Spiritual Gifts (IV): Gifts of Prophecy and Discernment

By Bruce Edwards, Jr.

The next pair of spiritual gifts in Paul’s catalogue in 1 Cor. 12:8-11 concerns prophecy and the discernment of spirits. A study of “prophecy” is particularly relevant today, not only because of the Charismatic Movement, but also with respect to the conviction of many sincere brethren that Paul’s discourse regarding the veil in 1 Cor. 11 is applicable today among sisters. This conviction usually hinges upon a specialized definition of prophecy and the nature of prayer in the context. Whatever “prophesying” meant in 1 Cor. 11, it certainly has the same meaning in 1 Cor. 12-14 and thus may be properly classed among the charismata. We have already established that these gifts are supranormal, supernatural endowments of the Spirit.

Gift of Prophecy

According to Thayer, prophecy is “discourse emanating from divine inspiration and declaring the purposes of God, whether by reproving, and admonishing the wicked, or comforting the afflicted, or revealing things hidden; especially by foretelling future events.”(1) Although the “prophet” often foretold the future, “he was more a `forth-teller’ than , a `foreteller.'”(2) Summarizing, Charles Hodge suggests, “To prophesy, in Scripture, is accordingly, to speak under divine inspiration; not merely to predict future events, but to deliver, as the organ of the Holy Ghost, the messages of God to men, whether in the form of doctrine, exhortation, consolation, or prediction.”(3) We can gain some insight into the role of the New Testament prophet by examining his Old Testament counterpart. The essential meaning of the word “prophet” readily is seen in Exodus 4:16; God told Moses that Aaron would be his “spokesman . . . a mouth.” As a prophet, Aaron was a “mouth” for the reluctant Moses. A prophet of God would then be a mouth of God. Homer Hailey suggests that when God raised up a prophet, “He would put His words in the prophet’s mouth and that the prophet would speak them in His name (Deut. 18:9-22).”(4)

King David’s activity illustrates well the role of the prophet: “The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and His word was in my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2). As a prophet under the inspiration of God, David taught, sang, and prayed (cf. Psalms 22, 64, 66, 119). The remainder of the Old Testament is replete with examples of prophets who testified, “The word of the Lord came unto me” or “Thus with the Lord.” Clearly, their claim to prophecy was a claim to inspired speaking. Turning to the New Testament, we find that the exercise of this gift was no different. From 1 Cor. 14 we learn that the gift of prophecy involved direct teaching, prayer, and the singing of psalms (vss. 26-33); seen in the context of the nature of prophetic activity one can better appreciate Paul’s statements in 1 Cor. 11.

But despite the clear testimony of Scripture concerning the meaning of “prophecy,” “prophesy,” and “prophet,” many still persist in suggesting that “prophesying” can mean (in the case of men) “reading and commenting from the inspired writings, giving one’s own thoughts as best he can without inspiration,” Hence uninspired teaching, or (in the case of women) “quietly following in one’s own mind someone else’s prophecy (teaching)’, prayer, or song.” From a purely Scriptural standpoint, this is a highly untenable position bordering on the absurd. Prophecy was spoken activity and inspired activity at that; nowhere in the Scriptures is there the least hint that “prophesying” can mean anything less than speaking by the direct inspiration of God. An objection is sometimes raised to the effect that “since there were some false prophets, this proves that prophecy does not always mean inspired speaking.” This can only charitably be called an argument. The very claim of false prophets was that their message was inspired by God; the true prophet had God’s words in His mouth, the false prophet did not. This was the basis upon which a prophet’s words were evaluated (Dent. 18:15-22; Jer. 28); if his words came true, then he was considered a “prophet,” an inspired speaker from God.

Prophecy and the Veil

Three times in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul calls for “silence” in regard to the exercise of an oral spiritual gift. The first time, he prohibits speaking in tongues if there be no interpreter present (vs. 28); the second time, he prohibits the prophets from constantly interrupting one another (vs. 30). The third time, Paul prohibits women from exercising their spiritual gifts at all in the assembly (vs. 34). Each of the prohibitions deal with the cessation of vocal spiritual gifts; we need not wrest the temp “silence” here to mean “behave with quietness or tranquility” or “partake of a reserved and submissive demeanor”! Quite literally, Paul means to “Shut up!” The first two prohibitions prevent the use of the gifts in specified circumstances, but under no circumstances does he allow the women to exercise their gifts in the assembly. Understanding the prophetic work makes it easy to understand why the prohibition was given; women had the equal power as men to perform their gifts (cf. Acts 21:9). But in accordance with God’s order (see also Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Tim. 2:8-15) they had to refrain from speaking in the assembly (1 Cor. 11:3-10). On this point we quote at length from Ron Halbrook:

“When the nature of the prophetic work is understood, one can appreciate the problems that arose at Corinth regarding the women’s role. Seeing she was empowered to speak just as man was, she reasoned that she could arise and lead the assembly just as the man did. The same Spirit who empowered her guided Paul to remind her that miraculous gifts do not set aside the ordered relations God ordained for man and woman. Seeing she was empowered to speak just as man was, she reasoned that she might appear with her head uncovered’ whenever praying or prophesying just as he did. God had empowered and authorized her to speak, but did not approve of her speaking with her head uncovered’ anymore than speaking in the church.’ 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 is written to show that the principle of order for man and woman is not to be set aside while ‘praying or prophesying.’ The same God who authorized the latter, ordained the former.”(5)

The same man or woman who “spoke by inspiration (prophecy)” in 1 Cor. 11 also “prayed by inspiration (also prophecy).” This is not a case of inspired speaking and uninspired prayer. The two inspired acts are. linked inseparably in the Greek.(6) Thus we submit that Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 11 regarding the use of the veil has no relevance today because the exercise of those gifts which the instructions regulated has passed away.

The Pre-eminence of Prophecy

In 1 Cor. 14 Paul establishes that prophecy is a greater gift than that of tongues. Verses 2-6 suggest that the upbuilding of the whole assembly is God’s de sign; the prophet is always in a position to edify the church — the tongue speaker is not, except he interpret. Thus prophecy is more functional and much more to be desired (vss. 18, 22, 29, 31, 39). One may legitimately question the distinction between “prophecy” and the “word of wisdom” mentioned in vs. 8, since they apparently concern the same function. The most reasonable difference seems to be that the possessor of the “word of wisdom” would be more exclusively concerned with the utterance of those general truths about the church’s mission applicable to any church, while the prophet would be more concerned with the immediate needs and specific situations of the local assembly of which he is a part. The role of the prophet seems limited to divine revelations of temporary significance, proclaiming what the church needs to know and do in special circumstances. His message was one of edification, exhortation, and consolation (1 Cor. 14:3; cf. Rom. 12:8), sometimes including prediction (Cf. Acts 11:28; 21:10ff.). Some prophets were “itinerant (Acts 11:27ff., 21:10), but there were probably several attached to every church (Acts 13;1), as at Corinth.”(7)

Discernment of Spirits

The discernment of spirits was quite obviously complementary to the gift of prophecy. In the Old Testament, the danger of false prophets was stressed (cf. Dent. 13;1-8), as well as in the New Testament (cf. Matt. 7:15; 22, 23). This gift enabled the possessor to discern between false and true testimony, judging the claims of divine inspiration (1 Cor. 14:29). We can sympathize with the early church; these brethren had no completed, available standard for reference (1 Cor. 13:8-13). “Not to one inspired person did God reveal it all, but to this one, to this one, to that one, some teaching and revelations given through apostles and some through prophets and other inspired persons. Orally it was delivered in one congregation partially, and then in another, to one group of people and then to another.”(8) A prophet addresses the assembly; who is to say whether his message is froze heaven or hell? he who possesses the gift of discernment is able to determine just that.

We can better understand then the admonitions of Paul (cf. 1 Thess. 5:19-21; 2 Thess. 2:2) and the warnings of John (1 Jn. 4:1) for the threat of damning error from the invasion of false teachers was an everpresent danger to the flock. The discernment of spirits was necessary among the early Christians who faced the problem of “false brethren brought in privily.” We would do well to equip ourselves for the same task today by conscientious study and devotion to the word.

We have thus seen the purpose of these two gifts as they relate to the functioning of the early church. It would be a serious mistake to redefine “prophecy” in an unScriptural way in order to fit it into an unnatural system of practice based upon 1 Cor. 11. Prophecy and discernment were both supernatural charismata made operative through the work of the Spirit, a specific work which He no longer performs in this dispensation of time. Let us understand their former functions and purpose and rejoice in the fruit of their activity: the completed revelation of God.


1. Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament (Marshallton, Delaware: The National Foundation for Christian Education, n.d.), p. 554.

2. Homer Hailey, A Commentary on the Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972), p. 16.

3. Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to Corinthians (New York: Robert Carter and Bros., 1858), p. 207.

4. Halley, loc. cit.

5. This reference comes from an unpublished graduate school paper in the possession of this writer.

6. We refer the reader to any standard Greek grammar for Paul’s use of the participles in 1 Cor. 11:4, 5. The participles are in the present tense in their verbal quality, and nominative, singular, masculine (feminine in vs. 5) in their adjectival quality. Participles are “verbal adjectives” and consequently the verb or-action and the noun or class specified, are influenced by the participle. The force of these participles in the text is shown in the following translation: “every-praying-or-prophesying-woman (or man) when she (he) prays or prophesies.”

7. W. G. Putnam, “Spiritual Gifts,” The New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962), p. 1213.

8. Frank Pack, Tongues and the Holy Spirit (Abilene: Biblical Research Press, 1972), p. 121.

Truth Magazine XVIII: 7, pp. 106-108
December 19, 1974