WCSK Episode 4.1: Prophecy and Special Revelation

WCSK boosts your understanding and shows you how to apply biblical principles to everyday life. All Scriptures are taken from the New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted. 

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalms 119:105)

 

Properly defined, a prophecy is a verbal message that comes from God, is mediated through a prophet, and is delivered to a person or a group of people. This message is verbal,[1] not a subjective impression or an internal, mystical “sense” of things. This helps to explain why in so many places in the Old Testament, we read, “Thus saith the Lord.” When we think about prophets in general, we are directed primarily to the Old Testament because Christ’s ministry in the New Testament was the ultimate fulfillment of the prophetic office.[2] While Jesus was on earth, there was no need for prophets, because God was with us and speaking to us directly. There is a clear continuity—not a contrast—in the prophetic office from the Old Testament to the New Testament.[3]

#WCSK Prophecy Prophetic Utterances Prophecies Special Revelation

But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (II Peter 1:20-21)

In II Peter 1:20-21, the apostle uses the Greek word προφητεία, which refers to the utterance of a prophet animated by the Holy Spirit. The central idea that Peter was trying to push forward is that the canon of Scripture is not a collection of human thoughts or subjective ideas—it is special revelation from God. Hence, in the Bible, prophecy equates to an authoritative declaration of God Himself; it is therefore infallible and without error.

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (II Timothy 3:16-17)

The Bible is θεόπνευστος or “God-breathed.” Many people think (and even I was misinformed for some time) that the authors of the Bible were “inspired” by God and therefore they were the primary agents who penned the words of Scripture—that men wrote God’s truth in their own language and were “assisted” by God. Part of this misunderstanding stems from the fact that many English Bibles translate θεόπνευστος as “inspired” or “inspiration of.” This conveys the sense that writers “breathed in” God’s fumes and they were then energized to write. The proper meaning of the word is “God-breathed,” or God breathing out so that He Himself is speaking to us. Understood this way, all the prophecies in the Bible originate from God Himself, who spoke His own words.

This is why the Bible is authoritative, infallible, and inerrant, because God is speaking directly to us. Certainly, God did use unique authors to deliver His Word, which is why there are distinctive characteristics in different books of the Bible.

Throughout the Bible, God spoke to His people through the prophets, who were known by their unyielding allegiance to the Lord, their rigid opposition to idolatry, and their ability to perform signs.[4] The prophets were also specially commissioned.[5] There was no distinction between the prophets and their prophecies, because by definition, a true prophet would make true prophecies and a false prophet would make false prophecies. Truly, God is truth and without contradiction, so the Lord never gives a prophecy that contradicts truth revealed elsewhere. Because false prophets were a problem both in the Old Testament[6] and the New Testament,[7] God provided a means by which sincere believers can discriminate. To clarify, Pastor John MacArthur writes the following:

“From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible demonstrates four foundational characteristics of true prophecy. First, true prophecy is always verbal, the very words of God. It’s never an impulse or an impression; it’s never a feeling that needs interpretation. Rather, true prophecy is a precise message.

Second, true prophecy is propositional—it is testable as either true or false. That’s what logicians recognize as the law of the excluded middle—a proposition is either true, or its negation is true. If someone invokes the Holy Spirit as the source of his prophecy, but what he says is false, God commands His people to reject both prophecy and prophet (Deuteronomy 13:1–5; Deuteronomy 18:20–22).

Third, true prophecy is infallible. Whatever God spoke through His prophets was error-free and utterly unaffected by human fallibility.

Fourth, because a true prophecy is verbal, propositional, and inerrant, the only conclusion to draw is that it carries the full weight of divine authority. Ever since the end of the apostolic age and the completion of the canon, only Scripture can legitimately claim that level of authority (II Timothy 3:16).”[8]

So, let’s briefly recap what we have learned so far to in order to appreciate the weight of the prophetic office: God spoke His authoritative words through the prophets. The spoken Word of God was subsequently written down and memorialized into what we call the Bible. Christians trust the Bible and all that it contains because it does not contain the words of mere men—God Himself “breathed out” His special revelation.

In many ways, the ultra-exclusivity of the prophetic office placed a wedge between God and His people because there was no direct revelation of an authoritative word to the people. Consequently, the prophet Joel looked forward to a future time when every believer would—by the power of the Holy Spirit—have the ability to receive, understand, and then communicate God’s revelation with clarity and precision.[9] That future has already arrived with the Incarnation of the Word (Jesus)[10] and after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.[11] Now, all those who profess faith in Jesus Christ have the ability to understand God’s Word, and we can in turn intelligently relay that understanding to others.

In Ephesians chapter 4, the apostle Paul begins by writing about the unity in the body of Christ. Verses 11-14 read as follows:

“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.”

When describing the gifts that God has given to the Church, Paul writes that God gave some as apostles, or men who were sent into the world by Jesus as authorized agents to help build the church. All the apostles (like Peter) were also eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ. All the apostles have also been dead for thousands of years. The point is that Paul is writing his words in Ephesians not in regard to particular offices that will continue indefinitely but in regard to those that will cease.

Paul also writes that some are gifted to be prophets (προφήτης), or proclaimers of divine truth. Does this mean that in the present day, some people have the supernatural ability to tell us new, authoritative revelations from God? The short answer is no. We do know that there was a continuation of the prophetic gift during the apostolic era when the canon of Scripture was being completed. Once the canon was complete, Scripture tells us that God’s revelation to us is final,[12] so there cannot be any new special revelation. In other words, before the New Testament was complete, Scripture was still being written and God had not finished revealing His Word to us. Then, in Revelation 22:18-19, God makes it clear that His prophetic disclosure is complete. This helps to illuminate why Revelation is not only the last chronological book in the Bible but also the last book to be written—roughly around 94-96 A.D.

Our Christian faith is complete because it rests on a finite set of objective, historical revelations. We are not waiting on new prophecies or new revelation, and we won’t be until the return of Christ.[13] What God had to say in His Word is everything in His sovereign will that He has decreed to tell us. Again, Jesus effectively ends the Bible by telling us that no further prophetic words are to be added.[14] The age of prophecy is over, as decreed by God Himself.

Now let’s examine what relevance, if any, prophecy has in modernity. Nowadays, some call themselves “prophets,” and I do not seriously believe that most of the folks in this camp consider themselves to be holding the same office as Isaiah and Jeremiah. Nor do I believe that they earnestly believe that they speak with infallibility and inerrancy. Still, we have to be careful in our use of language, because biblically defined, a prophet is one who mediates a direct verbal proclamation from God, whose decrees carry divine authority. In a general sense of the word, all believers are called to be prophets in that all are called to articulate what the Bible says to others, but the office of prophet has been closed for roughly two thousand years.

Indeed, what all believers are called to do in modernity is proclaim the truth of what God has already revealed in the Bible. The idea of a modern prophet who receives new revelation in addition to what the Bible says is a grievous error. This actually attacks both the infallibility of the Bible and the fundamental axiom that Scripture alone is sufficient. That is, anyone seeking a “new word” from God tacitly admits that something is lacking in the “old word.” Ultimately, God has spoken finally and completely through His Son, Jesus. For those who label themselves prophets and think that they are clarifying Scripture or are interpreting the Word for a modern context, this still cannot compete with the Lord. The only thing that clarifies God’s Word is more thorough meditation on, and study of, God’s Word.[15]

What does all this mean? Well, the first acute application of this doctrine in modernity is that God, in His omniscience, has already revealed Himself in Scripture. Therefore, he does not need to give us a “special word” or “private revelation” because He has already imparted revelation to us with the gracious gift of the Bible.

Our relationship with Christ, our knowledge of God, and our equipping for life is already complete based on the prophetic Word in the cannon of Scripture. Again, II Timothy 3:16-17 says:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

Scripture is therefore sufficient for every good work. Not some good works or a few good works, but every good work. The Bible is the ultimate measuring rod for truth by which we gauge and measure everything else. We can therefore not only discern what is true but also discern what is false.

The second application is that we have to be mindful of false prophets.[16] Referring to the end times, Jesus Himself said in Matthew 24:24:

“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.”

In this verse, Jesus was warning his flock that we ought not to be dazzled by the miraculous. We should instead focus our attention on God’s revealed truth in Scripture, because a focus on signs and wonders deludes otherwise sincere people. Because of what we have learned so far, it is clear that no modern prophetic utterance is biblical—so if someone claims that God has audibly spoken to them, this should immediately raise suspicions. It becomes even more suspect when we realize what the prophetic gift was used for according to Ephesians 4:11-14: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God…” Essentially, then, prophecy is a gift for the exclusive benefit of equipping those who serve the Lord with all they need to empower them in unity and service. Biblically defined, prophecy never served a political, social, economic, or personal end.

Now, does this exclude the Holy Spirit guiding people in their everyday lives? Of course not. Remember, prophecy is a verbal message from God. It certainly falls within the contours defined by the Bible for some people to be “led” by the Holy Spirit. When we look in Mark 1:12, for example, the text explains that the Spirit “drove” or “impelled” Jesus to go out into the wilderness. I Kings 19:11-13 tells us that the Lord spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice. I Corinthians 3:16 states that the Holy Spirit dwells in all believers, and the Spirit is the Spirit of truth and will guide us to the truth.[17] What all this means is that it is biblical for the Holy Spirit to use His voice and privately speak to someone internally (private guidance). This is not a verbal declaration and is thus not prophecy and not an infallible, inerrant declaration. It is a personal, private message intended for the individual. It is certainly within God’s power to speak to His children, and many believers can get a “sense” or a certain feeling about a particular scenario, person, or course of action. But, you have to be exceedingly careful. How do you know for sure that that deep internal feeling is the Spirit? You don’t. It could just be gas. Hence, whenever someone tells me, “God told me to tell you” or “the Spirit revealed to me,” the first question I have is, “How do you know it’s God?” We are sanctified by the Spirit and led by Him, but we cannot use our own sense of things as a barometer of the Spirit’s actions. Our hearts are deceitful and cannot be trusted.[18]

Again, private guidance is not prophecy, but we can obtain some certainty about the validity of our guidance in retrospect. The Bible clearly explains that God’s revelation always happens in the context of the drama of redemption—that is, bringing His people closer to Him through Christ. So, if in the present you get a “sense” that you should start a new job, there is no immediate way to validate that sense. If after several months or more you look back and realize that that new position, in retrospect, put you in a position to spread the gospel and guide sinners to repentance, then amen. If I have done a good job of explaining, it should be clear that private guidance is a huge gray area and is thus untrustworthy. That’s why you have the Word of God, which is trustworthy.

The third application is to realize that the desire for new prophetic utterances, special revelation, or “clarification” is the first step toward heresy and idolatry.

Islam and Mormonism, for example, say that the Bible “got it wrong” and something more was needed. Islam claims that Jesus is not God and was merely a prophet, and that the angel Gabriel subsequently revealed the “truth” about god to Mohammed in a cave. Mormonism says that the Book of Mormon corrects erroneous doctrine in the Bible, which “got it wrong.” (Notice a trend?) Yearning for something more than God’s sealed cannon of prophecy always leads first to turning away from God’s Word. The second step is always a bold lie—in fact, the lie almost inevitably leads to a fringe cult or gross heresy. The irony of questioning God’s Word is that once the doubter challenges the Word, they never remain silent. They always inject other words of their own to fill in the gaps. Is this not what the serpent did in Genesis 3:1 when it asked Eve, “Hath God said?” It soon injected its own words by saying, “You surely will not die” in Genesis 3:4, which was a direct contradiction of God’s truth. The result was the fall of humankind.

Prophetic utterances in the Bible equaled direct revelation from God, and the desire for new utterances reflects a lack of understanding of what the Bible actually says—that the cannon is closed. Contemplate what Revelation 22:18-19 clearly explains:

“I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.”

Yearning for prophecy turns people away from God, away from the Bible, and toward a so-called prophet. In other words, we turn from something objective, infallible, and inerrant to someone who is subjective, fallible, and errant. And, when we think about this logically, novel prophetic utterances don’t make any sense. Either novel prophetic utterances are authoritative and infallible (like they are in the Bible) or they are not. If they are, this devalues the closed cannon and contradicts Scripture. If novel prophetic utterances are not authoritative and infalliable, then they are not the prophecies of the Bible … so then what’s the point of them?

Rev. Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

 

 

[1] See Exodus 4:12; Jeremiah 1:7, 9; Ezekiel 3:4, 10-11

[2] See Matthew 13:57; Luke 13:33

[3] For example, refer to the Book of Acts (e.g., 2:16-18, 10:43, 13:27, and 26:22) where Luke makes a clear connection with OT prophecies. Furthermore, in the same book, there are references to NT prophets (13:1, 15:32, and 21:9–11).

[4] Deuteronomy 13:1-5, 18:15-22

[5] For example, see Isaiah 6:1-13 and Jeremiah 1:4-19

[6] cf. Isaiah 30:10; Jeremiah 5:31, 14:14-16; Ezekiel 13:2-9; Micah 3:11

[7] cf. Matthew 7:15; II Timothy 4:3-4; I John 4:1; Jude 4

[8] John MacArthur, “Prophecy Redefined,” Grace to You, March 12, 2014, accessed September 6th, 2017, https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B140312

[9] Joel 2:28-29

[10] John 1:1-18

[11] Acts 2:1-47

[12] Hebrews 1:1-2; Jude 3-4

[13] Acts 2:16-21; Revelation 11:1-13

[14] Revelation 22:18-19

[15] cf. Acts 17:11; II Timothy 2:15

[16] I Corinthians 14:29; I John 4:1

[17] John 16:13

[18] Jeremiah 17:9

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