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Commentary: How to Tell the Difference Between a Prophet and a Crank

On the day the church went public, it was laughed at. A noisy rabble was spilling out into the streets of Jerusalem, declaring the works of God in all kinds of languages, and while some responded with genuine amazement, others simply ridiculed it: “They have had too much wine” (Acts 2:13). Peter, famously, answered their snark in two ways. He pointed out the time of day—“It’s only nine in the morning!”—and he quoted Joel’s prophecy that “your sons and daughters will prophesy” (2:15–17). Prophecy, both old and new, was used to defend the church against the charge of being ridiculous.

These days, in the West at least, the boot is usually on the other foot. For many Christians, prophecy makes the church look more ridiculous, not less. The biblical prophets were a curious bunch of confrontational outsiders, fiery eccentrics, and hairy lefties, and their oracles of judgment and eschatology are much harder to understand than the logical, linear letters we prefer reading. But at least they are in the Bible. Not so with modern “prophets,” who are either political activists in disguise, perpetual protesters overdosed on Amos, or maverick charismatics who make outlandish claims and even more outlandish salaries. Prophecy, it seems, has fallen on hard times.

What accounts for the difference between Peter’s response (“these people aren’t crazy, they’re prophesying”) and ours (“these people are prophesying, so they are crazy”)? Are we using the word in different ways? Elsewhere, we find that Paul saw no conflict between wanting believers not to “go beyond what is written” and seeing them “eager to prophesy” (1 Cor. 4:6; 14:39). For him, in other words, the pursuit of prophecy did not undermine the sufficiency of Scripture at all. Yet for many today, it does. Are we misconstruing what New Testament prophecy actually was?

Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians. Prophecy is given for “strengthening, encouraging, and comfort” (14:3). It brings unbelievers to a place of conviction and worship (v. 24–25). It should be given in turn, weighed by the church, and eagerly desired by everybody (v. 29–32, 39). Definitions are tricky, but we can at least say that prophecy is Spirit-prompted public speech that reveals God and strengthens the church.

That may seem vague. What about specific examples from the Book of Acts? What might it look like for speech to reveal God and strengthen the church without being written down and added to Scripture?

On the day of Pentecost, prophecy involves “declaring the wonders of God” (Acts 2:11). Subsequently, Agabus foretells a famine, prompting the church to give to the poor (11:27–30); the prophets in Antioch hear the Spirit tell them to send Barnabas and Saul on mission (13:1–3); Judas and Silas encourage and strengthen the churches while delivering a letter (15:30–35); Paul is redirected from Asia to Europe (16:6–10); and Agabus warns that persecution is coming (21:10–14). Sometimes people prophesy without being recorded at all (19:6; 21:9). None of these revelations add anything to the gospel, let alone conflict with Scripture. Instead, they encourage and equip the church to fulfill the mission it already has: serving the poor, building one another up, and reaching the nations.

For a historical illustration, consider the Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon. He writes that on at least a dozen occasions, he felt moved by the Spirit to pause while preaching, point at someone he didn’t know, and describe that person’s situation—so accurately that people left in amazement. He told one shoemaker exactly how much money he had pilfered during the previous week. Yet nobody, least of all Spurgeon himself, thought he was eroding the sufficiency of Scripture. In applying the challenges of Scripture so specifically to people’s hearts, he bore witness to its truthfulness and glorified the God who inspired it.

We can argue about whether this aligns with the New Testament definition of “prophecy.” Personally, I think it fits the descriptions in Acts and Paul’s letters beautifully. But hopefully the phenomenon itself—of Spirit-prompted insight that exposes the hearts of unbelievers, builds up the church, and reveals the presence of God—is something we can agree on. We might even get back to eagerly desiring it.

Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and author of Echoes of Exodus (Crossway). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.

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