Have you ever wished there were some kind of a "litmus test" to tell you if a prophet is for real? Or to discern whether a prophecy you've received is true? I have. In this noisy world full of voices, it's probably a good idea to have a "back pocket" checklist of some sort to help us sort things out! Will this make us faithless Christians or doubting Thomases? Actually, no. It will help us tune in much more accurately to what God is saying. Here's why.
1 Thessalonians 5:21 summarizes the essence of a biblical approach to prophecy. It says: "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies. Test all things; hold fast to what is good." Likewise, the apostle Paul, discussing prophecy (1 Corinthians 14), says he desires that all should prophesy. He elevates prophecy to be among the highest of the gifts. He also encourages believers to judge prophetic words. (Notice that he wants us to judge the words, not the people giving them!)
The New Testament clearly favors the idea of God speaking to us today via the prophetic. It also gives us clear guidelines for how prophets should operate and how we can know if their words are true. Taking a look at five of these will give us greater confidence as we give and receive prophetic words.
1. The Prophet is a Follower of Jesus Christ, Growing in the Faith
This is unquestionably the most important test we can apply to the prophetic. Believe it or not, it IS possible to prophesy without being a Christian! It is unfortunately also true that a Christian can prophesy "soulishly," or from his emotions, rather than giving a true word direct from the Holy Spirit. How do I know this? Take a look at Elijah's prophetic contest on Mount Carmel:
So they (the 450 prophets of Baal) cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out of them. And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention.
How could these Baal-worshipers prophesy if they didn't know God? There are numerous examples in Scripture of seers and prophets who tap into occult power to summon "prophetic" voices or foretell the future. Today's equivalent might be a psychic or fortune-teller. But these prophets on Mount Carmel weren't even that good! Their prophecies were more like "wishful thinking" or vain imaginations. They were devoid of power, and despite the multitude of voices they raised, in the end they were outsmarted by just one true prophetic voice: Elijah's.
A prophet will not always be 100% correct. After all, we see and know spiritual truths only in part. But he or she will be tapping into the authentic Presence of God and relating what they see or hear from the Lord. Yes, it will be in their words. Yes, that's okay. God chose to allow the writers of Scripture to use their own words and personalities to describe His ways, too. What's important here is that the prophet is making time to get into God's Presence, to get to know His Word and His voice.
2. The Life of the Prophet Bears Fruit
This second "test" is an extension of the first. Jesus said "You shall know them by their fruits." Who does He mean by "them?" False prophets. Jesus sets up a powerful contrast in Matthew 7:15-27 to show us the difference between "wolves" (the false prophets) and sheep. Good trees bear good fruit, meaning we should be able to look at the life of an "abiding" prophet and see good things growing:
"Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom
I want to point out several things: first, it is possible to prophesy in the Name of Christ and yet not know Christ or be commissioned to speak for Him. The point Jesus makes here is that even those who function in the most elevated of gifts (prophesying or doing miracles) are still to be judged based on their fruit, not their gifts. In fact, He goes so far as to say that those who do not know Him or who misuse His authority in exercising their gifts are "lawless" (or "rebellious," and therefore about as impressive to Him as the antichrist!) What should make us sit up and take notice is that He says there will be many of them.
The requirements for all believers apply to the prophet, too. Is she submitted to authority? Is he open to correction? Willing to repent? Involved in life-giving relationships within the Body? Being prophetic does not mean someone has "carte blanche" to do or say whatever they want! In fact, given the enormous potential of the gift to help or harm people, prophets do well to stay close to both God and their mentors!
3. Prophecies are Spoken in an Attitude of Love, not Judgment
The maxim of every prophet should be "Encourage, Exhort, Edify!" (1 Corinthians 14). I also like the short checklist in Ephesians 4:1-3, which urges us to "walk worthy of the calling" in lowliness, gentleness, patience, love, unity, and peace. Everything a prophet does should be modeled after the example of Christ's love. Believe me, it could take a lifetime just to perfect walking in these six qualities! Thankfully, there is grace for our failings. But prophetic words that smack of judgment or condescendingly expose others' sins should be restrained, as they are repulsive to believers and unbelievers alike.
The flip side of this coin, and one that the church has not been very good at, is that the handling of the prophetic should also be modeled after the love of God! Prophets, like preachers, need time and safety in order to grow in using and understanding their gift. Any new skill requires practice and patience, and the church has largely failed prophets in this area. We are far quicker to correct and condemn than we are to coach or confirm.
Instead of shutting down the prophetic altogether, we should be looking for ways to train novices and give honest but loving feedback to those who do prophesy. When we react to past abuses by blocking all prophetic words, we eliminate a vital method of communication between God and His church.
4. The Words Bring a Witness
A good prophetic word will "ring true" in a believer's spirit when spoken. This is the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. Difficult to describe, it is a little like the connection that happens when a lamp is plugged in. A spiritual "current," like electricity, is connected from its source (an outlet) to its destination (the lamp). When a prophet, like a connecting cord, delivers a message at "Spirit" voltage from the outlet to the lamp, the light turns on. But if the prophet is plugged in to a foreign voltage, the lamp just won't light up. (And as my electrically-savvy husband pointed out to me, it just might explode instead!)
Prophecies may also confirm things the Lord has already spoken to us, such as a move to a new place or a ministry He wants us to pursue. A true word from God will bring peace to our hearts (1 Cor 14:33). But lest we rest on subjective impressions alone, 2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us that our ultimate measuring rod is the Bible. It is our agreed-upon standard, the inspired Word of God. Anything that is not in alignment with the Word should be questioned.
5. Prophets Exercise Self-Control
Finally, in contrast to the frenzied, exhibitionist demonstrations of Baal's prophets in 1 Kings, God's prophets are called to maintain order as they function in their gifts. Emotional excitement does not validate prophetic words. In fact, our emotions are to be subject to the Spirit of God within us. Paul writes:
You can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may
Beware of prophets who usurp the authority of their leaders or disrupt the flow of the service. God can, of course, redirect a church meeting if He so chooses, but He will confirm that to the ones leading as well. Most churches that honor prophecy have some kind of a protocol for determining whether a word should be given. A true prophet will uphold, not ignore, the order and timing of the church service he is in. Those who cannot are more likely to be moving in selfish ambition than in the unction of the Spirit.
Of all the prophecies we hear, God's authentic voice may not be the loudest. Of the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18), only one was true. Just four chapters later, 400 of King Ahab's prophets prophesied falsely, while just one, Micaiah, spoke truth. (1 Kings 22).
Like Elijah, we must learn to look for the still, small voice amidst the noisy whirlwinds. We need to focus on the words that bring us peace and security in Christ, not the earth-shattering revelations that exalt their messengers. We need to cling to the gentle voice of our Shepherd that leads us towards heaven, not the fiery warnings of judgment and hell! The wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. But a prophetic ministry built on love will edify us and bear much fruit.
c. Deborah Perkins, 2015. All references NKJV unless noted.
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A severe hearing loss from childhood caused Deborah Perkins to develop what she now calls her secret weapon: tuning in to God's voice. A Wellesley College graduate and an award-winning writer, Deborah is now a wife and mother of 3 boys. Deborah has devoted over 25 years to professional and lay Christian ministry in New England and beyond. Her passion is inspiring people to cultivate greater intimacy with God.