Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The Prophetic Zone

Prophecy in the church today reminds of a children’s nursery rhyme;

There was a little girl
And she had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead,
When she was good,
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

This has been my experience. When prophecy is good, it’s very, very good. But when it’s bad, it’s horrid. Sometimes prophecies are ‘horrid’ because of the content. They are full of condemnation and guilt inducing statements. I’ve heard plenty of those. Others are delivered in a style that is usually very discordant with the way we normally speak and make the speaker appear odd at best, or downright weird at worst. I want to try and give an explanation of what prophecy is and why it is so important. There is always a risk when we begin to move in the prophetic zone of getting weird, but this arena is so integral to who we are as the people of God we can't avoid it. We simply have to learn to get it right and do it better. (In the next article I will offer some guidelines about ‘how to prophecy’, so that our experience of this powerful gift is ‘very, very good’.)

Rev 19.10 says; “The testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of Prophecy”. We’ve looked at what it means to have a testimony, to hold a testimony and to share a testimony. But here John talks about the testimony of Jesus – it’s about our story as it relates to His story. The truth about what God has done in our lives – through Jesus; through His restoring love. John is clear about one thing; the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. One releases the other. They are axiomatic. To hold the testimony of Jesus releases the spirit of prophecy. To prophecy by the spirit is to testify to Jesus. This is helpful in witnessing.

Prophecy can be understood as doing two things; foretelling and forth telling. One is about predicting the future; declaring things that have not yet happened; speaking to future events like Peter’s denial of Jesus or the destruction of Jerusalem. But the second aspect, forth telling, was no less important. Here the OT prophets declared the word of God to a particular group of people, in a particular place, at a particular time. It was a declaration of His heart, mind and wisdom. Sometimes these contained warnings and rebukes but most times they were for encouragement.

Jeremiah 29 is a perfect example of a letter written to encourage the Jews of the captivity in how to face life in Babylon. “Where was God now?” would have been a burning question for them. Besides which there where prophets telling them that they would be back in Jerusalem with two years. Jeremiah has a different message. One that not only helps them deal with life but also helps them relate to their new environment with hope. He clearly implies that they are the hope for the city and should therefore pray for its peace, Jer 29.7. And all of this was a token of God’s design to preserve them and secure their future, Jer 29.11.

Like the prophets of old the Church is called to walk in the prophetic tradition. We see this when Jesus speaks the Sermon on the Mount. Listen to His words; “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets that were before you”, Matt 5.11-12. Jesus helps us deal with rejection, criticism and false accusation by telling us we are blessed. This is totally counter intuitive. We think we are blessed when prayer is answered – and so we are. We think we are blessed when we prosper – and so we are. We think we are blessed when people speak well of us – and so we are. Even the early church enjoyed favour with all the people, Acts 2.47. But by Acts 8.1 all that had changed. Now they were persecuted and scattered.

This is Jesus point. Popularity is not what we live for. Favour with the world is short lived. We live as Kingdom people and that means we are salt and light. We challenge the status quo of what goes on in our world. Eventually someone will get upset. Jesus said in effect, “Don’t worry – you are still blessed. You haven’t done anything wrong”. But He goes even further; rejoice and be exceeding glad. Live with a sense of celebration. The reaction is a vindication of the testimony. Be happy! We are walking in the tradition of the prophets who were treated in the same way. How did they survive? They considered themselves blessed and rejoiced. This is another-world way of living – a kingdom way of living and being.

In Numbers 11 we have the story of Moses appointing 70 leaders. Some of the spirit from Moses is placed on them with an interesting outcome – they all prophecy. Two of the leaders however are not with Moses and the others at the time; nevertheless, they too prophecy. A young man goes running to tell Moses what these two men are up to and Joshua, assistant to Moses, is quick to advice him how to deal with the situation – “Moses my Lord, forbid them!”, Num 11.28. Between the lines he appears to want to jealously guard a prerogative that has been exclusively Moses’ up to now. They shouldn’t be doing this outside of his presence. But Moses holds a different view. He makes one of those throw away comment that will be picked up later by Joel in his second chapter and fulfilled in Acts 2, “Oh that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that He would put His Spirit upon them”, Num 11.29.

Moses had a wish; that all God’s people could prophecy; that all could know Him in that way. This is the New Covenant. God has poured out His spirit on all flesh, men and women, old and young. The 'tongues' of Acts 2 were known languages. Some 15 different groups and languages are named. All heard ‘the wonderful works of God’ being declared in their own tongue. The early disciples were all prophesying in languages they had never learned. This was one of the distinguishing features of the New Covenant – the outpouring of the spirit of prophecy – it is the testimony of Jesus. Acts 1.8 says, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you shall be witnesses, (the same word as testimony in the Greek remember), to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judah and Samaria and to the end of the earth”. The giving of the Spirit is connected with the mandate to witness - to all the world. One is the empowering of the other. Without the Spirit there can be no authentic witness (testimony). It is the validation of all true testimony.

In 1Cor 12-14 Paul deals with several abuses of spiritual gifts as they were practiced in the church at Corinth. He begins in chapter 12 by laying out a theology of the gifts. In chapter 13 he deals with the motivation that gives value to the gifts. Finally in chapter 14 he deals with the specific case of how tongues and prophecy were practiced in Corinth. The opening verse of chapter 14 is instructive, “Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy”. To pursue love is to pursue the right motivation for using the gifts of the Spirit. They are after all for the building up (edification) of the body. They are there primarily to benefit others. So we use them to bless others, not as a showcase to parade our own spirituality. All of this is rooted in our maturity and character. This takes years to shape and develop.

Gifts however are different. They are not given to the mature; they are given to the available, to the hungry, to those that are open to receive them. And new believers are often the most receptive and the hungriest. Paul exhorts the church to ‘desire’ spiritual gifts’. This is the same word translated as lust in other places. Lust is like an earnest desire for something legitimate but taken to an extreme. Wanting to eat is good and necessary for life and health, but lusting for food can lead to obesity. It can mask a much deeper need that food is now substituting for. But Paul says there is something we are allowed to lust for – the gifts of the Spirit. And in the context of a meeting of the church the chief gift to aim at, Paul says, is prophecy.

This is because of the essential nature of prophecy. Unlike tongues, which is directed upward to God, prophecy is directed horizontally, to men. Without interpretation, tongues are a mystery – but prophecy isn’t. And therein lays its power. It can be understood and so has the potential to expose hearts and change minds, (we’ll see this later in the chapter). Paul is also clear that New Testament prophecy has three essential elements; building up (edification), encouragement (exhortation) and strengthening (comfort). Notice how this ‘simple’ use of prophecy does not contain corrective elements. They are reserved for those who carry the prophetic office. The focus is primarily one of helping the saints, not rebuking the saints. That is a governmental role reserved for those with leadership responsibility.

I find this distinction helpful. Too much prophecy in the Charismatic/Pentecostal churches of the past has been styled on an Old Testament model full of rebuke and chastisement. It misses the grace of God and doesn’t ultimately build the church. Even Jesus the Head of the church, who does bring a rebuke to five of the seven churches in Asia Minor, does so in the context of commending them for their strengths, see Rev 2-3. His words are full of what Paul calls, building up, encouragement and strengthening. This is where we need to begin. Even if we are addressing one person, the whole church can be built up as it witnesses to the truth of what is declared.

A good discipline is to ask yourself a few simple questions before you speak. Will what I say build up the church? Will this encourage people? Will it strengthen their faith? If not, then silence is the best option. This goes along with Paul’s advice to those who speak in tongues but have no interpretation, 1Cor 14.28. It may bless you, but not the church – so keep quite. Our words are there to release the Spirit. Remember, death and life is in the power of the tongue, according to Proverbs 18.21. Let’s purpose to let our words be full of life, salted so that they may minister grace to the hearers, Col 4.5. If this is true for life in general, it is even more so when it comes to prophecy in particular. I have heard frustrated preachers use prophecy as an opportunity to give their message to the church. They are not given the pulpit so they use prophecy as a means of meeting their need to speak. It’s inappropriate at best and dishonest at worst.

Prophecy for John was related to the testimony of Jesus. That’s why he was on Patmos, Rev 1.9. He was exiled there to silence his voice. But God gave him revelation and he wrote powerful letters to the seven churches. Letters designed to help the church ‘overcome’ so that it could walk into its true destiny. This is the purpose of prophecy. It is the now word of God that helps the church know how to live in that moment. Even Joshua experienced this. He is the first leader told to relate to the book, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous and then you will have good success”, Josh 1.8. Notice the emphasis on meditating and speaking the word and not just reading it. It mustn’t depart from his mouth. Equally he had to focus on doing, not just knowing, the word. But in chapter 5 Joshua is facing a situation the scripture he had does not address – how should he take Jericho, what is God’s strategy? In that situation he meets the Captain of the Lord’s Host and a specific word is given to him, a prophetic word.

Prophecy is not meant to replace the Bible. We are always meant to reference and test things by God’s unchanging word. But equally we need specific wisdom for specific situations in life. Even Paul and Barnabas where commissioned through a specific prophetic word that came to the church as they ministered to the Lord, Acts 13.1-3. Later in their missionary travels the Holy Spirit forbade them to preach the word in Asia and again when they tried to enter Bithynia, Acts 16.6-10. It is clear from Luke’s writings that this happened through prophetic utterance. Finally, at the coast with seemingly nowhere to go, Paul received a vision – a prophetic vision no less. This guided them over to Philippi and so the gospel came to Europe – all through prophetic leading. It is never a case of either/or when it comes to prophecy and the Bible. Rather it is and/both, knowing that scripture is the final arbiter.

My prayer for us as a church is that we value both; that we cultivate an earnest desire to see it released in a way that builds the church, qualitatively and quantitatively. Qualitative growth is when we are inspired to greater acts of obedience, faith and sacrifice in the name of Jesus. We go deeper in God. Quantitative growth is when we speak to hearts and help them people come to faith in Jesus. This is what He did with the woman at the well in John 4. He moved into the prophetic zone and revelaed the secrets of her heart and as we saw last time, an entire village came to faith through her testimony. More on that next time!