New Testament prophecy and the function of prophets is probably one of the most misunderstood and misaligned spiritual gifts in the church today–especially, by those who don’t believe this gift is for today. I hope to shed some light on this here and clear up some unnecessary confusion. At least, for those are open to the possibility.
Old Testament vs. New Testament prophets
The first thing we need to understand is that prophecy functions very differently under the New Covenant than the Old. So, if you’re patterning yourself after Old Testament prophets, you’re in the wrong covenant! And that includes John the Baptist, who was the last of the Old Testament prophets.
Jesus is our model for all ministry today, not Elijah. This was the memo Jesus had to give James and John when they wanted to go “Old Testament” on Samaria. Jesus said they were of the wrong spirit, even though they would’ve been right under the Old Covenant (see Luke 9:51-55).
This is why you cannot read the Bible indiscriminately. You must see it through the right covenantal lens to see it correctly.
To help us do that, here’s a very brief overview of the difference between Old Testament and New Testament prophets:
Under the Old Covenant, the saints did not have Holy Spirit living in them. Prophets spoke for God to His people. This is why if their word didn’t come to pass, the prophet was judged (Deut.18:19-20). Prophecy had scriptural authority under the Old Covenant. Prophecy often foretold God’s redemptive plan for Israel and human history.
Under the New Covenant, ALL saints have the Holy Spirit. Prophets don’t hear God for His people, they confirm and establish what a believer is hearing. I talked about this last time. Furthermore, the prophet is NOT judged, the word is judged (1 Cor.14:29). We’re not told to be critical of prophecy. Quite the opposite, we’re to test the word (not the prophet) and hold fast to what is GOOD.
“Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophecies.
Test all things;
hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess.5:19-21)
Furthermore, we’re to judge the spirit of the word (1 John 4:1). For instance, a true New Testament prophet can “miss it” and still be a true prophet, and a false prophet can give a true word but still be a false prophet. We see an example of the latter with the slave girl in Philippi who had a true word but by the wrong spirit (Acts 16:16-18).
This is why we don’t judge prophecy by whether something comes true or not but by whether it has God’s grace on it or not. We use spiritual discernment under the New Covenant according to the grace working in us.
Last point here, prophets don’t have scriptural authority under the New Covenant. Their purpose, and the purpose of prophecy in general, is to build up and support believer’s growth in Christ and edify the Church (Eph.4:11-16).
I shouldn’t have to point out the obvious here, but since we certainly haven’t come into the “unity of the faith” or have “grown up into Christ,” we still need apostles and prophets, just like we still need pastors and teachers and evangelists. Again, for a different purpose than the Old Testament prophets or even the twelve apostles.
And this brings us to the purpose of prophecy in the local Church today.
The purpose of New Covenant prophecy
Fortunately, we don’t have to guess here. Paul clearly tells us in 1 Corinthians chapter 14 that the purpose of prophecy is edify the church. We see here that it does this in three ways (emphasis added).
“But one who prophesies speaks to people
for their edification
and encouragement and consolation.” (1 Cor.14:3 Mounce)
We see here that prophecy is for edification, encouragement and consolation. These are interesting Greek words.
Edification – οἰκοδομή (oikodomē): “building spiritual structure, to build up”
Encouragement – παράκλησις (paraklēsis): “calling upon, incite, cheering and supporting influence, give constructive spiritual progress, joy, gladness, enjoyment.”
Consolation – παραμυθία (paramythia): “comfort, strengthen, fortify.”
So we can safely summarize by saying that the purpose of prophesying in the local church setting is to cheer on, build up, strengthen, be a positive supporting influence, to encourage and comfort in a spiritual atmosphere of joy and gladness (expressing the Father’s heart).
I also want you to notice what prophecy is not. It’s not being stern, critical, judgmental, heavy-handed, or any other Old Testament picture you want to conjure up about what prophecy should be. Again, as Jesus had to tell James and John, trying to be Elijah is the wrong spirit!
Finally, since Paul clearly said that we should earnestly desire to prophecy (1 Cor.14:1). and that ALL can prophesy (1 Cor.14:31), he was hardly talking about writing Scripture. So it’s irrelevant whether the Canon is complete or not. This is God’s gift to build us up; it’s one of the many ways of expressing the Father’s heart to cheer us on and to strengthen us as we navigate our life together in Christ. This is why it’s sad to me that so many Christians would reject this wonderful grace gift given to us.
I hope this brief overview of prophecy is helpful to you. I will end with Paul’s closing words on the subject.
“Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy,
and do not forbid to speak with tongues.
Let all things be done decently and in order.” (1 Cor.14:39-40)