I’ve written a couple of things about the abuses and errors of present day “prophecy” but despite those clear problems I am a firm believer in the reality of present day prophetic gifts. But considering there are so many examples of false prophecy – what can be considered as TRUE prophecy and what is its purpose?
Firstly all “prophecy” needs to be tested against God’s word – if it is contradictory in any way it should be rejected. The things being prophesied need to be tested against the character of God as revealed in His word, and against His revealed purposes.
We are told we should not despise prophecy and many highlight that command attempting to give legitimacy to all kinds of “prophetic” claims. But what does it mean to despise prophecy? One meaning is that we should not reject it – that prophecy is something of importance. That is the application most of the claimed “prophets” highlight, as if rejecting THEIR words would be despising the gift.
But in context I see an additional application. The command continues with the equally important “test all things” and to hold to what is good. Therefore, to be blasé about prophecy, taking a casual view, accepting it without question – is no less a despising of prophecy than an outright rejection of the validity of the gift. The validity of prophecy needs to be recognised AND all claimed prophecies need to be tested to see what should be accepted and held.
One argument given against the need for present day prophecy is the fact that we have the scriptures, and that any further prophetic word would require adding something to the bible*. However, there were a number of prophets mentioned in the bible who had none of their prophecies recorded to be part of scripture. And yet scripture itself mentions them AS prophets. That clearly shows that not all prophecy is of a scriptural nature – but if that is the case, what is the difference between their words and those of Isaiah, Ezekiel and others whose words were recorded and passed on to us?
Prophecy as recorded in the bible is revelation that has universal and eternal importance; it has relevance to all generations and peoples. It might not necessarily be personally applicable to everyone, so context needs to be taken into account. We can’t take something addressed to Israel in a specific situation and automatically apply it to us or our own nation in a different situation. The main purpose of biblical prophecy is to reveal something of God’s nature, His ways and His relationship to His people and to mankind in general – revelation that is universally important.
I see the prophetic gifts in NT times could have something in common with those unrecorded OT prophets with words that have a more localised and personal importance but reveal nothing new or important about God.
The NT speaks of prophets being a gift to the church and prophecy is one of the gifts of the Spirit – but there is little said about how these gifts are put into practice in a NT context. We have Pauls’ description in 1 Cor 14 where he says prophecy instructs and encourages. We also have examples of the NT prophetic gifts at work through the prophet Agabus that give legitimacy to the idea of prophecy still being predictive. We are told of two occasions where he foretold future events (approaching famine, and Paul’s imprisonment) that forewarned the church (and Paul) so decisions could be made about actions to be taken.
Basically I see prophecy as being any revelation/ understanding we receive from God that we can pass on to others. I think the most “spectacular”, most recognised and most abused is the predictive aspect –and the controversy that causes tends to harden people against the gift as a whole. At the other side of the scale, in a form that is perhaps not recognised as “prophecy” are those times of enlightenment when a truth suddenly becomes clear and we share that newly revealed understanding with others. Mostly that comes through interaction with scripture as the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to something we had not seen before. Something so exciting we can’t help but speak it out to others.
A few years ago my wife demonstrated this aspect of the gift. At about 1.00 am she woke me in her excitement to share a revelation she had received in the night regarding an aspect of John chapter 3. Her exercising of that gift of prophecy was definitely an example of the instructing and encouraging mentioned by Paul – despite coming in the early hours of the morning and disturbing my sleep. I remember that time clearly because of the circumstances, but how often do these things happen almost without being noticed because they happen at a “normal” time of day in unremarkable circumstances?
*While some see that a continuing prophetic gift would require adding those prophecies to the bible (an idea refuted above), it is clear that to dismiss the continuation of prophecy would require us to subtract from scripture all of those references that point to the ongoing validity of the prophetic Spiritual gift.