The Authority and Nature of the Gift of Prophecy
From Gospel Translations
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and manifest day. And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'
Last week I tried to show that 1 Corinthians 13:8–12 teaches that the gift of prophecy will pass away when Jesus comes back—the way a dim mirror image will give way to the living face. And I argued that therefore the gift of prophecy is still valid in the church today. I promised that today we would take up the questions: What is the gift of prophecy, and how is it to be exercised?
The Finality and Sufficiency of Scripture
Let me begin by affirming the finality and sufficiency of Scripture, the 66 books of the Bible. Nothing I say about today's prophecies means that they have authority over our lives like Scripture does. Whatever prophecies are given today do not add to Scripture. They are tested by Scripture. Scripture is closed and final; it is a foundation, not a building in process.
The best way to see this is to see how the teaching of the apostles was the final authority in the early church and how other prophecies did not have this final authority. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:37–38, "If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized." The implication is plain: the teaching of the apostle has final authority. The claims to prophecy in the church, then and now, do not have this authority.
You can see the same thing in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–3. Paul says here that even if someone claims to give you information about the second coming by a "spirit," don't believe them if it differs from my teaching: "Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first . . . " In other words, prophecies must be tested by the word of the apostle.
Now the point is this: Today the New Testament stands where the apostles stood. Their authority is exercised today through their writings and the writings of their close associates like Luke and Mark and James (the Lord's brother). So, in the same way Paul made apostolic teaching the final authority in those days, so we make the apostolic teaching the final authority in our day. That means the New Testament is our authority. And since the New Testament endorses the Old Testament as God's inspired word, we take the whole Bible as our rule and measuring rod of all teachings and all prophecies about what we should believe and how we should live.
What Happened on Pentecost
Now let's turn to Acts 2:16ff. to see what we can learn about the New Testament gift of prophecy. The situation: it is the day of Pentecost, 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus. There are 120 Christian men and women waiting in Jerusalem to be "clothed with power from on high" (Luke 24:49). According to Acts 2:2 the Holy Spirit comes with the sound of a rushing wind. In verse 4 Luke says, "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues." Verse 11 is more specific about what they were saying. Some of the foreigners who heard them say, "We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." Note the content of their words very carefully. That will be important for understanding the nature of the gift of prophecy.
The Fulfillment of Joel's Prophecy
In verse 16 Peter explains what is happening. He says that this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel. This is the beginning of the fulfillment Joel 2:28. Then he quotes Joel in verses 17–18, "And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy."
Joel had said that in the last days there would be a great worldwide ("all flesh") outpouring of the Spirit, and the mark of that outpouring would be widespread prophesying: men and women, old and young, low class and upper class. Joel says it will happen in the "last days." When is that? Peter says it was happening right then. "This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel." But if the last days were beginning then, where does that put us?
The Last Days
It puts us in the last days. Since Jesus came, we are living in the last days. Hebrews 1:2 says, "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son . . . " Since the Son came, we live in "these last days."
So this confirms what we saw last week about prophecy being something we should expect today. Men and women, young and old, upper and lower class will prophesy in the last days (our days), and this will be a worldwide phenomenon because, as verse 17 says, God will pour out his Spirit on ALL FLESH—not just Jews. Peter's sermon ends in Acts 2:39, "The promise (of the Spirit in verse 38) is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him." That includes us Gentiles who are called by God. Not all who repent and believe will prophesy (1 Corinthians 12:29). But all who repent and believe will receive the Holy Spirit (v. 38). And one manifestation of the Spirit in the last days will be an amazingly widespread gift of prophecy (vv. 17–18): "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy."
Spirit-Prompted yet No Intrinsic, Divine Authority
Now ask yourself this question: Did Joel and Peter and Luke think that all the men and women—old and young, menservants and maidservants—would become prophets in the same sense that Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah were prophets, that is, people who spoke with verbal inspiration and with the very authority of God and who could write infallible Scripture? Is the prophesying of Acts 2:17 that sort of prophecy? Or is there a difference?
I believe there is a difference. I don't think the gift of prophecy today has the authority of the Old Testament prophets or the authority of Jesus and the apostles. Or, to put it more positively, this sort of prophecy is prompted and sustained by the Spirit and yet does not carry intrinsic, divine authority.
One of the reasons that this kind of prophecy is so hard to get a handle on today is that most of us do not have categories in our thinking for a Spirit-prompted statement that doesn't have intrinsic, divine authority. That sounds like a contradiction. We stumble over a kind of speech that is prompted and sustained by the Holy Spirit and yet is fallible. But I am going to try to show this morning and this evening that this is what the gift of prophecy is in the New Testament and today. It is a Spirit-prompted, Spirit-sustained utterance that does not carry intrinsic, divine authority and may be mixed with error.
Now if that makes the gift of prophecy seem insignificant and unedifying, consider the analogy of the gift of teaching.
The Analogy of the Gift of Teaching
Would you not say that, when the spiritual gift of teaching is being exercised, teaching is prompted and sustained by the Spirit and is rooted in an infallible, divine revelation, namely, the Bible? The gift of teaching is the Spirit-prompted, Spirit-sustained act of explaining biblical truth for the edification of the church. And all of us would say it is tremendously valuable in the life of the church. But would any of us say that the speech of a teacher, when he is exercising the gift of teaching, is infallible? No. Would we say it has divine authority? Only in a very secondary sense would we say so. Not in itself, not intrinsically, but in its source, Bible.
Why is it that a gift that is Spirit-prompted and Spirit-sustained and rooted in an infallible revelation (the Bible) is nevertheless fallible, mixed with imperfection, and only has secondary, derivative authority? The answer is this: A teacher's perception of biblical truth is fallible; his analysis of biblical truth is fallible; his explanation of biblical truth is fallible. There is no guarantee that the link between an infallible Bible and the church will be an infallible link. The gift of teaching does not guarantee infallible teaching.
And yet, even though the gift of teaching is fallible and even though it lacks intrinsic, divine authority, we know it is of immense value to the church. We are all edified and built up by gifted teachers. God is in it. He does use it. It is a spiritual gift.
Now compare this to the gift of prophecy. It is prompted by the Spirit and sustained by the Spirit and based on a revelation from God. God reveals something to the mind of the prophet (in some way beyond ordinary sense perception), and since God never makes a mistake, we know that his revelation is true. It has no error in it. But the gift of prophecy does not guarantee the infallible transmission of that revelation. The prophet may perceive the revelation imperfectly, he may understand it imperfectly, and he may deliver it imperfectly. That's why Paul says we see in a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12). The gift of prophecy results in fallible prophecy just like the gift of teaching results in fallible teaching. So I would ask, "If teaching can be good for the edification of the church, could not prophecy be good for edifying as well, just as Paul says it is (1 Corinthians 14:3, 12, 26)—even though both of them are fallible, mixed with human imperfection, and in need of testing?
Creating a New Category in Our Thinking
The point of what I have been saying is this: we need to create a category in our thinking for a kind of speech that is Spirit-prompted, Spirit-sustained, revelation-rooted, and yet in need of testing and sifting. We need another category of prophet besides the one of true prophet, on the one hand, who spoke with infallible, verbal inspiration (the prophetic biblical authors and Jesus and the apostles), and false prophet, on the other hand, who is condemned in Deuteronomy 13:3; 18:20 (cf. Jeremiah 23:16). The teaching that we find in the Bible about prophecy is simply not exhausted by these two categories. We need a third category for the "spiritual gift of prophecy"—Spirit-prompted, Spirit-sustained, revelation-rooted, but mixed with human imperfection and fallibility and therefore in need of sifting.
I say sifting because in 1 Thessalonians 5:19–22 that is what happens. It is not the prophet who is being tested as true or false. It is the prophecies that are being sifted for what is good and bad. "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil." This is not an either/or situation where you either have a true, infallible prophet or a false, presumptuous prophet. It is a situation in which some of the prophecy is good and some is not.
Paul says that if we despise it because of this imperfection, we quench the Spirit. I hope you want to avoid that with all your heart. How shall we do that? There is so much more to say. I will pick it up here tonight, give additional reasons, and practical implications. May the Lord himself teach us even this afternoon.