Christian Articles Archive

Understanding the Gift of Prophecy
II. The Purpose of Prophecy Today

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

Monk contemplating a reading Prophecy is largely despised by the church. It has been surrounded by misunderstanding, confusion, and fear. Yet, from the standpoint of the Scriptures, the gift of prophecy is the most important spiritual gift. Paul considers it vital to the upbuilding of the church. Just what is the role of prophecy for the church today?

Prophecy has been despised before. Moses, finally convinced that God wanted to delegate his governing authority to a larger number, called seventy elders to a "committee meeting" at the tabernacle. Two failed to show up. The Spirit of God fell on the sixty-eight who attended. But the Spirit also came upon the two who remained in the camp who began to prophesy as well. Every one wanted them to stop, uncomfortable at the direct voice of God and jealous for Moses' uniqueness as God's prophet. They reported the incident to Moses and demanded that he stop them. One can almost see Moses chuckling, and then longingly reflecting on the blessedness of the Spirit's presence in his life: "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!" (Numbers 11:29).

Moses' dream began to be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit fell on the infant church and prompted them to speak out in tongues the "mightinesses of God." Peter, under the inspiration of the Spirit, interpreted the phenomenon thus:

This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: "And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy...." (Acts 2:16-18 quoting Joel 2:28-29)
Amazingly, Peter classifies the Pentecost expression of tongues as a variety of the prophetic gift. The New Testament Scriptures make it clear that the Spirit is a universal gift to the church, and that prophecy is the characteristic gift of the Spirit. The Apostle Paul indicated that the gift of prophecy was for every believer: "For you can all prophesy one by one..." (1 Corinthians 14:31; see also vss. 5, 24). As we desire the renewal of the church this expectation of the universality of prophecy among God's people fills us with hope.[1]

If we take Paul's letter to the Corinthians seriously, we must come to the conclusion that the gift of prophecy is indispensable to the church. When we try to build churches without this gift being active, it is like trying to walk across America on crutches: it can be done, but it is certainly the hard way. The importance of the gift of prophecy is seen from from Paul's urgency for it. He commands the Corinthians to "earnestly desire to prophesy" (1 Corinthians 14:39; see also 12:31 and 14:1). In all the various lists and discussions of the gifts in Paul's letters the only constant gift is prophecy.[2] Whenever Paul makes an attempt to classify the gifts in terms of importance, prophecy is given preference over all the rest (1 Corinthians 14:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:19f). Only in the two passages where Paul speaks of gifted men (prophets) rather than of the gift (prophecy) do prophets fall into second place behind apostles (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11; cf. Ephesians 2:20).[3]

As God led me in my study of the gift of prophecy, I was convicted by the Apostle's command: "Earnestly desire to prophesy" (1 Corinthians 14:39; see also 12:31; 14:1). My zeal (Greek zeloo) to prophesy or encourage prophecy in the church certainly was not conformed to the Word. But as I discovered what God intends prophecy to do for His church, my desire and faith for the gift increased. Why is prophecy so important? Just what is its purpose?

Its several functions may all be subsumed under the purpose of building up the Church. Since love for the brethren is to be the motive for desiring the spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 13), the purpose is to build up the brethren. The Greek word oikodome was first used of building houses, temples, and pyramids, but quickly moved to a figurative sense in secular Greek.[4] In the context of spiritual gifts it means "building" as a process, "construction" and is "figurative of spiritual strengthening, edifying, edification, building up."[5] The Spirit of Christ is fulfilling Jesus' promise, "I will build (oikodomeo) my church ..." (Mt 16:18). The Spirit is in the business of constructing people and the community. The ways in which prophecy builds up the body are spelled out in detail in 1 Corinthians 14.

Exhortation and Encouragement

Exhortation and assurance are two common purposes of prophecy. Paul contrasts tongues (a Godward speaking) with prophecy (a manward message): "He who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding (oikodome) and encouragement (paraklesis) and consolation (paramuthia; 1 Corinthians 14:3)."

Paraklesis has a wide range of meaning. Its root carries the idea "to call alongside to help." The word can denote "encouragement, exhortation." The range of meaning of parakelsis in verse 3 extends from "admonishment" (e.g. to "live a life worthy of the gospel", Hebrews 13:22; cf. Romans 12:1) to "loving encouragement" (e.g. during affliction, 1 Thessalonians 3:2-3). Another idea expressed by paraklesis is "appeal, request," even "pleading". The word also extends to the idea of "comfort, consolation" (Romans 15:4; Colossians 4:8; 2 Corinthians 1:3f).[6] Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come to His followers as "another Paraclete," One who would come alongside to the disciples them (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).[7] A vitally important way the Spirit is fulfilling this ministry of paraklesis is through the exhortation, appeal, and comforting assurance of the prophetic word.

Paul uses the word paramuthia in 1 Corinthians 14:3 alongside paraklesis to explain the purpose of prophecy. This word means "encouragement," especially "comfort, consolation,"[8] but is difficult to distinguish clearly from paraklesis. It derives from para, "beside" and muthos, "speech, word, saying." In classical Greek it could refer to "any address, whether made "for the purpose of persuading, or of arousing and stimulating or of calming and consoling.[9]

Exhortation to obedience and service as well as encouragement and comfort from the Spirit to those experiencing pain and trouble are one aspect of the Spirit's building up of the church through prophecy.

A Specific Revelation for the Occasion

Revelation is the particular characteristic of prophecy which sets it off from preaching and teaching. Indeed, one of the primary ways the Spirit builds up the church is by means of prophecy's revelation. Although the gift of prophecy has a great breadth, we should not imagine that its primary purpose is the setting forth of doctrine, even though "instruction" was part of its original function (1 Corinthians 14:19). Rather, the gift of prophecy was a revelation from God with a word for the particular moment.[10] Cecil Robeck observes,

Prophecy appears to be given with an existential value in mind. It is given through a specific individual, to a specific individual or group of individuals, at a specific place, and within a specific time frame. Within that context it may be said to have a specific message with specific value.[11] A glance at the prophets mentioned in the early church certainly underlines this conclusion. Agabus' two recorded prophecies were specific predictions, revelations (Acts 11:27-30; 21:10-11). At the Antioch church the Spirit spoke through a prophet to confirm Paul and Barnabas in their missionary calling (Acts 13:1-2). Grudem observes, "Prophecy, then, is superior to the other gifts because the revelation on which it depends allows it to be suited to the specific needs of the moment, needs which may only be known to God."[12]

The great value of prophecy to the church today is the contemporary Word of God to encourage and guide His people.[13] The prophetic message is "a word fitly spoken" (Proverbs 25:11), directly from God, "good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear" (Ephesians 4:29).


A specific revelation can be particularly powerful in bringing conviction of sin and of God's presence to unbelievers or backsliders who are present in a church gathering. Paul suggests to the Corinthians how prophecy can work in this way:

If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 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). For the outsider, prophecy can be a powerful sign of God's presence among His people.

Problems with individuals in the body or with the body itself may also be pinpointed by the gift of prophecy. James Dunn observes, "Prophecy prevents a man pretending to be other than he is--prevents the believer hiding behind a mask of pretended righteouness, of apparent spirituality. At any time the prophetic word may expose him for what he is."[14] Thus prophecy builds up the church by converting the unbeliever and purifying the believer.

The variety of ways the church is built up by prophecy accentuate its necessity for the present day church. Words of comfort and assurance, words of pleading, words of exhortation and admonition, words of exposure and correction--all of these are designed by the Spirit to bring and maintain renewal in Christ's church.

We cannot afford to despise the gift of prophecy. Nor can we allow its capacity for misuse and misunderstanding prevent us from embracing it. Rather we must diligently seek to curb its abuses by the guidelines of Scripture and "test all things" (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21), so that the great constructive value of prophecy may be experienced by our churches.[15] Through this unique spiritual gift the church is enabled to grow, mature and move forward according to the will of God. "Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy ... so that the church may be edified" (1 Corinthians 14:1, 5).


[1] That Luke and Paul believed that any believer could prophesy is affirmed by a number of New Testament scholars, e.g. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975) p. 170; 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, p. 849; and 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.]), p. 246.

[2] Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28ff; 13:1-3, 8ff; 14:1-5, 6ff, 26-32; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22.

[3] Dunn, pp. 227-228.

[4] Otto Michel, "oikodomeo," in TDNT, V, p. 137.

[5] W. Bauer, W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek- English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957)p. 532, oikodome, 1,B,a.

[6] See Otto Schmitz, "parakaleo," in TDNT V, pp. 793-799.

[7] An extended treatment is found in my unpublished paper, "Theology of the Spirit in the Fourth Gospel," 1974, pp. 15-17.

[8] Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich, p. 626.

[9] Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, reprinted 1962, 1889 edition), p. 485. See also Gustav Stahlin, "paramutheomai," in TDNT V, pp. 816-823.

[10] See Michael Green, I Believe in the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 170; David Hill, New Testament Prophecy (New Foundations Theological Library; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1979), p. 127; and Dunn, p. 230.

[11] 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. 13.

[12] Grudem, p. 187.

[13]God guided the early church in Jerusalem through prophecy to escape the siege of the city. Eusebius records, "But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella" (Church History, III, 5, 3).

[14] Dunn, p. 232.

[15] Careful judging of prophecy is important so that the gift is honored in the congregation. For guidelines in judging prophecy, see Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., "How Do You Judge Prophetic Utterance?" Paraclete 11 [Spring 1977], p. 15; Robeck, "Problems"; Bruce Yocum, Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Spirit in the Church Today (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1976), pp. 106-118; and Ralph F. Wilson, The Holy Spirit as the Agent of Renewal, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1984, pp. 149-154.

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.

Sign up now!To be notified about future articles, stories, and Bible studies, why don't you subscribe to our free newsletter,The Joyful Heart, by placing your e-mail address in the box below. We respect your privacy and never sell, rent, or loan our lists. Please don't subscribe your friends; let them decide for themselves.
Country(2-letter abbreviation, such as US)
Preferred FormatHTML (recommended) Plain text