When it comes to the ongoing, modern-day work of the Holy Spirit there are few things more confusing to people than the issue of prophecy. Many people have had bad, weird, crazy experiences with self-proclaimed prophets. Many people have even made poor, life-altering decisions (like marrying someone!) in response to a “prophecy” of some sort. When you throw guys like Benny Hinn and Kenneth Copeland into the mix it’s no wonder many Christians don’t want to mess with the issue of prophecy.
But I’m convinced many of the problems with and confusion regarding modern day prophecy are the result of failing to follow the relatively straightforward commands in Scripture regarding modern day prophecy. I’ve seen prophecy done properly and I’ve seen prophecy seriously jacked up. So…(deep breath)…let me attempt to lay out a simple, biblical case for what modern day prophecy should look like.
PROPHECY IS FOR THE ENCOURAGEMENT OF THE CHURCH
1 Corinthians 14:5 says, “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”
The primary, central purpose of New Testament prophesy is to build up and encourage the church. This is in distinct contrast to Old Testament prophecy in which the prophets would call down divine judgment upon the people of Israel and the surrounding nations. Old Testament prophets received direct, infallible revelation from God regarding God’s judgment on Israel and surrounding nations. The teaching of the Apostles along with the testimony of the New Testament make it clear that New Testament prophecy serves a very different function.
New Testament, modern-day prophecy is intended to build up, edify, and encourage the people of God. If a dude stands up and starts foaming at the mouth, prophesying judgment and hellfire and brimstone, I immediately tune him out. Why? Prophesy is intended to build up and encourage the church.
PROPHECY IS NOT NEW REVELATION ABOUT GOD
Prophecy is never, ever, ever new revelation about God. Once the canon was completed all revelation about God ceased. The fullest revelation of God is Jesus Christ. The teaching of the apostles fills out and explains who Christ is and what he accomplished. Anyone who claims to have new revelation about God is a heretic and should be driven out of the church.
So what exactly is prophecy? I would argue that modern day prophecy is God-given insight into specific circumstances which could not be known otherwise and which in turn enables a person to bring God’s word to bear on those circumstances (you may want to read that again).
Let me give an example of what I mean. Recently Jen and I attended a friend’s church. During the service a woman came up to the front and shared what she believed was a prophetic picture from the Lord. She saw a picture of the someone laying train tracks out in front of a person one small piece at a time. She believed this picture was a reminder that God will lead us one step at a time exactly where we need to go.
Now, there was nothing weird about this experience. I didn’t get the heebie jeebies. The woman didn’t convulse or say, “Thus sayeth the Lord.” Her eyes didn’t roll back in her head. I didn’t get goosebumps. I didn’t see visions of glory. It was all very calm, ordinary, and orderly. Once she was done she quietly went back to her seat.
What I did receive was encouragement. Jen and I are in a period of transition right now. We don’t exactly know what the future holds for us. It’s actually kind of scary. The words shared by this woman encouraged me. I already know from God’s word that he will lead me. I know from God’s promises that he will give me wisdom and lead me in the proper path. I know he has good things in store for me. But I don’t always remember to apply what I know to my current circumstances. The woman who was speaking had never met me or Jen. She didn’t know what was taking place in our lives. And yet God used her simple, ordinary words to encourage us and build us up. God used her prophetic words to apply God’s word to our current circumstances.
Prophecy is not new revelation about God. Rather, prophecy is when God gives someone insight into particular circumstances which they would not have known otherwise. This insight then allows God’s word to be brought to bear more fully on those circumstances.
PROPHECY IS NOT INFALLIBLE
In 1 Corinthians 13:9 Paul writes, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” Right now we only know in part. We don’t have a full understanding of God and all his ways. Because we know in part we only prophesy in part. In other words, prophecy is fallible. It can be partially correct or even incorrect. It is possible to misunderstand or misinterpret the things God reveals to us.
In light of this fact all prophecy must be tested and evaluated according to God’s word. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20 says, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good…” If a person prophesies something which contradicts the clear revelation of God’s word I immediately discard it as false. God’s word is the measuring stick by which all prophecy is evaluated. Anything contrary to the Word of God must be rejected as heresy.
PROPHECY IS NOT BINDING
I get reeeeeaaaaalllllyyyyy nervous whenever a so-called prophet starts telling someone what to do with their life. This is where prophecy can go South really quickly.
It’s important to remember that New Testament, modern-day prophecy is not binding. In other words, we are not required to obey something simply because someone says it is from the Lord. An example of this is Paul’s interaction with Agabus. In Acts 21:10-12 we read:
While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ ” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.
Agabus prophesied that Paul would be arrested. In response to Agabus’ prophecy Paul’s companions and friends urged him not to go to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Paul still continued on his journey to Jerusalem. He did not regard Agabus’ prophesy as binding.
Throughout my life I’ve had people give prophetic words over me. Sometimes these words are in regards to my future or what I should be doing. When I hear these words my mental response is always, “Well, we’ll see!” I don’t make major life decisions based on prophecy, I make major life decisions based upon the Bible. There are times when prophecy can instill fresh faith for a particular decision but it is never the basis for a life decision. Prophecy is not binding.
SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
If you believe in prophecy but aren’t really sure what to do I would encourage you to do two things. First, read Wayne Grudem’s book The Gift of Prophecy In the New Testament and Today. It is a much longer and more thorough treatment of the subject of prophecy.
Second, I would encourage you to bring your questions and concerns to the Lord. Tell him you want experience prophecy but you’re not sure what to do. Tell him about your bad experiences with prophecy. He wants to meet you where you are. He wants to give you good gifts. 1 Corinthians 14:1 should encourage you that God wants to help you in this area:
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.