Prophets — New Testament and Old Testament (There’s a Difference)
Beware of Authoritarian Prophets
There are misunderstandings regarding the gift of the prophet in the church; and false teachings as well. For instance, I’ve heard it taught that when a prophet prophesies over a believer the believer is obligated to obey the prophecy to the letter and that church leaders are to hold him or her accountable to it. For instance, if the believer feels she wants to leave the church, for whatever reason, but is informed that she must stay because it was prophesied that she belonged to that church. Or if the believer intends on going to college or start a career but he’s told he can’t because the prophet prophesied that he was to be a missionary to Africa (or whatever). Absurd, you say? It’s been known to happen, typically in churches that adopt an authoritarian spirit.
This is obviously a form of bondage. It’s using the gift of prophecy for the purpose of manipulating people. Manipulation like this is condemned in the New Testament. It’s a form of authoritarian abuse where the prophet’s words are viewed as the spoken Word of God to which the believer cannot disagree.
Before I say anything else, I want to stress what a wonderful gift prophecy is to the church. Prophecies are very encouraging and are able to touch believers in that specific area where they need ministered. For example, Acts 15:32 says, “Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers.” This is the purpose of the prophetic gift in the church and reveals why it is so necessary – it encourages and strengthens believers. The original Greek word for ‘encourage’ in this passage means “to cause to move forward.” In other words, a prophetic word will inspire believers and provoke them to go forward and fulfill God’s call on their lives. Have you ever been in the spiritual doldrums where you’re not necessarily walking in sin, but you just seem to lack that spiritual drive and passion for the Lord and your calling? The gift of prophecy has the ability to wake believers from such doldrums and spark them onward! It’s an awesome gift and a needed gift. As such, the office of the prophet should be valued and esteemed in the church. Unfortunately, too many churches and sects are ignorant of it or, for various reasons, the gift lies dormant.
While the word of prophecy is important and necessary in the church this doesn’t condone the abuse of it where people are made to feel like they’re in bondage to a prophetic word that may be off or even completely wrong. Nor does it condone the dictatorial antics of prophets who think their prophecies are the Word of God which must be blindly accepted and obeyed to the letter.
Confusing New Testament Prophets with Old Testament Prophets
The reason such abuse exists is because believers are largely ignorant of the gift of prophecy in the New Testament era. They confuse the office of the Old Testament prophet with that of the New Testament prophet, which shouldn’t be done because they’re very different. In the Old Testament, what the prophet said was equal to the Word of the LORD and kings made extremely important decisions at their word, like going to war. The primary purpose of the Old Testament prophet was to lead and guide Israel through the Word of the LORD and, in fact, a lot of their words became Holy Scripture, which we know today as the Old Testament.
For this reason, the words of a prophet had to be 100% accurate. If their words were proven to be false, they were to no longer be regarded as prophets and, in fact, were to be put to death (see Deuteronomy 18:20-22). If an Old Testament prophet missed it just once, they were done. This, of course, didn’t happen in cases where the king and other leaders were corrupt and actually wanted false prophets to comfort them with lies, which occurred all too often in Israel and Judah.
Jesus Christ was the last person to operate in the anointing of an Old Testament prophet (see Hebrews 1:1-2) and, in fact, he was The Prophet that the Hebrews were waiting for almost 1500 years (see Deuteronomy 18:15, John 6:14 & 7:40).
The New Testament prophet is different. The gift of prophecy was not given to the body of Christ for the purpose of leading and guiding God’s people, as was the case in the Old Testament, because believers are born-again spiritually and have the Holy Spirit within them for this very purpose. As Jesus said, “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John16:13). Since it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to guide believers in the New Testament era, we don’t need the gift of prophecy for this function. So when a prophet prophesies over you and says you’re to do this or that or go here or there, don’t receive it unless the Spirit has already been leading you in this direction. In other words, prophecies in the New Testament are to confirm what the Holy Spirit has already been leading you to do. You could say it’s an external source to confirm or compliment the believer’s internal source of direction from God. I suppose it’s possible that the order could be reversed sometimes, particularly in cases where the believer isn’t sensitive to the moving of the Spirit, but both external and internal should match up.
There may be times, of course, when this is somewhat inapplicable because the prophet may warn you of a forthcoming negative situation, like a job loss. The purpose of this type of prophecy is to prepare you and encourage you to get through the negative situation. This was the function of Agabus’ prophecy to Paul when he warned him of the severe persecutions he was going to face in Jerusalem, which we’ll look at momentarily. With these types of prophecies, if the event doesn’t come to pass then the prophet obviously missed it and I’d be a little leery the next time he or she gives you such a word.
Why am I bringing all this up? Because in the New Testament era you are not in bondage to the words of some prophet who likes to throw his or her weight around. You’re to be led and guided by the Holy Spirit, not a prophet. So if some prophet prophesies over you and it doesn’t bear witness with your spirit, throw it out! Never allow yourself to be manipulated into to doing something you don’t have a peace from God about doing!
Judging Prophecies in the New Testament Era
I want to prove to you beyond any shadow of doubt that you are not obligated to accept any prophecy spoken over you that you don’t have a peace about in your spirit. In fact, the New Testament repeatedly instructs believers to judge prophecies before embracing them.
Let’s look at three such passages, starting with:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
1 John 4:1
As you can see, the topic is false prophets and their false prophesies, which is why he encourages believers to “test the spirits,” which means to try or examine the prophecy. If you have to test the prophecy then this means there’s the possibility that it might be wrong.
How do you test prophecies? (1.) By the Word of God, and (2.) by the leading of the Holy Spirit in your spirit. If a prophet says to a married woman, “You are to attend to my sexual needs” it can be thrown out as a false prophecy because it violates the morality of the bible; in fact, the “prophet” himself should no longer be considered a prophet since his “fruit” has exposed him (see Matthew 7:15-23). If a prophet tells you to quit your job in order to do such and such for the church and you don’t have a peace about it then don’t accept it. My wife, Carol, was at a church were someone told her that she was to do secretarial work for the church, even though they already had a secretary who didn’t work outside the church. This was to free-up the secretary to concentrate more on worship, etc. Carol rejected this “word from the Lord” right away because she already had her hands full with a full time job as a general manager. More importantly, she didn’t feel any moving by the Spirit to do secretarial work in her spare time. None. The woman who gave this word was a sincere woman of God, but she missed it on this occasion, pure and simple.
Let’s look at another passage:
Be joyful always; (17) pray continually; (18) give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
(19) Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; (20) do not treat prophecies with contempt. (21) Test everything. Hold on to the good.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-21
The reason I include verses 16-18 in this quote is to show that Paul was referring to all believers in Thessalonica and, as such, his words apply to all believers today.
With that understanding, he says that we are not to treat prophecies with contempt, meaning we should never look down on the gift of prophecy. Why would a believer be tempted to look down on prophesying? Because they’re not always 100% correct. You heard me. They’re not always completely accurate. Let me explain.
New Testament prophets speak by unction, that is, by spiritual influence. In other words, they pick something up in the spirit and speak by faith from there. Since those with the gift of prophecy are human beings and human beings are imperfect, it’s always possible for a person who’s prophesying to be inaccurate in some ways, even though they’re legitimately picking something up in the spirit. It might simply be a matter of immaturity or inexperience where they have not yet fully learned to distinguish the vile (flesh) from the precious (spirit).
For instance, someone with the gift of prophecy may legitimately pick something up in the spirit but may wrap their prophecy in their pet doctrine or their conviction. For instance, “Yea, I the LORD love thee greatly and you are greatly blessed, now go out and witness door-to-door in your neighborhood.” In this case, the prophet had an encouraging word from the Lord, but then throws in his own conviction.
This explains why Paul added “Test everything. Hold on to the good” after instructing believers not to hold prophecies in contempt. Why? Because it’s possible for the prophecy to be partially right-on and partially off. Keep in mind that there were no verse numbers in the original text. What I’m saying is that verses 20 and 21 go together. In verse 20 Paul’s talking about prophecies and then instructs the believers in verse 21 to test or judge every prophecy with the conclusion that they are to hold on to the good, that is, what is accurate.
Say a prophet gives you a personal prophecy but only half of it bears witness with your spirit. The rest of it simply doesn’t apply, and you know it. Should you discard the entire prophecy? No. Paul says to hold on to what is good. The rest of it should be thrown out or, at least, put on the shelf until you have a peace about it. Are you getting what God’s Word is saying? Don’t despise prophecies just because people with this gift miss it in certain ways now and then. The prophetic word is good because it encourages believers to move forward and fulfill their calling. Yet don’t just blindly embrace every jot and tittle prophesied over you. Only accept what you have a peace about, as confirmed by the Holy Spirit. Put the rest aside or throw it out entirely, if necessary. But please don’t throw out the person who prophesies or their ministry, unless of course their “fruit” has exposed them as false (Matthew 7:15-23).
Let’s look at one final passage on this matter:
Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. (30) And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. (31) For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. (32) The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. (33) For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.
1 Corinthians 14:29-33
This passage specifically addresses the New Testament prophet. It’s not talking about someone in the body who gives a prophecy, but those who are in the office of a prophet, which is part of the fivefold ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). Like the two other passages above, this one stresses that believers should weigh carefully what the prophet says, meaning examine and judge it.
Some have suggested that “the others” refers to other prophets, as if the only valid people who can test the prophecy of a prophet are other prophets. This isn’t so for four reasons: (1.) The other two passages above say that believers in general are to examine and judge prophetic words. Why would this text change that? (2.) The natural reading of the passage shows that “the others” refers to the same people Paul was addressing in verse 26 where he said, “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” (3.) Since Paul was clearly addressing all believers in verse 26 he would have naturally specified who “the others” were in verse 29 if he was referring only to prophets, but he didn’t. (4.) The notion that only another fivefold ministry prophet can judge a prophet’s words just doesn’t make sense and it creates all kinds of obvious difficulties. What if there’s no other prophet present at the church gathering, which is often the case? Would this mean that the believers would have to blindly embrace what the prophet says, including the pastor? Even if there are other prophets present, wouldn’t it be silly for the pastor to have to turn to another prophet and ask, “Is what he said true?” What if two or three prophets got into cahoots and agreed to agree with one another’s prophecy? In other words, this notion that only another prophet can judge a prophet’s prophecy opens the door for authoritarian abuse.
In summary, it’s the believer’s responsibility to examine and judge prophecies based on God’s Word and the leading of the Holy Spirit within, hold on to the good and throw out the bad. This is a good thing, a wise thing, because it protects the believer from abuse, which includes the manipulating of people to do things that aren’t even God’s will for their lives.
The Example of Agabus, the Prophet
All this information is good, but it helps to see an actual example from the scriptures, so let’s look at Agabus. Agabus was a New Testament prophet, a good and respected prophet. Notice how he successfully predicted a famine:
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. (28) One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) (29) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. (30) This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
As you can see, Agabus was a prophet. He came to Antioch from Jerusalem with some other prophets and prophesied a famine that would negatively affect the people of Judea. The great historian, Josephus, documented this famine as occurring around 46 AD when Claudius was the Roman emperor. So Agabus was right about the famine and it was good that the Christians at Antioch believed his prophecy and compassionately sent an offering to Judea.
Agabus was obviously a highly respected prophet otherwise the believers wouldn’t have sent aid to Judea. Think about it, if some Joe Blow off the street wandered into your fellowship and said there was going to be a famine in a bordering nation would you blindly accept it and dish out the cash? Not likely, and wisely so. This indicates that Agabus was a renowned and respected prophet. Also notice that the believers “decided to provide help” (verse 29), meaning no one commanded them to give with a dictatorial air. Furthermore, this gives the impression that they decided after weighing the prophecy carefully and discerning the leading of the Holy Spirit. They had a peace about it so they generously gave.
I mention this passage to show that Agabus was a good prophet, a respected prophet, and an accurate prophet. But this doesn’t mean he was perfect. If he and other New Testament prophets were 100% right 100 % of the time the scriptures wouldn’t instruct us to examine and judge their prophecies and hold on to the good. As a matter of fact, Paul had to do just this with another one of Agabus’ prophecies:
Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven. (9) He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied.
(10) After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. (11) Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’ “
Agabus obviously picked up something about Paul in the spirit and proceeded to speak in faith. Notice the impact this prophecy had:
When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. (13) Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (14) When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”
The other believers unwisely accepted Agabus’ prophecy at face value and took it in a negative sense, that is, they assumed it wasn’t God’s will for Paul to go to Jerusalem to minister. They consequently tried to discourage Paul from going, even to the extent of weeping! Yet notice that Agabus never said it wasn’t God’s will for Paul to go to Jerusalem, he merely informed him of the intense persecutions he would experience by going there. Acts 23:11 verifies beyond any shadow of doubt that it was God’s will for the apostle to witness in Jerusalem. With this understanding, the obvious purpose of Agabus’ prophecy was to warn Paul of the troubles he would face so that he’d have the grace to trust God and persevere when it happened.
After hearing the prophecy and being discouraged by the others who took Agabus’ prophecy the wrong way, Paul practiced precisely what he taught: He weighed Agabus’ prophecy carefully, held on to the good, and made the decision to go to Jerusalem based on the leading of the Holy Spirit. In other words, Paul had a peace about going to Jerusalem despite Agabus’ warning and despite the other believers’ discouraging antics.
But there’s more: Agabus’ prophecy was good in that it prepared Paul for the severe persecutions he would face in Jerusalem, but the details of his prophecy weren’t wholly accurate. Agabus said that the Jews in Jerusalem would bind up Paul’s hands and feet and deliver him to the Roman government, but this isn’t what happened. Nine days after arriving in Jerusalem the Jews apprehended Paul for the purpose of murdering him, not to turn him over to the Romans; and the Romans actually saved Paul from the Jews. The soldiers then bound him with chains and took him into custody, but as soon as they found out he was a Roman citizen they released him. This is all detailed in Acts 21:30-33 and 22:25-30.
As you can see, Agabus was a respected prophet and rightly so. He accurately predicted that Paul was going to suffer great persecution in Jerusalem and he was right that Paul was going to be bound hand and foot. This warning helped prepare Paul for his mission and gave him the grace to persevere when persecuted, but – clearly – some of the details of Agabus’ prophecy were off.
What this indicates is that Agabus legitimately picked up something from the Spirit, something Paul needed to hear, but as Agabus spoke in faith he missed some of the details. Frankly, these details are insignificant in the grand scheme of things because it was enough that Paul was warned of the troubles he was about to face. And, remember, Agabus never told Paul not to go to Jerusalem; it was the other believers who mistook the prophet’s words and tried to stop the apostle from going.
This information is important because it proves that New Testament prophets can miss it even while they legitimately pick something up in the spirit. This is why believers must test prophecies by the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul did and he was blessed because of it. Amen.
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