Prophecy is a divine gift by which a human being is enabled to speak divinely authoritative words.
Often in Scripture, we read of human beings whom God appointed and empowered to speak his very words. In the book of Genesis, Noah and Jacob evidently spoke words that could have come only from God. But the paradigm of prophecy is Moses, in the book of Exodus, who led Israel out of bondage in Egypt. God tells Moses that he and successive prophets will speak the words of God himself. After Moses, there is a tradition of prophets who receive divine revelation and communicate it to God’s people: Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and so on. King David also spoke as a prophet, and many of his psalms reflect that gift (cf. 2 Sam 23:2). In the New Testament, the prophet John the Baptist preaches God’s demand for repentance to Israel. But John points forward to Jesus, who is prophet par excellence, the very Word of God. Jesus is the Messiah, the redeemer, and therefore the chief theme of prophecy in the Old Testament.
After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, there were prophets in the early church. There is some difference of opinion among scholars as to whether these New Testament prophets had the same level of authority as prophets in the Old Testament: did they, like the Old Testament prophets, utter the very word of God, or was their speech a supernaturally assisted human reflection? In any case, it is clear that the apostles, the group directly appointed by Jesus to lead the church, spoke with plenary divine authority, the same authority given to Moses and the other prophets of the Old Testament. The apostle Paul claimed the right to judge among prophets, and he insisted that his own writings should be the standard by which prophecy is judged. There were false prophets among God’s people, individuals who claimed to be speaking God’s word, but in fact spoke only their own words.
There was some controversy in the early church about the relative place of prophecy and tongues. The meaning of the gift of “tongues” is disputed, but evidently it was a divine gift by which a speaker could utter words of a language unknown to those around him or her. If those words were translated into a familiar language by someone who had the “gift of interpretation,” the speech in tongues would have been equivalent to prophecy (1 Cor 14:27–28). Since the meaning of prophecy was easier to discern than the meaning of utterances in tongues, Paul urges the church in Corinth to have a higher regard for prophecy than for tongues, even though he himself claims that he often speaks in tongues (1 Cor 14:18–19).
Today there are some Christian churches and denominations (Pentecostal or charismatic) that encourage prophecy and tongues in their worship services and as private devotional practices. Others (cessationists) believe that prophecy and tongues ceased at the end of the apostolic age, since God intended them to be employed only in the foundation period of the church’s existence.
Many words of the prophets were eventually written down, and some of these form part of written special revelation. But the words of true prophets and apostles are authoritative even before they are written down.
The content of prophecy is both “forthtelling” and “foretelling.” In forthtelling, the prophet, in God’s name, demands repentance from sin. In foretelling, he or she promises curses and blessings yet to come. Theologians have expended much energy trying to describe the future events set forth in biblical prophecy, but most of these attempts are uncertain. Scripture is clear that Jesus will return in the future, and that when he does, he will judge the righteous and the wicked. That is the “blessed hope” of the church. But we do not know the day or the hour when Jesus will return. About the details of these events there is much uncertainty.
Ex 20:19 (The need for a prophet.); Dt 18:18–19 (The definition of a prophet.); Je 1:4–12; Ac 11:27–28 (New Testament prophecy.); Ac 21:9–14 (New Testament prophecy.); Ro 12:6; 1 Co 12:10; 1 Co 12:28–29 (The gift of prophecy in the church.); 1 Co 11:4–5 (Women prophesying in church.); 1 Co 14:1–40 (Prophecy and tongues.); 2 Pe 2:1 (False prophets.)
2 Pe 1:21; Heb 1:1–4; Dt 18:18–22; Ac 2:17–18
Frame, J. (2018). Special Revelation through Prophecy. In M. Ward, J. Parks, B. Ellis, & T. Hains (Eds.), Lexham Survey of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
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