RPM, Volume 20, Number 11, March 11 to March 17, 2018

Prophecy as a Sign Gift for Today?

By Garry Phillips


Garry is a 69 year old proud Welshman now living on the west coast of Scotland. He suffered two (2003 & 2005) life threatening and life limiting strokes which left him with mobility and balance problems. He also experiences issues with his fine motor skills which means he can't write or even sign his name. Garry enjoys the music of Frank Sinatra, the poetry of Dylan Thomas and the films of Al Pacino. Garry attends Bethany Evangelical church, where he worships with like-minded believers.


My concern in this article is concerned is with the biblical doctrine of prophecy. It will take a further look at the perennial issue of prophecy in the church, and to offer an overview of the debate. It introduces the pew sitter to the perverse and damaging version of the doctrine.

The framework of my paper is as follows:

Under the heading, I shall describe the various schools of thought concerning the issue of prophecy. This is not an exhaustive or definitive account.

We shall then jump forward to modern times and assess whether contemporary calls for a restoration of the spiritual gift is valid or not.

Finally, I argue,

This article briefly traces the use of the term and idea of prophet. It will conclude that although we are unclear of its origin, it is capable of a number of profitable interpretations. It will look briefly at the prophecy debate as it has developed since the late 1980's argument when it was first presented in its fullness by Wayne Grudem I will attempt to offer my best analysis of the controversial subject.


So far as experts are good enough to provide us with their professional expertise and scholarly expositions, there is opportunity for even the less equipped of us to form an opinion upon the conclusions which experts reach, and to submit exegesis which may differ from the conclusions reached by these esteemed colleagues. The sign gifts of the New Testament specifically, prophecy, is undoubtedly, the most hotly debated and contested spiritual gift within Christianity today. Some people hold that this gift, along with other Apostolic, or sign gifts, has ceased and is no longer in operation; a position known as cessationism. This has been the traditional position and received view throughout church history. Others hold that prophecy, and the sign gifts are still in operation; a position known as continuationism. In this article we will begin our brief look at the gift of prophecy and, by extension, the perpetuity or lack thereof of the other sign gifts. This article will attempt at giving an accurate definition of the terms continuationism and cessationism, it will only give brief space to the third way which in reality is simply a rehash of continualism.

The arguments are worthy of a medium size book, which I tackle in a forthcoming volume which I have recently completed called The Prophecy Debate. However I am still hawking the work around publishers.

The aim of this paper is to tease out implications of and prophecy for today. The article is not aimed at academics, nor does it present technical details, but has in mind the man or women in the pew, the layperson. It is intended as a basic text by which, the reader can be brought to a position where they can move to the more scholarly works on the subject.

Let us consider the main views of prophecy. Firstly, we have;


This is the teaching that the supernatural or miraculous gifts have ceased, and has been since the death of the last of the New Testament apostles viz, John. This has been the received view and traditional church teaching throughout the period immediately following the early church period.

The first biblical argument given for cessationism is the unique role of miracles. Many evangelicals, and I think most Charismatics, think that miracles litter almost every page of biblical history. In reality, there were only three primary periods in which God worked miracles through uniquely gifted men. In other words, there were only three primary periods when God gave human beings miracle working power. Exponents of this view can count John MacArthur, Anthony Hoekesma, BB Warfield among their number. As we have noted above, each period lasted roughly around 65-70 years, hardly a convincing argument for the continuation of the gifts for today.


Continualism on the other hand is the doctrine that the gifts continue today, including the sign gifts — prophecy, speaking in tongues and their interpretation, miracles and healings, visions, signs and wonders and raising the dead. This is fast becoming the received view.


The Third Way (or middle ground or third position) as it has been termed by Professor Wayne Grudem as the "open but cautious" approach. Grudem one of its prime movers states that "there are many Christians who are neither "charismatic" or "cessationist" and are simply unsure about what to think of the gift of prophecy (and other more unusual gifts). "They do not see prophecy presently functioning in their own churches and they are a bit suspicious of some of the excesses they have seen in the Charismatic movement, but on the other hand, they do not have any settled convictions opposing the use of such gifts". John Piper, C. Samuel Storms, H A Carson, Wayne Grudem, and Professor J.P. Moreland are to be found in this camp.


However, to arrive at an acceptable and definitive of prophecy and the other sign gifts is no easy task. Some of the arguments are complex and made more complicated by the number of translations, language and versions used in expounding the doctrine. In my present task, all I ask is that the reader stays with me to the very end, before making his/her minds up.

Let me turn to a definition of a prophet:

What is a Prophet?

Immediately we encounter a real problem. The origin of the term is unclear and undecided as many expositors and theologians differ as to the etymology of this bible term. Some think that the noun is from an Arabic term meaning "spokesman" (Smith 1928, 10), whereas others contend that the root is a Hebrew form which signifies a "bubbling up," as when water issues from a hidden fountain (Girdlestone n.d., 239). This would suggest the idea of the inspiration behind the prophet. Almost all scholars, however, now reject such a suggestion because it remains unattested and cannot be demonstrated from known rules of philology.

It is now more commonly believed, however, that the word may be of Akkadian origin and that it may denote "to be called" (Unger and White 1980, 310). The best way to approach the doctrine I think is to set it in context.

Firstly, I argue, contrary to Grudem, that the words of an Old Testament or New Testament Prophet (prophecy) are God's words. This I believe is fundamental to the whole argument since what we are unable to define we are unable to describe. The scripture is replete with references to prophetic utterance as being God speaking. Let me refer to just some:

(a) "Thus says the Lord" occurs over 400 times in the Old Testament.

(b) "God said" occurs 42 times in the Old Testament and four times in the New Testament.

(c) "God spoke" occurs 9 times in the Old Testament and 3 times in the New Testament and

(d) "The Spirit of the Lord spoke" through people in 2 Sam. 23:2, 1 Kings 22:24, 2 Chron. 20:14.

So scripture is clear. However it is significant to note that on most occasions the words the prophet utters are not offered merely as a proxy for God, though it entails this within its overall scope and meaning. The prophet's speech to the people is precisely viz, — God's speech to his people.

The true prophet is not there simply to predict events, but to accomplish a bigger purpose; to bring the covenant people into line with God's will. The sign gifts were covenantal charisma to attest, affirm and accept the body of Christ as the church's vehicle in God's providential purposes.

This is critical, if we don't get this right, we will find ourselves all over the place.

Secondly, the prophet not only conveys; he reveals. And of course, the prophet reveals God. This is his main role and function. This is the marvel of a prophet's work: in his words the invisible God becomes audible, in his words God is made manifest. He does not prove or argue. He doesn't debate or discuss — He speaks. The thought he has to convey is more than language can contain. Divine power bursts in the words. The authority of the prophet is confirmed by the words he reveals because it is God who He reveals.

Thirdly, prophecy is not just about prediction. It is interesting that prediction isn't even a main function of prophecy. Prophecy is about revelation. That is its primary function.

Professor Albright (with more plausibility) has connected the noun prophet to the Akkadian verb nabu', which means to call, to announce. He takes it in the passive sense as one who is called (by God). Others take it in the active sense, as an announcer, a proclaimer of a message. The etymological argument, however, it quite inconclusive, and we have no certainty as to the primary meaning of the root.

Examine the lexicons, scholars, and multitudes of commentaries and you will find them unclear and undecided as to the etymology of this bible term.

What cannot be established by etymology may often be established by function, and to this purpose I direct your attention to Exodus 7:1, which reads: "And Jehovah said unto Moses, See, I have made thee as God to Pharaoh; and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet." Compare this with the parallel passage in Exodus 4:15, 16 which reads: "And thou shalt speak unto him, and put the words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what Ye shall do. And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people; and it shall come to pass, that he shall be to thee a mouth, and thou shalt be to him as God." In the second passage the word prophet is not used, but the same relationships appear to be in mind. These verses show that the prophet's function was as a spokesman for another. He delivered a message which had previously been given to him. In general terms, a prophet was considered to be a spokesman for God.

There are various types of prophets

Various descriptors are used of prophets. Prophets can be, "canonical", "ecstatic", "writing", and even "frenzied', and "cultic" and of course, "false". All of these terms are meant at some time or other, in the Old Testament. With such variation it is important we try and find a common usage for prophet.

The verb to prophesy, nibba or hithnabbe, is used preponderantly to signify the preaching of the message of God. An example of its use is found in Amos 7:14ff, which reads "I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet's son; but I was a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore-trees: and Jehovah took me from following the flock, and Jehovah said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel." While I have not analysed every single usage of the verb in the Old Testament, it surely must be safe to say that in the great majority of cases the word means to declare God's message. However, there are unquestionably a few places in the Bible where the word is used to mean "to behave in an uncontrolled manner." The verb is used of Saul when he lost his self-control and hurled a javelin at David (I Sam. 18:10), or when he stripped off his clothes and rolled about on the ground. It is also used of the prophets of Baal on Carmel when they danced about and cut themselves with knives (1 Kings 18:28, 29). But the usage of the verb does not establish the meaning of the noun "prophet," because the verb is derived from the noun, and simply means to "play the prophet." It may well be that the "ecstatic" connotation of this verb is quite secondary, and is due to the fact that some prophets were of the frenzied type. The primary meaning of the word prophet still needs to be considered. Some have tried to connect it with the verb naba', which means to bubble forth. This view is technically unsound, and has nothing to commend it except that it tries to establish a basis for the idea that ecstasy is fundamental to all prophecy.


Predictive prophecy may be defined as Horne has it:

a miracle of knowledge, a declaration, or description, or representation of something future, beyond the power of human sagacity to discern or to calculate, and it is the highest evidence that can be given of supernatural communion with Deity, and of the truth of a revelation from God (Horne 1841, 119).

Making explicit predictions about the future seems to be a small part of the function of Old Testament "prophets." Of those books which contain predictive elements, they all came to pass. Let me just mention a few:

Firstly, we are told, "Forty days, and Nineveh will be overturned," (Jonah: 3:2 RSV), which inevitably comes to pass. Nineveh was overturned. They sat in sack cloth and ashes. Their hearts were overturned. If they had not repented to God then they would have been destroyed but they were indeed overturned. Amos, another prophet, makes very few predictions about the future, but again, the thrust of his message is that God's people need to shape up! This is true of Hosea, Malachi, and many others.

The non-writing Prophets — Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha, share the same distinction. The point is that a prophet is one who is given a message by God. (Indeed Malach-i means "My Messenger") The prophet is then told to deliver this message to His people, however God chooses. When Jeremiah refuses, he says it burns in his bones. When Ezekiel does what God says, his wife dies and he can't mourn, he ends up lying on his side for years at a time, and generally looking like a nut. Indeed, when Jesus drives the moneychangers out of the Temple, he is simply called a "prophet" for the act.

Bible Dictionaries

Bible dictionaries and companions often provide introductory material suitable for the advanced undergraduate, ministerial student, or minister. Napier 1962 provides a substantial presentation from the perspective of mid-20th century scholarship. Koch 2000, Petersen 2002 and Petersen 2009 provide the most extensive essays and bibliographies in this category. Buss 1976, Wilson 1996, and Wilson 1998 provide more brief discussions and bibliographies. Ramlot 1972 provides a thorough presentation with bibliographic data.


A prophet is one who through whom God speaks — one appointed to reveal the will of God to His people. One of the greatest of these prophet's is God's only Son — Jesus of Nazareth.

Anyone who seeks answers to "What is prophecy?" and "What is a prophet?" will encounter two distinct explanations, which we consider above, but as a reminder. The first, cessationism, maintains that the charism of prophecy was withdrawn during the early church period or and is no longer available since we now have the holy scriptures and 'anointed' preaching which has replaced the New Testament version.


I don't propose at this time to enter into a dialogue concerning miracles; sufficient to say that miracles are unique, irregular and God- given rather than man-inspired.

So we see that miracles were not present in every age of God's redemptive purposes. Therefore I conclude that miracles are limited by God's decree. The subject of miracles is one that I shall visit in a future article.


Sign gifts are only necessary until the gift itself is finally revealed. Jesus [the gift] is fully revealed as is made clear in the book of Hebrews where it states. God, who at various times and in different 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 worlds (Hebrews 1:1,2) and again in Matt 11:27 "no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and he to whom the Son wills to reveal him" so logically there is no reason for the gifts to be distributed to the body of Christ today. Instead, we study to show ourselves approved unto God, a workmen that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth — 2 Timothy 2:15.

I am convinced that prophecy has been replaced with anointed preaching. I have more faith in a message of Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones stature rather than any of the so-called prophets of today. This Prince of Preachers was a giant of the spoken word. God makes bare the hearts of people through the preaching of the Word of God. There has often been occasions when a stranger in the congregation has asked the preacher Who told you that about me? I'm sure that many reading this article can echo that experience from their ministry. Hopefully! I cannot, in the light of scripture interpret the Pentecostal version of prophecy as normal for all of church history.

I am convinced that prophecy as experienced today is to be understood against a background of social psychology and a sound epistemology. Time and space prevents me from citing examples of the abuse of alleged prophecy in the church.


Smith, G. A. 1928. The Book of the Twelve Prophets. New York, NY: Harper.

Girdlestone, Robert. n.d. Synonyms of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Unger, Merrill and William White. 1980. Expository Dictionary of the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Sherbert Bess Professor of Old Testament; Grace Theological Seminary Grace Journal 1.1.1 Spring [1960] 7-12

Book: From The Stone Age To Christianity Monotheism And The historical process. 1940 Johns Hopkins Press

Batey, Richard. 1969. Letter of Paul to the Romans. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Co. Wetham & Son.

Horne, T. H. 1841. Critical Introduction. Vol. 1. Philadelphia, PA:

Bullinger, E. W. 1968. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Coffman, Burton. 1983. The Minor Prophets. Firm Foundation, Vol. 4.

Freeman, Hobart. 1968. An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophets. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

Jackson, Wayne. 1974. Fortify Your Faith. Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press.

Pache, Rene. 1969. The Inspiration and Authority of the Scriptures. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

Watts, J. W. 1951. A Survey of Syntax in the Hebrew Old Testament. Nashville, TN: Broadman.

It is now more commonly believed, however, that the word may be of Akkadian origin and that it may denote "to be called" (Unger and White 1980, 310 ).

Horne, T. H. 1841. Critical Introduction. Vol. 1. Philadelphia, PA: Wetham & Son.

Buss, Martin J. "Prophecy in Ancient Israel." In Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume. Edited by Lloyd Richard Bailey, Victor Paul Furnish, and Emory Stevens Bucke, 694—697. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976.

Petersen, David L. "Introduction to Prophetic Literature." In New Interpreter's Bible. Vol. 6. CD-ROM. Nashville: Abingdon, 2002.

Petersen, David L. "Prophet, Prophecy." In New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 4. Edited by Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, 622—648. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Napier, B. D. "Prophet, Prophetism." In Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. 3. Edited by George Arthur Buttrick, 896—919. Nashville: Abingdon, 1962.

Wilson, Robert R. "Prophet." In HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. Rev. ed. Edited by Paul J. Achtemeier and Roger Boraas, 884—889. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996.

Wilson, Robert R. "The Prophetic Books." In The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation. Edited by John Barton, 212—225. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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