In the common English of our day, the word prophet has come to mean someone who foretells the future, but this is not its meaning in Scripture. The word is widely misunderstood because the Scriptures usually used it in regard to those who foretold future events. This normally involved the distant future, but it also involved more ordinary and immediate predictions; as in Acts 11:27-28, which tells us that "In these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar." This is indeed the main use of this word in the New Testament. But our English word prophet is a transliteration of the Greek word prophetes. This Greek word did not mean one who predicts the future, but one who speaks forth the words of God. When we understand the word in this more general sense we can understand its many uses in Scripture.
We have already noticed that the church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone." (Ephesians 2:20) The mysteries of the kingdom of God were "revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets." (Ephesians 3:5) For "prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." (2 Peter 1:20-21) Prophecy, then, was the source of the Holy Scriptures. Prophecy of this nature is no longer needed, for the Scriptures are now complete. They include all the spiritual truth we will ever need.
"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
As the Scriptures are now complete, this prophetic function no longer exists. Indeed, our God has pronounced a curse on anyone who adds anything to them or who takes anything away from them:
"For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book." (Revelation 22:18-19)
Some feel that these words apply only to the book of Revelation, but who can deny the significance of where they are found? These words are not just at the end of the book of Revelation. They are at the end of the inspired word of God. The book of Revelation is not only the last book in the Bible. It was the last book of the Bible to be written. We thus realize the true nature of any present day "prophet" who claims to have a revelation of any new "truth" not contained in the Holy Scriptures. Such a person is a false prophet. It is a very serious sin to follow such persons, or to give heed to their words.
Prophecy in the New Testament included commissions, instructions, and warnings:
While we cannot make rules based on examples, we note in passing that each of the commissions above came through prophets other than the individual being commissioned; while instructions and warnings came directly to the individual unless he was being willful. Prophecy of this nature can be just as useful today as it was in Bible days, and the word of God does not forbid its continued use. Many Christians of the present day have reported marvelous results from obeying such prophetic commissions, instructions, or warnings.
New Testament prophecy also included revealing the secrets of a man's heart, as in Acts 5:3-5. Peter said "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God."
We remember that when Ananias heard these words he "fell down and breathed his last." (Verse 5) As with commissions, instructions, and warnings, this prophetic function can be useful in the present day. Its continued use is not only allowed, but encouraged. In 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, we read that "if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you."
But prophecy in the New Testament sense also has a more general function. 1 Corinthians 14:3 tells us that "he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men." Verse 31 of the same chapter adds that "you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged." In these passages, then, we see that prophecy is intended for edification, exhortation, comfort, teaching, and encouragement. That is, it is intended to be used in the general ministry of the church.
We understand this more clearly when we read 1 Peter 4:10-11:
"As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen."
From this we see that all ministry in the church is to be prophetic. "If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God." The church of God is not intended to be a place to exchange human ideas. No one has a right to say anything unless he can honestly state that he believes he is delivering a message from God. This does not simply mean God's message to mankind, but God's specific message for that particular time and place. Some have complained that if everyone followed this rule there would not be very much said in church. But what do the Scriptures say?
"Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil. Do not be rash with your mouth, And let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; Therefore let your words be few." (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2)
Men are little aware of the solemnity of presuming to speak for God. While we no longer live under the rigors of Old Testament law, we should carefully consider Deuteronomy 18:20: "But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die." Presuming to speak a word in God's name was a crime worthy of death. It was in a class with prophesying in the name of false gods. Proverbs 30:6 warns us: "Do not add to His words, Lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar."
Our Lord warned us: "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit." (Matthew 7:15-18) The spirit behind a false prophet can be tested by 1 John 4:1-3: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God."
But even if we judge a man to truly be a prophet, we should not simply accept his words as a message from God. 1 Corinthians 14:29 tells us: "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge." Our standard for judgement is the written word of God, the Bible. We have no other. Isaiah 8:20 says that "If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them." 2 Peter 2:1-2 warns us that "there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed." Failure to heed these warnings has introduced much error and bad doctrine into the church.
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