Prophecy is one of the more complex “things of the Spirit” that Paul talks about here. Prophecy figures very importantly in the New Testament. Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul says:
So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39)
He lists Prophets alongside Apostles, Pastor-Teachers and Evangelists as special gifts that God has given the church to equip the whole church for ministry.
Most of us tend to think of prophecy as predicting the future. However, there is more to it than that. In fact, there are three distinct variations in the gift of prophecy described in the New Testament.
The first sort of manifestation of prophecy is the traditional “foretelling” gift, wherein God reveals the future to the prophet, and the prophet tells others. I will call this predictive prophecy. One person through whom God gave his people the gift of predictive prophecy was Agabus. In Acts 11:28 we learn that Agabus, through the Spirit of God stood up and predicted a severe famine. Luke notes that the famine did come, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius. How did this gift build up the Church? First, Christians were encouraged to set aside gifts for the needy during the coming famine (Acts 11:29). Second, when the famine came to pass it must have been a faith strengthening experience for believers everywhere – God still really speaks to and through people! And finally, the fact that the famine was predicted by God must have been a source of comfort as believers realized that God not only knew about their situation, but saw it before they did. They must have felt very much in His hands.
Predictive prophecy is the easiest sort of prophecy to distinguish. The formula is very simple and is given as far back as Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If a predictive prophet’s message does not come to pass, then the Lord has not spoken and believers should not listen to him.
On the other hand, scripture teaches that even if a prophet successfully predicts the future, and yet leads people away from the Lord in some manner, that prophet is not from God (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Pauls says something like this Galatians 1:8-9
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Therefore we see again the “Lordship test” of 1 Corinthians 12:1-3 at work: if a prophet somehow leads people away from honoring Jesus and his name, then that particular prophecy is not from God.
A second sort of prophecy that the new Testament speaks about is when God reveals his will for a specific situation. I call this present prophecy, because it is something God is saying he wants to do, or begin to do, right now, rather than in the future. The prime example of this in the New Testament is in Acts 13:1-3.
“In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.”
The prophecy uttered here is not so much a prediction of the future as it is a direction for the present. The Holy Spirit, through the gift of prophecy, revealed his will for the congregation at Antioch. We can see first that this revelation of God’s will was consistent with his Word (that is, the Bible), honored Jesus, and recognized and utilized the variety in the Body of Christ. All that is to indicate that there was good reason to trust this as a genuine prophecy. Results are not always indicative of this sort of prophecy, for I can imagine all sorts of things which might have prevented God from doing what he wanted through Barnabas and Saul (their own potential sin being one of them). In spite of that, however, the results of obedience to this prophecy were pretty spectacular in the long run!
Some of you analytical types may be wondering what the difference is between present prophecy and, say, a word of knowledge or wisdom. Ultimately, if it is a message from God, does it matter which specific name we call it? Of course not. However, it seems to me, for you categorical types, that the primary distinction is that present prophecy implies an instruction which should be followed – like sending out Barnabas and Saul.
The third sort of prophecy described by the New Testament is what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:3
“But everyone who prophecies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.”
This is prophecy of exhortation. This is a potent gift if you hear someone using it. It can come in a variety of styles, and can actually often appear very low key. The essence of prophecy is not how it is delivered, but rather its effect in building up the church. A prophecy of exhortation might sound like this:
I think the Lord wants us to know that we are in the center of his will right now, and that he is pleased with us. He doesn’t want us to give up hope – he wants us to press on, to stay consistent, to keep reading, praying and meeting together. He isn’t done with us yet.
Revelation chapters 2-3 contain basically prophecies of exhortation for the seven churches that John is writing to.
One person you may have heard of. whom I consider to have this sort of prophetic gift is Jack Hayford. Often musicians use their music prophetically – that is, for the strengthening, encouraging and comfort of the body of Christ. I would consider both Michael Card and the group Delirious (especially in The Cutting Edge) to have prophetic ministries through music.
Now, I have no doubt that the Lord wants to continue to use this “spiritual thing” prophecy – in our churches today. Like all of the gifts, one of the best places for it is in a small group.
However, there is a down side to prophecy, and I believe this is why it began to fall into disuse. Because it is a powerful gift, it is also powerfully attacked by the devil, and can be powerfully corrupted by people who lack integrity. Shortly after the time of the apostles some people claiming to prophets, tried to lead Christians astray (they were known as Montanists). They almost destroyed Christianity.
However, the Holy Spirit had anticipated this evil, and before this happened, inspired the writers of the New Testament to say these things:
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies,but test everything; hold fast what is good.Abstain from every form of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)
So the scripture clearly places a high value on prophecy, but also places a high value on testing potential prophecy, to make sure it really comes from God.
How do we know a false prophet? How do we “test everything?” Well, we just saw that we need to consider if a prediction comes true. If it is present prophecy or a prophecy of exhortation, we need Paul has already us in this passage how to know if it comes from the Holy Spirit. If the effect is to glorify Jesus (not the prophet) if it leads to people allowing Jesus to be Lord of their personal lives more and more, it’s probably from the Lord. If it has the effect of building up the church, it’s probably from God. If the opposite things are true, we should ignore it, or, in some cases, denounce it.
Some of you may be thinking, “well, I’ll probably never hear a prophet, so I don’t need to worry about it.” Don’t be too sure! I’ve heard plenty of preachers on the Television, radio and Internet, who claim to be speaking what God wants them say. Sometimes what they say results in people allowing Jesus to be Lord of their lives more fully. Sometimes they build up the church. Sometimes the main result is that the preacher gets more popular and influential and more wealthy, but there isn’t a clear sign that it really helps anyone, or glorifies God. These people need to be tested, and, as Paul says, we need to hold on to the good.