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This is the second article in the four-week series looking at what to do when we receive a prophecy (both given to us by someone else and a word we have to give). However, before we discuss the practicalities, the 'nuts and bolts' of giving a word, it is important to consider the context of prophecy in the scriptures. Last week we discussed prophecy in the Old Testament; how the revelation was received by a prophet who acted as the mouthpiece of God. It was the direct word of God; often it was a word for a nation, although spoken to their King. It was a word that was to be obeyed (or disobeyed) with direct consequences. The word was usually of some momentous significance. Roving bands of prophetic people were on the scene from time to time, but the emphasis lay with the prophet to the nation.
This week we want to look at how prophecy changed with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, the church came into being with various gifts being available to all, including the gift of prophecy. As the Holy Spirit was poured out there was a change from comparatively few recognized prophets to the gift of prophecy being available to the whole church.
Acts 2:16-18: 'This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slave, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.'
Interestingly, there is no record in the New Testament of any prophetic word being given to the nation, either to the Roman Empire or to the pagan countries. There is no word given which begins, 'This is the Lord's word to Caesar'. Only in the gospels is there any indication of a prophetic word that was perhaps spoken to the religious/national leaders, and that was by Jesus himself; Matthew 23:29: 'Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous...'
Even Paul, when before King Agrippa and Governor Festus (Acts 25, 26) did not prophesy, but spoke in clear and reasoned tones attempting to convince them of the legitimacy of the gospel.
However, prophecy was very important in the early church yet it seems to have remained as a practice within the body of believers. Clifford Hill in his book "Prophecy, Past and Present' says: 'It was because Paul knew that prophecy was addressed to the church to enable it to carry out its primary task of serving the world that Paul made edification or 'building up' his major test of authentic prophecy. If it was a true word from God through the Holy Spirit it would build the church. A true prophecy would build faith, increase understanding, broaden vision and strengthen the unity of the Christian community. A true prophecy would not be destructive and judgmental even though it might contain rebuke or correction. It would build community, not disintegrate it.'
It is significant that Paul mentions prophecy in all three of his lists of spiritual gifts and ministries.
1 Corinthians 12:8-11: 'To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who alots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.'
Romans 12:6-8: 'We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.'
Ephesians 4:1: 'The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers...'
Bible teachers view the gifts in two differing ways:
In this understanding gifts are given to a person and remain as part of their lives. They will recognize their particular area and focus of gifting. Various people within the body will receive different gifts, all of which work together and support each other. No one has all the gifts and it is important to find the gift God has given each of us.
Popularized by John Wimber in the 1980s, this understanding suggests that all the gifts are available to all Christians. They are not permanent fixtures in our lives but, as with a tool bag, we have them ready to pull out and use whenever the circumstances require. Therefore with prophecy, if we are with someone who needs to hear from God, a word from God may be given to us. Similarly, with the gift of healing, whilst ministering to a sick person we need to ask for a gift of healing. So, in this understanding we would know that prophecy was available for our use whenever the situation required. It is further suggested that when a gift is used more or less frequently and accurately it develops into a ministry, and that when a ministry is tested over time and received widely in the church it becomes an office.
Space dictates that the summaries of these two understandings of the gift of prophecy are very brief and superficial. Above all we must remember that we are talking about a sovereign outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We can do/hear/see nothing without God.
Richard Gaffin suggests:
'Probably the most important and certainly the most difficult lesson for us
to learn is that ultimately spiritual gifts are not our presumed strengths
and abilities, not something that we 'have' (or even have been given), but
what God does through us in spite of ourselves and our weaknesses. "My
Grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness"' (2
Perspectives on Pentecost (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), p 54.
Undoubtedly, we are in a time of amazing spiritual awakening! We are seeing many more people released in prophecy. More and more people are realizing that they can hear from God and that God can speak to them through others. In fact, one of the joys of the renewal has been to see the way God has used people in a whole range of new ways. But here's a little warning: the focus must always be God... not the 'prophet'. It is God who delights to communicate with his people and we need to exalt God's speaking and not our receiving and transmitting!
The New Testament scriptures put an emphasis on discernment. We are imperfect people, we may hear, see and understand incorrectly. We need to weigh the words that we hear from God and from others.
1 Corinthians 14:29: 'Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.'
1 Corinthians 2:12-15a: 'Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God's Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things.'
There is an emphasis on testing prophetic words in the New Testament because prophecy is given through imperfect human beings. It is channelled through human language, often with culturally different nuances, so great care is needed. Of course, God can still use it powerfully! A recent illustration of this was experienced on IRC chat a few months ago. One person had a vision, I won't give details, but a picture was shared that included a football field. It spoke to all of us, and we happily shared how God had used the picture... then, one person said that as the vision was being given they had even seen the 'quarter-back'. For many of us, it took a few moments to re-focus our thoughts. There is no quarterback in Manchester United, our favorite English football (soccer) team! We realized that the picture had been viewed and interpreted differently by those of the various nations represented on the channel. It had conveyed an individual image to each person dictated by their culture, experiences and upbringing.
Mike Bickle in his book,"Growing in the Prophetic" says: 'Instead of the direct audible voice of God's revelation, much prophetic ministry is imparted by impressions of the Holy Spirit upon our own hearts. Instead of stoning prophets, we are instructed to judge and discern that which they speak to know if it is from God.'
In the next two weeks we will look more closely at the practical issues. We will consider what to do when we, ourselves, are the recipients of a word. How to begin the process of discernment and to carefully and responsibly weigh words. Also, we will discuss ways of proceeding when we have received a word from God for another person or for our church.
And for the last word...
1 Corinthians 13:2: And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.