It is often said, rightly, that the whole purpose of our being is so that we may know God, through whom and for whom all things exist, and to enjoy Him forever, in an intimate experiential and mysterious way. Apart from this, we live for nothing else.
Because we are contextual beings, our worship to God is in the context of God’s self-revelation to us. In other words, we worship God in accordance to how He has revealed Himself to us. We as human beings are not at liberty to allow our imaginations wander beyond the confines God has established, and the means through which He revealed Himself, He who is infinitely wise and glorious.
God, when He created Adam, revealed Himself to him in Eden. Eden was for Adam a place where fellowship with God could flourish. The exiting of Eden indeed was a sign of a broken relationship between God and Adam, a break that would necessitate reconciliation, which would later come, in Christ.
But between Adam and Christ, and indeed between Adam and Glorification, humanity lived (and lives) on this side of the curse, where we do not have the Edenic context for our communion with God.
The Law and the Prophets provided another context, within which the Jews (through the law written on tablets) and the Gentiles (through the law written in their hearts) could relate to God, temporarily, until Christ’s death and resurrection could heal this breach. Christ heals this breach since He is truly God and truly Man.
In other words, the Law and the Prophets of old were tutors, to bring us to Christ (Gal 3:34-25, Rom 3:21).
The Role of Prophets in the Old Testament
In the old testament, Prophets were the moral voice of Israel. They stood in the counsel of God. They were God’s voice to either the Kings in particular (we remember Nathan and David, Ahijah and Jeroboam, Elijah and Ahab, etc.) or the nation in general (as the case is with Nahum and Jonah to Nineveh, Ezekiel to Israel, etc.).
The function of Prophets in the Old Testament was to cry out against the injustices in the land and the idolatry of nations and individuals and call people and nations to repentance.
But also these prophets heralded the coming of the One who would be the fulfillment of all righteousness, the dawn of the Immanuel. This dawn would be another context of worship, which renders all shadows of old in effect, obsolete, and of no further use. Because, what the law and the Prophets anticipated, has finally arrived, He is in our midst.
The incarnation of Christ also means that the office of the Prophet as it existed in the Old Testament is no longer necessary, just as the shadow disappears at the dawn of light. Men will no longer need the law on tablets and the Prophets to guide them because the Spirit of the Law and the Prophet illuminates their path.
‘No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” Jeremiah 31:34
The Role of Prophecy in the New Testament
The background on what purpose the prophets served in the Old Testament is necessary if we are to understand what the role of prophecy is in the New. There is a confusion now as to what a Prophet does, and many have taken advantage of this confusion to gain unwarranted and idolatrous status in society.
As a repeat, the office of the Prophet as it existed in the Old Testament no longer exists.
“The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.” Luke 16:16
With the death and resurrection of Christ, prophecy took on an entirely different form. And this is because of the final Prophet, One who is ‘like’ Moses who has come. As Moses, brought God’s law to Israel on Sinai on Pentecost 50 days after the Passover in Egypt, Jesus will inaugurate the Church, His People, with the fulfillment of the Law, by sending His Spirit, on Pentecost, 50 days after His death as our Passover, in Jerusalem.
We are in Him and united with Him, and hear from Him because His Spirit dwells within us. We now have the reality that the prophets spoke of in the Old Testament, which no one after the cross can talk of bringing. Anyone who claims to bring this certainty is not a prophet; he is a liar.
But then someone would legitimately ask, what role does prophecy have in the church today?
Though the full analysis concerning the role of prophecy in the New Testament is grand and thus beyond the scope of such a simple article, I hope to clarify some issues that surround modern prophecy.
First of all, New Testament Prophecy involves both foretelling and forth-telling, with the purpose of the edification of believers and the conversion of non-believers who happen to be within the local church. We see this from Paul’s treatise concerning gifts in 1 Cor 11-14.
The New Testament prophets ‘discerned and did what was best for the Christian cause, Acts 13:1f; and give utterance in glowing and exalted but intelligible language to those things which the Holy Spirit teaches them. They instruct, comfort, encourage, rebuke, convict, stimulate, their hearers, 1 Corinthians 14:3, 24. (Cf. Harnack, Lehre der Zwölf Apostel). Their instruction, however, happens in the context of scripture as Judge.
‘In this whole discussion, “prophecy” evidently refers primarily to an impromptu word that someone would share in a service—in which congregational participation was possible—more than to a prepared sermon.’ Dr. Thomas L. Constable.
Secondly, the New Testament Prophet operates under an authority of a local church, subject to judgment from the church elders. We see this from 1 Cor 14:29. We need to keep in mind that Paul’s instructions here are to a church, and it concerns how a church service ought to run.
The gift of prophecy must be exercised in the context of the local church, and in submission to the office of the Pastor and Elders. It is congregational. The purpose of this is for the elders to protect the sheep from false prophets and wolves (Acts 20:28-32). That is why ‘two or three prophets speak’ and ‘others judge’ (1 Cor 14:29), to guard against false prophets running loose with their predictions to the detriment of the congregation. The Prophet can be false, even if his predictions come true (Deut 13:1-5).
But it also makes sure that the gift is used to build the body, the church, congregating together, in proximity, where the prophet benefits from the pastoral guidance and the teacher and evangelist and so forth. This ensures that the gift is not used just to entertain goats.
The only exception to this (restriction) is if a prophecy is particular to an individual, as the case of Paul and Agabus in Acts 21:10, in which case, the Prophet is to go directly to the person whose message he has.
So then, all public prophecies must be judged by scripture and the local church leadership, and prophecies to individuals must be judged by scripture and the recipient of the prophecy, for there must be a witness in the receiver’s heart that the ‘prophetic’ word is from God.
Thirdly, as a reminder, Christ is the goal of any prophecy. That means that prophecy ought to draw our attention to Christ, to show us His Nature and Work, and to call us to obedience to His commandments as revealed in written scripture. If the people speak more about prophet than Christ, he is a false prophet. If the prophet speaks about his exploits and not the cross, he is false. For, all things are from Him and to Him. We are not the center of the prophecy, and we do well to remember this.
And because prophecy is for the revealing of Christ, it must not be separated from teaching and Pastoral ministry. These gifts need each other and in no wise should they be separated. Again, it is the instruction of scripture that enables us to judge the rightness of prophetic warning or encouragement.
I would summarize all I have said in this: 1. All things must reveal Christ, for they are from Him, and to Him. 2. The office of the Prophet as it existed in the Old Testament ceased. 3. New Testament prophecy is for the edification of the local church, and the evangelism of unbelievers in the local church. 4. New Testament prophecy ought to be in the confines of the local church, under the guidance of the Pastor and Elders, except if the prophetic word is to a particular individual.
Let me add that you must read your Bible and submit to a Bible-teaching church. Instead of running to the prophets, run to scripture.
And if the prophet has a message for you individually, let them come to you personally. There is no need to set up a weekly fellowship for that, as though God is on a weekly timetable of prophecies. The whole idea of scheduled prophetic gatherings is a mockery but also reveals how far we have fallen from the simplicity that is in Christ. Again, we must only worship God in the context He has established Himself. And the context God has provided for us to approach Him is in Christ and within the confines of Scripture.
These words from Donald Gee of the Assemblies of God conclude my thoughts best:
‘[There are] grave problems raised by the habit of giving and receiving personal “messages” of guidance through the gifts of the Spirit…The Bible gives a place for such direction from the Holy Spirit. But it must be kept in proportion. An examination of the Scriptures will show us that as a matter of fact, the early Christians did not continually receive such voices from heaven. In most cases, they made their decisions by the use of what we often call “sanctified common-sense” and lived (rather ordinary) lives. Many of our errors where spiritual gifts are concerned (rise) when we want the extraordinary and exceptional to be made the frequent and habitual. Let all who develop excessive desire for “messages” through the gifts take warning from the wreckage of past generations as well as of contemporaries…The Holy Scriptures are a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.’
I am always glad to hear from readers. Write to me at email@example.com