The Gift of Prophecy by John Wimber

CHARISMA, NOVEMBER 1992

Personal revelations are biblical and profitable, but we must be vigilant in testing them against scriptural guidelines.

The Bible teaches that God communi­cates with us in a variety of ways. For example, God speaks in a general way to all men and women through cre­ation (Ps. 19:1-2), through our consciences (Rom. 2:14-15) and through His continuing providence (Acts 14:17). He commu­nicates more directly through the written Word, which is not only the writ­ten record of His acts, but also the authoritative reve­lation of who He is and how we may have com­munion with Him.

But it does not end there. In the Old and New Testaments, we see God speaking to His children in dramatic, sometimes startling ways: prophecies, dreams and visions, inner impressions, angels, tongues and interpre­tations, among others.

The gift of prophecy, mentioned by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:10, is one method of God’s communica­tion that is receiving a great deal of emphasis in the contem­porary church. Unfortunately, there has been neglect, misunderstanding or misuse of this manifestation of the Spirit-everywhere from Corinth to California, and from the first century to the 20th.

At the heart of the debate over contemporary prophecy is the question, How can we know if we are hear­ing from God?

The apostle Paul says that if an unbe­liever comes into the church when people are prophesying, he or she may be convinced that they are telling the truth and may discover God there (1 Cor. 14:24-25). In our own Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Anaheim, California, this has happened repeatedly. Not long ago, a church member approached a female visitor and told her the secrets of her heart. As a result, the woman knew God was speaking to her, was converted and is now happily settled in our church.

Such a prophetic word is not a prepared message or a learned skill. Nor should it be considered to have the same authority as Scripture. It’s simply an immediate report of some revelation the Spirit has given in regard to a contem­porary situation (1 Cor. 14:29-30).

The gift of prophecy is generally a message of strength­ening, encouragement and comfort (14:3). It’s an inspired message for the moment in the common language and could be prefaced by “Now hear this.”

Unfortunately, the idea that God can and does speak to us in such a way frightens some Christians because it involves subjective experience. They readily accept preaching, teaching, wit­nessing and Bible study as authentic ways God speaks because they appear to be so clearly rooted in Scripture. Yet even these “objective” means of revela­tion are affected by the more subjective element of the Spirit’s quickening the hearts of both the speaker and hearers. And while all Christians agree with the authority of Scripture, not all agree with how to interpret it.

Some Christians even maintain that belief in more subjective expressions of God’s communication opens the door to emotional delusion or, worse yet, satanic deception. Fearing the worst, they retreat to the position that the Bible is the sole source of revelation today. (Their position is not that God could not speak today in these ways, but that He has chosen not to.)

But are their concerns actually rooted in the teaching of Scripture? Or is their interpretation based more on their anxieties or bad experiences?

The most casual reading of the Bible teaches that in biblical times God spoke to His people through the prophetic gifts. The Bible also teaches that He will speak to us in a similar way even today.

But how do we avoid the pitfalls of subjective revelation? How can we know if a prophetic message is truly from God? If prophecy, dreams, visions and other forms of direct reve­lation are biblical, then it’s reasonable to look for biblical guidelines regarding their authenticity.

Guidelines

What safeguards, then, does Scrip­ture provide to ensure that we are not led astray by “prophetic” words?

1. Personal prophecy should glo­rify the Word of God, Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit’s primary mission is to bring glory to the Son (John 16:14), so any prophecy, dream or vision should point us toward Jesus.

A good test for knowing if we are crossing the line on this point is to ask two questions:

Does the prophetic person often talk about himself (or herself), subtly lifting up his experience and ministry at the expense of Jesus’ glory? If so, we will have an uncomfortable feeling, getting more caught up in his or her story than in the life of Christ.

Are we constantly seeking after and hoping for words from the pro­phetic person, so much so that we suf­fer disappointment and even depression when we don’t receive one? Then he or she is undermining our ability to hear from God through His Word and through the “still small voice” of the Holy Spirit.

2. Prophetic messages should con­form to the Word of God, the Bible. Paul says elders must “encourage oth­ers by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Tit. 1:9, NIV). The content of extra-biblical revelation should always be in accordance with and submitted to Scripture. A so-called “word” that encourages someone to commit adultery or to believe that Jesus was not raised from the dead is rejected because it is a direct refutation of Scripture.

Some personal words of prophecy, however, deal with issues not addressed by the Bible. Those revela­tions that can be neither contradicted nor verified by Scripture should not be rejected out of hand. For example, prophetic words that warn someone about a dangerous business dealing or a hurtful relationship may or may not be legitimate. There are other criteria for judging their authenticity.

3. Prophecy should not be used to establish doctrine or practice. This is more subtle than the previous point.

The apostle Paul warned Timothy about anyone who “teaches false doc­trine and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching” (1 Tim. 6:3). In that day as this, some experiences and so­ called revelations are outside the scope of both Scripture and everyday experi­ence, and thus should not be looked to as authoritative truth for understanding major doctrine and practice. In other words, private prophecy can never con­trol our interpretation of Scripture.

I’ve observed that Christians don’t always recognize when prophetically gifted people are allowing private reve­lations to control their understanding of Scripture. After hearing remarkable and accurate prophetic words, for example, it’s easy to lower our guards and not think biblically when a prophetic person begins teaching from the Bible.

We are dazzled by their prophetic gifts and blinded to their biblical igno­rance. If they are so right about all the details of my life, we think, how could they be wrong about Scripture? This is especially a temptation when a prophetic minister speaks about doc­trines surrounding the second coming of Christ, a subject rife with specula­tion about which church leaders have never been in agreement.

We must resist the temptation to allow a “private revelation” to over­come the most basic principles of bibli­cal interpretation. Scripture, not prophecy, is the ultimate test of all doc­trine and practice.

4. Those who deliver a prophetic word should be of sound moral char­acter, submitted to the lordship of Jesus and producing good fruit in their ministry. Jesus warned that false prophets would come in “sheep’s cloth­ing” (Matt. 7:15-23), meaning they would be camouflaged to look like one of us. So how are we to know the dif­ference between a true and a false prophet?

Jesus said we are to be fruit inspec­tors: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:16). Does their ministry point people to Jesus and His Word? Are folks led to repentance and deeper faith in God?

This means that a person delivering prophecies should be willing to have his or her words tested by the elders of the church (1 Cor. 14:29-32). Pastoral oversight tests prophetic ministry and guides its recipients in appropriate responses. Complaints or questions about specific prophetic ministry should be thoroughly investigated and brought to clear resolution by responsi­ble pastors.

If a prophetic word predicts a future event, it should be fulfilled. If the predicted event does not happen, either God has not spoken (Deut. 18:21-22), or unspoken conditions of the prophecy were not fulfilled (Jer. 18:7-10; Jon. 2-4).

The quality of a person’s fruit is determined by his or her character. A good test of mature character is to see if the messenger is submitted to pas­toral oversight. Independent, unteach­able and self-proclaimed “prophets” are dangerous. To protect the body of Christ, the pastors and elders of a congregation should check out the character and fruit of anyone who prophesies. A failure to do this leads to all kinds of abuse and hurt in the body of Christ.

The problem of independent, trav­eling people who stir up significant pastoral problems in congregations is not confined to the prophetic. The phenomenon of traveling teachers, evangelists and self-styled apostles who abuse Christians and cause con­troversy and division is widespread. In this regard, independent prophetic figures are only a part of the bigger problem of hyper-individualism in Western Christianity and the unwill­ingness of pastors to give proper oversight to their ministry.

5. Prophetic messages should be given in the spirit of love (1 Cor. 14:3; James 3:17). Even a word of rebuke is to be given in the spirit of love. Information about individuals that is negative or that may be embar­rassing should not be spoken publicly without first confronting the individual in private.

Prophetic gifting should never be used for controlling purposes. It should be overseen to ensure that believers’ personal responsibility and authority for their own lives (as well as pastoral authority over a church) are not undermined.

6. No one should make major decisions based on personal pro­phetic words alone (1 Cor. 14:27­32). Personal prophetic words should be weighed by elders, pastors and other prophetic people, as well as the person who is receiving the word. Per­sonal words should be given in a way and in a setting that allows for this to happen.

For example, the prophet Agabus warned Paul that if he went to Jerusalem, he would be arrested, and the other disciples pleaded with him not to go (Acts 21:10-14). Paul accepted the prophetic word but still went on to Jerusalem, where he was later arrested. He accepted the revela­tion of his coming suffering, but he rejected the disciples’ application – that he therefore should not go.

A friend of mine recently told me of a simultaneous dream that he and his wife experienced one night last March. The dreams were almost identical, with the exception of a few details. The dreams came at a time when they were deciding among several job opportuni­ties. The dream seemed to indicate he should reject a job that, by most other criteria, he should accept. When he approached a prophetically gifted per­son, he was told the interpretation was “obvious”- he should not accept the job he thought was for him.

“But,” he told me, “the older I get, the less I trust `obvious’ answers.” So he and his wife instead trusted the quiet leading of the Holy Spirit. They took the job that the prophetic person warned them about, and decided to wait and see if there was another inter­pretation to their dreams. Six months later, a series of events occurred that gave an entirely different and accu­rate under- standing to their dreams. Had he relied on the “prophetic” insight into their dreams, they would have missed out on God’s call for their lives.

7. Many, if not most, personal prophetic words given today are con­ditional and, as such, are invita­tions – not certainties (Jer. 18:7-10). We must continue to seek God for the promised blessings to come to pass.

I’m a little uncomfortable when­ever I teach this point because it can be construed as an easy out for missed prophecy. “The prophet wasn’t wrong,” we hear. “The disobedience of the person who received the prophecy prevented the word from being fulfilled.” This argument is similar to the one that blames any lack of healing on the paltry faith of the person being prayed for.

The problem with this thinking, though, is that the primary responsibil­ity for healing in Scripture is laid at the feet of the person who prays, not on the sick. Likewise, in the majority of instances where a prophetic word is unfulfilled, it should be attributed to inaccurate prophecy, not disobedience on the receiver’s part.

The gift of prophecy and other per­sonal revelations must be received and understood in a biblical way. And we must be vigilant in testing all that we believe and do against Scripture.

If we do that, our lives will fulfill Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9-11: “That your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to dis­cern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.”

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