The New Testament introduces the gift of prophecy to the Church. This is a special gift of the Holy Spirit, and is just one aspect of prophecy. It is not the sum total of prophecy, but it is a significant part. As we will see, it is right to emphasise this gift – but not to the exclusion of the other aspects of prophecy.
We learn about this gift in 1 Corinthians 12 & 14. These chapters are set in the context of teaching about public worship, especially the Lord’s Supper; this suggests that the gift of prophecy is the aspect of prophecy which is particularly relevant to the church’s public meetings.
The key Greek verb of 1 Corinthians 14 is oikodomeo. This is usually translated as ‘to edify’, but it literally means ‘to build together in order to build up’. If we long for the Church to be built together and built up, we should pay special attention to this chapter.
Be zealous for prophecy
1 Corinthians 14:1, 12 & 39 instruct believers actively to zeloo for prophecy. This is a strong Greek verb which means ‘to have great zeal’, or ‘to crave’.
If we long for God to speak, we will make listening to him a higher priority. We do not demonstrate our ‘craving’ for prophecy by asking God to speak; we evidence it by listening to him more zealously – because we know that it is his will and nature to reveal his Word to us.
Prophecy addresses people
1 Corinthians 14:3 shows that the essential direction of the gift of prophecy is from God to people.
When the words of our God-ward prayers and worship are truly inspired by the Spirit, it is not wrong to describe them as ‘prophetic’. This passage, however, deals with that aspect of prophecy – the spiritual gift – which is entirely human-ward in direction.
In the past, some churches failed to distinguish between diermeneuo, ‘to interpret’, and propheteuo ‘to prophesy’. 1 Corinthians 14:5 shows that tongues and interpretation is of equal value to prophecy, but that it is not the equivalent of prophecy. Both gifts build the Church, but verses 2-3 show that they do this from opposite directions.
Whenever we pray in tongues, or interpret a tongue, or manifest any spiritual gift, there is some element of prophetic speaking – for we have listened to God and are speaking his words in gospel obedience. But we are not exercising the particular ‘gift’ of prophecy – for this is the exclusively human-ward element within the broad topic of prophecy.
Prophecy builds, exhorts and comforts:
1 Corinthians 14:3 shows that the gift of prophecy brings:
- oikodome – ‘edification’: the gift is positive, not negative; it builds us together to build us up in the Church
- paraklesis – ‘exhortation’: it reveals what God is doing and calls us to fall in step with this, to come alongside God in what he is doing
- paramuthia – ‘comfort’: it is ‘near speech’; it is God whispering a tender message of comfort to friends and servants.
Prophecy builds others
Prophecy is a self-giving, self-emptying gift. 1 Corinthians 14:4 states that those who prophesy do not aim to build themselves up; instead, they build together and build up the members of the church. (Of course, as part of the church, they are themselves built up by their prophesying – but this is not their intention.)
Prophecy is a positive, constructive gift; it does not destroy or knock down. This is emphasised in verse 26.
Prophecy is important
1 Corinthians 14:5 shows that prophecy is important, and that we must not treat it casually. We are called to respect those men and women to whom God has entrusted a particular message for that occasion.
Prophecy is not necessarily spontaneous
1 Corinthians 14:26 suggests that the members of the church should spend time carefully preparing themselves for the services, listening to God for any contribution he wishes them to bring to the worship.
This means that any spiritual contribution – a song, talk, tongue, interpretation, prophecy, and so on – can be given by the Spirit in advance. 1 Corinthians 14:30 shows, however, that there is a real place for spontaneous prophecy in public worship.
Prophecy is revelatory
1 Corinthians 14:26 lists apokalupsis among the contributions that believers can bring to a service. This is usually translated as ‘revelation’ and means the unveiling, the revealing, of something which had previously been unknown: it clearly refers to prophecies.
Thus far, we have referred to prophecy as the ‘now’ Word of God. Apokalupsis means that we can, perhaps, also describe prophecy as the ‘new’ Word of God.
Of course, no prophecy is ever new to God; it is always utterly consistent with the nature and Word of God as expressed in Scripture and in line with the witness of Jesus. At times, however, a prophetic revelation will be new to us – in the sense that it is a fresh unveiling of one aspect of the eternal, unchanging Word.
Prophecy must be judged
1 Corinthians 14:29-32 makes it clear that prophecy must be judged or tested. We consider this in Part Eight.
Prophecy is for every believer
1 Corinthians 14:31 stresses that this gift is for all believers. Since Pentecost, all who have been anointed with the Spirit – who keep on listening to God and responding with gospel obedience – can prophecy. This will happen when churches start to be zealous for prophecy – and when they evidence this by making prophetic listening a higher priority.
Decently and in order
1 Corinthians 14:40 teaches that ‘all things’ – including the gift of prophecy – must be done with:
- euschemonos– ‘decently’: this means we should prophecy with beauty, or gracefully, and not in an uncontrolled or unhelpful manner
- taxis – ‘order’: this means our services should have an order, a deliberate arrangement, with a proper, appropriate and recognised place for ‘all things’ – including prophecy. This taxis can be arranged by the leader with the help of the gift of wisdom.
Other revelation gifts
1 Corinthians 12-14 refers to three other gifts which God gives to provide us with prophetic revelation, or ‘spiritual eyesight’.
The word of knowledge
Through this gift, the Spirit reveals facts to us about a person or situation. This is not insight which comes through the natural mind, reason, experience or instinct; instead, it is a freely-given fragment of God’s own knowledge.
By this gift, God discloses a truth which the Spirit wishes to be made known. We see this, for example, in 2 Kings 5:20-27; 6:9-12; 2 Samuel 12:1-7; Matthew 9:1-7; 17:27; John 4:7-25; 4:45-54; Acts 5:1-6 & 9:11.
The word of wisdom
This gift is the Spirit-given insight as to how a revelation should be best applied in a specific situation, or how a particular person or situation is best helped.
We can say that the word of wisdom is the Spirit’s ‘how’ and the word of knowledge is his ‘what’. We see examples of this gift in: Genesis 41:14-45; 1 Kings 3:16-28; 2 Kings 5:8-14; Matthew 21:23-27; 22:15-22; Luke 21:15 & John 8:7.
The discerning of spirits
This is the God-given perception which enables a believer to identify the motivating spirit behind particular words or deeds: it helps us to grasp the involvement of the human spirit, a demonic spirit and the Holy Spirit. We see this, for example, in 1 Samuel 3:1-9; 16:6-13; Matthew 16:21-23; Luke 13:10-17; Acts 5:1-11; 8:14-24; 13:4-12 & 16:16-18.
We consider the special part that this gift plays in the judging of prophecy in Part Eight.
Let prophetic gifts happen
Prophetic revelation and insight, including the gift of prophecy, built the early church – and it still builds the Church today.
If ‘Church-building’ is our heart’s desire, we will follow 1 Corinthians 14:40 and allow the revelation gifts to ginomai. This is usually translated as ‘be done’, but ‘become’, or ‘come into being’, or ‘happen’ is more accurate.
We do not worship a dumb God. There is no gag in his mouth. We do not need to implore him to speak. Instead, we must extract the spiritual cotton wool from our ears which blocks out his voice and start listening to him with greater care and intensity.