The place and validity of prophecy as an activity of the contemporary church is a hotly contested area of theology, and I would offer that most of the disagreement comes less from exegesis and more from interpretations of our present experience against the imagined experience of Israel and the early church, and we read that back into the Scriptures. This serves to shape your church’s present experiences, and the cycle continues. Cessationists are likely to continue not to experience prophecy, and this confirms their cessationism; charismatics are likely to experience prophecy, and this confirms their… uh… charisma.
What we think our experiences should be shapes what experiences we have, and vice-versa. And then we interpret that. For example, if Presbyterians don’t speak in tongues, a Charismatic might view that as evidence that Presbyterians don’t have the fulness of the Holy Spirit. A Presbyterian, on the other hand, is likely to view that as evidence that the Charismatic experience is artificial at best and demonic at worst.
The Bible simply does not give us a theology of these things. It rarely gives us a theology of anything, to be honest. The closest we come is Paul’s corrective comments to some excesses at the Corinthian church that were causing them to fall into disrepute in the community. He encourages them to make love a priority over the pursuit of ecstatic experiences, and it is here that he makes an unfortunately ambiguous comment:
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.1 Corinthians 13:8-10 (NRSV)
Paul’s point is that love is something that will always be a central feature of the experience of the people of God, but the charismata are here to cover the eschatological gaps as we wait for a time in which such tools are no longer necessary.
The problem is that he doesn’t come out and define what that time or event is, and Christians can and have plugged all sorts of things in there to make their current experiences comprehensible. Maybe it’s the arrival of Jesus. Maybe it’s the second arrival of Jesus. Maybe it’s the completion of the New Testament (my personal favorite – yes, of course, Paul’s thinking about the closing of the Protestant New Testament canon in the fifth century OBVIOUSLY).
Ironically, instead of this passage driving home the main point, which is the importance and centrality of love as a practice of the Church above all other kinds of religious experiences, we instead try to make it a prognosis about when we should all stop prophesying.
When we look at how prophets functioned in the life of Israel, they were the living voice of God to the people, typically in response to specific circumstances. Moses appears as the prophet par excellence. Other prophets run continuously through Israel’s story. It’s important to note that the Old Testament did not exist in anything like the format we’re accustomed to until we get to the last few centuries BC, although the source material for these books spanned a much broader time frame. For example, “the Law” and the “Book of the Law” feature in several Old Testament passages.
As important as writings were to the Jewish religion over time, there was still the need for that living, in the moment ability to hear from God. This may have partially occurred through divination (such as the High Priest’s urim and thummim stones), but primarily occurred through the voice of the prophet.
Prophets were not widespread, although over time they became more widespread than you might think. They functioned largely as oracles – sometimes sought out, sometimes butting in. A bit of theater was often part of how they delivered their messages, using props or dramatic actions to become the living embodiment of their message.
From a narrative perspective, it’s important to note that prophets weren’t fortune tellers. They did predict the future, but it was to address the situation of the people, often warning them of what would happen if they pursued a given course of action and recommending what ought to be done. Because of this, the role of prophet became folded into a sort of advisor to the king when kings became relevant to Israel’s direction.
Prophetic activity was more organic than we sometimes imagine. It was primarily a role that involved interpretation. That may have been interpretation of visionary experiences, but it was at least as often just the ability to see where things were going – to interpret events, forecast outcomes based on them, and do all of this from a theological perspective. Where is the will of Heaven in all of this?
One incident that James recently wrote about that illustrates the organic nature of prophecy is a story about Elisha:
Elisha went to Damascus while King Ben-hadad of Aram was ill. When it was told him, “The man of God has come here,” the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God. Inquire of the Lord through him, whether I shall recover from this illness.” So Hazael went to meet him, taking a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he entered and stood before him, he said, “Your son King Ben-hadad of Aram has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this illness?’” Elisha said to him, “Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover’; but the Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die.” He fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was ashamed. Then the man of God wept. Hazael asked, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women.” Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is a mere dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Aram.” Then he left Elisha, and went to his master Ben-hadad, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” But the next day he took the bed-cover and dipped it in water and spread it over the king’s face, until he died. And Hazael succeeded him.2 Kings 8:7-15 (NRSV)
One wonders if Hazael would have done such a thing if he hadn’t heard the prophecy. Here, Elisha sees what’s coming, tells the person involved, and then the person goes out and makes the prophecy happen. The activity of prophecy is closely intertwined with the events, not some abstraction like, “God is preparing to release angels of blessing” or whatever.
In the Old Testament writings, prophetic activity is something that seems to be reserved only for certain people, a fact lamented by Moses in Numbers 11:29, when he wishes that the Spirit would fall on all the Lord’s people and they all would be able to prophesy. Such a day is foreseen in Joel 2, and the apostle Peter declares that Pentecost is the fulfillment of that prophecy in Acts 2.
Even before we get to Pentecost, however, we find Jesus. Jesus is consumed by an upcoming war with Rome that he continually warns Israel about, and he is frustrated that other Israelites don’t seem to see it coming, especially since he is announcing it to them:
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”Luke 12:54-56 (NRSV)
After the distribution of the Holy Spirit, the story steers us in the direction that prophecy has become more democratized than it used to be, although we are told very few non-apostolic stories about prophecy. Once we leave Acts, the New Testament gets a lot more doctrinish and a lot less narrativish.
From what we can tell from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, it appears as though prophecy is a gifting and prophets have a role to play in the operation of the Church (1 Cor. 12:27-31 – a listing basically rehashed in Eph. 4). We just don’t have a ton of stories of this happening or what it looks like.
One story concerns Agabus, who predicts an upcoming famine and later predicts Paul’s captivity if he goes to Jerusalem (assuming this is the same Agabus, cf. Acts 11:27-30 and Acts 21:10-11). He is described as part of a group of itinerant prophets mentioned in Acts 11.
We have plenty of New Testament mentions of people who are prophets in general but not a lot of examples of what it looks like. Still, from what narrative we have, it seems like prophecy and prophets continue to work as they have in the past – people supernaturally gifted in being able to discern what is about to happen and can advise the Church, either so the Church can respond to it or simply to give encouragement as they endure it.
That brings us to prophecy as expressed in the Church, today.
There is a lot of what is being called “prophecy” that doesn’t look very much like the way prophecy functions as the biblical stories present it. Prophecies are not always precise, but they are also not vague sentiments that mean virtually nothing. A lot of contemporary prophecy boils down to, “God is preparing to do something you can’t empirically verify.” Often, He is preparing to “release” something or another. This is a safe route to take with prophecy, but it’s also virtually useless. The Church can’t respond to it. It usually only serves to stir up emotions.
Perhaps with some irony, what many prophets were doing when they predicted the re-election of Trump is getting closer to what biblical prophets do. They speak for God into His people’s present circumstances, often with an element of predicting where things are going. It just so happened that none of them were speaking for God but rather according to what they wanted to be true.
One of the many downsides to this sort of thing is that it can discourage people from evaluating their prophetic gifts. Since nobody wants to chance being wrong, prophets pull inward. They make “God is about to release” style of prophecies so that they’ll never be proven wrong. Others, perhaps more tentatively coming to the idea of prophecy, may feel like they have to wait for an unmistakable vision or God downloading words directly into their brain or something.
But here’s the thing: the value of prophecy is not hearing from God. Every believer hears from God in some form or fashion. Every believer has the Spirit. A prophet whose prophecies are simply to establish that they have a “special connection” to God is just ego. It’s just “I hear from God in a way most people can’t” often followed with “so support my ministry or buy my book.” That isn’t the gift of prophecy at all. That serves no one but the alleged prophet.
The value of prophecy is that it informs the people of God in the present about something they’re not seeing so they can act accordingly. Granted, sometimes “acting accordingly” is simply holding on in faith during a discouraging time, but it’s for the audience. There are occasions where the prophecy involves knowledge that could only be supernaturally disclosed, but a lot of prophecy in the Bible is simply the Spirit-gifted acumen to look at present circumstances, interpret them from God’s point of view, and see where they’re going so you can inform the people who need to know.
Take Agabus’ prophecy to Paul. Agabus was from Jerusalem. He knew what the Temple power structure was like. He knew Paul’s message and how it was being received. His prediction didn’t come to him in some unmistakable, supernatural flash of insight. Rather, it came from being able to look at all those circumstances and, with the prompting and assistance of the Spirit, understand that he needed to warn Paul about what would surely come to pass, because obviously Paul et al wasn’t seeing it.
So, if you’re out there wondering if you have prophetic gifts, I’d encourage you not to rely on taking stock of dreams or visions or hearing unmistakable messages from God in your brain. Instead, look at your gifts. Are you regularly able to see outcomes that others can’t see or perhaps even doubt will come to pass? Are you able to perceive a potential spiritual dimension to events? Are you the person in the room who says things like, “Guys, if we keep following this course of action, we’re headed for trouble even though things might look okay right now,” or “Guys, even though it doesn’t seem like this is working out, we need to stay the course because I see a good outcome at the end of this,” and in either case, it turns out that you’re right? Are you able to look at circumstances and put two and two together for people who can’t see what you see, and they benefit from it?
If so, you might have the knack for it. You may have the gifts. And if you do, you should consider how you can use that same gift that has probably helped you and others in business, relationships, etc. and see how you can put it into service for the Church. Maybe if you are a faithful steward of that, visions may not be far behind.
Right now, we have a shortage of real prophets, or at least ones that are self-consciously putting their talents to use and speaking out. There’s no reason that can’t be you.