What is the gift of prophecy? D.P. Williams defined prophecy like this: ‘a Divinely generated utterance through human lips by the indwelling Spirit of God.’ 1 Corinthians 14:30 links prophecy with revelation, so it involves speaking what God reveals. But we know that Jesus is the revelation of God, so that means that if prophecy comes through revelation it must come through Christ. Revelation 19:10 makes that connection between prophecy and Christ as well: ‘For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.’ Prophecy comes through Christ and points back to Christ, bringing glory to Him.
So, if prophecy involves revelation, how does it come? The Bible shows us a number of different ways. In Acts 13:2 and Acts 21:11 we see the classical Apostolic concept of prophecy: the prophecy is spoken in the first person as God’s words. That’s certainly a New Testament view of prophecy; it’s just not the only one. In Acts 2:17-18 we read about dreams and visions (and, in the wider context, tongues as well) as prophecy. So prophecy might involve reporting the revelation of a dream or vision, or possibly it might involve tongues and interpretation. According to the New Testament, prophecy can take different forms.
Yet, although the New Testament might not tell us one exact form that prophecy must take, it does tell us that prophecy isn’t an uncontrollable, ecstatic experience. According to 1 Corinthians 14:32 ‘the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets’, so when people prophesy, they’re in control of what they’re doing. Specifically in the context there, they can speak or not speak – they can’t use the gift in an inappropriate way and then blame the Holy Spirit.
And what are we to do when there is a prophecy in church? First and foremost, it needs to be weighed! The Scripture is very clear, prophecies are to be judged and tested (1 Cor. 14:29 and 1 Thess. 5:19-22). We aren’t just to accept everything that claims to be from God as really from God – we have to test it to make sure. It must be in accordance with Scripture. Scripture is the Word of God, so nothing that God says in prophecy will contradict Scripture. Also, the goal of the gift of prophecy is edification, exhortation and comfort (1 Cor. 14:3), so it should be tested against those goals. And finally, prophecy is the testimony of Jesus, so we must ask does it glorify Christ?
But weighing prophecy isn’t the end. Once it’s been weighed and accepted as true prophecy, we shouldn’t just leave it there. The point of prophecy isn’t so that we can go home and say, ‘Oh, wasn’t it nice that there was a prophecy in church this morning!’ No. Prophecy is supposed to edify, exhort and comfort. It’s supposed to have an impact. And often, like preaching, that impact is in the hearing (perhaps the prophecy speaks of Christ’s great love or the glory of the salvation that He has won for us). But sometimes there’s something that requires action as well. So in that case, act upon it! And in all cases, pray about it. Pray and give thanks for what God has said. Perhaps pray for wisdom in how best to respond to what He has said. But in every case, pray and rely on Him for the outworking of His word.