Among evangelicals there is a debate between cessationists and continuationists over the gift of prophecy. Simply put, cessationists believe that the gift of prophecy passed away sometime in the post-apostolic era because (among other reasons) there was no longer a need for the gift once the Canon of Scripture was completed. Continuationists argue that the spiritual gift of prophecy is still available to the church and those with the gift should utilize it for the edification of the Body of Christ.
While it may appear that the disagreement is only over the continuation of a particular spiritual gift, there is a more fundamental difference between cessationists and contintuationists on how to define prophecy, particularly New Testament prophecy. Both groups agree that Old Testament prophesy is direct, infallible revelation from God that comes to God’s people through the prophet. Cessationists believe that this same definition should apply to New Testament prophesy. Continuationists argue that the New Testament gift of prophecy is different than the Old Testament gift. Wayne Grudem explains,
An examination of the New Testament teaching on this gift will show that it should not be defined as ‘declaring the future’ or ‘proclaiming a word from the Lord’ but rather as ‘telling something that the Lord has spontaneously brought to mind.’
Therefore, while it is spiritually profitable, New Testament prophecy, according to Sam Storms “does not carry intrinsic divine authority” the way the Old Testament does. Furthermore, this kind of prophecy, continuationists argue, is still alive and well within the church today, and its exercise should be encouraged for the edification of God’s people.
In this article I want to challenge the idea that New Testament prophecy is different than Old Testament prophecy. If one can demonstrate that the argument for two qualitatively distinct kinds of prophecy between the Old and New Testament cannot be established, much of the basis for the continuationist claim for present-day prophesy will be severely undermined.
Continuationists claim that people today are actively exercising the gift of prophecy. These prophesies, the argument goes, do not carry intrinsic divine authority. Nor, when they contain a predictive element, will they always be accurate. “No one,” Sam Storms argues, “prophesies with 100% accuracy.” If one can demonstrate from Scripture that New Testament prophecy is qualitatively the same as Old Testament prophecy, the continuationist claim for present-day prophecy would need a significant revision. People claiming to prophesy today would need to admit they are delivering a message that carries divine authority. Such messages would, by their nature, require obedience by God’s people. Of course, such a claim places such prophesies in direct conflict with the sufficiency of Scripture. Those whose predictive prophesies later proved inaccurate would come under church discipline and censure for misleading other Christians with “false prophesies.” In other words, continuationists would face significant theological and ecclesiological challenges if they conceded that New Testament prophecy is qualitatively the same as Old Testament prophecy.
It is my hope that more and more continuationists will come to the conclusion that New Testament prophecy is no different than Old Testament prophecy and thereby no longer hold to the idea of present-day prophecy.
In this article I will give five reasons why we can have certainty that New Testament prophecy is qualitatively the same as Old Testament prophecy.
1) There are No Explicit Texts that Indicate
NT Prophecy is Qualitatively Different from OT Prophecy
The first and most basic point is that there is no text in Scripture that teaches that New Testament prophecy is different than Old Testament prophecy. As you trace the words “prophesy,” (verb) and “prophet,” and “prophecy” (noun) in their canonical development, there is simply no indication that a shift has occurred between Old and New Covenants so that prophecy previously denoted an infallible, divinely authoritative message (see Deut 13:1-5, 18:15-22) but now means “something that the Lord spontaneously brings to mind,” that may contain errors and carries no inherent divine authority (see Storms and Grudem above).
Given the stark difference between these two definitions and the potential confusion such definitional changes would create, it is reasonable to expect Scripture to provide some clear teaching on this matter. But, not only is there no clear teaching on this supposed shift, there are texts in the New Testament itself that refer to “prophets,” “prophesy,” “prophecy” that are incoherent if the continuationist definition is applied.
For example, throughout the Gospels the word “prophet,” “prophecy” and “prophesy” are used consistently in ways that resist the continuationist definition. There are multiple references to Old Testament prophets and their prophecies (including Zechariah and his son John the Baptist, the “last” Old Testament prophet), all of which refer to authoritative, divine spokesmen and their infallible message (Matt 8:17; 12:17; 12:39; 13:14, 17, 35; 16:14; 21:4; 22:40; 23:29; 23:37; 24:15; 26:56; 27:9; Mark 6:15; 7:6; 8:28; Luke 1:67, 70, 1:76; 3:4; 4:17; 4:27; 6:23; 9:8, 19; 10:24; 11:47; 13:28; 13:33; 16:16, 29; 24:25, 27, 44; John 1:21, 25, 45; 6:45; 8:52; 12:38).
References to post-Old Testament prophets (either to Jesus himself or to prophets that Jesus says would be contemporary with the disciples) do not give any indication that they should be understood differently than Old Testament prophets (Matt 7:22; 10:41; 21:11. 46; 23:34; Mark 6:4; Luke 4:24; 7:16, 26, 39; 11:49; 24:19; John 4:19, 44; 6:14; 7:40, 52; 9:17). Indeed, these references are made within the context of a fixed definition for prophet; namely, one who speaks authoritative, new direct revelation from God. For example, when Jesus is dining at Simon’s home and a prostitute bursts through the door and begins to wash and kiss Jesus’ feet, Simon views this event as evidence that Jesus isn’t a prophet precisely because a real prophet would have known that this woman is unclean (Luke 7:39). When the centurions begin to beat Jesus after his mock trial, they tell him to “prophesy” who struck him (Mark 14:65; Luke 22:64). These men were provoking Jesus to provide infallible revelation of which soldier hit him. Caiaphas’s prophecy that Jesus would die for the nation was authoritative, infallible revelation that would prove true very soon after it was uttered (John 11:51). Any other reference in the Gospels to prophets, prophecy and the act of prophesying refer to authoritative spokesmen who delivered infallible revelation from God to his people (Matt 11:9, 13). The only exception is Jesus’ reference to false prophets which, as we will see below, only make sense in a context where the word prophet refers consistently to an authoritative divine spokesmen who speaks infallible revelation from God (Matt 7:15, 24:11; Mark 13:22; Luke 6:26).
A continuationist may respond that we should expect references to prophets and prophecy in the Gospels to carry the same definition as the Old Testament prophets because these references are to Old Testament prophets. Of course this is true. But it prompts a question: if the New Testament Gospels use the word “prophet” to only refer to authoritative spokesmen and infallible messages, on what basis can we change definitions, and what criteria do we use to determine when such a change takes place? To suggest that Scripture maintains a steady definition of prophecy to only change the definition without clear teaching only incites confusion.
Now, I think a continuationist could respond that the definition of prophecy changed at Pentecost. (When else on the redemptive timeline would the change occur?) Such a change is not signaled through didactic teaching, but in the massive redemptive-historical shift from Old Covenant to New Covenant portrayed narratively in the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles (Acts 2:1-12) and the pouring out of the Spirit upon all of God’s people (Acts 2:28-32). But, allowing for the argument that the gift of prophecy changes at Pentecost and that the change should be noted by the shift from Old to New Covenant in the coming of the Spirit, it is important to note that texts in Acts (post-Pentecost) and the epistles still do not make sense if the continuationist definition is applied.
For example, after Pentecost we still have multiple references to Old Testament prophets in Acts (Acts 2:16; 2:30; 3:18; 3:21-25; 7:27; 7:48; 7:52; 8:28; 8:30; 8:34; 10:43; 13:15; 13:20; 13:26, 27; 13:40; 15:15; 24:14; 26:22; 26:27; 28:23; 28:25). The use of the word prophet for people other than Old Testament prophets is found in Acts 11:27 (the Jerusalem prophets); 13:1 (Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul), 13:6 (the Jewish false prophet Bar-Jesus) 15:32 (Judas and Silas), and Agabus (21:10). Obviously, a continuationist definition can’t be used in the case of the Old Testament prophets, but these examples demonstrate the difficulty inherent in the idea that Scripture prepares the reader for the shift in definition from Old to New Testament. Intermixed with multiple references to Old Testament prophets (twenty-six on my count) are three references to what we would call New Covenant prophets. But on what hermeneutical grounds are we encouraged to toggle the meaning of prophet from “authoritative divine spokesmen with infallible words from God” when we read about an Old Covenant prophet to “those who speak fallibly and un-authoritatively” when we read about a New Covenant prophet in Acts? If Luke intends such definitional swapping, how does he prepare the reader for it?
Importantly, the only place in Acts where prophet clearly doesn’t mean “authoritative divine spokesmen” is when we encounter Bar-Jesus. Luke, however, provides the hermeneutical signal we need to insert a modified definition: Bar-Jesus is a “false” prophet. “False” in this case is a comparative modifier. In other words, this adjusted definition of prophet is grounded in the prior definition of prophet—an authoritative divine spokesman—already assumed and used by Luke up to this point in Acts. The comparison is made between Old Testament prophets who spoke with divine authority and Bar-Jesus who didn’t. Now, I don’t mean this as a caustic swipe at continuationists, but it needs to be noted: how should we, based on how Luke has used the word prophet in Acts in the previous chapters understand Bar-Jesus’ prophetic ministry? Is he not someone who “speaks fallibly and without divine authority?”
The word “prophesy” (verb) is first used in Acts 2:17-18 where Joel describes the result of the pouring out of the Spirit. But these statements cannot be used to support a redemptive shift in definition for two reasons: (1) these references to prophecy are originally located in Joel who, as an Old Testament prophet, would have assumed the Old Testament definition of prophecy in his writing; and (2) the emphasis in Joel 2:28-30 on the democratization of the gift of prophecy, not the nature of it. In other words, Joel is saying that the gift of prophecy will, unlike the Old Testament, be given to all classes of God’s people, not just a few (as in the elite OT schools of the prophets; cf. 1 Sam 19:24). Quality of prophetic utterance is not at issue here. Distribution of the prophetic gift is. (Yet, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 12:29, even the capacity to prophesy wasn’t absolutely universal. Not everyone was a prophet, even after the coming of the Spirit in the New Covenant.)
We see the fulfillment of this democratization develop in Acts with the appearance of the Jerusalem prophets (11:27), and then Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Saul (13:1), Judas and Silas (15:32), the Ephesian converts (19:6), Philip’s daughters (21:9), and Agabus (21:10). But there is no indication within the book of Acts that Luke intends us to view these prophets or their ministry as qualitatively different than the Old Testament prophets, given, as we’ve seen, how freely he weaves together references to Old and New Covenant prophets with no apparent rationale or set of criteria for recognizing a change in definition.
In the epistles, the words “prophet,” “prophesy,” (verb) and “prophecy” (noun) are often used in reference to Old Testament prophets and their work (Rom 1:2; 3:21; 11:3; 1 Tim 2:15; Heb 1:1; 11:32; James 5:10; 1 Pet 1:10; 2 Pet 3:2; Jude 14). References to New Covenant prophets and prophecy are located mainly in 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 11:4; 13:9; 14:1, 3, 24, 31, 39) but are also found in Ephesians (2:20; 3:5; 4:11). Paul refers to a Cretan “prophet” in Titus (1:12). Revelation contains several references to prophets, the act of prophesying, and to prophecy. One text clearly refers to the coming two witness who will prophesy during the tribulation (Rev 11:3), while other passages may refer to these witnesses or to other prophets (11:18; 16:6; 18:20, 24; 22:4). When John attempts to worship the angel, he is rebuked for attempting to worship a “fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets” (Rev 22:9)—a reference, it seems, to the prophets of the early church since they were John’s “brothers.” John refers to the content of his book as prophecy (Rev 1:3; 22:7; 22:10), stating that the “testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev 19:10), while offering a closing warning to anyone who attempts to tinker with the “prophecy” of his book (Rev 22:18).
Of the references to New Covenant prophets in the epistles, their acts of prophesying, and their prophecies, which passages can easily bear the definition offered by continuationists, and what criteria do we use to determine when their definition applies? Given the overwhelming set of unambiguous references in the Old Testament, the Gospels, Acts, and the epistles to authoritative prophets and their infallible, divinely given prophecies, on what basis do we apply a new definition to a select group of texts in the New Testament? As we will see below, even clear references to New Covenant prophets in Ephesians, for example, cannot bear the continuationist definition of prophecy. In the final analysis, the continuationists are lacking any clear Old or New Testament text that signals that we are to view New Covenant prophets and their work as qualitatively different than the old covenant prophets.
(2) Agabus’ Prophesy was Entirely Correct
Continuationists appeal to the prophet Agabus as evidence that New Testament prophecy is qualitatively different than Old Testament prophecy. The argument goes like this. (1) Agagus is a New Testament prophet (he comes after the New Covenant inauguration at Pentecost); (2) Agabus’ prophecy to Paul in Acts 21:11-12 was inaccurate in a few of the details; (3) Agabus is an example of a New Testament prophet whose prophecy isn’t fully accurate; (4) we have biblical warrant for viewing New Testament prophecy in a similar way; (5) contemporary prophets may, like Agabus, not always get every detail correct in their prophecies.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Agabus in the continuationist argument. Agabus’ prophecy is the only potential example of inaccurate prophecy in the entire New Testament. If it can be shown that Agabus’s prophecy was correct in everything he stated, then the continuationist argument suffers a severe, if not irremediable blow.
When considering the example of Agabus, we must first set him within the immediate context of Acts and the greater context of previous Scripture. As I noted above, the word “prophet” carries a consistent meaning from the Old Testament until we meet Agabus. When Luke designates Agabus as a prophet (Acts 11:27), there is no signal from Luke or anyone else in the narrative that we should think of him differently than every other true prophet who had come before him. Indeed, when Luke introduces us to Agabus for the first time, he provides evidence of the prophet’s reliable track-record.
Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius)Acts 11:27-28
Just like the Old Testament prophets who spoke authoritative, infallible revelation from God, Agabus spoke accurately of a great famine before it occurred. Agabus foretold of a large-scale, widespread famine, and his prophecy was fulfilled in the days of Claudius.
When we come to Agabus’ interaction with Paul ten chapters later, we only have one option for how to classify him: he is a prophet from God whose prophecies are accurate and authoritative. (1) His ministry is grounded in an office established in the Old Testament. (2) He has a reliable track-record. (3) And he prefaces his prophecy with a statement that indicates he is speaking for God: “Thus says the Holy Spirit” (Acts 21:11). This statement is nearly identical to the Old Testament formula of “Thus says the Lord.” In the Old Testament, this statement always preceded words that came directly from God (e.g., Ex 32:27; 1 Kings 21:19; Is 43:1). Therefore, our assumption as we read Agabus’ prophecy of Paul’s arrest and Luke’s record of that arrest should be that both the prophecy and the event would fully align.
Of course, the continuationist argument is that the prophecy and the actual event do not align, at least not in a few details. But a close examination of both reveal that according to his prophetic office, Agabus got everything correct. Here’s the prophecy.
While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles’”Acts 21:10-11
The alleged inaccuracies occur when Paul is arrested. According to continuationists, Agabus got the general prophecy correct—Paul would be bound and eventually be apprehended by the Gentiles (i.e., the Romans)—but the details surrounding the arrest are wrong. Here’s Luke’s record of the arrest:
When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and laid hands on him, 28 crying out, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” 29 For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. 30 Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. 31 And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35 And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, 36 for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!”Acts 21:27-36
According to continuationists, Paul wasn’t bound by the Jews and then handed over to the Gentiles. He was bound and captured by the Romans. Furthermore, they didn’t bind Paul with his belt; they bound him with chains. “Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains” (v. 33). Thus, Agabus got a few details wrong. But no matter. This is the nature of New Testament prophecy: sometimes you don’t get everything right.
But are these claims sustainable? Again, what one assumes about Agabus and the New Testament prophetic gift is largely determinative of whether or not one locates errors in Agabus’ prophesy. Actually, there are no formal contradictions between the prophecy and Luke’s record of the arrest. First, the Jews did seize Paul and drag him out of the temple. The word “seize” used here can certainly carry connotations of physical restraint. And Luke never indicates that the Jews didn’t bind Paul in some way, nor does he suggest that they didn’t bind him with his belt. In a flurry of violent confusion in their attempt to capture and beat Paul, it is quite possible that the Jews used whatever restraint they could find, namely, Paul’s belt. As the Roman tribune and centurions step in to assess the situation, there is no indication from Luke that Paul was free of his previous bondage. No, he is still “seized” by the Jews although they have stopped beating him. The natural way to read the arrest is to see the Jews as the ones who handed Paul over to the Romans. Once Paul was in Roman custody, they bound him with a more secure form of restraint.
There is also no indication from Luke that Agabus’ prophecy was slightly off. Nor does Paul, in his later description of this event, suggest that Agabus got a some details wrong. Just the opposite. Paul affirms that he was handed over to the Romans as a prisoner: “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans” (Acts 28:17). Importantly, this word “delivered” is the same word used by Agabus to describe what would happen to Paul (Acts 21:11).
In light of the evidence, then, Agabus cannot be used by continuationists as an example of fallible New Testament prophecy.
(3) The So-Called Four-Fold Nature of New Testament Prophesy Cannot be Established
Sam Storms argues for the shift in the character of New Testament prophecy by describing the four-fold process by which a New Testament prophet receives and delivers revelation. He alleges New Testament prophecy includes four elements: (1) the divine revelation itself; (2) the prophet’s perception/reception of the revelation; (3) the prophet’s interpretation of the revelation; (4) the application of the interpretation. This four-fold nature of New Testament prophecy allows for errors to be included in “prophecy” while at the same time not indicting God for providing a fallible revelation.
While Storms maintains the infallibility of the initial revelation because it comes from God, he argues that errors can creep into a prophecy between steps (2)-(4). A prophet might perceive the revelation incorrectly, or he might not interpret the revelation accurately. Even if he does perceive the revelation correctly and interprets it accurately, there is still a chance he may apply it to his listeners imperfectly.
There are two major problems with this alleged four-fold structure of New Testament prophecy. First, Scripture simply does not delineate this four-step process. Taking the Old Testament as a background, a prophecy only involves two steps: (1) the giving of revelation from God to the prophet; (2) the delivery of the revelation through the human prophet to the people. For example, the writing prophets would introduce their letters by saying, “The word of the Lord that came to Joel, son of Pethuel” (Joel 1:1). The subsequent prophesy from Joel 1:2 through the rest of his book is the word of the Lord that came to Joel. When you come to the New Testament, there is no indication that this two-step pattern has changed.
Second, Storms’s four-fold description of prophecy aligns perfectly with how we think about New Testament teaching. The teacher begins with an infallible revelation in Scripture, but he may take a misstep anywhere in the process, from his perception of the revelation, to his interpretation, to the application. Storms argues for the legitimacy of allowing fallible prophecy in the church by noting that we allow imperfect teachers to teach the Word of God in the church. Why not allow imperfect prophets to prophesy in the church? In response, the question we would put to Storms is this: Why do you need the office of a fallible yet edifying prophet when you have that office already provided in the New Testament teacher? There seems to be no reason to argue for such an office except to maintain the continuationist position.
(4) The Nature of the New Covenant
Following Old Testament prophets, Paul characterizes the New Covenant as the covenant of the Spirit (2 Cor 3:1-17). The newness of the New Covenant is located, among other elements, in how the Spirit would dwell in God’s people (Ezek 36:26-27). No longer would he come upon a few select individuals; rather, he would indwell all of God’s people (John 14:17). This democratization of the Spirit is signaled, as we already noted, in Peter’s quote from Joel where God says he will pour out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32). But, given that the Spirit is, among the other members of the Trinity, the agent of revelation (Matt 22:43; 1 Tim 4:1; Heb 3:7; Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22), and that the New Covenant provides an increase of intensity, we might say, of his ministry to God’s people, it seems more reasonable to expect that the Holy Spirit’s new indwelling presence should ensure greater accuracy in prophetic utterances, not less. Of course, I am not suggesting that Old Testament prophecies were inaccurate. My point is only to offer a logical counter to the claim that moving from the Old to New Covenant would imply a change in the character of the prophetic office from greater accuracy to less. Actually, the nature of the New Covenant would lead you to expect the exact opposite.
(5) The Foundational Nature of the Prophetic Office
Paul mentions New Covenant prophets three times in his letter to the Ephesians (2:20; 3:14; 4:11). Of these, his reference in Ephesians 2:20 is most challenging to the continuationist definition. Paul writes,
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.Ephesians 2:19-22
The church is built on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets.” While some have argued that prophets here refer to Old Testament prophets, Paul’s reference to prophets in Ephesians 3:14 makes it clear that he has New Covenant prophets in mind. The reason why this text is devastating to the continuationist definition is because, according to their definition, the church’s foundation is built upon authoritative, infallible apostles and those whose words do not carry intrinsic divine authority and may be fallible. But how can such an alloyed mixture create a sturdy, steadfast foundation? The language of “foundation” implies stability, consistency, strength, and reliability. To suggest that New Testament prophets contributed that which is unstable, inconsistent, weak, and potentially unreliable to the foundational work of the apostles is to undermine Paul’s argument in Ephesians 2:20 and render it nonsensical.
In light of the above arguments, it is clear that Scripture gives us no reason to view Old and New Testament prophecy as qualitatively different. Old Testament prophets spoke infallible, authoritative revelation from God. New Testament prophets spoke infallible, authoritative revelation from God, and they did so until such revelation was no longer needed with the completion and proliferation of the New Testament Canon. The continuationist argument for contemporary prophecy is biblically and theologically unfounded. Pastorally, it confuses Christians who, sensitive to the Spirit and desiring to hear from God, lend their ear to so-called prophets who bear the name of an authoritative office but who may or may not speak authoritatively from God.
My plea is for my continuationist friends to stop using the words “prophet,” “prophesy” and “prophecy” to describe a contemporary phenomenon. As I’ve demonstrated above, Sam Storms’ description of present-day prophecy is how we would describe biblical teaching. It will be better for the church to eliminate the office of prophet from our current ecclesial practice and remain steadfastly committed to teaching Scripture well and encouraging our people to listen carefully for God’s voice in the Bible. Maintaining the idea of fallible, non-authoritative prophecy is confusing at best and spiritually dangerous at worst.
Wayne Grudem, “Why Christians Can Still Prophesy,” Christianity Today (September 16, 1988): 29.
Sam Storms, “The Third-Wave View,” in Are the Miraculous Gifts for Today (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 209.
Sam Storms, “Some thoughts on the Failed Prophesies Concerning Donald Trump and the 2020 Election,” at SamStorms.org, January 25, 2021.
Storms, “Third Wave,” 207.
Storms, “Third Wave,” 208.
I am indebted to my student, Timothy Vusik, for this excellent insight.