What is the difference?
I used to be of the opinion that it was to do with the amount of information given, either tremendous accuracy on a single occasion, or a high on-going level of discernment. Now I am not so sure. In fact I am not sure there really is as much difference as we commonly assume. Bear with me. In 1 Cor 14:1-3 Paul says
1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. 3 But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.
It would seem that Paul’s expectation was that which he termed ‘prophesy’ should be widespread in the Church and his definition certainly has parts of what we would term a word of knowledge. It is true that both turn up in the list of gifts in 1 Cor 12, so obviously there are some differences, but does it really matter? I personally consider a strict definition to be less important than the problem that our common understanding of prophesy owes more to the Old Testament than the New. What this does is effectively remove the expectation of using the gift of prophesy from the regular church member. The bar has been raised too high for Christians to expect to prophesy as part of their normal Christian experience, and this is clearly not what Paul intended. Therefore maybe whether something is a word of prophecy or a word of knowledge should be a secondary concern as long as the gift is being used.
Since prophesy is what one might term ‘higher-profile’, I will address a few common questions.
Should we leave prophesying to the Prophets?
Although there is the specific office of prophet mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor 12, he also commends us to desire the gift of prophecy as I mentioned before. It works like this. We all have access to all the spiritual gifts, therefore we can all prophesy. What is more, we should eagerly desire to prophesy. We do however have a preconceived block, mostly through bad modelling, that prophesy is weird, “left-field”, and necessitates the wearing of a horse-hair shirt. What Paul is saying is that it is a natural part of the Christian life. Of course there will be people who are more adept at using the gift, but that goes for all gifts, and should not disqualify us.
What is the point of prophesy?
1 Cor 14:4b
He who prophesies edifies the church.
This is the first type of prophesy – Inspirational.
The second type is Revelatory, and is the most abused. This covers giving direction, correction and new emphasis.
If we are given a prophesy, does it have to happen?
Quite simply, prophecy is God’s invitation to us. If we accept it, and go with God, then we open the door to the prophesy being fulfilled. There are no guarantees, often acceptance is just the first step on a journey.
Can prophets overrule pastors?
No. The authority of the prophet in a church is always subject to their pastor, even if the pastor does not accept the prophecy. It is unwise to bring a prophesy before the whole church that has not been taken to the leadership first.
How do we receive prophetic words?
I liken it to remembering something you never knew because often that is what it feels like. It is always worth asking God if there is any more, because often there is. However the biggest block to the prophetic gifting is the ‘gulp factor’, which is basically being scared of getting things wrong. To be honest, I don’t really consider that a failing, when you are sure you are always right, you are definitely wrong. Sometimes the words or impressions can be very bizarre, and our whole rationale tells us that this cannot be God. The thing is that God does not bless His church through our rationale, but through His Spirit, and He’s inclined to do things His way.
There is a very important rider on this. If you feel you have a “personal word” for someone, does it build them up, or is it just “parallel teaching”. That is, is it something God is saying or merely something you believe they should hear? Whilst we should not be scared to receive words for others, we do need to remember the gravity of speaking ‘as from God’ and allow room for our words to be rejected without the recipient seeming to reject God as a consequence.
What happens if we get it wrong?
It is quite possible that as we get to do more of this, we will make mistakes. Don’t worry, you can use the opportunity to learn what is right from the correction. Be sure to be gracious to the person you have the word for, allowing that you might be mistaken and never give a corrective word to someone in a public setting. Speak to them privately, with witnesses if that seems appropriate. The other most common mistakes are to misinterpret or misapply the word. Stick with what God gives you, don’t add to it, and don’t forget, you are just the messenger, it’s not your job to be convincing, that’s down to God. Or put it another way, if what you have delivered is from God, it will have effect without any further input from you.
LEADERS NOTE: You may gather that I am all for demystifying the gift of prophecy. That is because I consider that if it is under the church leadership’s authority and is administered correctly, it can be a powerful means of releasing healing and empowerment in the Church.
Unfortunately it is also true that a misunderstanding of the gift can lead to churches being fatally damaged by self-proclaimed prophets with a ‘I know something you don’t know’ attitude.
As church leaders we need to be aware that prophecy can be a very powerful gift, but is often found in Christians with a significant degree of emotional brokenness. In the end, it is leaders who lead, and if that means facing down a ‘prophet’ then that is what is required. Church leadership never was a popularity contest anyway!
© Paul Wood