Whenever you bring up the controversial subject of spiritual gifts, one feels the need to rush into the cessationist and continuationist debate but before we get there, we need to stop, and press pause. It is not all the gifts of the Sprit that are up for debate, it is in particular the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit that is hotly contested. The sign gifts (Heb 2:3-4) are the gifts of prophecy, tongues and healings.
Before we ask the question as to their relevance for us today and whether or not the church has access to such gifts, we must define these particular gifts. Definitions matter.
What is prophecy?
1. Prophecy is spontaneous truth delivered by God.
This means that prophecy is not preaching. At least nor from a written text. Prophecy is to be distinguished from teaching although there is some overlap. The spontaneous nature of prophecy can be seen in 1 Corinthians 14:29-33 which reads:
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.
Notice the sudden nature of revelation. As one prophet speaks, a sudden revelation is given to another prophet. The first prophet needs to sit down and allow the second prophet to speak so that the words can be weighed. This is spontaneous truth delivered by God to the prophet without a written text. The same can be seen with Agabus in Acts 11.
2. Prophecy is predictive.
Prophecy is often predictive. In Acts 11, the nature of Agabus’s prophecy is clearly predictive as he sees great danger lying ahead for the Apostle Paul. A good word to use here is the word “foretelling”. Prophecy often foretells the future.
3. Prophecy is not always predictive.
Although prophecy is often foretelling, it is not exclusively so. Prophecy is also forth-telling (or circumstantial). In 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, we see the forth-telling element. We read that when one prophecies, he/she may say something that reveals “the secrets of the heart”. This indicates that divine truth was revealed from God about someone who was present in the assembly. This was not a foretelling but a forth-telling.
These are basic and succinct definitions that will help us going forward. Our next article will address the question of whether New Testament prophecy contains error and whether the gift of prophecy is still with us today.