This article is a discussion of the different contemporary viewpoints on the roles of the Old Testament and New Testament Prophets. It is not a declaration of the viewpoint in the time of original Christianity.
The names of the prophets in the Old Testament bring incredible visions of power to mind: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Samuel. Think of Elijah standing against the 450 prophets of Baal with God backing him up as the water-soaked offering and altar roared in flame. Think of Moses talking with the Father in the burning bush, then leading Israel out of Egypt, and Elisha showing his servant the chariots of fire surrounding him as his servant could only see the chariots of Ben-Haddad. The Old Testament Prophets were magnificent.
The New Testament prophets seem to pale in comparison. On the bright side, there is Agabus predicting famine to all the believers in Acts 11 and warning Paul of his capture in Jerusalem in Acts 21. But there were only a few other prophets mentioned, and few details to their prophecies are given. So while the ministry of a prophet is clearly taught in Ephesians 4:11 there is little biblical documentation that shows prophets in the position that the Old Testament prophets had.
One general explanation given for this change is that Apostles replaced Prophets as God’s men on earth. In canonizing the writings attributed to the apostles in the creation of the New Testament Canon, the Church, at least in the 4th century, credits the apostles as replacing the prophets as being God’s spokesmen. Furthermore, the function of prophets in New Testament times is to give personal words of prophecy.[i] This is a much lesser role than in the OT. And still another theological viewpoint is that prophets were inspired preachers.[ii]
The Jewish impact on the development of Christian prophecy needs some more consideration than the above topics of apostles and teachers. At first glance, it is impossible to find in early Judaism a functional model as a paradigm for the Christian prophets because our main Jewish sources expressed the view that, during the second Temple period, prophecy has vanished altogether. Post exilic Jews denied the possibility that God still communicated with his people by speaking directly to certain individuals. In rabbinic literature, the ability to prophesy is closely associated with the presence of the spirit, but both prophecy and the spirit are recorded to be absent from Jewish religious experience. On the other hand, the Didache, which expresses a similar close affinity between prophecy and the spirit (11:126.96.36.199), presents the prophets as practicing prophecy on a regular basis. How is this phenomenon to be accounted for?
According to a number of texts in rabbinic literature, Josephus, Apocrypha, and Pseudepigrapha, the spirit was taken from Israel after the fall of the first Temple, or alternatively, after the deaths of the last canonical prophets (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi). For the sages of the Tannaitic period onward, genuine prophecy had ceased. Revelation was no longer mediated by the inspired prophet but by a “bath qol” ( a daughter of voice ) which, however, was rather a poor compensation for a legitimate continuation of prophecy. Veritable prophecy was dead and no one could claim the title’ prophet’ until God was to fully realize the kingdom. Although some rabbis were held to be worthy of the title ‘prophet’, the iniquity of the present age made it impossible for even the holiest man, such as Hillel the elder and Rabbi Akiva, to be called so. Prophecy was limited to the period of the canonical prophets of the distant past and was expected to return in the end time.[iii]
Prophecy is a divisive topic among believers on several fronts. Believers disagree about the role of prophets in the church which some proponents say is radically different than in Old Testament times. Another area of disagreement is over whether prophecies in the Church age can have errors. Some say the standard of the Old Testament, that any time a prophecy doesn’t come to pass disqualifies the prophet, doesn’t apply in the church of grace.
Biblical Basis in the Debate
This section will contrast the viewpoint of Wayne Grudem whose views represent some charismatic and Pentecostal churches with the more conservative position that Old Testament standards carry forth into the New Testament.
Grudem uses several verses to substantiate his claim that New Testament prophets were a different and less central figure than their Old Testament counterparts. Old Testament prophets, according to Grudem, were above reproach. They had ultimate authority and were always to be believed. In contrast, 1 Cor 14:29 is used to substantiate that the prophets were to be judged or discerned. Grudem says there is no OT instruction to judge prophets. Grudem refers to 1 Thes 5:19-21 as further corroboration that NT prophesies are to be evaluated:
Quench not the Spirit; 1Th 5:19
despise not prophesyings1Th 5:20
prove all things; hold fast that which is good; 1Th 5:21
Grudem interprets verse 21 to be specific to the verse before it, saying that what you are to prove is the prophesy. Prove each
prophecy, hold fast to the good in each prophecy. That is Grudem’s interpretation[iv], but also other theologians have promulgated this.[v]
Response to Grudem
Grudem ignores the greater context which is that to be wary of false prophets is a consistent theme both in the Old Testament and the new.
In the Old Testament are various admonitions against false prophets. For example,
And my hand shall be against the prophets that see false visions, and that divine lies: they shall not be in the council of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel, neither shall they enter into the land of Israel; and ye shall know that I am the Lord Jehovah. Eze 13:9
This verse clearly advises the people of Israel what will happen to false prophets.
Verses would talk about what the Israelites were to do when they found a false prophet, they were to put him to death. Additionally, these verses give criteria for determining the offense.
If there arise in the midst of thee a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and he give thee a sign or a wonder,
and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or unto that dreamer of dreams: for Jehovah your God proveth you, to know whether ye love Jehovah your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Ye shall walk after Jehovah your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him.
And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death, because he hath spoken rebellion against Jehovah your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of bondage, to draw thee aside out of the way which Jehovah thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee. Deu 13:1-5
This section says that if the prophet gives a sign that comes to pass, but uses that sign to tell the followers to go after other gods, then that is an offense worthy of death. Look at another verse:
But the prophet, that shall speak a word presumptuously in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the
name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. Deu 18:20
This verse says that not only if someone speaks in the name of other gods, but if this prophet speaks something which the Lord has not commanded him to speak, the penalty is death.
These verses are clear guidance in the law on the judging of prophets. Clearly, the people of Israel were told to discern whether the prophet was from the Lord.
Likewise in the New Testament, we have admonitions to judge whether a prophet is true or not:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. Mat 7:15
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Mat 24:24
So just as we have in the Old Testament admonitions against false prophets we have the same admonitions in the New Testament. Both of these quotations in Matthew are the words of our Lord.
As far as Grudem’s interpretation that it is the individual prophesies of each prophet that we are to judge that is not what the actual text says although some versions seem to say just that:
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. (1Co 14:29 ESV)
Compare that to the MKJV version:
And if there are two or three prophets, let them speak, and let the others judge. (1Co 14:29 MKJV)
1 Cor 14:29 says to judge. It doesn’t say what. It is perfectly logical that 1 Cor 14:29 means to judge the prophet.
1 Thes 5:21 is not necessarily talking about prophecies that are to be judged; it is talking about discerning the good from the bad in all things. 1 Thes 5:21 is just another item in a long list of guidance that Paul is charging believers to follow:
1Th 5:11 Wherefore exhort one another, and build each other up, even as also ye do.
1Th 5:12 But we beseech you, brethren, to know them that labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you;
1Th 5:13 and to esteem them exceeding highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.
1Th 5:14 And we exhort you, brethren, admonish the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak, be longsuffering
1Th 5:15 See that none render unto any one evil for evil; but always follow after that which is good, one toward another, and toward all.
1Th 5:16 Rejoice always;
1Th 5:17 pray without ceasing;
1Th 5:18 in everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward.
1Th 5:19 Quench not the Spirit;
1Th 5:20 despise not prophesyings;
1Th 5:21 prove all things; hold fast that which is good;
1Th 5:22 abstain from every form of evil.
1Th 5:23 And the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1Th 5:24 Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.
1Th 5:25 Brethren, pray for us.
1Th 5:26 Salute all the brethren with a holy kiss.
1Th 5:27 I adjure you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the brethren.
1Th 5:28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
In this section starting in verse 11 we have a grocery list of admonitions. We are to encourage and build each other up. We are to know our leaders and esteem them highly. We are to admonish the disorderly. We’re not supposed to extract revenge. We’re supposed to rejoice all the time, pray constantly, give thanks everywhere, not quench the Spirit, not despise prophesying, be discerning by evaluating everything and holding steadfast to what we find from the Lord, abstaining from evil anywhere we find it. In doing those things the God of peace will sanctify us. Paul wants us to pray for him and salute the brethren with a holy kiss. Finally, Paul wants this epistle read everyone. Making verse 21 just the conclusion of verse 20 takes the section out of context.
Christians are clearly divided both on the role of prophets and the standards that true prophets must maintain.
Old Testament prophets were God’s spokesmen, the only men enabled to speak for God. Prophets were given zero tolerance in their prophecies. Anytime a prophecy didn’t come to pass the person as marked as a false prophet. Some in the church maintain that nothing has changed and prophets since Christ must maintain the same standards.
While others maintain that the role of New Testament prophets has changed to a much lesser role and that prophecies might contain errors and each prophet must constantly be judged as to the accuracy of the prophecies, this argument appears weak and it appears to justify the allowance of false prophecies.
Albeit limited, I have some experience hearing of and some watching personal prophecy given in different charismatic settings and have never seen prophecies judged. In those cases, there was only one person giving the prophecy, and at least in some cases there didn’t appear to be anyone capable of judging whether the prophecy was of the Lord or not.
[i] THE GIFT OF PROPHECY in the New Testament and Today, Wayne Grudem, Crossway, Wheaton, 2000, p 16
[ii] PROPHECY IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY And the Ancient Mediterranean World, David E Aune, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1983, p5. Aune quotes G Friedrich, whose discussion he calls the standard treatment on the subject. The reference to Friedrich is from The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Here Friedrich defines a prophet as a proclaimer of God’s Word. Friedrich’s definition is Primitive Christian prophecy is the inspired speech of charismatic preachers through whom God’s plan of salvation for the world and the community and his will for the life of individual Christians are made known.
[iii] The Didache, Hubertus Waltherus Maria van de Sandt, Huub Van de Sandt, David Flusser, Fortress Press, 2002, ISBN 0800634713, 9780800634711 p357
[iv] The Gift of Prophecy, p58f
[v] PROPHECY IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY And the Ancient Mediterranean World, David E Aune, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1983, p13. Aune notes in this early section of the book what others have written about early Christian prophecy. He discusses D Hillâ’s New Testament Prophecy which seems similar to Grudem’s,
(c) copyright 2009-2020 Mark W. Smith All rights reserved. Revised 2020.