Question by Cornelius Kwame Amponsah, London:
My Lord, I have a three-in-one question about prophecy in the New Testament and I would be most grateful if you could help me come to a better understanding of it.
(1) What is the purpose of New Testament prophets like Agabus (Acts 11:27-30) and Silas (Acts 15:32), as all prophecy in the Old Testament culminated in the incarnation of God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:2)?
2) We read in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark that regarding the day that the Son shall return no one knows except the Father (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32) and that all believers must stand watchful and ready. Thus, is the office of a New Testament prophet and for that matter a modern-day prophet not made redundant?
3) Will it not be appropriate to re-designate the people in the New Testament period and in our current time who receive(d) direct messages from the Triune God and who communicate(d) same to God’s people as Seers, Visionaries and Bearers of private revelations rather than Prophets?
Answer by Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu:
In this section, we will look at the claim made by Cornelius that “all prophecy in the Old Testament culminated in the incarnation of God’s only begotten son Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:2)”, which effectively rendered New Testament prophecy by such people as Agabus and Silas irrelevant. In what follows, it will be argued that in spite of the coming of Christ, there were still prophets in the early Church who played a role in the early Church, especially in the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline communities and in the Book of Revelation.
Old Testament Prophecy
Let us begin by explaining what prophecy is. Prophecy is the most common means through which God communicated with people in the Old Testament times. The story of prophecy, from Genesis to Revelation, is the story of God speaking to people through human messengers.
Speaking through the prophets, God guided kings and people by telling them how to act in specific situations, warned people when they disobeyed him, predicted events that he would bring about, interpreted events when they came about, and demonstrated that he alone was both ruler of history and a God who relates personally to his people.
The main preoccupation of the prophets was to let the Jews know what God wanted them to hear or know, and apply it to their daily lives. Prophets were often critics of their societies, and, where they were successful, they were reformers. The preaching of the prophets usually had to do with justice and morality, calling on their audiences to mend their ways before God punished them.
It is often mistakenly believed that prophets mainly predict the future. While prophets have often been said to have foretold future events, their predictions were based on analysis of what they saw happening around them. In some cases, it was revealed to them by God.
Individuals whose main concern was in making predictions were called diviners. These were people such as astrologers, who studied the planets and stars for indications of future events; or they were people who read omens, such as the flights of birds, as a basis for predictions. What a prophet had to say could come through visions or dreams, or it could be acquired by learning.
The Gospels and Prophecy
In many places, the gospels show how the Old Testament prophecies predicting events in the future pointed to Christ and now find their fulfilment in him (Matt. 2:23; 4:14; John 12:38; 17:12).
Jesus is seen as the long awaited ‘prophet like Moses’ (John 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22-24), but he is not often explicitly called ‘a prophet’, and even when he is, it is usually by those who have little understanding of his person or mission (Matt. 21:11, 46; Mark 6:15; Luke 7:16; 24:19; John 4:19; 7:40).
This is because Jesus is far greater than the Old Testament prophets. While those prophets were messengers sent from God to the people, Jesus is not a mere messenger; he is God himself, come in the flesh. Therefore, while Jesus is indeed the ‘prophet like Moses’, he is more than that; he is the one to whom the Old Testament prophecies all pointed: ‘And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27; cf. Acts 3:18; 10:43; 26:22; Rom. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:10).
Moreover, while the Old Testament prophets were messengers who declared, ‘Thus says the Lord’, Jesus is himself the author of his message, who has the authority to declare, ‘But I say to you’ (Matt. 5:28, 32, 34, 44). Hebrews 1:1-2 explicitly contrasts the many kinds of revelation that came through the Old Testament prophets and the far superior, single revelation that has come in the last days through God’s own Son: ‘In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son’.
True prophets in the Old Testament tradition also appear in the gospels, including Zechariah (Luke 1:67), Anna (Luke 2:36) and, pre-eminently, John the Baptist (Luke 1:76; 3:2). The association of Jesus with various themes relating to Moses in the Gospel of John suggests that for John, Jesus was a prophet like Moses.
The New Testament Apostles as the Counterparts to Old Testament Prophets
Many Old Testament prophets were able to speak and write words which had absolute divine authority, and which were recorded in canonical Scripture. In New Testament times also, there were people who spoke and wrote God’s very words and had them recorded in Scripture; however, Jesus does not call them ‘prophets’ but uses a new term, ‘apostles’.
The apostles are the New Testament counterparts to the primary, established prophets in the Old Testament (see Gal. 1:8-9, 11-12; 1 Cor. 2:13; 2 Cor. 13:3; 1 Thess. 2:13; 4:8, 15; 2 Pet. 3:2). It is apostles, not prophets, who have authority to write the words of New Testament Scripture. When the apostles want to establish their unique authority, they never appeal to the title ‘prophet’ but rather call themselves ‘apostles’ (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; 9:1-2; 2 Cor. 1:1; 11:12-13; 12:11-12; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; 3:2).
Prophetic Experience in Acts and Paul’s Letters
Beginning with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the gift of prophecy was widely distributed in the New Testament church: “but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy’” (Acts 2:16-18).
In Acts, Peter and Stephen, with the risen Christ in mind, make reference to the prediction in Deut 18 of a prophet like Moses in their exposition of the gospel (Acts 3:22, 7:37). According to Paul, the purpose of prophecy is the exhortation and building up of the church body (1 Cor 14). The exact content of early church prophecy is unknown, but Paul calls it “divine mystery” (1 Cor 13:2; compare Rom 11:25-26). Philip’s four unmarried daughters were all known to prophesy (Acts 21:9).
For Paul, prophecy was one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He says, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?
Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Cor. 12:27-30). The same idea is found in Eph. 4:11-13 where Paul says, “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”.
In 1 Cor. 14, Paul makes known his preference for prophecy (over the uninterpreted tongues that the Corinthians were boasting of) on the basis of its ability to address the church intelligibly and to console, encourage and build it up (1 Cor. 14:3; on the same grounds he also encourages them to seek the gift of interpretation, 14:13).
Some New Testament passages depict prophecy as limited to a distinct group within the church (Acts 2), while other passages depict it as something for all church members (1 Cor 14:5; Acts 19:6). At times, prophets appear to have been itinerant preachers and ministers (Matt 23:34), but in others, prophets were fixed, functioning members of a specific community, and perhaps even part of the official church hierarchy (1 Cor 12:28; 14; Eph 2:20, 3:5).
Some early Christians seem to have believed that prophecy should be part of the everyday Christian experience. This belief appears to be based on Joel’s Old Testament prophecy that the Spirit of God would be poured out on all people (Joel 2:28-32). The early church considered prophecy in its various manifestations to be a continuation of Old Testament prophecy.
Outstanding prophets in the early Church included Silas (Acts 15:32) and Agabus. The latter was an early Christian prophet from Judaea, mentioned in Acts 11:27-28 and 21:10-12. In Acts 11, Agabus visits Antioch and predicts that a famine will “come over the whole inhabited earth” (Acts 11:28).
Later, in Acts 21:10-12, Agabus warns Paul at Caesarea of the imprisonment and suffering awaiting him in Jerusalem. He uses a symbolic action to describe what will happen to Paul, but Paul is not dissuaded. The Agabus story marks the first explicit occasion in which Paul came into personal contact with a Christian prophet. The writer of Luke-Acts indicates that this prediction was fulfilled while Claudius was emperor (Acts 11:28).
Speaking of prophecy, we must briefly refer to the Book of Revelation. As its name implies, it is a great ‘revelation’ from God, and the book itself is the last great prophecy in the Bible. From chapter 4 onwards, it points towards the future, describing in sobering yet magnificent language both the judgments and the blessings which God has ordained.
It closes with a reminder that its prophetic words, like the words God gave to the prophet Moses at the beginning of the Bible, and like the words of the prophets and apostles written in the rest of the Bible, are the very words of God, and no one may add to them or take from them (Rev. 22:18-19).
In the light of the foregoing, let us come back to the claim made by Cornelius that “all prophecy in the Old Testament culminated in the incarnation of God’s only begotten son Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:2)”, which effectively rendered New Testament prophecy irrelevant.
Cornelius makes reference to Heb. 1:2 which says, “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world”.
Even though God spoke to the early Church through his Son, there were still prophets in the early Church. We have demonstrated that prophecy did not end with the coming of Jesus. There were still prophets in the New Testament times and in the early church, and so we cannot agree with Cornelius’ contention that all prophecy in the Old Testament culminated in the incarnation of Jesus and that all subsequent prophecy was of no significance.
Cornelius refers to the two passages in Matthew and Mark (Matt. 24:36; Mark 13:32) in which Jesus says, “but of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” and asks if “the office of a New Testament prophet and for that matter a modern-day prophet is not made redundant”. As we have seen already, a prophet’s duty does not consist in only foretelling future events.
His primary duty is to make the will of God known to the people he has been sent to. The inability of the prophets to predict the time of the end should not be held against them. After all, if the angels and Jesus, the Son of God himself, did not know the time of the end, how can we blame prophets for not knowing it?
In the third and final question, Cornelius asks, “Will it not be appropriate to re-designate the people in the New Testament period and in our current time who receive(d) direct messages from the Triune God and who communicate(d) same to God’s people as Seers, Visionaries and Bearers of private revelations rather than Prophets?”
In response to this, it can be argued that a modern-day prophet could also be a seer, a visionary or a bearer of private revelation! The important thing to realize is that no matter what name is used, whatever the person in question comes out with will be termed as “private revelation”.
Private revelations are communications by God to an individual which are not part of divine (“public”) revelation as contained in Scripture which ended with the death of the last apostle. By their nature, private revelations add nothing new to the revelation already given by God to the Church.
Traditionally, church authorities have exercised extreme caution in treating claims of private revelations. Such revelations must be in agreement with the teaching of the Church to be considered authentic. Private revelations may call an individual to preach or live the gospel in a special or unique way; however, this call and its content must be harmonious with the message of the gospel as taught by the Church.
|For further explanations or enquiries, you may contact the author, Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Catholic Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, on this number: 0244488904, or on WhatsApp (with the same number).|