Prophecy: Barnett & Jensen

Some notes on prophecy in the New Testament

© Anzea Publishers 1973
This article is an excerpt that was first published in The quest for power | neo-pentecostals and the New Testament by Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen (Sydney: Anzea Publishers, 1973, p. 101-106). It is reproduced here with permission.

Most people would agree that a definition of prophecy must allow for the inclusion of prediction while showing the concept to be wider than merely seeing the future. The prophet’s business is to make known God’s will, now and for the future.

The Old Testament prophets predicted events. But they also applied the teaching of the law of Moses to the actual situation in which they found themselves. We see both elements of the prophetic task in Nathan, for example, as he confronts the guilty King David:

… Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? … Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house … (2 Sam. 12:9,10).
It is an inadequate reading of the Old Testament which separates prophecy from preaching or the exposition of scripture. The prophetic word was checked against the law (Deut. 13:1-5), but it was also filled with insight by the law. It was exposition with a contemporary edge. It is significant that the prophet Elijah journeyed to Mount Horeb in his day of depression, for it was there that Moses received the law (1 Kings 19:8ff.).

In the New Testament there is evidence of a class of person called a prophet, who seems to have functioned in a parallel way with the apostles in proclaiming God’s message. Hence we read that the church is being uilt upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20) and that the revelation of the coming of Jews and Greeks into the one body was committed to apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:5). It is not surprising therefore to hear that when Christ gave gifts to men it was only some who were apostles and some prophets (Eph. 4:11). Paul makes it clear that not all can expect to be prophets (1 Cor. 12:29).

Yet since Paul also exhorts every Christian to desire the gift (1 Cor. 14:1), it may mean that it is the office of a prophet that is exclusive, rather than the occasional exercise of the faculty (cf. Acts 2:17). Not every Christian may prophecy, but the group may be wider than those designated ‘prophets’. It is necessary therefore to investigate what may be involved.

The prophet must have an authentic knowledge of God’s mind (1 Cor 13:2). The communication of that knowledge is for the purpose of upbuilding, encouragement and consolation (1 Cor.14:3). Since it is rational speech, as opposed to unintelligible glossolalia, learning and instruction ensue (1 Cor. 14:19,31). These observations comply with the evidence in Acts, especially Acts 15:32. There,

Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them.
The use of the word ‘exhort’ in connection with prophecy is significant. The word itself has a range of possible meanings—to summon, to call for help, to appeal, to encourage, to request, to comfort, to conciliate. In the noun form it is the word translated ‘encouragement’ in 1 Corinthians 14:3. It certainly entails, therefore, a warm-hearted speech, calculated to move the hearer.

For his part, the hearer must be discriminating. Not all that calls itself prophecy can be classified as God’s word (1 Cor. 14:29, 1 Thess. 5:20, 21; cf. 1 Cor. 14:37, 38). There must be good order, so that no one with a message from God is denied the opportunity to speak (1 Cor. 14:30).

There is evidence that specific prediction played a part in prophecy. Agabus is twice reported in this role (Acts 11:27-29, 21:11). So, too, men were designated for certain jobs (1 Tim. 1:18, 4:14; cf. Acts 13:1, 2). But concern for the future was wider than this.

If we examine 1 Thessalonians it appears that words of Jesus are used by Paul as a basis for his teaching about the future, especially the aspects of judgement and the second coming. For example:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep (1 Thess. 4:15).
Significantly, the Thessalonians are to ‘exhort one another with these words’ (4:18 RV mg.). This passage fits easily into the Old Testament category of prophecy, and not surprisingly it contains the exposition of a word of scripture (i.e., Jesus’ words)—all geared to the specific problems of the readers.

The same is true of Hebrews 3:7-4:13. The whole epistle is called a ‘word of exhortation’ by the author (13:22 RV) and this section is to stimulate the recipients to exhort one another (3:13).

The passage is an exposition of Psalm 95 with a sharp application to the present situation of the readers. The author begins with his text (3:7-11). He then proceeds to draw out its significance, referring back to it when necessary:

For we share in Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end, which it is said, ‘Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.’ Who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? … So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it.
He concludes his exposition with a reference to the future:

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labours as God did from his (4:9,10).
The suggestion that we have here a piece of prophecy preserved for our inspection is strengthened by the way in which he apparently identified what he has said with God’s word (4:12) and the remarkable similarity that this word of God has with the prophecy which is described in 1 Corinthians 14.

In Hebrews, as the writer concludes his exhortation, he writes of it:

The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (4:12, 13).
In 1 Corinthians 14:

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 (14: 24, 25).
The passage in Hebrews and 1 Thessalonians are characterized by an appeal to future judgment. It may well be that the prophetic word of 1 Corinthians 14 is the gospel, since men worship God when they hear it. If this is so, then it too will have a strongly futuristic and judgemental theme (cf. Paul’s preaching to the Gentile outsider in Acts 17).

The same is true of the one New Testament book which calls itself prophecy, the Revelation (22:19). It is actually that form of prophecy called an apocalypse, carefully thought out, and suffused with Old Testament allusions. Its theme is Christ’s victory and judgement; it is in part predictive; and it exhorts, encourages and edifies.

While it is true, therefore, that the prophet and the teacher are distinguished in some passages (Eph. 4:11; Rom. 12:5f.; 1 Cor. 12:29), yet this ought not to lead one to the conclusion that their ministries exclude one another. The explanation of God’s word figures in both. It may be that the prophet’s role arose more from the situation, whereas the teacher’s arose from the scriptures. But the list of gifts in Romans 12, for example, does not preclude the possibility that the one person may have several gifts, nor that gifts like giving and showing mercy (12:8) or prophecy and teaching (12:6,7) may overlap.

There is a distinction discernible from the Biblical texts, on the level of securing the revelation. To the prophet there may come ‘a revelation’. Thus we read in the case where one prophet is already speaking,

If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent (1 Cor. 14:30).
However, neither the mechanism whereby such a revelation comes nor the style in which it is uttered is described anywhere, and we are free to see it as a non-ecstatic and ‘natural’ process, especially in light of verse 32:

… and the spirit of prophets are subject to prophets.
Or, as the NEB has it,

It is for prophets to control prophetic inspiration.
Nor are we told that such a revelation is necessary each time a prophet speaks. In fact the reverse is probably the case, since some of the mysteries about which they speak will be of such importance that the prophet will repeat his message many times (see Eph. 3:5, 6).

Perhaps we are bound to see it as a ‘natural’ process in the light of John 11: 50, 51, where the enemy of Jesus, Caiaphas, prophesies all unknowingly, that Jesus will die for the nation.

If this discussion is correct, then it will follow that a neo-pentecostal author like Michael Harper in his book on prophecy has been too rigid in distinguishing prophecy from preaching and teaching:

A preacher usually prepares, speaks and expounds the word of God. But a prophet speaks directly under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Both have a part to play in the edification of the Church—but they should not be confused.1
The quote also shows that he insists that prophecy has a different method from that employed in preaching—the revelation comes directly from God. It appears that the natural mind ceases to operate. We would not deny that this can be the case, but we would maintain that this is too narrow a view of prophecy in the light of the careful human thought and interaction with existing scripture evident in the writings of Isaiah or Jeremiah, or Paul, or in Hebrews or Revelation.

Certainly we do not intend to reclaim the possession of sole right to speak afforded to most teachers in the churches. This may indeed be necessary in some few places, but surely the teacher can exist side by side with the men and women who come with a word of upbuilding, encouragement and consolation, especially fit for the situation of the hour.

1. Prophecy, M. Harper, 1964, p. 8. | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.