In the last two days I’ve surveyed Paul’s teaching about prophecy as found in 1 Corinthians. Let me summarize what we have discovered.
Prophesying was a common activity in the gatherings of Corinthian Christians (or at least that seems to be the case). Both men and women prophesied in these gatherings (11:4-5). This would be consistent with Paul’s exhortation to all the Corinthians to seek to prophesy (14:1) and his teaching that everyone can do it if the Spirit wills (12:11, 14:31).
Unfortunately for our purposes, Paul never explains exactly what prophecy entails. The Greek word group employed here (proph-) indicates that it is speech inspired by God. This could refer to speech that foretells the future, but prophecy should not be limited only to future-oriented revelations. What we do know about prophecy is that contributes to people’s “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (14:3). It can reveal the secrets of someone’s heart (14:25) and can be called a “revelation” (14:30). Prophecy enables people to “learn” and “be encouraged” (14:31). When prophecy happens in church gatherings, it should be done in an orderly manner, with one person speaking at a time. (14:31, 40). Those who prophesy can control their prophetic speech (14:30-32).
Again, nothing in 1 Corinthians would limit prophecy to speech that reveals the future, though nothing would eliminate foretelling, either. Given Paul’s language choice and what he says about prophecy, it would appear to be any inspired message from God for the community. When a person purports to speak for God, the community must weigh the message to determine its authenticity. Just because someone claims to prophesy does not mean they really have done so, no matter how well-intentioned they might be. Notice that the need for the community to validate a prophecy differs from the Old Testament era, when the word of the prophet was to hold sway over the community and not the other way around.
Prophecy in the Church Today
Let me begin by noting that there is a wide range of understanding and practice of prophecy in the church today. I do not consider myself to be an expert on this topic, though I shall share some of what I believe and have observed.
Some Christians and churches today believe that the gift of prophecy stopped functioning centuries ago, when the canon of Scripture was closed. I have a good friend and fellow pastor who believes quite strongly that God only speaks through study of and reflection upon Scripture, period. Conversely, some churches expect God to speak quite plainly and immediately through people gifted with prophetic utterances. I have been in worship services where people have spoken as in the mode of an Old Testament, King James’ Version prophet: “Thus saith the Lord: My little children . . . .” I have also been in Christian gatherings where people, believing they have a message from God, speak in more ordinary language: “I believe the Lord is saying to us that . . . .”
In my Christian tradition, prophetic speech of this sort was mostly unheard of. We didn’t reject it out of hand, but we certainly didn’t expect to bring messages from God, at least we didn’t if we were not the preacher. In fact, I have seen Presbyterian descriptions of spiritual gifts that equate prophecy with what we call preaching. One would certainly hope that preachers were delivering to their congregations the messages God wanted to speak, even if the preachers developed their sermons through careful study of Scripture and with lots of prayerful reflection, rather than a momentary burst of inspiration from the Holy Spirit. It seems to me likely that many gifts of prophecy come in the preacher’s study. (Photo: Michelangelo’s painting of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, 1511. In the Sistine Chapel, Vatican.)
From my reading of 1 Corinthians and the rest of the New Testament, I believe that prophecy in the age of the church is similar to prophecy in the Old Testament era, but also quite different. It is similar in that it is a communication or “revelation” from God to his people. It is different in several ways. Prophesying is something that all Christians can do through the Spirit, rather than just a few anointed prophets. Prophecies are not to be regarded as God’s authoritative words, but rather are to be judged by the community in which they are delivered. Paul does not provide details on how this judgment should be made, though we might easily fill in some of the blanks (consistency with Scripture, offered decently and in order, edifying to the community, etc.). Christians who regard contemporary prophesies as of equal authority to biblical prophesies have mistaken the character of prophecy in the New Testament era. In fact, every exercise of a spiritual gift must stand under the authority of Scripture and be guided by the leadership of the church.
I also believe that prophetic utterances come in a wide variety of forms. Yes, they might sound like they spring from the lips of an Old Testament prophet. But they might also sound much more natural and informal. I have been in settings where somebody says, “I think God may be telling us . . . .” What was stated in ordinary language struck the hearts of those gathered and seemed quite clearly to be a message from God.
Prophesying in today’s church can, it seems to me, take the form of preaching. In fact, one might say that preaching at its best should be prophesying, that is, speaking through Spirit-inspired but nevertheless human words what God wants to say to a community. This understanding of prophecy should encourage every preacher and teacher to be faithful in study, prayer, and openness to the Holy Spirit.
But, in light of 1 Corinthians, it would be wrong for a church to limit the source of prophetic utterances to those who are ordained preachers. Yes, for the sake of order and decency, there may be relatively few who prophesy in the context of weekly worship services. But a vital church will foster multiple contexts in which “you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and be encouraged” (14:31). It should be common, for example, for one member of a small group to share a prophetic word with the others in the group. This might very well take the form of a question: “I wonder if God might be trying to say to us . . . ?”
In sum, I believe that Christians today should follow the exhortation of 1 Corinthians 14:1: “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” Our main effort should be to love others and build up the church (14:12), not to have any particular spiritual experiences. As we devote ourselves to serving others in God’s name, and as we are open to the Spirit’s power, we will receive the spiritual gifts we need, so that God’s work may be done in God’s way, by God’s power, and for God’s glory.