Have you ever stood in a church service and heard “Thus saith the Lord” — then realized the person speaking isn’t quoting Scripture, but instead is claiming to speak for God?
One controversial concept in the church today is the subject of prophecy, especially among charismatic churches or those that use the term “Spirit-filled.”
Different denominations have their own take, of course. That’s kind of the whole point of denominations, isn’t it? To have their own particular take on everything.
Most mainline denominations claim that prophecy is not for today – as in, “Thus says the Lord: in two years’ time I will do X, Y, and Z.” They look to the Bible as perfect, the complete revelation of God for His people. And they quote 1st Corinthians 13 as their source:
if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away… 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. (NASB)
Other denominations, especially any that emphasize being Spirit-filled or using spiritual gifts, will declare that prophecy is alive and well as a gift of God to the church.
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13 NASB)
Why, they ask, would we do away with one of the gifts God has given to equip us, to build us up, to help us attain unity and maturity?
But the key question is, “What is prophecy?” And by answering that, perhaps we can avoid some of the denominational debates.
Prophecy comes from a combination of Greek words “pro” – before or forward, and “phemi” – to speak one’s mind. So it can be “fore-telling” what will happen in the future known to God but revealed to man. But it can also be “forth-telling” or speaking forward the mind of God on a given matter. This latter version of “prophecy” is what I want to focus on.
7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (Rev 2:7 NASB)
God is a communicator. We are promised that His people hear His voice and follow Him. (John 10:27-30). Certainly there’s an individual application to that, where we each seek God and He speaks to us in our relationship with Him. But there can also be a corporate aspect to it, where God provides His insights to our church leaders and members in order to guide His people in the world today.
Paul lays out lots of specific guidance for how prophecy works in the Body in 1st Corinthians 12 and 14, and we see the concept of hearing God all throughout Scripture.
For me, prophecy comes down to two things: perception, and participation.
First we need to see what God is doing, to hear what He is saying, to figure out where He is moving. We can’t speak forth the mind of God on any given matter without getting in line with Him. That’s where perception comes in. “Perception is reality” is a stretch, but the fact is we respond to what we perceive. So we have to catch a glimpse of God in order to start the process of responding to Him. For example, consider this comment about the tribe of Issachar:
the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do (1st Chronicles 12:32 NASB).
Second, once we see where God is moving and hear what God is saying, we act. We join Him, and do His will. We participate. Maybe that means a particular brand of outreach, or a timely response to a crisis. Maybe it’s a unique solution to an ongoing problem in our community. Whatever it is, the goal of the people of God is not just to hear the voice of their Shepherd, but to act on that voice and follow Him.
27 My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. (John 10:27 NASB)
Certainly, denominations will have their debates and their differences. But as individuals and as corporate churches, we can incorporate this understanding of “prophecy” into our worship and our devotion to God. We want to perceive what He is saying, and then we want to participate in what He is doing in the world around us.
Regardless of denomination, regardless of preferred expression of worship, we believe in a living God who speaks to His people – through the Scriptures, through personal devotion and prayer, through the songs we sing, through individual Christians and through the corporate church.
God is speaking. As those who wish to pursue Him, we must have our eyes and ears attentive, and our feet ready to follow.
So, I’m curious: Knowing that each of His children has a unique individual relationship to Him, how do you find it easiest to hear God? In what ways does He most often communicate to you?