Christian Articles Archive

Understanding the Gift of Prophecy
I. Is Prophecy Preaching?

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Monk contemplating a reading Much of modern evangelicalism holds that the gift of prophecy has passed away completely. But many modify this position by equating present-day prophecy with preaching or teaching. Are they the same? Is prophecy teaching?

Commenting on 1 Thessalonians 5:20, John Calvin wrote,

By the term prophesying I do not mean the gift of foretelling the future, but as in 1 Corinthians 14:3 the science of the interpretation of Scripture, so that a prophet is the interpreter of the divine will... Let us understand prophesying to mean the interpretation of Scripture applied to the present need.[1]
This view has attracted many. A number of modern evangelicals agree that prophecy in New Testament days possessed the element of revelation. Yet they contend that the gift of prophecy that is now in the church is something different. Kenneth Gangel writes, "The gift of prophecy is congregational preaching which explains and applies God's [written] revelation."[2] Rick Yohn concurs: "The major responsibility of the gift of prophecy today is to study and interpret the Word of God..."[3]

Indeed, prophecy possesses similarities to preaching and teaching. In discussing New Testament prophets, British scholar David Hill notes "that the category of pastoral preaching may be a useful designation for the Christian prophet's speech."[4] Yet, as Hill would agree,[5] we cannot equate prophecy and teaching.

Sometimes we hear of "prophetic preaching" of social issues which uses the model of the Old Testament prophet as champion of God's truth. Moral leaders of our time such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi have been termed "prophets". But moral sensitivity and moral leadership do not satisfactorily describe the action of the Holy Spirit in prophecy.[6] While "prophetic preaching" may be a popular way of characterizing the ministry of some of the Old Testament prophets, it is inadequate to define the gift of prophecy we see discussed and practiced in the early church.

Increasingly a consensus is emerging that the distinctive factor of the gift of prophecy is the element of revelation. James Reisling notes on 1 Corinthians 14:26, "The use of apokalupsis instead [of prophetia] suggests that Paul wanted to stress the nature of prophecy as revelation against teaching... Prophecy receives its content through revelation, teaching from tradition."[7]

The New Testament does not allow a definition of the gift of prophecy which excludes revelation. There are a several places where the distinction between prophecy and teaching can be clearly seen. In 1 Corinthians 14:29-33 Paul assumes that the person about to prophesy is the person who has received a "revelation" (vs. 30). In 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 those who prophecy make a public disclosure of the secrets of a man's heart. Women were not allowed to teach (or preach) in the first century churches, but they were allowed to prophesy (1 Timothy 2:12; 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 11:4-5). Michael Green asserts: "That prophecy is the same as preaching or teaching ... could only be maintained in defiance of the whole weight of New Testament evidence."[8]

How, then, shall we define the gift of prophecy? In the midst of a number of helpful comprehensive definitions of the gift of prophecy in recent literature,[9] Cecil Robeck's understanding seems to best encompass the important points. He defines the New Testament prophecy as

a spontaneous manifestation of God's grace, received by revelation, (sometimes as a vision, at other times as impressions or thoughts) and spoken by the Spirit through a Christian who has been given a gift of prophecy, in the language of those who hear the prophetic word spoken."[10]
The Christian prophet is a "spokesman for God," much as Aaron was for Moses before Pharaoh (Ex 4:15-17; 7:1),[11] one who speaks what he hears by revelation rather than from his own mind.

Revelation characterizes the gift. But it also helps us to form a broader insight into the nature of the outpouring of the prophetic Spirit upon the church at Pentecost. On that day the Spirit which "searches everything, even the depths of God" mediated to the church the "mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:10, 16). Many gifts of the Spirit may be seen as facets of larger prophetic gift. Paul groups prophecy, tongues, and knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13:8. C. Peter Wagner classifies what Pentecostals refer to as the "word of knowledge" as a species of the prophetic gift: "this ability to receive information through extrasensory means."[12] The "word of wisdom" is an example of the Spirit revealing to the believer "the mind of Christ."

In what sense can the gift of tongues be classed as prophecy? The glossolalia on the day of Pentecost is subsumed under the larger prophetic gift by Peter's quotation of Joel 2:28-29 which predicted: "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy...." (Acts 2:4, 16ff).[13] The gift of interpretation shares in the larger prophetic gift (1 Cor 14:5) by giving the sense of a Spirit-inspired Godward communication (14:2, 16), in contrast to the gift of prophecy imparting a Spirit-inspired manward communication.

In its broadest understanding the prophetic outpouring of the Spirit must be understood as the intimate revelation of God Himself to His people. More narrowly, the specific gift of prophecy in the New Testament is a spontaneous revelation from God for the situation at hand which is spoken by the Spirit through the Christian who has been given the gift of prophecy.

Preaching and teaching explain the revelation of God to man; prophecy is itself revelation.


[1] John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries: The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians (Tr. Ross Mackenzie; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 376f. On 1 Corinthians 12:28 he writes (Calvin's Commentaries: The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians [Tr. John W. Fraser; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960], p. 271), "... Let us learn that prophets are (1) outstanding interpreters of Scripture; and (2) men endowed with extraordinary wisdom and aptitude for grasping what the immediate need of the Church is, and speaking the right word to meet it..."

[2] Kenneth O. Gangel, You and Your Spiritual Gifts (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 64. He gives a similar definition in his more recent book, Unwrap Your Spiritual Gifts (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983), p. 38. See also Kurt Koch, Charismatic Gifts (Montreal: The Association for Christian Evangelism [Quebec] Inc., 1975), pp. 111.

[3] Rick Yohn, Discover Your Spiritual Gift and Use It (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1974), p. 57.

[4] David Hill, New Testament Prophecy (New Foundations Theological Library; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979), p. 126; see also pp. 103-104. This is developed in his article "Christian Prophets as Teachers or Instructors in the Church," in Prophetic Vocation in the New Testament and Today, ed. J. Panagopoulos (Supplement to Novum Testamentum, Vol. XLV; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977), pp. 109-130.

[5] Hill, "Teachers," p. 123.

[6] See Bruce Yocum, Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Spirit in the Church Today (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1976), p. 31; and E. Earle Ellis, "Prophecy in the New Testament Church--And Today," in Prophetic Vocation in the New Testament and Today, p. 56.

[7] James Reisling, "Prophecy, the Spirit and the Church," in Prophetic Vocation in the New Testament and Today, p. 70. This distinction is noted by many scholars including Gerhard Friedrich, "prophetes," in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament [abbreviation TDNT], eds. G. Kittel and G. Friedrich, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, ET 1964-1974 [1933-1972]) VI, pp. 848, 853f; Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., "The Gift of Prophecy in Acts and Paul, Part I," Studia Biblica et Theologica 5 (March 1975), p. 36; Wayne Arden Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12-14, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge, 1978 (now published as The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians [Washington, D.C: University Press of America, 1982, with different pagination.]), pp. 139ff; and James D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 186, 228, 237. See also R. B. Y. Scott, "Is Preaching Prophecy?" Canadian Journal of Theology 1 (1955), pp. 11-18. Ernest Best, ("Prophets and Preachers," Scottish Journal of Theology 12 (1959), p. 145) comments on "the way in which the New Testament writers (and Judaism generally) regarded the prophets of the Old Testament. To them they were essentially foretellers and their predictions were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, i.e., for them a primary element in prophecy is prediction... It would be surprising if when they used the term 'prophet' they did not immediately think of the revelation of the future."

[8] Michael Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975, p. 171. Green cites a fascinating passage in which second-century Bishop Melito of Sardis breaks into an sermon with an obvious prophecy in the first person (pp. 171-172).

[9] Green, p. 170; C. Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow (Glendale: G/L Regal Books, 1976), p. 228; Dunn, Jesus, p. 229; Hill, NT Prophecy, p. 111; Friedrich, "prophetes," in TDNT VI, p. 885; and Yocum, p.33.

[10] Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., "Problems in the Contemporary Use of the Gift of Prophecy" (an unpublished paper given at the Society for Pentecostal Studies, November 14, 1980), p. 2.

[11] See Yocum, p. 33.

[12] R. Douglas Wead, Hear His Voice (Carol Stream: Creation House, 1976), p. 100, quoted in Wagner, Spiritual Gifts, p. 231. Wagner himself sees the "word of knowledge" as a gift to "discover, accumulate, analyze and clarify information and ideas that are pertinent to the growth and well-being of the Body" (p. 260), a gift I would categorize under the gift of teaching.

[13] See Dunn, Jesus, p. 174f.

This article is part of a chapter on prophecy in Ralph F. Wilson, The Holy Spirit as the Agent of Renewal, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1984, pp. 149-154. The three articles in this series found in the Christian Articles Archive are: (1) Is Preaching Prophecy? (2) The Purpose of Prophecy Today and (3) Beginning to Prophecy

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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