10 Things You Should Know about the Difference between Prophecy and Preaching
A view frequently advocated by cessationists is that the spiritual gift of prophecy in the NT is largely identical with preaching. This is the position advocated, for example, by John MacArthur (and to a certain extent by J. I. Packer). One wonders what the motivation is behind this argument. I suspect that it is due, at least in part, to the discomfort that many cessationists feel with the idea of spontaneous revelation from the Holy Spirit in the present day. In any case, this provides the cessationist with the ability to affirm that prophecy is still valid insofar as it does not entail any revelatory work of the Spirit but is essentially indistinguishable from preaching.
There are numerous reasons why this view is untenable. Below I identify ten of them. But before we dive into those arguments, we should define prophecy. If it is not identical with preaching, what is it?
I would define prophecy as the speaking forth in merely human words something the Holy Spirit has sovereignly and spontaneously revealed to a believer. Prophecy, therefore, is not based on a hunch, a supposition, an inference, an educated guess, or even on sanctified wisdom. Prophecy is not based on personal insight, intuition, or illumination. Prophecy is the human report of a divine revelation. This is what distinguishes prophecy from teaching. Teaching/Preaching is always based on a text of Scripture. Prophecy is always based on a spontaneous revelation.
Here, then, are ten reasons why prophecy is not the same as preaching.
(1) First, in Acts 2 Peter, quoting Joel, declares that prophecy is the direct result of revelatory visions and dreams and is the experience of young and old, both male and female. Peter is quite clear: the work of the Holy Spirit in the age of the New Covenant is characterized by revelatory dreams and visions on the basis of which God’s people prophesy.
(2) Second, in Acts 13:1-2 we are told that there were in Antioch both “prophets and teachers” (v. 1). If all teaching/preaching is an expression of prophecy, this seems odd. In other words, there would be no basis for differentiating between teaching/preaching, on the one hand, and prophecy on the other. And yet Luke clearly differentiates between the two.
(3) Third, in Acts 21 Luke refers to four daughters of Philip, all of whom had the gift of prophecy. So, are we to conclude that his daughters regularly preached in the local church of which they were a part?
(4) Fourth, in 1 Corinthians 14:6 Paul differentiates between “revelation” and “knowledge” and “prophecy” and “teaching.” Again, this seems strange if all prophetic speech is identical with preaching and teaching.
(5) Fifth, again, in 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul describes how Christians are to approach the corporate gathering of the local church. “Each one,” says Paul, “has a hymn, a lesson [lit., a teaching], a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” Here he clearly differentiates between a “teaching” and a “revelation”. The former is based on a biblical text while the latter is the basis for prophecy.
(6) Sixth, in 1 Corinthians 14:29-30 he explicitly says that prophecy is based on a spontaneous revelation from the Spirit. Teaching/preaching, on the other hand, is the exposition and application of a biblical text.
(7) Seventh, yet again in Ephesians 4:11, Paul differentiates between “prophets” and “pastors and teachers” or more likely “pastor-teachers.” Why would he do this if the two were identical?
(8) In 1 Timothy 1:18 Paul says something that strongly suggests that prophecy is the report or exhortation or encouragement given by one individual to another for the latter’s edification. The apostle encourages Timothy to draw upon the prophecies spoken over him as a way to “wage the good warfare” (1 Tim. 1:18).
(9) And in 1 Timothy 4:14 Paul urges him not to neglect the gift he has that was given to him “by prophecy” when the council of elders laid hands on him. In both of these texts from 1 Timothy it seems clear that a prophetic word was spoken directly and personally to Timothy. It seems highly unlikely that Paul had in mind a formal preaching of a biblical text that was addressed to everyone present.
(10) Then, of course, there are those instances in Acts that, although not explicitly called prophecies, appear to be such. I have in mind things such as Peter’s supernaturally given knowledge about the sin of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), the revelation from the Spirit that Paul and Barnabas were to be set apart for missionary service (Acts 13:1-3), Paul’s awareness that a paralyzed man had faith to be healed (Acts 14:8-10), the counsel given to Paul by disciples at Tyre (Acts 21:4), and the word given to Paul by Agabus (Acts 21:7-14).
Thus, preaching/teaching is grounded in an inspired text. Prophecy is the fruit of a spontaneous revelation. People may “learn” (1 Cor. 14:31) from prophecy no less than from preaching, but the fact that the results of each may be identical does not mean the roots are.