Prophecy: Hearing God’s Word

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.

Prophecy: Building up the Church

In my previous post, we looked at how prophets and prophecy are defined in the Old Testament and the role of prophets. They were Covenant Enforcement Officers who were always pointing the people back to the Covenant and the Law. They called the people to repentance and urged them to turn back to God.
Enter Jesus Christ!

Introducing the Christ

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,  2  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

Hebrews 1:1-2 (ESV)  

God has spoken to us in these last days by His Son. It is interesting how that is contrasted with how God spoke to His people in times past. Whereas the primary way to hear from God was through His prophets, the writer of Hebrews says that the primary way God speaks to us now is through Jesus Christ. He is the one the Law and the Prophets are about.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him,We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

John 1:45 (ESV)  

He is the means by which man is brought back into relationship with God. He is the Prophet who accomplishes perfectly what God promised Moses in Deuteronomy 18:18.

But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.  19  Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out,  20  that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus,  21  whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.  22  Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you.  23  And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’  24  And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days.  25  You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’  26  God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.”

Acts 3:18-26 (ESV)  

The gift of prophecy

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  2  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-2  

By far the most comprehensive discussion on prophecy is 1 Corinthians 12-14. The goal here seems to be to teach us how people with different gifts from the same Spirit should use their gifts for the edification and building up of the church instead for personal glory. The rule here being“What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” – 1 Corinthians 14:26 .  

Here are some points from 1 Corinthians 12-14.

  1. Prophecy is a gift from God to His church
  2. Like the other gifts given by God it is for the building up of the church. Not for personal glory and recognition.
  3. The response to prophecy is the worship of God (‘But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.’ – 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 )
  4. It should be weighed (‘Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said’ – 1 Corinthians 14:29)
  5. When done within the church it should be in an orderly fashion (‘If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. (33) For God is not a God of confusion but of peace’ – 1 Corinthians 14:30-33)

Even though the primary way we hear from God is no longer through the prophets, as seen from Hebrews, their role is still vital to the church because they help in the building up of the church whilst we await the coming of the Lord. What is striking here to me is that prophecy now works within the framework of the church and in the book of Acts we see some examples of prophecy at work.

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch.  28  And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius).  29  So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.  30  And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

-Act 11:27-30  

Agabus is a prophet who appears in the book of Acts. In this first instance, he warns of a coming famine and the Apostles are able to send relief to the christians in Judea.

While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.  11  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.’”  12  When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.  13  Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”  14  And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.”

Act 21:10-14  

In the next instance he appears, he warns of Paul’s capture when he goes to Jerusalem. Paul decides to go in spite of the warning and ends up being captured. In each instance we see the prophet giving his prophecy and the church leadership weighing what is said and making a decision. They act positively to the famine warning by sending relief, and even though the rest of the church begs Paul to stay he still goes because he was convinced of the path laid out for him.

The prophet uses his gift to edify and build up the church. The prophet ultimately calls people to worship God as they convict people of their sin by disclosing the secrets of their heart. The prophet points to Jesus since He is the ultimate way in which God speaks to us and as seen in the book of Acts and instructed in 1 Corinthians 14, prophecies are to be weighed by the church. Since God has poured His Spirit out unto all believers, the Holy Spirit guides the church in this weighing of prophecy and we can be confident that a Spirit-led church will make the right decision and take the right action.

In the final post of this series, I will be looking at how to make sense of prophets and prophecy as we see them today.

Prophecy: Hearing God’s Voice

There has been a lot of talk about prophets and prophecies with a few people asking questions about both the actions of prophets and the content of their prophecies. Sometime ago I did a bit of a deep dive to try to understand what the Bible has to say about prophets and prophecies and in this series, I will share some of the things I learnt.

Who is a prophet?

You shall be blameless before the LORD your God,  14  for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the LORD your God has not allowed you to do this.  15  “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—  16  just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’  17  And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken.  18  I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.  19  And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.  20  But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’  21  And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’—  22  when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

Deuteronomy 18:13-22 (ESV)  

Let’s start right at the beginning in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 18, we are told who prophets are and their job description.
v13-14 Warning: A warning not to be like the other nations who listen to fortune-tellers and diviners.
v15-16 Promise: The people were afraid of hearing voice of the Lord lest they die. So God says He will raise up prophet like Moses. Moses was the one who served as an intermediary between God and the people. So the people who couldn’t bear listening to the voice of the Lord could still hear what God had to say through Moses.
v17-18 Job description: God will raise a prophet, put words in his mouth and he will speak to them. A prophet basically is the person who relays what the Lord has said to His people. The prophet speaks in the name of the Lord. The prophet is God’s mouthpiece to the people.
v19-20 Warning: A warning to the hearers of the prophet to listen to the prophet and a warning to the prophets who falsely speak in the name of the Lord
v21-22 Litmus Test: The test of the true prophet is that what he says comes to pass. If that does not happen the prophet spoke presumptuously and we need not be afraid of him.

A prophet is God’s voice to the people. God speaks to His people through His prophets. In the Old Testament, this was a gracious act from God. He is not a God who rules from afar but rather He is a God who actively speaks to His people. Encouraging them, rebuking them, warning them and telling them of the future implications of their actions and continuous disobedience.

What is prophecy?
Less than 2 per-cent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic. Less that 5 percent specifically describes the New Covenant age. Less that 1 percent concerns events yet to come.
How To Read the Bible for all its Worth (Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart)
We sometimes seem to think that prophecy is fundamentally around foretelling (predicting the future). But as we can see from Deuteronomy, Israel was forbidden from speaking to fortune-tellers and diviners who specialize in telling people their future. Moses is considered the greatest prophet of the old testament and he doesn’t do a lot of foretelling. He is God’s prophet primarily because he is the mouthpiece of God to His people. God speaks to His people through His prophet. So we have prophets prophesying about how Israel should repent and come back to the Lord. Some of these prophecies don’t necessarily contain a future element but they are prophecies because that is what God wants to tell His people through His prophet.

And Israel was brought very low because of Midian. And the people of Israel cried out for help to the LORD.  7  When the people of Israel cried out to the LORD on account of the Midianites,  8  the LORD sent a prophet to the people of Israel. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I led you up from Egypt and brought you out of the house of slavery.  9  And I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all who oppressed you, and drove them out before you and gave you their land.  10  And I said to you, ‘I am the LORD your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’ But you have not obeyed my voice.”

Judges 6:6-10 (ESV)  

Sometimes the prophets rebuke the people by revealing what they may have done in secret showing that God sees what they do and nothing is hidden from him, and also showing that the prophet is authentic because what has been revealed to the prophet is something only an omniscient being could have seen. When the prophet says, “Thus says the Lord” (and its many variations) the prophet is acting in his role as a prophet and that is prophecy. The prophet is making us aware that he has been given a word from Lord and we ought to listen to what that word is.

Even though foretelling is not primarily what prophecy is about, some prophecy has foretelling. This should not be surprising since God knows all of time and at times it pleases Him to let us know the blessings He has planned for those who obey or the peril in store for those who continue to rebel according to His purpose e.g. the exile of the Israelites and the return from exile.

Prophets – Covenant Enforcement Officers
Interestingly enough, prophets in the Old Testament spent a large amount of their time pointing the people of Israel back to the Law and the Covenant. Reminding them of what the Lord had done for them and warning them of what would happen if they continued to rebel against the Lord. Blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28). Prophecy never goes against God’s Word as represented in the Covenant and the Law but rather highlights it.

“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder,  2  and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’  3  you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

– Deuteronomy 13:1-3 (ESV)  

When you read through the books of the prophets (Amos, Joel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah etc), you see the prophets constantly appealing to the people to return to God and obey His commandments. God is always calling on us to stop our rebellion and return to Him so it is no surprise that when He talks to His people, that is His focus.

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;  13  and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.  14  Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God?

– Joel 2:12-14 (ESV)  

 When sin took over the land and the people turned away from the Lord, when people forsook what was good and neglected justice and the care of the poor in the society because they no longer listened to the Lord; God sent His prophets to speak against these things and call to the people to turn back to Him. God is concerned about the holiness of His people and His Covenant Enforcement Officers had the primary duty of calling God’s people to holiness.

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!  11  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.  12  “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts?  13  Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.  14  Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.  15  When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.  16  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil,  17  learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.  18  “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.  19  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;  20  but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isaiah 1:10-20 (ESV)  

 In the next post, we will be looking at how the coming of Christ should influence how we think about prophecy.