Personal prophecy is a valid and powerful feature of New Testament Christianity. There are scores of Biblical illustrations of how personal prophecy has been used by God to bring great blessing to His people.
A few incidents from the Old Testament would bring to mind that Saul was given direction in his life through this means by the propeht, Samuel. David was corrected for his sin by Nathan, the prophet.
In the New Testament, Mary and Joseph were ministered to by personal prophecy while in the Temple. Both Simeon, a devout man, and Anna, a prophetess were used in his manner. We also find that Paul was admonished about his future by Agabus the prophet. Timothy had much to base his call and ministry upon through the prophecy that was given him by the hands of a presbytery.
In my personal life, God has often brought great comfort, confirmation and guidance to me through the means of personal prophecy. I have been called out of crowds through this means and the call of ministry confirmed within me. I have received telephone calls from sensitive brothers who had head from the Lord about decisions I was at that moment making. I greatly rejoice for these blessings from God.
The validity of personal prophecy in no way justifies its abuse. There is currently a growing trend toward holding entire services devoted to personal prophecy. When anything grows to the scale of which I believe personal prophecy has, it demands to be examined. We must be sure of our scriptural standing in any ministry within the local church.
Equally as true, we must not allow error to rob us of the genuine. Paranoia breeds quickly when we emphasize the negative of any issue as it is so much easier to be destructive rather than constructive in our teaching. Since scripture forewarns us of an abundance of False Prophets in the last days, we must be concerned with understanding what the true ministry of a Prophet is and the correct use of prophecy in our local churches.
Spiritual abuses can only remain when people are kept in the dark about the truth. A friend once shared a story with me along this line. He had been in New York and had stopped at a street vendor’s cart to buy a hotdog. When he handed the man a twenty dollar bill, the vendor examined it carefully. The man remarked that he had received several counterfeit bills in the past few days.
When my friend asked how he could tell the difference, he received this reply: “I can tell if it’s counterfeit because I know what a real one looks like.”
In the same manner, False Prophets, and the abuse of the gift of prophecy will dissipate when we are equipped with adequate knowledge of the true. It was to this end that Paul said, “Brethren, I would not have you ignorant concerning spiritual gifts,” (I Cor. 12:1) They had previously been deceived into idol worship because they did not know the truth of God’s Word, (verse two). We can rest assured that Paul conveyed enough knowledge along these lines so that we too can steer clear from deception, excess and extremes.
The ministry of prophecy and of the Prophet is clearly laid out in I Corinthians. In fact, there is more written here in the area of instruction, concerning Prophets and prophesy, than any other ministry gift or spiritual gift. We find little direction for the operation of the apostle, evangelist, teacher or pastor. We find no verse by verse instruction on the working of miracles, the gifts of healings, or any other spiritual gift (except, perhaps, the gift of divers kinds of tongues and their interpretation which is actually a very similar gift to that of prophecy. See I Corinthians 14:5).
Paul describes in great detail the means by which a Prophet is to function in a New Testament Church, as well as, the use of the gift of prophecy, in the fourteenth chapter. It would do us good to examine, verse by verse, how personal prophecy as seen today compares with Paul’s description of prophecy in a congregational or church setting.
1. Paul establishes the importance of prophecy based on its ability to minister to the whole church, rather than a single individual. He contrasts how tongues ministers to the individual, while prophecy edifies the whole church, I Cor. 14:1-5.
Personal prophecy is very similar to the operation of the gift of tongues in that its benefit is for the individual, and not the entire church. It may greatly edify, exhort and comfort that individual, but Paul taught that prophecy in the local church should “speak unto men (plural) to edification, and exhortation, and comfort,” (verse 4). It is, in fact, Prophecy’s ability to bless the whole congregation that gave it Paul’s recommendation over the use of tongues, “except he interpret, that the church (as a whole body) may receive edifying,” (verse 5).
2. Paul further explained that prophecy, and the operation of the Prophet in the New Testament Church, would lead to teaching others, rather than an individual, (verse 19), and that its design was so that “all may learn,” (verse 31).
Personal prophecy is directed towards guidance and confirmation, rather than teaching. When an entire church service is centered around personal prophecy there is often very little, if any, teaching.
Paul laid down the basic principle of prophecy within the local church to “seek to the edifying of the church,” (verse 12). Personal prophecy is limited in its ability to bless the entire congregation, and should itself be limited.
For instance, notice what Paul said concerning speaking with tongues: “Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also,” Speaking with tongues is limited because of its inability to minister to the entire congregation. We must make the same judgment of similar gifts.
3. The New Testament service had as its theme that “all may prophesy,” (verse 24,31). This approach is building the believer up to a place where he can minister, rather than keeping him in a position where he is being ministered to.
When an entire service is given to personal prophecy it has as its theme that “all may be prophesied to.” Its very intent is contradictory to New Testament principles within the church where “you all may prophesy.” En masse, the congregation becomes excited and reasonably so; but not edified.
If the people are conditioned into “inquiring” from the Prophets, as it was in the Old Testament, there are two drastic errors that we will have to face: 1) The people will never mature to a level where they will consistently hear from God in the difficulties of life, which will keep them from experiencing the victory that Christ desires for them; and 2) an undue pressure will be placed upon leadership that they are not designed to carry or deal with.
It is not God’s best for individuals to be led by the ministry of the Prophet. There is an element of truth in the fact that God sometimes does lead in this fashion; but it should not override the principles of guidance God has given the individual believer through His Spirit.
For instance, healing is available to all through faith in God’s Word, but the gifts of healing are given “as the Spirit wills,” (I Corinthians 12:11). In the same way, God does sometimes lead by the gift of prophecy, but it is an action of His sovereign grace, and never made to order. Only error will result when we put pressure upon anyone to prophesy and give forth the “Word of the Lord”.
4. Paul stated that the operation of the Prophets are to be judged by another. When prophecy is directed toward the entire congregation this can be done easily.
When an entire service is given to personal prophecy, it would literally double the time required to judge each and every prophesy. I have personally never seen prophecy judged in this kind of service, (which is not to say that some may be following Biblical truth, at least on this point).
Obviously, when prophecy is given without the balancing side Paul discusses here, we leave ourselves wide open to error. We have no right prophesying if we are not going to allow that prophesy to be judged. Personal prophecy often gives direction, and often greatly needed, but can cause harm to young believers if not properly judged.
Paul was bold enough to defend his statements concerning his teaching by saying, “if any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.” (I Cor. 14:37).
There is a difference between the prophetic ministry and the gift of prophecy. To prophesy does not make one a Prophet. If this is accepted, then we must also admit that there is more to the Prophet’s ministry than simply prophesying. When an entire service has personal prophecy as it’s theme, the deeper role of the Prophet is suppressed.
Again let me state that these remarks are directed towards the ministry of the Prophet, and the use of the gift of prophecy. This is not to say that an entire service given to personal prophecy is evil or of the devil. On the contrary, there have been phenomenal blessings received in meetings of this kind. The point we are examining is that the genuine gift of God is often being abused in the way we operate it.
For example, there have been times when ministers have been interrupted during their sermon by a message in tongues. The question raised by this should not be, was that of God or not? But, rather, was that genuine gift abused by its improper timing? Certainly it was the Holy Spirit moving upon the person. Certainly it was a genuine manifestation of the gift of tongues. It most definitely was not ministered properly or at the proper time.
In the same way there is so much to gain through the ministry of personal prophecy, but also much confusion in its abuse. In most cases the problems do not stem from the actual ministry of the prophecies, but by the obvious lack of what God desires to accomplish in the service, yet could not, because we were diverted by our fascination with prophecy.
Mention was made that to prophesy does not make one a Prophet; and so, there is obviously much more to the Prophet’s ministry than prophecy. We will fail to receive the greatest portion of God’s blessing in these days of His Spirit if we continue to magnify personal prophecy and fail to receive more fully from the ministry of the Prophet. We are to be diligent to see that our services are maintained decently and in order, and that order is to seek to the edifying of the entire congregation.