Question:

I'm having a problem understanding "prophesying." 

In Romans 12:6 Paul said, "let us prophesy."  Is I Corinthians 14:3-4 teaching that during the days of the early church one form of prophesying was not in a "miraculous" sense but rather a "natural" ability  (cf. Romans 12:4-6)?


Answer:

In Romans, Paul makes the point: "For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function" (Romans 12:4). He then lists out several gifts or abilities granted to people by God: prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, and mercy. Very quickly we notice that only the first gift is miraculous, the rest are what we would typically call natural abilities or opportunities.

Today we tend to define prophesy as predicting the future, but in the Bible it referred to a person who spoke the words of God by inspiration. It is possible that Paul is using this word in a very broad way in regards to speaking the words of God (i.e. preaching), but if such was the case it is the only time that I know of it being used in that way.

When people think about gifts from God, most of us immediately latch on to the miraculous gifts. Paul even spoke of such gifts at length in I Corinthians 12 while making a similar point to what we find in Romans 12. But here in Romans 12 I think Paul is using one miraculous gift as a representation of all such gifts. After all, the list presented, like most lists, is not exhaustive but representative. If you are given a miraculous gift from God, it should be used to fullest of your ability. "Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership" (I Timothy 4:14).

However, I think Paul is putting those miraculous gifts into perspective. It is only one part of the many gifts we receive from God. Those non-miraculous gifts are no less important. In fact, you could argue that they are more important because they will not end like the miraculous gifts. "Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away" (I Corinthians 13:8).

We refer to these gifts as natural abilities, but each one involves both skill and opportunity. A generous man can rarely display his ability if he never has enough to give. A leader cannot display his skills if there are few around to follow him. A merciful man can't show mercy if no one becomes indebted to him. It is a gift of God when a person has both the ability and opportunity to use what God makes available. "As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor-this is the gift of God. For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart" (Ecclesiastes 5:19-20). In both the skill and the opportunity, each is a gift from God.

Hence, Paul is emphasizing that we are all different and those differences are advantages when used for the good of all. Gifts are not limited to just the miraculous, God makes us different in a many ways and gives us each different opportunities. Romans 12 is a great place to counter the idea that we need miraculous gifts in order to serve each other and God.