The Gift of Prophecy and the Local Church - What It No Longer Is and What It Continues to Be
Sunday, February 9, 2014 - 6:00 p.m. Sermon #: 1709
Pastor Don Horban
1 Corinthians 14:1-5, 29-32 - “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 mysteries 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.  Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up........Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.  If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.  For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged,  and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.”
By sheer number of verses this is by far the most extensive treatment of the gift of prophecy in the entire New Testament. There is not one other place giving it anywhere near this kind of attention. Here we have not only examples of the prophecy at work, but instruction - verse by verse instruction - on how prophecy is supposed to work in a local church setting. But that’s not the main reason I chose to open with this text.
The main reason I’m beginning here is, believe it or not, this text is not referred to - not even once - in John MacArthur’s analysis of the relevance and meaning of prophecy in the church today. Even if he didn’t want to admit a place for the New Testament gift of prophecy, one would think he would at least explain these verses away. But he never even refers to Paul’s clear inclusion of prophecy in his description of how the Holy Spirit gives gifts to the church:
1 Corinthians 12:4-11 - “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;  and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord;  and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,  to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,  to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
So we have an extensive introduction of the gifts of the Spirit to the local church in 1 Corinthians 12. And we have a detailed set of instructions for the use of the gift of prophecy in the local church. And we have John MacArthur dealing with neither of them in his study. This is simply incomprehensible to me. I expected him to explain it all away. But I never dreamed he would dodge it completely. But then again, maybe it’s not as surprising as it seems.
The simplest way to say it is this. John MacArthur does exactly the same thing in his study of prophecy and the gift of prophecy as he mistakenly does with tongues and the gift of tongues. That is, he confuses the terms. There is, however, one very important difference. With tongues and the gift of tongues he simply takes the references to tongues in the outpourings of the Spirit in the Book of Acts and applies those texts to the gift of tongues in First Corinthians.
But when he considers the subject of prophecy and false prophets he is even more radical. While dealing intently with mostly Old Testament passages dealing with prophets and the punishment of false prophets, he literally never even mentions the passages that deal at length - and in a very positive manner - with the gift of prophecy as distributed by the Holy Spirit to the local church. This, in spite of the clear teaching of the Scriptures. Why?
MacArthur is smart. He knows the easiest way to rule out the gift of prophecy all together is to take passages from the Old Testament on the office of the prophet and apply those texts to the New Testament gift of prophecy. I believe MacArthur knows better than this. He simply has no other way open to eliminate what Paul says about the gift of prophecy in the New Testament local church. It’s a desperate move by a biased interpreter.
Again, in terms of his book, “Strange Fire,” Paul’s words about the gift of prophecy simply do not get one mention. And MacArthur wants to argue charismatics don’t show due diligence with the Biblical text! Strange indeed.
1) IT IS GOOD THAT MACARTHUR’S BOOK EXPOSES THE HOST OF RELIGIOUS ZEALOTS PRETENDING TO PREDICT THE FUTURE
While certainly not the exclusive property of the charismatic camp, we’ve been way too patient with millionaire pretend prophets. MacArthur has no problem piling up zany quotes:
“Benny Hinn made a series of celebrated prophetic utterances in December 1989, none of which came true. He confidently told his congregation at the Orlando Christian Center that God had revealed to him Fidel Castro would die sometime in the 1990s, the homosexual community in America would be destroyed by fire before 1995, a major earthquake would cause havoc on the East Coast before the year 2000. He was wrong on all counts, but that did not deter Hinn, who keeps making bold new false prophecies.”
MacArthur continues, “Hinn’s failed prophecies are no less outlandish but not nearly as memorable as the notorious claims Oral Roberts began making several decades ago. In 1977 Roberts said he saw a vision of a nine-hundred-foot-tall Jesus, who instructed him to build the City of Faith, a sixty-story hospital in south Tulsa. Roberts said God told him He would use the center to unite medical technology with faith healing, which would revolutionize health care and enable doctors to find a cure for cancer.”
“The building, completed in the early 1980s was a colossal white elephant from the start. When the City of Faith opened for business, all but two stories of the massive structure were completely vacant. By January 1987 the project was saddled with unmanageable debt, and Roberts announced that the Lord had said unless Roberts raised eight million dollars to pay the debt by March 1, he would die. Apparently not willing to test the death-threat prophecy, donors dutifully gave Roberts the needed funds in time (with the help of $1.3 million donated at the last hour by a Florida dog-track owner). But within two years, Roberts was forced to close the medical center anyway and sell the building in order to eliminate still-mounting debt. More than 80 percent of the building had never been occupied. The promised cure for cancer never materialized either.”
Rick Joyner (one of the now disgraced “Kansas City Prophets”), predicted that in the 1990's much of the state of California would be swallowed up in the Pacific ocean. While there have been earthquakes, nothing even close to this magnitude ever happened.
All of this is easy pickings for MacArthur’s book and conference. These are sad, ridiculous cases of phoney, prophetic arrogance and looniness. They ought to be exposed and brought to account for the health of the church and for the sake of a credible witness in this world.
I disagree with many of MacArthur’s critics who say he is being unloving or too critical when he exposes these bizarre leaders. It’s never a loving act to allow people to be spiritually deceived. It is always a loving act to keep the of the Body of Christ from endorsing error and false practice. To ignore spiritual abuse with undiscerning kindness is unloving. Tolerating heresy is always an act of cruelty.
2) THE MAIN POINT OF CONFUSION IN MACARTHUR’S BOOK IS EQUATING OLD TESTAMENT PROPHETS WITH PAUL’S DESCRIPTION OF THE GIFT OF PROPHECY IN THE LOCAL NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH
MacArthur’s opening paragraph in his chapter, “The Folly Of Fallible Prophets” is as follows: “Dry wells, fruitless trees, raging waves, wandering stars, brute beasts, hideous stains, vomit-eating dogs, mud-loving pigs, and ravenous wolves - that is how the Bible describes false prophets (cf. 2 Peter 2; Jude). The New Testament reserves its harshest words of condemnation for those who would falsely claim to speak revelation from God. And what the Bible condemns we must also condemn - doing so with equal vigor and force. But apply those same epithets to today’s false teachers and you’re likely to be labeled as uncharitable or even unchristian.”
Notice the subtle shift from false prophets to false teachers in MacArthur’s words. It’s more than a slip of pen. MacArthur knows full well the references he gives in 2 Peter 2, and especially in Jude, say a lot more about false teaching (false doctrine - heresy officially taught in the church by deceiving teachers) than they say about inaccurate predictions of the future from false prophets. In fact, strikingly, “prophets” are not even mentioned - not even once - in the Book of Jude! But because MacArthur wants to deal with the wacky predictions of Benny Hinn and Oral Roberts he has to make these texts fit.
I’m arguing that this first opening paragraph in MacArthur’s sixth chapter is symptomatic of the confusion of terms that permeates his whole study of prophecy. As I said earlier, MacArthur confuses the terms in his treatment of the office of the prophet and the New Testament gift of prophecy as he does with tongues in the Book of Acts and the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians.
3) IN SPITE OF WHAT SOME CHARISMATICS MAY TELL YOU, THE OFFICE OF THE PROPHET AS A BEARER OF REVELATION IS GONE, AND MACARTHUR IS RIGHT TO SAY THAT IT IS
Let me work through two important texts with you that deal specifically with the office of the prophet as God’s revealer of divine truth:
Ephesians 4:8-12 - “Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’  (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?  He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)  And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ....”
The only point I’m picking up on in this involved passage is verse 11 - “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers....”And what I want to affirm is apostles and prophets are just as much a gift of Jesus Christ to His church as are evangelists, or shepherds (pastors), or teachers. Those last two terms are actually one office in the Greek - pastor/teacher. But my point still stands. Apostles and prophets are just as important to the church as are evangelists and pastor/teachers. All of these leadership gifts come from Christ Jesus Himself.
But saying all of this isn’t quite enough. There is still another important point that needs to be made. While apostles and prophets are important gifts of Christ to His church - just as important as evangelists and pastor/teachers - they are not the same kind of gift and their presence isn’t the same kind of presence as evangelists and pastor/teachers.
Understand, when I say apostles and prophets aren’t the same kind of gift as evangelists and pastor/teachers I don’t just mean they have a different role. I mean they are gifts of a different category all together. And the Apostle Paul is very quick to make himself clear on this point:
Ephesians 2:19-22 - “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
It’s easy to see Paul’s emphasis on the Body of Christ in this passage. It’s all about the people of God as “members of the household of God”(19), and “being joined together”(21), and “being built together into a dwelling place for God”(22). These are all church words.
But Paul’s main point about this “building” he calls the church is its foundation and its cornerstone. That’s the whole point of this passage. There is something permanently laid down on which the whole structure of the church of Jesus Christ stands. And verse 20 is the heart of the theology of the church - “....built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone....”
So yes. Apostles and prophets are vitally important - currently important - gifts to every church. But they’re important in a way evangelist and pastor/teachers aren’t important and can never be important. Apostles and prophets are foundational gifts to the church. Apostles (New Testament) and prophets (Old Testament) are the foundation on which the whole church stands.
As an aside, it’s also important to notice that the apostolic witness of the New Testament is placed before the prophetic witness of the Old Testament - Christ gives “apostles and prophets”(20). That’s because the revelation of the Old Testament is always seen most clearly and completely through the final revelation of the New Testament.
Notice that evangelists and pastor/teachers aren’t even included in this text. They are still gifts of Christ to His church, to be sure. But they are never the foundation of the church. There is a fallibility to all evangelists and pastor/teachers that can never creep into the foundation of the church. Pastors and teachers and evangelists come and go. They get credentials for ministry and they lose credentials for ministry. But the foundation of the apostles and prophets remains fixed and abiding in God’s Word.
The apostle Peter sums it all up like this - 2 Peter 1:16-21 - “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,”  we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.  And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts,  knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
The other point Paul makes in our Ephesians 2 text about the foundation of the apostles and prophets is Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the church (2:20). And by that Paul means both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles weren’t pointing to themselves. They were writing about the greatness and the uniqueness of Father God’s coming Son and Messiah. Jesus is what the whole revelation of God is about:
Hebrews 1:1-2 - “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”
4) NONE OF THE THINGS WE JUST SAID ABOUT THE FOUNDATIONAL GIFT OF PROPHETS TO THE CHURCH HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE GIFT OF PROPHECY IN 1 CORINTHIANS 12 AND 14
This is John MacArthur’s fundamental point of confusion. The so called prophetic predictors he rightly exposes are either mistakenly or heretically and arrogantly pretending to be Jeremiah or Isaiah. And this may be why MacArthur latches on so quickly to Old Testament warnings about their abuses.
MacArthur pulls out Deuteronomy 13:1-5, Deuteronomy 18:20-22 (where any prophet speaks with even the slightest error is to be killed), Numbers 22-23, and Jeremiah 23:16-32. These are all great texts. They’re very important texts. They are God’s way of exposing and judging leaders in Israel who would falsely elevate themselves to God’s spokesperson after the order of Isaiah or Jeremiah or Malachi. This was God’s way of keeping cracks out of the foundation of the church!
But there is simply no way to link those texts with the gift of prophecy prescribed by Paul for the local church - 1 Corinthians 14:26-32 - “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.  If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.  But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.  Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.  If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.  For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged,  and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.”
First, note that the gift of prophecy isn’t the same as publicly preaching the Word of God. There was, in Paul’s mind a broad base of potential involvement for the gift of prophecy in any given worship setting - verse 31 - “For you can all prophecy one by one....”
This is one reason MacArthur never quotes these verses in his book. He tries to explain the gift of prophecy as the public speaking of God’s Word by citing 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 - “Do not despise prophecies,  but test everything; hold fast what is good.”
Of these verses MacArthur says, “Respect for the supremacy of the revelation of God is what the apostle Paul had in mind when he cautioned the Thessalonians not to despise prophetic utterances. Despise (exoutheneo) carries the strong meaning, ‘to consider as absolutely nothing,’ ‘to treat with contempt,’ or ‘to look down on.’ In the New Testament, prophetic utterances (propheteia) can refer either to spoken words or written words. The verb form (propheteuo) means ‘to speak or proclaim publicly’; thus the gift of prophecy was the Spirit-endowed skill [note that shift of words from gift to skill] of publicly proclaiming God’s revealed truth....”
The long and short of all of this is MacArthur’s view is the gift of prophecy is now the act of preaching and proclaiming God’s Word. But that hardly fits in at all with Paul’s description of the gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:29-32 - “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.  If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.  For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged,  and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.”
Personal taste and opinions aside, Paul is clearly describing something more spontaneous and participatory than a pastor/teacher preparing and expounding a sermonic text. The same is true of 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 14:1-5, and 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22. Sermons are preciously important and Biblically demanded. But they are not the same as the gift of prophecy.
5) THE NEW TESTAMENT TEXTS MACARTHUR EXPOUNDS DEAL WITH FALSE TEACHERS, NOT THE GIFT OF PROPHECY
As if it will help make his point MacArthur piles up New Testament texts. I’m not even pretending to list them all, but they include vitally important texts from 2 Peter 2:1-3, Jude 4 (no mention of prophets), 2 Timothy 4:3-4 (no mention of prophets), and a pretty extensive treatment of 1 John.
Many (most?) of the verses used make no mention of false prophets at all but spell out in detail the danger and exposure of false teachers who claim to speak divine truth. Because MacArthur has already assumed that the gift of prophecy is the same as preaching the Word, he can then move on to applying passages dealing with any and all teaching in the church to the gift of prophecy in the teaching of Paul.
MacArthur continues with this false presupposition as he turns to the Book of Acts. In reality, even the passages that do speak of false prophets in the examples MacArthur gives from the Book of Acts use the term prophet (either true or false) to describe those who speak and teach for God. This is because in the transition from the Old Testament to the New, there is a passing of authority and terminology from the prophets to the apostles.
This is precisely the transition in the foundation described by Paul in Ephesians 2:19-20 - “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone....”
Of course, MacArthur is absolutely right about the importance of measuring the truthfulness of these teachers. They must be absolutely accurate and faithful. And they must live out what the gospel values in their own lives. But this has absolutely nothing to do with the gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 12 through 14.
6) THE GIFT OF PROPHECY IS A FALLIBLE EXPRESSION OF DIVINE EXHORTATION FOR A LOCAL CHURCH EXPRESSED IN THE WORDS OF THE SPEAKER’S CHOICE
This is why the church is told to consider and weigh the content of what is said. It is to be measured by the absolutely sure, unchanging words of the foundational apostles and prophets.
This does not render the gift of prophecy insignificant or useless. Nothing could be clearer from Paul’s words - 1 Corinthians 14:3 - “On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”
The need for this hasn’t disappeared. Prophecy is for upbuilding and encouraging, and consoling. It is not a predictive gift for the church. It is not for giving private direction to individuals. That’s why the gift is to be used corporately rather than privately. There is the added safety of collected years and wisdom when prophecy is heard by all the local church, or at least a good group of them. Individuals are protected from those who might abuse the gift for personal power.
There is actually at least one good example of recognizing the role of prophecy right in the New Testament. MacArthur mentions it, though not, to my mind, to its proper end. Look at it with me as we close:
Acts 21:3-4 - “When we had come in sight of Cyprus, leaving it on the left we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre, for there the ship was to unload its cargo.  And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.”
I have to make this short. Here is a group of Christians giving specific direction to Paul, through the Holy Spirit (according to Luke) not to go to Jerusalem. Some of the prophetic company sharing in these warnings are listed later in this same chapter. They are recognized prophets by all the people.
But Paul does go to Jerusalem. And we have a problem. Either Luke is mistaken and it really wasn’t the Holy Spirit speaking to these people, or Paul grieves the Holy Spirit and disobeys. Or are those the only two options we have?
I think there is a better way, and it’s a way that recognizes the kind of distinction Paul himself recognized between the Old Testament prophets and the attempt to give personal direction through prophetic words in the New Testament era.
Paul knows the call of God on his life for himself. He doesn’t need others to speak prophetic direction into his life. He values what these gifted people said. He knows God was strengthening and preparing him for what was coming in Jerusalem. But he knew he wouldn’t let these people direct him not to go.
Never let anyone claiming prophetic gifting tell you where you should move to, whom you should marry, what career path you should choose, or anything else. Do get godly advice. Do fill your mind with God’s Word and good, wise influences. But never let anyone else claim divine authority over your life.
7) AUTHORITY FOR THE LOCAL CHURCH COMES FROM GOD’S WORDS, NEVER PROPHETIC GIFTING
This is evident from that fact that whenever Paul establishes leadership in local churches the only primary gift they must exhibit is that of teaching. In every New Testament list of qualifications for pastors you will find Paul emphasizing they must be teachers. He never once says they must be prophets or prophetic.
That’s because in Christ’s New Testament church, He is still the Cornerstone and the foundation is still the apostles and prophets. The authority lies in the Word of God rather than any human personality. The gift of prophecy should be valued. It should always be weighed. The Person of Christ should always be honored and worshiped. And the truth of the Word of God should always direct.