NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XV)
We must also note that Paul qualifies this gift of prophecy with the amount of faith that the speaker has. Luke gives us an illustration of this when a Jewish convert named Apollos came to Ephesus. He was not well versed in the Scriptures that related to Jesus being the Messiah, yet he believed and wanted to help others believe. In fact, most of what he learned had come from the teachings of John the Baptizer. When Aquila and Priscilla heard about him, they went and listened to his sermon. They realized that he had a limited understanding of the Gospel. So Luke tells us: “They took him to their house and taught him much more about the things of God.”1 After that we read how Apollos, with Aquila and Priscilla’s commendation, went over to Greece to help the believers there. Luke says: “In front of everyone he proved with great power that the Jews were wrong. He showed from the Holy Writings that Jesus was the Christ.”2 In other words, if the Holy Spirit has anointed you to preach, preach what you know but be ready to learn more.
Speaking of the gift of prophecy, Origen takes the position that the term “prophecy” refers to the content of the Apostle’s teaching, not in reference to the way it was taught.3 To put this another way, prophecy may be taught as a subject. It does not require actually prophesying in order for it to be taught by example. However, Apollinaris sees it this way: Paul says here the person with the gift of prophecy has the greatest gift after that of Apostleship. For God placed in the church first Apostles and second Prophets.4 Therefore, the person with the gift of prophecy must recognize that it is subordinate to apostleship and recognize the limitations of prophecy. As such, they are subservient and must follow the rule of service laid down by their superiors, just as the hands must do the bidding of the head.5 To this we add the view of the Bishop of Paul’s hometown of Tarsus. For him, prophecy means primarily the explanation of things which seem a mystery. This is whether they be things, that are obviously hidden from the average believer, dealing with the past, present, or the future. Prophecy may also refer to a study or teaching of prophecy in the Bible.6
However, Ambrosiaster sees prophecy as a gift to be used to inform the church both in the sense of explanation and warning. He notes that Paul begins with prophecy as a gift. For him, this is the first proof that our faith is rational because believers prophesy only after they receive the Holy Spirit. This is given in proportion to the recipient’s faith to receive it and be a vessel through which it can flow. But this flow will be limited to serve the purpose for which it is given.7 Chrysostom picks up from there and emphasizes that although prophecy is a gift, it cannot be used at random for any reason the recipient decides to use it. Since it is given in proportion to a believer’s faith, then it is by faith that it operates within the body of Christ.8
Also, Pelagius reiterates this same truth by emphasizing that this gift, as in the case of all gifts, does not depend upon the one who received it, but the One who gave it.9 Everything the believer does to the glory of God under the anointing and direction of the Holy Spirit is the result of their being found with enough faith to receive it. And along with the gift comes the charismatic power which God has chosen for them to receive even in this life. So, if a believer receives the gift of prophecy, it is according to faith, not the law. Nor is it something a believer can demand or think themselves worthy of.10 Also, Bishop Theodoret makes the point that prophecy does not refer only to the prediction of future events but also to the knowledge of things which have been hidden from the past.11
On the subject of the gift of prophecy, early Reformation scholars have a variety of interpretations. Reformer Martin Luther looks beyond the gift itself and focuses on what surrounds the gift. For him, this gift can only function in harmony with, or according to, one’s level of faith. That is, the Christian should not go beyond faith and its principles because faith corresponds to prophesy. In other words, faith will only go as far in prophecy as it can trust what is said to be truly from God.
But Luther sees another important factor that begins with the gift of prophecy. In looking at the text, Luther notices that from here on the Apostle unfolds the commandment of love toward one’s neighbor. Luther finds it hard to believe that so few people concern themselves with such important and self-evident instruction, coming from so important an Apostle, indeed, coming from the Holy Spirit Himself. Instead, some choose such vanities as building huge, magnificent church edifices out of pride, or the enlargement of parishes to show power, as well as the accumulation of funds to prove being a wealthy parish, and so forth. These people regard all these as great expressions of piety, when in fact they have no concern whatsoever about what the Apostle commands here. Luther then goes on to confess that he sees no need to mention all the pride, boasting, greed, luxury, conceitedness, and other vices connected with these activities that go on behind closed doors.12
Fellow Reformer John Calvin emphasizes that all spiritual gifts have their own defined limits, and to depart from them is to mar the gifts themselves. However, the way this passage is translated it appears somewhat confusing. So Calvin rearranges the text as follows: “Let those who have the gift of prophecy, test it in comparison to their faith; let them discharge it through the ministry of teaching.” He believes that when this standard is followed, it will keep each person within their own limits. Calvin knew that there are those who consider the gift of prophecy to involve predicting the future. He admits that this was the case at the commencement of the Gospel being preached in the Church. It was the Lord’s way of establishing the dignity and excellency of His Church.
In fact, there are some who think that it continues to this day and that according to the measure of faith must be applied to all areas of doctrine. But Calvin has a word to the wise, even to the particular gift of revelation which is skillfully and wisely performed through the office of an interpreter in explaining the will of God. For Calvin, the gift of prophecy should be understood as hardly more than the proper understanding of the Scripture. And such understanding involves the peculiar ability to explain it. The reason Calvin takes this view is that all the ancient prophecies and all the oracles of God have been completed in Christ and in His Gospel.13
John Bengel calls prophecy the chief gift.14 When he compares these passages by Paul it appears to him that prophecy is the gift by which the heavenly mysteries, and sometimes future events, are brought to the attention of believers by way of an explanation of Scriptural prophecies. This cannot be done by way of ordinary rules of interpretation. All other Scriptures should be interpreted according to a clear exegesis of the text. This is especially true of that proportion of Scripture that deals with the articles of faith which are used to form the creed. But not every minister or teacher knows all things; neither do they know all they claim to know with equal certainty. However, those things which they know for certain can be studied so as to formula the doctrines of the Christian faith. In this way, they are in effect prophesying what is and are determining everything according to their level of faith in the gift God has given them and in others to hear and understand according to the measure of their faith.15
Methodist theologian Adam Clarke also wrote concerning the gift of prophecy and put it in the category of exhorting, preaching, or expounding the Scriptures. He finds evidence from many places in the Gospels, Acts, and Paul‘s Epistles for this understanding. For instance, Paul told the Corinthians that if a man does not remove his hat before praying or preaching, or a woman fails to cover her head before praying or preaching they bring dishonor on themselves.16 Paul uses the Greek verb prophēteuō which has been translated into English as prophesied,17 or prophesies..18 Thayer in his Lexicon has five subcategories that define this word meaning to prophesy, to be a prophet, to speak forth by divine inspiration, or to predict. In the case of Paul’s use of the word in 1 Corinthians 11:4,5, Thayer says that Paul meant: to break forth under sudden impulse in lofty discourse or in praise of the divine counsels. In fact, prophesying by foretelling future events pertaining to the kingdom of God or declaring things that can only be known by divine revelation are found only in the Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, and Revelation. In other words, Paul does not use it in this sense in any of his Epistles.
So in Clarke’s mind, when Paul speaks of prophesying he implies that those who speak do so for the edification, exhortation, and comfort of the believers. This is the proper office of a preacher, and it is to the exercise of this office.19 Clarke thinks that the Apostle uses the term in the same sense here – If God has given you the ability to preach, then preach whenever you can, as often as you can, so long as your faith is strong enough to receive your message from God. That means, while a minister may formulate an outline or manuscript for a sermon, they must still wait to receive the message from God through the Holy Spirit. And once the message is received, do not think that because of the gift of preaching it enables them to go beyond what the Scriptures say or the message they have received. It is foolish for any minister to indulge themselves in fanciful interpretations of the Word of God, especially without examining the context.20
So instead of always thinking of the word “prophesy” as meaning to foretell the future or interpret the Book of Revelation, remember that it comes from what a “prophet” does. A prophet is one chosen by God to explain His Word, to interpret Scripture as it applies to the past, present, or future. There is no prophecy that God needs to reveal in this day and age that is not already contained in Scripture. Yes, He may inspire a Word of Wisdom or a Word of Knowledge, but that will always be for one person or one congregation to assist them in dealing with the issues at hand. If Jesus told His disciples that even He did not know what day and hour His coming would be, then who then is greater than He that God should reveal that to. Not even the angels, let alone a member of mankind.
1 Acts of the Apostles 18:26
2 Ibid. 18:28
3 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 1 Corinthians 12:28
5 Apollinaris of Laodicea: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Diodore of Tarsus: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 21
9 See 1 Corinthians 12:28
10 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 170
13 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 See Acts of the Apostles 2:17, 18; 11:27; 13:1; 15:32; 19:6, 21:9, 10; 1 Corinthians 11:4, 14:12; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11; 1 Thessalonians5:20; 1 Timothy 1:18; 4:14; Revelation 1:3
15 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp.341-342
16 1 Corinthians 11:4-5
17 Matthew 7:22; 11:13; Acts of the Apostles 19:6; 1 Corinthians 14:3, etc.
18 Matthew 15:7; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:64; Acts of the Apostles 2:17, etc.
19 See also Luke 1: 76; Luke 7: 28; Acts 15: 32; 1 Corinthians 14: 29
20 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 239-240