Prophecy: Are We Listening to God's Voice?

ommunication is a two-way street. This includes prayer, says Dallas Willard in his book, Hearing God, the free audio book of the month at ChristianAudio. If we want to feel close to God, then we should be willing to listen for His voice when we pray—and no, he doesn't just mean that Scripture verse that came to mind last night. Christians leaders throughout Evangelicalism are teaching the idea that God actively delivers new knowledge to believers.

This naturally stirs confusion in the hearts of many Christians—Will God also speak to me? How will I know if He does? If I don’t hear a clear voice, does that mean that there is something wrong with my faith?  Compounding the issue is the fact that when Christians claim that God told them something, they are essentially claiming to have a prophecy. While we won’t take up space with a full examination of all biblical prophecy here, let’s consider how Christians with the gift of prophecy operated in the NT to see if there are any implications for current believers.  Hopefully, this can give some confused souls rest.

Scripture gives God’s People a Means to Evaluate Prophecy. 
We should first consider whether God allows us to question the words of prophets. Thankfully, He did not leave believers to wonder whether “the Lord told me this” is an accurate statement. In fact, the question of how to know is clear in the Law, with this response: “if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken” (Dt 18:22). Prophecy is falsifiable and refutable, at least with OT standards.

Jesus warns of a coming time when false prophets will lead many astray (Mt 24:11, 24; cf. 7:15). As the Apostles began to pass from the scene, the number of those claiming the gift of prophecy for selfish gain indeed surged. Many of the NT writers preemptively and in reaction to the growing scourge of false prophets—“Many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1; cf. 2 Pt 2:1-3; 2 Jn 10-11; 3 Jn 9-10; Jd 8-23).  The final book of the canon, the Book of Revelation, records Christ’s condemnation of false prophecy infiltrating the churches.  NT Christians were to be discriminating when it came to claims of words from God.

So what makes some false prophets so deceptive? Consider this: if a shyster seems to authenticate himself as one with revelatory knowledge, how faithful will the people of God be to Yahweh in the presence of such an impressive person? Though it may seem far-fetched, the sinfulness of the heart can lead a person to follow the man claiming to represent God away from God. Consider this passage in the Law:
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul (Dt 13:1–3). 
God would sometimes allow false prophets modest success as a means of testing His people, and their deceptive force could ensnare even born-again Christians. Paul, riled by false teachers claiming authority, warns against those who speak contrary to God’s revealed truth. He addresses them in harsh words:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed (Gal 1:6–8). 
False prophets and teachers in the NT times were “going on in detail about visions,” disqualifying those who believed them because they did not hold fast to Christ (Col 2:18–19). Amazingly, prophets claiming the authority of the Holy Spirit were apparently even teaching that Jesus was accused (1 Cor 12:3). No wonder Paul had to remind people that all prophecy was subject to the prophets (1 Cor 14:29–32), to past revelation and proven prophets; “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (v. 33).

Far from having a “judge not” attitude, the Holy Spirit calls believers to judge prophets. If even proven prophets of Yahweh could lie (cf. 1 Kgs 13:11-25), and demons have the ability to inspire prophecies (though not outside the Lord’s control, 1 Kgs 22:20-21; 2 Chr 18:19-22), this only follows. As such, the Holy Spirit nowhere tells us to give people with “a word from the Lord” the benefit of the doubt. Christians must remain vigilant and discerning, in keeping with God’s consistent ways for His people.

NT prophets have the same predictive power and authority as in the OT. 
This point may seem obvious: in both the Old and New Testaments, they are both called “prophets” by the Holy Spirit! Even so, some conservative, Christian scholars—folks with whom we would normally agree—wonder if the Apostles are the NT equivalent to the OT prophets, leaving NT prophets to fill a new, less-impressive category. Said another way, the Charismatic community views the NT gift of prophecy as less authoritative because it is a fallible human report of a revelation from God.

They base this in part on the fact that the Apostles, not the prophets, wrote NT Scripture. However, many OT prophets existed who did not record Scripture, and those prophecies were no less authoritative than the unrecorded words of Jesus. Written by the Holy Spirit, the NT calls certain people “prophets” as He did in the Old and fails to clear the contemporary Jews’ preexisting understanding of the term.  It seems unnecessary to say, but a prophet is a prophet.

Reconsider the original premise—the NT Apostles are the new category, not the prophets. For instance, while John the Baptist was the greatest prophet, the least of the Apostles was greater. The prophets received direct, limited revelations from God, but the Apostles literally walked with Him for three years. The Apostles, not the OT or even NT prophets, sit on thrones in the coming kingdom. Most conservative Charismatics would agree that the NT Apostles were special in God’s program; the Apostles were a new breed.

Even so, the Apostles did not claim that they alone were the dispensaries of divine truth. Paul, for instance, holds NT prophets in high esteem (1 Cor 12:28; 14:1). Peter’s words on Pentecost help us understand—he quotes Joel 2:28–32 in Acts 2:17–21 where Yahweh promised to pour His Spirit forth, the same Holy Spirit that empowered the OT prophets (cf. Zech 7:12; Neh. 9:30). Peter must have believed that Pentecost ended the “400 Silent Years,” the age in which God was not using prophets. Of course, he is including the Apostles in this promise, but he is not claiming that only the Apostles fulfill this promise—he links Old and NT prophets.

Some still wonder if NT prophets got some of their facts wrong.  Scholarly focus sometimes shifts to Agabus, the most identifiable, non-apostolic NT prophet. Agabus uses a formula similar to OT prophets’ “thus saith the LORD”—“thus saith the Holy Spirit” (Acts 21:11)—the same formula Jesus uses to speak to the seven churches in Revelation 2–3. He also uses symbolism to reveal God’s Word as did the OT prophets (Acts 21:11; cf. 1 Kings 11:29-40; 22:11; Isa. 20:1-6; Jer. 13:1-11; Ezek. 4:1-17; 5:1-17). Agabus, often compared to the OT prophets by the early church fathers, received top marks from church history until the 20th century, when doubts arose as to his accuracy. However, a careful examination affirms the historical consensus: Agabus was correct (comp. Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-11; cf. 28:17). With no other prophet to examine in the NT text, it seems that the idea of fallible, NT prophecy is a recent invention; they had to be accurate because their words helped build Christ’s church. 

The NT prophets were part of the foundation of the church. 
In Ephesians, Paul tells us that both Apostles and prophets exercise foundational status in Christ’s church. There’s some disagreement as to whether the word “prophets” in Ephesians 2:20 refers to OT or NT prophets (as in, “built on the foundation of the OT prophets and NT Apostles”).  However, the context of the passage is what Christ has done for His church, and when Paul mentions Apostles and prophets again in 3:5, it is clear that the “prophets” refer to NT ones, as is true of 4:11. The 2:20 prophets are the NT prophets that Paul held in such high regard.

If the prophets are part of the foundation of the church, however, that implies that they have a function that will and will not continue throughout the church age. Certainly, the Spirit continues to work through the NT Apostles and prophets through Scripture today. Just like the Apostles, however, the prophets had a distinct role that may not be present throughout the rest of the church age. If there were still Apostles, there may yet be more books added to the Bible, for their words would be just as spiritual and authoritative. Similarly, more NT prophets existing today could add to the Bible, for as we have seen, their words would be just as authoritative. However, both the Apostles and prophets comprise the foundation of Christ’s church. Since foundations are not re-lain unless there is a flaw evident in the structure, it does not appear that Paul believed the gift of prophecy to be an indefinite reality within the continuing construction of the church.

The early church fathers believed it ceased after the first century. 
As already noted, the Apostles and prophets warned against false prophets. The Didache, probably written in the first century, gave instructions on how to test a supposed prophet. If there was one application from the first century church, it was to beware the words of any self-proclaimed prophet. Yet, it was not clear at that point as to whether there would be any more true prophets.

Controversy in the second century shook the church and called for a stronger stance regarding prophecy. News about a recent Gentile convert prophesying while convulsing on the ground gained the attention of the Christian world. His name was Montanus, and some church leaders saw no difference between these bizarre demonstrations and his previous behavior as priest in the Asiatic cult of Cybele. Some witnessing his frenzies even believed them to be demonic, especially considering that some of his prophecies were contrary to Apostolic teaching. Even so, this “New Prophesy” grew in popularity. Soon, the prophetesses Priscilla and Maximilla joined the movement’s ranks, and they prophesied the Lord’s immediate return in a similar ecstatic manner. The three predicted the New Jerusalem would descend in their hometown.

Spirit-inspired Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, proved invaluable in judging whether these three were Spirit-inspired individuals or simply false prophets. Thus, the early church fathers found themselves once again at the feet of the Apostles, and concluded that the prophecy of the first century was not present at the end of the second. For instance, the Muratorian Fragment, the oldest canon or list of OT and NT books the church considered authoritative, declared God’s revelation complete. Chrysostom (AD 347–407), a well-traveled preacher, taught in 1 Corinthians 12:1–12 that the gifts were “very obscure” since they had ceased and wondered why they “do so no more.”

The “What Now” of Biblical Prophecy 
The majority of prophetic activity surrounds the opening and the coming close of the church age, after which new prophets will arise during the Tribulation period. Scripture indicates that the purpose of the NT prophets was to help form the foundation of the church. It also indicates that all claims to prophecy must be 1) 100% accurate, 2) in line with what God has already revealed, and 3) judged by other prophets. These facts alone indicate that Christians should teat any new claim to prophecy with extreme skepticism.

To be fair, the Bible never explicitly states that prophecy will cease within the church age. It is possible that God still gives occasional prophecies from time to time to believers unaware, but the gift of prophecy—the infallible, authoritative revelation from God—is absent today and is not something we should expect. Any fantastic claims in the church, then, if they are truly fall from the hand of God, might be best described as His providence. It may also be that a declaration on our part concerning the cessation of prophecy would be inaccurate: we have Spirit-breathed prophecy for today recorded in the Bible.

Are we listening to God's voice?  Today, the continuationist and cessationist must learn the lesson of the early church—God has not left us without clear and consistent prophecy. We, too, have the ability to sit at the feet of Christ and His Apostles and prophets. While “thus saith the Lord” is a dangerous claim outside of Scripture, God’s power still active in the world around us when we understand our faith and culture in light of Scripture. Then, and only then, can we say with Peter that we have a sure word of prophecy (2 Pt 1:16–21).

Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.—Col 2:18–19

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