Despite some teaching that floats around, prophecy is not a gift reserved only for the few special and super-spiritual ones called prophets. That is an Old Testament model, which the New Testament supersedes. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians was to a group of people, therefore his instructions and teachings should always be understood in the plural. Hence when he tells the Corinthians (who clearly need a lot of teaching!) that ‘you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted’, he isn’t limiting the number of prophetic people. He is being inclusive, not exclusive. His earlier exhortation to ‘eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy’ is addressed to the whole church, not just the spiritual superstars contained therein. Prophecy is meant to be a gift accessible to all so that all can hear God themselves on behalf of others. If we don’t understand this, we will elevate those with the gift to an unhelpful place and create first and second-class Christians. That’s a bad idea and creates division – another thing the Corinthians were pretty good at doing.
It was always the plan of God for His people to be prophetic. Remember, being prophetic isn’t about having prophecies – it is about revealing the heart of God. Peter, preaching his super-sermon in Acts 2 that results in an altar-call response of three-thousand, quotes the prophet Joel when he declares that ‘in the last days God will pour forth of His Spirit on all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy’. Neither age nor gender nor spiritual maturity is a barrier to prophesying. God wants to speak to all people, and through all people.
This raises some interesting possibilities. Because prophecy is a gift and not an award, it may mean some surprising people prophesy! Because gifts are given according to the will of God and not in response to our performance, not only can we not earn it, but we also can’t un-earn it! Therefore prophecy isn’t a demonstration of spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity is expressed through our fruit, not our gifts. The quality of our Christlike character reveals our maturity so the most immature or newest believer may prophesy incredibly. That’s both amazing and humbling and should reinforce to us the incredible kindness and grace of God, who gives all of us things we don’t deserve again and again.
Our character quibbles or sin also don’t invalidate prophecy. Gifting should never excuse poor lifestyle choices, nor should poor lifestyle choices negate gifting. We are all works in progress, being sanctified from glory to glory. My point is that prophecy is not an indication of character or maturity, and vice-versa. Gifting is God showing Himself through us, but fruit is God showing Himself in us.
Like all talents and gifts, both natural and spiritual, there are different levels of ability. Whilst anyone can prophesy, not everyone does. There is always the potential though because God speaks to all His children. When someone prophesies consistently, we could say that they have a prophetic gift. If someone has a gift that seems to be expressed more frequently, with greater accuracy and authority, and people are blessed by it, we could say that they have a prophetic ministry. These would be the people that have respect and listening ears primed when they come to share. Comparison isn’t the point here – it isn’t about levels or placings on some kind of prophetic league table. I merely wanted to highlight growth, and how we can identify different levels of gifting. So if we’ve identified someone with a prophetic ministry, does that mean they are a prophet? In fact, what is a prophet? Is someone who prophesies a prophet?
One time, I became aware of a gentleman who considered himself to be a prophet. He had a very interesting approach to prayer. Whenever he prayed publicly, whether it was to a group of three, thirty or three hundred, he always concluded his prayer with the phrase “I pray this as a prophet ordained and anointed by the Lord Jesus Christ”. It was kind of awkward because it felt more like he was telling us rather than letting us make up our own minds. Unfortunately, it seems that today in the church the word ‘prophet’ has become a title in a way it was never intended to be. If we prophesy, does that make us a prophet? As in my friend’s case, who decides who is a prophet? Do we? Do others? Does Jesus? As our starting place, let’s examine what scripture says about prophets.
The first thing to note is that sometimes we can get our theology of the prophets primarily from the Old Testament. I’m not saying that the Old Testament shouldn’t inform and shape our understanding – it is inspired scripture, after all – but we live in New Testament times. The Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that the events of the Old Testament are examples and warnings to us, and he tells the Roman church that the Old Testament contains examples for our teaching and encouragement. Our first step in building our theology about anything is to always look through the lens of the New Testament. That includes our view of the Old Testament and what it teaches, as well. So to understand biblical theology about prophets, we need to know what the New Testament teaches about prophets and let that shape our understanding, as well as what we see in the Old Testament.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, talks about prophets as one of a group of ‘five-fold ministries’. His words give some insight into the definition and role of prophets:
‘When He [Christ] ascended on high He led a host of captives and He gave gifts to men… And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and the teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry for building up the body of Christ.’
There are a number of observations here which apply to all the fivefold ministries. However, our focus is on prophets. So what can we see?
Firstly, prophets are called by Jesus; Christ ‘gave gifts to men’. There is a specific and individual call to the prophetic office which is not a general invitation, but a unique call. We can see this throughout the Old Testament as, like I mentioned before, many of the prophets had incredible life-changing encounters. Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are just three to name. Clearly, prophets must be gifted in prophecy – and uniquely, powerfully so. There is an authority and endorsement that comes with a powerful prophetic gift. It doesn’t negate character, of course, but godly and mature character accompanying a strong gift are signs of a prophet. If either is missing, we aren’t talking about a prophet.
Secondly, it isn’t just about the gift, but also who the man or woman is. The scripture says that, ‘He (Christ) gave the… prophets… to the [church]. The person is the gift to the church, not just their abilities. There is something about who they are as an individual that is part of the package. Their personality, perceptions, insights and ways of thinking are just as much a part of the prophetic office as is their ability to prophesy. It is as much about who they are as it is about what they can do.
Thirdly, prophets are meant to ‘equip the saints for the work of ministry’. Their role is to disciple, train and mentor believers in prophetic ministry. They reproduce themselves by helping others develop their own prophetic gifts. An authentic prophet is less concerned about being a superstar and more about helping others grow.
Fourthly, prophets have a heart to see the Church flourish because they want to be part of ‘building up the body of Christ’. As such they are not only passionate about the church, but they are part of a church. As we’ve seen before, prophecy builds up, encourages and consoles people in community. Therefore a prophet understands that they must first be in a community to be able to do that, and so they also need to be in right relationship with the leaders of that community.
This means that prophets are not self-appointed; they live in community with other believers and over time, let their call, fruit and gift speak for themselves to a point whereby they are recognised by the members of that community and released to minister by the community leaders. It is an unhealthy sign for a prophet to not be part of a godly community, or be covered by godly leadership. If these things aren’t present, it should raise red flags. Similarly, communities and leaders recognise their own prophets, as opposed to being told who their prophets are. Jesus taught that prophets reveal themselves by the fruit of their lives. Community living and submission to leadership are the best revealers of fruit. It follows that an absence of either should be a concern. Calling ourselves ‘prophet’ doesn’t necessarily mean we are! If you feel you have a call to the prophetic office, then get involved in community, serve your spiritual leaders, walk with God and become more like Him, and trust that He will increase your favour and influence in the right time, in the right way. Healthy prophets are a blessing to the church because they are foundational in the life of the local church, so we need them!
Practising The Prophetic
We’ve seen that anyone and everyone, in the New Covenant, can hear God and speak as his representative prophetically. We’ve also learnt about prophets and characteristics of healthy prophets. These six attributes are godly character recognised by others, a strong prophetic gift endorsed by leaders and the community, a desire to disciple and train others in the prophetic ministry, a passion for the church, integration with a local community of believers, and wholehearted submission to spiritual leaders in that same community.
Ask God, and other trusted people, including your church leader, how they feel you are progressing in each of these six areas and if there are any areas of concern they have. Listen to their opinions and take their advice. It’ll help you grow.
This post is an excerpt from my book Hearing the Heart of Heaven which is available now. You can find out more about it, and download a free chapter, here.