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New Testament Prophecy

Acts  21:1-16

One of the great dividing points (after the issue of tongues) in Evangelical Christianity is the issue of prophecy. We see in this passage an example of prophecy in the New Testament. We shall then examine three things:

·         Prophecy in the Old Testament - as background to this passage

·         Prophecy in the New Testament, and

·         Are there prophets today?

(Acts 21:1-16 NIV) After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Cos. The next day we went to Rhodes and from there to Patara. {2} We found a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, went on board and set sail. {3} After sighting Cyprus and passing to the south of it, we sailed on to Syria. We landed at Tyre, where our ship was to unload its cargo. {4} Finding the disciples there, we stayed with them seven days. Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. {5} But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray. {6} After saying good-by to each other, we went aboard the ship, and they returned home. {7} We continued our voyage from Tyre and landed at Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for a day. {8} Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. {9} He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied. {10} After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. {11} Coming over to us, he took Paul's belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, "The Holy Spirit says, 'In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.'" {12} When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. {13} Then Paul answered, "Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus." {14} When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, "The Lord's will be done." {15} After this, we got ready and went up to Jerusalem. {16} Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay. He was a man from Cyprus and one of the early disciples.

Review: Old Testament Prophecy

It must be remembered that there is a change of covenant - the basic working relationship between God and man - at the Cross. So the activities and abilities of the Old Testament prophet may not be entirely applicable. But before we can decide that, we need a convenient classification of those abilities and activities:

Types of Prophecy

In the Old Testament, we see the prophets engaged in two kinds of activities:

·         Foretelling. In this activity, we see the prophet predicting the future. This can be done in one of two ways:

1.    National foretelling relates to the nation of Israel, and by extension to the people of God. In particular, this type of prophecy is most related to the coming of Christ, which is the central event of the entire Bible. This type of prophecy usually relates (in symbolic terms) great events on the scale of nations, kings and empires. It is particularly focussed on the people of God; it is not a comprehensive "future history" but rather the particular perspective of the people of God.

2.    Personal foretelling relates to specific individuals. It may be a pronouncement of warning; it may be the announcement of doom. On occasion, it is the foretelling of good news.

·         Forth-Telling. In this activity, we see the prophet warning. It is the picture we most commonly associate with prophecy: the courageous prophet in the king's face.

1.    The most prominent activity, however, is the giving of commandment. It is by the prophets, particularly Moses, that God explains the Law to the people. This "laying down the law" is a major prophetic activity. It usually includes the consequences of disobedience as well. This is a national form of forth-telling.

2.    There is also a personal form of forth-telling. It comes to individuals (most commonly the king) and it either serves to warn them, pronounce doom upon them - or encourage them in righteousness and faith.

The last of the Old Testament prophets is found in the New Testament: John the Baptist. He foretells the coming of the Christ (in ministry), and tells forth the message of repentance. He does so to the nation, and to individuals.

What, then, is the difference between Old and New Testament prophecy? This might just be our first clue: in the NIV version of the Old Testament, we find this phrase - "the word of the Lord came to…" - 98 times. It occurs not once in the New Testament. The reason? The Word of the Lord has come - to us.

New Testament Prophecy

We must face the fact squarely that many preachers firmly teach that there is no such thing as prophecy in the church today. I disagree - but to understand this, we need to examine three things:

·         The types of prophecy permitted in the New Testament church after the time of the Apostles.

·         The "proof text" used to prove that prophecy does not exist now.

·         Restrictions on the New Testament prophet.

Types of prophecy permitted

Using the classification we devised in the start of this lesson, we may ask: "Are all forms of prophecy permitted after the time of the Apostles?" The answer is clearly, "no."

·         Foretelling, in the national sense, is complete. John the Apostle assures us that there is nothing to be added to his Revelation:

(Rev 22:18-19 NIV) I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. {19} And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

So we must conclude that any prophecy relating to the second coming of Christ, and other great events surrounding this, are not permitted. National foretelling is out.

·         Similarly, the giving of commandment (as Moses did) is also restricted - for now that the Word has come, the revelation is complete.[1]

So we conclude, then, that prophecy in the New Testament, after the time of the Apostles (we must exempt John's Revelation) is purely of a personal nature, either foretelling or forth-telling.

The proof text

One can understand why preachers would not want to allow the existence of prophets. They can be messy people to deal with (John the Baptist never made anyone's best dressed list) and rather stubborn. The usual (indeed, only) proof text for this is this:

(1 Cor 13:8 NIV) Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

The argument is then made that the Bible records no instance of prophecy being passed on by anyone but an Apostle; the Apostles are all dead; therefore, there is no prophecy.

To understand the problem, however, we must begin with this: prophecy is not a gift of the Apostles - but of the Holy Spirit. As one of the Apostles quoted:

(Acts 2:17-18 NIV) "'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. {18} Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.

The question, then, is one of "when." Look at the proof text again. Many non-Pentecostals are perfectly content with prophecies ceasing and tongues being stilled - but they forget the third comment about knowledge passing away. If this has happened, why is there still preaching?

The answer, simply, is that these will all go away. But when? To understand that, we must read the entire passage:

(1 Cor 13:8-12 NIV) Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. {9} For we know in part and we prophesy in part, {10} but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. {11} When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. {12} Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

So they fail "then" - when we shall see "face to face." And when do we see our Lord face to face? At His return. And at his return tongues, prophecy and knowledge will cease, for all things will be revealed. The partial will become whole. Until then, as the Spirit provides, these things continue. So there shall be prophecy. But under what conditions?

Restrictions on New Testament prophecy

We should be wise about this: prophecy is to be treated with great caution. Our Lord explicitly warns us about this:

(Mat 7:15-16 NIV) "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. {16} By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

So we shall have false prophets (which does not eliminate the existence of true ones) - but we'll know who they are by what they produce. How shall we know?

One way is this: do they produce disorder and a lack of harmony in the church? Paul is rather explicit about this restriction on prophecy:

(1 Cor 14:32-33a NIV) The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. {33} For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints,

We are indeed taught to explicitly test the prophets. One such test comes from the Old Testament: if the prophet is not 100% correct in prediction, that's not a prophet of God. Other tests?

·         They are to acknowledge the head of the church, Jesus Christ.

(1 John 4:1-3 NIV) Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. {2} This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, {3} but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

·         They are to acknowledge and be subject to the leadership of the church, starting with its Apostles, and the writings of those Apostles, the New Testament.

(1 Cor 14:37-40 NIV) If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command. {38} If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored. {39} Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. {40} But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.

The Living Word of God has come, and the prophet must acknowledge that, like his Old Testament forebear, the word has come to him.

Prophets Today

We have shown, at most, that prophets may exist today. We have not shown that they must exist today. The matter is not one which we decide; it is a matter for the Holy Spirit.

(1 Cor 12:28 NIV) And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.

Note that the phrase is "appointed" - and the God does the appointing, not us. For us to say they cannot be appointed today is bordering on blasphemy. But it also means that God does so at his choice. What then, determines his choice?


The first requirement for a prophet is faith. If you will, only the faithful need apply for the job, for as Paul tells the Romans:

(Rom 12:6 NIV) We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.

The Purpose of Prophecy

One solid question is this: why would God want a prophet in his church? Paul tells the Corinthians this:

(1 Cor 14:3-5 NIV) But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. {4} He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. {5} I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.

The prophet is there that the church may be edified. There are three primary activities:

·         Strengthening. The word in the Greek is translated either "strengthening" or "edification". It is a word that comes from architecture; it roughly means to put the roof on the house. You can see it as completing the structure of the faithful Christian.

·         Encouragement. This is the same word that is used to describe the Holy Spirit as a comforter. It means to come along side and build up in courage and strength, to equip someone for a task.

·         Comfort. This word also implies one who comes along side, in this instance to give consolation and comfort, as one might to a friend in grief.


Perhaps we have missed the point. Perhaps the prophets are among us, quietly and in order, doing the work of the New Testament prophet, with no fanfare or fuss. Where the teaching of the church is Biblically sound, what is the need of a prophet to proclaim God's teaching? But wherever God's people need strengthening, encouragement and comfort, the New Testament prophet will be sent by the Spirit.

[1] Hebrews 1:1-2

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