Is Prophecy For Today? (part 1)
by Rick Shrader
Jesus warned that as the end times begin, many false prophets shall arise and deceive many (Matt. 24:11). It is not hard to find religious groups of all kinds offering prophetic words and predictions for the time in which we live. The twentieth century brought about the charismatic movement with its miracle workers, tongues speakers, and prophetic utterances which have spread from Pentecostals to Catholics. A quick look at the internet will reveal prophetic messages on the election, world politics, and about any other subject you would like to research. While the charismatic movement has spread throughout evangelical churches and major denominations the Catholic faithful still claim that Mary and other saints appear regularly to them and bring them messages of hope and warning. Ernest Pickering wrote, “For many years this emphasis was found primarily in smaller, fringe groups not considered to be a part of the historic stream of conservative Christianity. However, more recently charismatics have become prominent in many different denominational and undenominational organizations.”1
Whereas once the great majority of churches roundly rejected contemporary claims to supernatural occurrences, now it is more likely that someone who still rejects them is considered out of touch, behind the times, or boorish. The great prophetic conferences of a past generation were mostly held by premillennial and dispensational writers and speakers who spoke of Bible prophecies and end-time scenarios including the rapture and the second coming of Christ as well as God’s plan for Israel. They were not self-styled prophets who were in the business of giving new revelation but were Bible teachers who preached the Word in its literal and plain sense. They were also men who generally believed that prophetic and miraculous gifts ceased when the apostles died and the New Testament was complete, and that these gifts would not appear again until Christ returned except in a false and deceiving manner. Even great amillennial thinkers such as Abraham Kuyper and B.B. Warfield believed that the miraculous gifts ceased at the time of the apostles.2
This is not to say that those who believe that the miraculous gifts ceased believe that God does not work in our time. He still answers the prayers of His people in ways often known only to Him. It is the miraculous gifts that were given to men that have ceased and therefore we are not to give heed to the modern-day prophets, tongues speakers, and miracle workers. John MacArthur writes,
I also believe that God is always operating on a supernatural level. He intervenes supernaturally in nature and in human affairs even today. I believe God can heal people apart from natural or medical remedies. I believe all things are possible with God (Matt. 19:26). . . . I do not believe, however, that God uses men and women as human agents to work miracles in the same way he used Moses, Elijah, or Jesus. I am convinced that the miracles, signs, and wonders being claimed today in the charismatic movement have nothing in common with apostolic miracles. And I am persuaded by both Scripture and history that nothing like the New Testament gift of miracles is operating today. The Holy Spirit has not given any modern-day Christians miraculous gifts comparable to those he gave the apostles.3
There is no question at all as to whether miracles ever happened or that the Biblical prophecies were real and 100% true. These are divinely inspired for us to read in God’s Word. The only question is whether such gifts have existed throughout the church age.
There has been much written concerning the cessation of the miraculous gifts found in the New Testament. The gift of prophecy is included in that group and I believe that prophecy has ceased for the following six reasons.
Paul told the Ephesians, And he gave some, apostles; and some prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11). It is obvious that the office of apostle ceased when those men died. The primary qualification was to have seen Jesus Christ physically after His resurrection (Acts 1:21-22) and Jesus has not appeared on earth since His ascension back into heaven (Heb. 10:12-13). Prophets are here coupled with apostles as temporary gifts whereas evangelists, pastors, and teachers continued throughout the first century and into the church age beyond. The church was built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Robert Saucy, long-time professor of theology at Talbot Seminary, explained:
While Christ is the only foundation, the apostles and prophets are also in a certain respect foundational. The building is built ‘upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ (Eph. 2:20). Although some interpret this as the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, the appositional sense is preferred. The foundation is the apostles and prophets, both of whom are seen as chief gifts to the first-century church (Eph 4:11). Their position is due to the fact that they were recipients of foundational revelation of God. The New Testament prophets were instrumental in God’s immediate instruction to the primitive churches before the canonical revelation was complete. Although foundational, the prophets were subordinate to the apostles (1 Co 14:37), who received the permanent revelation preserved in the Scriptures.4
Hebrews 2:3-4 gives a clear delineation of the position of those men who possessed these gifts. How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will (Heb. 2:3-4). Notice the three generations mentioned here. Christ (first) spoke the message and then (second) that message was confirmed by those who heard Him i.e. apostles and prophets. Then (third) that message was received by “us.” Since Hebrews was written just before 70 A.D. and since this confirmation is specifically in the past tense (a first aorist verb), this writer was already recognizing the temporary nature of the miraculous gifts.
This transference of the miraculous nature of prophecy can be likened to Jesus breaking bread for the five thousand and giving it to the apostles. They, in turn, served the waiting multitude with the miraculous gift which they received at the hands of Jesus. The miracle, however, stopped there. It was the people’s privilege to eat and enjoy but not to create bread. Paul reminded the Corinthian church of this when he wrote of himself, Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds (2 Cor. 12:12). We praise the Lord for building the church with these offices, but we do not tempt the Lord by insisting that we must have these offices.
The miraculous gifts that were given to the church in the first century can be broken into two categories of sign gifts and revelatory gifts. The sign gifts were those that served as signs, most often to the Jewish people who had and were rejecting their very Messiah. For the Jews require a sign ( Cor. 1:22). Paul also said, Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe (1 Cor. 14:22). Clearly tongues served as a sign gift to unbelievers whereas prophecy served as a revelatory gift to believers.
A major passage involving these two kinds of gifts is 1 Cor. 13:8-10. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. These verses say that prophecy and knowledge (supernatural knowledge such as inspiration) will fail, vanish away, and be done away. These three expressions (as well as “put away” in vs. 11) are all translated from the same Greek word, katarge?, which means to render useless or unproductive. The verse also says that tongues will “cease,” which comes from the word, pau?, meaning to stop.
Also significant are the tenses and voices of these verbs. Prophecy and miraculous knowledge are said to fail in the future (tense) and will be acted upon by an outside force (passive voice). Tongues, however, will stop (future tense) of themselves (middle voice). This means that tongues came to an end, probably by 70 A.D., when the need for a sign to Israel no longer existed. Prophecy (and knowledge), however, was brought to an end by the coming of “that which is perfect.” The question of what this “perfect” thing is becomes very important. If this is something in the first century, then this verse clearly says that prophecy was brought to an end at that time.
The phrase ‘that which is perfect’ (1 Cor. 13:10) means ‘the final thing, the completed thing.’ Neither the context nor the language would seem to support the concept that Paul referred to Heaven or the future glorified state. The phrase is the culmination of a logical argument, moving from the temporary and partial revelation to permanent and complete revelation. Revelation is the Key thought, not glorification.5
Roland McCune also concludes:
Since ‘that which is perfect’ is in intended contrast with the partial or incomplete revelatory process (cf. 1 Cor. 13:10 with v. 9), and since it is the cause of the doing away of that which is ‘in part’ (1 Cor. 13:10), the ‘perfect’ most naturally would refer to the completed process of revelation in the New Testament canon.6
Therefore, God’s miraculous gifts to men ceased during the first century by the time the New Testament was completed. Prophecy was no longer needed. As Peter wrote, We have a more sure word of prophecy (2 Pet. 1:19).
A third reason prophecy does not exist today is the testimony from history. The last miracle in the Bible occurred in 58 A.D. When Paul was marooned on the island of Melita, he healed Publius and many more on that island. The rest of the first century, in the scriptures and in the churches, is silent regarding miracles. Prophecy and knowledge (inspiration) alone continued until John put the final period on the book of Revelation. Since then history has been silent regarding these revelatory gifts. Thomas Edgar wrote,
The entire controversy exists because the miraculous gifts of the New Testament age did cease and did not occur for almost 1,900 years of church history and certainly have not continued in an unbroken line. Questions about their presence today as well as differing opinions, even among charismatics, regarding the nature of tongues, prophecy, and certain other gifts are due to the fact that they ceased. Chrysostom, a fourth-century theologian, testified that they had ceased so long before his time that no one was certain of their characteristics.7
Even when miraculous gifts were claimed by certain groups or individuals, these were unanimously considered unorthodox. MacArthur remarks about the gift of tongues, “All of those supposed manifestations of tongues were identified with groups that were heretical, fanatical, or otherwise unorthodox. The judgment of biblically orthodox believers who were their contemporaries was that all those groups were aberrations.”8
It is at least strange that if miraculous gifts are so vital to the life of the church that they are absent from the church’s history. Though charismatics claim that these are part of a “latter rain” of the Holy Spirit, it must be remembered that the New Testament also warns of deception in the last days. The false prophet who empowers the antichrist will manifest them abundantly (Rev. 13:13-14).
Notes: 1. Ernest Pickering & Myron Houghton, Charismatic Confusion (Schaumburg: RBP, 2006) 25. 2. See Warfield and his quote of Kuyper in Counterfeit Miracles (Carlisle, Pa: Banner of Truth, 1918) 25-27. 3. John MacArthur, Jr., Charismatic Chaos (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 109. 4. Robert Saucy, The Church In God’s Prograem (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980) 34. 5. Pickering, 30. 6. Roland McCune, “A Biblical Study of Tongues and Miracles,” an unpublished paper by Central Baptist Theological Seminary, p. 5. 7. Thomas R. Edgar, “The Cessation of the Sign Gifts,” Vital Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994) 161. 8. MacArthur, 234.