by Daniel Rieke
“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” 1 Corinthians 14:1 ESV [i]
Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts…ESPECIALLY (!) that you may prophesy!? Whoa. This is a pretty staggering statement to read for someone living in many contexts in American Christianity.
Paul seems to be saying that not only should we really, really strongly desire spiritual gifts, but that as we are really, really desiring the spiritual gifts, the primary one we should focus our desire on is prophecy. But how can that be?
Does this mean we should listen to the crazy dude with the white suit who’s selling some kind of special anointing oil on TV for $9.95 and claiming to know the exact day the world is going to end?
Does this mean that there could be new revelation on par with Scripture?
Won’t this lead to people ignoring their Bibles and seeking nothing but the next spiritual high or experience?
The answer to all of these questions is: No…unless you’re misunderstanding what biblical prophecy really is.
Wayne Grudem defines prophecy as “Speaking merely human words to report something God brought to mind.” [ii]
Similarly, Sam Storms defines prophecy as “the human report of a divine revelation” or that prophecy is “the speaking forth in merely human words of something God has spontaneously brought to mind.” [iii]
This seems to be the kind of prophecy Paul has in view as he wrote 1 Corinthians: that prophetic “words” are essentially us saying something that the Lord brought to our minds. It’s not on par with Scripture. It’s not crazy investment advice or dates that the world is going to end. Rather, we see the purpose of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:3 – “…the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”
And when you see prophecy in its biblical definition, who wouldn't want a church full of people speaking things God brought to mind that build each other up and bring encouragement and consolation? As a pastor, I can say with certainty that I very much want a church full of people walking in that.
So let me look at a few common questions about the spiritual gift of prophecy as we seek to obey the command to earnestly desire it.
What is a prophecy made of?
A prophecy is made up of a revelation (1 Cor. 14:30) and verbalizing that revelation (1 Cor. 14:30-31). We also see in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 the command: “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” This seems to be saying that we should try to discern what is true in prophetic utterances and only hold fast to that. By implication, this seems to indicate that there is mixture of our thoughts and God’s revelation in New Testament prophetic utterances, so we throw out the errors and keep the truth.
How can prophecy have some of God’s truth and some human error?
This question can best be answered as we examine the difference between revelation, interpretation and application as it pertains to a prophetic word.
Revelation – What we receive from God (e.g. vision, prophetic words, dream, Scripture, etc.); this is always accurate and perfect because it is from God.
Interpretation – What does the revelation mean? This is where we can mess it up and we must prayerfully seek to discern what the revelation means and if our interpretation lines up with Scripture.
Application – How do I apply what I've received and interpreted? This is where we can really mess it up if we aren't careful and prayerful, and it’s why we must prayerfully seek to discern what the revelation means and if our interpretation and our application of that interpretation lines up with Scripture.
So essentially, the revelation that God communicates to us is always accurate. But we can mess up in how we interpret what God brought to mind, and we can really mess up how we apply it, especially if we were flawed in our interpretation to begin with.
How can we know if prophecy is true or not?
Check it against Scripture – Wherever Scripture a so-called prophetic word disagree, the “prophetic word” (or at least our interpretation/application) is always wrong. Always.
Check it with community – Involve your elders and local church community in helping you discern how to interpret and apply something you feel the Lord has brought to mind.
Does the prophetic word accomplish a biblical outcome? – We see the purpose of prophecy in the New Testament of upbuilding, encouragement and consolation. Additionally, in Scripture we see that prophecy brings conviction (1 Cor. 14:24-25), learning (1 Cor. 14:31), direction for ministry (Acts 13:1-3), warnings/predictions of future events (Acts 21), it strengthens (Acts 15), and/or indicates spiritual gifts in others (1 Timothy 1, 4). If you feel like the Lord has brought something to mind that doesn’t accomplish one of these biblical results, there’s a good chance it wasn’t from the Lord or you misinterpreted it.
In all of this, it’s important to remember that the aim of the prophetic is the build each other up in love. If you find that your pursuit of prophecy isn’t resulting in love, then it’s probably wise to take a step back and allow the Lord to show you any ways that you might be pursuing this gift in unbiblical ways or with unbiblical motives.
But even as we want to work hard to ensure we don’t abuse prophecy, we need to make sure that others' abuses of prophecy don’t cause us to neglect pursuing obedience to the command to earnestly desire prophecy. May we be a church that is faithful to pursue prophecy and earnestly desire this gift for the glory of God!
Some helpful additional resources on spiritual gifts and the gift of prophecy:
The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts by Sam Storms
The Gift of Prophecy by Wayne Grudem
Surprised by the Voice of God by Jack Deere
[i] Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[ii] Grudem, Wayne, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today