by Rick Pidcock
Perhaps the biggest struggle that I had in my journey into continuationism had to do with the implications of ongoing prophecy for the sufficiency of Scripture. If ongoing revelation occurs, then how can we boldly proclaim that the Word of God is sufficient to make us “equipped for every good work”? If ongoing revelation occurs, then how can we confidently trust that the canon is closed? If God gives revelation today, then wouldn’t that revelation be on par with Scripture? If not, then is God giving fallible revelation? And if God currently gives fallible revelation, then how can we know that the Bible wasn’t a fallible revelation as well?
The potential for serious theological error that an acceptance of continuationism opens up is profound. So it is not something that we should tread into lightly. It is something that must be treated with utmost exegetical care. And it is something that can only be understood if we consider the differences between OT Prophecy and NT Prophecy, as well as different types of revelation. Though the potential for serious error and abuse is great, we cannot totally dismiss the gift of prophecy based on our fears, if it is something that is taught in Scripture.
Biblical Continuationism affirms the sufficiency of the Christ-centered closed canon.
“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
Throughout the Old Testament, God spoke to His people through prophets. However, the writer of Hebrews points out that in the final days of the Old Covenant, God transitioned from speaking to His people through prophets, and into speaking to His people through Christ. Thus, the prophet as utilized by God throughout the Old Testament had become obsolete.
The question that naturally rises from this situation then is this. If God discontinued using prophets for revelation, and then transitioned into speaking to us through Christ in His Word, then why would God give the church prophets and the gift of prophecy?
Part of the answer would have to be that the New Testament prophet is different from the Old Testament prophet.
Old Testament Revelation
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.”–John 5:39,46
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself…Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”–Luke 24:27, 44
“To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: 23 that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”–Acts 26:22-23
Old Testament prophecy was completely about one theme–the revelation of the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Because it preceded the incarnation of Christ, it looked forward to all that Christ would accomplish.
“And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:19-21
Old Testament prophecy was also infallible. The Holy Spirit gave these men such a clear authoritative word that no portion of their prophecy was produced by man. It was not tainted by man. It was completely authoritative and reliable. And it was guaranteed to come to pass, because the entire sovereign redemptive plan of God depended on it.
New Testament Revelation
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”–2 Corinthians 4:6
New Testament revelation continues with the same theme and focus of the Old Testament–namely the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. The main difference is more a matter of chronology. Whereas OT revelation looks forward to Christ, NT revelation looks back to Christ.
Sufficiency of the Canon
“Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”–Proverbs 30:5-6
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”–2 Timothy 3:16-17
The Word of God is true, direct, authoritative, infallible, Christ-centered revelation that is complete, lacking in nothing. It teaches, reproves, corrects, and trains. And it is sufficient in itself to equip us for anything that we might face in life. We must not add to what God has completed in the Scriptures.
Josh Harris says it this way in his book entitled Dug Down Deep, “I believe in the gift of prophecy (carefully defined), but it is clearly not to be equated with Scripture or prophecy in the Bible. It’s not God speaking infallibly as he did through the prophets in the Old Testament or through the apostles. So no one is adding to Holy Scripture today. The canon of Scripture is closed. I’d rather have two words of Scripture than a hundred words of prophecy. Only Scripture is perfect and authoritative.”
Biblical Continuationism affirms ongoing communication by the Holy Spirit.
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth…But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” John 14:16-17, 26
As Christ was preparing for His final days on this earth, He began to teach His disciples about the coming Holy Spirit, who would be their Helper, Comforter, Advocate, and Teacher. And it is that same Holy Spirit who communicates today.
“When he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment…He will glorify me.”–John 16:8, 14
The Holy Spirit communicates in such a way that convicts the sinner and glorifies Christ.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”–1 Corinthians 2:12-14
The Holy Spirit also communicates to the believer in a special way, because the believer has received the Spirit of God and is spiritually discerned. This ongoing communication by the Spirit to our minds and hearts is what I believe to be biblical New Testament prophecy.
Biblical continuationism affirms the ongoing role of prophecy in the church.
So with all of that ground work laid, let’s go to 1 Corinthians 14 to discover exactly what biblical prophecy looks like in the New Testament local church. I’d like to say up front that the wording for some of these points were taken from a sermon that our pastor Mark Alderton preached on prophecy.
1. Prophecy is to be earnestly desired.
“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”–1 Corinthians 14:1
Even though there are very serious potential theological dangers when one embraces the idea of prophecy, it is still something that should be earnestly desired, not paralyzingly feared.
2. The goal of prophecy is edification.
“The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.”–1 Corinthians 14:3,4
Edification is building up, encouraging, and consoling a believer into a greater maturity in Christ. This goal fits perfectly into the theme of the first article in this series. God is continually making us more like Him through partial glimpses of Himself that create within us a longing for the day when the state of perfection comes, when we see Him face to face. Therefore, both the goal and duration of prophecy is intrinsically connected to this greater context of what God is sovereignly bringing to completion.
3. Prophecy is available to every believer.
“Earnestly desire…that you may prophesy.”–1 Corinthians 14:1
“If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all.”–1 Corinthians 14:24
Though Old Testament prophecy was limited to a small number of people, New Testament prophecy is available to every believer. Paul commands us to earnestly desire this gift. He even poses the possibility of the entire church prophesying. We will explore in more depth how this functions in our next article entitled, “Continuationism & Orderly Worship.”
4. Prophecy is a human report of a divine revelation.
“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.”–1 Corinthians 14:29-31
The word “revelation” is definitely going to make many people cringe. But it is the exact word of the text. It says that if somebody is speaking a prophetic word, and somebody else receives a revelation, then the first prophet should be silent so that everybody may learn and be encouraged by the second prophecy.
5. Prophecy must be weighed to see if it indeed is from God.
“Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.” 1 Corinthians 14:29
This point marks a major difference between the authoritative revelation of Scripture, and ongoing human reports of revelation. Whereas the revelation of the canon of Scripture is perfect and complete, this new revelation is one that must be weighed.
But how is this not opening up the possibility for an open canon? And is there an example of this type of revelation elsewhere in Scripture?
This new covenant prophecy is not given to reveal new doctrine or Scriptures. As we saw earlier in this article, the canon of Scripture is completely authoritative and complete. The new covenant prophecy is not meant to reveal new truth, but rather to edify the church.
But are there examples in Scripture of prophecies being made outside of Scripture? Consider Acts 15 where the prophets Judas and Silas preached a lengthy message to edify the body. Though the doctrinal foundation of the great debate that was occurring in this chapter was laid by the Apostles, there was a ministry of edification being done by the prophets. If the nature of the new covenant prophet is to reveal authoritative doctrinal truths from God, then why did God not record their lengthy sermon in Scripture? The answer, of course, is that their ministry of prophecy was not meant to reveal new doctrine, but rather to edify the brethren.
New Covenant prophecy then is not meant to reveal anything new regarding theology, but rather to reveal localized, temporal matters for the purpose of edifying the church.
Consider Agabus for example. Though he never wrote Scripture, He did prophesy of a famine (Acts 11:27, 28). His prophesy was more than mere preaching, because it was not based on any OT text. But it was less than doctrinal truth as well. So what was its purpose? Its purpose was to edify the body, allowing the church to take up a collection for the church in need.
Another instance concerning Agabus is found in Acts 21:10-14, where Agabus warns Paul from the Holy Spirit regarding potential persecution in Jerusalem. His prophecy was meant for one particular person at one specific time. Yet interestingly enough, Paul considered this prophecy optional, and responded by rejecting it (vs. 12-14).
The point is this: there is a new category of prophecy introduced here that is less than authoritative doctrine, and that must be weighed and tested. Why? Because it is reported by imperfect humans. And if somebody claims to have a prophecy that either contradicts Scripture, or adds new doctrine to Scripture, then it must be considered as false.
6. Prophecy is speaking something that God spontaneously brings to mind.
“If a revelation is made to another sitting there…”–1 Corinthians 14:30
Paul expects that a revelation is something that can happen spontaneously during a worship gathering. This is another reason why it is more than simply what we consider modern day preaching. A sermon is something that is prepared ahead of time. However, a prophecy is something that may happen spontaneously in the middle of a worship gathering.
7. Prophecy reveals God’s knowledge or God’s encouragement specific to a person’s situation.
“For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.”–1 Corinthians 14:31
When God speaks to us through a revelation, He speaks so that we may learn something encouraging from Him. Again, this must not mean that God reveals new doctrine to us because that has already been ruled out as impossible. However, as the Holy Spirit communicates to us as our Helper, Advocate, Encourager, and Teacher, we do indeed learn about the glory of Christ from Him.
For the unbeliever.
Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”–1 Corinthians 14:22-25
I’m not sure if Charles Spurgeon was a continuationist or not. But he shares a story in his autobiography that describes these verses perfectly.
“While preaching in the hall on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd and said, ‘There is a man sitting there who is a shoemaker. He keeps his shop open on Sundays. It was open last Sabbath morning. He took nine pence. And there was four pence profit out of it. His soul is sold to Satan for four pence.’ A city missionary, when going his rounds met with this man. And seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked a question, ‘Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the man. ‘I have every reason to know him. I have been to hear him and under his preaching by God’s grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the music hall, took my seat in the middle of the place. Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me. And in his sermon, he pointed to me. And he told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays. And I did, sir. I should not have minded that. But he also said that I took nine pence the Sunday before, and that there was four pence profit out of it. I did take nine pence that day. And four pence was just the profit. But how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him. And so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first I was afraid to go near him lest he should tell the people more about me. But afterwards I went. And the Lord met with me, and saved my soul.”
This is a clear example of God revealing to a man of God the secrets of the heart of an unbeliever as a sign to that unbeliever, in order to draw him to become a worshiper of Christ.
For the believer
Here are a few examples of possible prophecies for believers that our pastor gave us.
“I believe the Lord would remind us that He is pleased with the praises of His people.”
“It seems that the Lord is indicating that there are some here that are overcome with financial pressures. And the Lord would say to you, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. And all these things will be added to you.”
“The Lord gave me a picture of the church this morning. We were a field of sunflowers following the sun. But the clouds hid the sun for a time. And our heads drooped. And that was a picture of our current struggles. But He would say to us, ‘Do not fear, because the sun still shines behind the clouds. And I will not forsake you.'”
A prophecy is not necessarily a prediction of something to come. It more often is the Holy Spirit communicating the gospel to a specific situation that you are facing.
8. Prophecy is a sign of God’s favorable presence on the believers.
“Prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.”–1 Corinthians 14:22
Because prophecy is when the Holy Spirit communicates God’s truth to our souls, it is a sign for the believer that God knows and is personally caring for the believer because of Christ.
One specific instance of this for me that stands out was during our first year out here in Denver. We had left our family and friends in order to move across the country and start a church. We had thousands of dollars worth of debt. And we went through five vehicles during the first year and a half. After a few $500 clunkers, we decided to invest in a nicer van that we could use for my business and for personal use. But one day, the van was stolen. And it was not until a month later that the police found it, and brought it back to us. It was bashed in on the right side. There were bullet holes in the windshield. The ignition was ripped out. The number 13 was carved in the dashboard. It was set on fire on the inside. And some of my equipment was missing. A few days later, somebody came by and stole the rear left wheel. And a few days after that, somebody shot it up with a paintball gun.
I remember walking outside, at the end of myself, and asked, “God, what are you doing?” Then I looked up, and saw a rainbow. And there was a very specific message that entered my mind and sank into my heart that said, “Just like I assured Noah with a rainbow that I would keep my promises to Him, I am assuring you that I will keep my promises to you.” And in that moment, my heart began to rest in the reminder that all of the promises of God have their “yes” in Christ.
That was not a new doctrine. But it was indeed the Holy Spirit communicating the glory of Christ to me in order to encourage and build me up in Him.
Josh Harris says in His book Dug Down Deep, “Most of the times I see prophecy function, it serves to remind people of truths and promises from God’s Word. It’s not revealing the future or imparting fresh revelation but affirming and applying God’s already-revealed truth to specific people and situations. When prophecy is genuine, it points people to Jesus, reminds them of his faithfulness, and directs them to his priorities. True prophecy always confirms and accords with God’s Word.” (p. 185)
Dan Wallace, who is a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary that believes in cessationism shares a story about how God used his eight year old son’s cancer to awaken his soul to the presence of the Holy Spirit. He says, “I needed God in a personal way–not as an object of my study, but as a friend, guide, comforter. I needed an existential experience of the Holy One….I found the scriptures to be helpful–even authoritatively helpful–as a guide. But without feeling God, the Bible gave me little solace….I found a longing to get closer to God, but found myself unable to do so through my normal means: exegesis, scripture reading, more exegesis. I believe that I had depersonalized God so much that when I really needed him I didn’t know how to relate.” (Daniel B. Wallace and M. James Sawyer, eds. Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit? An investigation into the Ministry of the Spirit of God Today (Dallas: Biblical Studies Press, 2005)
Dan continues, “I am increasingly convinced, that although God does not communicate in a way that opposes the scriptures, he often communicates in a non-verbal manner to his children, giving them assurance, bringing them comfort, guiding them through life’s rough waters. To deny that God speaks verbally to us today apart from the scriptures is not to deny that he communicates to us apart from the scriptures.”
Even though Dan is a cessationist, I believe that what he is describing is biblical prophecy. It is not a reopening of the canon of Scripture. It is not new doctrine. Rather, it is the Holy Spirit spontaneously communicating God’s truth to His people for the purpose of edification.
Jesus said in John 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus does speak to His people. And He does so through the Word and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Whether or not we label that communication as prophecy, it is still something that all of us experience. And it is something that Paul says we are to “earnestly desire.”
Until the day comes when we see Christ face to face and fully know, we will only be able to experience this communication of the Holy Spirit through a dark mirror. So enjoy this gift. But also, allow this gift to cultivate within your heart a longing for the day when it is no longer needed, because we will fully know, as we have been fully known.