When we think prophecy, we tend to think of a lone individual whose words speak some prediction of the future, or if we are a little more familiar with Biblical prophecy, that speaks forth God’s word for a specific situation. Had within the image of prophecy is the individual, some person whose words speak against the rising tide of evil and ignorance of God.
Now, this is the primary vehicle of prophecy in the Old Testament; individual people inspired by God’s Spirit, such as Elijah or Hosea, who speak against political powers and call people back to repentance. But this isn’t the only model of prophetic power in the Old Testament. In Numbers 11:10-25, Moses complains to God about the unfair treatment he was the recipient of because the people were complaining that they had to eat meat, rather than the manna God was providing. Moses did not feel he could carry the burden and provoked God to put him to death if God wasn’t going to make things easier. In response, God gives the spirit that He had given to Moses to the 70 elders, who together prophesied, although this was a one-time event. It was just a brief glimpse, but for a moment the prophetic activity was not the job of a single person but of a group of people.
Then, we move to the New Testament, where at Pentecost Peter witnesses the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on various people and interprets it as what was spoken by Joel 2:28-29, which talked about prophecy, vision, and dreams being extended throughout the community on all people of all ages and status. Once again, the prophetic task was being extended to a group, rather than to a singular individual, but this time permanently.
This becomes Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians when it comes to Spirit and revelation. The Corinthians were aligning themselves with one teacher or another, such as Paul, Apollos, etc. as if there was a competitive relationship, where only one teacher has superior wisdom and all the rest are somehow inferior. However, in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, Paul shifts from the first person singular “I” to the first person plural “we” in talking about who speaks of the wisdom revealed by the Spirit. In context, this is probably Paul’s attempt to guide the Corinthians to see him and Apollos as both speaking spiritual instruction that should be brought together rather than seen as competing. His point in chapter 3 is to say he and Apollos have complementary roles,
In the end, for the New Testament, the Body of Christ is corporately called to be the bearer of the prophetic witness together; God’s leading is to be discerned from the joining together of what is brought forth, with each individual piece and act and considered. While there may be occasional moments of individuals who momentarily bear the full weight and responsibility of the prophetic witness, this is the exception and not the norm for the Church; and if we are to take the pattern of the Old Testament witness seriously to explain the individual prophetic agent, it is probably because there is something deeply wrong in the collective way God’s people are acting. Individual prophets call people back to the right foundations, but they don’t have any inherent calling to also be the ones who lay the foundation nor to build upon it. But individually inspired leaders who bear the weight of inspiration were never the ultimate purpose or goal of God’s Church, otherwise why then do we see the decline of prophetic activity from the late first century onwards? Why? Because we can look at the trajectory of the Scriptures and suggest it is God’s will that the whole Church bears the responsibility and not simply a few, central figures because the Church is the Body of Christ, who together reflect the image of God in the face of Jesus Christ through the leading of the Holy Spirit.