What is New Testament Prophecy?

In my sermon from this past Sunday from 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, I made the case that prophecy is still a gift the Holy Spirit gives believers, and will continue to be so until Jesus returns.

This is a developing understanding for me, as you might have been able to tell from the sermon. That’s probably why I didn’t include what I’m about to say in that sermon.

After the service Sunday, I had several interactions with some of you that were basically the same: “So, what does this look like practically?” How are we supposed to pursue prophecy? What even is prophecy today? My purpose in this article is point our attention to a few key passages that can help us understand what prophecy is and how that leads us to pursue it today.

Here are a few examples of prophecy from non-apostles, which will hopefully help us understand more about what prophecy is for us. After that I’ll share some of the passages about instruction, followed by a few other thoughts and a suggestion for how to proceed.

Examples of Prophecy in the NT

Zechariah

Zechariah was John the Baptist’s father, and he prophesied about his son after he was born. We find this in Luke 1:67-79. A few things that stand out to me:

  1. He was “filled with the Spirit” when he prophesied (Luke 1:67).
  2. He foretold what John the Baptist would be like, which was essentially an elaboration of what an angel told him at least 9 months prior (Luke 1:5-24).

Jesus Before His Crucifixion

When Jesus was about to be crucified, one of the guards hit him without Him physically seeing who did it. (Mark 14:65 says they covered His face when they hit him.) Then they said this to Jesus: “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” (Matthew 26:68; Luke 22:64)

In this example they understood prophecy to be an ability to know something that happened in the past that Jesus didn’t physically see.

About an Unbeliever

“But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 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.“

1 Corinthians 14:24-25

In this example, the key phrase for helping us understand what NT prophecy is is “the secrets of his heart are disclosed.” This is referring to an unbeliever who entered into a gathering of the Corinthian church. Prophecy, in this case, is when a believer speaks the “secrets” of the person’s heart. It seems clear to me that this information was unknown by the prophet before this time. The Holy Spirit gave that information to the believer to speak, which was unknown to anyone except the unbeliever. It resulted in the unbeliever acknowledging God’s presence in the church.

Caiaphas

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

John 11:49-53

Caiaphas clearly foretold what was going to happen in the future. This is called prophecy.

Agabus

While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”

Acts 21:10-11

This is another example of someone (Agabus) foretelling something that would happen in the future that he otherwise would not have known were it not the Holy Spirit revealing it to him. Interestingly, Paul still went to Jerusalem even though the prophecy came true.

About Timothy

This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare,

1 Timothy 1:18

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.

1 Timothy 4:14

What were the prophecies made about Timothy? It was made, evidently, by an elder or more than one elder (pastor). Perhaps it was about the ministry he would have. Whatever it was, it was information about him that would occur in the future—foretelling.

Instructions About Prophecy

For building up the church

On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.

1 Corinthians 14:3-4

It’s clear here that prophesy is a message to be shared, evidently in the gathering of the church and for her upbuilding (also encouragement and consolation).

Revealed

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.

1 Corinthians 14:29-32

This is not information that just anyone can know. The Spirit of God reveals this information to a believer.

Humbly given

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.

1 Corinthians 14:29-32

Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

1 Thessalonians 5:20-22

A prophecy should not be given with the expectation it will be accepted without scrutiny. The church is to test the prophecy (evidently collectively?) to determine it’s validity and usefulness.

A Definition

Based on these teachings and examples, here is my definition, submitted to you all:

New Testament prophecy is a previously unknown message revealed by the Holy Spirit to a Christian that is to be humbly submitted to an individual or a group to upbuild the church, give direction, or conviction.

An Example

I had a dream several years ago about a friend. In the dream, my friend was participating in sexual sin. I remember feeling so horrible for him and having a very strong urge to talk to him to encourage him to be warned. I hurt for him in the dream and was very scared for him and burdened. I had no knowledge of his involvement in this kind of sin prior to the dream. He and I had never even talked about this.

I texted him the next morning and said something along the lines of, “This is weird, and if this doesn’t make sense then disregard, but I had a dream about you sinning sexually, and I just felt impressed to encourage you to stand firm and obey the Lord.” He responded saying he had been battling that sin and was being pulled toward it. He thanked me for telling him.

Based on my understanding, that seems like prophecy.

How to pursue

So, what should you do to show that you “earnestly desire” prophecy like we’re told? I’m not sure I can tell you a “thou shalt” on this, because Scripture doesn’t tell us how to show we desire it. But here’s a prayer I’ve started praying:

Holy Spirit, show me something you want me to share to build up a brother or sister, give direction, or draw unbelievers to you.

Here are a few suggestions about sharing what you believe to be a message from the Holy Spirit with someone or our church family:

  1. Acknowledge the Holy Spirit impressing it on you
  2. Acknowledge the possibility you could be wrong
  3. Share the message

May the Lord be praised as He continues to give His Spirit to build us up.


Pastor Jacob has been serving Central Oaks as a pastor since 2013. Special thanks to John Piper’s post about this.

Categories: 1 Thessalonians, Holy Spirit, ProphecyTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,