What is Prophecy in the New Testament?

A question that comes up, often in relationship to the topic of by what speaking roles can women serve the church, is what is prophecy today?  I have argued elsewhere that women should not teach in the context of a mixed adult group, but may prophecy, so this topic is of practical interest.

I was listening to a talk by Peter Orr entitled “Prophecy now?” which he gave at the Priscilla and Aquila Conference 2017 at Moore College, so this is heavily based on material he gave.

His argument revolves around how Paul uses the terms for teaching and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14.

In I Cor 14:6, Paul uses the terms revelation (ἀποκάλυψις – apokalupsis), knowledge (γνῶσις – gnosis), prophecy (προφητεία – propheteia) and instruction (διδαχή – didake).  The first question is, are these different things or is Paul repeating himself here?  Orr suggests that Paul equates revelation with prophecy and equates knowledge with instruction (NIVs translation of the word for teaching).

He points out that 1 Cor 14:26 appears to be an exhaustive list of what should be happening in a church, but it leaves out prophecy, which is a strange omission in a passage which is explicitly promoting it, and he also leaves out knowledge. This only makes sense if the equations proposed for verse 6 above are true.

When we look at 1 Cor 14:29-32, we see that Paul explicitly equates prophecy and revelation there, so that part makes sense from what Paul says elsewhere.

In addition to this, in 1 Cor 12:8, the word for teaching (instruction) is missing from this list, which again is surprising.  However if the message of knowledge is the same as teaching, as proposed above, then that makes sense.  Of course that is what teaching is, passing on, or giving a message of, knowledge.

In 1 Cor 14:3-4, Paul describes prophecy as something that “speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort” and “edifies the church”.

In 1 Cor 14:24, prophecy must have some Gospel content if it is to convict unbelievers of sin and result in them worshiping God.  This is unlikely if it is simply a prediction about something that will happen in the future.

In 1 Cor 14:26-38, Paul tells us that prophecy (revelation) is something that should be weighed and regulated.

The upshot of all this is, prophecy is some revelation or word or message that is gospel related and edifies, strengthens, encourages and comforts the church.  But it is distinguished from, and is not, teaching, as is clear from 1 Cor 12:28-29, and it should be weighed and regulated.

A later addition to this post:

I was impressed by the following comment by Mark Stephens:

But why does God show his people the future?

So that we will live well in the present.

Here we need to remember that “prophecy” does not always mean prediction. The role of the prophet is to convey a word from God to bring a faithful response from God’s people. Sometimes that includes revealing the future, but even when prophecy is predictive, the focus is on obedience in the present.


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