The Proper Understanding of Prophecy and Prophets

In recent years there has been a huge increase in the numbers of people who claim to be prophets and therefore, a huge increase in the number of prophecies put forth. Accordingly, there is much confusion in the body of Christ about prophecy, prophets, and understanding the ways of God in these areas. The trouble is, many people do not realize they are confused on the subject. With alarming regularity I hear of people receiving a ‘word of prophecy’ from a ‘prophet’ and immediately upend their lives, sometimes even moving to foreign countries solely on that word. Without exaggeration I can say that I’ve seen people ending up divorced, in bankruptcy, fallen away from God, and other severe distresses all because they have not understood the gift of prophecy, or the person giving the ‘word’ didn’t understand.

In the following pages I will lay out point-by-point scriptural guidelines for the gift of prophecy, what distinguishes a prophet from anyone who may operate in prophecy, and how to avoid error concerning the use of this gift.

As you read this I ask you to go to the anchor and foundation of our understanding of the ways of God, the Word, and be willing to lay aside what you think you know about prophecy and prophets. I may be killing some sacred cows in this article, but if it clears up the confusion in the minds of good, honest people, then so be it.

The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament

My first statement about prophecy will be a shock to some: NT prophecy is not primarily fore-telling (predicting the future). I Cor. 14:3 says this: “He that prophesies speaks to men to edification, exhortation, and comfort.” There is nothing predictive in God’s definition of the New Testament gift of prophecy. The NIV says it this way: “But everyone who prophesies speak to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.”

W. E. Vine says of prophecy: “Though much of Old Testament prophecy was purely predictive, prophecy is not necessarily, nor even primarily, fore-telling. It is the declaration of that which cannot be known by natural means.” Ralph Earle, in his excellent book ‘Word Meanings in the New Testament’ agrees: “The main emphasis of New Testament prophecy is not on prediction, but on preaching.”

How non-prophets start thinking they are prophets

Paul shares in Romans 12:3-8 what we call the motivational gifts. While these are not the charismatic gifts listed in I Cor. 12, some of the same principles of how they flow can be seen here. In verse 6 Paul says, “Let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith.” The way this plays out is that a person can become familiar with a particular gift—in this context prophesy—and therefore become very comfortable and more ‘advanced’ and experienced in its use.

I remember when I first began getting words of prophecy about 28 years ago. The first words I spoke were basic, one line ‘God loves you, thus saith the Lord’ type of words. Very simple because the proportion of my faith at that time was very small…it was brand new to me.

Over the years and with more experience under my belt, the words of prophecy became more detailed and longer as I became better at hearing what the Lord was saying. I remember at first I had to shut my eyes just to concentrate on what was in my spirit. Now I am experienced enough that I walk around with eyes wide open, in sometimes very detailed words of prophecy…the proportion of my faith is larger now.

A person can become very experienced in the gift of prophecy, and because they haven’t been taught that the Word teaches the limits of prophecy are edification, exhortation, and comfort; they start mistaking their experience with the gift as the office of prophet. But the truth is that they are just more experienced in the gift than many others. Somewhere along the way they blurred the lines separating someone fluent and experienced in prophecy versus being a prophet.

False teaching about ‘getting better in your gift’

Because many don’t understand that time, experience, and maturity add to the proportion of faith, they teach that when you first begin, accuracy is not important. This is wrong. A person’s ability to be used of the Lord in the area of length and detail of a prophecy will grow in proportion to their faith and experience, but the accuracy of the word is always right on.

A person operating for the first time in prophecy with a simple ‘the Lord says he loves you’ must still be as accurate proportionally as a long and detailed prophecy from someone who’s been operating in the gift for 25 years.

Don’t mistake growing in the proportion of your gift as an excuse for not being accurate. We must still wait on the timing and accuracy of the Word. In fact, Paul teaches in I Cor. 14:26-33 that the gifts should flow without confusion, allowing each utterance to be judged, and even leaves open the possibility that a person may not have the opportunity to share their word. Because scripture says that each word is to be judged, the Lord obviously intended each word to be accurate.

Along these lines I have seen many who haven’t been taught the Word demand that their word be heard, or become offended if they aren’t given the opportunity to share. Paul’s instructions that the ‘spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets’ means you can control the gift in you, and you don’t have to share it.

I can’t count the times when I’ve had a word, but the leader of the meeting decided to go in another direction. It’s not up to me to judge whether they missed it or not, I just have to keep my heart right and do what the Word says.

The Tone of Prophecy

When a person gives a word of prophecy, the person or persons receiving the word will be ‘edified, exhorted, or comforted’. We can also add to this the words of Rev. 19:10: “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” This means that prophecy will flow in the Spirit of God and be directed back to the glory of Jesus.

I was visiting in a church once during an otherwise good worship service. There was a time of singing in the Spirit and then the whole congregation began to quiet down as we waited for the moving of the gifts of the Spirit. In my spirit I could sense the compassion of the Lord welling up to embrace the congregation in words of love and exhortation, so I was surprised when (before I or anyone else could speak up) one of the worship team members suddenly started out in a prophecy. He started: “My little children, your lips say you love me, but truly your hearts are far from me this day, and I am sore displeased…” And it went downhill from there!

A spirit of condemnation swept over the congregation and discouragement set in. You could feel the atmosphere change as this man droned on. The grievance in my spirit was very strong as the Lord within wept over his precious people, now submitting to the wrong spirit and falling into discouragement and hopelessness.

I walked away from that church (never to go again, and in fact it shut down a few months later – thank the Lord) amazed that the people had never been taught the basics of I Cor. 14:3. Where was the edification? Where was the encouragement? Where was the testimony of Jesus?

The proper course of action when a questionable word comes forth is to compare it with what the Word says about that gift. For instance in the situation above, a leader should have remembered that Romans 8:1 says there is no condemnation in Christ, and that prophecy is for edification, exhortation, and comfort, and then stopped the man giving the word.

Paul said in I Cor. 14: 29 to let others judge each word. People don’t realize that giving a prophecy is a two-edged sword: If you give a word you must be willing to have it immediately judged by others. Unfortunately most churches and people in general aren’t trained in this flip side of the gifts and so people in error go on and on without any accountability.

In one of our house churches we had a tongue come forth from one of our members and everyone waited for the interpretation. One of our leaders gave the interpretation, but she said that she could tell it wasn’t complete, that someone else had the balance of it. Immediately a young lady spoke up that she felt she was to read Isaiah 61 as the balance of that word. Everyone agreed, so she read that passage.

At its completion the lady who had the first interpretation thanked her and tried to move on, but the young lady insisted she read all of Isaiah 62 as well. The leader said no, what the Lord wanted had been done. The young lady insisted. The leader then appealed to the man who gave the original tongue, and he agreed that what was done was what the Spirit wanted. The young lady continued to insist on reading Isaiah 62. The leader then asked others what they felt in their spirit, and all agreed that what the Spirit wanted said, had been said.

The young lady was offended and never came back after that meeting. She didn’t want to hear the guidelines in the Word, she just wanted to read ‘her word for everyone.’ She wanted to give a word from the Lord, but she didn’t want the accountability of I Cor. 14:29. This is at the very least ignorance and maybe rebellion. This is how people who may move in a gift start to think of themselves as more than they should. It’s all because they want to move in a spiritual gift without restraint; but this kind of thinking is error.

Speaking more than what the Spirit intended

One time I was a speaker at an Apostolic Conference and in the ‘green room’ where the speakers gather between services. There were some people who were called prophets and they wanted me to come over and sit in the ‘hot seat’ and receive prayer, to see what the Lord might say through the gift of prophecy in them. A tape recorder was made ready and prayer commenced. Shortly two of three of them began speaking ‘prophetically’ over me, and it was right on.

At that time I was the director of a Bible school and had been seeking the Lord when my time to go ‘out on my own’ would come. One of these people began speaking ‘thus saith the Lord’ stating that I was like a horse chomping on the bit, but the time of release was not yet…and many other such words, all of which were exactly right. I was tremendously built up and encouraged. It was the true gift of prophecy in operation!

When the words trailed off, I thanked them and started to get up, but they insisted that I remain seated ‘to see what else the Lord may give us.’ Now understand that at this time I directed a Bible school that had about 700 people pass through each year. I taught daily in the school and was the chief administrator, as well as a leader in a large church. But the ‘words’ that came forth were that the Lord would soon ‘begin using me to teach, and in administration’ and such.

Obviously they were picking up on things already happening in my life, but they were stating it ‘thus saith the Lord’ as a future event. Where did they go wrong?

What happened was this. The true gift of prophecy had moved in the first session. That was all the Spirit wanted; but not satisfied with that, and wanting to make it predictive in nature, they insisted on hanging around until something predictive came forth. At this point they began moving from their own hearts, not the Holy Spirit.

You see, the gifts in us bear witness to gifts in other people. One time at our Bible school we had a noted missionary speak to the students. One young lady came back to the office in tears, so touched by his message. She didn’t know why she was so touched by his message and not any of the other speakers we had had to that point. I asked her where she felt her call was and she replied, “missions.” The gift and call in her recognized the gift and call in the missionary, so she reacted strongly.

In the same way, a preacher may receive more from another preacher, while a teacher will not receive that way. A teacher will receive from another teacher however. This way of God is what happened with my second ‘session’ of prophecy. The people picked up on my giftings of teaching and administration, gifts which I operated in daily, but because it was a witness in their own spirit, they put a ‘thus saith the Lord’ to it, and made it predictive…’you will begin to teach saith the Lord’.

A witness, or ‘thus saith’?

In Acts 20:23 Paul said that he was going to Jerusalem not knowing what would happen to him there, ‘save that the Holy Spirit witnesses in every city, saying that bonds and affliction await me.’ Paul did not say ‘thus saith the Lord’, because the Lord hadn’t said. Paul said the Spirit ‘witnessed’ that arrest and troubles awaited him. In Acts 21:4 we see this in action when Paul, having stayed with some disciples for a week, is told by them not go to Jerusalem ‘through the Spirit.’

One translation of this passage says they urged him not to go ‘because of impressions made by the Spirit.’ In other words, neither in Acts 20:23 nor 21:4 did anyone have a direct word from God, they just had a witness, or impression that troubles awaited Paul.

What happens today is that many who move in prophecy will get a witness in their spirits about something, but instead of stating it as a witness or impression or something they perceive, they say ‘thus saith the Lord,’ thereby elevating their perception to that of the written word in their minds. When a person (either the giver or receiver) doesn’t know the Word on this subject, error and misdirection can result.

It must be noted that in Paul’s case he finally received a direct word from a prophet named Agabus. In Acts 21:11 he took Paul’s belt and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit is saying…”. Note that when the Holy Spirit speaks the message is very specific. There is no ‘witness’ or ‘impression.’ When the Holy Spirit speaks through a prophet it is very exact. Also note that a prophet moves in the predictive, as Agabus also did in Acts 11:27-28 concerning a future famine. (More on the predictive later).

Another example of the Holy Spirit bearing witness but not yet specific can be found in Acts 27:10. Paul is a prisoner of the Romans and is on a ship that is preparing to sail to Rome. Paul said, “I perceive that this voyage will be with much peril…that we will lose the ship, the cargo, and our lives.”

Note that he didn’t say ‘the Lord told me’, because he didn’t tell him. Paul reported accurately, “I perceive” (something in my spirit). Again, many who move in prophecy and other gifts take something they think they perceive in their spirits, attach a ‘thus saith the Lord’, and turn it into something predictive.

But here is the catch. Paul’s perception was wrong–they would not die! An angel stood by him and told him that he would be brought before Caesar and “God has given all those who sail with you.”

Did Paul miss God? No, he perceived in his spirit the revelation of what satan wanted to do to them, but God intervened, and satan’s plan never came to pass. Again, sometimes God reveals satan’s plan, in this case to sink the boat and take 276 lives, but God intervened and their lives were saved.

More than one Christian, not knowing that God reveals satan’s plans by things perceived in the spirit man, has rebuked the Holy Spirit, thinking it was satan! Because we don’t understand the moving of the gifts we end up taking a revelation of God as being from satan. How sad!

I’d like to go back to the fact that Paul didn’t say ‘the Lord told me.’ Many who move in prophecy will have a prophecy of edification, exhortation, or comfort, but like the ones praying over me, will tarry until they get something they ‘perceive,’ then add ‘thus saith the Lord.’

A word of prophecy does not stand alone

I knew of a couple that went to China as missionaries on the basis of one ‘word’ from a ‘prophet.’ They had never had any inkling about China, but not wanting to disobey God, went on the mission field. They nearly starved, had to be flown back, and nearly ended up divorced.

Did you notice that Paul had said in Acts 20:23 that ‘the Holy Spirit witnesses in every city that bonds and afflictions await.”? There was a series of several ‘witnesses’ who had impressions from the Spirit about Paul’s trip, though no one had a specific ‘thus saith the Lord.’ It wasn’t until Agabus came to give the specifics, and that wasn’t even new information. Agabus merely got more specific about information already communicated by the Spirit.

A prophecy to a person (whether edification, exhortation, comfort, or even predictive) is not new information. It merely confirms something in the Word of God, or that is in the heart of the person receiving the word of prophecy. Paul already knew arrest and afflictions awaited him, that wasn’t new information. When he got saved, the Lord told him the things he would have to suffer if he accepted the call on his life (Acts 9:16), all that was left was the timing of when these things would come to pass–that was the part of the prophet.

This couple that went to China should have rejected the word telling them to go because it was not there in their spirits in the first place.

Consider that when the dispute came up about whether to make the Gentile believers obey the laws of Moses, James went first to the Word to see if Gentiles getting saved was in there. In Acts 15:15-19 he shares his reasoning that led to him accepting the things they thought the Spirit was doing among the Gentiles. He looked to the Word. In other words, the Spirit falling on the Gentiles was not new information. It was there in the Word all along.

Similarly, anyone who receives a word from someone should have that word bear witness in his spirit based on that outside word being a confirmation of something God was already speaking to him in his heart.

Paul said in II Cor. 13:1 that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. It is not wrong to ask the Lord for a confirmation or two to something God put in your spirit.

Consider that Jesus, our example in life, even walked with the Father in this way. In Luke 9:30-31 Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and ‘spoke of his death which would happen in Jerusalem’. Moses represented the Law and Elijah all prophecy. Together they shared with Jesus the patterns in the tabernacle, sacrifices, and prophecy of the Old Testament. From this Jesus re-directed his ministry to set his face steadfastly to Jerusalem (v51). Was any of this new information? No. It was there in the Word of God, and the prophets revealed the timing and application of the Word.

Are we better than Jesus? No! If Jesus needed confirmation from 2 or 3 witnesses to the Father’s plans for his life, then so do we. Paul needed them, so must we.

I’m not saying you’ll be able to find your story somewhere chapter and verse, but rather that a prophecy will not violate the Word, and will in fact agree with the Word and its ways. Beyond that, no prophecy stands alone, there will always be confirmation for any direction the Father gives you.

A prophet, or speaking from one’s own heart?

Before I get into this section, let me say that there are several reasons why a prophecy might not come to pass. Probably the most famous prophecy that didn’t come to pass was Jonah’s prophecy that Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days. It didn’t come to pass because the people repented and God accepted their turned heart.

A second reason can be seen in that of Moses. In Exodus 6:7-8, Moses told them they would all come out into a ‘promised land,’ but it didn’t happen. The people refused to follow the Lord and they died in the wilderness, though their children did see the promised land.

Both these prophets and their predictive prophecies were genuine, but because the people reacted one way or the other, the words didn’t come to pass.

I don’t want to address these issues in this article, but rather address error on the part of the prophet as a reason words don’t come to pass.

If you’re like me, you’ve seen this ‘prophet’ or that telling you to fast 40 days and read these scriptures, or to pray for X amount of time each day to avert one thing or another, or to get God to move.

One ‘prophet’ even said that America would be judged on 3-3-03 and that ‘not even prayer could avert it.’ Of course nothing happened, but in cases like these the prophet usually says ‘the people prayed’ or ‘God intervened’ as a means of explaining why their word didn’t come to pass, instead of standing up and saying “I missed it.”

So this section deals with how error can enter into prophecy, and it is related to the brief earlier study about people attaching ‘thus saith the Lord’ to something they perceive in their spirits.

In Jeremiah 28, we have the story of Hananiah. Verse one tells us he was the son of the prophet Azur, and was therefore either a prophet, or a prophet in training, or a prophet wannabe. In verses 2 through 4 he prophesied that Babylon would be broken and that within two years the treasures taken spoil by Babylon would be restored to the temple and city.

This of course, was not of God, and Hananiah died shortly after a confrontation with Jeremiah, judged by God. Hananiah spoke something from his heart…from what he wanted to happen, rather than what God said would happen.

Many ‘prophets’ who move of their own heart fall into what I call a ‘systems and formulas’ approach to God and prophecy, because rather than having a direct word, they must direct what they perceive in their own lives into a mechanism by which they can attach ’thus saith the Lord.’ At that point their words take on a religious spirit, because the spirit of religion is that of man establishing rules on how to approach God based on man’s own efforts.

Again, many so called prophets are only men or women who are familiar with the gift of prophecy, and they try to turn something of exhortation into something predictive. To do this they must leave the Spirit of God and attach their own mechanisms.

Guidelines given in the Word

Below are 11 guidelines found in the Bible concerning the gift of prophecy. Again, I’m talking about the biblical definition of prophecy, a word of edification, exhortation, or comfort. I am NOT talking about predictive prophecy for I will cover that after this list.

1) Prophecy is given by God, not by man’s will or initiative. II Peter 2:1 ‘of men…moved by the Holy Ghost’. A person can’t turn it on or off at will. We can create an atmosphere in which God is likely to move, but God initiates the moving of the gifts. When people try to initiate the gifts instead of God, they get into some of the error of putting ‘thus saith the Lord’ onto otherwise vague perceptions or a witness in their spirit.

2) A prophecy will flow through the personality of the person giving it. Again II Peter 2:1 says that prophecy flows ‘not by the will of man; but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit’ – a reference to the vast numbers of prophets of the Old Testament ministering throughout the history of Israel.

Among other things, this indicates that the Holy Spirit flows through different people at different times in different cultures, and as such, the words given will flow through their culture, customs, and terms and phrases. In our day this means a person may feel comfortable with King James English – ‘thus saith the Lord,’ while another person may give a prophecy in normal English, even to the point of incorrect grammar. For example, in the southern U.S the prophecy may include y’all or other phrases unique to that or some other region.

In the same way that tongues and interpretation is not tongues and ‘translation,’ so is the gift of prophecy. In other words, an interpretation is not a word for word translation of a text, but rather an understanding of the gist of what is said that flows through a person’s own abilities and culture. So is prophecy. It’s not always an exact transliteration of what the Spirit is saying, but often operates by the person putting into words what they are perceiving in their spirit.

3) The common gift of prophecy does not contain new direction for the receiver of the word. I Cor. 14:3 says it is a word of edification (to build up), exhortation (paraklesis- a calling to one’s side, encouragement), or comfort (paramuthia, a speaking closely to anyone – para (near) muthos (speech, consolation, comfort – a greater degree of tenderness than exhortation)

4) Any Spirit-filled Christian may prophecy. I Cor. 14:1 “Follow after love, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that you may prophecy.” It is godly and honorable to have a desire to move in this gift. The reason this gift is singled out is that it does the most good for the believer as a whole.

5) Prophecy knows no gender boundaries. Acts 21:9 speaking of Phillip: “He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy,” Acts 2:17: “And your sons and daughters shall prophesy.”

6) Any prophecy is only partial information. “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.” Any single prophecy will not be complete information and will rather be a confirmation of other words, and something that is already in a person’s heart.

7) The length, depth, and content of the prophecy will usually be relative to the familiarity and experience with the gift the person has. Romans 12:6 “Let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith.”

8) The prophecy can be controlled by the person who has the word in terms of timing, order, and even whether or not there is an opportunity to give the word. I Cor. 14: 31-32. “For you may all prophesy one by one that all may learn, and all may be comforted (encouraged). And the spirit of the prophets is subject (to the control of) the prophets.”

9) A person who gives the word of prophecy is expected to submit it to the opinions of other leaders as to the accuracy of the word. I Cor. 14:29. “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the others judge.”

10) Prophecy is a gift for believers. I Cor. 14:22: “Prophesying serves not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.” You won’t find the Lord commanding someone to stand on a street Corner giving a prophecy to a bunch of unsaved people. A person can be moved to preach an evangelistic message, and they can be stirred in their own spirit to preach, but they won’t have a prophecy for them. (John 16:8-11 – the Holy Spirit limits his ministry to the unsaved to conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment)

11) A prophecy is subject to the greater revelation of God’s written Word and will not contradict it. II Peter 1: 16-19:

“…but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the majestic glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him on the holy mount. We have also a more sure word of prophecy…knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.”

In other words, Peter is saying that even though he was an eyewitness of the Transfiguration of Christ, the written scripture is a ‘more sure word of prophecy’ than the spiritual experience and vision of the Transfiguration. To us this means that a word of prophecy will not contradict the Word, and equally important, it is less than and subject to, the written Word. This also means that no matter what vision, dream, or other direction you think you’ve had, the written word is still the greatest revelation, and whatever you think you saw or heard, is still subject to the Word, and will not contradict it. If you ever hear someone teach that they are ‘beyond the Word’ or it’s ‘not in the Word’ run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit!

Many good-hearted Christians elevate the word of prophecy from a ‘big name’ or even someone they know well to the same level as the written Word. When they do this they open themselves up to error because they often abandon common sense and start moving in presumption. This is what happened to the people who moved to China. They elevated the word of prophecy to the level of God’s written Word, and not wanting to disobey God, moved to China and ruined their lives.

Again, do not take any word of prophecy to you as a standalone word. Allow the Lord to give you confirmation. When Barb and I were dating there was a time when the Lord told me to spend some time fasting and praying and learning from him. It was at a time in the natural that I needed to be working or going to school, yet I was sure he was telling me to spend time waiting on him. I needed a confirmation. A few days later a friend came to me after a prayer meeting saying, “John, I’ve never done this before, but I really feel like the Lord is giving me this scripture for you. I hope it makes sense. It’s Psalm 27: 13-14: “I would have fainted unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he will strengthen your heart; wait I say, on the Lord.”

That was my confirmation and I was confident I was in the Lord’s will as I began a time of fasting and prayer.

The way this plays out in today’s larger Charismatic circles often goes like this: A ‘prophet’ will go to a city and tell the people the Lord is telling them, or leading them, to tell the people that they need to fast and pray for a breakthrough in their city.

Another application is that a mass email may go forth outlining a ‘word from the Lord’ instructing people to follow such and such steps for ‘40 days of miracles’ or how to enter into ‘your season of breakthrough’ (hypothetical emails but you get the idea).

These situations then put the Christian at a point of having to either obey the prophet for breakthrough or follow a prayer or reading plan if they want to get the desired result from God. Many just blindly do what the ‘prophet’ says…because it’s a word from God, isn’t it?

That means that the Christian who blindly obeys these words has laid aside the guidance of the Holy Spirit within himself and elevated a word from someone else to a level of revelation higher than God in them personally. This is error. Again: Any word from someone ‘outside’ will act as a confirmation to the Word, or God’s leading already on the inside, not as new information.

Consider that even Paul’s meeting of Jesus on the way to Damascus was not God’s first dealing with Paul. Jesus told him ‘it’s hard to kick against the pricks’. The prick, or oxgoad Jesus was referring to was a long, sharp stick that would be used by someone driving an ox from behind by which they could poke the animal in the shoulder or rump to keep it going along the path. Jesus was telling Paul that like an ox, he was kicking against the Lord’s efforts to direct him along the right path. The Damascus Road experience was not the first time Paul had considered the claims of Christ!

So if you hear a word from a traveling minister, or get an email instructing you to do thus and so in order to get that breakthrough you desire, first ask the Lord inside if this is so. If there is no witness on the inside, then that word is not for you. If it does bear witness in your spirit, then that email or guest minister has acted as a confirmation of the Lord’s direction.

The Office of Prophet and the Word of Wisdom -What makes a prophet, a prophet?

There is a huge difference between a person who stands in an office, and a person just operating in a gift. A prophet will ‘speak forth openly’ and is a proclaimer of a divine message, as opposed to the operation of prophecy, which is limited to edification, exhortation and comfort…much more general inspiration from the Spirit.

Additionally, the title ‘seer’ in the Old Testament refers to one who ‘saw’ into the Spirit (spirit realm) and had direct communication with God.

Our method of understanding life is to interpret life’s circumstances through the Word, rather than interpreting the Word through our circumstances. This is the method we’ve followed in describing a prophecy as a word of edification, exhortation, and comfort. That is how the Lord defined the gift, not the latest Christian speaker or conference.

So then, what is a predictive word? How do we classify words that foretell something in the future? Technically, a predictive word is a word of wisdom. In I Cor. 12:8 we see the word of knowledge and the word of wisdom listed as a manifestation of the ‘charismatic’ gifts of the Spirit. We’ve already seen that Paul defined prophecy as a supernatural word of edification, exhortation, or comfort. Concerning the word of knowledge, a word of knowledge pertains to a revelation concerning the present or past. A word of wisdom is a word about the future. It is this word of wisdom which we call ‘prophecy’ when we mean a predictive word.

If we wanted to be completely accurate we should call a predictive word a word of wisdom and a word of edification, exhortation or comfort as a prophecy.

For instance, in John 1:47-48 Jesus meets Nathanael. As Nathanael was coming to him Jesus said that Nathanael was an Israelite in whom was no deceit, and that he had seen him sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him. Jesus received information about the present circumstance (sitting under the tree) and a word about Nathanael’s honest character.

Another manifestation of the word of knowledge was when Jesus told the woman at the well that she had had five husbands and she was now living with a man who was not her husband. (John 4:18).

These are both the words of knowledge…a small ‘word’, or bit of knowledge God gives from his unlimited knowledge for the benefit of the hearer, about the present or past.

Oftentimes the gift of prophecy can operate with other gifts, including the word of knowledge. This means that while a person will be giving another person a word of edification, exhortation or comfort, he also may receive a word of knowledge about that person’s present or past. This combining of gifts does not mean the person is a prophet. It’s just part of the gifts of the Spirit in operation.

This is probably the single biggest error that occurs when a person who becomes experienced in the gift of prophecy – the person mistakes the combination of a word of knowledge and prophecy as proof that he is now a prophet.

Many who call themselves prophets and are called prophets are nothing more than just people who are experienced in the gifts of the Spirit. They may often stand in other offices – a pastor or teacher for instance – but it doesn’t make them a prophet.

Please understand that any of the gifts of the Spirit can mix with any other gift of the Spirit. For instance, in the example of Jesus telling Nathanael that he had no deceit in him, he also said, “before Philip called you I saw you sitting under the fig tree.” The word of knowledge combined with a vision to communicate the word visually.

Another example is the combining of the discerning of spirits with healing. In Luke 13: 11-13 verse 11 identifies the woman as having ‘a spirit of infirmity,’ and the Lord delivered her and healed her condition.

We must not think that just because God may choose to combine His gifts in order to bring healing or encouragement to his people that the manifestation of these gifts through a person makes that person stand in a ministry office. It just means that I Cor. 12:7 is true…the manifestation of the gifts are given to everyone to profit. God does these things for the receiver’s benefit, not for the benefit of the person the Lord used to minister the manifestation of the Spirit in someone’s life.

The Word of Wisdom

One manifestation of the word of wisdom is in Mark 14:12-15 when Jesus told his disciples about the preparation for the Passover. He said they would meet a man with a pitcher of water who they were to follow, etc. They went and found the man just as Jesus said, and the ‘large upper room’ just as he said. This was a word of wisdom…it provided wisdom for a future event.

If the above situation happened in modern America, someone would call it a ‘prophetic word’ that Jesus told them about a man with a pitcher and an upper room, but it was (technically) a word of wisdom.

It is the same when Jesus told Peter would deny him three times or when he told Peter the means by which he would die (as an older man). If it had happened today we would say Jesus gave Peter a personal prophecy…but technically, these were words of wisdom.

Now that you understand the Bible’s definition of these gifts, you can better understand Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24:15-20 about the antichrist coming into the temple and his words to those who see that event: ‘…then let them which be in Judea flee into the mountains…let him in the field not return back home to take clothes…’ This prophecy was a word of wisdom about what to do in this future situation.

Again like the other gifts, just because a person operates in the word of wisdom, it doesn’t make them a prophet. It’s just another manifestation of the Holy Spirit given to everyone’s benefit.

A Prophet

Prophets operate in the word of wisdom combined with prophecy as their main gifting. Beyond that, they will also have a revelation, or a word of wisdom concerning future events in the nature Acts 11:27-28: “And there came prophets from Jerusalem…one of them named Agabus signified by the Spirit that there would be a famine…”

This word of wisdom, a predictive word, was received and immediately preparation was made to be able to handle the famine…they exercised wisdom to meet the need.

In our day, I’ve had words concerning (for example) the earthquake in 1989 during the World Series, other earthquakes in various regions of the world, words about storms and other related weather happenings. I’ve seen others have similar words about events in nature.

People who sometimes flow in either common prophecy or words of wisdom are not given words about nature. By contrast, Elijah predicted a drought, Moses was given words about the judgments on Egypt, many of which involved nature (darkness, river to blood, fire and hailstones, etc), Joseph interpreted dreams and was given wisdom for dealing with the famine in Egypt. So we can see that (most often) prophets will have predictive words about nature. Can a person be a prophet and not have words about nature? Yes. John the Baptist is probably the best known of these, but his gift was focused on preparing the hearts of the people for Jesus.

When it comes to judging whether a prophetic word about an event in nature is genuine or not, the guide is whether it came to pass. The Lord moves in ever increasing circles. Just like his exhortation that the disciples would be witnesses in Jerusalem, then out to Judea, then Samaria, then the uttermost parts of the earth, (Acts 1:8) even so the Lord moves this way in prophetic words. The first level is the written Word of God, then a word within the heart of the individual. After that the Lord moves outward to confirm that word in the mouth of ’two or three witnesses’. Beyond that may come a word from a prophet. The word from a prophet concerning people may be judged by man, but a word about nature can only be determined to be genuine if it comes to pass. None of these words will violate the original written Word of God.

Besides prophetic words (wisdom) for future events in nature, prophets also often reveal God’s judgments on people or nations, or reveal events that will happen in that nation. Of course this was true of Jesus giving words about Jerusalem’s destruction (Luke 19:44), and of many of the Old Testament prophets. You may recall that in II Kings 6: 8-12 Elisha was receiving words of knowledge of the king of Syria to the extent that he ‘tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bed chamber.’ This depth of revelation…for nations, kings, and those in authority, are not given to someone who just moves in the gifts, but are reserved for those in the office of authority. There is a much greater depth and detail that prophets are entrusted with than the common words of prophecy and words of knowledge.

Today these gifts manifest in prophets that reveal events which will happen in their country, whether details of the war in Iraq (going on as of this writing), revelation about Satan’s plans for a nation and calling people to intercession. Previous words I have had along these lines go back to 1980, including President Reagan and the Pope being shot, the Challenger explosion and such.

One of the main characteristics of a true prophetic word is that it is very specific…Agabus had a specific word about a famine. By contrast, many of the ‘prophetic’ words we see published today on emails and in magazines are very vague ‘spiritualization’ of instructions for the body of Christ. For instance, I’ve seen ‘prophetic’ words published which said God is calling his people to pray…he’s calling his people to fast…he’s calling his people to be in the Word…and they call these prophetic?

All these are found in the Word and are good words of edification, but they are made to sound like they are some fresh revelation from God that his people are to fast, pray, and study the Word. They are good words of edification and exhortation–a prophecy–but should not necessarily be put forth to the people as a fresh revelation from God.

Spiritualizing common things is a sign of error

One sign of someone NOT being a prophet but trying to operate in the office of one is that ‘spiritualization’ of otherwise common knowledge…like above. Others spiritualize everything that happens in life…a forest fire becomes a word that God is calling for fire in America, a snow storm becomes a word that satan’s forces are being frozen over a region…and so on. Every dream and impression is scrutinized for it’s prophetic potential or impact. Over spiritualization is a clear sign something is wrong…and the person(s) are reaching for something not there. Sometimes the pressure to perform is too strong and a person gives in to the expectations of the people.

A third characteristic (the first two characteristics were words concerning nature and words for nations) is that the prophet hears the Holy Spirit speak. Most often the common gift of prophecy ‘forms’ in the spirit of the person giving it and then they put into words what they perceive in their spirit rather than actually hearing the Holy Spirit talk.

By contrast, a prophet will actually hear the Holy Spirit speak. Most of the time when the Holy Spirit communicates with us it is described in more vague terms: The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon he would not die until he had seen the Messiah (Luke 2:26), he didn’t actually speak to him. Paul ‘perceived’ the man at Lystra had faith to be healed (Acts 14:8-9), the Lord didn’t speak to him. Other terms used to describe the ‘common’ way the Holy Spirit speaks include the terms ‘witness’ (remember Paul’s experience in Acts 20:23), discern (I Cor. 2:14) and ‘revelation’ (I Cor. 14:6, 26).

In Acts 21:11 the prophet Agabus came to Paul and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says…” This is a much greater level of communication with God when a prophetic word (word of wisdom) is delivered as the prophet hears the Holy Spirit Himself speak.

Another example of this is in Acts 13:1-2 in which we are told ‘…at Antioch were certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas…and Saul (Paul). As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Separate unto me Barnabus and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them.”

We don’t know who among the prophets had this word for Barnabus and Saul, but notice that once again we see the connection between ‘the Holy Spirit said’ and that word coming from the mouth of a prophet.

It should be stated that the 11 characteristics of prophecy will still be a part of what the prophet does, it’s just that a prophet walks in an office in addition to those 11 traits—a prophet also receives words concerning nature, nations, the timing of the Spirit, and hear the Holy Spirit Himself.

Putting it all together

I don’t claim to have the final, or even the most complete understanding of the office of prophet. This article is not intended to be an exhaustive teaching on the subject, but rather enough to provide a basic framework that will steer a person into the safety of the Word and Spirit, and keep them balanced.

Too many Christians have not developed the trust in the Spirit of Truth within them (John 14:17, 16:13, I John 2:27) to be able to keep words that are spoken by prophets (real or imagined) in the right perspective. If we remember just some basics from the Word we can keep ourselves from being hurt by our ignorance. Remember that a word of prophecy is a word given by God to build you up, exhort you, and/or comfort you. If it condemns, it’s not of God, but rather from someone in the flesh.

Any word you receive will not be a completely new revelation, but rather a confirmation of something the Lord has either already revealed to you, or has recently dealt with you about. (The ’new’ revelation about a famine in Acts 11 was about nature, and therefore would be judged by if it came to pass, or not)

I do want to make a (continuing) point about a prophecy not being new information. Again…it’s God who describes the gift in I Cor. 14:3, not me. So we must re-arrange our thinking in accordance with His descriptions rather than the ’prophets’ or popular teaching of our day.

For instance, people might look at Moses at the burning bush and say that was an example of a word being brand new revelation, but they would be wrong. In Acts 7:22-25 Stephen tells us that when Moses was 40 years old he received the revelation of his call (it came into his heart) and he killed and buried the Egyptian ’for he supposed that his brethren would have understood how that God, by his hand, would deliver them from the Egyptians, but they understood not.’

Moses knew he was the deliverer when he was 40, but he took that revelation into his own hands and killed the Egyptian, supposing an uprising and civil war would develop, but he was wrong. That presumption of trying to help God out cost him 1/3 of his life…40 years in the wilderness. The burning bush experience was a confirmation of the call already on his heart, and the revelation of how it would come to pass.

Another example is Elijah calling for no rain. But what he called for is one of the curses listed in Deut. 28: 23-24. So while he was inspired and moved by the Spirit to call for no rain at that time, the essence of drought was already in the word as a consequence of the nation falling away from God.

Again, I’ve seen divorces happen, I’ve seen people go bankrupt, I’ve seen people’s lives ruined because they rearrange their lives on the basis of the word of a ‘prophet’ alone…my hope is that perhaps this teaching can prevent that from happening, and bring some balance to the subject.

I often try to wake people up concerning trusting the Spirit of Truth inside them by asking some of the following questions: Have you ever been in a service and had the leader interrupt a wonderful worship service and felt grieved in your spirit? That was the Holy Spirit telling you the truth…he was grieved when they cut him off and went with their own schedule instead of allowing the worship to continue.

Have you ever had a grieving in your spirit when you see a speaker tossing CDs and books and such into the crowd, and people scrambling all over each other in a mad rush for the merchandise? That grievance was the Spirit of God inside you grieving at the bringing of the moneychangers into the temple and the allowance of the spirit of lust and greed into the service of God.

Have you ever seen a minister on TV that gave you an uneasy feeling on the inside, that you knew they were fake or something was wrong, though you didn’t have any head knowledge of that person? That is the Spirit of Truth telling you that person is off, or not genuine…the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, will tell you the truth every time.

Why is it then we dismiss God within us and choose to believe the man or woman in the pulpit instead? Because we haven’t been taught who to trust. Trust the Spirit within you. If you think the Lord is telling you something, ask for a confirmation. If you received a word from someone but it doesn’t feel right, lay it aside.

I hope this will prove to be helpful in helping you discern whether some of the more popular speakers are really prophets, or just people experienced in prophecy and trying to operate in an office that is not theirs. I also hope you will listen to the Holy Spirit within when you hear of some speaker giving directions on how to get ‘your breakthrough’ or what you need to do to avert judgment or something like that. Weigh it out with the Holy Spirit within…is he asking you to do these things, or is rather a good idea (instead of a God idea).

Please don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are several genuine prophets out there, but many of the ones running around today don’t really know what they have. We saw the same type of thing in the 1970s when the Charismatic renewal was young and error in prophecy was rampant. I remember one good friend who had cancer and had all sorts of prophecies spoken over him…everything from he had a secret sin, or had blasphemed, or had unforgiveness, or was angry and wouldn’t let it go…none of which was true…but it was all ‘thus saith the Lord.’ There just wasn’t much experience in prophecy back then, but now a new generation has risen up and we see the same things happening again.

A similar thing happened in the 1980s concerning the office of apostle…it was the ‘in’ thing back then to be an apostle. Fortunately some things are starting to come around…or maybe that’s a subject for a future article…Ha! I say all this to tell you to be encouraged, though there is the misuse and confusion out there about the gifts, God is still in control and the genuine can be found!

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