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The Need for Discernment
In the New Testament we are told to evaluate prophecies. Apart from the authority given to prophets in the Old Testament and that of the apostles in the New Testament, we have seen that prophecy is sometimes given a lower status in the New Testament. For instance, the Thessalonians were inclined to treat it disrespectfully (1Thessalonians 5:20) and that Paul tries to advance it over tongues in the thinking of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 14:5).
The New Testament does not picture prophets as taking over from the apostles after they died nor does it picture them as the ones, who are in particular, to guard the church against false teaching. Jude admonishes all church members "to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude 3). Not that the gift is without some doctrinal authority, however that authority which is to be used to protect the faithful from doctrinal error does not belong to the gift of prophecy alone but is also given to apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers. (Ephesians 4:11-14)
In contrast to the authority given to the apostles in the New Testament, prophets are to have their prophecies evaluated. Carson has this observation to offer as he contrasts Old and New Testament prophets, "If a prophet speaking in the name of God was shown to be in error, the official sanction was death. But once a prophet is acknowledged as true, there is no trace of repeated checks on the content of his oracles. By contrast, New Testament prophets are to have their oracles carefully weighed (1 Corinthians 14:29; so also 1 Thess. 5:19-21). The word diakrino suggests that the prophecy be evaluated, not simply accepted as totally true or totally false. The presupposition is that any one New Testament prophetic oracle is expected to be mixed in quality, and the wheat must be separated from the chaff. Moreover, there is no hint of
78excommunication as the threatened sanction if the prophet occasionally does not live up to the mark."83
In his footnote Carson agrees with Grudem that the verb used in 1 Corinthians 14:29 which is diakrino translated "weigh carefully" bears "the meaning of sifting, separating, evaluating: whereas the simple form krino is used for judgments where there are clear cut options (guilty or innocent, true or false, right or wrong) and never for evaluative distinction."84
Scholarly Consensus for Evaluation
There is broad consensus among respected scholars for the need to evaluate Christian prophetic messages.85 Although there may be some variation among scholars as to how and who does the evaluation; yet there is basic agreement that the need for evaluation and discernment is important. At the risk of repetition, but because this is such an important point I will quote a few highly respected scholars to show how widespread this point is accepted by scholars who are competent in this subject.
David Aune states: "In several places within his letters Paul directly addresses the subject of evaluating Christian prophecy (1 Thess.5:19-22; 1 Cor. 12:10; 14:29). These references are all-important since they constitute the earliest evidence that Christian prophecy was subject to some form of community control. . . . The injunction to test everything is a general principle; in all circumstances and situations, including that of congregational prophecy, the will of God must be discerned so that the good may be accepted and the evil rejected. . . . Rather than reject prophesying out of hand, Paul recommends that they allow the Spirit of God to speak through prophets and then retain that which is good and profitable and reject that which is regarded as evil and worthless. . . ."86
Max Turner: "Paul knows that congregational prophecy, by contrast, is sometimes so unprepossessing that prophecy as a whole is in danger of being despised (1 Thess. 5:19,20). Both at Thessalonica and at Corinth he demands that congregational prophecy be evaluated—not that it just be accepted totally as true prophecy or rejected totally as false prophecy (as in the Old Testament, according to Grudem). The presupposition is that any one New Testament prophetic oracle is expected to be mixed in quality, and the wheat must be separated from
the chaff. The one prophesying may genuinely have received something from God (albeit often indistinctly), but the 'vision' is partial, limited in perspective, and prone to wrong interpretation by the speaker even as he declares it (1 Cor. 13:9, 12)."87
Turner then goes on to comment on the use of diakrino as being a word to imply evaluating and separating as opposed to krino being a word to say something is wholly true or false. "It is a matter of deciding what is from God, and how it applies, and of separating this from what is merely human interference. Indeed the human element and human error appears to have been so apparent that in 1 Thessalonians 5:19, 20 Paul has to warn the congregation, 'Do not despise prophecies, but test everything hold fast to what is good. Arguably, then, prophecy in the New Testament is thus a mixed phenomenon."88
Commenting on 1 Corinthians 14:29, Anthony Thiselton says, "The most significant Greek word for comment is diakrinetosan, let them sift . . . although many translate test (Barrett), NRSV follows Goodspeed's weigh, while KJV/AV and NT in Basic English have judge; Phillips has think over; and REB, exercise their judgment. However, as BAGD and other lexicographical studies make clear, the most frequent and most characteristic force of diakrino in the active voice is to differentiate or to distinguish between. . . . The authentic is to be sifted from the inauthentic or spurious, in the light of the OT scriptures, the gospel of Christ, the traditions of all the churches, and critical reflections. Nowhere does Paul hint that preaching or 'prophecy' achieves a privileged status which places them above critical reflection in the light of the gospel, the Spirit, and the scriptures. It is never infallible."89
The NEB translates 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 in the following way, "Do not stifle inspiration, and do not despise prophetic utterances, but bring them all to the test and then keep what is good in them and avoid the bad of whatever kind."
It is important to note that neither the passage in 1 Corinthians 14:29 nor 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 are talking about testing true prophets from false prophets. Both statements are made in the context of worship services where regular, accepted prophets are operating. The evaluation is not of the prophet who has already been accepted by the congregation, but the message itself, which may be of mixed quality. There can be no doubt that 1 Corinthians 14 is dealing with a worship service. Regarding 1 Thessalonians 5, David Hill, after commenting on Romans 12:6 and how prophets need to prophesy
according to the amount of faith that they have, states: "R P Martin (with due acknowledgement to J M Robinson) has drawn attention to certain interesting features of 1 Thess. 5:16-22; in the original Greek the verb in each of the short sentences stands last; there is a predominance of words which begin with the Greek letter 'p,' thus giving a rhythm; and the order of the injunctions 'pray, give thanks' and 'do not despise prophesying, but test everything' (i.e. the utterances) is particularly noteworthy." On the basis of these observations he continues, "When the passage is set down in lines, it reads as though it contained the 'headings' of a church service."90
Wayne Grudem makes this comment: "Each prophecy might have both true and false elements in it. The RSV captures this meaning very well: 'Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. . . . the congregation would simply evaluate the prophecy and form opinions about it. Some of it might be very valuable and some of it not.'"91
Cranfield offers this helpful advice when commenting on Romans 12:6: "The high place he assigned to it [prophecy] among the spiritual gifts is indicated by 1 Cor. 14:1, 39. While any Christian might from time to time be inspired to prophesy, there were some who were so frequently inspired that they were regarded as being prophets and forming a distinct group of persons. . . . But Paul recognized the need for prophetic utterances to be received with discrimination. He gives instruction in 1 Cor. 14:29 that, while the prophets are prophesying, the rest of the congregation is to 'discern'. . . . And in 1 Cor. 12:10 the gift of discerning of spirits . . . is significantly mentioned immediately after the gift of prophecy. For there was the possibility of false prophecy; there was also the possibility of true prophecy's being adulterated by additions derived from some source other than the Holy Spirit's inspiration."92
Witherington adds the following when commenting on Romans 12:6: "This conjures up the scenario of prophets speaking in a fashion that exceeds their inspiration. Such a possibility might well explain why Paul says what he does in 1 Cor.14 about the need for the Corinthians to weigh or sift prophecy offered by other Corinthians. If this is a correct reading of Paul's meaning, then Grudem is likely right that Paul sees the prophecy of the Gentile churches as not having the same degree of inspiration or authority as either OT prophecy or his own teaching
or, for that matter, Jesus prophecy and teaching, none of which is said to need weighing or sifting (cf. 1 Cor. 12:10; 14:29)."93
An important point coming out of Paul's counsel regarding prophecy is for us not to make the same mistake (as was made in Corinth) of overvaluing prophecy by thinking of prophecies as always being the very words of God. For Paul the test of prophecy was that it exalted Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:3), manifested love (I Corinthians 13: 4-7) and built up the body (1 Corinthians 14:3).
Aune agrees with Cranfield on the intent of the gift "discerning of spirits" being mentioned after the gift of prophecy. "The close relationship between prophesying and the evaluation of prophetic utterances in 1 Cor 14:29 indicates that there is a connection between the gift of prophecy and the gift of 'discerning of spirits,' just as there is between the gift of tongues and the gift of interpreting tongues (1 Cor.12:10). The difficult phrase diakrisis pneumaton, usually translated by such expressions as 'discerning of spirits' (AV) or 'the ability to distinguish between spirits' (RSV), is generally taken to mean the gift of discerning whether a particular prophetic utterance is inspired by the Spirit of God or by an evil spirit. . . . The term 'spirits' in the phrase might more appropriately be understood as 'prophetic utterances,' or revelations of the Spirit, on analogy with the use of the term 'spirit' (pneuma) in 2 Thess. 2:2; 1 John 4:1 and particularly 1 Cor .14:12. . . .
This evaluative process or procedure may lie behind such enigmatical expressions as 'it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us' (Acts 15:28) Similarly, when Paul was repeatedly told of the fate which awaited him in Jerusalem . . . he decided to proceed . . . regardless of what might happen. Paul's decision can appropriately be labeled an evaluation of prophetic utterances."94
A Hierarchy of Prophets
Aune's reference to Paul's decision to still head towards Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 21 is an excellent example of what Paul means when he states we are to evaluate prophecy. Acts 21 has New Testament prophecy operating at the different levels already referred to. First, Paul an apostle who is also a prophet, feels "compelled by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem" (Acts 20:22). On the way he is met by some disciples at Tyre who "through the Spirit"95 urge him not to go up to Jerusalem.
It appears that Paul evaluates their message and still decides to press on. These disciples were not established prophets, they are called "disciples." Probably they are operating at the 1Corinthians 14 level. It is possible they were given an insight, by the Spirit, of trouble ahead for Paul. They put their interpretation on it to warn him not to go. Probably they have a wrong interpretation because Paul previously said he was being compelled by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. Paul exercises his right to do some sifting of the message in harmony with 1 Corinthians 14:29.
Paul stays at the home of Phillip who has four daughters who prophesy (verse 8). We are not told the content of their prophecies, however they are probably once again operating at the 1 Corinthians 14 level. The present tense expressed by the word propheteuousai would seem to suggest that they exercised the gift regularly. While he is there, Agabus comes and warns of the dangers ahead ( verses 10-14). It appears that the Holy Spirit has spoken to Agabus and given him an insight to the troubles Paul can expect. He states that the Jews will bind Paul and hand him over to the Gentiles.
Notice that Agabus does not put his own interpretation by saying Paul should not go. He merely states what will happen. It is those listening who put their interpretation on the matter and plead with him not to go. Paul overrides their interpretation as he did with the disciples from Tyre. Agabus is a man used so often by God, with the gift of prophecy, that he is called a prophet. Yet, even though he is an experienced prophet, his prediction does not quite work out exactly as he stated. Compare verse 11 where Agabus states that Paul will be taken by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles. The fulfilment in verses 30-33 shows that what actually happens is the Jews take Paul and try to kill him. They do not hand him over to the Gentiles; the Gentiles rescue him and take him away from the Jews.
It does not work out exactly as Agabus stated. Perhaps Agabus had a revelation of trouble ahead. Maybe he did a little filling in himself. All we know is that there is a lack of precise detail here in a true prophecy, made by an experienced prophet. Acts 21 is an important passage to study to come to understand more fully New Testament prophecy.96
Gillespie sees in 1 Corinthians 15 an example of what Paul has been stating about the need to evaluate prophecy in the previous chapter. It seems that some were saying there is no resurrection of the dead,
and Paul is using his prophetic revelation in verses 51-55 as a critique of what other prophets were saying. In other words when he states in 14:37 that the other prophets must acknowledge what he is saying as the Word of God or they will be ignored, he is demonstrating what he means in the next chapter.97
Alistar Stewart-Sykes quotes Gillespie and supports him in this concept: "In the description of Corinthian worship which precedes this chapter we are told that prophecies which are given are to be subjected to prophetic judgment and interpretation. In what follows we may have such a prophetic judgment of a prophecy . . . a transition from a prophecy to a judgment of a prophecy in the way that was normal in worship . . . this chapter may give us an idea of what the prophetic judgment might have been like. A brief oracle is delivered, and then subjected to judgment and interpretation by another of the prophets. . . . Forbes correctly argues that these 'others' should not be restricted to a class of prophets, since any member of the congregation is potentially a prophet, but given the strong link between diakrisis and prophecy which Forbes himself notes we may see that interpretation was a prophetic function, and since in practice not all were actually prophets, so it fell to those who were in practice prophets to deliver the verdict."98
Stewart-Sykes adds that the book of Revelation offers another example of a hierarchy of prophets: "Aune suggests that the whole of the apocalypse, since it was intended for delivery in worship, functioned in the place of a prophetic sermon which would otherwise have been delivered by a local prophet; as such it is what we would call preaching. . . . John was a wandering prophet who functioned in all of the churches, there were nonetheless local prophets as well, and yet that John represents a charismatic leader among them, whose voice might rise above theirs, as it did on this occasion. . . . the fact that his message may replace theirs on this occasion is an indication that there is some hierarchy of prophets . . . just as the voice of John rises over that of any local prophet so the voice of those who were congregational prophets would rise above those of others"99
Stewart-Sykes sees John as a visionary prophet, that is, "his means of inspiration are visions revived outside of the context of worship, the contents of which are subsequently reported to the community."100 He also sees John as a "free prophet of the Old Testament type" in that unlike the prophets described in 1 Corinthians he is not subjected to evaluation.
"Whereas this may be an indication that the practice of examining oracles is alien to this community it is equally likely, as we have also suggested, to be a reflection of his charismatic authority. Aune picks up hints of opposition to John among the churches at 2:14 and 2:20-23, where other (presumably local) prophets are tarred with the brush of false prophecy under biblical pseudonyms. The fact that John needs to oppose prophecy with prophecy is an indication that only a prophetic message carried authority in these communities, and having been received the prophetic messages of 'Balaam' and 'Jezebel' were acted on. . . . Quite regardless of its date, the Johannine apocalypse thus enables us to see the church functioning at its most primitive level in terms of how the word of God was communicated to the community."101
He summarises his arguments: "Herein lies one of the origins of Christian preaching: for when prophecy was delivered it was necessary that the prophecy be judged, interpreted and expounded. Thus it is in this process, it is suggested, that the origins of the homily lie. . . . The practice of the synagogue and the schools however did impact at a later stage upon the development of preaching out of these origins, as Scripture came to replace the living voice, and the process of expansion and application was applied to the written word. . . . The theological development of a growing respect paid to the written canon . . . with the eventual result that Scripture comes to dominate prophecy to such an extent that the prophetic voice disappears altogether."102
The evidence from the New Testament is that prophecy was being looked down upon and despised as it was being abused. The danger the church faced was that they would not hear the genuine messages coming from authentic prophets. Paul counseled the church not to despise prophecies, but to test them. However, even with the genuine prophet there is an expectation at times a mixture of "wheat and chaff" as we see the human element surfacing. We should not therefore necessarily reject as false prophets those who at the lower level of prophecy do not demonstrate infallibility in conveying their messages. This judging of Christian prophets should not be confused with the Old Testament rules about judging false prophets. The New Testament passages deal with judging the prophecies being delivered, and not the prophet themselves.
83 Carson, pp. 94-95. [back]
84 Ibid., p. 95, footnote 69. [back]
85 Space forbids the inclusion of many of them. But a reader interested in this aspect of the subject should consult Thomas W. Gillespie, The First Theologians. A study in Early Christian Prophecy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,1994), pp. 33-63. [back]
86 Aune, p. 219. [back]
87 Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts Then and Now, (Cumbria, CA: Paternoster, 1996), pp. 213-214. [back]
88 Ibid., [back]
89 Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 1140. [back]
90 David Hill, New Testament Prophecy, (London England: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, [date ?]) [back]
91 Wayne Grudem The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (New York: University Press of America, n.d.), pp. 66-67. [back]
92 Cranfield, p. 620. [back]
93 Witherington, p. 326. The following statements from Witherington are also worth noting
94 Aune, pp. 220-222. Siegfried Schatzmann A Pauline Theology of Charismata, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989), pp 40-41, "the authority which the OT prophet claimed in his message introduced and indicated by the formula, 'thus says the Lord', is nowhere accorded to the Corinthian prophets; nor to any others. Indeed Paul instructed clearly in 14:29 that prophetic utterance was subject to spiritual evaluation of the message and the source of its inspiration." He lends limited support for the concept that "distinguishing between spirits" relates to evaluating prophecy. He sees it as including a wider scope by offering the following observations. "Discernment of spirits. James D. G. Dunn translates diakriseis pneumaton as 'evaluation of inspired utterances' and links it closely to the preceding utterance of prophecy. Diakrisis may indeed be correlated with prophecy; in 1 Thess 5:20, 21 Paul mentioned the necessity of testing or evaluating all things, which follows immediately after the exhortation, 'Do not treat prophecies with contempt.' There may be precedent, therefore, for the restrictive interpretation suggested by Dunn. But against such a narrow conception speaks the fact that Paul did not elaborate on precisely what he meant by this gift in 12:10. The need for Spirit-led evaluation of all charismata is held in abeyance. . . . . In the light of the test which Paul had already established in 12:3, it is more appropriate to stay with the meaning given by most interpreters. Accordingly, discernment of spirits means the Spirit-given ability to distinguish the Spirit of God from a demonic spirit, under whose direction the charismatic exercises a particular gift." [back]
95 A term usually considered to mean the gift of prophecy at work. Compare the expression as it is used when Agabus makes a prophecy in Acts 11:28. [back]
96 Graeme S. Bradford, "Was Paul resisting the Spirit of Prophecy on his way to Jerusalem?" Unpublished MA paper. December 1993. In this paper I suggest that Paul was indeed following the procedure of evaluating prophecy when he still followed his own convictions that God wanted him to witness to his faith in Jerusalem. He still continued on his journey despite warnings given to him through Christian prophecy. Witherington expresses a similar view when he makes the following comment regarding Paul's attitude towards Agabus in Acts 21.
"I suggest that, in these two texts, Luke is telling us much the same as what we find in 1 Cor. 14. 'NT prophecy would seem to have had an authority of general content and was not to be taken as a literal transcript of God's words, but rather was something that needed to be weighed or sifted (see 1 Cor. 14:29). What does have absolute authority, in Luke's view, is (1) the OT prophecies and (2) the words of Jesus, whether during his ministry or as conveyed in visions from the exalted Christ. In the age of prophecy fulfillment, there was indeed new prediction, but it had to be weighed carefully. One might prophesy beyond the measure of one's faith." Witherington, p. 342. [back]
97 Gillespie, pp. 220-221. [back]
98 Alistar Stewart-Sykes, From Prophecy to Preaching: A Search For The Origins Of The Christian Homily, (The Netherlands: Brill, Leiden. Boston, Koln., 2001), pp. 102-3. [back]
99 Ibid., p. 118. [back]
100 Ibid., p. 126. [back]
101 Ibid., p. 131. [back]
102 Ibid., pp. 270-271. [back]