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This is the third week in the series 'What to do when we receive a Prophetic Word'. In the last two weeks we looked at prophecy in the Old Testament and prophecy in the New Testament. We saw how in the Old Testament the prophet was the mouthpiece of God; the word spoken was received in its entirety as of God. In the New Testament there was a change, prophecy was a gift to the church with a much greater emphasis on discernment. This week we want to take a closer look at the process of discernment.
Practically, what do we do when we are given a prophetic word from someone else for ourselves. Of course, the word may just be a general word of encouragement, in which case... be encouraged! But sometimes the word may be more specific, more directive, even corrective and will need a response from us. We need to discern if this is God speaking to us. Prophecy is given through imperfect human beings; words may even 'begin in the spirit and end in the flesh'. We do need careful discernment. Then, when we accept it as a word from God, we need to exercise care in how we interpret it and how we apply it. There is a process in prophetic revelation; we need to ask three questions:
Of course, we divide and categorize only as an aid to understanding, in reality the process will overlap and flow together.
We need to test it against scripture, prophecy will never contradict the revelation given in the bible. Here's a real situation we have come across in pastoral ministry: a young couple, much in love receive a word that as they are planning to get married it is acceptable for them to start to live together. This word would have to be rejected as it is not according to scriptural principles.
We need to look for an inner witness. This is not so easy to define. It is something deep within us that recognizes that this is something of God, or conversely, that it is not something of God. It's not always easy to describe it to anyone; simply 'I know, because, I know, because I know'. It is that which John talks about 'As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you.'
[It is also worth noting the character of the person giving the word although as we see with Balaam's donkey (Num 22:28), God can speak through anyone! However it is helpful when receiving a prophecy to know if it is given through someone who is a Godly person and in good standing with other Christians.]
Prophecy is often a confirmation of something or some direction that is already being pursued or perused. Confirmation may come in the form of other prophecies from different sources, in the reading of the scriptures, in circumstances, in wise counsel and advice and in a deep sense of inner peace. It is always wise to seek further confirmation of prophetic words.
The next stage in the process is interpretation. As a rule of thumb, it helps to look for the main point, the central issue. If this prophecy is from God, what is the main thing God is saying. If you like, what is the punchline? C.H. Dodd did a good turn for biblical scholarship when he pointed out that the parables of Jesus usually have one thing to say, and it is usually the punchline of the story. Most of the other details, descriptions and side points are just good story telling. The narrative is used to create an image... you picture the story, visualize it and if the story telling is good, enter into it. Then comes the punchline. 'Ah, now I see' is the response the story teller hopes for. When God speaks to us through prophecy it is often the same. It is not the details but the main point which is the most important thing. If a spiritual interpretation is sought in every element in the prophecy, it opens the door for any flight of fancy which takes us! We can become bogged down in the details.
It is also helpful to share with those who have understanding and discernment. Don't seek help in interpretation from those who are immature in the faith. Our 'counsellors' need to be in tune with the Holy Spirit, aware of the ways of God, mature in the faith and able to tell one end of a theological argument from the other! The Celtic Christian practice of the 'soul-friend' (anamchara) is very helpful. A soul-friend is a mature spiritual person who knows God and us, and will help keep us from blind-alleys and dead-ends.
In interpreting prophecy we need to be aware of our bias and prejudices. These are not necessarily a bad thing, but we do need to realize that we have them. They are part of us, formed through our culture, our upbringing, our life-style. Biases color the way we see and understand everything, including prophecy. One day, we were driving home from a visit to the optician. We had purchased new spectacles on a 'buy one pair, get one pair free' offer. It had made sense to us to have the 'free' pair made with the darkest possible tint to be used in strong sunlight. As we were driving home Andy kept commenting on how lovely the surrounding countryside looked; how beautiful it was, bathed in a sort of rose-colored hue. Everyone-else kept telling him that they couldn't see it. Then we realized that the dark lens he had chosen had a red-tint. It was unnoticeable in the dark lens, but nevertheless it was there. He had interpreted the landscape through his particular pair of glasses! We do that with prophecy.
Of course, it may be that we feel the prophecy is from God but no immediate interpretation is revealed to us. That is okay. The prophecy may not be relevant at this time, but may pertain to something in the future. We find it helpful to have what we call a 'prophetic shelf'. This is not a physical shelf but a spiritual shelf. Prophecies that are not for now are put there. They are not 'out of sight' or forgotten, but occasionally read through and prayed into, waiting for the right time when God wishes to use or bring to fulfilment that particular word. We have several at present on our 'prophetic shelf', even words that have been spoken several times through different people. We are awaiting God's timing and further enlightenment. We need to learn to live with loose ends!
Let's look just a little more closely at prophetic timing and fulfilment of a revelatory word. One of the most important things in the application and understanding of prophecy is to try not to manipulate it to fit our own direction or wish. It is also important that we don't try to make it happen straight away. We can learn from the examples of Abraham and Joseph. Abraham waited about twenty-five years for the fulfilment of the prophetic word about Isaac. He even tried to help God bring about a fulfilment on a couple of occasions! Here is the story in brief:
The prophetic promise came to Abraham, 'And the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, To your offspring I will give this land' (Gen 12:7). Abraham wonders if perhaps the promise is to be fulfilled through his servant. That is not to be, the prophetic promise is renewed and expanded. 'But Abram said, "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the Lord came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen.15: 2-6) As the promise remains unfilled, Sarah tries to seek another possible way of bringing the word to pass. 'Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children: and she had an Egyptian slave-girl, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave girl; it may be that I obtain children by her. And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.' (Gen:16:1-2) 'And the angel of the Lord said to her, Now you have conceived and shall bear a son, and you shall call him Ishmael; for the LORD has given heed to your affliction.' (Gen16:11) The prophetic promise was confirmed again! Then Abraham fell on his face, and laughed, and said to himself, Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child? And Abraham said to God, O that Ishmael might live in your sight! 'And God said, "No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son; and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him."' (Gen 17:17-19) 'And Abraham was a hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born to him.' (Gen21:5) Fulfilment at last!
Another example is Joseph. He received a prophetic word in a dream:
Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 'He said to them, "Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf." His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?" So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, "Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me." But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, "What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?" (Gen 37:5-10) With Joseph it was many years later after much persecution and hardship that the word came to pass. 'Now Joseph was governor over the land; it was he who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph's brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. (Gen 42:6)
To conclude this week we want to share a personal story. It illustrates many prophetic words, circumstances and inner senses coming together. It is the story of how we came to leave a small Northumbrian village in England and come to minister in Ithaca NY. Of course, space necessitates leaving out many details and just giving a brief outline. As you read it be aware of the different confirmations of direction.
We were planting a new small network of communities in Hexham, Northumberland, and at the same time we were very involved in the nightly renewal meetings in Sunderland. Due to the generosity of our previous church we were still living in the church manse in a village some ten miles from Hexham. We wanted to buy a new home. I think this was one of the first circumstances that gave us a clue that God was releasing us from the area. We had serious offers in for over seventeen houses. Even though it was a depressed market none were accepted. Even the estate agent (US realtor) offered to take us on staff. She said we only had to look towards a house and it miraculously sold! God was certainly closing the doors to us buying a house in Hexham and surrounding districts. Of course, we were meeting regularly with a group to pray for God's direction. Many words were given and we had a growing inner sense that it was time to move on. A final confirming word was given during a meeting in Sunderland when Lois Gott called us out with a word that 'the cloud was moving and we had to run to catch up with it. And that the valley was too small.' The area we lived in was actually called locally the Tyne Valley, a fact that was unknown to Lois. So we knew the Lord was moving us, but no doors were opening. We had no idea in which direction to move. More fasting, praying, interceding and sharing with spiritual advisors followed. Another significant prophecy was that we were in 'an amber time, and soon it would turn to green.' Friends offered two different interpretations, one that as with a traffic light, amber meant get ready and wait; the other that it may be connected to the amber fields that were ablaze in the whole area. Shortly afterwards, Andy was ministering in Ithaca in upstate NY. During one of the meetings a prophetic word was given to him that the person believed God was asking us all to go to Ithaca and minister there. It seemed impossible, however further words, prayers and again the inner witness confirmed that it was a right word. Being mere mortals we sought yet a clearer confirmation! It was not naturally a good time to move, two of the children were at the worst possible stage in their education to change schools; we both had very good part-time careers as well as setting up the new church and we were foster parents. We had a conference at Sunderland; speakers were Randy Clark and Jim Paul. Due to another God-ordained circumstance we ended up picking Jim Paul up at his hotel and tentatively mentioned we might be moving to the US. Jim immediately said he had received a word about the area we were going to. Briefly that God had slapped USA and left his hand print in the shape of the Finger Lakes region and that he was digging a well of renewal and we were to be part of it. As he spoke he held out his hand into the shape of the Finger Lakes and pointed to the end of one of his fingers and said 'here'. It was the exact location of Ithaca! Six weeks later, having given away most of what we owned we took off from Newcastle airport, significantly as we looked down all the amber fields had turned, almost overnight, to green. That is, of course, only the beginning of the story, but we will leave it there. It would not have been sufficient or complete if we had just acted on one prophetic word, there was an interaction between many words, circumstances, counsel and senses.
Next week we will look at what to do when we are the recipients of a prophetic word from God which may be for another.