Old and New Testament Prophets : key differences

Home  This article is an eye opener for us as we study the key differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament Prophets.

Difference #1: PURPOSE

OT prophets: establish the Old Testament Scriptures

NT prophets: invigorate the church

The Old Without a doubt, the most crucial difference separating Old and New Testament prophets pertains to their purpose. The purpose of Old prophetic ministry was to receive and speak divine revelation that would be structs (1Co 14:31), guides (Ac 13:1-3, 1Ti 1:18), corrects (1Co 14:24), foretells (Ac 11:27-30), and even praises (Ac 19:6; see 1Sam 10:5,6, 1Chr 25:1) in astonishingly relevant and timely ways. Its role is simply to perceive and communicate God's situational will, and in so doing, recipients are illumined and invigorated God-ward.

New Testament prophecy does not receive or write more Scripture, nor does it replace the existing and complete Scriptures. Paul is stiff on this point (1Co 14:37,38), and John's final words certainly reach farther than just his own book of Revelation (Rev 22:18,19).

Difference #2: QUALITY

OT prophets: ministered infallibly, with 100% perfection

NT prophets: minister fallibly, with potential error

The Old : Because of their unparalleled responsibility to establish a perfect Old Testament Scripture, God Himself ensured that the quality of Old prophetic ministry was 100% perfect, or infallible. The prophets themselves, as people, were not perfect, but their ministry certainly was. Consider it...how else could we have a perfect Old Testament in our Bibles today?

Deuteronomy 18:20 presents the standard of Old prophetic ministry as perfection. Prophets would be executed not only for prophesying in the name of a false god, or prophesying incorrectly, but also for prophesying anything God Himself did not initiate, even if it was technically correct (Deu 13:1,2). God would never demand such a ridiculous standard without also providing a miraculous undergirding for His true prophets to fulfill it.

1Samuel 3:19,20 (and 9:6) illustrates this. God Himself ensured that not one of Samuel's prophetic words fell short, and because of his prophetic perfection, all Israel recognized he passed the Deuteronomy 18:20-test. Isaiah 44:26 says the same, that God Himself fulfilled and performed all the prophetic words of His true Old Testament prophets. Jeremiah 1:12 reiterates, saying God personally watched over Jeremiah's prophetic word to fulfill it. Because of their unparalleled purpose (establish Scripture), Old prophets likewise possessed unparalleled ministerial quality (infallibility). God Himself guaranteed this by miraculously undergirding their every word.

The New New Testament prophets, on the other hand, are not ministerially infallible. Their prophesying might possess partial or total inaccuracies. New Testament Scripture shows us this. The believers at Tyre prophesied to Paul not to go to Jerusalem (Ac 21:4). This was a partially inaccurate word, because Paul himself felt compelled and bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem (20:22NIV), which he in fact did (21:17). Yet Acts 21:4 says they spoke by the Spirit. How can both be true? The explanation: the Tyrian believers received a genuine revelation from the Spirit concerning Paul's suffering and imprisonment in Jerusalem, yet they misinterpreted and misapplied the revelation to say Paul should not go to Jerusalem at all. Genuine revelation...faulty interpretation...faulty application. I'm sure we can all relate.

Agabus also prophesied partially inaccurately in Acts 21:10,11. Paul was indeed arrested, this part was accurate, but he was not arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans by them. Verses 32 and 33 (and 23:27) tell us Paul's life had to be forcibly saved by the Roman soldiers, who rescued him from the abusive Jewish mob who would have torn him to shreds and killed him.

Paul joins Luke in his cognizance of prophecy's potential fallibility in the church age. In 1Corinthians 14:29, he tells believers to judge, evaluate carefully, and thoroughly sift (Gk diakrino) prophetic words that are spoken. In 1Thessalonians 5:19-22 he says the same, telling the church to separate the good from the bad in prophecy, while remaining open and positive towards prophetic ministry in general. New prophecy, and all spiritual gifts, can be like a poor reflection in a mirror (1Co 13:2), especially when used by the spiritually non-mature or inexperienced. The good news is, prophetic Christians can develop and advance in their prophetic faculty, learning to minimize perceptive dilution to consistently prophesy reliably and accurately.

Difference #3: AUTHORITY

OT prophets: possessed absolute authority

NT prophets: possess relative authority

The Old : Because of their unparalleled responsibility to author the Old Testament Scriptures, God endowed these messengers with absolute authority to ensure nothing or no one would get in the way. Their task was simply too important to God's overall redemptive program.

This absolute authority connoted their prophetic word was the final authority from God in all of Israel-it was to be obeyed without hesitation or question. There were no ifs, ands, buts, whys, howevers, or therefores. There was no personal testing, evaluation, or "praying for confirmation" when a prophet of Yahweh prophesied. If he/she was attested as a true prophet of the LORD, his every prophesied word was divine law (Deu 18:18,19, Isa 8:20, Jer 6:19). When necessary, these prophets demonstrated superhuman miraculous powers to enforce their authority and protect their mission (Num 16:1-35, 1Sam 12:18, 1Ki 13:1-6, 20:35,36, 2Ki 1:10,12, 5:20-27, Eze 11:13). Check out these specific passages concerning this.

The prophet Moses said if anyone did not fully obey the Old prophet's word, God Himself would hold that person fully accountable (Deu 18:15-19, esp v19). The prophet Samuel said that to disobey the prophet's word was equal to the sin of witchcraft and idolatry (1Sam 15:22,23), both of which were punishable by death (Lev 20:6,27, Deu 13:6-11). An unnamed prophet caused King Jeroboam's hand to instantly wither because he tried to arrest him after he prophesied (1Ki 13:1-6); the same prophet instantly restored the king's hand back to life just moments later. The prophet Elijah's absolute authority is seen by his commanding the people to seize and slaughter eight hundred and fifty false prophets (1Ki 18:40); we also see it by his calling fire from heaven to destroy two companies of soldiers who tried to arrest him while he was praying (2Ki 1:10,12). His prophetic word could literally prohibit or permit rainfall for years on end (1Ki 17:1).

A man was killed by a lion because he disobeyed a simple prophetic request from a prophet (1Ki 20:35,36). Gehazi and all his descendants were sentenced to leprosy forever because he lied to the prophet Elisha (2Ki 5:20-27). An unnamed prophet told King Amaziah that God would destroy him because he ignored his prophetic advice (2Chr 25:15,16). The prophet Isaiah told Israel that merciless divine breaking (judgment) would come to them because they rejected his prophetic word (Isa 30:12-14). The prophet Jeremiah declared that he personally possessed God's wrath to pour out all over Israel (Jer 6:10-12,17-19). The prophet Ezekiel actually killed a person simply by prophesying (Eze 11:13). Now that's absolute authority!

Once again, this absolute authority accompanied the Old prophets to safeguard the establishment of the Old Testament Scriptures. Without such authority, Israel would not recognize and canonize their writings as truly Holy Scripture. With this authority, however, it was undeniable that the Most High God had indeed called them to author His Word.

The New New Testament prophets, on the other hand, have a lesser and different type of authority: relative authority. New prophecy is not the indisputable final authority, as Old prophecy was. The completed Scripture is now the supreme law of God's people (1Co 14:37,38, 2Pet 3:15,16, Rev 22:18,19). All New prophecy is to be screened and tested by the hearers: tested for divine authenticity (1Co 14:29, 2Th 2:1-3, 1Jn 4:1-6), tested for agreement with Scripture (1Co 14:37,38), and tested for the accurate/good, and if necessary, sifted for the inaccurate/bad (1Th 5:19-22). New prophecy, then, is accountable to Scriptural, personal, and governmental evaluation. Such comprehensive judging of New prophecy signifies its demotion in the area of authority. We no longer see that "do-or-die-without-question" badge the Old prophets wore.

Though New prophecy has divinely-instituted boundaries, it nonetheless possesses a relative authority. This means New Testament prophetic authority is relative to the authenticity and accuracy of the prophesied word, and, possesses authority over its situational target only. In other words, prophecies, or portions of prophecies, that are found to be genuine, possess authority only over the intended recipient (particular person, group, church, nation, organization, etc...). Paul had no obligation to obey the prophetic directive at Tyre since it was tested and found to be partially inaccurate (Ac 21:4,17, 20:22). On the other hand, the Antiochan church was under all divine obligation to obey the word spoken there, because, after fasting and prayer, the directive was proven to be authentic and accurate (Ac 13:1-3).

Herein is where Old and New prophecy greatly differ. True Old prophets and their prophecies did not need to be re-tested every time they uttered-authenticity was assumed. If the prophecy came from a recognized true prophet, the word was to be immediately and indisputably accepted by all Israel, or God would hold the rebel severely accountable. New prophecy, though, requires testing to happen every single time a message is prophesied, no matter who the communicator is (1Co 14:29, 1Th 5:19-22, 1Jn 4:1-6). Once confirmation has been attained, then that individual or group is accountable to that word, and that word possesses authority over them and only them.

In summary. Old prophecy possessed a theocratic, absolute authority over all God's people, was not subject to continuous testing, and was above/over God's people. New prophecy possesses a relative, situational authority, is subject to continuous testing, and is therefore on equal ground with God's people.


OT prophets: external revelation

NT prophets: internal revelation

The Old : God communicated with the Old Testament prophets through external revelations, from the outside, through their five physical senses (mainly seeing and hearing). Such revelation was direct and clear, easy to reproduce without errors. This was absolutely necessary since they were responsible for composing a perfect Old Testament Bible.

For example, God spoke to those prophets in a direct audible voice, dictating exactly what to say and write. Sometimes He showed up in human or angelic form and spoke as two friends would. Sometimes He sent angels to appear on His behalf and dictate the message. Sometimes He spoke through dramatic physical visions, telling them simply to write exactly what they saw. Though He did reveal Himself and inspire Scripture in a few other, more subtle ways (guided observation, subconscious inspiration, etc.), external revelation was nonetheless the main form of Old prophetic revelation. The Old Testament is covered with such easy-to-not-mess-up revelatory encounters. The prophets did not always understand all of what they were encountering (Dan 8:27, Lk 10:24, 1Pet 1:10-12), but what they did encounter was clear and easy enough to communicate without errors. This explains, in part, how the Old prophets were enabled to minister with 100% infallibility.

The New : God communicates with New Testament prophets, in general, through internal revelations. The messages typically come in less direct, more subtle ways from deep within their inner man. Certainly God might speak externally if He desires, as in a physical vision (Ac 2:17,18, 9:10-16) or angelic appearance (Heb 13:2), yet I refer to the typical and most predictable form of divine communication in the New era as indicated in the New Testament.

New testament prophets perceive the Lord no differently than the average Christian-internally. Ephesians 1:17,18 is a key passage in this regard. Paul's prayer was that we would experience the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, the eyes of our hearts being enlightened (Colossians 1:9 reiterates this). In other words, internal revelation. He wrote to all the Christians at Ephesus, which included the prophets (4:11). This suggests a certain norm and predictable form of divine communication.

New testament prophets perceive the Lord no differently than the average Christian. We are all high priests in the New era, we are all indwelt by the same Holy Spirit, and we all perceive that Spirit mainly internally. The only difference between personal revelation and prophetic revelation is the revelation's content and intent-the average Christian receives divine messages mainly about and for themselves (personal revelation), while prophetic Christians receive a mixture of both, messages about/for themselves and messages about/for others (prophetic revelation). Whether it be personal or prophetic, it is nonetheless the Spirit within granting revelation from within. Notice these New Testament revelational styles and their internal nature:

Illuminated Scripture.....2Ti 3:16, Heb 4:12;Lk 24:45impression (distinct mood or thought).....Act 15:28, Ro 8:16, 1Co 2:16compulsion (strong desire or "burden")...Php 2:13, 1Co 5:10 words/phrases.....Ac 13:1-3

In the Old era, the Lord came to the prophet from outside (external revelation); in the New era, the Lord seeks to come through the prophet from the inside (internal revelation). Once again, this is because the Spirit now indwells the Christian, and therefore, He communicates with them from His residence-within.


OT prophets: pre-cross prophetic expression

NT prophets: post-cross prophetic expression

The Old : It doesn't take very long for even the surface reader of Scripture to notice the hard-nosed and hard-hitting acidity of the Old Testament prophets. They not only stepped on your toes, they crushed your feet to bring you to your knees! Such righteous indignation was the foreground of Old prophetic ministry. They had a pre-cross prophetic expression. Consider even this small, random sample:

Amos prophesied to Amaziah that his wife would become a prostitute in the city, his children would be slain, and he himself would die in a pagan land (Am 7:17)-Amaziah's recompense for disdaining the prophet's ministry. Nahum opens his prophetic speech by establishing an angry and vengeful Jehovah, as does Micah and Zephaniah. John the Baptist, though he appears in the New Testament, nonetheless ministered in the last days of the Old Covenant system. Consequently, we see him endowed not only with the spirit of Elijah, but also the spirit of all the Old prophets: hostile preaching and fixation on God's imminent wrath. We see this in his provocative and unsettling word-picture: a razor-sharp ax ready to cut down and burn every unrepentant Jewish soul (Lk 3:9). What is a pre-cross prophetic expression, and, why so harsh?

More than any other ministry type, prophets express the immediate attitude of God. The Spirit of prophecy manifests His own mood through the prophet, giving him more than just a prophetic word, but also a prophetic mood that expresses the attitude of God toward the target audience. Therefore, the Old prophets were expressing God's attitude toward humanity (including Israel) in the pre-cross era.

In the pre-cross era, God's holy grudge against sinful mankind was still unresolved. The cross had not yet happened to pacify and subside His anger. Since prophets manifest the immediate attitude of God, they shared in His grudge. From their calling to their death, they carried and expressed this divine hostility-Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Micah all plainly stated the hand of the Lord gave them a holy bitterness and anger of spirit (Jer 15:17, Eze 3:14, Mic 3:8,9). Their in-your-face messages, stern demeanor, and super-intense ministry tactics all reflect a pre-cross prophetic expression flowing from an unsatisfied holy God.

The New : Praise the Lord for the cross! Thank God with me! Jesus' marvelous act on the cross accomplished much more than we sometimes gather. The sin debt of mankind was fully paid for. Atonement was perfected and provided. The Trinity's holy grudge could now subside and taper. It is finished! triggered an eternal change in God's mood toward humanity, and especially His people. Should not such an epochal event create changes in every aspect of reality, prophecy included?

Ponder the sunny demeanor of 1Corinthians 14:3 in light of the cross...New prophecy strengthens, encourages, and comforts the people of God. Similarly, ponder the prophesying of Judas and Silas (Ac 15:32), or the Corinthian prophets (1Co 14:31), and how they express that sunnier side of prophecy. Contrast this New prophetic aura with that of the bitter-herb savor of Micaiah or Ahijah or Obadiah. In the Old era, righteous indignation was the prophetic foreground, expressing God's pre-cross attitude. In the New, such indignation is the background, His grace the foreground, expressing God's post-cross attitude. See Hebrews 12:18-24...Old prophets expressed the darkness, gloom, and terror of Mount Sinai, New prophets express the joy, redemption, and newness of Mount Zion.


OT prophets: Jewish

NT prophets: multi-ethnic global

The Old : The Old prophets ministered within a particular cultural context-Jewish. The implications of this are many, but we'll look at the main one. The Old Testament prophets were anointed nationalists. Israel was God's select nation through whom He would bring His truth and His Savior into the earth (Ps 147:19,20, Isa 9:6). Consequently, Israel was to remain extremely secluded and "set apart" from the unredeemed world around them. Old prophetic ministry, then, contained a strong nationalistic undercurrent, and this undercurrent was divinely-inspired. God was jealous to preserve and prepare His own nation to incubate and deliver His goods to the world. Prophets expressed this divine nationalism.

The New : In the New Testament era, God's preoccupation is the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. This church is a multi-ethnic global community, and therefore, has implications for prophetic ministry. Whereas the Old prophets were anointed nationalists, the New prophets are anointed globalists.

Acts 2:17,18 connects prophetic ministry with the global outpouring of the Spirit. Acts 11:27-30 shows prophets bridging the gap between Christian Jew and Christian Gentile. Agabus and his prophetic team travel from Jerusalem to Antioch to declare a coming famine, which resulted in the predominantly Gentile church (Antioch) sending aid to the predominantly Jewish church (Jerusalem/Judea). Acts 13:1-3 shows primarily Gentile prophets commissioning Barnabas and Saul, Jewish apostles, to evangelize the Gentile world. Acts 15:22,32 show Jewish prophets, Judas and Silas, being sent to prophesy to a predominantly Gentile congregation (Antioch). Acts 19:6 shows Ephesian-Gentiles prophesying before a Jewish apostle, as does the Tyrian-Gentiles in 21:4. We can see Luke's consistent observation in Acts: New prophecy serves as an emulsifier for the global church.

Paul tells us in 1Corinthians 14:4,22 that prophecy is primarily for the church. Even more so, he tells us prophets are essential to the maturation of the church (Eph 4:11-13). Since we know the New Covenant church is multi-ethnic and global, we can see how the New Testament prophetic gift possesses a unique globalizing power. What Moses, Nathan, and Malachi could not do, Agabus, Judas, Silas, and every other New prophet can: unify the nations in Christ.


OT prophets: adversarial relationship with the faith community

NT prophets: harmonious relationship with the faith community

The Old : This is probably my favorite difference to talk about, partly because I often traverse developing prophets stuck in this Old dynamic.

Old Testament prophets possessed an adversarial relationship with the faith community. In general, they did not have a peaceful coexistence with the larger Israelite community. There are numerous reasons for this. One, they were God's theocratic representatives in the pre-cross era of divine hostility. Consequently, they were caught in the middle of a tense relationship between God and His pre-cross people. Two, Old prophets were authoritative enforcers of the Mosaic Law. They were Jehovah's policemen, sin-seekers and heresy-hunters. Thus, they typically incurred the "bad guy" label (Hos 9:7,8, 1Ki 18:17,18, Am 7:10-13, Jer 26:7-11). Three, when they did come across sin and disobedience, they exposed it forcefully and specifically, calling out names, places, and details. There was no gracious confrontation process we see in the New era (Mt 18:15-17, Tit 3:10). Unless you were as humble as David after Nathan torched him for his sin, you simply kept an aggravated distance from these prophets and they from you.

The New : New Testament prophets are not supposed to have an adversarial relationship with the church as the Old prophets did with Israel. They are to have a harmonious relationship with the faith community. There is to be a balanced and compatible co-existence. There are a few reasons for this, correlating with the reasons mentioned above.

One, New prophets are in a divinely-pacified post-cross era, and therefore, no longer caught in the middle of a tense relationship between heaven and earth. Two, New prophets are not authoritative enforcers of a harsh Old Covenant, but anointed dispensers of a joyfully gracious New Covenant (1Co 14:3,4,31, 2Co 3:7-11, Heb 12:18-24). Three, New prophets might prophetically address sin, but they are not to do so in the Old manner. Prophetic corrections pertaining to individual Christians are to be submitted to the Matthew 18:15-17 process. Prophetic corrections pertaining to elders or high church leaders are to be submitted to the 1Timothy 5:19 process. Prophetic corrections-that are serious and non-typical-that pertain to a church or ministry or group are to be privately submitted to the appropriate leadership for consideration and further protocol (1Th 5:12,13, 1Co 16:15,16). This certainly does not negate audacity and boldness in prophetic correction and rebuke (1Co 14:24,25). Not at all. Rather, it simply means the demeanor and presentation possess an undeniable post-cross sunshine. It has a much more positive and winsome spirit.

Corrective prophetic protocol in the New era makes every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph 4:3). In fact, all prophetic initiatives in the New are to make every effort to preserve harmonious relations with the faith community and with all people (Ro 12:18, Heb 12:14).

Difference #8: SOCIAL STYLE

OT prophets: social separation from the faith community

NT prophets: social integration into the faith community

The Old : Old prophets had a separative social style. They typically remained alone or in small prophetic communes, socially separate from the larger Israelite community (2Ki 1:9, 6:1,2, Lk 1:80, 1Sam 10:5, 19:20). The main reason for this is that they were the very middlemen between God and Israel/humanity in the pre-cross era of divine hostility. Just as the people preferred to not be near Sinai (Ex 20:18,19), and Sinai itself would not allow the people near (19:12,23,24), so also the Old prophets, who carried the spirit of Sinai, required a type of separation and boundary. Their social separation illustrated God's spiritual separation from Israel/humanity because of pre-cross sin.

The New : How different is the New! New prophets are to be fully integrated into the faith community. This is fellowship. How can a prophetic Christian fulfill all the "one anothers" in the New Testament if they are not vitally integrated? The Bible tells all Christians to serve one another (Gal 5:13), pray for one another (Jas 5:16), encourage one another (Heb 3:13), teach one another (Col 3:16), confess to one another (Jas 5:16), and on and on. Above all, it tells us to love one another deeply, from the heart (1Pet 1:22). John had very strong words against those who despise fellow Christians (1Jn 2:9-11), or separate themselves from the fellowship (v19). In light of the "one anothers", we can see New prophets are not to be social separatists. (This certainly does not mean prophetic Christians should not have prophetic communities to support and sharpen one another. Such is legitimate and good. We see this is in Acts 11:27, with Agabus leading such a group.)

Remember Hebrews 12:18-24? New prophets do not carry the separatist spirit of Sinai, they carry the joyful assembly spirit of Zion. The curse has been removed from the born-again people of God because of the cross, He can now integrate Himself fully with them (Gal 3:13,14). Prophets no longer need to illustrate the chasm separating God and His pre-cross people, because that chasm is gone! New prophets are to illustrate this new reality through integration, fellowship, friendship.