Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Missional Heart of Prophecy

Prophecy is incredibly powerful in building the church. This is Paul’s claim in 1Cor 14. Before unpacking this let’s take a quick look at the difference between prophecy in the OT and prophecy as it was practiced in the New Testament era. In the OT we see the prophetic ministry emerging with the appearance of Samuel; though he is not the first to be called a prophet. Abraham was given the label by God Himself, Gen 20.7 and Jude tells us that he was predated by Enoch who prophesied the Lord’s coming, Jude 14. The Jews anticipated the arrival of the Messiah as a ‘prophet like unto Moses’, Deut 18.15. But Samuel actually used his prophetic gift extensively to judge and rule Israel and appoint her Kings. From Dan to Beersheba, not one word he spoke ‘fell to the ground’. More importantly he seems to have begun a school of the prophets, 1Sam 19.20 that would be further developed by men like Elijah, 1Kings 20.35 and Elisha, 2Kings 6.1.

There were two tests brought to bear on those who prophesied. The first was simple: did what they said come to pass. If it didn’t the penalty was severe - death. This person had presumed to speak in the name of the Lord when God had not spoken. Secondly, even of their prophecy was accurate and they worked a sign or wonder, if they attempted to lead Israel astray to worship other God’s then again they were to be stoned, Deut 13.1-5; 18.20-22. Each of these tests focused on the gifting and character of the prophet respectively. In the life of the prophet the gifting had to be genuine and his character had to be mature with a life dedicated to God. He was there to direct others into keeping covenant with God.

But when it comes to the NT there is a change. We move from prophetic concentration to prophetic distribution – “I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh and your sons and your daughter will prophesy...” Joel 2.28-29. The OT was characterised by a concentration of revelation given to a gifted few. Only those anointed carried the presence of God’s Spirit – the prophet the Priest and the King. The people of God had to come to them to hear from God. But under the New Covenant all can receive the Spirit. Furthermore, the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy, Rev 19.10. To bear witness to Jesus is to move in the Spirit of prophecy. To move in the prophetic is ultimately to witness to Jesus. The two are axiomatic.

Notice four distinguishing features of the New Covenant outlined by Jeremiah 33.31-34. We move from an external law written on stone to an internal knowledge of the heart – I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts, from mediation through others to direct contact with God, No more shall every man teach his neighbour and every man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know Me. We move from a few experiencing the Spirit to all being touched, for they shall all know Me from the least to the greatest, from remembrance of sins every year through ritual sacrifice to a once and for all offering bringing total and complete forgiveness, For I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more.

This radical change of necessity brings about a change in the way prophecy functions. One noticeable feature is the lack of the phrase, “Thus says the Lord” when prophecy is given in the NT. Jesus didn’t say it. John the Baptist didn’t use the phrase – despite being a prophet and acknowledged by Jesus as being the greatest born among woman, (yet the least in the Kingdom is great than John – more on that later); nor did any of the Apostles. The closest we get is one time in Acts 21.11 when an acknowledged prophet called Agabus says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit”, warning Paul if an impending arrest in Jerusalem. Interestingly Paul’s companions take this to mean he shouldn’t go, but Paul does the opposite.

The phrase “Thus says the Lord” is part of the protocol speech used by servants to introduce themselves to kings and other dignitaries. It was a way of saying whose name and therefore whose authority they spoke in. We see this when Moses stands before Pharaoh (a generic word for King in Egypt) in Ex 5.1. He brings God’s message to Pharaoh – who refuses to acknowledge God’s authority. “Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” Later in the book of Kings Ben-Hadad is about to attack Ahab and so he sends messengers saying, “Thus says Ben-Hadad...” 1Kings 20.2. The messengers speak on his behalf to the king. This is what the OT prophets did. They spoke on God’s behalf and so He put His words into their mouth.

But in the NT we have the indwelling spirit. We have the possibility to be ‘filled with the Spirit’, Eph 5.18 to, ‘walk in the Spirit’, Gal 5.16 and to be ‘led by the Spirit’, Rom 8.14. Yet for all that we can still chose to be carnal, as the gifted church in Corinth was, 1Cor 3.1-3. This means that prophecy operates through us in a way that requires it to be weighed, judged and tested by others, 1Cor 14.29; 1Thes 5.20. Prefacing our words with “Thus says the Lord” leaves very little room for testing. It puts unnecessary pressure on us to accept what is said as from the Lord, rather than taking time perhaps to weigh the message. Further, if what we say is not truly from God then we are in danger of blasphemy - taking the name of the Lord in vain.

My experience leads me to believe that in reality there is often a mixture. Even with Agabus’ prophecy the overall thrust was accurate, but some of the detail was not. For instance, it was the Romans who bound Paul, not the Jews as prophesied by Agabus. They did not hand him to the gentiles, rather the Roman soldiers rescued Paul from the Jews, (compare the prophecy of Acts 21.11, with Luke’s account of the incident in Acts 22.22-25). But despite these discrepancies the overall thrust was on target. We may begin with 'more of us' being in the prophecy than is appropriate. But over time we learn to be more disciplined - not to speak beyond what we have recieved, 1Cor 14.29-32.

This should make us cautious of claiming a higher revelation than we have truly received. There is a difference between believing that God is speaking to us through a scripture and getting an angelic visitation like Mary or Zachariah did. Both are revelation, but one is of a higher order and therefore carries more weight. Equally Peter was able, by revelation, to declare the true identity of Jesus and within a few verses be rebuked for being a mouthpiece for the devil, Matt 16.17,23. Being open to revelation means we must be guarded about the source we draw from. And so again we come back to the need for testing, weighing and discerning prophecy.

Jesus said the least in the Kingdom is great than John, Matt 11.11. This is a clear pointer to the move from prophetic concentration to prophetic distribution, the transition from old to new. John was the last of the old. The Kingdom would be inaugurated with the outpouring of the Spirit and now the least in the Kingdom is great than John – they have received more of the inheritance of the Father than he could lay claim to. His baptism was with water, but Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit – and it changes everything.

I have found that prophecy operates at three levels: simple prophecy that all can participate in. This is the gift of prophecy, available to all at any time. But as someone begins to do this with more and more regularity then they demonstrate prophetic ministry. Prophetic ministry is not just occasional prophecy it is regular prophecy, in many situations. Finally, there are those able to prophecy almost at will because revelation flows so freely through them. This is often an indication that someone carries a prophetic office.

But let’s return to 1 Corinthians. Paul’s desire to see the whole church move in the prophetic has a Missional dimension. He wants people saved. In 1Cor 14.23-25 he makes a contrast between the public use of tongues and that of prophecy, observed by unbelievers or uniformed (untaught in spiritual gifts) people. Tongues will produce a reaction – ‘you are all crazy’. But with prophecy he anticipates a different response. This is because of its power to reveal the ‘secrets of the heart’, things only known to that person.

The outcome is astonishing with two internal things happening manifested by two external things. The two internal things are that the person is convinced and convicted. The first has to do with being persuaded as to the reality of God’s presence the second has to do with experiencing that presence – first hand. This leads to the manifestation of two external things that can be seen by the church, worship and confession – “and so falling down on his face he will worship God and report that God is truly among you” 1Cor 14.25. How amazing is that. Seeing an unsaved person confess – God is truly among while they worship on their face, awed by the presence of God in the midst of His people.

It is this Missional dimension of prophecy that should excite us. Jesus shared a simple word of knowledge with the Samaritan woman and she perceived Him to be a prophet! (See John 4.18-19). A little revelation can have a big impact. Further, the entire town came to faith as we saw when we looked at the power of a personal testimony. But revelation played a key part in bringing conviction to her. Notice that Jesus did not use this information to judge or humiliate her. Rather it brought a sense that ‘God knows’ and He still cares. He is not put off but what He sees in our hearts. We too need to learn not to be shocked by what goes on in the heart of a person. Rather we are there to speak words of edification, exhortation and comfort.

My prayer for us as a church is that we don’t try to convince one other of the accuracy of our words, but we humbly speak from our spirit the revelation we have received and watch God touch lives. For conviction does not lie in my phrasing of prophecy, rather it lies with the Holy Spirit who uses my words. Let’s not try to do His job. As we honour God’s presence in our midst He will speak to us through words, pictures and impressions. We get the chance to express that in a way that can bring life to others. What a privilege. What an honour.