The Definition of Prophecy in the Bible

I heard another person say that prophecy is foretelling the future.  This time it was from a pulpit in the church.  That certainly is the definition that I learned as a child. And it seems to be the definition the world gives. And there are numerous examples in the Bible of prophets predicting things that would happen unless certain conditions were met. However, as we shall see in looking at other examples in the Bible, prophecy is much more than the ability to predict the future. And, sometimes prophecy has nothing to do with the future, rather it’s all about communicating.

Communicating Revealed Truth has a great resource for looking for the meanings of words in scripture.   They say that our word prophecy derives from the Greek word prophéteia, which means “the gift of communicating and enforcing revealed truth.”[i]  They are basing that definition on Strong Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.

Notice that the concept of the future is not anywhere in that definition. That does not mean that the future is excluded from that definition, it just means that the communication is not limited to the future.

Bible Teaching and Examples of Prophecy

Prophecy is a Message from God

Being conscious in the first place that no man by himself may give a special sense to the words of the prophets. For these words did not ever come through the impulse of men: but the prophets had them from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.  (2Pe 1:20-21 BBE)

These verses make the point that first and foremost prophecies are words from God!  God gives the message to the prophet who communicates that to people.  Furthermore, it is not up to the recipient of the message to define what the message is.

Here’s more on prophecy is speaking for God

But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” (Exo 4:10-12 ESV)

Here’s another:

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. (Deu 18:18 ESV)

So we see here the theme that prophecy is not about some special ability a person has to foretell the future; rather it is a calling and a function to be able to speak for our Father God, as awesome and powerful as that is:

Sometimes Prophecy Includes Warning and Foretelling

And meeting the disciples we were there for seven days: and they gave Paul orders through the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem.  (Act 21:4 BBE)

Notice that this was a message from God to Paul and it was guidance not to go to Jerusalem.  Now we know from other passages that there was foretelling of imprisonment if Paul did go to Jerusalem.  But not all messages include a foretelling.

Here is what is foretold and Paul’s response:

And now, as you see, I am going to Jerusalem, a prisoner in spirit, having no knowledge of what will come to me there: Only that the Holy Spirit makes clear to me in every town that prison and pains are waiting for me. But I put no value on my life, if only at the end of it I may see the work complete which was given to me by the Lord Jesus, to be a witness of the good news of the grace of God.  (Act 20:22-24 BBE)

Prison and pains have been foretold to Paul.  This is an example of foretelling which is the common conception of prophecy.  There are other examples of foretelling by prophets:

At that time some prophets from Jerusalem came down to Antioch. One of them named Agabus got up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine all over the world. This happened during the reign of Claudius. So all of the disciples decided they would send a contribution to the brothers living in Judea, as they were able, by sending it through Barnabas and Saul to the elders. (Act 11:27-30 ISV)

Here Agabus foretells of a severe famine.  It is interesting to note that there is nothing anyone did wrong and had to correct.  The Lord was looking out for his people and sent word through his prophets that a famine was coming so that they could prepare (similar to what happened with Joseph and the dreams of Pharoah in the book of Genesis).

So, clearly, prophecy can include foretelling.  But only because God knows the future and can tell people if he chooses to.

The point is that prophecy isn’t the ability to know the future, it’s the ability to know God and communicate for God to people what that future is. Prophecy is communicating messages from God.

Major,  Minor, and Miniscule Prophets

If you have studied the Bible for any time at all you will have heard of the Major and Minor prophets.  The Major Prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The Minor Prophets are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah,Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai,Zechariah, and Malachi.

I made up the designation of minuscule prophets as prophets who have less than a book, perhaps only a few verses about them.  Agabus above is an example.  There are many examples of “minuscule” prophets mentioned: In the Old Testament; there are prophets like Elijah, Elisha, Gad, Micaiah, Nathan, and Samuel.  In the New Testament there are prophets like John the Baptist,  Anna, and the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist

Major, minor, minuscule: none of those designations have anything to the power of God in their lives, or the greatness of their ministries, they simply refer to how many words are written about them in our Bibles.  The major prophets have longer books, the minor prophets have shorter books and what I’m calling minuscule are prophets that don’t have any books attributed to them at all.  Elisha did major things: he parted the Jordan river, prophesied that the shunamite woman would have a son and later raised that son from the dead!  Look at these verses about life of Elisha:

And the mind of the king of Syria was greatly troubled because of this thing, and he called his servants and said to them, “Will you not show me who of us is for the king of Israel?” And one of his servants said, “None, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.” And he said, “Go and see where he is, that I may send and seize him.” It was told him, “Behold, he is in Dothan.” So he sent there horses and chariots and a great army, and they came by night and surrounded the city. When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
(2Ki 6:11-17 ESV)

Elisha, these verses declare, was able to tell the King of Israel what the King of Syria was planning, even in his bedroom!  And when the King of Syria sent to seize him, having his troops surround the city where Elisha was, Elisha showed his servant that God’s flaming chariots and horses surrounded his would-be captors!  All that sounds pretty major to me.

Also for that matter, Moses has the first five books of the Bible attributed to him and he’s not in the list called the Major Prophets!

Prophecy without Foretelling: Forthtelling

But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort.  (1Co 14:3 EMTV)

This verse lists three purposes for prophecy:

  • Edification – building up: people are built up when they are told how great they are in Christ
  • Exhortation – encouraging; people are encouraged when they are persuaded to do the great things they are capable of
  • Comfort – Easing of Grief or Distress: Many of God’s words can soothe the pains in the lives of believers

Moses made predictions certainly, but when he made the tablets with the 10 commandments and when he proclaimed the law he was forthtelling.

Not Just Men: Women Prophets

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;(Act 2:17 ESV)

Notice that not just sons, but daughters also, prophesy!

On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied. (Act 21:8-9 ESV)

Here’s an example of both a prophetess and forthtelling:

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luk 2:36-38 ESV)

Anna spoke for God proclaiming the Redeemer had come.  No foretelling here, just speaking the good news, the Savior has come!

Also for anyone that likes to say there were no Old Testament prophets after Malachi here’s the counter-argument to that; old Anna was prophesying many years before Jesus and John the Baptist.  She just didn’t have any books written with her prophecies.  Not all prophets were super stars like Elijah and Elisha.

Prophecy is a huge topic in the Word of God and this is just an introduction. I will post more articles on this exciting aspect of life as believers hearing from God.


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