What Is Prophecy and Has It Ceased?

As Paul is describing the activity of prophets in 1 Corinthians 14:29–30, he writes, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.” 

From this statement, we know that (1) prophecy is revelatory because Paul refers to a “revelation” coming to a prophet. We also see from this that (2) prophecy is spontaneous, because these verses indicate that as one prophet is uttering a prophecy, another prophet gets an unexpected, unprepared revelation. This means that prophecy is not like teaching. Teaching is the communication of knowledge gained through study and preparation (cf. 2 Tim 2:15). I think it is also safe to say that (3) prophecy is inspired by the Holy Spirit, since prophecy is a spiritual gift (1 Cor 12:10). 

These points are generally agreed upon. Prophecy is Spirit inspired, spontaneous, revelatory utterance. The next question is whether the prophecies Paul is describing are like Old Testament prophecy. It is generally agreed that Old Testament prophecy is authoritative. Old Testament prophecy communicates the Word of God in the same way that the Bible communicates the Word of God. 

Wayne Grudem argues that NT prophecies like the ones Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14 are not like OT prophecies. Grudem thinks that NT prophecies do not carry the authority Scripture carries, that they can be wrong, and that prophecy is basically the Lord bringing appropriate thoughts to people’s minds. 

If Grudem is correct, then every Christian who has ever communicated a thought that the Lord brought to mind has prophesied. He may be right, but I think that Paul’s use of the word “revelation” in 1 Corinthians 14:30 makes Grudem’s view unlikely. It seems that “revelation” entails more than the Lord bringing a helpful thought to mind. 

I think that NT prophecies are like OT prophecies. If they are inspired by the Spirit, they will not be erroneous and they will have the same authority Scripture has. The “weighing” of these prophecies probably refers to establishing whether the prophecy was inspired by the Spirit or not, and thus whether it was a true or false prophecy. If it was a true prophecy, they probably then weighed how it was to be applied, since it was the authoritative word of God. Let’s recall that the Christians in Corinth to whom Paul wrote did not have the whole New Testament as we have it. Paul was sending parts of it to them! 

I agree with Richard Gaffin’s argument that just as the twelve apostles are unique and not replaced by successors in the history of the church, so also the prophetic activity of the early church is foundational for the church. Once the foundation is laid, it is not repeated. I think this is what Paul means when he refers to the church being “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:20). Having discussed the exegetical issues in detail, Gaffin writes, “Consequently, a major conclusion in our study from Ephesians 2:20 is that the New Testament prophets, along with the apostles, are the foundation of the church. They have a foundational, that is, temporary, noncontinuing function in the church’s history, and so by God’s design pass out of its life, along with the apostles” (95–96). 

I don’t think anyone after Paul is an apostle of the Lord Jesus, and I don’t think the Lord is still giving revelations that carry the authority of Scripture. The canon, like the apostolate, is closed, which means that prophecy has ceased.

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