Part 1: The Problem With Prophecy
She couldn’t flee that prayer meeting soon enough. But little more than ten steps out of the room and she collapsed to the ground like one wounded in battle. A group of us gathered to see what happened.
Immediately she awoke. Her and I locked gaze, but those dark, unfeeling eyes weren’t hers looking back at me. She spoke with spitting and curses, but this wasn’t the sweet girl I knew. She was demonised—and it was just as the Bible described. I had to travel to the jungles of South-East Asia to see it.
“I’d been raised to think the supernatural events I read about in the Bible belonged in the Bible, not in today’s world.”
In the following days, my worldview got an overhaul. Not just because I realised that demons were still active. Not just because when we prayed, fasted and worshipped, God set my good friend gloriously free.
But because “the voices” were gone. She explained that for days before her deliverance, there were audible voices in her head telling her to run away from home, to rebel, to self-destruct, to walk out of that prayer meeting. And now her mind was at peace.
It dawned on me that if demons still speak, God must too. It would make no sense if in today’s world, God (who has far more important things to say than the devil does) chose to gag himself but still let demons tell audible lies. With this single insight, my cessationist theology fell like a house of cards.
“What happened in South-East Asia took the blindfold off so I could see what Scripture said.”
See I’d been raised with the unspoken assumption that the supernatural voice of God that I read about in the Bible belonged in the Bible, not in today’s world. Prophecy and other miracles helped authenticate the Bible as God’s book—but we don’t need them now we’ve got that book in our laps.
It was a solid theory. And it certainly made sense of the miracle-free, un-supernatural life I’d grown up with in Australia.
That upbringing came with an inbuilt suspicion towards any Christian who claimed to hear God speak. They were probably deceived—or at the very least, they were letting experience shape their view of the Bible, when it should have been the other way around.
“Cessationism made sense of the miracle-free, un-supernatural life I’d grown up with in Australia.”
Little did I realise that I’d let my experience shape my view of the Bible. I grew up with no exposure to the supernatural, so I was hardwired to believe that all ended with the apostles. My South-East Asian friends who grew up seeing miracles were hardwired to think my view was laughable.
Do you see it? Everyone’s view of the Bible is shaped by their experience—whether that experience has involved a lack of supernatural events or an abundance of them.
What happened in South-East Asia didn’t have more authority for me than Scripture. It just took the blindfold off so I could see what Scripture said all along.
“Little did I realise that I’d let my experience shape my view of the Bible.”
The fear for many is that if God is still moving and speaking today just like he was in Bible times, then it’s open slather: anything goes. Anyone can can claim, “God said so,” and toss Scripture aside.
This is a danger. But only if we confuse Scripture with prophecy.
See there are big differences between the once-for-all-time Word of God and the ongoing prophetic words of God. When we understand these differences, the threat of danger subsides, and we see how it’s possible to have both a completed Bible and a God who still speaks.
Consider four differences between Scripture and prophecy today.
1. Scripture is Scripture, prophecy today isn’t
You might be surprised to learn that beyond the major and minor prophets who all had books of the Bible named after them, God spoke through hundreds more prophets whose prophecies never made it into Scripture.
Samuel, Saul and Elisha all mixed with groups of prophets who seem to have formed schools or guilds in ancient Israel. Obadiah hid a hundred prophets in a couple of caves. On his missionary travels, Paul met prophets in Antioch, a man named Philip whose four daughters prophesied, and a bunch in Corinth that he had to sort out.
“God spoke through hundreds of prophets whose prophecies don’t appear in Scripture.”
In fact, when he wrote to Corinth, Paul said, “The gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture, but when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless.” Follow the logic: if there’s a type of prophecy that will pass away, by definition it can’t be Scripture, because Jesus told us that Scripture will stand forever.
Many of us have been accustomed to thinking of only two categories of prophet: true and therefore Scripture-writer, or false and therefore false prophet. But the Bible itself forces us to add a third category.
If it was possible for God to have prophets in Bible times whose prophecies weren’t Scripture, surely it’s possible today too, without us feeling like the 66 books of the Bible are under threat. Even the greatest personal revelations someone might have in 2017 won’t change the fact that the Bible we pass on to the next generation will be the same one Christians have read for millennia.
2. Scripture is ultimate, prophecy today isn’t
Sola Scriptura (“By Scripture Alone”) is an important doctrine reminding us that the Bible is the only final error-free authority for what we believe and practice as Christians. So if any other authority contradicts the Bible, it has to be discarded.
For this to work, there have to be other authorities—so things like church councils, creeds, God’s witness in creation, logical arguments, Bible commentaries—and yes, personal revelation, or prophecy.
“Just like our favourite preachers and authors, any prophecy must be tested by the Word of God.”
The problem is that many people who think they defend Sola Scriptura actually don’t. They’ve invented Solo Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”) which says that there are no other authorities at all. In particular, they take aim at prophecy, saying that it’s not to be trusted.
The irony is that those who hold to Solo Scriptura are often still very excited about the creeds, councils, and their favourite theologians. To be consistent, they should discard these along with prophecy. In fact, to be consistent, they should also discard Solo Scriptura, because it’s not Scripture either!
The Bible is our ultimate authority, and prophecy is not. Just like our favourite preachers and authors, any prophecy must be tested by the Word of God.
3. Scripture is indisputable, prophecy today isn’t
Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul said, “Don’t quench the Holy Spirit. Don’t scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said and hold on to what is good.” To the Corinthians he gave a similar word: “Let two or three people prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said.”
If these instructions mean anything, they must mean that it’s possible for someone to hear God speak, but to accidentally mix their own error in with that message. The Bible was verbally inspired—breathed out by God himself, and is therefore indisputable. But that same Bible tells us there is a type of prophecy that is disputable, and that therefore needs testing.
4. Scripture is universal, prophecy today isn’t
The Bible is relevant to all people, in all places, for all time. An Amazonian warrior with the right Bible tools can open an obscure chapter in the book of Leviticus and apply its truths to his life. That’s not true of prophecy today.
Prophecy today is limited in scope. It’s for particular people in particular places for particular times—given to strengthen, encourage, and comfort them (1 Corinthians 14:3).
More on that to come in a future post.
But for now, I trust that prophecy appears a lot less intimidating—and a lot more biblical—than you once thought it was.