Understanding Prophecy

(From within Baptist, Cessationist churches for others open-mined about how it works and its benefits today.)

There's an office and a gift of prophecy. The office of prophecy consisted of people who called out sin among God's people, exhorted them to holy living, and gave them guidance. Some or all of that came via prophecies. Most believe that office closed. The gift of prophecy is God giving a message to a person that they must share with another person. It's received instantly and out of nowhere, not built up or planned. The first one I experienced was supernatural, detailed, and came true precisely. It sent me running towards God. Being a higher gift, Scripture says it can have high impact with little work on both individuals and groups of people. That's why Paul tells churches to pray for it.

God led me to Baptist churches for spiritual discipline. Such churches claimed all prophecies ceased, such claims were usually fake/Satanic, and (even if real) shouldn't be regularly pursued or discussed. Those claims didn't line up with NT's teachings or how that one impacted me. The others I got were having impact, getting confirmed by Cessationists, and/or coming true with missed impact. Some suffering could've been prevented.

I asked God to help me understand this first-hand. I kept reading Scripture on and praying for all sign gifts. I wanted to ensure validity among skeptical Reformed and Baptist readers. So, I kept my research independent from Charismatics by doing it in Baptist churches using their techniques for interpreting Scripture. The only Charismatic sources are surveys on post-Apostolic miracles since Baptists I met didn't provide me with any (or didn't know they existed).

Here's our approach. We'll first read Scripture to see what it says about prophecy: whether it's canonical, what it actually is for, whether we should seek it, and how to use it. From personal experience, I'll describe how the gift actually worked, how I used it, and some examples. I'll also counter Cessationism using Scripture. Then, we'll look at Scripture plus historical data to come up with a better theory for the difference between miracles then and today. Let's get to it!

(Note: Anyone who fully understands the gift can skip to my examples if they want.)

Does All Prophecy Have Canonical Authority?

Looking for some numbers, a GotQuestions article said: "More than 133 named prophets are mentioned in the Bible, including 16 women. In addition, numerous others prophesied, such as the 70 elders of Israel (Numbers 11:25) and the 100 prophets rescued by Obadiah (1 Kings 18:4)."

We have much fewer than 319 books in the Bible. Most of their prophecies, along with the four daughters in NT, did not become canon. Also, Deuteronomy, Thessalonians, and 1 John tell you to allow, but carefully test, prophetic claims. Then, you "hold onto what is good." We don't read Scripture that way. That leads to a hypothesis that attempts at prophecy are non-canonical by default, must be confirmed somehow, and only rarely went into the Canon.

The rules in Corinthians say to take turns sharing their contributions, including tongues and prophecies, with others in the general assembly. It's ordinary believers who received those prophecies before sharing them with other believers in their church groups. Then, the group as a whole accepted or rejected them. That's a default that's lower than a pastor's authority. This corroborates the above hypothesis.

In one video, John Piper observed that Paul orders women not to pray or prophecy with their heads uncovered. Elsewhere, women are not allowed to exercise authority over men in the church (i.e. the general assembly). So, Paul does allow women to both pray and prophecy in that general assembly but not teach or exercise authority. This may reinforce that the gift imposes no canonical authority on its own. Deborah might be a counter-example, though. A safe assumption would be that prophecies also have one or more roles in the general assembly that fit God's gender roles for women.

All that said, some prophecy is canonical. The Prophets with a capital P were among rare few whose words became The Word. Ephesians said those prophets and the apostles laid the foundation. The above evidence shows clearly that most prophecy isn't canonical, though. Passages on testing and women using it show it's not even authoritative by default. Even the authoritative prophecies aren't until the church accepts them as authoritative. We'll skip that interesting tangent, though.

What Scripture Says Prophecy Does

Let's look at the gift and act of prophecy itself. What does Scripture say prophecy does?

The Old Testament prophets receive and deliver words from God. The words are a mix of calling out sin, exhortation, encouragement, and hidden knowledge (or revelation). The latter are secrets of the present or future the prophet can't possibly know themselves. They're often in visions. They always come true in specific ways. Whether normal or supernatural, God gives the message to a person to pass along to others to accomplish some goal.

In the New Testament, Paul helps us by spelling out what prophecy does in churches:

"On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation." (1 Cor. 14:3)

"But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 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 Cor. 14:24-25)

" Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you." (1 Tim 4:14)

We see at least three uses outside of canonical revelation:

First, the Holy Spirit builds people up in various ways by spontaneously giving someone just the right thing to say to have a high impact on the listener. Having worded it like that, I bet some readers have seen or done that more than once. They say it was just a good idea, that God put something on their heart about or for someone, that the Spirit was really moving in the group, and so on. Recipients say the Spirit drew them closer to Jesus, lifted them up from deep in struggle, or built them up. They call these moments everything but prophecies. Yet, they're doing exactly what 1 Cor 14:3 says prophecies will do.

Second, a prophecy might disclose hidden information. My experience is that this happens mostly with strangers or people that just don't share information with each other. The reason is probably that a friend saying something about what you shared with them might just be their thoughts on the matter. If it's a stranger, what are the odds they'd say that? And how could they even know something that personal or hard to obtain? If it's a group listening to God, a stranger in it spitting out something deeply personal, esp secret, is like God shouting at you. Paul says non-believers experiencing this will feel the presence of God so strongly they might come to Jesus Christ on the spot. In John 4, we see prophecy play a pivotal role in converting the Samaritan woman before she started evangelizing a whole town.

Third, Timothy's example shows it provides guidance. They prayed about and laid hands on him. Someone there prophesied his gift, calling, or something like that. We can assume they tested it. The result either put Timothy into ministry or better equipped him for it. We know from Paul's letters what massive impact Timothy had from there. Prophecy can send well-equipped laborers into the field. Combined with second use, it might get a whole group fired up and wanting to go all in for Jesus.

So, we see God uses prophecy in the New Testament for upbuilding, encouragement, consolation, revealing hidden information, providing guidance, and equipping for ministry. This overall definition also fits all uses of prophecy I've seen in the Bible so far. Do tell me if you know one that doesn't fit, though.

I'll reiterate that none of these examples need to be canonical. All are activities both men and women can do in various ways. All are needed and helpful today. If anything, it looks like prophecy is a catalyst that God puts in to get things moving faster. In some situations, it can help believers instantly overcome serious obstacles to God's goals for them.

Who Has It

"Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching;" (Rom 12:6-7)

Both Romans and 1 Corinthians list it with the other gifts that churches do today. Paul says we'll each have different ones, implies there's often one we will do regularly, and prophecy is listed as one of them. That predicts there will probably be people in most churches who share prophecies as much as people serve, teach, and show mercy.

You can also ask for it. Jesus prayed for everything He did. He told us God prefers us to ask for things. James says we must ask. The Apostles similarly stay praying for all the other gifts, like understanding and boldness, in their letters. My favorite. Many assume the Apostles could just work miracles. Scripture says, even after the Spirit came, they still had to pray specifically for strong preaching, healing, and signs before doing those things. Later, Paul said to seek the higher gifts, esp to desire prophecy. I'll add that most gifts require faith to even use. Asking with doubts probably won't work.

Summary: Scripture seems to say (a) pray for them, (b) have faith they'll work, and (c) try to use them. Some people will also get them regularly.

Using Prophecy in a Church

" What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up." (1 Cor 14:26)

In these sections, Paul instructs us on how to run a church group. The groups will range from strangers to friends. When together, most of them participate actively to build the group up. They don't merely passively listen to sermons or share expositions of Scripture. It's collaborative sharing that includes songs/poems, teachings (which include exposition), and prophecies. They take turns sharing them in an orderly fashion with others listening to and testing them. All shares are for upbuilding.

So, God gives some people the gift of prophecy and sets up the church to regularly receive prophecies. If prophecies come, the church is ready to receive their benefits without it being any weirder than it has to be. If they don't, they still receive the Spirit's other gifts. Teaching is the most-consistent, higher gift. One of the things that make teaching and prophecies higher gifts is people without them can share with or testify about them to other group members. They are fixed amounts of work whose impact can easily ripple outward.

My Experiences: Seeking, Receiving, and Using Them

That I have the gift in a Cessationist church motivated this a bit more. People's responses were to ignore it, despise it, or accept it while saying the frequency should be limited (?!). People might just get awkwardly quiet waiting for the subject to change. All that's a far cry from verses above saying to be open to, test them, and use anything good.

Many were for strangers, not friends. Some appeared to have large benefit but might shake people up. I was advised against delivering prophecies to strangers that might shake them up. Some were confirmed later with the benefits lost or people suffering in maybe-avoidable ways. It's like watching an accident happen in slow motion without being able to help. That it came from non-compliance with Scripture often made me deeply sad.

After failing to change that, I noticed a famous, Reformed preacher many Baptists loved had and used the gift of prophecy. His expository preaching was rigorously grounded in the Word. Then, he'd pray for God to give him prophecies while preaching which he wouldn't actually call "prophecies." That kind of cheats past the testing phase by making them look like improvised moments that blew peoples' minds and pierced their hearts. This would magnify his sermons' impact for Christ. If any weren't prophecies, they were just opinions in sermons like others'. He gave examples showing God was clearly doing that. Solid teaching mixed with prophecies may explain why his sermons hit six to seven digits in views. That's extremely rare outside feel-good, prosperity preaching.

Likewise, I prayed God give them to me in ways that blend into normal activities. God seemed to do that in these ways: cores of essays on hard topics, conversational tactics (esp apologetics), service upbuilding for others whose gifts I know nothing about, uplifting words for people I'm incapable of counseling, and delivering obscure points in lessons before the teachers read them. I pray my church gets many gifts, including prophecy, up to three times a day. Fast at least twice a week for common gifts (esp love), sharing the Gospel, sign gifts, and opportunities to equip others. Then, I'd get topical and conversational prophecies several times a week with some for face-to-face delivery. If topical (not real time), I try to create or find opportunities to share them along with good teachings and testimony from the week.

For testing and discernment, I'll detail how the majority of them work. Oldest one was supernatural in OT fashion. Most aren't: they come into my mind like other thoughts, not voices or visions. They come in a state of mental flow. The organization is different than what's normal. The structure is simpler (I'm super-wordy). They happen at unexpected times after I've prayed repeatedly to hear from God, usually on a different topic. There's not a train of thought from goal to result. They're fully-formed messages that just pour out.

It also feels different from other things. There's an intense feeling of buildup where I have to get it out of me. For example, I was doing exposition one morning, that feeling hit, I start writing into my phone non-stop for (20?) minutes, felt good doing it, all thoughts just cease, and I can't remember specifics of what I wrote or why. They either always or almost always pass Scripture testing. The latter are when I get fragments. If it's fragments, it's hard to write just the incomplete portions without my mind attempting to fill in the blanks. It's easy to mix in human thoughts with what the Spirit gives me, maybe reducing both truth and effectiveness. I think this is where the errors come from for honest people.

For theology or apologetics, I run them by people strong in the Word. All were good that I recall. Sometimes, I'm told some scholar said the same thing with the contribution a normal teaching or incremental improvement on one. So, those kind of prophecies give expert-level knowledge on a topic to a person with no prior knowledge or training. I'll note it's usually a fragment of a topic, not the whole picture. Prophesying is not a replacement for studying the Word with good teaching. Some prophecies even build on what you study. There's just no clear route or work performed to get from point A to point B. It just happens.

I publish some. Examples are first versions of story articles on GetHisWord plus some in Other Essays. Usually quickly, sometimes way later, opportunities pop up to deliver them. The impact is high to that person. It might be very positive or shake them up (eg out of sinful habits). If in a group, the prophetic message hits harder than any other in how group members respond. Only after all of that might I describe it to others as a prophecy or, if I dress it up, a prophecy + teaching. The combos of prophetic core with revision driven by solid research and teaching have been incredibly powerful. Reusable, too.

My Experiences: Examples

These include both prophecies or Spirit-heavy moments. The gift often discloses people's secrets in ways that could cause harm if I share them. Some of the most stunning were like that. I've tried to filter these to be easy to evaluate without including any damaging details. 

Here's the list of prophecies. Many on there were powerful. I hope you see the gift's value.

"Those Gifts Ceased:" Observations on Cessationism

Cessationism is the belief that specific gifts have ceased, including prophecy. The Scripture they cite is often more ambiguous than the clear passages I've given. For example, scholars have debated the meaning this passage for a long time. Cessationists claim it proves tongues and prophecies have ceased thinking the "perfect" is the completion of Scripture. Others think it's talking about the return of Christ or all of us being in heaven. So, how do we usually interpret Scripture facing conflicting or ambiguous verses?

Reformed Cessationists with seminary education taught me to derive a doctrine by looking at all the verses on a topic, seeing what fits them all, and testing external teachings and human experiences against Scripture-backed theories. We also look at commands, principles, and personal examples going with what is most consistent with them in that order. I also prefer to start with the clearest verses before interpreting ambiguous ones using clearer ones. These are straight-forward techniques both Cessationists and I use to interpret Scripture for many other topics.

Regarding prophecy, Cessationists almost entirely rely on a small number of ambiguous verses plus arguments external to Scripture. For verses resembling commands, they do their opposites: don't seek higher gifts, don't ask for prophecy, and do despise prophecies. Some Cessationists also say NT prophecy was only about Canon, writing Scripture, and proving Apostles' authority. They build on those claims to then claim prophecy is no longer necessary since the Apostles' work is finished. That directly contradicts most Bible verses and examples I've cited in this article. So, they're not interpreting Scripture or even relying on all verses in the manner they normally do. I feel we must remain consistent in how we interpret Scripture to avoid picking and choosing what suits our wants over God's truth.

Let's test Continuationism. It says prophecy is available today, some have it already, others can ask for it, we're required to regularly share prophecies, and members are to test (not despise) them. The Spirit Himself decides who gets it and how often. Each claim has a verse backing it. Most are grammatically straight-forward, too. Tying theory to action, they match what Jesus, Apostles, and church assemblies actually did in Scripture. Those together become our fundamental interpretation, or core theology, on this topic. Applying it, starting by praying for them, might lead to more prophecies that build the church more quickly. Those of us who pray for them seem to get that result, too. Yet, there do seem to be more spectacular displays of miracles in Scripture than we see today. Why?

I believe something did change. Jesus and the Apostles did piles of miracles with instant, dramatic effects that most around them believed. Afterwards, the early church reported healings and casting out demons being a top driver of conversions. Continuationist churches today seem to report less with more external skepticism. This leads me to Theory 1: there was a peak with one or more drops in higher gifts given over time. Like Cessationists claim, the peak was probably needed to authenticate Scripture, create the Church, and do this in an environment that opposed both with legal and physical attacks.

What about how testimonies vary by location? Cessationists in areas with plenty of the Gospel claim to work no miracles. Continuationists in those same areas claim to work miracles but not like above. Missionaries from both types of churches report miracles. Highest number of claims comes out of "unreached" areas with high resistance, esp jailing or killing Christians. I also note most areas in NT were unreached when Jesus and the Apostles showed up working miracles. See a pattern emerging?

Next theory: miracles are mostly about rolling the Gospel into new areas with church-planting movements starting. If so, Theory 2 predicts miracles increase in number where they're most necessary to bring people to Jesus. From there, His Word, Spirit, and Body do most of the work. The higher gifts remain, maybe in smaller number, for purposes described in this article.

Notice we have two, data-driven theories that (a) still fit every verse in the NT directly (unchecked against OT), (b) fit observations outside of the Bible, and (c) encourages churches to pursue the benefits of these gifts. Even rejecting the two theories leaves the core theology with those benefits. I feel that's better than theologies that contradict many Bible verses while denying us opportunities to see God's Spirit move more in our churches.

Praying on 1 Cor 14:26, one more counter popped into my head: hymns clearly did not cease. That gift is available today, glorifies God directly, and brings others closer to Him. The Internet being full of independent, creative content hints we'd see a lot of this in churches, too. Yet, most discussion groups don't encourage writing and sharing hymns. The churches are clearly just not complying with God's Word, 1 Cor 14:26 specifically. That non-compliance led to hymns "ceasing" in most groups. Like hymns, ignoring God's Word about trying to share and receive prophecies might be why we don't see them in groups.

I think churches should go back to 1 Cor. 14:26's model. Since it includes all shareable gifts, they should expand what's included to cover all sharable aspects of what they tell their members are or might be their gifts. The immediate benefits are increased collaboration and service. Like Timothy, some also might discover their calling this way. If prophecies are allowed, the church might be built up more rapidly with those high-impact messages.

(Read the Gospel, learn to share it, read other essays, or back to home.)