I grew up at a time when even my high school Christian peers would argue over theology and cling to different denominational positions on different topics, whether doctrine or practice.
For many, religious terms still evoke a background of arguments and preconceived notions. Because of that baggage, modern churches have shied away from terms and names of things, even the word “Christian,” trying to distance themselves from those arguments and divisions.
The spiritual gift of prophecy is one of those terms. While a biblical term, it sounds religious to the modern ear and could cause us to camp on whatever side of “Pentecostal” or “charismatic” we land on.
We would all agree that the Bible talks about it. But what is the spiritual gift of prophecy? And is it still relevant today?
What Is the Spiritual Gift of Prophecy?
In the Old Testament, a prophet was a type of seer, a person who would tell the future and bring God’s messages to the people. These were specific individuals given a role by God to deal with the kings or nations. The test of a prophet was two-fold—one, whether or not the oracle came true, and second, whether the oracle drew people to worship God alone (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).
The Law detailed that a person claiming to be a prophet should be killed if they failed either one of those tests.
There is an interesting narrative during the time of Moses where a couple of men chosen as elders didn’t show up to the right meeting but still went through the camp prophesying. Joshua wanted Moses to rebuke the men, but Moses said, “How I wish everyone in Israel would prophesy!” God’s heart, therefore, like the intent that Israel be a “nation of priests,” was that the descendants of Abraham also be a people of prophecy (Numbers 11:29).
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God instituted a New Covenant which expresses the Father’s heart. There are many aspects of that reality (reconciliation, redemption, relationship, purpose, mission, etc.), and a part of that life is God giving spiritual, supernatural gifts to men and women to express the unseen Kingdom of God to the world.
The spiritual gift of prophecy is one of those gifts. The Bible gives a definition when the angel spoke to John in Revelation 19:10: “The essence of prophecy is to give a clear witness for Jesus” (NLT).
All spiritual gifts reveal the supernatural, heavenly reality. We are empowered to do something we could not do apart from God’s power. As gifts, inherently, we can’t earn them (or else it would be about our ability, not God’s). They are given.
Prophecy is hearing from God and repeating what He said. It’s that simple. Every spiritual gift has a role, but only prophecy is tied to the specific purpose to give the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ.
That seems important.
What Does the Bible Say About the Spiritual Gift of Prophecy?
The Bible consistently lists prophecy as one of the gifts of the Spirit. A prophet is listed as part of what people call the “five-fold” ministry of leadership in the church—pastors, teachers, evangelists, apostles, and prophets. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
Other scriptures highlight this gift. Peter’s first letter talks about God’s gifts being used to serve others. He mentions speaking as a gift of God, and if one has that gift, they should use it by speaking the “oracles of God.” (1 Peter 4:11) The NLT translates it, “speak as if God Himself were speaking through you.” It is a loving service to speak to others as if God were doing it, and Peter includes that as a supernatural ability, something God has to empower us to do.
Paul describes in 1 Corinthians how to operate during a time when the church gathers for worship. Beginning in chapter 12, he discusses the gifts of the Spirit, and in verse 3, he writes, “No one can say that Jesus is Lord, except by the Spirit.” That is a pretty definitive statement. To say Jesus is Lord can ONLY happen by the Spirit of God.
The people in Corinth were abusing the spiritual gifts, and Paul makes sure to instruct them that God’s love must be the motivation for how His power should operate. That results in the famous “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13. After that supremely important teaching, he returns to the discussion on how they should behave when they gather to worship. The first verse of chapter 14 tells the church (and us) that “you should also desire the special abilities the Spirit gives—especially the ability to prophesy.”
What does that mean? In the context of what we’ve already talked about, prophecy is speaking “as if God Himself were speaking through you” that leads to the witness of Jesus. God’s love is paramount. The ultimate expression of God’s love to the world, to all people, is that the Father sent the Son so those who would believe wouldn’t perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). The one gift that loves people the most would be the ability to give people God’s words that are a witness of Jesus. Therefore, if we want to love people, we should want that gift more than any other.
The rest of chapter 14 has this theme. Paul contrasts the gift of “tongues” apart from the interpretation and the gift of prophecy, from the perspective of an unbeliever. If no one understands what’s being said, what good is it? Five words of God’s message is better than a million in a language no one understands when other people are around. And when the people of God are sharing God’s words, His truth, by the Spirit, then even an unbeliever will recognize that God is among the church (i.e., the witness of Jesus).
The gift of prophecy is for everyone. Yes, some are “prophets” as a role, but that role is to teach others how to use the gift of prophecy The “five-fold” ministry isn’t to be specialists or hired guns in something that no one else can do. But they are to teach the church how to do the work of the ministry. In other words, an “evangelist” teaches the whole Body of Christ how to work in the gift of evangelism. And so forth (Ephesians 4).
As further confirmation of the universal element of the gift of prophecy, back to 1 Corinthians 14, Paul tells us that two to three prophets should speak, at the most, giving longer messages. These are like sermons. And you thought your church service was too long. Consider what it would be like to have three sermons! After these prophets speak, Paul teaches that the whole congregation then judges by the Spirit whether those prophets spoke from the Spirit.
The test in the New Testament, therefore, isn’t external—we don’t kill prophets for being wrong anymore. In the Old Testament, the whole congregation didn’t have the Spirit of God living within them. We do. And we should all be trained to hear the voice of God from the Spirit within us.
Therefore, the test is the congregation discerning the words of a message by the Spirit within them. Was the message from God? If it was, then we must take it seriously.
Finally, the Bible exists because people heard from God and wrote down what He said. We believe the scriptures have authority because the source is the Spirit of God, that the scriptures are God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16). In our hearing from God and speaking His words, our message will line up with the scriptures. Or at least will not contradict them. Hearing from God today doesn’t usurp the writings of the Old or New Testament, a phenomenally consistent and cohesive testimony of Jesus.
At the same time, the existence of the Bible doesn’t take away from God’s continued supernatural move in the lives of believers today to bring His message in personal and relational ways.
Are Miraculous Gifts Still Happening in the Church Today?
A community of faith should include stories of miraculous interventions by God. Our very salvations are stories of God’s supernatural intervention.
Within my own life, I’ve seen physical healing happen on a missions trip after we laid hands on the person, healings happen in the hospital after we prayed and the doctor had no explanation for full recovery after a death sentence minutes before, money appeared in our bank account after obeying God and giving it all away. A woman in our current community was physically unable to have a child based on the lack of certain interior biological parts. After she and her husband adopted a daughter a few years ago, she had a baby.
These are just a few that I’ve witnessed. When I was a teen, an elder in my church told me how a Japanese man came to their church once and didn’t know English. Convicted, the Japanese man came to the altar, crying. The pastor and others took him aside to minister to him and started speaking Japanese, a language they didn’t know, and shared the Gospel. The man got saved.
None of these I’ve mentioned happened in “charismatic” or “Pentecostal” settings, however, they may sound. I’ve dreamed dreams that were from God, my wife has seen visions, and more over the years. God is pretty creative. He can communicate in a myriad of different ways.
God has even revealed things to me that I shouldn’t know, that when I shared with people, they were shocked. Those events became an opportunity to express God’s love to that person.
Miraculous gifts are available to all, but again, the only one that the Bible says is universal is the gift of prophecy, that we should all earnestly desire to speak the words of God. The gift of healing may not be for everyone, but prophecy is.
Why Should Christians Know about This Gift?
Let’s recap the gift of prophecy. It is hearing from God and speaking His words. It is the witness of Jesus, the center of the Gospel. It reveals that God is real. If we believe that God is love, then it is the ultimate act of love to tell people what He wants them to know.
With this simple idea of prophecy—hearing from God and speaking His words—then we can’t be disciples of Jesus apart from this gift. This is why it’s universal. We must have the ability to hear from God to walk with Him and obey Him.
The essence of the gift of prophecy is the foundation of using every gift of the Spirit. To heal or do other miraculous things, I must first be able to hear from God. Otherwise, I’m doing it in my own ability or apart from God. Which is bad (Matthew 7:21-23).
Jesus gave a discourse on the Holy Spirit before His death and said the Spirit has a message to the world—sin, righteousness, and the judgment to come (John 16:8). But that’s the world, unbelievers. To the disciple, the Spirit is responsible for revealing the words of Jesus and lead the believer into all truth (John 16:3).
Remember, faith comes by hearing the word (Romans 10:17). Jesus is the word of God (John 1). We are the ones, through evangelism or teaching, that speak these messages to the world, revealing who Jesus is through the foolishness of preaching (1 Cori 1:21).
Every disciple is meant to be a witness of Jesus. That’s what the term Christian means, “little Christ.” Jesus said when people saw Him, they see the Father. When the world sees the Body of Christ, they should see Jesus. We must all learn to hear and speak God’s words in our everyday lives and be disciples of the universal spiritual gift of prophecy to be a living testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ.
For further reading:
Is There a Spiritual Gifts List?
What Are Prophets in the Bible? Do Prophets Still Exist Today?
What Does the Bible Warn about False Prophets?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/fcscafeine
Britt Mooney (with his amazing wife, Becca) has lived as a missionary in Korea, traveled for missions to several countries, and now lives in Suwanee GA as a church planter that works bi-vocationally with Phoenix Roasters, a missional coffee company. He has a podcast about the Kingdom of God called Kingdom Over Coffee and is a published author with Say Yes: How God-Sized Dreams Take Flight.