The gift of prophecy has been given to the church (like the other spiritual gifts) to build up and strengthen it. “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your[a] faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully” (Romans 12:4-8). As we strive to live a life worthy of our Lord Jesus Christ, we have been given the privilege to serve each other with a variety of gifts that the Holy Spirit has given to Church. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7).
But because the gift of prophecy specifically has to do with revelation it can easily be misused and instead of building up and strengthening the church, we can hurt and weaken the church and its witness to the world. We have seen reports of people doing outrageous things; eating grass, drinking petrol and a host of other things in the name of following a commandment from God’s prophet. A lot of these things are done because people fear going against God’s Word as brought to them by the prophet. It has become crucial for us to be able to distinguish and discern what is truly God’s Word and what isn’t.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
– Matthew 7:21-23
The most chilling part of this verse for me is that those who are called “evildoers” seem to have genuinely thought that they were Christ’s ambassadors. They performed miracles and prophesied in His name! But they were turned away because they were not doing the will of the Father. Apart from false teachers who are fully aware of their deceit, these are seemingly genuine people who are heading down the wrong path. This verse emphasizes the point that we should always make sure that we allow Scripture to guide us so that we are actually doing the will of the Father. We are not automatically protected from being deceived and lead astray. We need to actively engage our minds and allow it to be transformed by God’s Word as clearly written in the Scriptures. “…Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2b)
How then do we keep ourselves from being led astray and deceived: whether by people who are genuinely lost themselves or by those who actively try and lead people down the wrong path. I think modern christianity (at least as seen in this part of our world) has at least three(3) traits that make us more susceptible to listening to the wrong people rather than focusing on God’s Word.
1. We are in search of a ‘new word’
We’ve become accustomed to looking around restlessly for something new, the latest and greatest, that idea or product or person or experience that will solve our problems, give us some purpose, and change the world. Although we might be a little jaded by the ads, we’re eager to take whatever it is “to a whole new level.”
– Michael Horton (Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World)
It seems we are always looking for a “new word” from God. We are all looking to God to speak into our current circumstances and help us fulfill our purpose in life. We forget that God’s new Word to us is His old Word He has given us in the Scriptures. This practically means that there are a lot of situations where the answer is to simply prayerfully dive into the Scriptures rather than waiting for a new word from someone. The Scriptures are very clear on a number of issues; how to spend our money, how we treat one another, how we care for the poor and needy, how we conduct ourselves sexually etc. We can therefore confidently walk away when we are told by a prophet that we need to act in a manner opposed to Scripture in order to receive a breakthrough. We can do this because we know that since the prophet speaks for God, what they say will always be in line with what is in Scripture. Any new word will always put a spotlight on the old Word. We should pray that the Scriptures don’t become stale to us but rather remain fresh and relevant as the Holy Spirit speaks to us daily through them.
2. We are in search of a new ‘gospel’
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
-2 Timothy 4:1-4
Sometimes the problem is that we want to hear something other than what is in accordance with sound doctrine. The gospel message can be difficult to hear. Being confronted with our sin as the word of God is faithfully preached to us is sometimes not very soothing. As much as the scriptures encourages and exhorts us, it also reproves and rebukes us. It re-aligns our desires and dreams in accordance with God’s will. Unfortunately we rather prefer people who will tell us what we want to hear and feed our own desires. Rather than being challenged to do more about those who struggle around me both physically and spiritually, I will rather want to hear that I will get that new job or that visa to travel. We should continually pray that Lord encourages and strengthens faithful men and women of God who preach the word in season and out of season. We should also pray that we don’t let our own desires influence who we listen but rather the Spirit of God will draw us into the scriptures more deeply and change our desires to align with the Father’s will. A good test is to see if the prophecies we hear drive us “to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10)”. Or they are simply the things we want to hear to fulfill our own desires. One builds up the church and the other breaks it down into myths and superstitions.
3. We are in search of a new type of leader
A lot of the time discussions around prophets and prophecy is halted because within our cultural framework certain groups of people are beyond accountability. A popular argument is that since they are called by God only He can question their actions. Another argument is that they are on a different spiritual level so only those on that particular level can say anything about them and their prophecies. This is not the picture of prophets seen in the Acts and in 1 Corinthians. In the New Testament, prophets are not rogue super beings who operate outside of the local church with no accountability. They operate within the local church under the church leadership and use their gift (like everyone within the church) for the building up of their fellow brothers and sisters. They are not exempt from living a life worthy of the gospel of Christ because of their gift. And if they want to be overseers, elders or deacons in the church, Titus 1:6-10 and 1 Timothy 3:1-13 applies to them as well:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. (2) Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, (3) not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. (4) He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, (5) for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (6) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. (7) Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (8) Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. (9) They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. (10) And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. (11) Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. (12) Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. (13) For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.
1 Timothy 3:1-13
The qualities described can be broadly grouped into good conduct/character, godliness, firmness in the faith/gospel. The only gift mentioned is the ability to teach but this is only in respect to overseers. My point is that a role in church governance is less about having a particular spiritual gift and more about who the person is as a christian (character, relations with others, grounding in the gospel etc). There are different gifts in the church that play an important role in the building up, edifying and maturing of the church. And prophecy plays an important role in that (so does tongues, healing and all other spiritual gifts) but that should not be the basis of a church leadership role. When we downplay the importance of conduct and character we can have people with highly questionable lifestyles being put in positions of leadership in the church just because they have a particular gift. We should pray that the Holy Spirit leads us to choose godly men who stand firm in the gospel as they lead us.
This is the final in the series on prophecy. The first was looking at prophecy in the Old Testament and the second looked at prophecy in the New Testament. This article was an attempt to think through things we can do practically to prevent ourselves from being deceived by those who claim to be prophets. We should learn to hear God’s Word more clearly and use His Word to filter any other revelation we hear. My hope is that we continue to think through and discuss this topic biblically. I would like to conclude with a quote from Sam Storms from his article on the same subject:
“As helpful as prophecy is to the church, Christians are not to gullibly embrace all who claim to speak on behalf of God. Rather, the church must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Here John is concerned with whether the “prophet” affirms the incarnation of God the Son in the person of Jesus Christ (1 John 4:2–3; 2 John 7–11). This may be, at least in part, what John has in mind when he writes that “it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.” (Rev. 19:10). In other words, all true prophecy bears witness to Jesus Christ. Prophetic revelation is not only rooted in the gospel of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; its ultimate aim or primary focus is also to bear witness to the person of the incarnate Christ.
Prophecy, therefore, is fundamentally Christ-centered.“