In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul discusses a variety of spiritual gifts. But there’s one in particular that he specifically tells them to “earnestly desire.” That gift is prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1, 39, WEB).
A basic definition for this word is to “speak forth by divine inspiration” (Thayer, G4395). Usually when we think of people prophesying, we think about the prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. We think of men God used to foretell future events, confront sinful Israel, and write books of the Bible. We probably don’t think about prophets in the modern age.
And yet, Paul wrote that the New Covenant church should earnestly desire the gift of prophecy. He said you should want it and if God gives it to you you should use it. But how do we recognize a gift of prophecy (in ourselves or others), and how should it be used?
Prophets of Old
When beginning this study, I went through the Bible and took note of the different people who are described as prophets. I was surprised how many there were and also by the variety of people on the list. Here’s just a sample from the people who aren’t among the more well-known “major prophets” and “minor prophets”:
- Abraham — the Lord describes him as a prophet in Gen. 20:7
- Miriam — called a prophetess when leading the women in song and dance (Ex. 15:20)
- Deborah — prophetess, judge, and songwriter (Judges 4-5)
- David — the man we usually think of as a king and psalmist is called a prophet in Acts 2:30
- People who spoke with kings — Gad (1 Sam. 22:5), Nathan (2 Sam. 7:2-17; 12:1-5; 1 Kings 1), Ahijah (1 King 11:29-39; 14:2-28), Jehu (1 Kings 16:7), Micaiah (1 Kings 22), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-22)
- John the Baptist — called the greatest prophet (Matt. 11:9-14; 31:26; Luke 1:76; 7:26-28)
- Jesus Christ — I hadn’t realized He’s called a prophet so many times (Matt. 13:57; 14:5; Luke 7:39; 13:33; John 4:19; 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22-23; 7:37)
- Anna — who served God with fasting and prayers (Luke 2:36-37)
- Lots of people in Acts — Barnabas, Simeon, Lucious, Manaen (Acts 13:1); Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32), the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9); Agabus (Acts 21:10-11)
God has worked with quite a variety of people, both men and woman, as prophets. Often, their responsibilities involved foretelling future events. Sometimes, they were used to judge, warn, and rebuke God’s people. Some acted as advisors to kings and worked with priests to anoint new rulers. They acted as mouth-pieces for God to answer specific questions or deliver a timely message by speaking aloud, in song, and by writing. Basically, they delivered the message God gave them in the way God told them to.
Instructions and Warnings
Reading the stories about prophets and the books written by prophets is a good way to get a feel for what a prophet of God does. We also have scriptures talking about how God works with prophets and what they are expected to do. We know that the Lord says He communicates with prophets by dreams or visions rather than face-to-face as He did with Moses (Num. 12:6). We know true prophets are sent directly by God (Jer. 26:5; 44:4; Ezk. 2:3; Is. 6:8). We know prophecy comes by the Spirit of God (Num. 11:24-29; 2 Pet. 1:20-21; Rev. 19:10). And we know that the penalty for false prophets was severe (Deut. 13:1-5; 18:20-22). Those are all things to keep in mind when discussing prophecy in a modern context.
While we are told to desire prophecy as a gift, we’re never told to pretend we have it. Not everyone gets this gift and trying to force it or claiming it falsely is very serious. In ancient Israel, prophets who weren’t sent by God were executed. Though we don’t stone transgressors in the church today, we still worship the same God. Something He regarded as a serious sin then is still a serious sin today. We must guard against presuming a role we’ve not been given. You might think you’re prophesying in God’s name, but if He hasn’t sent you then what you’re doing is iniquity (Matt. 7:22-23). That’s why it’s vitally important for all of us to keep examining ourselves and check-in with how God views what we’re doing.
Spirit of Prophecy
With that warning in place, there are strong indications that anyone who has been given God’s holy spirit can prophecy. They might not be called as a prophet or prophetess, but everyone with God’s spirit in them could be used by God to speak under His inspiration.
In the Torah, 70 elders of Israel prophesied once when God gave them His spirit so they could help Moses (Num. 11:24-29). King Saul joined a company of prophets under the influence of God’s spirit twice (1 Sam. 10 and 19). The nascent New Testament church prophesied when given the spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21). Twelve men baptized in the name of Jesus prophesied when receiving the spirit (Acts 19:6-7). Clearly, there’s a connection between speaking under God’s inspiration and the holy spirit being in someone.
Way back in the book of Numbers, Moses said, “I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!” (Num. 11:29, WEB). We’re living in an age where the Lord does pour out His spirit upon His people. We are part of the New Covenant, just as the early disciples of Jesus were when they received the spirit and Peter said,
But this is what has been spoken through the prophet Joel: “It will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions. Your old men will dream dreams. Yes, and on my servants and on my handmaidens in those days, I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:16-18, WEB)
Prophecy isn’t a gift that has gone away (though 1 Cor. 13:8-10 indicates it may after God’s kingdom has come). For now, the spirit of God has been poured out and we shouldn’t be surprised when people with that spirit speak under divine inspiration. We should expect and ask for it to happen.
Using God’s Gifts
If we are given a gift of prophecy, there are several verses we can look at for indications on how it should be used. Prophets are told to use this gift “according to the proportion of our faith” (Rom. 12:6, WEB). Prophecy is a convicting sign “to those tho believe” and for helping the “unbelieving or unlearned” come to know God (1 Cor. 14:22-25, WEB). The gift can (and should) be used in an orderly, edifying fashion (1 Cor. 14:29-33).
Chiefly, prophets are to use their gift the way God wants for His purpose. God is love and His agape in us must be the driving force behind our use of any gift. We could “have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge” but without love it’s nothing (1 Cor. 13:2, KJV).
When we have love, we can use our gifts for their intended purpose. For prophets, that purpose is to speak to other people for “edification, and exhortation, and comfort” (1 cor. 14:3, KJV). Prophecy is seen as a desirable gift because of how much it can help others when used properly (1 Cor. 14:4-5, 39-40). It’s not a means to prestige or power in the church. Rather, like other gifts of God, it’s proper focus is on serving Him and the people around us.
We who have God’s spirit should desire the ability to encourage, edify, and comfort our brethren. Whether that will take the form of a prophetic gift is in God’s hands. What’s in our hands is that we learn to exercise God’s love in the church and follow the spirit’s promptings for how God intends us to use our gifts to help our brethren.