Mark Taylor captured the imaginations of many a believer in modern-day prophecy with his folksy down-to-earth style and his optimistic please-let-this-be-true political prophecies. Leading into the 2018 midterms, Taylor prophesied “a red tsunami”. Republicans would not only hold the House and Senate but would dominate the Democrats. Two days after the dust of the election has settled, what are we to make of the Taylor prophecies? When my kids demand my attention and then show me something ridiculous or silly, I like to watch and respond with a little deadpan humor, simply saying “not impressed” as I turn back to my business. They like when I do that. But when Mark Taylor demands our attention, especially after what he’s shown us so far, we can collectively say without much affection, “NOT IMPRESSED” and move on. Taylor doesn’t deserve another minute of our attention. But does Taylor’s whiff mean that there is no such thing as genuine modern-day prophecy?
For every failed Taylor prophecy, I can give you a successful one from Charles Haddon Spurgeon. In his autobiography, he recounts that on at least 12 occasions, the Spirit gave him a revelation (not through the Bible, but impressed directly onto his mind) that he subsequently spoke forth, and the end result was the edification, encouragement, or consolation of the body of Christ. Spurgeon once pointed to a man in a pew and told him precisely how much profit he had taken the previous Sunday while skipping church to work at his shop. He told another man (as thousands of people listened in) that he was wearing stolen gloves. In each case, the hearts of the sinners were laid bare. They came to repentance. The body of Christ heard the story and was greatly encouraged, and that with a healthy dose of godly fear (Acts 19:17). But Spurgeon testifies that he had no way of knowing the things he said, except that the Spirit of God revealed them spontaneously to his mind.
There are examples of both successes and failures when it comes to modern-day prophecy. Nabeel Qureshi left Islam and embraced Christ after a prophetic dream that proved instrumental. Some later prophecies about him being healed of stomach cancer proved to be failures. Could it be that experiences—whether positive or negative—are not God’s ordained means for answering the question of whether or not there exists this modern-day-prophecy thing?
Every question of faith and practice needs be answered from Scripture Alone. When it comes to this question, an article recently published by Seth Dunn took Deuteronomy 13 and 18 as the rubric through which to process this question. His application to Taylor’s prophecy was telling. “Nope. Didn’t happen. We should (metaphorically) stone him. He speaks presumptuously and is a false prophet”. Dunn is on the right track, because he is looking to Scripture to answer the question. However, he is ignoring the New Testament while wrongly applying the Old.
Deuteronomy 13:5 doesn’t tell us to metaphorically stone anyone. It tells Israel to physically “put to death” any self-attesting prophet whose predictions fail. It doesn’t say to slay him from a pulpit, destroy him with a pen, or kill him softly with a song. It prescribes the literal killing of the false prophet.
The application of the Old Testament to the New Covenant believer needs to be done, but it needs to be done carefully. We’re not ancient Israel, so we don’t stone anybody. But we’re not ancient Israel, so Deuteronomy 13 and 18 shouldn’t be the rubric through which we assess modern-day prophecies. Nope. Shouldn’t happen. We need to carefully exegete the New Testament passages that speak of prophecy and make applications from there.
The New Testament doesn’t say that prophecies have ceased. In fact, in one didactic text, it says “do not despise prophecies” (1 Thessalonians 5:20). In another, it says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1). It even goes on to tell us the purpose of these ongoing prophecies. God’s Word says that “…the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:3). So, it is not as if we lack New Testament light to illuminate for us the answer to this question.
There is a New Covenant form of prophecy that the Spirit of the Living God gives at His discretion that is fundamentally different from Old Testament prophecy. Old Testament prophecy, often preceded by “thus says the Lord” is an authoritative message from God. It is the revealed will of God. It is the 39 books of the Old Testament that carry the same authority as the Biblical writings of the Apostles—the 27 books of the New Testament. But when New Testament authors tell the church to continue to pursue a spiritual gift, “especially that you may prophesy”, they are not telling them to produce anything to compete with their own writings. Those writings had settled and established authority (2 Peter 3:16). New Covenant prophecies are not authoritative or binding in any way.
When a Christian prophesies, the Lord may or may not have been the source. If God wasn’t the source, then it is a false prophecy. That is why we are commanded to “let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29). When God speaks, you don’t weigh what He said. You obey what He said. When Christian prophets speak, there is the possibility of error. So, you weigh what is said. You don’t despise what is said. You weigh it.
The source could be mistaken. Rather than the Spirit of God, the emotions of the Christian (well-intentioned but misguided) might be the source. Or the source could be more sinister.
But there is a second possible place where human fallibility may result in error, and that is in the reporting of the message. Here the problem is not the source, but the delivery. It is possible that a “revelation” (1 Corinthians 14:30) can genuinely be given to the mind of a Christian by the Spirit of God, but when the Christian subsequently speaks about what was impressed upon his mind, he errs in what he says. This seems to be the only consistent explanation for what we have authoritatively given to us in Acts 21-22. This is a narrative portion of Scripture. But as with all Scripture, our interpretation of the text must not contradict anything else the Scripture says about a topic. Furthermore, our interpretation must faithfully follow the author’s train of thought, which in this case belonged to Luke.
In Acts 21, there are three instances of New Covenant prophecy that hit the reader in rapid-fire succession. First, the disciples at Tyre tell Paul NOT to go to Jerusalem, which is very different from what the Spirit told Paul. But they tell him this “through the Spirit” (21:4)! That’s very confusing. Cessationists tend to ignore that Luke speaks only positively of what these disciples were saying. Luke even says they did it “through the Spirit”.
Second, the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist prophesy, but we are not told what they said. It’s very interesting that young females are capable of prophesying under the New Covenant.
Third, Agabus famously ties his hands and feet with Paul’s belt and says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit”. What he goes on to say comes true in a general sense, but errs in two important details. One, it turns out the Jews do not bind Paul. The Romans do, which becomes an issue for the tribune who did it (Acts 22:22-30). The text makes the point of who did the binding, and it was not the Jews as Agabus foretold. Two, the Jews do not “deliver him” into the hands of the Gentiles. The greek word for “deliver him” (paradōsousin) conveys the idea of surrendering into the custody of another. It doesn’t mean that another forces you to stop beating someone and takes that person away from you. It means that you turn them over. These were the only two things Agabus prophesied—the Jews do the binding, and they “deliver” Paul to the Gentiles—but, in point of fact, both of Agabus’ prophecies were technically wrong.
The hard thing about Acts 21 is that Luke does not present the prophecies as wrong, failed, hurtful, shameful, or in any negative light. Luke certainly does not go to Deuteronomy 13 or 18 and make application from there! In fact, Luke tells us that the disciples at Tyre knelt and prayed with Paul on the beach. It is a beautiful scene, as if Paul was quite comforted and consoled by their love. The children were there saying goodbye to Uncle Paul. There was no stoning—metaphorical or otherwise—taking place on the beach. Likewise, the prophets of Caesarea evidently remain in good standing.
So, the answer to our original question cannot be that God no longer gives prophecies, because—consistent with the didactic material of the New Testament—Luke recounts that He does. And errors cannot be regarded in the same way they were to be regarded under the Old Covenant.
So then, how do we tie this all together? First, the disciples of Tyre spoke “through the Spirit”, which is good. It seems evident that they genuinely saw a revelation in their minds of Paul beaten, bleeding and under arrest. They lovingly appeal for him not to go. They want to change the course of the future. They want him to sail off toward Tarsus and away from “Ninevah”. But therein was their human error. In the reporting of what they saw, they prescribed a course that was opposite “the will of the Lord” (Acts 21:14).
New Covenant prophecy is prone to error in that human reporting of a Spirit-given revelation can be an intermingling of human emotion/willfulness and that which came from the Spirit. The disciples at Tyre were right in what they saw in their mind’s eye, but they were wrong in what they said about it. Nevertheless, our text tells us that they spoke “through the Spirit”, so we (the readers) are bound by the text to believe that these disciples were no arch-heretics, deserving of stoning, but were, in fact, genuine. They genuinely spoke in such a way as to edify, encourage, and console Paul. Remember the defined purpose of New Covenant prophecy—1 Corinthians 14:3.
Second, evidently, speaking prophetically—in this sense—is NOT the preaching of the Word on Sunday mornings, because 1 Timothy 2:11-15 limits the authoritative teaching of the Word and the authoritative role of eldership to men only. But 4 daughters of Philip can prophesy. The Bible—being consistent with itself—has a category for prophecy under the New Covenant that is non-authoritative. Otherwise, what these daughters did was in violation of the Biblical prohibition of teaching or exercising authority over men. But Luke presents their prophesying as a good thing. Our takeaway is that all Christians—men, women, and children (Joel 2, Acts 2:17)—should desire to prophesy. We should all ask the Father to give us the Holy Spirit in such a way that His gifting would enable us to speak supernaturally insightful words that edify, encourage, and console other believers. We should not be afraid of speaking. Deuteronomy 18:22 does not properly instill fear in us of a gift that we are told to seek in 1 Corinthians 14:1.
Third, we are to carefully weigh what others say. Agabus saw a genuine revelation from God, and that proved helpful when it prompted Paul to say, “…I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13). But Agabus’ prophecies were not 100% trustworthy. Neither is anything that anyone today says. Only the Bible is 100% trustworthy. So, it is not wrong to weigh prophecies and take edification, encouragement, or consolation from them. But it is wrong to take them as any kind of prescription from God. Live by the Word. Weigh carefully what other Christians speak into your life.
Matt Chandler was consoled by a prophetic word spoken to him that prepared him for his darkest days in his fight against cancer. John Piper spoke a prophetic word that encouraged a woman to start a Bible study on the 34th floor of the IDS building in Minneapolis. I have experienced several such prophetic revelations that edified certain believers. We are not to despise these prophecies. Neither are we to elevate them to a place of authority. The Scripture alone tells us the authoritative revealed will of God. But “pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy”.