TAP OR CLICK TO HEAR AN AUDIO VERSION NARRATED BY FRANK KING
I think the time is right to bring this up. I just participated in our two back-to-back summer Bible conferences – the first in our own congregation and the second in our mother church. For me, they were both glad and glorious times, and during each I experienced “manifestations of the Spirit” in the realm of the vocal gifts.
In the wake of this, while an awkward undertaking, it seems unfair not to shine some light on some things, or to ignore them outright.
It’s like dilemma of telling someone his zipper’s down. Do I remain silent, or do I bring it to his attention and bring both of us some relief? I vote for the latter, but in this case, a better directive still is found in 1 Corinthians 14:39,40: “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.”
My particular area of interest involves the vocal gifts of the Holy Spirit: prophecy, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues (1Cor.12:10). A reading of the Book of Acts reveals these as premier Pentecostal promises and distinctives: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17,18, italics mine).
Paul devotes the entire 14th chapter of 1 Corinthians to delivering a clear, strong, and positive affirmation for the church to operate in these gifts: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (v.1); “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (v.12). He concludes the chapter with verse 39: “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”
By now, you may sense that I am not a cessationist; that is, I do not embrace the teaching that all these gifts and manifestations passed away with the apostles or with the canonization of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit doesn’t waste time teasing us with what was on the menu back then that He doesn’t offer to us today. Peter’s Pentecostal parameters in Acts 2:39 clearly spell out that this gift is here to stay: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."
Over the last twenty years or so we’ve seen the trend or resurgence of what’s been called the “Apostolic” or “Prophetic Movement.” One of the distinctive features has been the gift of prophecy, and specifically, personal prophecy – a prophecy or “word” of the Holy Spirit for you as an individual. Many of you reading this have your own personal story about personal prophecy or prophecies you have received. These run the gamut from the helpful to the humorous to the hasty and even the hurtful.
One itinerant prophet was dubbed “the mailman” because if any questioned the prophecy, his ready response was, “Hey, I’m just delivering the mail, that’s all.” Some of these might have done well to be marked: Return to Sender. Another evangelist who enjoyed the label “prophet” took delight in relating stories of people who had died or suffered various calamities after less than a wholehearted acceptance of his word. Well, after we sent him packing after that service, I am happy to report that we are still alive and well to tell about it!
This brings some legitimate questions to the surface. What are we to do with personal prophecy? What should our response be? How can we know if God is really speaking? How do we discern between the authentic and the counterfeit? I was asked similar questions recently; hence this blog post.
About ten years ago, a sister from our congregation was at McDonald’s, where she fell into conversation with another Christian woman. After a while she told the sister from our church, “I don’t know him, but I want to give your pastor a ‘word.’ Tell him to go ahead and expand, buy more land, etc.” Then she added, “He’ll know what it’s about when you tell him.”
Really? Well, here I am a decade later, and I’m not sure at all what she was talking about. In light of these things, I think a good place to begin is with a recognition.
The Bittersweet Gift
I use the word “bittersweet,” because while this gift carries great potential for blessing, it also has the potential to be misunderstood and mishandled. Pastor Jack Hayford summarized it like this:
“There is nothing more desirable to the pursuit of a life lived in the fullness of the Spirit than ‘prophecies’----and neither is there anything less reliable. The paradox of that statement presses a dual responsibility upon each of us who lead among the Savior’s flock. It reflects both (1) a New Testament value that is too often denigrated; and (2) a realistic warning that is too seldom applied.”
The simplest definition of prophecy is it is inspired utterance. It is God speaking supernaturally to and through men by the Holy Spirit. When it comes to vocal gifts, we need to recognize that it is a beneficial but limited gift.
There is a powerful text that serves as a biblical backdrop for the operation of this gift, and we find it in Acts 21:7-14. Here we find Paul as a guest at Philip’s house in Caesarea, and we see that Philip had “four virgin (unmarried) daughters who prophesied.” We are also introduced to “a prophet named Agabus” whose illustrated sermon was introduced with the words, “thus says the Holy Ghost” (v. 10-11). So, in the same setting, side-by-side, is the distinction between the designated “office” of a prophet found in Ephesians 4:11, and the operation of the “gift of prophecy” which is open to all.
I’ve always been impressed by 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21, which is part of a series of rapid-fire exhortations about the Christian life. It simply says, “despise not prophesyings.” Why would the Apostle Paul have to issue this encouraging warning? He wouldn’t say “don’t despise the operation of this gift” if there weren’t things associated with it that could provoke that response. The truth is that the operation of this gift can be flavored or tainted by either the flesh or the devil, or by our own imagination (can you say Y2K prophecies of unfulfilled chaos?) Then there’s what I call “dueling prophecies” where 2-3 people at once try to bring a message in tongues, and the battle goes to the one with the greatest lung power and strongest will. Many “interpretations of tongues” are a vague repackaging of the preacher’s message.
Scripturally, you will find three sources of the prophetic word: 1st, the Holy Spirit; 2nd, an evil or lying spirit; and 3rd, the human spirit. In Ezekiel 13:2,3, the prophet is told: “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts: 'Hear the word of the Lord!' Thus says the Lord God, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!”
So we must “despise not prophesyings” because we are told to be aware of the possible dangers, abuses, and excesses associated with this gift.
Consider, for example, the outright manipulation of his gift that the “old prophet” in 1 Kings 13 practiced upon the eager young prophet. Here we see the “witchcraft-ing” of people’s minds of the “thus saith the Lord” variety. We also discover the error of putting more weight and excitement on “a” word from God rather than “the” Word of God. In this context, the subjectivity of personal prophecy is elevated above the objectivity of the written Word of God.
Yet, in 1 Thessalonians 5 right alongside “despise not prophesyings,” we find another much needed admonition: “quench not the Spirit.” Somehow, God has left us to wrestle through the value and need of a Holy Spirit atmosphere despite any potential misuse or abuse.
If the potential for abuses exists, then why does God open the door for its expression? It’s a legitimate question, and the answer is because of the real benefits found in this gift. Personal prophecy builds faith, especially due to the accompanying realization, “God knows me!” It ministers great comfort to people’s hearts and inspires hearty praise to God. It brings conviction and confession of sin and adds to the miraculous dimension of the assembly, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 14:24,25: “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.”
There are numerous other examples that I could cite, but the most powerful is that, armed with a prophetic word from God, Timothy’s ministry was given definition and he himself was aided and armed (1 Timothy 1:18): “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare.”
THE CLEAR PURPOSE
Before you begin the operation of prophecy and vocal gifts, read the label: Don’t Forget to Read the Instructions. The Bible is the instructional manual for the Person of the Holy Spirit, His workings, and the operation of the His spiritual gifts. Agabus’s word, “Thus says the Holy Spirit,” tells us that in the life of the early church, the answer was clearly not suppression, where we make no room for the Holy Spirit to move; but neither is it sensationalism, where we go searching everywhere for a “word.”
Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians was so on target. First, “Do not quench the Spirit.” Be careful that we don’t go around extinguishing the Spirit’s fire. Second, “Despise not prophesyings.” We must keep a right attitude towards this gift. Finally, “Test everything; hold fast to what is good.” Spiritual gifts need the template of the Word of God so that what we’re left with is the genuine article (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21).
A similar instruction was given to the Corinthians: “But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men” (1 Corinthians 14:3). Prophecy’s intended purpose is edification (to build up), exhortation (to stir up), and comfort (to lift up). I don’t find here that its purpose was directive. Rather, a prophetic word would confirm what God already had spoken, revealed, or dealt with you about.
Let’s summarize some general truths and guidelines related to this gift and its exercise.
1. It is given as the Spirit wills, not at the whim of man. (“as He wills,” 1 Corinthians 12:11).
2. It is given for the purpose of confirmation and encouragement (1 Corinthians 14:31).
3. Like all gifts, it is given to glorify Jesus and to know Him better (Rev. 19:10; John 16:14).
4. Prophecy never replaces or usurps, or in any way contradict the written Word of God (Isaiah 8:20).
5. The gift of prophecy operates according to the realm of a person’s individual faith (Romans 12:6).
6. A spirit of submission should guide all gifts. In 1 Corinthians Paul states that a true spiritual mind will accept his instruction as a command from God. A teachable spirit, a spirit of submission safeguards this gift. Nowhere does God authorize “freelancers” who carry a self-serving, independent spirit.
The final guideline that is very important is found in 1 Corinthians 14:13: “So anyone who speaks in tongues should pray also for the ability to interpret what has been said.” Notice that the first line of responsibility when it comes to interpreting a message in tongues lies with the person giving it!
Far too often, I’ve seen people give a message in tongues and think, “I’ve done my part; I’ve obeyed the prompting of the Holy Spirit; Now it’s all up to someone else to bail me out and give an interpretation. That may happen, which is all fine and good, but the person giving the message in tongues should at least feel the weight of the same inspiration to bring an interpretation to the message so that all will be edified. If there is no one to interpret, then you are instructed to keep silent in church and speak to yourself and God.
I think it is because of the human element in prophecy that we’re required to examine things in the light of Scripture. 1 Corinthians 14:29 says, “Let others judge.” It is quite within the parameters of biblical accountability to carefully weigh what is being said. While we’re not judging people, we are judging the message and the content and spirit that drives it.
Even the character of the person bringing the word ought to be weighed. It was the credibility of Agabus, and not his claim to have a word, that was paramount. His record as a trustworthy man of God mattered; as well as the character of Philip’s four virgin daughters who prophesied.
THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
This is what puts everything into perspective, where the Spirit is not quenched, prophesies are not despised, and people weigh what is being said. The story in our text reveals a brilliant convergence of the Holy Spirit’s gift and our practical obedience to God’s Word. Paul was not some unstable or disgruntled person doing his own thing. No, he was a man moving in the will and ways of God. Earlier, we learn that Paul was leaving Ephesus with a clear grasp of God’s will for him, and a heart determined to fulfill it. In Acts 20:22-24, he says: “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
It is interesting that as he moves along in this course, Paul receives two “prophetic words” that seem to suggest he should not purse it. First, the saints in Cyprus “told Paul through the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem.” Then, the prophet Agabus gives an “illustrated word” that, on the surface, seems to indicate that Paul should not follow this course. It seems contradictory. First the Holy Spirit says Go, and now He says Stop? What’s going on? Several truths are highlighted here that speak to us about finding our way forward.
First, don’t let other people commandeer your choices or move you from the course of God’s Word – even godly or gifted people. Verse 12 says, “We and the people pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.” People – even well-meaning people – can move you out of the will of God, if you let them. Second, all prophecy is part of a much larger script. 1 Corinthians 13:9 says, “For our knowledge is fragmentary [incomplete and imperfect], and our prophecy [our teaching] is fragmentary [incomplete and imperfect)].”
The problem is that we think because we know something of what God is saying, that we know everything He’s saying. The prophetic words at Cyprus and from Agabus were true, but it was not all that God had to say or all that He was doing in Paul’s life.
Third, there is a higher realm of unwavering commitment to do what God has put in our hearts. Paul did not change his plans because of Agabus’s prophecy or the urging of others. He received the word graciously, but continued ahead with his plans, nonetheless. “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."
This is not Paul being stubborn or missing God. Rather, he knew what God had for him and was committed to it. The lesson is that the purpose of these prophetic words was to help prepare his heart for what lay ahead. Verse 14 sums it up: “And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, "Let the will of the Lord be done."
Paul’s conclusion on this subject is in 1 Corinthians 14:39,40: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and don't forbid speaking in tongues. But be sure that everything is done properly and in order.”
This is to be our overarching approach to God’s gracious gift of prophecy. I think a great model for us is Mary’s response to all the incredible things spoken and shown to her: “But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).