The paradox in that statement presses a dual responsibility upon each of us who lead among the Savior's flock. It reflects both (1) a New Testament value that is too often denigrated; and (2) a realistic warning that is too seldom applied.
It's an inescapable announcement that was made simultaneously with the church's birth. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit breathed through Simon Peter a timeless contemporizing of Joel's prophecy from the ninth century B.C.:
"'"And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams.
"'"And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out of My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy."'"
"'... For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call'" (Acts 2:17,18,39, NKJV).
In short, to put it in the nakedest of terms: "This prophesying 'thing' is not only here for today and here to stay. It is also being spread around by the free gifting of the Holy Spirit to be likely to happen to anyone in whom He dwells!"
It comes as a disappointment to many that likely human avenues for "prophesying" have such a limited criteria for their doing so.
To begin, there are no "maturity" qualifications. A prophet, as a servant of Christ fulfilling an office role under the Savior's appointment, does have to answer to the usual requirements incumbent on a spiritual leader, such as blamelessness, temperance, sober-mindedness, hospitality, ability to teach, and so on (see 1 Tim. 3). However, it must be noted that to simply "prophesy" doesn't.
Paul, assuming that many in the body would be used by the Spirit to share prophetic utterances from time to time, issues clear and expected directives that are to be followed when prophecies are given among saints in assembly:
"Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints" (1 Cor. 14:29-33).
However, there aren't any restrictions on whenever, wherever or how prophecies may be delivered.
I'm certainly not saying I like this arrangement. I'm simply saying that God has been willing to open the door quite wide. I'm sure that's no argument for recklessness in the use of the gift of prophecy, and it in no way suggests a casual attitude toward its potential for confusing or misleading people.
But it seems certain that God must have a reason for this generous availability and liberality concerning its exercise. I believe it's because the vital, orderly function of the gift of prophecy is so much to be desired in the life of the local church.
I hold to the principle that nothing more secures the life of the believer and the health of the local assembly than the solid, faithful, thoroughgoing teaching of the word of God--the Holy Bible.
This is His final written revelation--the authority by which all things are gauged and judged; by which the soul is saved, fed and grown in health and strength unto glory.
So why "mess up" all this neatness with the possibility either of distracting people from the Word of the Lord by uttering what they feel may be "A word from the Lord"?
Or worse, why does God offer an operative grace of the Spirit that can too easily be flavored or tainted by the flesh ... or even a devil? Well, to my view there are at least two reasons.
The first: In its pure operation, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in "prophecies," as I have observed them through the years, demonstrates and tends to sustain a simplicity.
I have often marveled at insights that come via the simplest vessels in our congregation--bursting brightness on the eternal Word as prophetic photographs of God's way depict in unstudied, "simply quickened" utterances that stir, awaken and ignite hearts.
Faith, praise, humility, confession of sin, rejoicing, worship, comfort and an awe of God are among a few of the responses I have seen produced by "a word" of prophecy.
It may have taken no more than 90 seconds, but the sword-edge power of the Spirit's cutting through a moment with vibrating truth has often done more to advance the kingdom of God than the preceding three weeks of sermons.
Mind you, I'm not negating the value of steadfast teaching. I'm simply affirming facts an honest leader knows--and is willing to acknowledge. Because the truth is that--especially in the Western world--we are horribly prone to become enamored with our reasoned, intellectualized processing of God's Word through our systematic approaches to devotions, Bible teaching, preaching and writing.
I am not trivializing the values of such, but my observation of the Holy Spirit's distributions of His gift of a prophetic word is that it's one way He uses to keep us humble. He often hereby reminds us that He can flow more through a baby than we can whomp up in a week; that He is still the Revealer, and He chooses to remind us that we aren't ultimately "in control" or "all that cool."
That's the part most of us don't like. (Let me whisper it so He can't hear: "I don't either.") Prophecies might be delivered in such sloppy or interruptive ways and, truth be told, are not always all that revealing and dynamic all that often! There are many that wander with words, others that seem redundant and unnecessary (and if they seem that way, they usually are).
But God still holds our feet to the fire with His own Word: "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast what is good" (1 Thess. 5:19-21).
The verb exoutheno (despise) means "to make light of, to set at naught, to treat or reject with scorn." The text is a Holy Spirit commandment: Don't mock, deride or cheapen the place of prophecies in the body life of the church.
Such "despising," however, is not only exercised when prophesying is disallowed, as some suppose. The definition above calls to responsibility as well as liberty. "Cheapening" is as unworthy as "despising," and it is unquestionable that in many quarters today the fact that any ready flow of words that seem to excite a speaker or generate excitement might falsely be called "a prophetic word."
I've seen--we all have--meetings where temperatures run high and excitement rises to the rafters, and exuberance becomes defined as anointing and mere words are assumed to be "the Spirit's word."
The Bible--if we bother to get real with the whole of it--is pretty quick to close the gate on this kind of presumption as quickly as it mandates we keep the door open to prophecies.
The Holy Spirit's desire to fulfill three things--to edify (build up), exhort (stir up) and comfort (lift up)--is at the root of His insistence that we permit His availability to move even the simplest of Jesus' people in the simplest of ways and with the simplest of terms:
"But he who prophesies speaks edification and exortation and comfort to men. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church" (1 Cor. 14:3-4).
And where biblically focused and centered leaders lead spiritually humble and hungry saints in worship and into God's Word, there will and should always be an openness to "a word from the Lord."
It isn't my purpose in these few words to discuss the demanding and clearly specified requirements the New Testament gives concerning the character of those who give prophetic words.
Nor is it my intention to fail the whole truth by not elaborating all that might be said about decency and order, and about judging prophecies, and about conformity to the plumb line of the Scriptures. All these things and more need to be heeded--heeded with a holy fear and righteous rigor.
But the fire of the Spirit awaits a place to break through in many of our churches today, and the spirit of prophecy--which always ultimately glorifies Jesus--must be allowed a place. Without His breaking through and breaking up, we're too vulnerable to finally breaking down.
Or failing to be broken at all.