A few weeks ago I focused on James Bannerman’s treatment of the apostolic office. Today I pick up the next foundational office in the early church—the office of the prophet. In his book, The Church of Christ, he spends a whole chapter on these offices and I have found his insights most valuable in considering the use of spiritual gifts in the church.
Indeed, to understand the founding of the church and much of the discussion in the New Testament about spiritual gifts, miraculous signs and wonders, and gifts of revelation, we must come to a better understanding of the unique role of the apostles, prophets, and evangelists. My contention is that only by understanding these officers in God’s universal church will we be able to make sense of books like Act and passages like 1 Corinthians 12–14 and Ephesians 4.
For consideration of the apostles see the last blogpost. Today, we will consider the office of the prophet. And in the days to come we’ll finish by looking at the evangelist.
In Ephesians 4:11–12 Paul lists four (or five) offices given to the church for equipping every member of the church for fruitful service.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.
Each of these “officers” work by proclaiming the gospel and explaining God’s Word, but there exist important distinctions between them. As Bannerman notes, some of them are extraordinary officers given to the early church (e.g., apostles, prophets, and evangelists), others are ordinary officers given for the duration of the church age (e.g., pastors and teachers, or pastor-teachers) .
Writing about Ephesians 4:11–12, Bannerman observes, “that the enumeration of office-bearers is not complete [in Ephesians 4],” because “no mention is made of the deacon” (229). He appeals to Acts 6 and the history of the church to affirm the office of deacon. More reliable is the fact that Paul lists two offices in Philippians 1:1 (overseers and deacons) and qualifies two offices (elders and deacons) in 1 Timothy 3 But still, the point remains: Ephesians 4 gives us”a list of office-bearers, which, although not exhaustive, yet includes the majority of those invested with formal office in the apostolic Church” (ibid.). Or even better, we might say of Ephesians 4:11 that these offices are the ones endowed with revelation and/or ability to teach.
1 Corinthians 12:8–10, 28–30
In 1 Corinthians 12 we find two lists which also include spiritual gifts related to teaching and instruction in the church.
8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 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.
28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
On these verses, Bannerman notes how “we have an enumeration, not of the offices, but of the gifts that prevailed in the primitive Church” (229). He distinguishes gifts (charismata) listed in 1 Corinthians from offices listed in Ephesians, and he makes the important point:
In dealing with the question of the form of polity of the New Testament Church, we must take special care not to confound the different charismata, or gifts, enumerated in the Epistle to the Corinthians with the distinct offices enumerated in the Epistle to the Ephesians, or to assume that because the same individual exercised different endowments or powers for the edification of the Church, he therefore is to be held as invested with different offices, ordinary or extraordinary, in the Christian society. (230)
Rightly, Bannerman recognizes that giftedness and official recognition were not always coterminous. For instance, “one man might receive and exercise many gifts, while at the same time he held and exercised no more than one office in the church” (229). Likewise, some who exercised gifts, like the four daughters of Philip, are not called to the office of a prophet. With this caveat in place, let’s consider what the prophets did do, and what made them different from the apostles and necessary for the upbuilding of the church.
There are two chief features of the New Testament prophet: (1) they were given the ability to foretell the future and (2) they were given infallible speech to build up the church.
1. New Testament prophets foretold the future.
Bannerman explains how these prophets enjoyed the “same distinctive power which belonged to the brethren during the ancient dispensation—that, namely, of foreseeing and predicting the future” (231). He argues this point in a few ways.
First, he recalls Jesus’ words in John 16:13 which say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” Here Jesus is promising his apostles will have some perception into the future. Clearly, this was evidenced in Paul and John in their various writings (e.g., 1–2 Thessalonians and Revelation), but we also find men like Agabus foretelling future events (Acts 11:27–28, 20:22ff.).
The apostles were prophets in their own right, but prophets unnamed (Acts 13:1) and named (Silas and Judas in Acts 15:32) joined them in the early church as Bannerman explains,
They [the apostles] indeed shared more largely than their brethren in the supernatural gift of the early age of miracle and inspiration, but they did not monopolize them; and in the ample dowery conferred on the church in the morning of her espousals by her Lord, we are to recognize the gift of prophecy in the restrictive meaning of the term, as the prediction of things to come. . . . Side-by-side with the power of working miracles and of speaking with tongues, the gift of prophecy, or insight into the future, was given to the apostolic Church, as a witness to its Divine origin, and an instrument for securing its establishment on the earth. (232)
We will miss the importance of prophets if we forgot that the early church was plagued by persecution, false teaching, and egotistical leaders. Like an infant child, it needed direct support and protection. Moreover, like a rising nation, it needed demonstrations of power that exceeded its small size. God gave the prophets divine oracles to help establish the nascent church. Again, the historical context helps make sense of why God would grant revelation to his prophets in this season of the church, but not afterward.
2. New Testament prophets received divine revelation from God to proclaim the mind of God to others.
If New Testament prophets were granted revelation about the future, they more regularly received revelations (1 Corinthians 14:29) about the mind of God in the present. In other words, they were endowed with ability to perfectly interpret the Old Testament and speak the mind of God. In contrast to later teachers who devoted themselves to studying the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15), the Prophets, without study, perfectly understood the mind of the Lord. As Bannerman observes,
They were infallible interpreters of the Old Testament Scriptures and inspired preachers of Divine truth, declaring the Word of God for the conversion of sinners and the profit of the Church. The difference between the prophets and the ordinary pastors or teachers of the early Church was, that the one were inspired creatures of the Gospel, and the other not inspired. The prophesying or preaching of the first was the fruit of the immediate extraordinary revelation at the moment; the prophesying or preaching of the second was the fruit of their unaided study of the Old Testament Scriptures, and personal understanding of divine truth. (233)
This difference between inspired preachers and studied preachers is illuminating. And it makes a difference for how we understand passages like 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul says, “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” (vv. 29–30).
In this passage, we see the church at Corinth is effectively functioning in a way that is very close to that the Old Testament. In the days of Moses (Numbers 11) and Saul (1 Samuel 10:9–13; 19:23–24), we find the Spirit coming upon men who in turn prophesy. Without the full canon of Scripture, it makes sense that this type of prophesying “in the round” would continue in Corinth. With only touches from apostles and centuries before the canon was collected and distributed, the church’s preservation and purity depended on more immediate divine action. Moreover, such inspired prophets are an answer to Jesus promises in John 14:2–26 and John 16:12–15.
These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
Bannerman concurs and draws our attention back to the theme of historical context. I quote him at length because his observations explain so well why prophets were needed in the early church, but no longer today.
It is not difficult to see the foundation laid in the circumstances of the apostolic church for the necessity and the use of this is special class of office-bearers. Our Lord had himself told his disciples shortly before his death, that he had many things to tell them, which at that moment they were not able to bear (John 14:25ff.; 16:12–14). The revelation of his mind and truth was left by him incomplete when he departed from this world to the Father. It remained incomplete until the canon of Scripture was closed, and the entire revelation of God, as we now have it, was committed to writing.
The earliest of the canonical books of the New Testament was not written until some years after the ascension of Christ; and the latest of them was not added until probably a generation had well-nigh passed away after that event. In the interval, the revelation of God remain unfinished; while from the difficulty of transcribing and disseminating in manuscript the copies of the books that partially made up the New Testament volume, before its completion there must have been, in many churches of the early Christians, a want felt of any authoritative record of the Divine mind and will.
The living Word of prophets, inspired by God to declare his truth, was the instrumentality employed by him to supply that want in the apostolic Church. The Apostles indeed have the same word of revelation that the prophets enjoyed. The prophesying of the Apostles supplied for a time, to the extent to which their personal presence could reach, the want of the written and inspired standard before the canon closed. But the number of the apostles admitted of no increase, while in the rapid spread and prevalence of early Christianity there were multitudes added to the church daily of such as should be saved.
And hence the necessity of another order of office-bearers, suited to the extraordinary emergency, and to the transition state of the Christian church, who should, by means of personal revelation granted to them, and personal prophesyings emitted by them, become the teachers of the early converts, when they have no other adequate source of information and instruction in Divine things. The necessity for such extraordinary instrumentality ceased when the canon of scripture was closed. The written word in the hands of the Christian churches superseded the need of revelations and prophets. Both in their character of foretellers of future events, and in their character of inspired preachers of divine truth, the order of New Testament prophets was temporary, and did not outlive the apostolic age. (233–34)
While cumbersome to read, Bannerman’s point needs to be repeated. We cannot understand the role of the New Testament prophet (and prophesy) apart from the historical context—the “emergency,” as he calls it—of the newborn church. The prophets filled the void of authoritative instruction, extended the work of the apostles, edified the church, and protected countless saints from discouragement and destruction by their ministries. This is why Paul is so insistent to encourage prophesy in 1 Corinthians 14 and its evaluation (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:19–22).
As Acts 13:1 and 15:32 indicate, these prophets served alongside teachers, in local churches to build up believers, and at the bidding of the apostles. Indeed, they did just what Paul hoped the Corinthians would do—speak divine words to one another, such that the churches of Christ would be established in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Today, we do not have, nor need, prophets like the early church. The reason? In God’s kindness, he has given us the full and sufficient word of God. Our context is not like that of the churches in Corinth or Ephesus, who lacked instruction and had access to Spirit-confirmed apostles and prophets.
Therefore, we must keep in mind the historical differences if we are to rightly understand the words of Scripture and to apply those words to us today. While it may seem most biblical to carry over the role of prophets today, a closer look at the New Testament helps us see more clearly how the apostles and prophets formed the foundation of the church—a foundation, thankfully, we do not need to relay. Rather, we attend to their inscripturated words and seek to apply them by the power of the same Spirit who inspired them.
To that end, may God grant us insight into his revealed Word as we seek to apply all that he has said in our contexts today.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds