Prophecy and the New Covenant

Pages and pages of ink have been spilled over debates about the gift of prophecy in the new covenant. The key disputed issues being the nature of the gift (ie. whether or not new covenant prophecy is infallible) and the timing of the gift passing away. I don’t intend to wade directly into these debates here. Rather, I intend to focus on a wider issue which is usually neglected in such discussions, namely: what is the role of a prophet?

The Role of a Prophet

In the Bible, a prophet is not merely someone who conveys messages for the sake of edification. A prophet is a member of the divine council, one who meets with God, hears him speak, makes petitions to God on behalf of others and is sent out to go and represent God before others. In scripture, kings will usually have a council of elders and wise men who advise them in major decisions and represent them before the people. This is essentially the role of a prophet, except that in this case, the king in question is God.

This immediately strikes us as odd. After all, if God is sovereign, why would he need advisors? Yet time and again in scripture we see God changing his mind in response to the pleading of his prophetic representatives. Moses pleads before God on behalf of Israel and God changes his mind, sparing them from destruction (Exodus 32:7-14). Abraham pleads on behalf of Sodom and manages to reduce the number of righteous people required to save the city (Genesis 18:22-33). On one occasion, when king Abimelech is cursed for taking Abraham’s wife, God even directs him back to Abraham to be prayed for and saved from destruction (Genesis 20:1-7).

Once we factor these aspects of the prophetic ministry into our thinking, it becomes clear that a prophet is not automatically infallible. Even a prophet of God might act faithlessly by lying or misrepresenting the words of God. Not only that, but there were many prophets who spoke in the name of other gods. Both types of false prophet were to be resisted by the faithful Israelite (Deuteronomy 18:19-22).

The Prophet in the New Testament

When approaching many of the new testament passages dealing with prophecy, it helps to bear this full context in mind. Behind every passage that mentions the gift of prophecy, there is a prophet lurking in the background. And the role of a prophet includes the fuller picture outlined above. A prophet is not merely one speaking on God’s behalf, but also interceding before God on behalf of others and more generally functioning as a divine representative, a member of God’s council.

Consider one particular incident in the book of Acts. A group of believers urge the apostle Paul “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem, presumably because of the dangers he would face there (Acts 21:4). Later on, the prophet Agabus warns Paul that he will be bound by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans.[1] Now, these prophets had spoken truthfully in communicating what would happen to Paul. But they were not completely infallible in the sense of understanding why God had revealed these things. As an apostle of Christ, Paul saw into the deeper purposes of God and perceived that God was issuing these warnings not to prevent him from going to Jerusalem, but in order to prepare him for what would happen there (Acts 21:10-14).

Another passage worth considering in this respect is the controversial section in 1 Corinthians dedicated to head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). On the basis of creational distinctions between the genders, Paul instructs the women to cover their heads when “praying or prophesying”. If we apply the principle that behind every prophecy is a prophet, then we shouldn’t take the act of “praying” to refer to the prayer of an ordinary believer, but to the prayer of a prophet (or in this case, a prophetess). In other words, a direct petition to God, issued within the context of the divine council. So “praying or prophesying” would simply refer to any exercise of the prophetic office. This also explains the reference to the angels in the passage, since angels would also be present in meetings of the divine council.

Later in 1 Corinthians, there is a section addressing the use of prophecy specifically in meetings of the church (1 Corinthians 14:26-40). Embedded within this section there is a warning for the women of the church to keep quiet during the weighing of prophecy (v34-35).[2] Why would Paul be so concerned that the women are to be quiet during such times? We know from the wider Biblical context that the exercising of the prophetic office is not merely the relaying of a message, but the prophet (or prophetess) in question is actually a representative of God and a personal embodiment of divine authority. Comparing this with Paul’s teaching that women are not to exercise authority in meetings of the church (eg. 1 Timothy 2:11-15), it makes sense that Paul would prohibit women from exercising the prophetic office within the context of corporate worship.

The Greatest Prophet and the Prophetic Church

A broader understanding of the prophetic office helps us to see how Jesus is the greatest prophet, the highest fulfilment of Deuteronomy 18:15-19. Not only does Jesus bring new authoritative teaching but having ascended into heaven to the right hand of the Father, he intercedes directly for all those who trust in him. As the eternal Son, he is the perfect representative and embodiment of God the Father to us and yet as a man he is able to represent us before the Father.

Of course, if Jesus is the greatest prophet, then we as the church must share in his prophetic ministry. According to Jeremiah 31:31-34, the new covenant is a time when all believers know the Lord in a unique way. On the day of Pentecost, Peter proclaims that now in “the last days” all shall prophesy in some sense (Acts 2:17-18). As believers in the new covenant united with Christ, we are all divine representatives. We are all called to pray and intercede for one another (and for the world) and we are all called to encourage and build one another up with heavenly wisdom.

[1] Some have suggested that Agabus misspeaks here, since the binding of Paul is actually ordered by a Roman soldier. However, it isn’t inconceivable that the Jewish leaders would have bound him and handed him over in response to the command of the soldier.

[2] On the “weighing” of prophecy in this passage, v29-31 outline the basic procedure. As with the case of Paul in Acts, sometimes a prophet might misunderstand the intention of God and so another prophet with greater insight might need to add further clarification to a message being given.

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