What Makes Something a Prophecy?
Whenever you talk about prophecy, many people’s ears perk up because it’s a topic which captures their attention. However as high as the interest is in prophecy, I would argue that many people don’t understand prophecy and miss altogether what makes something a prophecy.
While prophecy has its place, if you don’t understand it then it can actually be destructive to you. The core of prophecy is about God speaking, and that alone can be an encouragement. But if misused, it can also shipwreck your faith.
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What Is Prophecy?
To understand what prophecy is, the best place to start is by understanding what a prophet is and what he or she does. When most people think about prophecy or see that someone is a prophet, they often think about the future. The role or office of the prophet as described in the Bible did more than that. The primary function of the prophet was to speak on behalf of God; they were God’s mouthpiece. Consider these verses in Deuteronomy 18.
“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:15).
“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name” (Deuteronomy 18:18-19).
As you can see, the role of the prophet in Israel was important to how God led the Israelites. The prophets were supposed to speak only what God had given them to say and nothing else. Through the prophets God would give instruction, correction, direction, and even tell them what would happen in the future. From these verses in Deuteronomy, God took listening to the prophets very seriously because they were speaking in his name. When the prophet spoke, it was as if God was speaking.
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How Can We Tell When Something Is False Prophecy?
The true essence of what makes something a prophecy that came from God is if what was said came true. This is the dividing line that separates true prophecy from false prophecy.
As God was preparing Israel to go into the promised land, he knew those lands were inhabited by nations of people who practiced sorcery or divination. This was and is one method of how people who do not know God look for direction and instruction. For Israel, they were not allowed to engage in these evil practices, they were to look only to God and listen to the prophets that he would send, which created a dilemma. If someone spoke prophetically, how would they be able to tell if someone was speaking on God’s behalf or if they were speaking out of their own minds. Here is the test God gave them:
“’But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.’ You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).
As you can see this was a simple test, but there was a dire consequence in those days for speaking presumptuously: you were put to death. Another reminder of how serious it is to stand and proclaim that something is what the Lord is saying.
Do People Still Prophesy Today?
You may be wondering if people still prophesy today. The answer is yes, especially when you remember that to prophesy is to declare something that God has said. There are many people doing that today. The reason I can say with certainty that people are still prophesying today is because Jesus said this would happen. This is one of the signs of the end of the age.
“And many false prophets will appear and deceive many people” (Matthew 24:11).
Jesus declared there will be many who will stand up and prophesy, unfortunately many of them will be false prophets and they will lead many people astray. We are living in a day and age where lots of people are making prophetic declarations and even calling themselves prophets. I am by no means calling all these people false prophets, but if you are going to believe Jesus, then some of them are.
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How Do We Address Prophecy Today?
I would like to pose a different question regarding prophecy. For those who are prophesying, are they declaring what God is saying or are they prophesying from their own imaginations? Because of the increase of prophetic voices, how then can you tell if something is true or false?
Remember the thing that makes something a prophecy is if it comes true or not. By the way, I have not even touched on the debate among Christians as to whether the office of the prophet or the gift of prophecy is in operation today. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that it is and prophecy is still in operation. The question remains how can we tell if a prophecy is true?
Well, the good news is the litmus test has not changed to help us determine what makes something a prophecy that comes from God. I would argue that in today’s world it is even easier to measure if something is true or not then it was before. Here are the two keys to help you.
1. Did it come true?
The same measure that was used in the Old Testament is still valid today. Did their prophecy come true? If it did not then it does not matter who they are, what title they hold, how many people listen to them, or how big their church is. If it did not come to pass, they are not speaking on behalf of the Lord. According to Deuteronomy they are speaking presumptuously.
2. Does it align with Scripture?
The main difference we have today is we have the complete word of God, which is our ultimate litmus test. God will not say something outside of his word that is different than what he has said inside his word. It will not happen. When someone makes a prophecy or prophetic statement you can judge it against the word of God.
Paul encourages us to do this in 1 Corinthians when he was talking about order in a worship service.
“Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29).
Prophets, whether they are true or false, are going to speak. Your job is to evaluate carefully what they say, remembering that what makes something a prophecy that is coming from God is whether it comes to pass or not.
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Here Is a “Prophetic” Red Flag
One major red flag that you must be mindful of is when the ones who prophesy do it to the extent that their prophetic words take precedent over God’s written word. Prophecy was never designed to replace the written word of God. There are so many who call themselves prophets today who put more emphasis on what God is saying, specifically to them, over what God has already said in his word. Worse yet there are people who will blindly follow what these people say, sometimes to their own detriment.
This is a danger I see in the prophetic culture that exists in some segments of the church today. If this is happening in your church, I would caution you to weigh carefully what they are saying and hold them accountable to what they have spoken in the name of the Lord. I want to remind you of this verse.
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
This is a reminder that when you need instruction, direction, correction, and even knowing what is to come, the first place you must run to is God’s written word. I know there is a certain euphoria about hearing people proclaim what God is saying. I am telling you to judge carefully and test what is said because that is how you will know if it is from God or not.
Get to Know God’s Word
I would encourage you to spend more time getting to know what God has already said and less time trying to find a prophetic voice for this hour. Since prophesy is declaring what God has said, we have an entire Bible filled with everything God has already said, and what he has said will not change. The maturity and growth you need will not come from random prophetic words, but it will come with careful study and application of God’s written word. This does not eliminate the role of prophecy; it simply puts it in its proper perspective.
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Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. His most recent book is The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. Clarence is also committed to helping 10,000 people learn how to study the Bible and has just released his first Bible study course called Bible Study Basics. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.