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I had read 1 Corinthians 14:1, which says we should "earnestly desire" to prophesy (The Amplified Bible). So I told the Lord that if He needed me to speak for Him, I would. It was one of those "Here I am, Lord, send me" moments.
I tried to place conditions on my availability. "I'll speak for You," I told God, "but (1) I'd rather write than speak since I don't like crowds; (2) I don't want to confront controversial subjects; and (3) I never intend to call someone out of an audience and give them a word from the Lord.
You can predict what happened. After serving behind-the-scenes for years as a writer and editor, I began to receive speaking invitations. Conference organizers wanted me to address controversial subjects in front of large audiences. And in the year 2000 I was tricked into giving personal prophecies to people I didn't know.
It happened in southern China during a visit with leaders of the underground church. One of their leaders asked me to come to a meeting room in her hotel, and when I arrived there were 14 other leaders waiting.
"Brother Lee, we would like you to pray over each one of these people and prophesy to them," the woman said through a translator. Then she closed the door, knelt and closed her eyes. I swallowed hard and breathed a prayer of surrender. An hour and a half later, everyone in the room had received a personal prophecy and some were crying because they had been so encouraged.
Since that moment the Lord has used me to speak prophetically in many situations. I've called out people from audiences, offered prophetic direction to leaders and--with great reluctance--given private words of correction.
Most often the words I give others provide confirmation and encouragement. The messages are not spooky or weird. On the contrary, these words rekindle weak faith and remind the hearers that God's promised answers are on the way.
I don't like the prophet label and I don't use it as a title. But I do believe that in this hour we desperately need the gift of prophecy in full operation. It is one of the most powerful weapons in the church's spiritual arsenal, yet it is the most misunderstood.
It is also the most misused. Many people who have been wounded by the abuses of prophecy are tempted to throw the gift out altogether. No wonder the apostle Paul told the Thessalonians: "Do not despise prophecies" (1 Thess. 5:20, NKJV). As much as the gift has been abused, we are not allowed to put it on the shelf.
RAISE THE STANDARD
How can we restore the value of this gift and safeguard our churches from its exploitation? I believe we must raise the standard for all those who claim to be prophets.
In my study of prophets in the Bible I've identified eight key qualities that distinguish true prophets from pretenders. We should expect these qualities to be evident in men and women who claim to speak for God today.
1. A true prophet clings to the Bible.
It may seem unnecessary to say this, but in today's spiritual climate we must. True prophets don't contradict, negate or twist Scripture. Even if a prophet displays amazing anointing for miracles or accurate predictions, he should never be given a platform if the Word of God is not his final authority.
One of my favorite prophets in the Old Testament is Huldah (see 2 Kin. 22:1-20). Although the entire nation of Judah was backslidden, this woman held fast to the Lord. When King Josiah learned that the scroll of Moses had been discovered, he sought out Huldah's counsel.
We don't know much about her, but it is obvious that Huldah kept the fire of true worship burning. She remained a woman of the Word when the Bible was collecting cobwebs in a closet.
And when Huldah opened her mouth, fire came out. She spoke with the same commanding authority as her contemporary, Jeremiah. She pronounced God's judgment on Judah (a prophecy which quickly came to pass), and she gave a personal prophecy to Josiah that was fulfilled as well.
So it must be for all true prophets. They do not neglect the Word of God, even when society becomes decadent and religious leaders entertain compromise.
2. A true prophet's words will be confirmed by the Lord.
It was said of Samuel that none of his words fell to the ground (see 1 Sam. 3:19-20). He was 100 percent accurate. He never missed it, and God backed up his message.
So what do we do when someone makes an inaccurate prophetic prediction? A genuine Christian who makes a mistake in prophecy should not be labeled a false prophet. But if prophets claim to speak for God they must submit to correction and make apologies. Prophets who aren't willing to be corrected should not be in public ministry.
Sometimes leaders in the body of Christ make embarrassing prophetic blunders because they are operating outside of their gifts. They may be called to be apostles or pastors, but they make impetuous prophetic declarations out of ignorance. They could avoid this error by staying inside the boundaries of their spiritual callings.
These people usually don't have evil motives, but the truth is that they are not gifted in the prophetic realm--and their mistakes bring dishonor to the Lord. Because of spiritual immaturity, we all have the potential of prophesying out of turn. We must assume responsibility for any idle words we speak.
3. A true prophet is fearless.
Few prophets in the Bible were graced with natural speaking ability. Moses stuttered; Esther was timid; and Jeremiah felt inadequate because of his youth. But God required them to overcome fear and self-consciousness.
The prophetess Deborah is a model of boldness (see Judg. 4:4-16). She called Israel to war at a time when the nation was outnumbered by the Canaanites at least 10 to one. Even her military commander, Barak, seemed unsure of victory--yet Deborah knew God would defeat His enemies supernaturally.
She could face the battle with valiance because she knew what the outcome would be. Even though only a few tribes in Israel responded to her rallying cry, she did not allow the apathy of the people to dampen her zeal. A fierceness of spirit drove her to conquer.
A true prophet will not back down from what God has said, even if everyone else loses heart. The opinions or fears of men will not sway him, and his fire will not be dampened even when the church dismisses his message with yawns or criticism.
4. A true prophet is tested by the Lord in obscurity.
Ever notice that many prophets in the Bible emerged from nowhere? Elijah, for example, came from the backside of the desert to confront wicked King Ahab (see 1 Kin. 17:1-7).
Elijah went through a season of testing and preparation, but that process is hidden from us. True prophets will go through periods of hiddenness and intense brokenness. God must deal with pride, greed and self-centeredness. The prophet must also learn to live in a place of intimate fellowship with God where the praises of men don't affect him.
We should be wary of prophets who haven't spent time in the wilderness. It is dangerous for any prophet to come to a platform before his pride has been dismantled.
True prophets also must be willing to remain nameless. Often they must stay behind-the-scenes and under the radar.
There are many nameless prophets in the Bible. One who is simply referred to as "a man of God" in 1 Kings 13:1 prophesied that Josiah would make sweeping spiritual reforms. This prophet's words were powerfully confirmed when the altar in the temple split open while King Jeroboam watched (see v. 5).
Yet this prophet--as anointed as he was--was tested by another unnamed prophet (who is simply called "an old prophet" in 13:11). Because the younger prophet had a streak of unyielded pride, he ended up dead (see vv. 21-24). His story is a powerful reminder that anointing alone, without tested character, is not enough to sustain a messenger of God.
5. A true prophet can't be bought.
After Elisha healed Naaman, the prophet was offered several nice gifts (see 2 Kin. 5:15-16). Elisha refused the rewards because he did not minister to Naaman for personal gain. Elisha would not allow an honorarium to become a stumbling block!
Yet Elisha's assistant, Gehazi, went back to Naaman and cunningly suggested that his master would take some silver and clothes (see vv. 20-22). Gehazi thought he could get away with deception, but the story ended in tragedy when Elisha found out. Gehazi became a leper as a result of his greed (see v. 27).
Gehazi's leprosy is still spreading today. A spirit of merchandising has invaded the church, even among those who call themselves prophets. One prominent minister told a church audience in Florida last year that he would give personal prophecies to anyone who would give $1,000 in the offering! (Amazingly, several people contributed.)
If a man claims to speak for God, and yet his motive is personal enrichment, he is inviting the same judgment that befell Ananias and Sapphira (see Acts 5). Such blatant charlatanism brings strange fire into the house of God. We shouldn't tolerate it.
6. A true prophet can't be compromised by power.
The prophet Nathan served King David as his adviser and was most likely on the palace payroll. Yet when it came time to confront David's adultery (and the murderous cover-up of his affair), Nathan did not hold back his rebuke (see 2 Sam. 12:1-15). He was not a yes man. Even though he risked losing his royal position, he was faithful to confront.
Sometimes prophets will find themselves in cozy places. They may be tempted to look the other way when a church leader is in sin--especially if the pastor promises to invite the prophet back on a regular basis to receive a nice cash offering (otherwise known as a bribe).
Once I was invited to a conference in Idaho. When I arrived I could sense that the leadership of the ministry was in chaos. I prayed and felt the Lord told me to confront the leaders about an independent spirit. The Lord even gave me a warning that He would bring swift correction.
The day I returned from the conference I learned that police in another state wanted the leader of the ministry because he owed back child support. This man was a rebel, and no one at the conference knew it but God. I could have withheld correction and perhaps maintained favor (and received an honorarium) from this ministry. But the important thing was to speak what God sent me to say.
7. A true prophet passes through God's fire.
Isaiah is one of the most oft-quoted prophets. Jesus often recited passages from his recorded prophecies. But Isaiah had to pay a price to speak such anointed words. He spent time in the fire of God's holiness.
A true prophet will submit when God places a hot coal on his lips (see Is. 6:1-8). If we expect the Lord to use our mouths, then we will have to embrace the process of sanctification--and it will involve purifying our speech as well as the motives from which we prophesy.
A true prophet cannot speak for God and then use his mouth to criticize and destroy other people. A true prophet cannot preach about the mysteries of God and then use his tongue to curse or spread discord. A true prophet cannot call God's people to holiness one day and then engage in adultery or perversion the next. We must submit to the Holy Spirit's flame.
8. A true prophet has compassion.
We often think of Jeremiah as being harsh because he denounced Israel's sin and predicted judgment. But if we read between the lines we will realize that Jeremiah did not speak in an angry tone. Although he certainly felt the righteous anger of the Lord at times, he was usually weeping when he called Israel to repentance.
When the wayward Israelites rejected Jeremiah's warning and decided to return to Egypt, the prophet followed them all the way to Egypt--urging them to turn back. Scholars believe that the prophet died in Egypt. He not only delivered a message to some stubborn people, but his life was a living testimony of God's unfailing love to those who choose to reject Him.
Judgmental prophets are a dime a dozen. We need prophets today who will convey God's heart like Jeremiah. His constant weeping led him to say, "Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears" (Jer. 9:1).
It's one thing to prophesy the right words. It's an entirely different thing to prophesy those words with God's tone of voice. Mature prophets will reflect God's tender emotions at the same time they deliver their message accurately.
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