Evaluating Modern Prophecy Through Biblical Foundation
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PROPHECY DEFINED AND DEFENDED
“There are an estimated 600 million Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians in the world,” Richard Roberts reports. “This is approximately a quarter of the whole Church, representing an astonishing 8% of the world’s population. This means that 1 in 13 people accept the validity of spiritual gifts, including prophecy. That’s a lot of prophecy!”
Roberts goes on to define prophecy very carefully and precisely. “A simple description of Christian prophecy might be that it consists of revelation being given to one person in order for it to be shared with another person or with a group of people. Prophetic revelation occurs when God shows us something that would otherwise be hidden from view. It is revelation imparted by the Spirit of God, which distinguishes prophecy from our own ideas, however profound, or from making an educated assessment of a situation. The nature of Christian prophecy is somewhat different from the ability to predict future events based on knowledge of psychology, history, politics, or sociology,” he states.
Roberts humbly acknowledges that the Church’s understanding of prophecy varies, and that the gift has been badly misused. “The charismatic landscape is certainly diverse,” he says. In defense of the current-day use of prophecy, Roberts says, “Despite this diversity and, at times, confusion, the apostolic injunction to ‘not despise prophecies’ is clear. Underpinning this book is the conviction that prophecy, fresh revelation for today, remains an essential component of church life. It was of utmost importance for the early church, and even though there have been long periods when ‘the word of the Lord was rare’ (1 Samuel 3:1), prophecy has continued to play a vital role throughout the history of the Church.”
In addition, he says, with revivals going on today, such as the recent one at Asbury College in Kentucky, there’s a need for people to understand how to properly handle prophecy.
Roberts makes clear that not all that is said in the name of prophecy is such. In order to properly judge whether a prophetic word is from God, he says, we must learn to use discernment and seek to answer questions such as: “Is this prophecy from God or from another source?”; “Are there elements that we might affirm but others about which we are less certain?”; and “Is any action required arising from the content of this prophetic word?” To answer those questions, Roberts offers additional ones:
• What is the “feel” of the prophecy? He says true prophecy should convey something of the life of God, and will have a life-giving, refreshing quality about them.
• Does it resonate with the recipient? Roberts says the words spoken should ring true. “The content of a prophecy and its tone of delivery need to resonate with the hearer,” he says.
• Is there a consensus amongst the hearers? “Coming to a consensus is not an infallible process and we need humility when it comes to the evaluation of prophecy, even when we have reached agreement.”
• Has the prophecy been confirmed? “It may simply confirm that the path along which God is already directing the person is the right one, but whenever God is seeking to radically redirect us, it is likely that this will be confirmed in a number of different ways.”
• Is the topic off-limits for prophecy? “We need to be extremely wary if, for example, someone prophesies that we might marry a particular person.”
The role of prophecy in the church today, Roberts states, can be determined by how it functioned in New Testament times. He points to a number of functions of prophecy:
• Prophecy can warn of coming events. He points to the famine predicted in Acts 11.
• Prophecy can set us on the right course (or confirm it). “Alongside taking advice and weighing up our options,” he says, “Christians usually seek guidance from God through prayer, sometimes through a discernment process, and sometimes through prophetic input.”
• Prophecy can help us see the consequences of our plans. Even if prophecy warns of a negative outcome, Roberts says it doesn’t usurp an individual’s freedom to choose. “The recipient of a prophecy has the final say and, therefore, the person concerned takes full responsibility for how to respond to it.”
• Prophecy can bring encouragement and affirmation. “A prophetic word can simply communicate to the recipient that God is aware of them and their situation.
• Prophecy can capture our imagination. “Dreams and visions sometimes employ imaginative imagery to communicate their message.”
PROPHECY GONE WRONG
“Many Christians today are rightly concerned about prophecy,” Roberts says. “Some believe it is misguided, or even quite dangerous. Indeed, many of us have had first-hand experiences of the misuse of prophecy or poor prophetic practice, while some have even witnessed the abuse of prophetic gifts for personal gain.”
Roberts offers the example of a well-known figure in the U.S., who had to apologize when his prophecies concerning the outcome of the 2020 election proved to be incorrect. “Although several of those involved have followed his example and publicly admitted their failings, others have refused to apologize and to learn lessons from their mistakes. One common response has been to ‘move the goalposts’ and state that the prophecies were true in substance but that the date was wrong.” To prevent and deal with such abuses, Roberts says the church needs to focus in four areas:
• “We need to reaffirm the central place that prophecy should play in the life of the people of God.”
• “We need to understand the full spectrum of prophetic gifts.”
• “We need to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place.”
• “We need to look again at the witness and teaching of scripture, our measuring stick, so that we can ‘test all things.’”
Even more than the gifts of the Spirit, Roberts believes we should first focus elsewhere. “I am convinced that in God’s eyes, character, the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, is much more important than giftedness. The combination of great gifts and unchecked character flaws wreaks havoc, something which, sadly, I have also observed in other settings.”
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