10 Things You Should Know about Judging Prophetic Words
The Bible never encourages Christians to be gullible or naïve. We are to exercise discernment. After all, as the Apostle John said in 1 John 4:1 – “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” In this passage John is talking about non-Christians who prophesy falsely. Their fundamental error and what exposes them as unregenerate is their denial that Jesus is God come in the flesh.
But what about our responsibility to judge or weigh or assess prophetic words delivered by Christians in the context of Christian community? Here are ten things to keep in mind.
(1) Paul writes this in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 – “Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.”
Observe the parallel between v. 19 and v. 20. Paul's exhortation in v. 19 not to quench the Spirit has to do with our response to prophecy (v. 20). The Spirit's activity of imparting revelatory insight into the will and ways of God is compared with a fire that we must not douse with the water of skepticism, religiosity, or fear. Rather than quenching the Holy Spirit by despising prophetic utterances, examine everything. The word “everything” or “all things” in v. 21 is a reference to the prophetic utterances in v. 20. The “good” in v. 21 to which we are to hold fast, and the "evil" in v. 22 from which we are to abstain or which we are to avoid, are also references to the prophetic utterances mentioned in v. 20.
(2) Paul’s second exhortation is to “hold fast to that which is good.” Once you have determined that the word is good, that it is biblical and meets all other criteria and is therefore most probably from God, believe it, obey it, preserve it.
(3) The fact that Paul felt compelled to write this is itself remarkably instructive. For one thing, it tells us that not everyone in the early church was completely happy about the gift of prophecy. Some were clearly disenchanted with its use in the church and were actually taking steps to suppress its exercise. This is remarkable for no other reason than that it was happening in the church at Thessalonica, one of the most godly and mature early congregations (see Paul's praise of them in 1:1-10).
Simply put, it doesn't matter how badly people may have abused this gift. It is a sin to despise prophecy. This is a divine command. Don't treat prophecy with contempt; don't treat it as if it were unimportant; don't trivialize it. In other words, there is a real, live baby in that murky, distasteful bath water.
(4) The alternative to not quenching the Holy Spirit isn't “anything goes.” Rather, we are to test, judge, or examine, every word. Paul doesn't correct abuse by commanding disuse (as is the practice of many non-charismatics today). We are neither to gullibly believe every word that is spoken nor cynically reject them. Paul's remedy for sinful despising isn't unqualified openness. His remedy is biblically informed discernment.
The NASB renders it “prophetic utterances” and the NIV has “prophecies.” This is the plural form of “prophecy” and refers not so much to the gift of prophecy but to the individual utterances or words that come forth in the life of a church. Quite simply, we are to test, to examine, to evaluate, to assess, to weigh, to judge these “utterances.”
(5) So how are we supposed to “judge” or “weigh” or “evaluate” prophetic words? The early church was to evaluate them in the light of the apostolic traditions (2 Thess. 2:15) bequeathed them by Paul. The reference to what they were “taught . . . by word of mouth” obviously alludes to the oral instruction received from Paul during his stay in Thessalonica. The “letter” he mentions is likely a reference either to 1 Thessalonians or 2 Thessalonians.
For us today, all prophetic words must be in absolute conformity with Scripture. In the wilderness, Jesus tested Satan’s “words” against what the rest of Scripture said and exposed how he was misapplying texts (Matt. 4).
(6) We also measure prophetic words by their tendency to edify or build up (1 Cor. 14:3). We must always ask: does it build up, strengthen, or tear down and create disunity and fear and doubt and self-contempt? Does the “word” have a tendency to exhort and encourage (1 Cor. 14:3)? Does the “word” have a tendency to console (1 Cor. 14:3) or does it lead to despair? If the “word” is predictive, empirical examination is in order to determine whether or not it comes to pass as prophesied.
(7) We must also apply the test of love (1 Cor. 13) by which all charismatic gifts are to be measured and subordinated. Paul doesn't appear to care much for any gift of the Spirit if it violates the dictates of love. Thus, always ask the question: “Does this prophetic utterance seem to be motivated by selfishness and a grab for power and prestige on the part of the prophet, or does it come across as selfless and designed to bless and encourage the one to whom it is addressed?”
(8) The test of community is also important. Wisdom demands that we always run the “word” by others who have skill and experience in evaluating prophetic revelation.
(9) Finally, there is the test of personal experience. When Paul was given a “word” about the danger that awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts 21:3-4 and 21:10-14), he evaluated and then responded in the light of what God had already told and shown him (20:22-23). In effect, Paul says: “Yes, we all got the same revelation and interpretation, that suffering awaits me in Jerusalem, but we differ on its application.”
We see then that there is a vast difference between prophesying falsely and being a false prophet. All of us have at one time or another, some more, some less, prophesied falsely. We have spoken words we thought were from God which, in fact, were not. But that doesn't make us false prophets. It just makes us human! False prophets in the New Testament were non-Christian enemies of the gospel (cf. Matthew 7:15-23; 24:10-11,24; 2 Pt. 2:1-3; 1 John 4:1-6).
(10) The other primary text on judging prophetic words is found in 1 Corinthians 14:29. There Paul writes: “let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.” Who are the “others” in this passage who are to pass judgment or weigh what is said? These are probably the others “in the congregation” as a whole, that is to say, all other believers present. 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, which calls for the evaluation of prophetic utterances, is directed to the entire church, not a specially gifted group.
What is the nature of this judgment to be passed? It isn’t the determination of whether the utterance is of the Spirit or of the Devil, but whether what is said is compatible with what the Spirit has already said (in Scripture, in the apostolic tradition, etc.).
If NT congregational prophecy is often a mixture of divine revelation and human interpretation and application (see Acts 21:4-6; 21:10-14,27-35), it’s essential that the church evaluate and analyze what is said, rejecting what is wrong and accepting what is right. Only on the assumption that some of what the prophets say is their own contribution, and therefore possibly erroneous or misleading, could Paul command that their utterances be evaluated.
The take-away from this is simple. Anytime you are the recipient of a prophetic word, open your Bible and carefully assess what was said. To do so isn’t a sign of unbelief or cynicism or pride, far less suspicion of the person who spoke it. It’s your Christian obligation. My hope is that each of us will determine in our hearts neither to be skeptics who end up putting out the Spirit's fire nor fools who gullibly believe everything we are told.