It seems to be more common these days that in pastoring the church we find ourselves having to process questions or ministries related to prophecy. I don’t recall this kind of interest and expression very much 15 – 20 years ago or more. No one was coming forward and declaring themselves to be a prophet. In fact, in my experience, it was preachers who were thought to have prophetic gifts of ministry as they stood before their people to declare the truth of God’s Word to them. But these days it’s not uncommon for people to think they have a prophetic gift. This interest represents a special challenge to pastors as they seek to discern what the Spirit is saying and as they try to pastor this particular manifestation.
Typically, someone will think they have this gift if they think God is using them to speak personal words of special exhortation into someone else’s life or perhaps even to the entire church. I’ve known of people who feel they have this gift who think they should have liberty to exercise it in the midst of a large church gathering on a Sunday morning. How is a pastor supposed to handle the assertion from someone that they have a “word from the Lord” for the congregation? How can the pastor give credence to the idea of the gift of prophecy while also seeking to discern expressions that may need censoring? And why is it that there is such interest in the use of this kind of gift today?
A consistent use of the idea of prophecy in Scripture seems to demonstrate that prophecy is the anointed declaration of God’s word in regard to a particular people and place. So it is that the Old Testament prophets from Moses to Malachi were called to speak God’s word to God’s people concerning their particular need at a certain time in their lives. Often it was a word of warning or judgement. Sometimes it included an invitation as in the case of Isaiah who prophesied: “Come now and let us reason together, says the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18 KJV). This demonstrates that the prophecy is often in a very beautiful poetic form. Prophecy is a speech art form.
Of course there are some Bible teachers who have concluded that with the close of the canon of Scripture, prophecy is no longer a relevant gift of ministry. They feel that God used prophets to give us His Word, but that this gift is no longer necessary. However, if that were so, one would have to discount Paul’s references to the importance of this gift to the Corinthians in chapters 12 – 14, as well as Peter’s words in Acts of the Spirit’s anointing for prophecy in the last days (Acts 2:18). It is true that it is a serious thing to add to the words of biblical prophecy according to Revelation 22:18, but could there be a legitimate place for prophecy in a lesser sense today? Many of us think so, but it needs to be carefully taught and guided/pastored.
It’s possible the interest in prophecy may be somewhat of a social phenomenon consistent with post-modern expressions characterized by a special interest in deconstruction and sensationalism. However, if it is true that God intends prophetic ministry in the church of our day then we need to be open to how He wants to use it. But its use does call for a keen sense of discernment. After all John warns that we should test the spirits because there are many false prophets in the world. And the test is whether proper recognition is given to Jesus as the manifestation of God in the flesh (1 John 4:2). In other words, a good test of prophecy is whether it gives Jesus the honour that He deserves which also means that any ministry should be in the best interests of His body, the church. The New Testament has strong words for any who would try to be divisive in the body of Christ (Titus 3:10, 11).
So then, we should not look down upon genuine expressions of prophecy but welcome them. However those who would prophesy or give a word of exhortation in a more personal word as from God for the occasion or the person or people should not do so with a superior aire of spirituality as is often the case. They should not use it simply as a means to manipulate people around their own agenda. And they should not use it in a way that disregards the unity of the body or of acting in true love (1 Corinthians 13). Rather they should exercise this gift under the pastoral leadership of the church, paying attention to what is being taught in Scripture and in the pulpit. People should be encouraged to prophesy in the sense that they use the gift to encourage and strengthen other believers in what has already been revealed in God’s Word.
I believe prophecy is exercised in the inspiration of new songs that God gives to the church. I believe He often uses prophecy in the context of musical worship in the church — in the rendition of a song as well as in its creation. I believe God uses prophecy in the preached word of God on Sunday morning. But I also believe that He can use prophecy through the lives of those who live and work in the world as Christians, and in how they exhort one another to love and good works. And I am a bit wary of people who claim to have received various visions and dreams that often appear more bizarre and surreal than being truly grounded in the truth of God’s Word.