There is an assumption in the church today that all prophecy is, as prophecy was in the Old Testament. This assumes that nothing changed between the leaving of the last Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist, and the coming of the first New Testament prophet, Jesus Christ, when in fact they were quite different.
All prophetic people view prophecy in black and white terms, so we shouldn’t begrudge anyone who takes this view in the church. In fact, it’s incumbent upon us to teach the church the proper view of prophecy under the New Covenant. This will not be easy because the idea of prophecy under the construct of grace seems to be paradoxical.
A paradox is defined as, “A statement, proposition, or situation that seems to be absurd or contradictory, when in fact is or may be true.” Another way of defining it might be two conflicting ideas contrained in the same truth. I have heard it defined like this: A church is both a structure and an body. On one hand it has four walls and is immoveable and a place where people gather, and yet at the same time, it acts more like an organism or group of people who are a family joined together by a common set of beliefs.
The idea of prophecy and the assumed requirement of 100% accuracy of this gifting, seems contradictory when combined with idea of grace, which implies fallibility – a paradox. Of course it only seems logical to believe that if God supposedly said something, it will come to pass and if it doesn’t, it wasn’t God to begin with. This is still true. But under the New Covenant of grace, does God want us to ignore, cast out, or presume someone is not a prophet if they ever get something wrong?
The answer to that question depends upon how you define “prophet”. If we accept that the definition of the prophet is set in the stark terms of the Old Testament, under the law, then everything the prophet says must be 100% correct or he/she is not a prophet. Deuteronomy makes this plain in chapter 18:
But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ (NASB, Deut 18:20)
If that doesn’t scare someone away from the office of the prophet, I don’t know what would.
The prophets of old were literally the way that God communicated with his people. If a prophet said something wrong, it could have disastrous implications and lead the Lord’s people astray – so he took it quite seriously as you can see. Now contrast this with what the bible says about prophecy in the New Testament in 1 Cor. 14:1, and 14:3-5:
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy…. v.3 But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.
God is encouraging everyone to seek the gift of prophecy. In stark contrast with the Old Testament where the prophets were among the most scarce of all people and are discouraged from accepting the call under the threat of death unless they were authentic, here we have God reversing course and asking everyone to prophesy. Why?
The answer is grace and the Holy Spirit. As Jesus ushered us into the New Covenant of grace, he also did away with judgment. Under grace, prophecy is no longer solely vertically directional and absolute words from God, but also horizontally speaking words for strengthening, encouragement and comfort, one to another. New Testament prophets are models for communicating the heart of God and for what grace should be. And prophets ought to know. The bible speaks to suffering in connection with the prophetic more so than any other gifting. James 5:10 says, “Brothers, as an example of patience, in the face of suffering, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord.”
Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, there is equal responsibility upon the hearer as there is upon the speaker of a prophetic word. The NT prophet should try to hear the Holy Spirit before they prophesy. However, the same Holy Spirit that a prophet has, the hearer has as well. The receiver of such a word should also try to hear God so they know if the word is from God. It should bear witness with their spirit, the same spirit that lives in them as He who lives in the prophet. The hearer of the word should then pray over the word. Even if it does not seem to be true today, each person should keep the word and continue to pray it through. In a sense, they are judging the word. Also, a prophetic word spoken today, may not actually be for today, but rather for a day much farther into the future. So we might want to leave room for time as a variable in our prophetic words or we may be forfeiting a blessing from God.
I was once given a word from Kim Clement in 2004. The word was that he saw four contracts. He prophesied that these contracts would bring me financial prosperity and that they would not be separated by bad contracts, but be four in a row. Now, I know that I have perhaps received the first of these four contracts, but I have yet to see the other three. Is the word wrong? Not yet. It may take a lifetime for those four contracts to delivered so it’s important for me continue to pray those contracts through. I have a responsibility with that word. I can take those words on faith or I can dismiss them. If my ability to move a mountain depends on my faith and prayer, why would a prophetic word not rest on these two disciplines as well?
On another occasion I received a word about my family being broken. This word seemed to completely come out of left field. “My family is in great shape,” I remember thinking. No problems there, he got that wrong.” Little did I know that about 8 months later I would have a huge conflict with one of my sons. He left home and I did not see or hear from him for 9 months before God began to heal that fracture in our lives. So time is a huge variable within the prophetic.
At the same time, I want to leave room for the times when we get a word from someone that simply does not seem right. Perhaps it is harsh, corrective and not wrapped in the heart of God. Prophecy should always be done through encouraging words of comfort and not meant to cast shame and judgment on people. We’ll agree that this is the rule 99.9% of the time but leave God the room to be more confrontational with someone who needs it.
Graham Cooke sums up the difference between the old and new covenants concerning prophecy like this: “John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus was the first of the New Testament. But John had to come and bow the knee, which is the Old Testament model bowing the knee to the New Testament model. So think of it this way: Do you think Jesus was punished enough for sin? Do you think the Father judged Jesus thoroughly? Did He spend every last ounce of anger and wrath on Christ on the cross? [If the answer is yes]…”then there’s no judgment left, no anger left, no punishment left. God is fully satisfied. Between Calvary, which was judgment on Christ, and the Judgment Day when all the books will be opened, there is no place for judgment in this world.”
So then why do people judge the prophet? The reality if we do, and the prophet is testifying to Jesus, we do so in ignorance. 1 Cor. 14 says “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.” We are not to pass judgment on the prophet unless the prophet is testifying to a false spirit, but rather judge the word. Remember, we live under grace so even when the prophet gets it wrong, if the spirit being testified to is the spirit of Jesus, there is always room for grace.
In the world under grace that still operates in the prophetic, we need to allow people the room to learn the prophetic as Samuel had to learn. Even though Samuel could hear the voice of God, he did not recognize it. This too will happen to us as well, and as others around us take up the call of God to desire earnestly to prophesy, we should remember the grace that was extended to us before we rush to judgment ourselves.