Sunday, April 6, 2014

Preaching: New Testament Prophecy

"Pursue love and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God, for no one understands him, but he utters in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church."

Two contrasting images are set before us by Paul in this passage (I Corinthians 14:1-4).

On one hand he describes one who speaks in tongues, not understood by those around (unlike what happens in Acts 2). The distinguishing mark of that gift is that it is communication between the believer and God, i. e., a private conversation. Over against this is the gift of prophecy. The New Testament prophet addresses the church, for upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation.

Notice what he does not say: nowhere does Paul even intimate that this gift of prophecy is a revelatory gift. In that sense, this New Testament prophet is quite unlike his Old Testament counterpart. Isaiah, for example, was the intermediary between God and Israel in the proclamation of new Scripture. The New Testament prophet, i. e., the preacher of the Word, is proclaiming previous revelation, such as that of Isaiah, to the church for the purpose of edification. This is the historic understanding of this passage, at least among orthodox Protestants. The 1560 version of the Geneva Bible explains "prophesy" in verse 1 (with modern spelling), "That is, to expound the word of God to the edification of the Church." The interpretation that became popular among Pentecostals runs contrary to at least 350 years of Protestant history!

We see Paul encouraging his theology student Timothy to "guard the deposit entrusted" to him (I Timothy 6:20). What deposit was that? We see the answer in II Timothy 3:14-16, "As for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from Whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." Again, look at what Paul tells Timothy: continue in the deposit that he had received even from childhood, the Scriptures! What does he not tell him to do? To seek new revelation! Isn't this the very opposite of what today's continuationists, such as Wayne Grudem and self-described Pentecostals, advocate?

Someone will ask about I Corinthians 13:8, "As for prophecies, they will pass away." Doesn't that mean, if my interpretation is correct, that prophesying will cease? Well, no. "Prophesying" does not pass away; "prophecies" do. Or, as he phrases it just above, in verse 2, "prophetic powers." Related terminology, obviously, but referring to two different things. Prophecy is gone, because the Scriptures are sufficient, "that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (II Timothy 3:17). "Prophesying" is still essential for teaching and applying those same Scriptures. That's why Paul describes it as the superior gift for the Corinthians. It is also why Paul exhorts Timothy (II Timothy 4:2) to "preach the word; be ready in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching."

No comments: