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And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2 ESV)

What does Paul mean by having "prophetic powers"?


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"prophecy" in the new testament (and I would also argue in the old testament) is a spiritual gift allowing the person to reveal what is hidden. In the Old Testament, it was only associated to making predictions because prophets were to be tested to see if their predictions came true, so predictions were made in order to certify the message of the prophet, but the point of prophecy was never about making predictions.

To see this, consider Jesus and the Samaritan woman, in John 4:17-30:

The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.

The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet [..] Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did

In other words, Jesus didn't predict anything, but he saw what was hidden, and the woman called him a prophet. This is especially significant because the Samaritans differed from the jews by believing that only someone as good or greater than Moses can be another prophet - which is why they rejected all the nevim texts in the MT as they did not consider any of those true prophets.

As another example, we can turn directly to Paul:

1 Cor 14:23-25

If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?

But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.

This is exactly what happened with the woman at the well -- the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are made manifest as a result of prophecy.

Therefore this is what Paul means by the "gift of prophecy" - the revelation of things hidden. And so it's clear why these will pass away, as when all hidden things are revealed, then there is no more prophecy.

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"Prophetic powers" is a most unfortunate and misleading translation by the ESV. "Powers" implies an innate ability - no such word appears in the Greek. Here is my very literal translation of 1 Cor 13:2

καὶ ἐὰν ἔχω προφητείαν καὶ εἰδῶ τὰ μυστήρια πάντα καὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γνῶσιν, καὶ ἐὰν ἔχω πᾶσαν τὴν πίστιν ὥστε ὄρη μεθιστάναι, ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω, οὐθέν εἰμι. = And if I should have prophecy and understand all the mysteries, and all the knowledge, and if I should have all the faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

Again, note that "powers" is completely absent from the text. However, most versions usually add one extra word to help clarify the meaning which is usually taken from the last four verses of 1 Cor 12

28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, and those with gifts of healing, helping, administration, and various tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.

Thus, most versions render 1 Cor 13:2 something similar to:

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (NIV)

The Gift of prophecy is the supernatural gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit that makes a person a prophet in the sense of directly revealing God's will or message.

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