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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Various Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Don Stewart :: Were the New Testament Prophetic Messages Given without Error?

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Were the New Testament Prophetic Messages Given without Error?

The Various Gifts of the Holy Spirit – Question 10

There is a question as to whether the messages given by New Testament prophets were error-free. The traditional view is that when the prophets spoke forth the Word of God, they did so in an inerrant manner – the Lord directed every detail.

However, there is another view that does not understand their prophetic words as being completely without error. This perspective believes that the message of the prophets was a mixture of truth and error. It is up to Christians to help separate the true from the false.

What does the Bible have to say about this issue?

The Case for New Testament Prophecies Containing Truth Mixed with Error

There is the viewpoint that when New Testament prophets spoke their messages contained a mixture of truth and error. The following observations can be made concerning those who hold this view.

The Prophetic Message Was to Be Evaluated

We know that the people were commanded to evaluate each prophetic message. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.

Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:20, 21 NLT).

The people in the congregation were to test the messages. Indeed, they were to test everything which was said.

Paul emphasized the same thing to the church at Corinth – the people were to weigh carefully what was said by the prophets.

Let two or three prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said (1 Corinthians 14:29 NLT)

The messages from these people were not to be blindly accepted.

The People Were to Test the Details, Not the Message

It is argued that the believers in each local assembly were to listen to prophecies and then judge what was true and what was not. Therefore, it was up to the people in each congregation to separate the true from the false. This is what Paul meant by judging what was said.

Paul said, “Test all things.” This includes every detail of the prophecy. Paul also said to, “hold fast to that which is good.” This assumes that some parts of the message were not from the Lord.

Therefore, when people are prophesying today in the name of the Lord, the believers in the local assembly are to determine which part of the message is true and which part is not. There is truth mixed with error.

The New Testament Prophets Were Not Equivalent to the Old Testament Prophets

This perspective sees a difference between the New Testament prophets and the Old Testament prophets. The Spirit of God infallibly directed the words of the Old Testament prophets. There is no doubt about this. However, this is not the case with the New Testament prophets.

The fact that Paul could tell the believers to “test everything” that these prophet said and to “hold on only to that which was good,” shows the difference between them and the prophets of the Old Testament. No biblical writer dared question the authority of anything that was said by an Old Testament prophet.

There is something else. During the Old Testament age, if someone prophesied falsely in the name of the Lord, God ordered that person to be put to death. We have no such command for the New Testament prophets. This is because their words did not carry the same authority.

It Was the Apostles, Not the Prophets Who Composed the Scripture

The men who composed the New Testament were not the prophets – rather they were the apostles. It was to them alone that Jesus made special promises about being guided into “all truth.” They had the authority to teach doctrine, to be the leaders in the church, and to write Holy Scripture. Their written words were infallible.

However, the same guarantee cannot be made with those who were New Testament prophets. While they spoke forth the Word of God, there was no assurance that the end result would be error-free. This is why all of their words needed evaluating by the local assembly of believers.

Modern Day Prophecies Also Contain Truth Mixed with Error

The fact that the New Testament prophets gave a message of truth mixed with error has important ramifications for the church today. Indeed, when people exercise the gift of prophecy we should not expect everything they say to be infallible. Rather, mature Christians in each assembly of believers should carefully weigh and evaluate everything that they say – they are not to be blindly followed because they have the gift of prophecy.

In addition, those with the gift of distinguishing of spirits have the God-given ability to separate the truth from error. Their gift should be used in the evaluation of modern-day prophecies within the church.

An Example of Truth Mixed with Error: Agabus

There is also an example of a New Testament prophet predicting something which did not exactly come to pass as he said it would.

While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 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’” (Acts 21:10-11 ESV).

We find that this did not happen exactly as Agabus predicted. While the prediction was basically fulfilled as he said, Paul was arrested in Jerusalem. However, it was the Romans, not the Jews who carried this out.

This illustration shows that New Testament prophets could be incorrect in some of their details while being correct in their general content. Again, it is stressed that this would never have happened with the words of an Old Testament prophet.

Furthermore, the fact that Paul ignored the prediction by Agabus and went to Jerusalem shows that these words were not meant to be accepted on the same level as the words of the Old Testament prophets.

There Are New Testament Prophets Today

Those who hold this position usually assume that there are New Testament prophets today. However, they, like their counterparts, do not have the infallible ability to speak forth the Word of the Lord. This is why it is crucial for their words to be evaluated by the leaders of the local assembly.

This sums up the case for the continued existence of New Testament prophets who give their message of truth mixed with error.

The Case for the Prophecies Being Error-Free

Traditionally, it has been assumed that the New Testament prophets were similar to the Old Testament prophets with respect to the content of their message – it was without error.

This perspective holds that it was the prophecies and the prophets that were judged, not the various details of each prophetic message. In other words, the judgment was to separate the true prophets from the false, not to judge each detail of the words of the genuine prophets. The arguments for this viewpoint are as follows.

Each Assembly Had a Number of Prophets Who Spoke

To begin with, it seems that each assembly of believers had a number of prophets who gave messages to the group. Paul, when writing to the Corinthians, limited the number of these prophets who could speak to two or three per meeting. He wrote.

Let two or three prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said (1 Corinthians 14:29 NLT)

This indicates that more than one person could speak forth the prophetic word at a particular gathering.

When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians he also spoke of a plurality of prophets. He explained it this way.

Do not despise the words of prophets (1 Thessalonians 5:20 NRSV).

Therefore, in each case, more than one prophet was giving a prophetic message during the meeting. Instead of Paul commanding the churches to sort out the truth from error in each prophecy, he is commanding the believers to judge among the various prophets and their prophecies that they would hear. In other words, some prophecies were God-given while others were not. The leaders were to separate the true from the false prophecies.

The New Testament Emphasizes Distinguishing the True Prophet from the False

This is consistent with the rest of the New Testament. We find a number of places where believers were warned to be aware of false prophets and their message of deceit. John wrote about distinguishing between true prophets and false prophets.

Dear friends, do not believe everyone who claims to speak by the Spirit. You must test them to see if the spirit they have comes from God. For there are many false prophets in the world. This is the way to find out if they have the Spirit of God: If a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ became a human being, that person has the Spirit of God. If a prophet does not acknowledge Jesus, that person is not from God. Such a person has the spirit of the Antichrist. You have heard that he is going to come into the world, and he is already here. But you belong to God, my dear children. You have already won your fight with these false prophets, because the Spirit who lives in you is greater than the spirit who lives in the world. These people belong to this world, so they speak from the world’s viewpoint, and the world listens to them. But we belong to God; that is why those who know God listen to us. If they do not belong to God, they do not listen to us. That is how we know if someone has the Spirit of truth or the spirit of deception (1 John 4:1-6 NLT).

There is a simple test that is to be applied to anyone who claims to speak for God. The true prophet acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ, the genuine Messiah. Those who deny that Jesus is the Messiah cannot be authentic prophets of God.

Earlier, Jesus had warned about false prophets and their words. In the Sermon on the Mount, He gave the following words of warning.

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20 NASB).

They will disguise themselves as true prophets in an attempt to deceive. Consequently, believers must always be on guard.

Paul had earlier warned the Corinthians about people prophesying falsely. He explained it in this manner.

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3 NRSV). Nobody can call Jesus accursed if the Lord is speaking through them.

Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, also warned about false words that claim to be from the Lord.

Please don’t be so easily shaken and troubled by those who say that the day of the Lord has already begun. Even if they claim to have had a vision, a revelation, or a letter supposedly from us, don’t believe them (2 Thessalonians 2:2 NLT).

Paul had a concern about false prophecy which was circulating in the churches. Hence the command was given to the elders to discern the true from the false.

They Used the Same Criteria in Evaluating Prophecy as Did the Old Testament Believers

There is something else. The New Testament believers used the same standard as their Old Testament counterparts when evaluating prophecies. They include the following.

The Content of the Prophecy Was Evaluated – Was It a Message from the Lord?

The believers were supposed to evaluate if the content of the prophecy was from the Lord or from another source. We read in Deuteronomy about the difference between God’s Words and the words of false prophets.

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the LORD your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. That prophet or dreamer must be put to death, because he preached rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery; he has tried to turn you from the way the LORD your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you (Deuteronomy 13:1-5 NIV).

It is clear that the Old Testament prophets did not ever prophesy falsely in the name of the Lord. Again, we read in Deuteronomy.

But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.” You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him (Deuteronomy 18:20-22 NIV).

The penalty was death for a false prophet. This fact that these prophets who spoke in the falsely name of the Lord were to be put to death demonstrates how important God’s words were to Him. Indeed, the Lord does not tolerate false prophets in the midst of believers.

The Character of the Prophet Was Evaluated – Was It Consistent with His Office?

The conduct of the prophet had to be consistent with their message. In the days of Jeremiah, the Lord spoke out against the prophets of Jerusalem.

For the land is full of adultery, and it lies under a curse. The land itself is in mourning—its pastures are dried up. For the prophets do evil and abuse their power. The priests are like the prophets, all ungodly, wicked men. I have seen their despicable acts right here in my own Temple, says the LORD. Therefore, their paths will be dark and slippery. They will be chased down dark and treacherous trails, where they will fall. For I will bring disaster upon them when their time of punishment comes. I, the LORD, have spoken! I saw that the prophets of Samaria were terribly evil, for they prophesied by Baal and led my people of Israel into sin. But now I see that the prophets of Jerusalem are even worse! They commit adultery, and they love dishonesty. They encourage those who are doing evil instead of turning them away from their sins. These prophets are as wicked as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah once were. Therefore, this is what the LORD Almighty says concerning the prophets: “I will feed them with bitterness and give them poison to drink. For it is because of Jerusalem’s prophets that wickedness fills this land” (Jeremiah 23:10-15 NLT).

There are a number of strong denunciations against the character of the false prophets. These prophets were evil people who had abused their power. They are called adulterers who love dishonesty, as well as ones who turn people from good to evil. This rebuke of these prophets indicates the importance of a consistent behavior on behalf of those who claim to speak forth God’s words.

How They Received the Revelation Was Also Evaluated – Did They Receive the Message by Godly Means?

It was also important to know the means in which the prophet received the revelation. Certain practices were prohibited for a prophet of God. Moses warned the people that they should not practice heathen ways.

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God. The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so (Deuteronomy 18:9-14 NIV).

It was essential that the message of the Lord was given to the people in the correct manner. In fact, the believers were commanded to reject outright any messages which came from these occultic means. This is not the way the Lord communicates to His people.

Some Had the Gift of Distinguishing between the Spirits

One of the spiritual gifts which was given to the church was the ability to distinguish among the spirits. Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians about this particular gift.

He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and to another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to know whether it is really the Spirit of God or another spirit that is speaking. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, and another is given the ability to interpret what is being said (1 Corinthians 12:10 NLT).

This gift helped separate the true prophets from the false ones.

These criteria were used by the church in determining if the prophecies had their source in the Spirit of God or if they were from some other source.

How Can Anyone Be Certain What Is True?

There would also have been a practical problem which would arise if it was the details of the prophecy, and not the prophecy itself, that was being judged. What if the members of the church did not agree among themselves as to which part of the prophecy is true and which part is error? Who then decides? Do they take a vote and the majority wins? Or does it have to be two thirds of the people who agree on the details? As we clearly see, there are enormous practical problems with this position of attempting to evaluate each and every word of the prophet.

Agabus Did Not Prophesy Incorrectly

This brings us to the situation with the New Testament prophet Agabus. While it is argued that his prediction of Paul’s arrest contained truth mixed with error such is not the case. His emphasis is that the Jewish religious leaders would cause Paul’s arrest. This is exactly what happened. The fact that the Romans took Paul into custody is not the point. The point of the prediction is that Paul will be arrested if he decided to go to Jerusalem and that this arrest will be at the instigation of the Jewish religious leaders.

In fact, Paul later explained that this is exactly what happened to him. We read.

After three days he [Paul] called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans (Acts 28:17 ESV).

Paul stressed that was delivered as a prisoner at the instigation of the Jews at Jerusalem. This is exactly the thrust of the prediction by Agabus.

Furthermore, we are told of an earlier prediction by Agabus which did come to pass exactly as given. The Bible says.

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius) (Acts 11:27, 28 ESV).

The fact that this first prediction came to pass exactly as given certainly infers that his other prediction was also viewed as being fulfilled as predicted.

There is one more thing which should be stressed. Agabus introduced his prophetic words with the phrase, “These things the Holy Spirit says.” This formula is the same one Jesus used in His words to the churches as recorded in the Book of Revelation! Thus, accusing Agabus of error, the prophet of God, one is also accusing the Holy Spirit of error! Certainly no Bible-believer wants to do this.

The Gift of Prophecy May Not Still Exist in the Church

There is something else. Many Christians believe that the gift of prophecy no longer exists in the church. The gift was only given to the church on a temporary basis until the New Testament was completed. Once the Scriptures were complete, then God withdrew the gift.

Therefore, according to this perspective, any discussion about the exact nature of the New Testament gift of prophecy is not relevant for the church today seeing that the gift has been withdrawn.

Conclusion on the Possibility of Error in New Testament Prophetic Messages

This is a brief summation of some of the arguments which are used to claim that prophetic messages were either error-free or truth mixed with error. There are good Bible-believers which hold each of these positions.

However, the traditional view, that the New Testament prophets spoke God’s infallible truth when exercising the gift of prophecy is certainly more consistent with the evidence.

Summary – Question 10
Were the New Testament Prophetic Messages Given without Error?

There is a difference of opinion among Christians as to whether New Testament prophets spoke with absolute accuracy. Some feel their messages were basically true but that the details may contain errors. Others believe that the entire message was from the Lord. Therefore it cannot contain any errors.

Those who see errors in the messages of the New Testament prophets argue as follows.

The prophetic words given in the churches were to be evaluated. This refers to the details of the message – not the truth of the message itself. The prophets gave messages of truth mixed with error. While the general content may have been true the details of their predictions had to be evaluated.

The New Testament prophets while successors to the Old Testament prophets, were not the equivalent to them. Indeed, these New Testament prophets who could not write or speak error in the name of the Lord. It was the apostles that were the equivalent of the Old Testament prophets – their messages were always error-free.

Consequently all modern day prophecies are a combination of truth and error. The people in each assembly of believers are called to separate the true from the false. Those with the gift of distinguishing of spirits should be relied upon to help sort out what is from the Lord and what is not.

An example of a prediction of truth mixed with error comes from the New Testament prophet Agabus. He correctly predicted that Paul would be arrested if he went to Jerusalem but incorrectly said that it would be the Jews who bound him over. The Book of Acts records that the Romans did this. This illustrates the fallibility of New Testament prophets.

Consequently, it is argued that the gift of prophecy remains in the church but New Testament prophets do not infallibly speak God’s Word.

This view has been vigorously challenged. The traditional position is that the New Testament prophets, like their Old Testament counterparts, could not speak a message from the Lord that contained errors. The following points are usually made in response to the truth mixed with error idea.

It is argued that Paul is not advocating testing each detail of a prophecy but rather the prophecy itself. This is because each church had a number of prophets who spoke. Some of them were genuine prophets while others were not. The leaders in the church were to decide if the message, not each detail, was from the Lord. This is consistent with the rest of the New Testament where believers are warned about false prophets.

Furthermore, the New Testament believers would have used the same criteria that were used in the Old Testament to evaluate a prophet’s message.

First, the content of the message was evaluated to see if it was a message from the Lord. The message of the prophet could not contradict anything that had been previously revealed.

In addition, the conduct of the prophet had to be consistent with their message. Indeed, a prophet must be someone who lived consistently with his calling.

Finally, the prophet was not to use non-biblical methods of receiving their revelation. Any so-called prophet who used occultic means to receive his message was to be marked out as a false prophet. God did not speak to His people in this manner.

Those in the early church who had the gift of distinguishing between the spirits could evaluate if the message of the prophet was truly from the Lord.

There is something else which must be considered. To say that the local church must still evaluate the details of each prophetic message is difficult, if not impossible to enforce. There are no provisions given in the New Testament of what to do when the believers cannot agree on what details are from the Lord and which ones are not.

The example of Agabus does not prove that New Testament prophets gave messages of truth mixed with error. Indeed, his prophecy was correct; Paul was arrested in Jerusalem. The fact that the Romans were the ones who bound him is not relevant because his arrest was at the instigation of the Jewish religious leaders. As Agabus had predicted, they were the cause for his arrest. Thus, we do not have an example of truth mixed with error in his prediction. In fact, the Apostle Paul, when later commenting on this event, confirmed the substance of the prophecy of Agabus.

Finally, many believers believe this discussion is irrelevant for today. The gift of prophecy was removed from the church once the apostles died and the New Testament was written.

While there are Bible-believers who hold each of these positions the traditional understanding of New Testament prophecy, that God spoke infallibly through His prophets, is the view which is best supported by Scripture. Indeed, when the Lord spoke His prophetic Word through His chosen spokesmen He did not mumble or stutter but rather spoke clearly and accurately.

What Is the Gift of Prophecy? ← Prior Section
What Rules Does the New Testament Give for Prophesying at a Worship Service? Next Section →
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