Prophecy – if it is true prophecy – is a word directly from God unfiltered by human embellishment whether it pertains to the past, present or future. But there are levels of prophecy. Not all prophecy is of the same caliber. There are levels of prophecy – as in a pyramid, starting from the bottom:
- General exhortation (encouragement) as to a congregation. Dr. Michael Eaton calls this “low level prophecy”. The kind of prophecy Paul encouraged was of this sort; he was not motivating someone to become an another Elijah. Someone may have a “word” – whether from a hymn, dream or even a vision. But such a word needs to be tested. We are not to despise such prophesying (1 Thessalonians 5:20). But all needs to be tested. In any case, as I will attempt to show below, one should not say “the Lord told me”. He or she may feel it is from the Lord, but there is no need to add “the Lord told me”. I urge: do not claim that all you feel is from the Lord. You can always say, “I think I am supposed to share this with you”. No harm done this way.
- Specific warnings. Certain disciples urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. Luke sides with them; he says they warned Paul “through the Spirit” (Acts 21:4). Agabus similarly warned Paul, saying “the Holy Spirit says” (Acts 21:11). And yet Paul refused to heed their warning. Who got it right? Was Paul wrong to ignore them? Agabus may have been wrong; Paul may have been wrong. But it did not seem to bother Paul in any case for he went to Jerusalem anyway.
- Prophetic preaching. Peter said one should speak as if his words were the “very words of God” (“oracles” – KJV – 1 Peter 4:11). This is what I wish would be the case in my own preaching. My basic style is expository and pastoral. But nothing thrills me more than when someone says to me, “How did you know I was there today? That is exactly what I needed”. Expository preaching can be prophetic without the preacher being conscious of this. Even if he is conscious of the Lord’s enabling, he should be humble about it and not say “thus says the Lord”. I will return to this below.
- When forced to testify during persecution. Jesus said, “When they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19-20).
- Non-canonical prophecy. Nathan, Gad, Elijah and Elisha are examples of non-canonical prophets. Could there be prophets of this magnitude and stature today? I believe so. Then can they say “the Lord told me”? I reply: they should be the most wary of all in saying things like “the Lord says”. Why? It is because they will be watched and examined with the most painful scrutiny. If they will keep the Name of the Lord out – but simply say “I feel I must say this to you” (or something like that), they will maintain their integrity, credibility and anointing. Many a modern prophet could be saved incalculable embarrassment had they been more modest in their claims.
- Holy Scripture. This includes all of the Old Testament – with the canonical prophets – and all of the New Testament. Scripture is God’s final revelation. No one will ever have authority to speak like this. If any man or woman claims to speak on the same level as Holy Scripture they are utterly out of order and will be found out sooner or later.
There are several Scriptures most relevant here. First, remember that each of us has but a “measure of faith” (Romans 12:3). This means there is a limit to our faith. Only Jesus had a perfect faith because He alone had the Holy Spirit without limit (John 4:34). Second, for those who prophesy it must be done in two ways: (a) in “proportion” to their faith (Romans 12:6) – not going beyond the anointing – and (b) according to the analogy of faith. The Greek word translated “proportion” is analogia. This means comparing Scripture with Scripture, making sure you are within the bounds of sound theology! Third, remember that prophecies will cease (1 Corinthians 13:8-9). This means there are seasons of the prophetic. The word of the Lord was “rare” at one time in ancient Israel (1 Samuel 3:1). Amos spoke of a famine of hearing the word of the Lord (Amos 8:11). This means that sometimes God chooses to say nothing. God may choose not to speak for a generation. If so, how foolish to pretend to speak for Him. Rare is that prophetic person who will refuse to be drawn out to give a “word” when there is not clearly such a word! A common mistake of many prophetic people is that they have some form of “spiritual experience” and get a true word from God but then embellish it with personal exhortation or theological teaching based on their own experience to justify the spin which may or may not be from God. Fourth, Paul said that we know in part and we prophecy in part. This means nobody knows everything and no prophet has unlimited knowledge.