God's Gifts

Tuesday: Prophesying

Romans 12:6-8 In this week’s study, we see that God gives us different gifts, and along with them comes the responsibility to use them to serve the body of Christ.

We know that we have all been given spiritual gifts, but what exactly are these gifts? That is not an easy question to answer, because every time there is a listing of the gifts in the New Testament, the specific items differ. Ephesians 4:11 seems to give the most basic list: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor/teachers. This is the way 1 Corinthians 12:28-30 starts too, but then it moves from what seem to be offices in the church to specific functions like working miracles, healing, helping, administering, tongues and the interpretation of tongues. Romans 12:6-8 has a bit of both. First Peter 4:11 has only “service” and “speaking,” but these two items are categories into which the others fit. 

How many gifts are there? Nineteen are mentioned in the New Testament. But the number is not absolute. Different words may describe the same gift, for example, serving and helping, and there are probably gifts that could be mentioned but are not. In Romans 12 there are seven items, and we’ll look at all of them as the week goes on. 

Prophesying. The first is prophesying. In 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11 this gift comes immediately after and is closely linked to the gift of “apostles.” There were no apostles in the church at Rome at this time, so Paul does not mention “apostles” in the Romans list. 

In our day the word prophecy retains only a shade of its former meaning. It means foretelling the future. But in the Old and New Testaments a prophet is one who speaks the words of God. The Greek word literally means “one who stood in front of another person and spoke for him.” An example is the relationship between Moses and his brother Aaron. Moses was unwilling to accept God’s call to go to Egypt, stand before Pharaoh and demand that he let Israel go, because, as he said, “I have never been eloquent” (Exodus 4:10). God answered that he would send Aaron to speak for him. “You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth…. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him” (vv. 15- 16). Later this is explained by these words: “See I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet” (Exod. 7:1). 

This is the sense in which Abraham is called a prophet in Genesis 20:7, because God spoke to him and he spoke God’s words to other people. It is the same in the New Testament. There seem to have been quite a few such prophets in the early church, so much so that Paul devotes nearly the whole of 1 Corinthians 14 to discussing the gift of prophecy as well as the gift of tongues, which is closely linked to it. From this and other passages it would seem that the prophets were men who spoke under the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit to communicate a doctrine, remind people of a duty or give a warning (cf. Acts 21:10-14). 

Charles Hodge says in his commentary on Romans, 

The point of distinction between them [prophets] and the apostles, considered as religious teachers, appears to have been that the inspiration of the apostles was abiding, they were the infallible and authoritative messengers of Christ; whereas the inspiration of the prophets was occasional and transient. The latter differed from the teachers (didaskaloi), inasmuch as these were not necessarily inspired, but taught to others what they themselves had learned from the Scriptures or from inspired men.1

The gift of prophecy in this sense, like the gift of apostleship, is something that is no longer with the church since, having the completed Old and New Testaments, we no longer need it. The Bible is for us the recorded testimony of these inspired men. 

The really fascinating item in this mention of prophecy is the attached phrase “let him use it in proportion to his faith.” The word translated “proportion” is the word analogia (“analogue” or “analogy”), which has given expositors the important hermeneutical principle known as “the analogy of faith.” This is the only place where these words occur in the Bible, but they have been seen to teach what is usually described as the need to compare one Scripture with another, so that a passage that is clearly understood throws light on one less clear. From this principle derive the additional guidelines of a necessary unity and non-contradiction in the Bible. 

There is some doubt as to whether this is exactly what is meant here. But whatever Paul means, he is implying some control of or limitation on the prophet. The last words of the phrase are literally “the faith” (not “his faith,” as in the NIV). So if “the analogy of the faith” is meant, it would mean that even the prophet is bound by prior revelation. He is not to propound anything contrary to “the faith” that has already been delivered to the saints. We remember that in Galatians 1:8, Paul applied this test both to the apostles and angels, insisting that even they have to conform to the standard of right doctrine: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” 

If this does not refer to the analogy of faith and means only that the prophet is to speak in accordance with the measure of his own personal faith, even so it implies a limitation, because the prophet is not to go beyond what God has given him to speak.2 So here is a contemporary application. If that was true of the ancient prophets, how much more true ought it to be of Bible teachers today. Anyone who is called to teach must be rigidly disciplined so as not to go beyond what God has actually revealed in Scripture. Our task is to expound the whole counsels, but only the whole counsels of God. 

1Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Romans (Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 389. Original edition 1935. 

2There is an excellent, balanced treatment of the ways this phrase can be understood in John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1968), vol. 2, 122-123.

Study Questions
  1. How many gifts are mentioned in the New Testament? Why is it difficult to know for sure?
  2. What is the gift of prophecy?
  3. Why aren’t there prophets today?
  4. What is the meaning of the prophet using his gift “in proportion to his faith”?
  5. What is the application of this principle for us today?

Reflection: Review the lists of spiritual gifts in the following passages: Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:28-30; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:11. How do you see these gifts in Christians you know? How are they a help and encouragement to you?

Prayer: Give thanks to God for the way the body of Christ works, and for the spiritual gifts He gives all believers. Ask that your own spiritual gift(s) would be increasingly used to help the body of Christ.

For Further Study: Download for free and read James Boice’s booklet, “How to Identify and Use Your Spiritual Gifts.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)

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