We have seen that ordinary Christian prophecy does not result in new Scripture, new doctrine or new commands from God. It does not necessarily mean foretelling the future. It is not an infallible word from God. It is not the same ministry as preaching or teaching. If it is not all these things, just what is ordinary Christian prophecy — that gift which Paul says we should especially desire and which Peter says God gives to his people in general during this era of messianic salvation and the Holy Spirit?
As presented in the New Testament, ordinary Christian prophecy is a message that encourages, strengthens or comforts a specific Christian believer or group of believers, relating in fallible human language what God has directly impressed on someone’s heart or mind. Paul calls this impression a “revelation” (1 Cor. 14:30; see also Eph. 1:17-19; Phil. 3:15). Such divine illumination may come as specific words, a picture or vision, or as a general sense. Sometimes ordinary Christian prophecy includes personal details which the one prophesying does not naturally know. Such prophecies create a sense of awe through the awareness that God is really present and involved (1 Cor. 14:25). I have experienced this on at least three separate occasions myself — this is not mere hearsay. (To read about one such event, click here.)
Although the impression (or “revelation”) comes from God, its meaning and application are not always clear. It is “in part”; it is sometimes like a “poor reflection” in a mirror (1 Cor. 13:9, 12). We see this illustrated in the story of Paul, as he made his way to Jerusalem near the end of Acts. Some Christians at Tyre urged him “through the Spirit” not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). Undoubtedly they received a revelation concerning the troubles that awaited Paul in Jerusalem, but they seem to have misunderstood the implications. They thought Paul should not go, but Paul had a mission from Christ which required him to do that very thing.
Similarly, a prophet named Agabus told Paul that the Jews in Jerusalem would tie his hands and feet and deliver him over to the Gentiles (Acts 21:10-11). In fact, we learn in Acts 21:30-33 that the Jews did not deliver Paul to the Romans (Gentiles) at all, but rather that the Romans rescued Paul from a Jewish mob. And it was the Romans, not the Jews, who bound Paul with a chain. Agabus had an inspired revelation, perhaps a picture of Paul standing bound in chains and a mob of angry Jews surrounding him, but his interpretation of that revelation was less than fully accurate. Even then, we may be sure that Paul was encouraged and comforted by the ministry of these brothers or sisters who prophesied to him.
God’s people can always use a word of encouragement, of strengthening, of comfort. We can give such words without exercising the gift of prophecy. But ordinary Christian prophecy — reverently received and reported, and faithfully evaluated — also provides those same blessings in an awesome, special way from God himself. No wonder that Paul tells us not to despise this gift (1 Thes. 5:19-22). No wonder he encourages us to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Cor. 14:1). No wonder he exhorts us to “be eager to prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1, 39).
(For a detailed study of this subject, I recommend The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, by Wayne Grudem, published by Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois.)