblical theological hermeneutics to defend complementarianism. Can you offer some help to me? Thanks.

    ben

  5. Steve Walker

    Jim,
    Good post! As I read scripture, it seems there are 4 clearly delineated categories of apostles in the NT.

    1. The 12 (Acts 1:21-26; Rev. 21:14) The Acts passage explains why the LDS apostles do not qualify as “the 12” today — they were not present at Jesus’ baptism. This category of apostles is clearly closed, otherwise a verse like Rev 21:14 makes no sense whatsoever.

    2. Apostles of Christ (Acts 14:14; 1 Cor 9:1) Barnabas and Paul are called apostles, but they were not part of the 12. I would agree with you that God is no longer giving revelations that carry the authority of Scripture, especially in light of Eph 2:20. Once the foundation is laid, it is complete. Hence, I agree with your statement, I don’t think anyone after Paul is an apostle of the Lord Jesus.

    3. Apostles of the churches (2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25) Paul quite clearly gives a number of brothers this designation. Nothing in scripture suggests there could not be apostles of the churches today. These individuals are not credited with receiving revelations of Scripture. They are traveling or cross-cultural messengers (apostles) of the churches; those who proclaim and contend for “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Perhaps these individuals would be the practical equivalent of missionaries today.

    4. False apostles (2 Cor 11:1-4, 13-16; Rev 2:2) Sadly, I think there are false apostles today — the LDS 12 serve as examples.

    Now as to the revelation spoken of in 1 Cor 14:29-30, it seems that Paul is addressing an issue within the church at Corinth. Certainly it has implications and application for others, but if he is addressing a problem within the church at Corinth, it doesn’t seem likely that he is referring to the revelation of Scripture. It seems he was calling something given to and/or spoken by members of that fellowship revelation, especially in 1 Cor 14:26.

  6. Patrick,

    I think that tongues have ceased. I’m not limiting God, though, and I’m open to the possibility that I could be wrong. For me to be convinced, I would need to see it happen supernaturally (unprompted, uncoached) and biblically. I really like Tom Schreiner’s treatment of these issues in his book PAUL, APOSTLE OF GOD’S GLORY IN CHRIST.

    Brian,

    I agree with you that not all prophecy is canonical. The OT prophets surely preached much more than what we have recorded. Obadiah said a lot more, I trust, than his one chapter book records! I also agree with you that Paul and the other apostles had more authority than the early Christian prophets. Paul opens his letters identifying himself as an Apostle of Jesus Christ to assert his apostolic right to speak authoritatively to the churches. You ask how we know that the apostles and prophets are foundational for the church, and my simple reply is that Ephesians 2:20 says so. Believing in the sufficiency of Scripture gives us confidence that God has revealed in the Bible everything we need to know to be saved and to live lives that are pleasing to him.

    I know brothers I love very much who claim to practice all the gifts. Many of their experiences take place on the mission field. I have no desire to invalidate their testimony. I don’t know what they experienced. I love them, and God is our judge. That’s enough for me.

    Ben,

    I think we should obey 1 Corinthians 14:1. If the Lord is pleased to give these things supernaturally and biblically, I rejoice. The foundation of the church has been laid, and I don’t think the Lord is going to give any more apostles and prophets like the ones he gave when the foundation of the church was being laid.

    I hope that I’m not disregarding or disobeying 1 Cor 14:1, so I don’t think there’s an analogy here with what egalitarians do with 1 Tim 2:12. I think the point of Paul’s command in 1 Cor 14:1 is that they should love one another (1 Cor 13:1) and seek the gifts that most build one another up as a body (14:1-5).

    Again, I like the tone and direction of Schreiner’s discussion in PAUL, APOSTLE OF GOD’S GLORY IN CHRIST.

    Hope this helps!

    JMH

  7. Dr. Hamilton,

    What do you think about the view that “apostles and prophets” in Eph. 2:20 refers to OT prophets?

    I know it’s not a popular view (Barth is the only commentator I remember offering a strong defense for it), but I am still inclined to see it as such.

  8. I think it’s more likely that the prophets in view are those mentioned in Ephesians 3:5 and 4:11, which don’t look like OT prophets.

    Blessings!

    JMH

  9. Jim,

    Thanks for the response. I tend to see the reference to “prophets” in Eph. 2 as the OT prophets, not prophets of the NT church in the first century for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Paul is addressing the mystery of the gospel in this passage (as you know) and spans much of redemptive history in this chapter. He speaks of Israel, Gentiles’ alienation from God’s family, but then the inclusion of Gentiles because of the work of Christ. I think the foundation he’s making mention of is that which has been laid throughout redemptive history up until the time of the apostles.

    Secondly, even if he’s making mention of 1st century prophets in the context of the local church, the extent of the foundation they are laying would be confined to their local church setting. So if a prophetic utterance was given for the foundation of the Corinthian church, practically speaking, it would have no value for another church, say being planted in North Africa simply because the transmission of information wouldn’t practically take place. It’s hard for me to understand why Paul is making a big deal about local prophetic utterances in a passage where he addresses the entire family of God throughout the course of history. Not only that, Paul never mentions the word “church” in this entire passage. He’s not addressing the foundation of the “church”, but the foundation for the household of God irrespective of time, place, and nationality. It seems”prophets” in this passage is better understood as OT prophetic writings.

    The reason why this is significant is due to Gaffin’s conclusion. He said, “They have a foundational, that is, temporary, noncontinuing function in the church’s history and so by God’s design pass out of its life, along with the apostles.” But that is pretty speculative to me. What if early church prophets gave authoritative speach that accompanied and supplemented the teachings of the apostles and wasn’t seen as this “foundation” from Eph 2. Then, there would be little reason to conclude that they have passed away, in my view, since its not “foundational” in the Eph. 2 sense.

  10. Brian,

    Thanks for your comments. For me to address them would be to repeat what Gaffin and Schreiner have said, and rather than type all that up I will simply refer you to their discussions, which I find compelling.

    Blessings!

    JMH

  11. Bryan L,

    Thanks for your note.

    I think that if the Lord was supernaturally giving people prophecies, he could overcome all the things you mention.

    He can do whatever he pleases, and I am blessed to be in his mercy! I’m not copping out of your question. This is really what I think. I want to believe whatever the Bible says, and I want everything that I do to be as close to the way the Bible says it should be done as possible.

    Hope this helps!

    JMH

  12. Pingback: Believing Jesus » Theological Hermeneutics # 3

  13. Julian F.

    Prophecy is as valid today as it was in both NT and OT periods. It is the viewpoint that has changed. Prophecy has always and will always be about God’s revelation which has manifest itself over time and came to full revelation with His Son and impowered unto understanding by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Prophecy of OT was forward looking to Christ. NT prophecy was and still is revelation unto understanding. God’s character and plan to reconcile His creation and to reveal His character made possible though His’s Son’s death and resurrection is still live and active. It is the same God with the same means in different times. 1 Cor 12-14 speaks to the ways of the church then and today. Paul encourages tounges but even more prophesy because it edifies the church then and now. He prefers prophesy as it edifies, exhorts, and consoles. Was this not the purpose of the OT prophet. The OT prophet had to exhort of things to come. The NT prophet exhorts of things that came. To not believe that prophecy is current is to not believe 1 Cor 14:9. Do you believe that God does not desire to be fully known or do you believe that we fully know? God’s nature has been fully revealed but is in no way to full understanding. Thus, the need for prophets. Do you believe that what was for Moses in Ex 33:18-19 is not available to us all? The Lord will not leave you hanging if you in humility and love desire His presence. I hurt for those who do not know this presence. One day we will know in full when face to face. Now in part, but much less if one denies the full gospel of Paul.

  14. Jimmy

    I’ve always found this theology interesting. While I have seen this gift abused (like the woman in Revelation 2:20) to say it doesn’t exist anymore doesn’t make sense. So what about the gift of administration, helps, and teaching which are all mentioned along with prophecy in 1 Cor. 12? Have these gifts ceased as well?
    To limit God and the gifts is not only dangerous but unfortunately the downside of American Christianity. Nowhere outside of the western world will you find these types of beliefs and that is why the church in America is in danger of following the church in Europe. Just because you’ve never experienced it doesn’t mean it’s dead.
    The most vibrant churches in the world are outside of the U.S. and are keenly aware of the gifts and operation of the Holy Spirit – without them they would cease to exsist. In the U.S. our church pluggs along and occasionally remembers to invite God into our programs.

  15. Pingback: So, Aren’t We All Cessationists? (at least on this point) « For His Renown

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