Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (Hebrews 1:1–2 ESV)
Do prophecies or prophets have a place in the Church today? If yes, what is their role amongst God’s people in these days of the Son of God?
Prophecy is a double-edged sword. God uses it to bless His people immensely, but Satan and human beings have used it to cause untold damage, confusion, and perplexity amongst God’s people. To benefit from this precious divine gift to His people, we must thoroughly understand the place of prophecy and prophets in the New Testament.
Two significant errors underlie many of the problems of prophecy amongst God’s people today. First the idea that prophecy or prophets passed away with the Old Testament. Second, and the most problematic of the two, is failing to recognize the difference in the role of prophecy and prophets in the New Testament compared to the Old.
So we should settle this truth in our minds: prophecy and prophets( “the prophetic”) have a place in the Church today, but their roles have shifted.
New Testament vs. the Old
In the Old Testament, the ordinary Jew did not have the Spirit of God in them. God put His Spirit on prophets, who acted as the only channels through which God’s words came to the people.
God spoke to Israel through the prophets as in Heb. 1:1 above. However, there was a significant shift in the New Testament. First, God’s Word came to the people as flesh, the Man Jesus( Heb. 1:2). And when He left, He compiled all His revealed Word to His people in a book called the Bible. So Jesus and the Bible fulfilled the primary purpose of prophecy in the Old Testament.
But there was another significant shift besides the Word coming as flesh and the completion of God’s revelation to man in a book. The Spirit of prophecy, exclusively given to the prophets, was poured out on all of God’s people. Therefore every believer is born a prophet by default—they have the Spirit of God and can operate in the same arms of the prophetic as the prophets of old.
Prophecy in the New Testament
A proper understanding of the prophetic in the Church must take into account the significant shifts described above—the coming of the Word in the flesh, the completion of the revealed Word in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit in every believer.
So does prophecy still have a place in the Church?
Two rhetorical questions will help answer this question. First, do we still need any Church leaders since everyone has the Spirit of God? Second, why goes God give some people spiritual gifts when we all have the same Spirit that gives those gifts?
Although we all have the Spirit, the Bible, and Jesus in our hearts, there is a role for leadership and the gifts of the Spirit amongst God’s people. Prophecy in the New Testament functions similarly. There are three distinct but related levels of the operation of prophecy.
First, every believer functions in the prophetic because they can now know things revealed to them by the Spirit and even speak God’s words by His Spirit. In fact, the Church is a prophetic people. Let me use a commonly misinterpreted verse to explain this point. When God said, “touch not mine anointed and do my prophets no harm,” He was not referring to Moses as the great prophet but to the entire people of Israel. In fact, Moses himself said, by the Spirit, that:
“Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29 ESV)
He spoke God’s mind long before prophet Joel prophesied and said God would take one day pour his Spirit upon all flesh. ( Joel 2:28).
The Gift of Prophecy
Beyond the general level of the prophetic in every believer is the gift of prophecy. As I have taught before, a spiritual gift is simply the Spirit of God giving someone a higher ability to operate differently.
Every believer is prophetic, but God gives some the ability to operate in the prophetic above the rest so that they can help others. This is the gift of prophecy mentioned in 1 Cor. 12:10.
The Office of the Prophet
The third level of operation of the prophetic, beyond the general prophetic and the gift of the Spirit, is the office of a prophet. This is yet a higher level of grace to operate in the prophetic, associated with a position of authority and leadership in the Church.
The office of the prophet must be carefully distinguished from the gift of prophecy. That someone can prophesy through the gift does not mean God has called them to the office of a prophet.
Even then, the role of the office of the prophet is not the same in the Church as it was in the Old Testament. God will not use any prophet, no matter who they are today, to add to the revelation He has already given to us in the Bible. Secondly, the prophet in this office is not there to serve as the sole middle person between God’s people and the words of God as it was in the Old Testament.
Nevertheless, God uses the office of the prophet to know God’s word of direction for His people and to operate in more excellent dimensions in gifts such as the word of knowledge or working of miracles.
A Central Purpose of Prophecy in the New Testament
Because of these different levels of operation of the prophetic in the New Testament, prophecy has a general and a specific sense. In the general sense, knowing God’s Word revealed in the scriptures and teaching it is prophecy.
But in the more specific sense, prophecy is similar to prophesy in the Old Testament but different in its role, when the Spirit of God directly gives His words to someone with the ability to utter them, often with power for the miraculous.
Therefore the fundamental purpose of prophecy in the New Testament is summed up in this verse from Paul:
“On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (1 Corinthians 14:3 ESV)
God uses prophecy, the gift of prophecy, and the office of the prophet primarily to build up His people. And see how this beautifully fits with the office of the prophet:
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–12 ESV)
So though the gift of prophecy allows a prophet to know things to come, God’s primary purpose of prophecy and prophets today is not to tell the Church what will happen in the world tomorrow or anytime soon. But when He tells us what is coming, we should receive it with thanksgiving and be wise enough to respect God’s gifts.
In summary, prophecy is not going anywhere. Instead, God is in the process of raising a prophetic people and uses the gift of prophecy and the office of the prophet to equip His people to fulfill their prophetic birthright.
Our headaches and confusion have no end if we misunderstand prophecy and fail to understand its critical shifts in the New Testament. However, if we embrace the prophetic and allow the Spirit to do what He does best, the world will see a prophetic people as it has never seen before!