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In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul often speaks about prophesy (προφητεύητε) as one among the skills, members of the community may have; I cite some passages:

1 Corinthians 11:4 Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head, 5 but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonours her head -- it is the same as if her head were shaven.

1 Corinthians 12:8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

1 Corinthians 12:28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? 29 Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?

1 Corinthians 14:1 Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, he who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless some one interprets, so that the church may be edified. 6 Now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?

In the Jewish tradition, a prophet (נביא) was in first place a person conveying the Message of God to his people, sometimes predicting the future. In pagan Greek tradition, a prophet (προφήτος) was also someone who was said to have connections to the deities, mainly for prediction of the future. At least in the Jewish context, as we know, a prophet was an extraordinary person, not a person you may find here and there in the community.

What skill did Paul mean by prophesy/προφητεύητε?

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  • Hi Dflat, biblically speaking people have their own spirit and they can have spirits within them. Jesus cast out many spirits from people. Spirits when they are in a person they can do a couple of things. When believers receive the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit has a connection to the Son who has a connection to the Father. I believe the Holy Spirit inside the believer gives the believer spirit/mind words and/or a person filled with the Holy Spirit will be taken over by the Holy Spirit to declare things. I also believe the Holy Spirit can give people imagery or even smells for the serving of
    – user35803
    Mar 30, 2021 at 0:44
  • the Lord. In general I believe that's what it means.
    – user35803
    Mar 30, 2021 at 0:46
  • I also had this question without being able to answer. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/24777/… concerns this topic but does not answer this question.
    – Jeschu
    Mar 30, 2021 at 11:14
  • Related: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/54296/38524
    – user38524
    Mar 30, 2021 at 16:49
  • i corrected a misspelling in the title so that it speaks of the noun "prophecy" not the verb "prophesy." Sep 11, 2022 at 0:16

2 Answers 2

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Paul's concept of prophecy differs somewhat from the traditional Jewish idea. For Paul, prophecy was not public but was to be done for believers. Prophets were normal members of his churches rather solitary figures who spoke truth to power. They were gifted, to be sure, but their prophecies were sometimes imperfect. There is no sense in Paul's writings that prophecy served to effect major course corrections or provide key teachings in the church. That was the function of apostles, of whom Paul was perhaps the most influential example.

Paul taught that prophecy is for the church, not outsiders.

prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. (1 Corinthians 14:22)

Paul may be thinking here that the church is the "new Israel," so prophets should direct their message only to the church. However in the Hebrew Bible, prophets directed their messages outside the boundaries of the people of God. Jonah famously prophesied to the Ninevites to good effect, and numerous other prophets issued oracles against various enemy nations. Elijah directly confronted Ahab, and other prophets prophesied in the courts of both good and bad kings. Thus we can say that Paul's concept of prophecy seems to have been less public than traditional Jewish prophecy, and he did not conceive of Christian prophecy as speaking "truth to power" as OT prophets did. (However, it should be noted that that Paul's statement about "outsiders" was addressed to the particular situation at Corinth, where he was concerned that visitors to the church would be disturbed by prophetic utterances. We may also wonder if Paul's own public preaching at various synagogues and public squares might be considered a form of prophecy in his view.)

Prophecy was a gift of the Spirit, but but prophets were normal church members

Another difference is that for Paul, prophets were apparently not extraordinary people as in Jewish tradition. At Corinth, there were so many of them that Paul felt the need to suggest they take turns and not interrupt one another.

Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. (1 Cor: 14:29-33)

It is true that in early Israelite prophecy there were bands of prophets, so we cannot say for certain that prophecy was exactly rare in those times. The Bible also reports that one hundred prophets were hidden them from Jezebel (1 Kings 18:4). But at the Corinth, which boasted a relatively small Christian church, there appear to have been many prophets. These prophets gave their messages in small meetings in private homes, not large public buildings. Their words were not recorded as in the Hebrew Bible. No prophet in Paul's churches wrote books of prophecy akin to those of Isaiah, Ezekiel or Jeremiah, or even the minor prophets. The only example of written Christian prophecy that we have is that of John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation, which was unknown to Paul.

In terms of the "skill" involved here, Paul characterized prophecy as gift of the spirit. Like all such gifts its purpose was to edify the church as the Body of Christ in conjunction with other "members" such as apostles, teachers, administrators, healers, miracle workers, administrators, etc. But prophets did predict the future. We can presume they also performed other prophetic functions such as admonishing the church, bringing messages of comfort, warnings, teaching and judgment. We do not have clear examples from Paul's own writings, but Christian prophets do appear in Acts, where some of these functions are described.

Prophecy in Paul's understanding was imperfect

We can also derive some insight about Paul's ideas about prophecy by his statement in 1 Cor. 13:

...as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.

Paul seems to have believed that even imperfect prophecies were still Christian prophecy. A true prophecy would be known in time, buy is fruits. This is not completely dissimilar to Jewish prophecy, as we learn from Deuteronomy:

when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him. (18:22)

To summarize: For Paul, prophecy was not extraordinary. Prophecies were common occurrences in church meetings. The prophetic gift was ranked lower than that of the apostles but higher than teachers. Its purpose was to minister to the church for its edification, rather than to speak out publicly to correct the behavior of kings, public officials, cities or nations. Paul's churches left no written record of their individual prophets' ministries or oracles. According to Paul, Christian prophecies, though often inspired by the spirit, were sometimes "imperfect" and would "pass away." We can conclude that when Paul spoke of prophecy, he had in mind a less lasting and absolute type of prophecy than was recorded in the OT reports of the prophets' ministries, as well as the OT books of prophecy.

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Even in the Jewish tradition, besides the major and minor prophets whose names were attached to some books of the OT, there was a class of relatively unknown prophets.

1 Samuel 10:

9As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart, and all these signs were fulfilled that day. 10When he and his servant arrived at Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he joined in their prophesying. 11When all those who had formerly known him saw him prophesying with the prophets, they asked each other, “What is this that has happened to the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?”

  1. There is a company of relatively unknown prophets.

  2. Saul prophesied but he was not formally a prophet.

2 Kings 2 mentions some more instances of such a class of prophets:

3a The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

5a The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

7 Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan.

Even though this class of prophets was relatively unknown, they were not ordinary people:

15 The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.”

They saw spiritual realities.

What skill did Paul mean by prophesy/προφητεύητε?

When a person was enabled by the Spirit to observe spiritual realities, he prophesied.

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