The Prophetic Word.
There are several key passages in the scriptures which refer to the prophetic word, and how the people of God might recognize the true from the false. To focus on only one or two passages or one or two points is not doing justice to the whole counsel of God on the subject. Sadly, this is often what happens when looking at this particular subject-on both the so-called cessationist and continuationist sides. There are those, like the present writer, who believe that the prophetic word was given for the ultimate purpose of revealing God’s will until that final form which we find in the canon of the 66 books of holy scripture.
My primary objective in this presentation is to give what I believe to be some of the key passages dealing with the prophetic word, and the related activity of tongues, and “special” knowledge. At the outset there are those who believe that in fact, the new testament prophetic activity was something different than the old-this I also hope to show is an error which actually goes to the core of the debate. The continuationist will normally agree that the canonical aspect is closed, but suggest that there was more to the work of the prophet which continues to this day. So it will also be my objective to show that there has only ever been one prophetic word.
Moses as the author of the first five books of the bible established, by revelation from God, the canonical principle of the prophetic word. In Deuteronomy 13:1-5 Moses gives us the first of those key principles in understanding what the prophetic word was given for, and how the people could judge the true from the false. Those who spoke contrary to the commandments already given were false (v. 4). This is the canonical principle. We can judge if a word is from God if it is in harmony with the word already given. All men would not only have God’s voice in creation, but also His voice in the word spoken and written (Cf. Ps. 19).
But this also speaks to a second important purpose and reason for the prophetic word-to further the revelation of God’s will to man, and in particular, the law-word to His covenant people-the people whom He has redeemed. The prophetic word always accompanies the unfolding of redemptive history. The prophetic word accompanies redemptive history to explain that history to His people. When that redemptive history found its fulfillment this purpose also was fulfilled. In the same way, the first purpose is also fulfilled, for as Peter said, the prophetic word has been confirmed (II Peter 1:19).
So even if a so-called prophet or dreamer were to give a sign or wonder that comes to pass, if their word is contrary to the law-word of the covenant already given, ie., the canonical word, they were false. However, there was another test, which we find in Deuteronomy 18:15-22. In verses 15-16 we have another purpose of the prophetic word, so the people would not be frightened by God’s voice speaking to them directly. How contrary to those who so much want to suggest that they have received just such a word! But there is also the chief purpose-the prophetic word was the delivery of the very words of God Himself.
In verse 20 the LORD reiterates the point of 13:1-5. “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.” It is here that we then find a second test-the thing which they predict must come true, and there is no indication that they were ever allowed to be wrong, unless God Himself spoke another word to reverse the original word spoken. So we see that, the primary test is the canonical one. Is what they say in harmony with the law already given, and second, does anything predicted not come to pass?
Jonah is an example of a prophet who predicted the destruction of Nineveh (3:4). But because the people heeded the warning, repented, and believed, “God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.” (v. 10) Jonah’s message was not contrary to the canonical word-God has always wanted all men everywhere to repent. In effect, the people of Nineveh did believe the word from Jonah to be a true word and they responded as they should have on the basis of that judgment. They did what the LORD instructed should be done when a prophet speaks a word from Him (Dt. 18:19).
Another principle, which reinforces the idea that the true prophets actually saw and heard God’s word, is the point made by Jeremiah-the true prophet is one who stands in God’s Council (23:20). This is the full meaning of ‘sode’. It is more than just counsel, and a lot more than a man just imagining something. Jeremiah was distressed because of the false prophets, because of the canonical standard-the Lord’s “holy words.” (v. 9) The behaviour of the people was contrary to that canonical law-word, and covenantal cursing was the result (v. 10 ff.). This breaks the heart of the faithful prophet Jeremiah.
This leads us to another test of who is true-they must not only speak that which is in harmony with the canonical law-word of the covenant, they must live it. “’For both prophet and priest are profane; yes, in My house I have found their wickedness,’ says the LORD.” (v. 11) Jeremiah also reiterates the test of Dt. 13:1-5 when the false prophets are condemned for prophesying contrary to the canonical word already given, by prophesying by Baal and thus causing the people to err (v. 13). The LORD would give them over to bitterness and ever increasing profanity (v. 14). But the root of it all is that “they speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the LORD.” (v. 16)
They claimed to speak a word from the LORD, but they neither saw nor heard any such word, and what they spoke was contrary to the canonical law-word already given, and their fruit betrayed these truths. They said, ‘Peace,’ when God intended judgment. This is another test for God’s people-is the “prophet” seeking to justify my sin and his? But the true prophet has stood in God’s Council and actually perceived and heard His word spoken (v. 18, 21-22). The false prophet is eager to speak, but they speak only what is in their own hearts. Theses are “prophets of the deceit of their own hearts.” (v. 26)
Jeremiah then gives God’s people another test. False prophets are those who steal words from others, because they have not stood in God’s Council themselves (v. 30). God will punish any who say, “The oracle of the LORD,’ who by claiming a prophetic word are claiming to have stood in God’s council and heard His word (v. 34). This is God’s covenantal judgment on those who claim to have a prophetic word today. “But since you say, ‘’The oracle of the LORD!’ therefore thus says the LORD: ‘Because you say this word, ‘The oracle of the LORD!’ therefore behold, I, even I, will utterly forget you and forsake you.’” (vv. 38-39)
However, as with Jonah, there may yet be time for continuationists to repent. Again, Jeremiah applied the canonical test of Deuteronomy 18 in the case of Hananiah. As Jeremiah said, prophets of the past have often spoke of and predicted judgment and peace, but only “when the word of the prophet comes to pass, the prophet will be known as one whom the LORD has truly sent.” (28:9) But Jeremiah stood in God’s Council, and Hananiah did not (vv. 12-14). Therefore Hananiah bore false witness, and for doing so he would die, a prediction of Jeremiah which came to pass (vv. 15-17), and so we have Jeremiah’s canonical word preserved.
To Moses and Jeremiah we add Ezekiel’s witness, because according to the law, witness bearing in matters of life and earth requires two or three witnesses (Dt. 17:6). “And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who prophesy, and say to those who prophesy out of their own heart, ‘Hear the word of the LORD!’ Thus says the LORD God: ‘Woe to the foolish prophets, who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing!’” (13:1-3) Those who have not actually seen God’s word are false by this very fact. But they would have seen it had they stood in His Council.
“They have envisioned futility and false divination, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD!’ But the LORD has not sent them; yet they hope that the word may be confirmed.” (v. 6) They want their words to pass the canonical test, but it will not, because God never spoke to them. “Have you not seen a futile vision, and have you not spoken false divination? You say, ‘The LORD says,’ but I have not spoken.” (vv. 6-7) On these there is a covenantal curse (vv. 8ff.). Ezekiel didn’t spare the women either, who prophesy out of their own heart.” (v. 17) In fact, he accused them of resorting to magic and divination (v. 18).
They were prophets for profit (v. 19), and hunters of souls, whom God will deliver (vv. 20-21). Whereas others spoke peace when there was no peace, these make the righteous sad, while the wicked are absolved (v. 22). For these covenantal cursing also awaits. “Therefore you shall no longer envision futility nor practice divination; for I will deliver My people out of your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’” (v. 23) But as in the case of Jonah, God says, through Ezekiel, that He has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” (33:11)
More could be covered from the old testament, but it is time to go to Joel, the prophet who connects this witness with that which was to come. It would be helpful to offer a detailed explanation for how the writers of the new testament view the ‘last days’ as that period of transition between the old and new covenant, up to the destruction of 70 AD, but many have already provided ample proof of this. The point of this present discussion is, this is exactly that time to which Joel spoke. As with the old covenant, new prophetic utterances would accompany the unfolding of the redemptive history to come.
As with all prophecy, Peter understood that it was never of any private interpretation. “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” (II Pet. 1:21) Peter and others heard the voice from heaven (vv. 16-18). Peter warns that there will also be false teachers in their day, who will teach things contrary to the canonical witness (2:1-3), also speaking of things they do not understand (2:12ff.). They are like Balaam, a false prophet of profit, who had to be spoken to with a true word from God though a donkey.
Peter with other of the apostles and prophets of the new testament, stood in the same line as the true prophets of old (3:1-3). Unlike the false teachers, Peter and his colleagues “did not follow cunningly devised fables.” (1:16) Such was the practice of the false prophets of old. Like those who stood in God’s Council, they were “eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory; ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard His voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.” (vv. 16-18)
Peter understood what constituted true and false prophets and prophecy from the bible, better than most, and he defended their standing as true speakers of a new prophetic word in harmony with the canon already given. “And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed.” His hearers would have also known the exact parallel of those requirements which he has just given. There was no mistaking what he was saying. Those who ignore the very clear connections here by Peter, do so to their own peril, and in the process fail to take into account the whole counsel of God on this topic.
It is in the light of this understanding of Peter, and the continuity with the old testament witness, that we need to understand his quotation from Joel, and the continuing ministry of the one prophetic word (Acts 2:14ff.; Joel 2:18-22). What Peter and his colleagues share with the prophets, old and new, is hearing God’s word in His presence. David knew this presence (Acts 2:25ff.). As the LORD then began the expansion of His heavenly reign (vv. 34-35), the church grew (vv. 40ff.). The nations can rage all they want, but His kingdom will fill the whole earth (4:25-26). Such was the prophet David’s witness.
Stephen saw the Excellent Glory, and in his prophetic word he drew a straight line with the prophets and covenantal redemptive history of old (Acts 7). In chapter 8 Simon the sorcerer becomes an example of those who perform signs and wonders, but have not stood in God’s Council-but rather, he was motivated by profit. But in chapter 9 we see Paul on the road to Damascus, and on that road he too finds himself in the presence of the Lord, and so he is attested to as a true prophetic witness and apostle, and so the church continued to prosper. In that expansion Peter gets his vision that the gentiles, all nations, will be included (10).
Paul’s message was clear-with the unfolding of redemption in the covenant relation, an additional prophetic word was being given. “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware therefore, lest what has been spoken in the prophets come upon you: ‘Behold, you despisers, marvel and perish! For I work a work in your days, a work which you will by no means believe, though one were to declare it to you.” (Acts 13:38-41, Cf. Hab. 1:5)
When we come to Paul in I Corinthians 12-14 we find him also drawing a straight line with the prophetic word already given. Joel made clear that this would be a ministry of the one Spirit of God. It would also be judged on whether it was in conformity to the canonical witness concerning Christ (12:1-11). This echoes the test of Deuteronomy 13:1-5. And Paul’s main emphasis here is on there being one Spirit, one Christ, and one body, and that these many and varied gifts are intended to serve one purpose. “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” (v. 7)
Here Paul crystallizes what has always been the case with this work of the spirit, another test as it were, and that is, does it profit the whole body? There should be no schism in the body, rather, each should think of the good of the body, and the need we have of each member (vv. 25-27). And in verse 28 Paul affirms another important principle-it is God who has appointed the gifts-although Paul does not discourage any from desiring the “best gifts.” (v. 31) Paul then makes the point that gifts are one thing, but the way of love is the most important of all. And so, the great motivator must be love (13).
Then couched within chapter 13 we find the pivotal verses of 8-10. Notice all the things which he lists in verses 1-3, even so, when he comes to verses 8-10 he strictly focuses on the revelatory gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. This is deliberate on his part. These revelatory gifts are destined to come to an end. Paul was speaking in the ‘last days’ of the covenantal transition. In the unfolding of redemption these gifts would cease when the church would no longer know only in part. “But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.” (v. 10).
The completed canon is that which is perfect, and as spectacular and amazing as these revelatory gifts must have been when they were exercised, they were nevertheless only done in part, piece by piece until the canon was complete. It was during this time of transition that we find Paul giving instructions for the proper exercise of these gifts. Paul also says that the purpose of this revelatory word has the same effect in us. We grow by stages until that day when we see the LORD face to face (v. 12). This is the work of the one Spirit using the word in us as individuals and in the body as a whole.
Then in chapter 14 we get some idea of what he meant when he said that we should desire the best gifts. It may even be that he is not saying we necessarily desire these for ourselves, but again, what is ultimately for the good of the whole body. “Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” (v.1) Those who speak in a tongue, that is, a language foreign to others present, is thereby only benefitting themselves (v. 2, 4). They alone understand what they are saying. But prophecy in a language that others understand, is to the benefit of all, and is the “edification and exhortation and comfort to men.”(v. 3)
In verse 5 Paul again affirms why prophecy is better-because it is in a language that all can understand. However, if the tongue is interpreted then it is equal to prophecy, in that now all can understand. So now when Paul comes to verse 6 he reiterates this point about the other revelatory gifts, and teaching. “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching.” Note well, Paul now adds teaching to the revelatory gifts he mentioned in chapter 13-the ones that would cease.
Even at this time, when new canonical revelation was being given, it was still better for the body to be taught from the word, then it was to have someone speak a revelatory word in a foreign tongue. It would be as though someone came to our church and only read the bible, but in a language foreign to everyone present. It would be far better to have a teacher of the word in our own language, expounding and applying the word already given. And as we see in II Peter, it is the teaching which remains, and the false teachers that the true must refute (1:16ff.) “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you. “(2:1).
Those who speak in a tongue only edify themselves, this is why it was important that in the public assembly that it be interpreted, then others could be edified as well (I Cor. 14:13-19) When Paul said that one’s understanding would be unfruitful in verse 14, he was not saying that there was no understanding at all, for one is praying to God. One might know that they are speaking in a tongue, but without the ability to translate it would not be of benefit to others. Without a translation they would not mature. He expands on this thought in verse 20 where he says, “Brethren, do not be children in understanding.” Edification requires understanding, and the tongues speaker does edify himself (v. 4).
O. Palmer Robertson expressed the thought well when he said that people read into scripture a false dichotomy between ‘spirit’ and ‘mind’ as these are found in the N.T. “When Paul says, ‘My spirit prays’ (I Cor. 14:14), he means that from within his soul he offers prayers to God. But this praying ‘in his spirit’ is not without full rational understanding. As a consequence of this understanding as he prays, he is edified. But at the same time, his ‘mind’, that instrument by which he would formulate his thoughts for the purpose of communicating them to others, remains ‘unfruitful’. No one else can join in his prayer because no one else understands the utterance of his ‘tongue’.” (‘The Final Word,’ p.31)
One of the things they were to understand was that the sign of tongues was a sign of covenantal judgment on apostate Israel. This was because of the rejection by many, of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is how Peter understood the events recorded in the beginning of Acts (2:22-24). Note well, that Joel makes no mention of tongues directly, but of prophecy. In effect, tongues were a unique expression of prophecy-they were foreign languages that the people who were visiting from many languages could understand. There were some Jews, and “devout men,” who could understand the words (2:1-13).
There was confusion, not because no one understood anything. There was confusion because everyone was hearing a message in their own language, so that there were many languages being spoken all at once. It is very probable that the gift of interpretation would be the ability to translate these many languages to make it understandable to the whole body-so that they might understand each other. And what it also signified was the worldwide expansion of the gospel, something Peter himself would have to learn personally. “Jews and proselytes,” heard the message in their own tongues (v. 10).
At no point do we find, anything like what has come to be known as some kind of “prayer language” which is not even understood by the person speaking. These “tongues” were real languages, which when translated could be understood by others as well. They were a unique expression of the prophetic word. They were given as judgment against apostate Israel, but a message of hope to the world. This is the dual role of what Paul means when he says that they are a “sign not to those who believe but to unbelievers.” (v. 22). To the unbelieving apostates-cursing. To the unbelieving who had not yet heard-hope.
This is why in the public gathering or assembly of the church tongues must be interpreted, so that “the uninformed,” that is, the unbelieving who had not yet understood, would hear the message so that they could understand, and be convicted. Clearly it was the gospel message of repentance and faith in Christ Jesus (vv. 23-24 Cf. Acts 2:22ff.). The goal is that they too might repent, have faith, and also worship God (v. 25). Here we thus see the gift of interpretation in action, for Paul says when several speak in different languages, someone must interpret it all. The tongues speakers would only be speaking to themselves (vv. 26-28).
There is also another critical thing to understand here. Paul said that one person speaking in a tongue was not enough. “If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret.” This is the principle laid down in Deuteronomy 17:6, that only at the mouth of two or three witnesses were matters of life and death confirmed. The fact that one was not enough, means also that 2 or 3 all confirming each other with the same message-and yet they could not understand each other, would have taken away the opportunity for any to steal each others words-just so they could be seen to be right. Interpreting (translating) 2 or 3 languages that would all say the same thing was a way for God to show that it was indeed a word from Him.
Tongues speaking, as we have seen, was an expression of judgment and hope, a matter of life and death. What is more, the prophetic word, which tongues is a unique expression of, was also concerned with life and death-it is an expression of the canonical principle-agreement in witness. In the same way, there were to be two or three prophets, then the whole assembly could judge whether there was agreement (v. 29). This is also part of the canonical principle-the scripture cannot contradict itself. And Paul says that order in speaking was possible because “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” (v. 32)
Note well, this speaks not just to the exercise of the gifts, but also to the end-God is not the “author” of confusion, rather he is the author of order and agreement-the scriptural revelation, expressed in the canon, is a book of order which agrees with itself. Paul makes clear that this is in fact what was happening with this prophetic activity, including that of the tongues speaking with interpretation-the giving of God’s word for this new redemptive period of transition between the covenants. “Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it only you that it reached?” (v. 36) Paul applied the canonical principle and went back to the law-word already given, once again drawing a straight line with the prophetic word of the past (vv. 34-35).
Paul also challenged his readers to acknowledge that his words were also “the commandments of the Lord”(v. 37) There is a straight line between the prophetic word of the old with the new. Tongues is a unique expression of the same word, and came as a sign of judgment and hope. The same tests apply, is it canonical-in agreement with the existing law-word of the covenant, does it have the attestation of two or three, does that which is predicted come to pass, do the speakers or writers live in harmony with that word, and have they stood in God’s Council and seen and heard His word? The judgment exercised by the assembly was not based on one test only-there were multiple tests.
In the end, the prophetic word, including tongues and special “knowledge” and revelation, was of that which was once a “mystery,” but with the unfolding of redemption now found completion. The modes of communication that were in parts was now complete and one. “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the ages.” (Heb. 1:1-2). The Son was the author of those previous ages, and as the Lord of history, He has also written the end (Dt. 4:2, 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18).