1 Corinthians 14:1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. … 3 … the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. … the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.
This morning we started thinking about the spiritual gift of prophecy. We saw that the Holy Spirit poured out on the Church at Pentecost was the promised Spirit who inspired the Old Testament Prophets, the Spirit of prophecy.
Acts 2 17 ‘ “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
This is the nature of the Holy Spirit promised in the Old Testament which God has now poured out on all his children – the Spirit who inspires prophecy, visions and dreams. This means that in principle ALL Christians can experience the spiritual gift of prophecy. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul says that we should all desire the gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. He says that he would like all of his readers to prophesy.
1 Corinthians 12:29 asks Are all prophets? The question is phrased (in Greek ou me) as if it expects the answer to be no. So the best translation will be, “Surely not all are prophets.” Paul envisages that some believers will exercise a regular ministry as “prophets” alongside apostles and teachers, subject to their recognition by the local Chris
tian community as prophets. On the other hand others (not known as “prophets”) will occasionally exercise the gift of prophesy. But Paul longs that ALL Christians would prophesy which implies that he thinks that all potentially could.
Verse 31 says “For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” Paul says “you can all prophesy”, rather than “some of you” or “lots of you.” That surely implies that he thought that all believers could potentially exercise the gift of prophecy, if the Holy Spirit inspired them to, even if not all of them would be given a revelation to share on the same occasion. There’s a simple phrase which sums this idea up very well: “the prophethood of all believers.” We’ve heard the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers,” the idea that every one of us can come into God’s presence and pray. We don’t need special priests as intermediaries. The prophethood of all believers implies the reverse, the corollary. God will speak directly to ALL of us – because the Holy Spirit who is working in every Christian is the same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets! Preacher and Old Testament theologian Bob Gordon commented, “It is this universalizing of prophetic potentiality to every believer that marks the greatest difference between Old Testament and New Testament prophecy.” So let’s think a bit deeper about how this might work out in practice.
We looked this morning at some examples of prophesy in the Book of Acts. We saw Agabus foretelling a famine and predicting what was going to happen to Paul. But we said this morning that prophecy does not mean fore-telling events in the future. More often it is “forth-telling” a revelation from God. As an example, when Jesus is blind-folded and mocked the guards taunt him with the words, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” (Lk 22:64) The expectation was that any true prophet would receive supernatural knowledge from God about people and events. We see examples of that kind of supernatural knowledge in Jesus knowing about sinful life of the woman who anointed him in Luke 7:39, or about the many husbands of the woman at the well in Samaria, and Jesus’s knowledge of all men’s hearts in John 2:24. In Acts 5 we saw Peter’s supernatural knowledge of the lies of Ananias and Sapphira. Some would see these as examples of other spiritual gifts closely related to prophecy, which Paul calls words of knowledge and words of wisdom. What is central in any prophecy is some kind of revelation from God either for the individual or to pass on to others.
This morning we also talked about examples of revelations from God in Paul’s vision of a man of Macedonia and God encouraging Paul not to be afraid in Corinth. We saw God speaking directly to Peter, and to Cornelius, and to the church at Antioch sending Barnabas and Paul out on their missionary journeys.
David Watson gave this definition of Christian prophecy. “While the written word is God’s truth for all people at all times, the prophetic word is a particular word, inspired by God, given to a particular person or group of persons, at a particular moment for a particular purpose.” Prophecy is not just good Bible teaching. “Prophecy would express a new word from God as such, whereas teaching would tend to denote more a new insight into an old word from God,”. “Prophecy receives its content through revelation, teaching from tradition”.
According to Paul the function of prophecy will always be to build up the church, bringing “strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (1 Corinthians 14:3). Let’s look more carefully at the instructions Paul gives about the practice of the gift of prophecy towards the end of 1 Corinthians 14.
1 Corinthians 14 26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.
In other words, Paul expects that many Christians will be participating in the church’s times of worship together. Alongside teaching, others will bring a revelation, a prophetic message from God which God has given then, perhaps in their prayer times during previous week.
1 Corinthians 14 29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.
These verses tell us some important things about the practice of Christian prophecy. The first is that all prophecy should be carefully weighed and scrutinised, particularly by others with prophetic gifts. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. Some people think that “two or three prophets should speak” means that God will normally give the same or parallel messages to more than two people, on the biblical principle that the truth is established by at least two witnesses. Some would go as far as to say that isolated prophecies coming from only one person are not necessarily reliable. We will come back in a few minutes to think about how “others should weigh carefully what is said.”
They we read, 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn. This tells us that somebody delivering a prophetic message is always in control of themselves. They are not in a trance or some kind of ecstatic state – they can start and stop speaking at will. Uncontrolled ecstatic speech is often a sign of demonic activity, not of the Holy Spirit. This verse also confirms another important fact about Christian prophecy. The person will normally receive a revelation, a message from God, and then subsequently share it with others when they gather. The first message is not lost if somebody else receives a fresh revelation while the first person is in the middle of sharing. They can stop and share their revelation afterwards. For you can all prophesy in turn.
Not all churches express the gift of prophecy in that way. From the early days of Pentecostalism, many have believed that God will just tell them to start speaking and then the Holy Spirit will give them the message word by word as they go along. But that is not how the Bible understands prophecy to work. Normally God will give the whole revelation, and the person will subsequently share it. From all observation, and from many studies I have read, I am convinced that delivering the message after it has been received in its entirety is generally much better than trying to deliver it at the same time as the revelation is being experienced. Prophecy benefits massively from the reflective process of receiving a revelation, then reflecting on its meaning and finding the best way to express the message.
People who regularly exercise prophetic gifts generally agree that it is usually the sense of the prophetic message which is inspired, rather than the precise words. In some churches prophecies are always delivered in King James’ Authorised Version English. They are always delivered in the first person in the name of God, “I the Lord tell you.” But it is important to note that prophecies are no more authoritative or authentic if they are expressed in those forms of language. Indeed, Michael Green has observed, “Prophesy does not rant.”
Pentecostal churches tend to be used to that kind of “explicit” prophecy delivered in the first person, as if God is speaking. Pentecostals prefer direct speech. But as good evangelicals we may be too shy to speak on behalf of God in that way. In practice Charismatics tend to say something like, “The Lord laid this on my heart last night …” and carry on in indirect speech. These “words from the Lord” which we have may well come from an equally strong experience of revelation. But sometimes because we report them in a different form of language they may not be recognised as “prophecy”.
An example of that kind of “unrecognised prophecy” might help. 40 years ago I was in a church meeting which was on the point of approving a scheme of major renovations to the buildings. One member stood up and said, “I was praying about this. Our God is a great God. This scheme isn’t big enough.” We all received those simple words as a message from the Holy Spirit. The mood and direction of the meeting was transformed and six months later the church embarked upon a much more ambitious project for structural alterations costing three times as much, which proved to be a turning point in that church’s life and growth and witness. That prophecy was a very powerful message from God.
It is the element of direct communication of a revelation from God which is at the heart of all Christian prophecy, rather than the form in which the message is delivered. That includes the kinds of unrecognised Christian prophecy,. When we share our convictions about the will or the heart of God, expressing after prayerful reflection what we believe God might be saying to the church, that fits very well into the New Testament pattern of prophecy. Looked at in that way, very many Christians might realise that God HAS actually spoken to them and through them. They have indeed already experienced the spiritual gift of prophecy.
So, back to the very important question of how we should “weigh” and evaluate prophecies.
All Christian prophecy is mixed. “We know in part and we prophesy in part. … We see through a glass, darkly;” (1 Corinthians13:9ff AV).
Unlike prophecies in the Old Testament, Christian prophecy is not always simply true or false. People who make genuine mistakes in their prophesying, should not be condemned as “false prophets”. Jesus used that label “false prophet” actually to describe false teachers. Specific prophecies can be very good. On the other hand, Bruce Yocum wrote that other prophecies can be “poor” or “bad” for different reasons. They may be “impure” because a genuine revelation from God gets mixed up with the speaker’s own ideas. So many women have been convinced over the years that God has told them they were going to marry Cliff Richard. Prophecies may be “weak” because they actually contain very little content – many messages described as prophecies are simply quotations of Scripture or even merely pious thoughts, with no actual elements of revelation in them. They can bless others, but they are not technically what the Bible means by prophecy. Or some prophecies may be “sloppy”, because they are delivered carelessly or irrelevantly.
I mentioned last week an example of bad prophecy, reported by a prominent church leader. “I the Lord who created and redeemed you, who know everything about you, I the Lord (although just at this moment I forget thy name) am with you.”
All prophecy is mixed. We thought this morning about Agabus’s prediction of Paul’s sufferings.
Acts 21 10 After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, ‘The Holy Spirit says, “In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.” ’
12 When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.
There was a problem with this prophecy. The revelation Agabus had received was absolutely correct, and he reported it faithfully. The problem was that the church misunderstood it. God was warning Paul to prepare him for what he would suffer. God was not telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.
All prophecy is mixed. So here are some tests we should apply when we think God is speaking to us or to the church.
10 Ways to Test and Weigh Prophecies
1. Scripture and sound doctrine. Prophecies will never contradict the Bible
2. The traditions of the Church, although we should remember that sometimes God has used prophetic witness to challenge and reform the church.
3. The effects – “strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (1 Corinthians 14:3)
building up the church and glorifying Christ.
4. All who prophesy must be judged by their fruit their works and lifestyle Matt 7:15f.
5. The spirit of love with (or without) which the message is delivered.
6. The gift of discerning spirits and the “inner witness” of the Spirit in others.
7. Specific messages must be evaluated by others with prophetic gifts (1 Corinthians 14:29)
8. Does the speaker submit to the church leaders?
9. Is the speaker in control of himself/herself when speaking? Evil spirits take over people, the Holy Spirit never does
10. For rare prophetic predictions foretelling the future, the biblical test is whether the prophecy is fulfilled (Deuteronomy 18:22).
Throughout the history of the church, false teachers have arisen who have led Christians astray. But we should not reject the spiritual gift of prophecy because of that. Just because a gift can be counterfeited does not mean that the real thing does not exist. The Bible gives us criteria for testing prophecy because genuine prophecy also remains a possibility.
In the New Testament, prophecy and prophetic gifts aren’t peripheral to the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. They are central activities of Spirit who inspires Prophecy. And no Christian is excluded from God speaking to us or through us in such ways if He chooses. Indeed, we all could expect to receive much more direct communication from God, because we have all received the communicating Spirit, the Spirit Who inspires prophecy. We share in “the prophet-hood of all believers.”
We all need more education about prophecy. We all need more experience of hearing God speak directly to us, learning to listen to God. But more than anything, we all need greater expectation. We rightly expect the Holy Spirit help us to understand the Bible. But some Christians can be deaf to the Holy Spirit if He speaks to us through prophecy or dreams or visions or pictures.
Samuel prayed, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:10) We can pray that same prayer, confident that God still wants to speak directly today, not just to some but to all of his children. Because each believer has received that Holy Spirit who inspires prophecy and communicates revelations. But we all need to become more open to the word of God coming to us in all sorts of different and unexpected ways. Or when God does speak, we may not hear Him!
To finish with, let me give another example of prophecy from my own experience, which I have shared before. I share it not so much because of the message it contains but more because of the way the message came to me, in a prophetic dream. One Sunday I was all prepared to preach a sermon on taking risks for the sake of the gospel. On the Saturday night I had an interesting dream. I dreamed that on the wall of our church I saw a painting. The painting I saw clearly in my dream was of fields next to a river on a bright sunny day. And on the riverbank a large group of people were having a lovely picnic together as rowing boats drifted past along the river.
Then in my dream, next to that painting on the wall I saw a second painting. It was of a scene further along the same river. Just around a bend, where the people having the picnic couldn’t see, there was a Niagara Falls sized waterfall. All the people in all the boats passing by were plunging to their deaths over the waterfall.
Meanwhile all the time the people on the riverbank in the first painting just went on enjoying their picnic. Nobody was throwing out lifelines to the boats passing by. Nobody was even shouting out warnings to the boats. Nobody had even put up a sign saying, “Danger, waterfall ahead.” They just went on enjoying their picnic. Those were the paintings which I saw in my dream. Shortly after sharing it with my own church, I was giving the launch address in an ecumenical mission to the town and I shared it there as well, and many folk were deeply moved. I give that as an example of prophecy. This was not a story about two paintings which I thought up and developed myself. I believe the Holy Spirit gave it to me in a prophetic dream.
1 Thessalonians 5:19 commands “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt.”
Eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.
Speak Lord, for your servants are listening!