Many of us claim to speak for God these days, but how many of us really do speak for God? There are a lot of people who claim to have a prophetic gift and give out words introduced by “the Lord told me…” There are countless others who would not appear to be prophetic but nonetheless claim they hear directly from the Lord. Perhaps they do.
I do believe God speaks directly to people today. To uphold this premise is not to add to Scripture. When God spoke to Philip as He did (Acts 8:29) or to Agabus (Acts 11:28), this is not adding to Scripture. Paul posed the possibility of God making things clear to us in a direct manner (Phil.3:15).
Speaking personally, I live to hear directly from God. I will take any word from Him I can get – however He might be pleased to send it – whether via Scripture, another person’s insights, a hymn or even an audible voice. Yes, an audible voice; not that you could hear it if you were in the same room, but clearly audible to me. I live for insight – thoughts and interpretations of God’s word that I’d never seen before. I am in my highest realm of ecstasy when this happens.
The question is, how much are we to share with others when we hear from God? Are we to claim “the Lord told me” when we have an impression we feel is from the Holy Spirit? The question is: how many of these words or feelings are really from the Lord? Should it bother us that so many words do not come to pass which were prefaced by “the Lord told me”? What do you suppose God in Heaven thinks of all this?
Why is this issue important?
Why is this particular blog important? When a word does not come to pass which was introduced by “the Lord told me”, obviously something has gone wrong. It dishonors the Name of the Lord. It brings discredit upon the gift of prophecy.
Should we not apologize? Surely if the Lord says something it is going to be exactly right. But why do people continue using the phrase “the Lord told me” when they keep getting it wrong? And yet God does sometimes truly speak to us? If so, should we not attribute such a word to Him? Or say it differently? Is there a right time for saying “the Lord told me” when one has a word they feel is truly from God?
Is it not an encouragement when a prophetic person who has a solid reputation says “the Lord told me to tell you this”? Certainly. But what are we to believe if that word does not come to pass? Does it mean the person who made the claim is a false prophet? Not necessarily. Luke portrays Agabus as a true prophet in Acts 11:28 and yet an objective scrutiny of Agabus’s word in Acts 21:11 will lead you to ask, “Is that really what happened?” Not really. Does that mean Agabus was a false prophet? No. But Agabus said, “The Holy Spirit says”. Did He? The subsequent events were not exactly the way Agabus predicted. Luke simply states what Agabus says.
Saying “the Lord told me” is a habit prophetic people find hard to break.
I will come clean. Although I do not claim to have a prophetic gift I have made this mistake a thousand times, e.g. saying, “The Lord told me”, or “the Lord gave me this sermon” etc. There have been times it may truly have been from the Lord, and yet to say “the Lord gave me this sermon” does not mean that every word in it is like Scripture!
Six levels of prophecy
Prophecy – if it is true prophecy – is a word directly from God unfiltered by human embellishment whether it pertains to the past, present or future. But there are levels of prophecy. Not all prophecy is of the same caliber. There are levels of prophecy – as in a pyramid, starting from the bottom:
- General exhortation (encouragement) as to a congregation. Dr. Michael Eaton calls this “low level prophecy”. The kind of prophecy Paul encouraged was of this sort; he was not motivating someone to become an another Elijah. Someone may have a “word” – whether from a hymn, dream or even a vision. But such a word needs to be tested. We are not to despise such prophesying (1 Thess.5:20). But all needs to be tested. In any case, as I will attempt to show below, one should not say “the Lord told me”. He or she may feel it is from the Lord, but there is no need to add “the Lord told me”. I urge: do not claim that all you feel is from the Lord. You can always say, “I think I am supposed to share this with you”. No harm done this way.
- Specific warnings. Certain disciples urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. Luke sides with them; he says they warned Paul “through the Spirit” (Acts 21:4). Agabus similarly warned Paul, saying “the Holy Spirit says” (Acts 21:11). And yet Paul refused to heed their warning. Who got it right? Was Paul wrong to ignore them? Agabus may have been wrong; Paul may have been wrong. But it did not seem to bother Paul in any case for he went to Jerusalem anyway.
- Prophetic preaching. Peter said one should speak as if his words were the “very words of God” (“oracles” – KJV – 1 Pet.4:11). This is what I wish would be the case in my own preaching. My basic style is expository and pastoral. But nothing thrills me more than when someone says to me, “How did you know I was there today? That is exactly what I needed”. Expository preaching can be prophetic without the preacher being conscious of this. Even if he is conscious of the Lord’s enabling, he should be humble about it and not say “thus says the Lord”. I will return to this below.
- When forced to testify during persecution. Jesus said, “When they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will ve given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matt.10:19-20).
- Non-canonical prophecy. Nathan, Gad, Elijah and Elisha are examples of non-canonical prophets. Could there be prophets of this magnitude and stature today? I believe so. Then can they say “the Lord told me”? I reply: they should be the most wary of all in saying things like “the Lord says”. Why? It is because they will be watched and examined with the most painful scrutiny. If they will keep the Name of the Lord out – but simply say “I feel I must say this to you” (or something like that), they will maintain their integrity, credibility and anointing. Many a modern prophet could be saved incalculable embarrassment had they been more modest in their claims.
- Holy Scripture. This includes all of the Old Testament – with the canonical prophets – and all of the New Testament. Scripture is God’s final revelation. No one will ever have authority to speak like this. If any man or woman claims to speak on the same level as Holy Scripture they are utterly out of order and will be found out sooner or later.
Limits of prophecy
There are several scriptures most relevant here. First, remember that each of us has but a “measure of faith” (Rom.12:3). This means there is a limit to our faith. Only Jesus had a perfect faith because He alone had the Holy Spirit without limit (John 4:34). Second, for those who prophesy it must be done in two ways: (a) in “proportion” to their faith (Rom.12:6) – not going beyond the anointing – and (b) according to the analogy of faith. The Greek word translated “proportion” is analogia. This means comparing scripture with scripture, making sure you are within the bounds of sound theology! Third, remember that prophecies will cease (1 Cor.13:8-9). This means there are seasons of the prophetic. The word of the Lord was “rare” at one time in ancient Israel (1 Sam.3:1). Amos spoke of a famine of hearing the word of the Lord (Amos 8:11). This means that sometimes God chooses to say nothing. God may choose not to speak for a generation. If so, how foolish to pretend to speak for Him. Rare is that prophetic person who will refuse to be drawn out to give a “word” when there is not clearly such a word! A common mistake of many prophetic people is that they have some form of “spiritual experience” and get a true word from God but then embellish it with personal exhortation or theological teaching based on their own experience to justify the spin which may or may not be from God. Fourth, Paul said that we know in part and we prophecy in part. This means nobody knows everything and no prophet has unlimited knowledge.
Protocol or Guidelines of Prophecy
There are certain principles we must follow if maintain transparent integrity. First, don’t go beyond what is given. This is much the same thing as “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor.4:6). So too with a prophetic word; do not embellish it.
Second, be very, very careful to honor the Name of the Lord. I come now to the most sober part of this blog. What I share now is already in print in two places: my exposition Sermon on the Mount (Matt.5:33-37) and my exposition of James, The Way of Wisdom (James 5:12).
Honor the THIRD COMMANDMENT: “Do not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain” – ESV (“Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God” – NIV)
Jesus gave His interpretation of the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. First, regarding the 6th Command: murder – Matt.5:21ff. Second, the 7th Command: adultery – Matt.5:27ff. And then the 3rd Command: on the Name of the Lord – Matt.5:33-37. James quoted Jesus in James 5:12 “Above all, brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or by earth or by anything else,. Let your “Yes” be yes, and your “No”, no, or you will be condemned”. Here James addressed those workers in the field who had been mistreated by wealthy believers. The temptation for poor laborers in the fields was to say “God is on our side and against you”. James thunders a warning against taking sides and using God’s Name. It is the worst form of “name-dropping”, that is, using God’s Name to make yourself look good.
Misusing God’s Name is when you bring Him into your conversation to elevate your own credibility. You are thinking of yourself, not Him. Perhaps you want people to think you are so spiritual? SO close to God?
I have done this too often over the years – I am ashamed to say. I have sought to stop it. I believe I am to share this to everybody in these last days. Did the LORD tell me to share this? You tell me.
The issue here is the oath. One of the greatest privileges a Christian can have is for God to swear an oath to them like He did to Abraham. The Oath is seen when God grants the highest level of faith; this is what lay behind the miraculous in the Bible. If granted the oath from God to us may pertain to (1) assurance of salvation (Heb.4:10; 10:22); (2) advanced notice of answered prayer (Mark 11:24; 1 John 5:15); (3) knowing you have got it right theologically (Col.2:2); (4) the prayer of faith for healing. (Jas.5:15 – ESV) and (5) a prophetic word.
All prophecy must be done in proportion to our faith; it is only when the oath is given to us that we know infallibly we have been given a word from God. This is what lay behind Elijah’s authority. As I show in These are the Days of Elijah, Elijah had authority before Ahab because of God’s oath to him. It is only when God swears an oath to you can you have the kind of authority that Elijah had before Ahab. Elijah did not bite his nails for the next several years if he saw a cloud in the sky. He calmly said to the king, “It won’t rain unless I say so”. How could Elijah be so sure? “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). That is oath language.
Any prophecy should make GOD look “good” not the prophet. If you say “thus saith the Lord” you must know what you are claiming: namely, God has sworn an oath to you. When Elijah said, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives”, it meant God swore an oath to him. If therefore you say “the Lord told me”, you had better get it right; otherwise you are abusing His Name.
Let’s be honest. Why would I say to you, “The Lord told me”? Am I trying to make GOD look God? Sorry. I am trying to make myself look good – or, at least, I am hoping you will believe what I say since it is from “the Lord”.
Question: what if the Lord really DID give you a word? Good. I am thrilled for you. But do you need to tell it to me? What would be your motive in saying the LORD gave you this word? To make Him look good? Or to make YOU look good?
If you say “my motive is to encourage people”, I believe you. But what if that word does not come true? How often will you get away with this repeated claim “the Lord says”?
Loving caution: keep God’s Name out unless you would go to the stake for what you are claiming.
You can always say, “I feel I should share this word with you”. If the word is truly from God, it will be recognized in due course; no need to rush it!
I am not saying you should never say “the Lord told me” or “Thus says the Lord”. I am urging you never to say it unless you have that oath level assurance that God has spoken. If you would not go to the stake for the truth of what you are saying, simply leave the Lord’s name out and say, “I am compelled to share this with you”. You are safe if the word is not from above. You will not be embarrassed and you will not have abused God’s Name.
Remember, James said, “Above all” do not misuse the Lord’s Name or “you will be condemned”. Misusing His Name isn’t worth it.