Monday, 16 February 2009

Prophetic Protocol

Prophecy is made up of three essential elements, revelation, interpretation and application. Revelation answers the question, “what do I see?” It is a different way of knowing that doesn’t come through study and learning. Rather it is more intuitive. It is to use Biblical language, ‘given from above’. When Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah in Matt 16.16-17, Jesus makes a fascinating statement. This truth came to Peter from the Father in Heaven, not ‘flesh and blood’. Revelation comes from a Greek word that means to ‘take the cover off’. It means we are now able to ‘see’ what was once hidden. There are various ways and means that God uses to give us revelation, words, dreams, visions or even visitations. What is important to take on board is that the origin is not ‘flesh and blood’.

This also brings with it a caution. In the NT we are told to test the spirits, 1John 4.1. The same Peter who declared Jesus to be the Messiah went on in the same chapter and a few verses later to become a mouth piece for the devil. He did not discern the source of that particular revelation that originated from a different spirit. And Jesus firmly rebukes him, “Get behind Me satan....” So with revelation we receive knowledge about people, situations or God’s purpose that is designed to help us move ahead in God’s will. But revelation is only one part of the puzzle. All revelation needs interpretation.

Interpretation answers the question, “what does it mean?” Pharaoh had a dream about seven fat cows and seven thin cows. He knew what he saw in his dream but he had no idea what it meant. He is able to say what he sees but is disturbed to know its significance – but in his heart he knows it is significant and can’t just ignore it. Daniel and John both had similar experiences. Daniel was given skill by an angel to know how to interpret and understand his dream, Dan 9.23. John is told to write the things he has ‘seen’, Rev 1.19. The phrase ‘I saw...’ or ‘I looked...’ is often repeated in this book, Rev 5.1-2, 6, 11; 6.1-2, 5, 8-9, 12. His difficulty was not in recording the visions; it was in understanding and interpreting them, (see Rev 17).

Revelation can be complete, accurate and true but it requires a skill almost as great to interpret correctly. Peter’s vision of a sheet containing creatures that were unlawful for Jews to eat was given to him three times – such was his resistance to meaning and significance of this vision, Acts 10. It opened his heart to the events that would follow in bringing the gospel to the first gentiles – Cornelius the Centurion. The significance of the vision dawns on him as he is obedient to go, Acts 10.28. (Interestingly, his encounter with Cornelius takes place at Caesarea – the very spot where Peter received the revelation of who Jesus really is back in Mat 16.16). And so it is with interpretation. Sometimes it comes immediately and sometimes we have to wait on the vision to understand its meaning and significance.

Agabus was an acknowledged prophet in the NT, Acts 11.27-28. He is the one who dramatically takes Paul‘s belt and warns of his impending arrest in Jerusalem, Acts 21.11. Notice how every one of the believers present interprets this to mean Paul shouldn’t go, Acts 21.12-14. But Paul takes issue with this. He is not challenging the revelation – that fits with many other prophecies about his life that he has had, Acts 9.15-16; 20.22-23. He is challenging their interpretation. They seem to operate more out of sentimentality than discernment. Paul will have none of it. Subsequent events and a personal visitation to Paul from the Lord show that Paul was right, Acts 23.11. And here is the important point. We are responsible for our own life and ministry. Prophecy should confirm and fit with what we already know to be true about our calling and direction in life. More of that later.

If it’s true that we can often mess up on interpretation it is even more so when it comes to application. This answers the question “What should I do?” In other words what action should I take? What is my responsibility in all this to help co-operate with God in bringing about this word? And here is where I have seen many believers become unstuck. They rush ahead with prophetic words and things go awry. Often it is the prophetic person who brought the word who gets the blame when things go wrong. But once a person has shared their revelation they have fulfilled their responsibility. They may have a take on the interpretation but application is a pastoral matter that requires wisdom to know the timing of God. Further, all prophecy should be confirmed, ‘in the mouth of two or three witnesses let every word be established’, Matt 18.16; Deut 17.6.

Many use 1Tim 1.18 as a text to support praying and pushing through with realising prophetic words over our lives. But let’s unpack this verse a little. In the first place it is written by Paul to his son in the faith Timothy. They have an ongoing relationship. There is trust between them. There is a track record. What Paul is ‘charging’ Timothy to do fits with prophecies previously given to him. There is continuity. It is not something new. Timothy can look back and see a line. Further it is prophecies plural – not prophecy singular. There was more than one prophecy over his life indicating his future ministry. Clearly it was two or three fitting with the biblical injunction of Deut 17.6 ‘in the mouth of two or three witnesses etc’.

I find this helpful. It means that when I get a prophetic word I can take time to see if it will be confirmed by other prophetic voices. I don’t have to rush off ‘half cocked’ to make it happen. Many well meaning believers have ended in a mess by trying to make words come to pass. In their zeal to walk in obedience they rush ahead without really taking the time to ‘pray and weigh’ their prophecy. Further Timothy’s warfare was with the enemy not the prophecy! In other words his prophecies confirmed his call and direction in life. They were something he could review whenever doubt or uncertainty crept in. By them he could engage the enemy with confidence.

Let me share some wisdom as to how you should receive prophetic words. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, simply some things that have helped me on my journey of faith.

1. Be open to hear from God in this way but don’t chase prophetic words. I know people who love to go to all the latest conferences where there are prophetic voices present. Rather be content with the natural rhythm of life God has placed you in. If God wants to speak to you He is big enough to make this happen. Just have a disposition of heart that is ready to receive.

2. It is easy to ‘despise prophecies’ 1Thess 5.20, especially when you have had a bad experience. Instead remember that Paul saw prophecy as the greatest gift in building the church at a public meeting, 1Cor 14.1-3. It has the power to even bring people to faith, 1Cor 14.24-25. But do take time to ‘weigh and pray’ through every prophecy, 1Cor 14.29, 1Thess 5.20-21. This may mean speaking with those you trust and are accountable to. Reflect on how this fits with how God has led you in the past. Is there continuity? Can you see a line? How does it witness with you, your spouse and your pastor?

3. Try to find out the experience of the one giving you the prophetic word. Do they have a seasoned ministry or are they just starting out? In the beginning of prophetic ministry we tend to make most of our mistakes. Seasoned ministers in the prophetic carry more weight – but they still need to be evaluated.

4. Ask other to be present when you get a prophetic word. I am very suspicious when people want to give words privately one to one. This is not the NT pattern. Prophecy was given either publicly or in the presence of witnesses in order for it to be judged. It is not only the content of the prophecy we evaluate but the spirit and tone in which it is given. Does it come across in a critical or judgemental way? Does it fit with Paul’s criteria in 1Cor 14.1-3, edification, exhortation and comfort?

5. Always wait for confirmation. Remember even Timothy received more than one prophecy. We don’t have to rush ahead and make things happen on the basis of one word.

6. Ask God for the timing of any application. Talk through how to implement prophetic words with your pastor or trusted leaders. They will have wisdom that is needed when it comes to application. You don’t have to struggle with this alone.

7. Finally, maintain your devotional life. God leads us through the simple discipline of reading and meditating on His word. This is the foundation for a blessed life, Psalm 1, Joshua 1.8. Don’t abandon this for what appears a more exciting way of hearing from God. It is not either/or. It is rather and/both.
For those giving prophetic words here are some helpful do's and don’ts:

The Do's

1. Stay humble. Remember, at best we know in part and we prophecy in part, 1Cor 13.9. Don’t go beyond what you have been given. I have heard prophetic words that were great for the first three minutes but went on for ten. Just say what you see and shut up!

2. Seek input from someone who is:
a) mature
b) understands prophetic ministry
c) not afraid to challenge you
d) a person you respect

3. Seek feedback on your:
a) Style – the way you deliver the prophecy. This can be done in an ordinary or dramatic way. It usually adds very little to the prophecy when we go for the dramatic and may be more of an indication of our denomination style than anything the Holy Spirit has inspired.
b) Content – what you actually say. Is it Biblical? Does it witness?

The Don’ts

1. Stay within the limits of what you have. You don’t need to embellish a word or add to it. Let it stand on its own.

2. If and when challenged you may want to justify yourself. Avoid this. Give any clarification asked for but don’t try and justify your word. If a person chooses to reject it, that’s not your business. Don’t take an offence. If you were right God has other ways and means of speaking to them. Let it be.

3. Be careful to avoid being critical or judgemental in your prophecy. Sometimes we can allow personal agendas to creep in and use prophecy as a covert means of attacking people. This is not good practice. Stick to that which is going to build up until you are well practiced in this mode of prophecy. Even Jesus when He spoke to the seven churches brought words of encouragement before He said anything critical, Rev 2-3.

If we can adopt these simple prophetic protocols we will be able to use this gift to build the church and strengthen the faith of believers. Further it adds a wonderful sense of the imminent presence of God. May God continue to give us wisdom in how we steward this wonderful gift.