The gift of prophecy enables us to hear and relay personal messages from God. It applies God’s word to the present situation or to a particular individual, for “strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (I Corinthians 14:3). This is a highly valuable gift, and it is not surprising that Paul wanted all the members of the Corinthian church to prophesy (I Corinthians 14:5). Christian prophets feature prominently in the book of Acts: Agabus is the most important of them (Acts 11:27-29; Acts 21:10,11), but there were also the leaders of the church in Antioch (Acts 13:1) and the daughters of Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:8,9).
But what did Paul mean when he wrote that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20)? Are prophets as important as apostles, do their words carry the same authority, and were they (like the apostles) confined to the first foundational generation of the Church?
I think that the prophecies of Agabus are instructive here. Luke records them (and the response to them) for our edification; but the prophecies themselves were relevant only to their immediate audience. They are not applicable to the Church as a whole and can in no way be described as foundational. So when Paul was writing his letter to the Ephesians, he was surely not referring to this kind of prophecy but to the prophetic writings that make up what we call the Old Testament. (To the Hebrews, “the Prophets” comprised not only the books that we consider as prophetic, such as Isaiah and Hosea, but also the historical books. Moses and David were also counted as prophets.)
Paul instructed his churches to “weigh carefully” all prophecies (I Corinthians 14:29) – unlike the writings of the apostles, which carried immediate authority. Prophecy must be tested; it should never be accepted uncritically, but should be subject to examination and discussion by the whole church (I Thessalonians 5:20,21). For this gift can be misused to manipulate and gain influence over other people. Anyone can stand up in a meeting and claim to have received a ‘word’ or revelation from God; so how can we know if it is genuine? First of all, it must be consistent with the Biblical revelation that we already have (because God does not contradict Himself). Secondly, since we know that the Spirit’s intention is to build up the Church, it should go without saying that any purported ‘prophecy’ that undermines the faith of another person must be rejected. This does not mean that prophecies have to be bland and soothing – genuine prophecy is deeply challenging (Hebrews 4:12). Through it, the Holy Spirit communicates directly to the heart, awakening the conscience and convicting of the truth.