[Chapter 23 of "How God Guides." Prophets and prophecies are not just Old Testament. With one exception, all the passages I refer to here are from the New Testament. While much more could be said on the subject, what I offer here is a tiny primer on prophecy and how God sometimes uses it to guide us.]
Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called “the black man”), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul. One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.” Acts 13:1
Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well. 1 Timothy 1:18
A few prophecies given to me…
These stand out because of their similarities. They were both pictorial (those prophesying to me saw a picture in their minds), the images that they saw were similar, and the messages were almost a mirror of the other. I received these two words at least 15 years apart, in two different cities, by two different men (one older and the other young), who weren’t remotely acquainted with each other. The first one was from Jeff, who told me that when he was praying for me he got an image in his mind of me on a swing, simply enjoying it with child-like abandon. He said that he felt this was an encouragement to me to let my hair down (so to speak) and enjoy the journey (of life and ministry) more. The other one (over a decade later) came to a young friend of mine, Joel. When praying for me, he had a vision of me on a Tom Sawyer-type raft, floating calmly down a lazy river, again, enjoying the ride. He went on to tell me that I wasn’t to try so hard to make things happen with the ministries in which I was involving myself, but to let them come to me while taking joy in the journey. I obviously need to be reminded of this from time to time!
A couple years ago, a man with whom I wasn’t at all acquainted gave me a prophecy. He came from across the country to speak to a group of pastors of which I was a part. He went around the room and prophesied over each and every one of us. I tend to be a little leery of “prophets,” so I did what I always do. I prayed something like, “Lord, speak to me, and help me eat the meat and spit out the bones. Help him to be on target and not go off on some weird tangent.” When he came to me, he paused a good long while, looking me in the eye, and then proceeded to – what we call – “read my mail.” It was pretty cool. Among the right-on exhortations and encouragements that he gave me, he said something like, “You are an apostolic teacher through your writing… You will spend 2 months sequestering yourself to write a book (and I’m jealous of this) that will make a difference in people’s lives…” He didn’t know (nor did anyone else in the room) that I was just back from 8 weeks in a mountain cabin writing my memoirs! I was blown away, and inspired all the more to write and teach apostolically.
Dreams can be the result of too much pizza for dinner, visions may be conjured by an overactive imagination, and angels – well – I suppose you might mistake a friendly stranger for one.
One more story…
Recently I met with a young woman named Susan who had asked me if I could answer some questions she had about the Holy Spirit. She grew up in a church where the Gifts of the Spirit were strongly discouraged. But she had just gotten filled with the Spirit, and started to speak in tongues while praying with someone on the phone! (I wonder if God can fill people on Facebook too?!) She was pretty taken aback, but loved it at the same time. Knowing that they would heartily disapprove she hadn’t even told her parents yet. Shortly thereafter, while she was praying with a friend, she got a picture in her mind of an hourglass and a banner which had words on it (I can’t remember the words). She asked her friend if the two things meant anything to him, to which he exclaimed, “Oh, my gosh! Yeah!” It totally hit home with him and had some very specific application to him. Susan asked me, “Is this normal? Since then I’ve been having pictures in my mind when I pray for people!” What I love about this is that she wasn’t conditioned by anyone else. She’d never even heard of anything like what she was experiencing!
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. 1 Corinthians 12:7-11
Of these gifts, several pertain most directly to God’s guidance. The Word of Knowledge is when he imparts to us a piece of his knowledge, something we were never taught or told. When he inserts in us a piece of wise counsel for ourselves or for someone else it’s called the Word of Wisdom. As I understand it, Prophecy is when we speak out a piece of God’s heart and will for a specific person or group of people for a specific time. Sometimes prophecies are predictive (foretelling something in the future) and other times they’re prescriptive (more of a forth-telling of God’s will to someone).
Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “Has not the LORD anointed you ruler over his inheritance? When you leave me today, you will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb, at Zelzah on the border of Benjamin. They will say to you, ‘The donkeys you set out to look for have been found. And now your father has stopped thinking about them and is worried about you. He is asking, “What shall I do about my son?”’
“Then you will go on from there until you reach the great tree of Tabor. Three men going up to worship God at Bethel will meet you there. One will be carrying three young goats, another three loaves of bread, and another a skin of wine. They will greet you and offer you two loaves of bread, which you will accept from them.
“After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, timbrels, pipes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying. The Spirit of the LORD will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person. Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you.” 1 Samuel 10:1-7
“Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. Mark 11:2
So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Mark 14:13
But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” 1 Corinthians 12:24
A word of caution…
Someone’s prophecy might not be from God at all, or it might be entirely correct. People are just people, and can make honest (or even dishonest) mistakes when prophesying. “The spirit of the prophet is subject to the control of the prophets.” 1 Corinthians 14:32
Don’t just pack up and to go China because someone prophesied over you! Prophecy is not his sole means of guiding us. My experience is that God intends prophecies to confirm what he’s already shown us through other means.