Of course, we know from scripture that the earliest assemblies included prophecy and speaking in tongues. 1 Cor 11 and 14 are quite clear on this point. It’s been traditionally taught (not just just in the Churches of Christ) that the New Testament prophets were given to fill the gap created by the New Testament not being yet complete. Congregations were equipped with prophets who taught doctrine and such until the canon was completed, and then the gift of prophecy was no longer needed.
Nice theory. Zero scripture to support it. In fact, the scriptures plainly contradict it! After all, no congregation had more prophecy that the church at Corinth. 1 Corinthians is likely the oldest book in the New Testament. But the Corinthian church was filled with prophecy — even the women prophesied in church (chapter 11!) — and the assemblies were evidently filled with so many prophecies that the problem was they kept interrupting each other! — so why did they need Paul to begin writing the New Testament by sending them his first preserved epistle? If the prophets filled in for the missing New Testament, why did Paul have to write them two letters?
Just so, the churches in Rome and in Ephesus had prophets, and yet Paul needed to write them letters. Why? Why did the Romans not already know about faith and works? Why did the Ephesians not already know about marriage and the Spirit?
Must a prophet speak like Isaiah?
The problem is that we assume that “prophet” means someone like Isaiah or Jeremiah or Moses or David. And yet it’s clear that the word had a much, much broader meaning. It certainly could include such men, but it could also include Agabus —
(Act 21:10-14 ESV) 10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 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.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”
The apostle refused to honor the warning of the prophet Agabus. It would have been unthinkable to reject the word of a Moses or an Isaiah. Obviously, Agabus was of a lower prophetic station. In fact, Agabus wasn’t entirely accurate —
The prophecy was not fulfilled in so many words: although the Jews seized Paul, they did not hand him over to the Romans, but rather the Romans rescued him from them, while keeping him in custody.
I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 5; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 359-360.
(There are literary reasons for Agabus to have spoken as he did. He creates a strong parallel with the passion of Jesus. But he was not strictly accurate.)
Must prophecy be at the level of scripture?
Another mistake often made with regard to prophecy is to assume that prophecy always carries the same authority as scripture — which is surely a form of prophecy but not the only form. After all, the countless prophecies uttered by the Corinthian prophets were not written down nor were they sufficient to counsel the church to reform its many errors.
In Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians, 12-14, D. A. Carson argues that the semantic range of “prophet” in the First Century was much broader than in earlier times, so much so that Paul could refer to Epimenides of Crete as a “prophet” when quoting his saying, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Tit 1:12 ESV) from the Sixth Century B.C.
In Acts 2, Peter refers to the apostles’ speaking in tongues as fulfilling Joel’s promise that the Spirit would be outpoured so that men and women would “prophesy.”
In Acts 21:10 ff, Agabus, called a prophet, warns Paul not to go to Jerusalem, and Paul refuses to honor the prophet’s instructions. It’s unimaginable that a godly man would have rejected the instructions of a prophet on the order of, say, an Isaiah or Jeremiah.
Throughout the Old Testament, we read of “prophecy” that sounds a lot like ecstatic speech, perhaps the same as tongues. For example,
(1Sa 19:20-24 ESV) 20 Then Saul sent messengers to take David, and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. 21 When it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they also prophesied. And Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also prophesied. 22 Then he himself went to Ramah and came to the great well that is in Secu. And he asked, “Where are Samuel and David?” And one said, “Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah.” 23 And he went there to Naioth in Ramah. And the Spirit of God came upon him also, and as he went he prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. 24 And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
When Saul stripped himself naked, lay on the ground, and spoke words of prophecy, he was said to be “among the prophets.” This would seem to demonstrate that he was acting as prophets sometimes acted.
And so, the fact is that we can’t be very precise about just what phenomenon was referred to as “prophecy” in the early church. Was it prophecy as Saul prophesied? Or prophecy as Moses or Ezekiel prophesied?
One thing we can know for sure is that today’s preaching and exhortation are not the same thing. Indeed, there was something about prophecy that distinguished it from ordinary speech. Consider the occasion when Moses appointed 70 men to serve as
(Num 11:24-29 ESV) 24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.
26 Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!”
There was something about the speech of Eldad and Medad that made others recognize them as prophets. But we are never told what it was.
But just as is true in Numbers 11 and 1 Corinthians 12-14, to be able to prophesy was considered a good and holy thing — something to be sought and desired.