The Gift of Prophecy

Can We All Prophesy?

The spiritual gift of prophecy was pervasive during New Testament times. 1 The numerous biblical references to prophets and prophecies in relation to the specific mention of other speech-related gifts reveals a lively prophetic phenomenon in the church’s missionary and nurture enterprise. 2 It is the only constant in Paul’s lists of charismata 3 and most always in the context of ecclesiology. GOP 171.1

This prophetic activity apparently included some coworkers of the apostles who were engaged in preaching, teaching, and church organization. 4 As prophecy belongs to the leadership gifts, these coworkers exerted significant foundational leadership and mentoring authority through their exposition and application of Scripture. 5 They appear as both itinerant workers and workers in local congregations. 6 Their prophetic gift was employed at times in a prominent way at worship services. 7They were associated with but not identical with the apostles. 8 Their need to be tested in no way suggests a secondary status of their prophetic ministry. 9 GOP 171.2

In 1 Corinthians 14, however, the apostle Paul “appears” to extend the gift of prophecy beyond the leadership gifts to potentially include all believers in local churches: “desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1,); 10 “now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is the one who prophesies than the one who speaks in tongues” (verse 5); “let two or three prophets speak, and let others pass judgment” (verse 29); “for you can all prophecy one by one” (verse 31); “desire earnestly to prophesy” (verse 39). GOP 172.1

At first read, these verses “appear” to suggest some kind of “ordinary congregational prophecy” 11 that could occur in local Christian congregations in a worship context. If true, such informally recognized prophets 12 would be more immediately relevant to a local church than would leadership prophets, whom most local congregations might hardly ever see. 13 This is interpreted by some as in keeping with perceived Pentecost implications of Joel 2:28-30 and that the prophetic gift “is available—at least potentially—to all.” 14 GOP 172.2

But can we all prophesy? Are there multiple kinds of prophecy in the New Testament (apostolic, apostolic coworker, ordinary/congregational)? Are there degrees of prophetic experience, content, scope, veracity, and authority? What is the spiritual gift of prophecy? Is it right to seek it? Can Christians use it in their churches today without compromising the supremacy of Scripture? Was the prophetic phenomenon in Corinth authentic or a strife-causing distortion? GOP 172.3

These are challenging questions that modern readers face when reading 1 Corinthians 14. Pentecostal and charismatic movements turn to this Bible passage for support of believers’ spontaneous ecstatic speech that uplifts and encourages others in faithful obedience and service, self-proclaimed prophets foretelling future events, private revelations, as well as prophecies and visions—“a word from the Lord” and “the Lord showed me.” Even some Seventh-day Adventists are saying today, “God showed me” and “God told me.” GOP 172.4

What is this passage really teaching us? What is the meaning of “to prophesy” in 1 Corinthians 14? Adventist readers will further wonder how the interpretation of this passage impacts Adventist understandings of the gift of prophecy as an eschatological phenomenon in the remnant church. 15 GOP 173.1

This study begins with an overview of the larger context in which prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14 occurs. This larger 1 Corinthians textual backdrop provides meaningful insight into the varied nuances reflected in specific terms used in chapter 14—prophets, prophecy, and to prophesy. And it is helpful toward formulating a broad understanding of the prophetic phenomenon as a gift, an activity, and a role. The limitations of prophecy are then explored so as to further outline prophecy’s contours and implications. Finally, we compare several key Pauline assertions regarding prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14 with Adventist understandings of the gift of prophecy as an eschatological phenomenon in the remnant church. The phenomenon of tongues is referred to only tangentially. GOP 173.2