Gospel-Driven Prophecy: Understanding the Differences Between OT and NT Prophecy, Part 4

Monday, October 23, 2006

Applying the Differences Toward an Attempted Resolution
Hopefully these observations will lead to a more interactive and meaningful discussion between cessationists and continuationists on the subject of prophecy as it relates to perceived conclusions. We are all guilty of reasoning with error. And this is where it more often than not shows itself. If we perceive that we understand another person’s argument, then we also presume to make analyses and conclusions that we perceive are the logical outflow of their argument. Arminians are infamous for this in their perceptions and conclusions regarding Calvinism. If God is sovereign and freely elects whoever He desires, then those who believe in this cannot believe in or be genuine about evangelism. This is illogical, of course, because of the Bible’s clear teaching on the connection between election and evangelism. Just as the Arminian perception of election does not necessitate the absence of genuine evangelism, the cessationist’s perception of OT prophecy does not necessitate that NT prophecy be treated the same way. Let’s apply this to three problems in particular.

The three problems I will attempt to address here all find their resolution in the stated purpose of NT prophecy in gospel-driven prophecy established in 1 Corinthians 14:3. As mentioned before, the Bible teaches that NT prophecy today is for strengthening, encouragement, and consolation. When the biblical purpose of NT prophecy guides any discussion about it, many problems which were considered previously difficult seem to disappear.

1. NT Prophets Must Have a 100% Track Record
The first of these problems is the cessationist claim that NT prophets in the local church today must have a 100% accurate prophetic track record because the OT prophets had to meet this requirement. At first glance, this argument is incredibly strong, but only so on the surface. Given the differences, especially in the nature of the NT prophetic word, such a necessity cannot be demanded for two reasons.

First, a consideration of the usual OT texts referred to in order to contravene cessationism reveals a different conclusion when we use the most foundational rule in bible study and exegesis – context. When we apply this simple rule to an observation of two OT texts, this particular problem of requiring 100% accuracy in track record is not so problematic. The texts do not, in fact, teach this. These two texts are Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:15-22.

Considering 13:1-5, an exegesis in this passage shows us that there was something else, something very important, which must also accompany a prophet’s words in order for it to be deemed punishable by death. Here is the text in its entirety from the ESV.

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

I think a basic observation helps us conclude two simple points. First, there is no mention in this test of stoning a prophet because he got a prophecy wrong. It’s just not there, unless I’ve missed it here or in any other text. Second, the death penalty for the prophet is noted in key conjunctions in bold and phrase in italics. How often the “and” and “because” are missed in this passage. Not only does this prophet prophesy, but he also promotes rebellion against God through idolatry. He prophesies accurately, but it is accompanied with wickedness. It is for this that the prophet is to be executed for he is a false prophet among God’s people, and not because a prophesy did not come true. A reading of Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 13 reveal that this Deuteronomy passage was actually in and of itself a prophecy.
In the other text found in 18:15-22, an exegesis of this text will be guided by an oft-overlooked phrase found in verses 15 and 18. The ESV translates the key phrases as “a prophet like me” (v. 15) and “a prophet like you” (v. 18). The context is prophetic in itself, for it predicts the coming of a prophet like Moses. Moses was a foreshadow of a greater prophet, the fulfillment of which is found in the person and prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ. Acts 3:17-26 and 7:37 help us understand exactly how a NT understood this prophecy. It is in this context that the following verses are found:
“And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him” (vv. 20-22).

Here is the most often used text to refer to a prophet whose words don’t come true. Yet if we are honest with the text and refuse to reshape or remold it to fit a preconceived cessationistic view of prophecy, we find that the text in its entirety is a prophetic reference to Jesus Christ.

Now, there are two possible exceptions here. The first is that the 18:15-22 text should be read in harmony with 13:1-5 so that the false prophet of 18:20-22 should get the punishment of 13:1-5. Perhaps this is legitimate. But if it is, I think that an exegesis of each text would reflect that together they point to the conclusion of execution for the prophet who presumes to fulfill that role of a Moses-like prophet yet with wickedness as its motivation and inaccuracy as its total effect.

The second possible exception is this. If we were to allow, for the sake of argument that the latter half of Deuteronomy 18:15-22 does not refer to or connect with the first half, and that the prophetic words spoken not coming true can and should apply to any prophet, let us recall again the primary purpose of OT prophets as compared with NT prophets.

Remembering the primary purposes of OT prophecy – speaking judgment against a rebellious nation - the majority of NT prophecy in the local church today is not about this any longer. NT prophecy is not about proclaiming and predicting judgment on a rebellious nation of people any longer. To be sure, there were those obvious references to predicting the future, and it certainly happened from time to time in the Scriptures, as in the cases of Jesus, Agabus, Paul, and John. But these predictions do not make up the majority of the contexts for NT prophecy. Prediction was by far the major context of pre and post exilic OT prophetic messages, even as far back as the early days of Israel. But the clear difference between this and NT prophetic messages makes the cry for 100% accuracy a moot point. The OT passages referred to cannot and should not be honestly used in order to argue against a biblical-charismatic understanding NT prophecy in the local church today.

To conclude on this point, a plain reading of 2 Samuel 7:1-17 winds up the a not-necessarily-100% accuracy track record for even OT prophets as necessary to remain alive or even maintain one’s position as an OT prophet. In this text we read of David telling Nathan of his heart’s desire to build a temple for the Lord. Nathan’s response seemed fitting: “And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you’” (v. 3). At this point our minds are called to attention again with the rule of exegesis regarding context. The very next verse begins with a conjunction which contrasts verse 4 and what follows there with verse 3. “But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan…” In verses 5 and following, the Word of the Lord to Nathan differs completely from what Nathan the prophet told David to do. Yet strangely for our cessationists friends, Nathan still lives and retains his position as prophet of God.

Toward a conclusion of this point, it seems good to speak to a couple of peripheral issues connected to this one just addressed. First, the Deuteronomy 13 passage, in my estimation, points clearly to that which Jesus addressed in Matthew 7:15-23. In Deuteronomy 13, while the word “fruit” is not used, I believe the concept is clearly in view, for the false prophet in that context is bearing fruit not in keeping with the accuracy and presumed source of his prophetic word. The fruit of his accuracy belies wickedness and idolatry bringing judgment. And this is that which Jesus addresses in Matthew 7. We will know false prophets by their fruit, not necessarily by their accuracy and track record. This point provides a helpful segway into the next peripheral issue.

Prophetic abuses are in extreme manifestation today. They have caused the contamination of many genuine works of God in the past and present, and will continue to do so in the future. If then, we are pointing to the abuses of supposed and self-proclaimed NT prophets today who utilize their “gifting” outside the confines and accountability of the local church, then “yes” the track record is understatedly important. However, we have already seen that the NT teaches the context of prophetic messages in the church are not predictive, but are strengthening, encouraging, and comforting. Holding the standard of 100% accuracy to that kind of prophetic message could be compared to holding Special Olympic athletes by the standards of normal Olympic athletes. Though they seem familiar, they really are not at all.

These are not manufactured differences, and they make passages like 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 and 1 Corinthians 14:29 shift into focus as they relate to prophetic activity in the local church today. Examining prophetic words, according to these texts, is not for the purpose of weeding out false prophets, as is often argued by cessationists. Again, making our exegetical appeal to the foundational rule of bible study – context - we learn that false prophets are not in view of either of these books. Examination of a prophetic word in the local church at that time was for the purpose of determining its harmonization with existing Scripture and with the stated purposes of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14:3.

Now, could it be said that the 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians passages help interpret in some fashion Jesus’ warnings against false prophets in Matthew 7? Perhaps. It would be dishonest not to reason that in some sense whatever examination of prophetic words is going on in the Thessalonian and Corinthian passages must of necessity include the observation of the fruit the prophetic word produces. Primarily, the references by Paul do not make explicit reference to false prophets anywhere in the contexts, so it would be incorrect to interpret those text as having reference to such persons. Secondarily, however, in attempt to formulate a theology that also includes Jesus’ words, an examination of the fruit of one’s prophetic words, it would seem, must occupy some of the examination process going on in Paul’s commands. It may be a tough issue, but it does not in anyway preclude a necessity of a 100% accurate track record.

Part 5: Must NT Prophecy Today Have a Parallel Somewhere in the NT?

Go To:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Conclusion

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