It seems that almost everyone has an amusing or thought-provoking anecdote about an encounter with personal prophecy. For instance, a prophet once exorted me that I no longer had to be concerned about my unsaved little brother. God had revealed to him, he said, that my little brother would be saved and there was no need for any concern.
In private, I shared with this "prophet" that I had not been concerned about my little brother because I did not have a little brother. Obviously embarrassed, he replied, "I will have to be more careful." This experience highlighted for me the potential danger of personal prophecy gone awry.
An equal danger, however, is when the church reacts to such extremes and rejects or discourages personal prophecy altogether.
Paul gives clear instructions in this regard: "Do not quench the Spirit," he says, and "Do not despise prophecies." In verse 21 he then balances the former two verses by saying, "Test all things; hold fast what is good" (1 Thes. 5:19-20, NKJV).
Paul's approach to prophecy may be described as "openness without naiveté and discernment without judgmentalism." He does not squelch their enthusiasm, but presents guidelines that will help them derive the greatest benefit from the gift.
In Paul's instructions on prophecy throughout his letters, several key guidelines emerge that are particularly relevant to personal prophecy: (1) It is given as the Spirit wills; (2) It is given for confirming and encouraging; (3) It is given as a free gift of grace; and (4) It is given to glorify Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 12:11, Paul clearly states that all the gifts--including prophecy--are not gifts that a person carries and operates in at his own will, but are manifestations that come forth as the Spirit wills.
Recently my wife, Susan, and I were in our van about to back out of our driveway when the Holy Spirit interrupted us. Sue was suddenly aware of an inner compassion flowing out to our next-door neighbor who was working in her yard.
We had only recently moved into this house and this neighbor, upon discovering that we were Christians, introduced herself as a backslidden preacher from Brooklyn, N.Y. We did not attempt to discuss our faith with her, and in the succeeding days sought merely to be good neighbors.
On this day, with God's prompting, Sue called her by name--"Adele!" Upon hearing her name, Adele walked over to the side of our vehicle. Without a prior sense that it was coming, Sue broke forth with an utterance in tongues.
I leaned across the seat and spoke the interpretation, which was a personal word of prophecy to Adele, "My daughter, you are precious in My sight." Adele burst into tears and then into praying in tongues. It was a powerful encounter, facilitated by a personal prophecy that came forth, not as we willed, but as the Spirit willed.
Contrary to the biblical model, some teach that believers can prophesy at their own volition or will. I heard one well-known prophet insist that, just as it took Pentecostals several decades to discover that they could speak or pray in tongues at will, many in the body of Christ are now discovering that they can prophesy at will.
Proponents of this teaching point to the fact that, in 1 Corinthians 14:15, Paul says, "I will pray with the spirit"--an obvious reference to praying in tongues. They give emphasis to the "I will" in this passage and reason that if one can will to pray or speak in tongues, then one can also will to prophesy.
This is poor hermeneutics and ignores the context of Paul's discussion. When Paul says, "I will pray with the spirit," he is referring to the private, devotional tongues in which he wills--or chooses--to pray. He distinguishes between private, devotional tongues in which he prays at will and the public manifestation of tongues that requires interpretation and comes forth as the Spirit wills--a very important distinction.
The idea that one can prophesy at will has resulted in many "prophets" operating out of their soul realm (mind, will and emotions) rather than from the Spirit. I have observed prophets who had become very adept at "reading" people and then giving a word that the recipient could easily apply to his or her own situation.
When this approach is coupled with immaturity or an unsavory character, it becomes extremely dangerous with the prophet often prophesying to impress and manipulate others and to enhance his own standing. At this point, the prophet has crossed the dividing line from Christian prophecy, with its source in the Holy Spirit, to fortunetelling and psychic phenomena, with their sources in the human psyche and possibly the demonic.
In 1 Corinthians 14:3 Paul gives the primary purpose of prophecy in very clear and succinct terms: "But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men." In verse 31 he says that all may prophesy that all may be encouraged.
On the other hand, Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that Scripture is good for doctrine (teaching), for reproof (rebuke), for correction, for instruction in righteousness. When individuals begin to utilize personal prophecy for purposes reserved primarily for Scripture, it is time to beware. This distinction was made very real to me as the result of an erroneous prophecy that came forth in a congregation where I once pastored.
Near the close of a Sunday-evening service, a woman--who was quite new to our assembly--brought forth a very severe rebuke to the congregation in the form of a prophecy. She spoke this word during a time of spontaneous worship as people were responding to a very real sense of God's love and presence.
As she concluded her prophecy, I could see confusion appearing on people's faces, and I knew I must address what had just happened. I proceeded to inform the congregation that the word just spoken was not from God, and encouraged them to ignore what had been said and to continue worshiping.
After the service, this woman came to me very upset. I found myself pointing her to the two passages mentioned above, and explaining to her the different purposes of prophecy and Scripture--prophecy being for confirming and encouraging, and Scripture being for teaching, rebuking and correcting.
I then offered her five minutes in our next service to present a rebuke to the congregation. "But don't prophesy to us," I said. "Take your Bible and show us where you think we are missing the mark." "Oh, I could never do that," she replied. "You just did it," I said, "But you hid behind a 'thus saith the Lord.'"
The point is that we must not allow personal prophecy to usurp the place of Scripture, prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
In the Old Testament, people often went to the prophet, or seer, to obtain direction and insight. In the New Testament, however, there is not a single example of anyone seeking guidance from a prophet.
In the New Testament, the indwelling Holy Spirit is the right and privilege of every believer, making the mediation of a special prophet unnecessary. Prophetic ministry in the New Testament will thus confirm, strengthen and reinforce, not mediate and legislate.
At this point some will want to distinguish between the gift of prophecy and the office of the prophet. The New Testament, however, does not make such a fine distinction. In the New Testament, prophetic ministry is available--at least potentially--to all believers (see 1 Cor. 14:1, 5, 31, 39).
Although some individuals are referred to as prophets, Pentecostal scholar Gordon D. Fee may well be correct when he notes in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, that those called prophets in the New Testament are just as likely those who prophesied more frequently than others, as those who bore an official title.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul refers to prophecy as a charisma, the Greek word that is translated "spiritual gift" in our English Bibles. Charisma and its plural form charismata are derived from charis, the Greek word for "grace."
Prophecy, therefore, is literally a grace-gift. It is given freely out of God's kindness and favor, not because of any merit in the one who prophesies. Paul uses charisma, no doubt, to undermine the egoism and pride of the Corinthians in the exercise of their spiritual gifts--including prophecy. Church history demonstrates that every generation needs to be reminded that these gifts flow out of God's grace and are not badges of spiritual superiority.
Although prophecy may offer hope and encouragement to individuals, the ultimate purpose is to draw them to Christ. Revelation 19:10 says, "For the essence of prophecy is to give a clear witness for Jesus" (NLT). This coincides with John 16:14 where Jesus says that when the Holy Spirit comes, "'He will bring me glory.'"
When prophecy becomes too anthropocentric (human-centered) there is cause for concern. When prophecy becomes earth-bound, and is used to enhance the status of a movement and its leaders, it has veered outside the biblical parameters. When prophecy is used to manipulate people to give money or to accept a new teaching, it has become pseudo-prophecy. The Holy Spirit is in the earth to lift up Jesus, and true prophecy will redound to His glory.
To derive the greatest benefit from the prophetic gift, we must avoid the extremes of a too-controlled or an uncontrolled prophetic ministry. A too-controlled approach will quench the gift altogether while an uncontrolled approach will inevitably lead to misuse, abuse and disaster.
Mature pastoral guidance that both values the prophetic gift and understands the potential pitfalls therein is indispensable. With an open and mature approach to personal prophecy, perhaps Paul's description of a genuine prophetic meeting in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 can be realized in our own gatherings.
He says that when the unlearned or unbelievers come into a meeting where the prophetic gift is flowing freely, as they listen, their secret thoughts will be laid bare, and they will fall down on their knees and worship God, declaring, "'God is really here among you.'"
May leaders seek God's guidance in shepherding this powerful gift so that people both inside and outside the church may be challenged and edified through the gift of prophecy.
Eddie L. Hyatt, D.Min., is the author of 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity (Charisma House) and is the co-founder, with his wife, Susan, of Hyatt International Ministries (www.revivalandreformation.org), based in Fort Worth, Texas.