In the twenty-second chapter of the First Book of Kings we read of a dispute between the prophet Micaiah and four hundred prophets of Israel. The king of Israel had asked them all whether he should fight against the Syrians for possession of a border town named Ramoth-Gilead. Four hundred prophets promised the king victory if he attacked the Syrians. Micaiah said that he would be defeated. Micaiah was right. Israel lost the battle and their king was killed.
The prophet Jeremiah had a similar encounter with another prophet named Hananiah (Jeremiah 28). Jeremiah had been prophesying to Judah that it was hopeless for them to fight against Babylon. Instead, said Jeremiah, they should submit themselves to Babylon or they would be destroyed. Hananiah, on the other hand, prophesied that the Babylonians would not rule over the land of Judah. The two men had a “prophetic battle” in which it appeared that Hananiah came out on top. But Jeremiah insisted that he had a true word from the Lord, and that Hananiah would die within a year because he had prophesied falsely. Several months later Hananiah died, and shortly after the Babylonians utterly destroyed Jerusalem.
Both of these incidents point to a question of great concern: How can we know what is truly a word from the Lord? (See The Prophet’s Role .)
The question is an important one. God’s people can be led astray if they do not take care to distinguish true prophecy from false. Many times in the past men and women who claimed to have a word from the Lord have used their prestige to corrupt the truth. Jesus even said this would happen:
If anyone tells you at that time, “Look, the messiah is here,” or “He is there,” do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear, performing signs and wonders so great as to mislead even the chosen if that were possible.Matthew 24:23-24
Be on your guard against false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.Matthew 7:15
Many Christians shy away from all prophecy because of the dangers of false prophets. But that is a serious mistake. The people of God need to hear God’s voice in prophecy. Paul warned the Thessalonians: “Do not stifle the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test everything; retain what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).
In other words, we should not stop giving prophecies; we should test our prophecies, and hold on only to those which are good. We need not approach prophecy with fear or even great caution. We do need to approach it with faith and with wisdom.
Faith first of all. If we do not expect to hear God speaking, we will not hear him. If we do not desire God’s word in prophecy, and believe that prophecy will come, it will not come. We must build a climate of faith if we are to receive all that God is willing to give. Jesus could not perform any mighty works in one Galilean town because the people there lacked faith (Mark 6:1-6). God works when we believe in him. He speaks when we are confident that he will speak to us.
At one time several years ago I seemed to be completely unable to prophesy. I would pray and seek for God’s words but to no avail. Many others in the community experienced the very same thing; prophecy seemed almost to disappear. Then we began to notice that many community members were not expecting to hear the Lord speaking through prophecy. The level of faith in the community had apparently reached a low ebb. When we worked to build the community’s faith back up, the prophetic gift became active again. When our hearts were filled with expectant faith, the word of the Lord came to us in abundance.
Once the prophetic gifts are operating freely, we need to develop the wisdom to judge the true from the false and the pure from the corrupt.
THE GOOD AND THE BAD
False prophecy is not the only kind of bad prophecy. By false prophecy I mean something which is truly extraordinary, but which does not come from the Spirit of God. Jesus warned against false prophets who would perform wonders. False prophets have a real extraordinary power, but it does not come from God. The spirit behind it is evil. A number of people today who claim to be prophets exhibit some real spiritual power – forecasting events and even performing miracles or “psychic phenomena.” Yet it is a serious, even fatal, mistake to be led along by them. We should always ask ourselves, “Is this from the Lord? Does it proceed from the Holy Spirit and glorify God?” The exponents of Edgar Cayce, various forms of mind control, and various New Age cults all claim to exhibit spiritual powers, and often do. The question is, what spirit does their power come from?
Prophecy can be “bad,” however, without being false. Sometimes people will speak in a prophetic manner when they are, in fact, only voicing their own thoughts. Other times people will speak a true prophetic word, but will mix in with it some of their own which don’t belong there. These problems keep us from hearing God’s word in its full power and clarity, even though they do not cause false prophecy in the sense used above. Besides false prophecy, bad prophecy can be divided into four categories.
Impure Prophecy. Frequently people who prophesy will mix their own thoughts in with the word of the Lord in such a was’ that God’s word is altered or distorted. This happens especially when people are just beginning to exercise the prophetic gift. In one sense, something of our own thought always appears in the prophecies we give, because prophecy operates through us. But when our thoughts add to the word of the Lord, or rake something away from it, or distort its meaning, the value of our prophecy is greatly diminished. We cannot rely upon impure prophecy as the Lord’s word.
Weak prophecy. Some prophecy comes across almost like a long-distance phone call through a bad connection. The power which accompanies a message from God just isn’t there. Weak prophecy is not exactly dangerous, in that it won’t lead anyone astray. But it is not much of a help either. The power of the Holy Spirit at work in the prophetic word is important. Without it a prophecy is like an old seed; it may look fine, but there won’t be much life in it.
Sloppy prophecy. Sloppy speech detracts from the word of the Lord. By “sloppy speech” I mean broken and halting sentences, or overly casual and colloquial speech. We do not have to be eloquent to prophesy well – a young child or an uneducated person can speak with clarity and dignity – but we do have to avoid sloppiness. A man who has an appointment with his banker or an interview for a job will carefully avoid using slang terms or poor grammar. We ought to have the same care for God’s word. Sloppy prophecy should not be accepted as “good” prophecy.
Flattering prophecy. Sometimes we hear prophecy directed to an individual which is full of flattering comments about the person receiving the prophecy. That is a danger sign. In general prophecies which tell us how important we are, or what a great person God has made us, are a trap. Sometimes they are an indication that the person who is prophesying is trying to get into our favor. Sometimes they are merely an indiscretion. But in all cases they are difficult to discern and should simply be avoided.
THE SUBMISSION OF PROPHECY
No prophet is his own authority. Prophecy has to be submitted to the Christian community for judgment. The prophetic word must be attested to by the community. That principle is fundamental to the exercise of the prophetic gift. Beware of any prophet who will not accept the judgment of others about the word which he speaks. No individual has the ability to determine with full certainty that he has spoken the word of the Lord.
Every one of us, without exception, can be deceived. Our own thoughts, our ambitions, the flattery of others, the lies of Satan—any of these can deceive us. But God will take care to see that his people are not finally deceived. We can rely on the judgment of the Christian community to guard us from deception. Of course, a Christian group can also be deceived. Examples of Christian groups or communities which have been led into error are not hard to find. But a group that is functioning well can usually be trusted. If the judgment of a healthy community is not infallible, it is usually reliable.
Every prophet has to be under the authority of others. In practice, this means that everyone who prophesies should let the group he belongs to weigh and test the word he speaks, to determine whether it truly comes from God. And every Christian group has to take on the responsibility of testing prophecy.
I know a man who began to prophesy some time ago. Nothing in his prophecies was seriously wrong at first, but he refused to listen to the correction and judgments other people offered about the things he said. He believed that he had better judgment than anyone else. As time went on, his prophecies became more and more problematic, until he was finally giving prophecies that were actually false. In the end, he prophesied that his son was the messiah.
This man was not “crazy” when he began prophesying; he was actually a good Christian man. But he allowed himself to be very seriously deceived.
The prophetic word is subject to the judgment of the Christian community. And anyone who prophesies should be in a Christian group which will actively work to test the word he speaks.
Just as the prophet has a responsibility to submit himself and the word which he speaks to the group, so the group has a responsibility to test and judge the prophetic word. The prophet should receive guidance, encouragement, and correction from the group. If he does not, the group will reap the harvest of its neglect. Prophecy will grow either weak and impure or die away entirely if the group does not tend it well.
Every group ought to agree upon some way to share their judgments about prophecy and ensure that advice or correction is given. In most cases, individual members of a group should not take it upon themselves to give correction or advice to people who prophesy. Rather, members should share their discernment with the leaders of the group, and the leaders should take on the responsibility of giving feedback and, where necessary, correction to those who prophesy.
This is the area in which the charismatic renewal has had its greatest failings in caring for the gift of prophecy. Too few groups are willing to take the responsibility and go to the effort (it is effort) to discern, counsel, and correct. Some years ago I was asked to write an article on prophecy for a charismatic magazine. “Write about what you think is most important right now in the renewal in this area,” they asked. The article I finally produced was titled “The Trivialization of Prophecy.” There is a process at work in so many groups, which in the end completely trivializes prophecy. It begins with people “prophesying.” It is not necessarily “bad” – it just isn’t really prophecy. But no one says anything about it. They are perhaps afraid to hurt the individual’s feelings. And so week after week non-prophecy is proclaimed as if it were prophecy Since it is not really prophecy, and lacks spiritual power, people in the group soon cease to have any real respect for prophecy. In the end, prophecy is not taken seriously at all.
So far it may seem that the prophetic word has to be submitted to the Christian community just so people will not be led astray by impure or false prophecy. But even very good prophecy must be submitted to the judgment of the community. It is the place of the prophet to receive and proclaim the word. It is the place of the community to verify that the word comes from God.
Even experienced and reliable prophets can grow in the prophetic gift. No one should decide that he has reached full maturity in any gift: we will always find room for correction and improvement in our service to the Lord. It is right for prophets who have been tested and proved reliable to have confidence in exercising their gift. But they must remember that the basis of their own confidence is the confidence which the Christian community has placed in them.
A relationship of love and support between those who exercise prophetic gifts and others in the group is a key to having prophecy work well. A person who is afraid that he or she will be criticized or harshly corrected for making a mistake will find it difficult to prophesy at all. Those who give impure or weak or sloppy prophecies ought to be corrected, but the correction should be given in a way which will encourage rather than condemn them.
One could correct a prophet by saying, “That was not a very good prophecy.” But if that is all the prophet is told, he or she will not know how to improve. A more helpful correction might be stated: “I think that you should be more relaxed when you speak in prophecy. The prophecy you gave today was very hard to understand, because you spoke too quickly. In the future, try to speak a little more slowly.” Such a correction is not only clear and helpful, it communicates support and encouragement as well.
By the same token, those who prophesy have to see their exercise of that gift as a service for others. They should prophesy out of love for their brothers and sisters, not out of desire for attention or glory. Very often you can tell whether a person is sincerely acting out of love by the way he responds to correction. Those who prophesy in order to serve will accept and even desire correction, because correction will help them serve better in the future. But often people are hurt or angered by correction because they are prophesying for themselves – for their own pleasure or reputation or status – rather than for others.
The testing of prophecy is a process, not a one-time exercise. Even if we have come to believe that a particular prophecy was inspired, we have not yet completed a discernment of it. How should it be interpreted? We may well have all heard the same prophetic utterance, and all declare it to be inspired, and yet disagree on the meaning of it. If God has spoken to us, what good is that to us if we do not know what he means by what was said?
There are two general types of discernment which must be exercised. The first involves prophecy which is primarily inspirational in character, and the second involves prophecy which is directive, admonitory, or corrective. The following means of testing prophecy apply to both types of discernment.
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor grapes picked from a bramble bush.Luke 6:43-44
The life of the prophet. The first and most fundamental test of a prophetic utterance is the life of the person who gives it. If one leads a life worthy of God and manifests the fruit of the Holy Spirit, one can be trusted. If a person’s life is not that of a Christian, or if his or her Christian life is very immature or inconsistent, that person should not be trusted.
Jesus’ principle that a tree can be known by its fruit extends to every area of the Christian life. In the scriptural lists of the qualities required in the elder or bishop of a Christian community, only one “spiritual gift” is mentioned (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). What counts, in other words, is not spiritual experiences or extraordinary gifts, but the way a person lives.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not merit badges handed out to those who excel in virtue; they are equipment given for the service of God. Men and women are not holy because they exercise spiritual gifts, nor do they exercise spiritual gifts because they are holy. Oftentimes we see people who are very young in the Christian life given gifts for service which their older and more mature brethren do not have. But there is a connection between the holiness of a person’s life and the gifts which he or she exercises. The more mature, stable, and virtuous a person is, the more we can rely upon him or her to exercise the gifts of the Spirit with purity and power.
“Unknown prophets” should be avoided. Many people can come and speak a very spiritual sounding message, while their own lives are less than a shining example of Christianity. We should be assured that those who speak God’s word to us in prophecy are living godly lives. Now this does not mean that we cannot hear and accept a prophetic word spoken by someone who is immature as a Christian. One of the most powerful prophecies which I have ever heard was spoken by a man who was young in the life of the Holy Spirit. It does mean, however, that we should more carefully test the words such people speak.
Let’s say that you are looking for a contractor to build a house for you. You would naturally look for a man with a solid reputation for honesty and good work. Someone who had been in the business for thirty years and was well-known as a dependable builder would probably be your first choice. You could hire a contractor who was just getting started; he might even do a better job than the well-known man. But if you were to hire a new man, you would undoubtedly be careful to check his credentials and keep an eye on his work. That only makes sense. And you would probably not hire any man who had a bad reputation as a contractor. After all, should you entrust such an important job to a man who is known to be unworthy of trust?
This simple common sense applies to all spiritual gifts, and in a special way to prophets. We can be easily impressed by men and women who speak eloquently and profoundly. But the test of whether someone is truly spiritual is not the sound of his or her prophecy; it is the quality and character of that person’s Christian life.
Tests of the message. The second area to test in judging prophecies is the actual content of the message. Is it in line with Christian teaching? Paul told the people of Galatia that if he himself or even an angel should preach to them a different gospel than that which he had preached, he or the angel should be cursed (Galatians 1:8-9). Nothing which contradicts Christian teaching can be admitted as true prophecy. We have several guidelines to help us judge whether the content of a message is true or false.
The first guide is Scripture. We know that Scripture is the rule against which all other truths must be tested. Anything which contradicts Scripture is false. If someone should prophesy that Jesus did not rise from the dead, to take one example, we would know that the prophecy is false. Paul says that if Christ did not rise from the dead then the whole Christian ilk is futile (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).
A second test of the prophetic message is the body of teaching central to all of Christian life. In times past this body of teaching has often been known as “the rule of faith” or “creed.” Several compact statements of these teachings exist which can serve as simple “rules of faith.” The Nicene Creed is one example. Anything given in prophetic form which is not consistent with the main body of Christian teaching must be rejected as false.
There is a significant difficulty in applying this criterion: Christians don’t all agree on what is true Christian teaching. There has to be some authority outside the individual Christian community, some guide to what is or is not Christian teaching. I cannot attempt here a full discussion of how true “Christian teaching” can be known. As a Roman Catholic, I believe that the authority for identifying what is true and essential Christian truth (and therefore what can be accepted in prophecy) rests with the teaching authority of the Catholic church. Others, who are not Catholic, will approach this question in a different way. Beyond that fundamental difference, there are many questions about Christian truth which are not settled even by the teaching authority of the Catholic church. Many questions have not been authoritatively defined by the church. Catholics can legitimately differ on many points as to what constitutes true Christian teaching, as can members of many other faith traditions.
This difficulty, however, is not caused by prophecy. It is a difficulty caused by the condition of Christianity today. It hampers us in our attempts to judge prophecy; but it hampers us also in our attempts to discern teaching and preaching generally.
My own experience has been that such problems only rarely prove to be a serious obstacle in judging prophecy. If a Christian group is in good order, and if the members of the group are sensitive and mature in their exercise of prophecy, difficulties over basic Christian teaching seldom arise.
These first two guidelines will help us when a prophetic message is clearly false; it will alert us to anything which is contrary to Christian truth. But we will probably not hear many prophecies which go against dear Christian truth. (I have heard maybe two or three in the past eight years.) There are, however, prophetic messages which do not contradict Christianity, but still seem questionable.
Five years ago at a meeting of our community someone spoke out a prophecy that just didn’t sit right with most of those who were present. The message was not obviously wrong, but it wasn’t right either. The message sounded very important, but it also sounded a little mysterious. I feel confident that the prophecy was not so much a word from the Lord as it was a product of the imagination of the man who gave it. Some people become fascinated with very “spiritual” things, and usually “spiritual” in this sense means “unreal.” The man who gave this prophecy had given several others just like it. None of them had any understandable connection with real ilk. He thought they were “spiritual.”
Most of the time, we should be able to understand the prophecies which we receive. Every now and then the Lord will speak in prophecy, and we will not understand the message right away. When that happens, we should simply keep in mind what God has spoken, and he will make it dear at the appropriate time. If someone gives prophecies which are hard to understand, it probably indicates that he has a problem rather than a spiritual gift.
Testing the spirits. In order to determine that something is a direct prophetic word, we have to “test the spirit” of the prophecy. Testing the message of a prophetic utterance cannot normally tell us whether the message is really from God. It can tell us that the message is definitely not from God – that it violates Scripture or Christian teaching – but that is all. I could “prophesy” that God wants you to serve him. If I had just decided to say that in prophetic form, it would not really be a prophecy. But simply testing the message could not tell you that. It would tell you that the message itself is true, but it could not tell you whether the message was really a prophecy.
When I say “test the spirit” I mean just that: test and see what spirit is behind the prophetic utterance. True prophecy comes from the Holy Spirit, and we can determine whether the Holy Spirit has inspired something or not. Every Christian is in a relationship with the Lord which allows him to know the Lord’s voice. “The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep; the keeper opens the gate for him. The sheep hear his voice as he calls his own by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all those that are his, he walks in front of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice. They will not follow a stranger; such a voice they will flee, because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice” (John 10:2-5).
We can recognize the voice of the Lord. Each of us has received the same Holy Spirit who speaks in prophecy. When a true prophecy is spoken, our spirits will respond; we will know that we have heard the Lord. When we hear a voice other than the Lord’s, we will recognize it as the voice of a stranger.
There is a simple physical principle termed “resonance.” Objects have certain characteristic frequencies at which they vibrate. If you cause one object (for instance, a bell) to vibrate near another object with the same characteristic frequency (another bell of the same size and weight and shape), the second object will begin to vibrate by itself That is something like what happens when we hear the voice of the Lord – we resonate.
So the first test of whether or not something comes from the Holy Spirit is simply the response in our own heart and spirit. If we feel in our hearts a peaceful assurance that we are listening to the same Spirit who gives us life in the Lord, we can have some confidence that the prophecy is from the Lord. If the spiritual nature of the prophecy disturbs or repels us, we should not place confidence in it.
There is an important qualification to this principle. Many times individuals will not feel any real spiritual response to prophecy – either positive or negative. That is normal. It does not necessarily indicate that the prophecy is not valid, nor does it indicate that there is something wrong with the listeners. The point of the principle is that many people do experience some “spiritual response” to prophecy. That response, though not definitive in itself; can help us determine whether a prophecy is from the Lord.
The second way to test the spirit of a prophecy is to judge its spiritual tone and effect. Prophecy which is frightening, harsh, condemning, or critical seldom comes from the Holy Spirit. The Lord will often use prophecy to correct us and call us to repentance; sometimes he will even point out specific areas in our lives which are not right. But when God speaks to us, he does not condemn. Instead, he calls us to return to him, that he may forgive us and change us.
Occasionally someone will decide that his personal criticisms of his church or of some other person will carry more weight if given as a prophecy. When that happens, we may hear a prophecy in which the Lord seems to exactly agree with the person prophesying! I knew of a group several years ago which had difficulty because one member was giving prophecies which criticized and belittled the leadership of the group. Not surprisingly, the person who gave those prophecies was resentful and bitter toward the leaders of the group.
The Lord speaks to us as a loving father: sometimes stern, sometimes pleased, sometimes warning us to change. But he always speaks out of love. If he corrects or disciplines us, he accompanies that correction with an assurance of his love and an encouragement to change. No true prophecy will reveal a God who is vindictive or cruel or harsh or critical.
These “tests of the spirit” have to be qualified. Any one person may find a particular prophecy either very pleasing or very disturbing, not because of the spiritual nature of the prophecy, but because of his personal thoughts, problems, or preferences. For instance, David could have found Nathan’s prophetic description of his sins extremely disturbing (2 Samuel 12). Had David been unwilling to repent, he probably would have been repulsed by the prophecy rather than moved to remorse. The problem would not have been in the spirit of the prophecy, but in the condition of David’s life.
Because of the weakness we all experience in our humanity, we have to rely not only upon our own judgment, but also on the judgment of others. The fact that we feel elated or repelled by a particular prophecy is only one piece of evidence that must be considered along with the evidence of others.
The third test of the spirit in prophecy is whether or not the prophetic utterance glorifies the Lord Jesus. We may not always be able to tell whether a particular prophecy glorified the Lord or not, but if over a period of time we notice that the prophecies which a certain person gives, or the prophecies we hear in a certain group, do not lead us to acknowledge and worship the Lord, then something is wrong.
Finally, some people have been given a special gift of discernment, of “distinguishing between spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:10). Those who have received such a gift will be able to tell with a greater clarity and swiftness when some spirit other than the Lord’s is at work in prophecy.
Does it bear fruit? A true word from the Lord will bring forth good fruit – good results – among the people who hear it. Most of the prophecies which we receive will not be predictions, but all of them will have effects. If we pay attention to the effect that prophetic utterances have, we can judge their worth. A word from the Lord will produce life, peace, hope, love, and all the other fruit of the Holy Spirit. A word which is not from the Lord will either produce the fruit of evil – strife, anger, jealousy, lust, indifference – or it will have no effect at all.
We probably will not be able to judge the fruit of every single prophetic message, but we can look for the overall effects of the prophecies we are receiving. If we notice that every time a particular person prophesies, he or she causes a lack of peace or some other bad effect, we can judge that something is wrong with the prophesying in question.
Some years ago in our community people began to sing out prophetic songs when we were worshiping together. We were not then familiar with prophetic song, and some of us tended to wonder if they were really inspired. It was not possible to tell by looking at the effects produced by any one prophetic song, but over a period of weeks we noticed that every time someone sang out a prophecy a deep spirit of worship came upon the group. With time, the whole way in which we prayed together deepened and improved. We could then see that this type of prophetic song bore fruit which was from the Holy Spirit.
Once again, the condition of those who receive a prophecy can affect its ability to produce fruit. Jeremiah’s prophecies caused strife, anger, and violence, but that was because those who heard them were not willing to accept God’s word. Nothing can replace our constant and pure-hearted desire to follow the Lord and receive his word. For a community or group which is not in good spiritual condition, no test of prophecy will suffice.
Discerning inspirational prophecy. Most often prophecy is inspirational in its character. The message of the prophecy (like that of Melito of Sardis quoted in chapters one and three) normally focuses on some general Christian truth. It is not necessary in these cases to discern, “What does this prophecy mean? How should we respond to it?” Rather, we can simply ask, “Did this prophetic proclamation help, build up, inspire, or strengthen the community?”
There should be an active process in any group which allows for a review of prophetic activity by those responsible for the group. They should make the effort to consider how prophetic gifts have been exercised, and then encourage, correct, or silence those who have been exercising them. The rule here is simple: prophetic activity that genuinely builds up the, group should be encouraged; prophetic activity that does not should be corrected or stopped.
Discerning directive, corrective, or admonitory prophecy. Sometimes, however, prophecy demands more than the above general rule of encouragement or discouragement. This involves a prophetic message which requires a decision, or would lead to a decision if we believed it was correct. In such cases those with responsibility must determine whether the community can accept the prophetic message as genuine, and if so, how to respond. Every group should have an understood means for making such determinations and communicating them within the group.
Such a process should normally involve discussion among the leaders, and if the matter is important enough, some consultation with the group. The normal outcome of the process should be a determination of whether the prophetic word was genuine or not, and if so, what we think it means and how we as a group should respond to it. All three steps are important. Obviously it is important to determine whether we think the message genuine or not. But that is not enough. We need to agree on the meaning of the prophetic message. We also need to agree on the response. Let me give an example.
I know a group that some time ago received a prophetic message which warned of increasing difficulties in society, and a call to prepare to deal with such difficulties. Some thought the prophetic warning primarily referred to spiritual difficulties, and was meant to lead the group to a deeper spiritual life. But others thought that the prophetic word implied economic difficulties and was a warning to be prepared for that. Obviously, these interpretations were quite different. So the group had to agree, not only that the message was genuine, but they had to agree on what it meant. That second step is crucial. In the end, our discernment of such prophetic words is better represented by our own statement of what we believe the Lord is saying to us than it is by the prophecy alone.
But even at that the group had not gone far enough. If, for example, the prophetic call pointed toward spiritual preparation, what should the group’s response be? Should there be a corporate response, and if so, what is it?
All of this also points to the fact that prophecy alone is not the only means of determining what we think the import of a prophetic message is. We also have to think, to bring to bear our own informed judgment.
Directive, corrective, or admonitory prophecies should always be responded to, just as publicly as they were given. If we allow prophetic messages – which seem to require a response – to be given, and then do not also respond to them, we are making an implicit statement that we do not, in fact, take them seriously.
Predictive prophecy: Does it come to pass? At times we will receive prophetic messages which include some predictive elements. In the Book of Deuteronomy, there is a warning to avoid as false any prophet who prophesies something which does not actually come to pass: “And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word which the Lord has not spoken? – 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 which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously, and you need not be afraid of him” (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).
In other words, if a prophecy predicts that a particular event will happen, and it does not, then the word was not from the Lord. There are two qualifications on this rule. The first is given a little earlier in Deuteronomy: “And if a prophet arises among you or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder which 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’, 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 all your soul” (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).
False prophets can arise and make predictions which come true. So even if what the prophet predicts “comes to pass,” he may not be a true prophet.
The second qualification is that many times when the Lord speaks something in a predictive way, there is an “if” attached to it. The prophecy may say, “If you are faithful, such-and-such will happen” or, “If you repent, I will bless you.” Something which is predicted in prophecy may not come to pass because we are not faithful to the conditions that the Lord gives us.
Even so, the rule is important. When a prophetic message is given which predicts that something will happen, we should watch to see whether that word was true. If what was predicted comes to pass, our and confidence in the word of the Lord will be built up. If the word was not true, we should do something to see that such mistaken prophetic utterances do not continue.
GROWING IN JUDGMENT
The guidelines for judging prophecy which I have given above are not a set of special rules which, when carefully applied, produce an automatic answer from the Lord. They are only guidelines; they can help us make a judgment about prophetic utterances, but we have to make the judgment. Two or three of these guidelines can help us determine that something is definitely not from the Lord (the tests of the message especially), but none of them can tell us with certainty that something is from the Lord. We have to decide that.
Our judgment will mature and deepen as we grow in the life of the Holy Spirit, and as we gain experience in testing prophecy. We could compare it to growing in judgment about art. An art expert can tell you that a particular painting is very good for this or that reason, that another painting is good, but not extraordinarily good because it lacks a certain texture, and so on. When he makes these judgments about a painting, the expert does not sit down with a list of rules and check them off one by one. He or she has learned to keep those rules in mind whenever looking at art. The expert does not have to look at the rules closely because they have become a part of the way he or she sees things.
Now let’s say that you ask this art expert to teach you good judgment about art. He or she would probably begin by telling you a number of rules or guidelines for determining whether something is good. Then you would take a painting and carefully go over it, applying the rules the expert had given you. When finished, you probably wouldn’t feel very confident about your judgment. If the expert disagreed with your judgment, I doubt that you’d argue, even though you had followed all the rules in forming your opinion. That’s because the rules in themselves can’t tell you what is good or bad; they are only guidelines which can help you decide what you say.
After working over the guidelines for a long time and looking at very many paintings, you will finally gain real confidence in your ability to judge art all on your own. But when you reach that point, you won’t be using the guidelines in quite the same way. They will have become part of the way you see art, not something you have to make a conscious effort to apply.
Growing in discernment about prophecy works the same way. At first we have to apply quite carefully the various guidelines to make a judgment. And even when we have applied them, we will not be too sure of our judgment. As we grow in experience, the guidelines will take a different place, and our judgment will be confident and sure. At all times, especially when we are inexperienced, we have to rely heavily on the judgment of others. If you hear a prophecy and are not sure what to think of it, ask someone else – particularly someone whose judgment you trust – what he or she thought of it. We will always need the judgment of others to have certainty that we have heard the Lord. Yet we can come to have real confidence in our individual judgment too. We can have assurance that if Jeremiah and Hananiah held their “prophetic duel” before us, we would choose the man who truly spoke for God.
This article is excerpted from Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Spirit in the Church Today, Chapter 8, by Bruce Yocum, © 1976, 1993 The Servants of the Word. Revised edition published in 1993 by Servant Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.
See previous articles on Prophecy by Bruce Yocum:
- A Brief History of the Role of Prophecy in the Church
- Assessing Prophecy and Charismatic Renewal Today
- The Forms of Prophecy
- The Prophet’s Role
- The Importance of Christian Prophecy and Its Purposes for Us Today
Top image of Man with folded hands and open Bible, from Bigstock.com, © by vectorfusionart, stock photo ID: 420659624.
Bruce Yocum (1948 – 2022) was involved in leadership and teaching for many years in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and the Covenant Communities Movement which began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in the Sword of the Spirit. He travelled widely throughout the Sword of the Spirit communities to equip and train community leaders in North America, Europe and the Middle East, Latin America and the South Pacific. Bruce Yocum was a life-long member of the Servants of the Word, an international ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He served as Presiding Elder of the Servants of the Word for thirteen years (1989-2003).