Prophecy (Pete Hillman)


Spiritual gifts

 

 In 1 Cor 14:1 St Paul writes “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.” We are very comfortable with the “follow the way of love” part as that is familiar to us. We have all, at some time or another, felt love touch our lives whether it be the love of God or the love of another human being. Even if we are not that great at putting this love into practice we can certainly make some kind of connection. But prophecy? That’s a different kettle of fish altogether! Prophecy probably invokes in us images of bearded mysterious looking men with a wild look in their eyes and who, if truth be told, could do with a bath! Prophets are scary people who are not quite like us. We are happy with the bible talking about them because that was all a long time ago and religion these days is a lot safer and feels much more like every day life. Surely prophets and the nice old Church of England can’t sit comfortably together as ideas in our heads? All of these images and seeming contradictions are, of course, nonsense! Paul clearly expected prophetic insight to be part of our ordinary experience as Christians and not just for an elite few, for everyone.

Firstly we need ask what prophecy actually is. In common usage prophecy is taken to mean foretelling or disclosing future events, telling the future. But the bible draws a much broader picture of prophecy. Whilst foretelling sometimes puts in an appearance in biblical prophecy its purpose, in both old and new testaments, is primarily forthtelling. That is to say that prophecy is about God speaking into the lives of individuals or communities rather than merely revealing what is to take place in the future. This insight comes in a variety of ways, though words, pictures, images and analogies. What they all have in common is that their motivation is the same, the motivation of a God who wants to draw near to his people, to be with his people, to speak with his people. God’s desire to be with his people, whilst demonstrated ultimately in the incarnation (the person of Jesus), is clear throughout both the old and new testaments and the fulfilment of this desire continues today by the Spirit. God speaks by this same Spirit through scripture (the benchmark against which all prophetic words are to be tested by the church) and through prophecy.

Two questions spring to mind then, why don’t we see (or hear) more of this prophecy today and what does it look (or sound) like anyway? Well the answer to the first question is that we do experience it today. One of the most amazing things that has happened since the summer of 2003 within the Legacy Youth Congregation, which I have the privilege of leading, is the frequency and sheer volume of prophetic words flowing from the Spirit through the young people. Admittedly we are all still learning and some of the lessons are hard but we are undoubtedly hearing the voice of God in these days. The two most important reasons for this are that we are learning to create space for the Spirit to speak and we are learning to listen.

Space for the Spirit

21st century Westerners are obsessed with noise! Background music has become so all pervasive that we don’t even notice it half of the time. When we shop, when we are on hold on the telephone even sometimes in a lift it seems as though someone somewhere decided that we needed a backing track to life just like characters in a movie. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with music and I also find music in prayer very valuable. Quite often when we spend an evening praying together at Legacy we will use a track of music to help us focus on the Spirit be it through the lyrics of a sacred or secular song or even through movie scores (I defy anyone to pray with the soundtrack to Gladiator playing and not start praying Spiritual Warfare prayers!)

But the music is not so much a problem (as I have said it can be very useful) as a symptom. It seems that we can’t bear silence even though it is in the silence that God’s Spirit can most effectively meet with us or, if not the silence itself, the space that the silence represents and creates. “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps46:10) the Psalmist tells us and it is in this stillness that God speaks. Elijah’s experience on Mt Horeb demonstrates this “The LORD said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD , for the LORD is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.” (1Kings19:11-12) What we have been learning together at Legacy is that if we want to hear the voice of God we need to give the Spirit space to speak, we need to wait on God rather than rush from one song to the next, from one part of the meeting to the next. We need to make the space, not so much to let him speak, but to allow ourselves the opportunity to hear. The Spirit is speaking all the time, the problem is that we don’t often allow ourselves the space to hear Him and, even when we do, we want to rush off excitedly halfway through the first sentence!

Learning to listen

 

One of the interesting things I found a few years back when first doing some study in the area of pastoral care was the overlap with what I had been previously taught in Management training about effective communication. Whilst following the Dale Carnegie management programme (Dale Carnegie was an American Management guru who was also a Christian) we were taught that a major part of effective communication was learning to listen. Not surprisingly, of course, this is also the pre-requisite for good counsellors who are not there primarily to give advice but to listen. Only when we listen carefully can we act appropriately. The same is true of our walk with the Spirit.

I know that many things are said about the meaning of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness after his baptism and anointing with the Spirit. There is much for us to learn about being in the desert as a way of discipline, learning dependence upon God and so forth. But one of the things I am sure was happening as part of this process was a training experience for listening, hearing the voice of the Spirit. It is quite clear from Scripture that Jesus operated in the gifts and ministry of the Holy Spirit in exactly the same way that we are called to do. He, of course, got the whole thing perfected. We on the other hand being frequently disobedient and wilful kids mess it up! The principle, however, remains the same. The trick is to hear the voice of the Spirit, discern his activity in a given situation and join in. Too often we think that we have to get things moving first and then ask for help from God when we get a bit out of our depth. This was not Jesus “modus operandi” and neither should it be ours. Before plunging into ministry in busy, noisy, messy 1st century Palestine Jesus learned to listen. Not only that, this time to listen became a hallmark of his future pattern of life where he frequently went off alone to be with his Father.

In order to walk the walk effectively we too need to learn this discernment process in the stillness and the silence so that when we are “out there” in the noise and mayhem of 21st century Britain we can still sense the Spirit’s guiding presence and respond appropriately. When air force pilots train they do so in order to know how their aircraft handles, but more than that, they do it over and over again so that they know what it feels like, what feelings mean what about the condition of the aircraft and the atmospheric conditions outside. This is so that in the heat of battle with a million other things to think about they instinctively know what is happening with the aircraft and can respond subconsciously without being distracted at a vital moment when their focus needs to be elsewhere. The same analogy is true of driving, playing football and any number of other activities. We practice so that when the moment of need comes we know what to do, we know what this feels like. Exactly the same is true of us in our Christian lives. We must learn to practice the presence of God in our quiet times individually and together. We learn to test what we think we have heard in company with other Christians so that when the crunch comes in our everyday lives we will know without hesitation that what we are hearing, seeing or experiencing is the voice of the Spirit and respond accordingly.

By way of example let me take my friend Ali. In recent months Ali has been discovering that God has given him prophetic gifting and he has been growing in this very quickly learning to discern the voice of God and to step out in faith in using this gift. Now there is nothing extra special about Ali, he is not especially spiritual (or at least no more so than many other of the young people in Legacy) and, at 16, is a typical teenage boy. It’s also not true to say that Ali is a “prophet” but what is clear is that God is using him in a particular way though the gift of prophecy. Several weeks ago when some of the group were praying together Ali had a picture or image of some dice. At the time he didn’t understand what the picture meant or what it applied to but he discerned the voice of God in this, in consultation with his friends, and held onto the image. Several weeks later two friends at school began speaking to him about their sense of spiritual emptiness and the way that life felt like it was all being decided by the roll of a dice. Ali immediately made the connection with his picture and was able to tell these friends that God had spoken to him about that very thing several weeks previously in preparation for the conversation they were having at that moment. I guess that I need not describe their reaction!

The reason for telling you this is twofold. Firstly just imagine the reaction of friends and family, when you have a word of insight into their situation that cuts to the heart of the matter (remember, it won’t always be right to reveal your source!). The impact that such a word can have is incredible. Secondly notice the importance of being able to respond quickly through your practice of listening to and therefore recognising the voice of God in an otherwise ordinary situation.

Faith

 

The writer to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:2) and the demonstration of this faith is to move when God says move, speak when God says speak and act when God says act knowing that what God says, He will do. Vital to the exercise of the prophetic gifting is to speak out what we have been given. There are two reasons for this, first that it might be tested by the community (or sometimes by the leaders of the community on its’ behalf) and second that it might be delivered. The prophet Jonah was a perfect example of one given a prophetic word which he refused to deliver. Whilst I am not suggesting that we are likely to be swallowed by a big fish whilst running away from our responsibility it is well worth remembering that the prophetic gift carries with it the responsibility to speak the word we are given. Again, when we get used to sharing prophetic words together in the relative safety of the family of the church we will be much more ready to hear and respond when these words come on the secular environment in which we live and work. The gifts of the Spirit are primarily to equip us for acts of service, to enable us to effectively join in the mission of the Holy Spirit in carrying the message and reality of the gospel message to the world and prophecy is not excluded from this.

To drag another of my friends, Ben, into this discussion for a moment I will give another example of where prophecy requires faith (which is also a gift from God let us not forget). During the last session of a recent retreat weekend I asked one of the lads if he would be willing to prophesy over each person in turn to which his response was “yes ‘cos that’s what faith is all about”. This in itself is lesson enough, but the story goes on. This whole process started to take longer than I had anticipated (God had a lot to say!) and part-way through the session my eyes were drawn to Ben. Now Ben has just turned 15 and has begun to move in the gift of prophecy in a similar way to Ali. I approached Ben who was clearly engaging with God’s Spirit quite deeply and asked him if he felt God was saying anything specific to him. He responded by saying “no” but went on to say something like “but I think He would if I asked”. I then asked him if he would like to start at the other end of the line and prophesy over people as Ali was doing to which his response was a simple “ok”. Now, the book of Genesis doesn’t tell us exactly what Abram said to God when God said to him "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen 12:1) but I like to think that his response bore more than a passing resemblance to Ben’s “ok”. The point being, of course, that faith involves response not just hearing. It was not enough for Abram to be ready to hear God’s voice, he needed to do something about it and, for all his faults, this is the faith for which Abram was commended, the same faith for which I commend Ben’s response to you now. Ben acted, stepped out in faith and, as people have found for generations before him, discovered that God was waiting there to meet him.

What for?

 

So where does all this take us? We have looked at how prophecy works and how we can allow God to spiritually train us to discern the voice of God and we have also looked at the need to exercise faith in response to the this voice. But what is this all for? St Paul, again, steers us here when he says that “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (1 Cor 14:3) It is sometimes suggested that by this Paul means that prophecy must always therefore be “nice”. That’s not what is said directly, of course, but that’s the implication. But clearly God often spoke through the prophets in ways that broke devastating news of judgement with an offer of mercy for repentance. Indeed this is not only in the Old Testament, when Peter spoke with prophetic insight to Ananias it was not encouragement that he heard! Prophecy is not, therefore, always nice to hear. Nevertheless we must start from the point of our understanding that God is in the business of wanting to bring about the best for us. His desire is to see us grow into the likeness of his son and this will inevitably mean that sometimes he needs to say some tough things to us. What is important is the way in which these things are said and, indeed, the person who says these things to us. For example, just the other day my father-in-law whom I love very much and who also loves me said to me, “You know Peter, you’re really putting on weight!” This was a perfectly fair observation and not one that was much of a revelation to me. Indeed, I had known for some time that I needed to do something about my weight. What was important in this situation was, firstly, that this was coming from someone whom I knew loved me, secondly that he spoke only from his concern for my wellbeing and thirdly that it was true! If I responded to his observation by taking some action to loose weight (as I fully intend to do!) then this would indeed lead to my situation being improved. My health and general well being will be much better than were I not to have been reminded of the need for a diet! It would have been quite a different matter if this word had come from someone who knew little of me, cared even less and was not even speaking the truth evidenced by my slim figure! The point of all this is to say that, sometimes we need to be told things we would rather not hear. When this is the case I believe that God chooses his messenger with care because his desire is always to see the best for his people. So in delivering a word that is going to be hard for people to hear we should always be extra careful in considering whether we are the write people to be bringing it the test of which will often be the nature of our relationship with them. In addition it is probably also worthwhile testing the word with others in the community of faith to ensure that we’ve heard God correctly first.

The second thing that we need to say is that Prophecy is vital for the health of the church. As was said at the outset we know that the Spirit speaks primarily through scripture and that it is against this benchmark that all prophecy must be tested. God will never contradict what he has said in scripture. But we must also recognise that throughout the book of Acts the Apostles actively engaged with the Spirit and sought his insight and guidance (what we would call prophecy) with this trend continuing through the life of the early church. It would be strange indeed if God were to have changed his mind about his desire to speak with his people and the methods he uses to do so. Paul tells us to eagerly desire this gift and, were we able to ask him if he has changed his mind 2000 years later, the answer would be an emphatic “no!”.

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