There are five particular groups of people whom St Paul sees as crucial in helping a church grow, mature and function well. We are told about them in Ephesians 4:11. They are: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. I want to think about them in 5 blogs, beginning here with prophets.
One of my first experiences of prophetic ministry was from the man who was pastor of the church Sam and I attended when we were students in Nottingham. I recall one occasion when he prayed for me. He placed his hands on me, waited a few moments and then basically told me what was in my heart. It felt like he read me like a book. Having done that, he then said, ‘And the Lord says…’ and he began to prophesy over me about my future. It was extremely helpful. Since that time, prophecy is something I have pursued, especially as the bible says (1 Cor 14:1) ‘eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy’.
The gift of prophecy is something we can all exercise, as the Spirit leads us, although Ephesians 4 refers not so much to the gift of prophecy, but rather to people who are prophets. It seems that some become so gifted in prophecy that they are designated as ‘prophets’.
The purpose of this ministry (and in fact all of these five ministries listed in Ephesians 4) is not to benefit the person serving but (v.12) to equip the wider church to serve, and to help us all to mature. This is very important, so that the prophet does not become proud or the centre of attention.
So, what is a prophet? My simple definition is this: a prophet SAYS WHAT GOD SAYS.
There are lots of prophets in the Old Testament, running through to John the Baptist and Jesus himself in the New Testament. But are there really prophets in the early church, after Christ? Yes. A great example is in Antioch (in Acts 11:27ff):
27 During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) 29 The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. 30 This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
We also see prophets in Antioch in Acts 13:1-3:
1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
Here in Antioch we see prophets bringing the ‘NOW’ word. The word in season. So preaching can be prophetic – but prophecy doesn’t have to be confined to preaching. Often it’s in the context of praise and worship (as in Ac 13:2 above). We speak to God and God speaks back. So prophets need to listen to God, and then speak his message.
God speaks prophetically through Scripture, pictures, words, dreams, visions, signs, and more. I have always found it exciting when the Lord speaks like this, but I have also discovered that there are questions which we need to ask him before we can confidently deliver the message. These questions are matters of revelation, interpretation and application.
i) REVELATION. This simply asks: what is the message/word/picture? For example I recently had a dream which I felt was prophetic. It was a simple (but unusual) dream of milk leaking from my nipples.
ii) INTERPRETATION. This is about the interpretation of the revelation, asking what does it mean? So when I woke up from my dream about leaking milk, I asked the Lord: ‘what does that mean?’ and I sensed the Lord simply say: ‘feed them the basics. Feed the people milk, not solid food. Keep it simple and clear.’ And the Scripture Hebrews 5:12 came to mind, to illustrate the point.
iii) APPLICATION. This asks: what do I do with this? I have often found that further questions need to be asked, such as:
– Who? ie. who is this for? Is it for me, or someone else?
– When? If this is for someone else, we should ask: ‘when should I share the message with them?’ I can think of occasions when the Lord has given me a prophetic message for someone, but told me to hold back from sharing. Later I have met the person, and then God has said ‘now is the time to share’, and when I have done, the timing has been perfect.
– How? We don’t always have to share the message in the form of ‘The Lord says’. There have been times when I have been praying with someone who I sense is wary of prophetic ministry, and so, to make things more palatable, I have turned the prophecy into a prayer, such as ‘Thank you Lord that you want to tell x…’ and then gone on to share the message as part of the prayer.
So prophets listen. We hear from the Lord. And once we have some clarification about the message, we then speak it.
This is the part that involves opening your mouth and sharing! When you prophesy, what you say should strengthen, encourage and build up; that is the test given in 1 Corinthians 14:3. This means it should make recipient stronger, building them up, and when times are hard should bring reassurance and help. If you’re not sure if what you have is right, this is a good test to consider first.
All prophecy should be tested and weighed (according to 1 Thess 5:20-21). Prophecy is particularly tested against Scripture. It mustn’t contradict Scripture. Whilst it doesn’t have the weight of authority of Scripture it nevertheless can, when it’s right, be very accurate and very helpful. I have been the recipient and giver of some very specific and helpful prophetic words.
I spoke to someone at the weekend who reminded me of some prophetic words I had shared with them a few months ago. To my relief they said how that they had really helped them grow and develop. Prophecy should do that.
We should take care over prophecies that bring brand new direction. For instance, some one approached me a few weeks ago, saying that that Jesus had told them to tell me that I should leave the Church of England. I thanked them very much for sharing the message, but had to admit that Jesus had not yet told me that – so I asked them to pray that if Jesus really did want me to hear that, then he would tell me, too. They were not particularly happy with that, but I am sure I was right. If God calls you to make a major change of direction, he will confirm it – probably on a number of occasions.
You don’t have to be perfect to prophesy. Nevertheless I have found in the past that when I deliberately sin, I become numb to voice of God, but when I choose to live close to God and have a clear conscience, then the communication channels are much more open.
For some believers, prophecy will be one of, if not their major area of ministry. Prophecy is a wonderful and much needed part of church life. That’s why I think we need more prophets released in The Belfrey. Prophets however can be threatening to other leaders, especially pastors, which is why clergy sometimes suppress the prophets. But we need them.
I think that prophecy is actually one of my major ministries. If I lay hands on someone and pray, the Lord normally speaks. Not always. But most of time. At present I’m in quite a fruitful season of prophetic dreams, which means that I am going to sleep expectant that the Lord is going to speak. And often he does. It’s exciting!
What about you? Some will be more mature in prophecy whilst others may feel you’ve never heard the Lord speak. If that’s you, then ask. One of most helpful tips I heard on this is from Sandy Millar. He says that if you’ve asked God to speak, and you think you receive something, then go with your first instinct. Give God the benefit of the doubt. After all, you’ve asked him to speak, so run with what comes.
I am praying for a fresh release of prophets in God’s church in these days – both here in York and across the North. Will you pray for that, with me? We need the prophets – people who say what God says.