I’ve been reflecting recently… no, that’s a cop-out. Let me try again:
God has begun to speak to me about some things in relationship to the prophetic gifts, and about some ways that the church as a whole has let prophetic people down. We who teach others how to hear God – how to prophesy – we have in some ways failed the very prophetic community we train. This began, I believe, with good intentions, and with accurate instruction, but without enough wisdom.
When we teach people to prophesy, we have been very intentional about “lowering the bar” of hearing God’s voice. That’s a good intention, but it does a disservice to our brothers and sisters who are called to prophetic ministry. Let me explain.
When we teach prophecy, we generally teach newcomers how Jesus said (in John 10:27), “My sheep hear my voice.” So if we’re his sheep, we hear Him speaking to us. The challenge is not to learn to hear his voice, but learn to recognize it, learn to discern his voice from among the other clamoring voices. That’s good, and I still stand behind this teaching.
We teach them from Luke 11:11-13:
11 If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
When we are asking God for a manifestation from the Holy Spirit called the gift of prophecy, then we should be able to trust what we hear, what we see, what we “get” when we’re asking.
And as part of that training, we put limits on prophesying: we teach that (as 1 Corinthians 14:3 says), “He who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men.” And so we limit the topics accessible to prophecy to this realm.
When we teach people the basics of prophecy, most of our teaching is in the context of personal prophecy. In fact, the vast majority of prophetic training I’ve seen or heard (and that’s a lot!) assumes the context of personal prophecy, in a public setting, and it emphasizes the limits of “edification, exhortation, comfort.” No predicting the future, thank you very much; no declaring judgment, no “You must marry this person,” no “Sell everything and move to Africa.” Just prophesy these: edification, exhortation, comfort. The end.
Within those limitations, there’s plenty of room for a whole lot of valuable prophecy. It is a significant and valuable venue for prophetic ministry, and there is much good that can come from prophecy within these limits.
Are these limitations on every exercise of all prophetic gifts? No, the Bible gives these limits for public exercise of the gift of prophecy. They’re pretty good training wheels for training rookies! But this isn’t the whole story.
There are actually three lists of gifts from God in the New Testament, and the prophetic is the only gift common to all three lists. The gifts from Holy Spirit are enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12, including the gift of prophecy, and the related prophetic gifts of the “word of knowledge” and “the word of wisdom.” The gift of prophecy is the focus of 1 Corinthians 14, and this is where the limitation of “edification, exhortation, comfort” comes from.
There’s another list of gifts, often called “motivational gifts” from God the Father, in Romans 12, and this list also includes prophecy. Here, the only limitation to prophesying is “let us prophesy in proportion to our faith.” I observe that this passage assumes that not everyone works in this level of the gifting; only some of the Body are gifted by the Father to minister regularly with the gift of prophecy.
The list of gifts from Jesus, the head of the church is in Ephesians 4, and it includes the gift of the prophet. The limitation here – a limitation on all five of these gifts including the prophet – is that the gift is to be used “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry.” Here too, the passage assumes that not everyone has this gift: only a few members of the Body are called to be prophets.
So it seems the full range of prophetic giftings are not limited to only prophesying “edification, exhortation, comfort.” The calling of a ministry in the prophetic, and the calling of a prophet are not subject to those limitations at all times. (Though I would argue that the vast majority of prophetic words coming from someone called as a prophet should still fall into these guidelines, but “the vast majority” is not the same as “all,” which is how we’ve taught it.)
There come a couple of problems, when people take the prophetic gifts outside of those beginning limitations: we don’t make much room for other applications for the gift, and we don’t show people how to minister outside of those areas. Since most training for prophetic gifts has been designed as an introduction for everybody, the content has necessarily been limited to the aspects of the gift that apply to everyone.
And this is the exact focus of my concern: that when we have lowered the bar to include everybody in the prophetic training, we have failed to train two-thirds of the prophetic gifts described in the Epistles; we’ve generally failed to train any application outside of the prophetic outside the realm of rookies.
Where might gifted people appropriately take prophetic gifts outside of these rookie limitations?
1.Prophetic evangelism: prophesying to strangers on the streets and in shopping malls is becoming fashionable in many Christian circles, and it’s wonderful that the church is finally taking prophetic ministry to the streets, and I’m thankful for it.
The risk is small here, and there are usually (but not always) experienced leaders around to help temper the prophetic words given, and to train the givers of those words. There has been very little training focusing even partly on how to prophesy to non-believers, and this is a surprisingly different skill, a different (and appropriate) application of the prophetic gift. On the other hand, prophesying to strangers on the streets strikes me as a reasonable way to learn how to prophesy to strangers in the streets.
Recently, a friend of mine was sitting in a restaurant after hearing a very bad report from her doctor; she was questioning the promises that God had given her, which the doctor’s report had just challenged. Then a man she’d never met came up to her, apologetic and nervous, and told her, “God told me to tell you, ‘Never question in the darkness what I have told you clearly in the light.’” It rocked her world, and put her back on course, though her battle is not yet over.
I judge that this is an excellent use of prophetic gifts which falls outside of the traditional “personal prophecy in a public meeting,” but generally within the traditional limits of “edification, exhortation & comfort.”
2.Daily guidance. I don’t subscribe to the theory that God must tell me everything to do in my everyday life, but I know people that do expect God’s leading them in each little detail of their daily life. (We’ll leave the very appropriate questions of the degree in which personal guidance is appropriate for another day.) More to today’s point is the issue that very little training is given to the topic of daily guidance for believers.And yet, I believe that hearing God say, “Today, I want you to do this,” is a very valid use for prophetic gifts. Our initial verse tied the two together: “My sheep hear my voice,” is linked with “they follow me.”
Jesus said of himself, “…whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19 So I suppose if we’re going to be like Jesus, we’re going to need to know what Father’s up to, so we can (like Jesus) join him in that work.
There have been times when I have heard God say, “Turn around and go back and talk to this person,” and that experience has been the turning point of an amazing new season in my life. This application of the gift has certainly been valid in my experience, though it, too, is outside of traditional prophetic training..
3.Public prophetic declarations, especially on the internet. It seems that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of websites nowadays where someone, eager to prophesy, and (usually) with some measure of a prophetic gift, makes a public presence. Many of these start posting “prophetic words” – just like the big name prophets – addressing everything from what they think is wrong with the church, to “God’s word for this year,” to prognosticating when Jesus is going to come back and what He’s going to do when he gets here. (I confess to thinking that some of these outbursts may be an example of individuals falling short of the instruction, “let us prophesy in proportion to our faith.”
Let me hasten to point out that having a website or making public declarations in no way either validates or invalidates a person’s prophetic gifting or calling. My point is that while they may have been trained in “how to prophesy,” they have not been trained for this kind, this level of public ministry, and that knowing how to “hear God’s voice” is not a sufficient foundation for a public prophetic ministry.
And I must add that while there are a lot of eager little rookies foolishly prophesying their guts out on their blogs or on Facebook, there are some individuals who are called to a larger realm of ministry, and whose assignment it is to make such decrees. (I include a very small sampling of them – public words that have been judged by other prophets – on the Northwest Prophetic website.)
4.Prophetic correction. I have far more stories than I wish I did about people learning to hear God and suddenly recognizing that other people are doing things wrong. There are many, many people who have received prophetic words, generally uninvited and unwelcome, which outline just how badly they’re screwing up.
It is fair to point out that most of the “prophetic correction” that is sweeping the internet is in error (certainly by motivation, if not by content), and while that may be a symptom of the topics in this article, it is not to our point today.
I don’t deny that correction, on very rare occasions, becomes a very tiny part of mature prophetic ministry (1 Samuel 13:13 may serve as an example). I point out that the training we give is insufficient for this work, and that this is occasionally a legitimate exercise of the prophetic gifts outside the traditional limitations.
But on the other hand, I know of a few leaders who have fallen into sin, whose sin was revealed prophetically, and nearly always to their own great relief. In every single successful case, the revelation was presented to a small group of leaders, and the leader in question had been invited to be present. This is clearly not an application for “proclaim it from the mountain tops!” Matthew 18 guides us in this process.
5.Directive prophecy. Most teachers on prophetic gifts are clear: personal prophecy is not for the purpose of correction or direction. And again, this is a tiny part of the greater arena of prophetic ministry, but it is a part, and traditional prophetic training makes no preparation for this: neither for teaching us how to prophesy direction, nor teaching the body how to discern, judge and respond to directional prophecies.
While there are models of this kind of prophecy in the Old Testament (Samuel’s is one of the more exciting); in fact, it made more sense in the Old Testament, since only a few people had the Spirit of God and could access God’s perspective on the future.By contrast, we now live in a day when the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, and every one of God’s children has the Spirit living inside them and directing them. Therefore the most effective use of directive prophecy today is generally in confirmation of what a person is hearing already, and in fact, I generally counsel the recipient of such prophecies to ignore them if they are not confirming something already in their heart and mind.
In my own life, there was a season where Papa required that I pray 1 Corinthians 14:1 before I pray for anything else that day; I petulantly prayed the verse every day, but told nobody about it. Some time later, a prophet called me out and said, “God says you’ve been asking him for prophetic gifts, and he says that it has been his plan to give them to you.” It changed my world.
6.Direction for our personal lives. “Shall I marry this person?” “Do I accept this job?” “What is my calling in life?” Certainly, this is similar to “personal prophecy,” but these questions are waaay outside of “edification, exhortation and comfort in a public gathering.” But they’re powerful and vital questions that cannot go unasked, and theoretically should not go unanswered. And it seems that there are never any good experienced, prophetic leaders around when people are asking these powerful questions in their private times with God.
I have often been frustrated by the emphasis some of us put on having God tell us what we should do, when he has given us a powerful free will, and when our own desires measure so strongly in the subject. In fact, when I asked Papa whether I should marry the woman who is now my wife, his answer was, “Son, you may marry her.” The emphasis was that my choice was very valid for my marriage.
Having said that, there are a very few occasions where God clearly points out who a person will marry, though if such a word is not a confirmation of something in our own heart, I would seriously question the word. (That woman, now my wife, heard God say to her, “He will be your husband” while I was engaged to another woman; she very wisely said and did nothing on the subject until after our second anniversary.)
7.Working with apostles and apostolic teams. While I know a number of prophets who do work with apostles, I don’t know a single one who has had any significant training in that line of prophetic work. But I judge that this ministry, when done well, is likely one of the most valuable parts of the prophetic ministry of someone called as a prophet.
My favorite example of this ministry was a few years back when Chuck Pierce and Dutch Sheets were called by God, as a prophet and an apostle, to visit all 50 states and make declarations about them. Their declarations were powerful, and their interaction was wonderfully instructive.
I realize the mixed message here: Yes, the limitations commonly taught (of “edification, exhortation, comfort”) are valuable, but no, those limits are not absolute limits.
My focus is about some concerns about prophetic ministry today, about how well we have trained our people to hear God’s voice, and how that is insufficient for many of the prophetic tasks and responsibilities before us.
Many years ago, shortly after I began to understand how to hear God’s voice, my young family and I were given an invitation. A friend of ours was moving to Canada to plant a church, and he invited us to join him. Of course, we took this to prayer, and in response, I heard God saying, “What do you want to do?” which I interpreted as permission to quit our jobs, sell most of what we owned, and start over in Canada. What resulted was a two-year exercise in persistence in an endeavor that God was clearly not blessing, followed by a decade of recovery from that failure.
Had I learned the skills that I needed to discern far larger issues than “personal prophecy, in a public gathering, aiming at edification, exhortation, comfort,” I believe I would have been better equipped to make that decision, and better equipped to handle the consequences of it.
This is my hope: that we as a maturing prophetic community would move beyond the valuable but baby-steps beginner’s training of “personal prophecy, in a public gathering, aiming at edification, exhortation, comfort.” I envision training schools (a few have already begun) and competent mentoring (I’ve seen greater advances here) where we are addressing not just beginner issues, but real-world issues of those called to prophetic ministry. I look forward to regional communities of mature prophets, raised up as sons and daughters by mature prophets and apostles, ministering in the “gates of the city” in every city or region, at least in the Northwest, and ideally, in the world.