In a recent post, we noted how in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul put forward prophecy as a more edifying spiritual gift than speaking in tongues. On that basis, in part 1 of this post, we fiddled with the somewhat controversial question of whether the gift of prophecy still exists in the church today. Personally, I believe the answer should be yes — but only if we think of prophecy in the broad sense of God speaking authoritatively to his people through the agency of others. Sometimes this happens in seemingly miraculous ways; other times not. But Paul’s point is to get away from understandings of prophecy that make it all about the spiritual prestige of the prophet instead of the edifying grace of God.
When I hear the word “prophet,” my imagination often flies straight to Mount Carmel. Here is Elijah, all by himself, challenging 450 idolatrous prophets of Baal to a contest of credibility (1 Kings 18:16-40): “Let’s set up two sacrificial bulls; you have yours, and I have mine. We’ll put them on top of the wood, but without lighting it. Then you call on Baal, and I’ll call on the Lord — and the one who answers by fire is the real deal.”
To Elijah’s taunts, the prophets of Baal dance and shout and even cut themselves all day long, but to no avail. In the evening, it’s Elijah’s turn. To make the point, he drenches his sacrifice thoroughly with water before calling upon God — whereupon fire falls, vaporizing the sacrifice and everything around it.
Does God still use that kind of prophet today? Does he pluck people out of obscurity, sometimes against their will, and call them in such undeniable and dramatic ways to be his mouthpiece? Nothing, of course, is beyond God.
But something’s different now.
Speaking of the coming “day of the Lord,” the prophet Joel gave these words of comfort from God:
You will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God—no other exists; never again will my people be put to shame. After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions. (Joel 2:27-28, CEB)
This is the text Peter cited on the morning of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came miraculously upon the believers gathered in Jerusalem and they began speaking spontaneously in languages they didn’t know (Acts 2:1-4). The onlookers were stunned and confused; some accused the Christians of getting drunk for breakfast. In response, Peter declared that this was a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, as if to say, The day of the Lord has indeed begun; the Spirit has indeed been poured out.
I’m uncomfortable with the question, “Are there still prophets today?” Paul’s emphasis in 1 Corinthians 14 is not on prophets but prophecy, not on called individuals but a called community. We may marvel at the stories of Elijah and others, and rightly so. But we should marvel even more at incomprehensibly generous way in which God has distributed his Spirit for the sake of everyone’s edification. Paul words suggest that, in principle, it is possible for everyone in a congregation to prophesy. If so, then the question “Do prophets still exist?” may be misdirected because it is too individualistic.
I can rejoice when God uses me to edify a brother or sister, without having to turn it into a question of my identity, my gifting. I am concerned that even today, spiritual gifts are talked about in ways that hook people’s need to find something unique and special about themselves. That’s not to say that people aren’t unique. Nor is to say that God doesn’t equip and use particular people in particular ways. But in Paul, at least, the consistent emphasis is not on the spiritual identities of individuals, but the loving commitment of all to build up the body of Christ, to edify one another.
Paul, after all, clearly acted like a prophet without drawing attention to himself as such. And why? Because it was enough for him to have the privilege to serve.