(Originally posted in 2006)
This is the fifth post in the series “Non-Scripture-equivalent prophecy”.
Prophecy can be accurate or inaccurate – I don’t think anyone would disagree. There is also prophecy that is partly accurate. How does this happen? Let me draw up a list from innaccurate to accurate and suggest some ideas – some with biblical support, others supported by commonsense and experience.
1. Totally inaccurate. This can occur because someone is speaking prophecy out of their own heart and mind (Ezek 13:1-7) or through an evil spirit (Acts 16:16-18 though interestingly in this case there wasn’t inaccuracy, but it is an example of demonically inspired prophecy).
2. Partly accurate. This can happen in various ways.
Suppose a person is given a vision or impression and tries to express it in their own words (and maybe even interpret it). This seems to be what happened in Acts 21:4. The Spirit’s communication is not at fault, but how the people employ that communication makes the message not totally accurate. One of the differences between Scriptural accounts of visions etc and todays is that the words used to describe the visions were prophetic also – that is not always so.
In the instance of Caiaphas (John 11:49-52) his statement (and any other unconcious prophecy) may well have been uttered in the context of a longer statement, ie. the prophecy could be surrounded by completely unprophetic words. It would then be necessary to discern what was prophetic and what was not.
Protest: Doesn’t the Spirit speak clearly if He were to speak to people?
Strangely enough, not necessarily. God himself compared His methods of communication with Aaron and Miriam to His methods with Moses stating:
“Listen to my words: “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD.” (Numbers 12:6-8 NIV).
God spoke to Moses clearly and not in riddles, implying that He spoke to other prophets unclearly and in riddles – obviously needing some thought. 1 Peter 1:10-12 speak of similar OT prophecies.
Added to that, even those filled with the Spirit were not immune to ungodly actions and statements. A terrible example is Jephthah in Judges 11:29-30. In v29 Jephthah is filled with the Spirit of God. In v30 he makes a rash vow that ends in him sacrificing his only daughter to the Lord.
Considering that there is evidence that God does not always intend prophecy to be clear; that people filled with the Spirit can also act and speak outside of the Spirit; that there is NT evidence that words spoken “through the Spirit” i.e. prophetically, are not always 100% accurate, then there is no reason why prophecy today cannot also be partly accurate and partly inaccurate.
3. Accurate. This would happen when the message received by the person giving the prophecy was correctly communicated. If people can express things to take away from the accuracy of prophetic revelation, they can also communicate it effectively. Then, there is also prophecy where the exact words are given to a person to say. Even some cessationists have opened their mouths and said things that they did not intend to say, and yet their statements proved accurate or timely or produced a suprisingly godly result.
But the biggest question is, of course, how to tell how accurate a prophecy is.
This has already been touched upon in “authority“, but I want to look at it more closely.
Methods of testing prophecy.
Comparison with Scripture.
Of course, as has already been discussed, Scripture has greater authority than prophecy. Scripture determines the truth of prophecy, not the other way around (Isaiah 8:20). Prophecy, however, can illuminate the meaning of Scripture. This must always be done with caution and other confirmation. One man was given a prophecy to the effect that 1 Tim 2:8-15 referred to husband and wife as opposed to man and woman. The prophecy was delivered by someone who knew nothing about Greek and it is true that the words used for man and woman can mean husband and wife. But there are strong indications that husband and wife are not the intended meanings. I personally would class that as a false prophecy.
Problem…People sometimes hold on to their interpretations with ridiculous rigidity. While one group of people would call something a false prophecy because it did not line up with Scripture, it may only be their interpretation of Scripture. Take, for example, the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God. This was recognised by the Jews as a claim to divinity and according to the Scriptures, there is only one God. Therefore, they considered Jesus an heretic. So, while comparing a prophecy with Scripture is valid and necessary, so is some humility.
Prophetic Reputation of the Speaker.
The previous accuracy of the person giving a prophecy will lead to greater confidence in their ability to hear from God and to communicate it accurately. A person with a good track record will be listened to with greater respect than someone with a bad track record, or someone with no track record at all!
Problem…This is far from foolproof. Even an experienced person can make a mistake or mishear or even lie. (See 1 Kings 13:1-32.) This is merely something to take into consideration.
The Character and Life of the Speaker.
Matthew 7:15-23 indicates that false prophets will produce bad fruit and will be evildoers. Bad fruit is not the same as no fruit. In the instance of Jeremiah, there was no fruit that could be judged as good or bad from his prophetic warnings for more than 20 years. Characterwise and “lifewise”, however, it is possible to see whether a person is one who is likely to have the Holy Spirit dwelling in him.
Problem…Even here there are exceptions. Balaam was not a godly man, nor would the Scriptures seem to indicate that Caiaphas was godly – he prophesied purely by virtue of his position (John 11:51). So, God does use people who are not of godly character to speak his word. This is true even in the preaching of the gospel (Phil 1:15-18). Yet, judging a prophecy by the character and life of the speaker is a valid – though not infallible – approach to take.
One idea that seems to be prevelant among continuationists and cessationists alike is the idea that the apostles’ words were to be accepted at face value. This is contradicted, however, by Peter’s experience on the roof in Acts 10. Before that point, if anyone had asked Peter, “What about the Gentiles?”, he would have answered quite differently than he did afterwards. Again, Peter is unfortunate to be another example of Apostolic failing in Gal 2:11-14. Here Peter was “clearly in the wrong”. Again, character, life and even office is not a fullproof means of testing prophecy.
Personal, subjective discernment.
This may seem too risky for some, but it must be remembered that all of these methods are to work in conjunction. Having said that, most Charismatic or Pentecostal proponents of prophecy would say that a prophetic word is not to be accepted that you yourself do not think rings true (the idea being the witness of the Spirit in your own life – 1 John 2:20). In reality, we do this every day in many circumstances, and the Spirit can direct this natural discernment or give a “knowing” as to the truth or not of a prophecy quite independent of our own thoughts and feelings.
It needs to be said that this is not a matter of just preferences – there are times when you may know something is true, though you don’t want to believe it, or vice versa.
Problem…Subjective is not infallible either. For a start, the content of a prophecy may not be inaccurate, but the “spirit” behind it may be. This would be the case in Acts 16:16-18, where the evil spirit was telling the truth, or, as I have experienced, in a church service where the preacher is preaching correct doctrine but with a legalistic or ungracious attitude. In this situation, you pick up something wrong, but it is not content, but what is behind it. People have, however, often faulted the content and the attitude as opposed to just the attitude.
Of course, it is also true that such feelings can easily be wrong, and people just need to submit to what the Lord is saying. This shouldn’t be done, however, without resolving the reason for the subjective “uneasiness”.
The Agreement of Other Believers.
This has not been a popular one for me. In the past (I hope it remains in the past) I have taken the attitude that if most people agree, it must be wrong. But there needs to be a bit of humility and recognition that there are believers other than ourselves who have walked with the Lord a lot longer than we have and who have the experience or gifts to be able to judge better than ourselves (1 Cor 14:29, see also Acts 16:9-10).
Problem…Biblically and historically, there have been many situations where the majority was wrong and the minority was right. Still, if other Christians do not agree with you that a prophecy is either right or wrong, make sure of what you believe. Humility.
This is especially true with predictive elements of prophecy (Deut 18:21), but it also applies to non-predictive prophecy. How often do people need to know straight away whether something is of God or not? Sure, many can be judged on the spot, but there is no sin in waiting and thinking things through.
Problem…When dealing with predictions, depending on what is predicted, there is not always a limited time element involved. As mentioned above, Jeremiah was predicting Jerusalem’s downfall years before it happened – though it happened. It seems wise not to put too much trust in predictive prophecy and instead keep the main things the main things ie. a soft and repentent heart before God.
All of these methods of testing prophecy are biblical, and yet none of them are fullproof. Even comparing prophecy to the Scriptures has been shown to suffer from the prejudice of pre-conceived interpretations of the Bible. Still, there is a greater problem here for testing. Not every prophecy in the New Testament accounts (and Old Testament) shows evidence of testing. Take Joseph, the adopted father of Jesus. When he received two dreams from God, he did not hesitate to obey – he just accepted that they were from God (Matt 1:18-25; 2:13-14). (It is true, however, that he could have at least tested the prophecy subjectively, and perhaps from his knowledge of Scripture.) I cannot see, however, that we are free from the necessity of testing prophecy since we have a direct command in 1 Thess 5:21.
All of this leads to the conclusion that we have a biblical requirement to test prophecy with these biblical tests yet without expecting them to be fullproof. This doesn’t mean that these tests do nothing – I would suggest that, as a rule, these tests (taken together) will tell us whether a prophecy is from God or not. But the lack of a fullproof method means that we need to approach the testing of prophecy by relying on God to lead us rather than putting our hope in a method. After all, He is the One who led us to recognise the truth of the gospel. He also is the One who is able to guide us in the truth or otherwise of prophecy.