Prophecy for Beginners
Ten Frequently Asked Questions
John Piper tells the story of when he and his wife, Noël, were expecting their fourth child, and a woman shared with John a very dire “prophecy”: Noël would die in childbirth, and the baby would be a girl. This prophecy seemed wrong. There was nothing edifying, encouraging, or consoling about it (1 Corinthians 14:3). John wisely said nothing about it to Noël. The child was born a boy, and mother and baby came through just fine.
This is the kind of scary use of prophecy that can understandably make us cynical towards this gift of the Holy Spirit, and understandably make many pastors want to steer away from its use in their churches. What we need to remember is that damaging false prophecies foolishly delivered without prior evaluation by wise, pastoral counsel have occurred throughout church history. Even in the apostle Paul’s day, he had to exhort churches and their leaders to “not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:19–21). The easiest way to avoid the messes this gift can make is to avoid the gift.
Worth the Risk
However, we also could list examples of the scary uses of other spiritual gifts, such as teaching or healing, yet we would not say that we should therefore avoid teaching people or praying for their healing. So we must also not let the misuse of prophecy cause us to miss out on the benefits the Spirit wants us to receive through this gift’s proper use. I have benefited from it many times over the years — mostly on the receiving end. If I had the time and space, I’d tell you stories:
- Like the time God answered a very specific prayer through a text John Piper preached on.
- Or the time God gave me a prophetic word from a friend, and gave my soon-to-be wife a prophetic vision, which helped prepare us for a dark, trying season in our lives.
- Or the time a missionary friend in Kazakhstan emailed me a prophetic word he sensed God had for me, which arrived at the precise time I needed it to confirm a difficult decision I was weighing — of which my friend had no knowledge.
- Or the time I received a specific word regarding a personal matter for a stranger sitting next to me on a plane that proved accurate.
- Or the times more recently when a man in Kansas (I didn’t know), a woman in New York (I didn’t know), and a friend in Minneapolis all independently shared with me very similar words they sensed God wanted me to know, which contributed to a constellation of confirmations and helped me discern a difficult directional decision, of which none of them had prior knowledge.
And there are more stories I could share. Yes, I’ve also seen prophecy used poorly, and personally I’ve made some mistakes. But the edifying, encouraging, and consoling benefits I’ve received and seen others receive have been so profound that I can say this gift is worth the messiness it can sometimes cause.
If you’ve recently become convinced that God is still giving this gift to the church, or you’ve been in the “cautious continuationist” camp too long (“caution” effectively inhibiting meaningful pursuit), I’d like to share some practical counsel on how to get started “earnestly desiring” this gift, and answer some frequently asked questions regarding prophecy.
What do you do if you’re not sure what to do next? How do we give legs to our “earnest desire”? First, remember that prophecy is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is given. So we are completely dependent on the Spirit. The Spirit “apportions [his gifts] to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11), and we are told that not everyone receives this gift (1 Corinthians 12:29).
But the Bible also tells us that unbelief quenches the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19–20), and that the Spirit responds in proportion to our faith, specifically regarding prophecy (Romans 12:6). So the first step in earnestly desiring the gift of prophecy is to seek to increase our faith for it. And we can do this through prayer, preparation, and practice.
First, ask the Spirit to teach you about prophecy. He’s the great teacher of the saints who Jesus promises will “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Ask him to guide you as you examine this gift and seek it, for the upbuilding of others.
Second, since the Spirit is the giver of the gift of prophecy, ask him for it. But don’t ask tentatively or half-heartedly. Ask boldly. If the gift is available, tell him that in obedience to 1 Corinthians 14:1, you earnestly want it. And ask repeatedly, persistently, even impudently (Luke 11:8). Tell other faithful pray-ers that you want this gift, and ask them to pray with you. If you know folks who exercise prophecy with some effectiveness, ask them to pray for you. Take what Jesus said in Luke 11:9–13 seriously and ask, believing that your Father longs to give you the good gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Educate yourself on the gift of prophecy. Dig into 1 Corinthians chapters 12–14. Read Paul carefully and seek to understand what he really means. Then read the book of Acts and study every time a prophetic word or vision occurs. Keep your eyes open. You may discover details you hadn’t seen before.
Avail yourself of helpful resources on this gift (and others). Type “prophecy” into Desiring God’s search window, and you’ll find a list of helpful resources. You can also browse our resources on spiritual gifts in general. Specifically, I’d recommend John Piper’s article “Signs and Wonders: Then and Now,” his sermon series Are Signs and Wonders for Today?, and messages from a pastors conference under the title “Spiritual Gifts and the Sovereignty of God.”
I’d also recommend some resources by Sam Storms. His book The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts provides a helpful introduction to prophecy and other gifts. Practicing the Power: Welcoming the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Your Life is a more practical guide to earnestly pursuing these gifts. Sam’s church hosts an ongoing conference to help lovers of God’s word grow in the use of God’s gifts. Past conference sessions are available to watch or listen to, free of charge.
These resources are a good place to begin to press into understanding the nature and use of the gift of prophecy.
Beginning to practice this gift is where the rubber meets the road — and where we encounter our fears. If we ask for prophecy and grow in our understanding of it, it is likely that the Spirit will begin to give us promptings. In fact, you may recognize you’ve already experienced this gift, even if you didn’t know what it was.
I believe that, for most people, it’s best not to learn to use this gift in larger public settings, but rather with individuals or in small groups. A small group of people who are earnestly desiring this gift together is an ideal place to nurture it. Group members can pray for each other. And an atmosphere of trust can be cultivated where it’s safe and encouraged to share what you think might be something from the Spirit — and to make mistakes. A safe place to fail is key to growing in the use of any gift, especially one like this. Like any other gift, we grow in our maturity in the use of prophecy over time (see FAQ #8 below).
Because this new covenant revelatory gift is processed and communicated by us fallibly, we should never use authoritative language like “Thus says the Lord” when sharing what we think may be a prophetic word. Rather, we should say something like, “I think the Lord might be saying . . .” and we allow others to test it for themselves (1 Thessalonians 5:19–21; 1 Corinthians 14:29). Humility is also key in growing in the use of any gift, especially one like this.
But don’t let fear of enduring the growing process stop you from moving forward. Seek to intentionally increase your faith through prayer, preparation, and practice. I have found it is worth the effort. Prophecy uniquely edifies, encourages, and consoles the saints of God, which is why Paul recommended that we especially desire this gift. It is one important way God expresses his love for his children. We neglect his gift to our own and others’ detriment.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is prophesying the same as preaching?
Not exclusively, but frequently. We know, from Paul’s writings, that prophecy and teaching are not the same (1 Corinthians 12:28; 14:26). Teaching is expositing a biblical text and drawing out a lesson, while prophesying is speaking something that the Spirit spontaneously brings to mind. But what often happens during a preaching moment is an unusually powerful application of a biblical text. Perhaps the clearest New Testament example is Peter prophetically preaching in Acts 2:14–36, applying the texts of Joel 2, Psalm 16, and Psalm 110. That, of course, was an unparalleled sermon, but it demonstrates an instance. Peter preached and thousands were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37).
Many of us have sat under preaching that was unusually powerful and personally affecting. We often call this “anointed preaching”; it may land on us like “teaching on steroids.” Often non-Christians are born again because of someone’s preaching — which means they encountered “the spirit of prophecy,” which is “the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 19:10). Other times Christians are brought to deep conviction of sin or encouragement under someone’s preaching. This is why many of the Puritans, like William Perkins, called preaching “prophesying.” And it is, I believe, the most frequent way most Christians experience the gift of prophesy: Spirit-empowered illumination and application of scriptural truth. In a previous article, I included two extraordinary examples of prophetic preaching. But it occurs more frequently in less specific, but personally profound, ways as well.
However, as the New Testament illustrates, prophecy is not limited to preaching as we typically think of it (prepared exegetical sermons delivered in a local church or wider event context). Ananias’s vision (Acts 9:10–16), Agabus’s foretelling (Acts 11:27–30; 21:10–11), Paul’s and Barnabas’s missionary call (Acts 13:2–3), the Ephesian disciples’ spontaneous utterances, Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man (Acts 16:9), the Spirit’s testifying to Paul in every city what awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts 20:22–23), and the personal prophecies Timothy received (1 Timothy 1:18; 4:14) would not fit into the “anointed expository preaching” category. They came outside of a preaching context — though each prophetic vision or word drew its power because it was a personally applied scriptural truth.
So I would say that the most common and most transformative way Christians experience the gift of prophecy is through Spirit-empowered preaching and application of the Scriptures. This may be one reason why, in 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul lists “prophets” ahead of “teachers” as gifts to the church. And I would say the less common way Christians experience prophecy is through receiving revelatory dreams, visions, and what are often called “prophetic words.” This is why Paul could encourage everyone in a local church to earnestly desire to prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:1).
2. Does a prophet make mistakes?
Remember that the way Paul describes the New Testament spiritual gift of prophecy is not canon-level revelation delivered infallibly and authoritatively like the Scriptures. The way he describes it, as I’ve argued elsewhere in more detail, is Holy Spirit-prompted, subordinate revelation that readers of 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19–21 would expect to be partially or fallibly reported, and therefore intended to be tested against and subject to the infallible, authoritative revelation now contained for us in the sixty-six books of the Holy Bible. Paul expects New Testament prophecy, the kind he refers to in 1 Corinthians 14, to be fallibly — which means sometimes erroneously — delivered by people. Mistakes will happen, which is why prophecy must be evaluated.
Far more detailed exegetical explanations have been made in the resources I’ve listed above, as well as in Wayne Grudem’s extensive book on New Testament prophecy and D.A. Carson’s Showing the Spirit.
3. First Corinthians 14 refers to the use of prophecy in corporate worship. Is prophecy ever to be used outside corporate worship?
Paul does refer to the gathered church in 1 Corinthians 14. But here are a few observations to keep in mind. First, most of the churches Paul was writing to were much smaller groups than many of our churches today. Many would have been the size of large “small groups” to us. Second, we can tell from 1 Corinthians 14:26 that the way these churches structured their worship gatherings was different than the programmatic ways many of our churches structure our gatherings today. Third, nowhere in the New Testament is prophecy prohibited outside of corporate worship — Paul was addressing the specific context of the Corinthian church and we shouldn’t read more into the text than is there. And fourth, as I mentioned in the answer to the first question above, numerous New Testament prophetic messages were delivered in contexts outside of what we might call a church worship service.
4. Do both men and women prophesy?
Yes. This is clear in Acts 2:17–18, as Peter quotes from Joel 2:28–32:
“In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.”
In addition, Acts 21:8–9 records that Philip the evangelist “had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied,” and Paul gives instructions about how married women should publicly prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11:2–16.
5. Who tests prophecies today, and how?
According to 1 Corinthians 14:29–33, pastor-elders test prophecies, as well as the gathered church. How this actually functions today depends on how churches are structured. I’ll give one example of how it can be done.
In a precious church I was part of for eighteen years, the pastors made space during the music portion of the corporate worship service for prophetic words to be shared. People who sensed they had a word came up to a pastor designated to evaluate public contributions, shared it with him, and the pastor discerned if it should be shared or not. If so, these people were allowed to address the congregation from a microphone in one of the aisles. It frequently was encouraging and consoling (1 Corinthians 14:3). Also, small group leaders were trained to evaluate prophetic words so that they could be shared in small groups as well. In both cases, a prophecy was evaluated by a leader and by the gathered church present.
6. Should my local church pastor-elders oversee my prophetic gift?
Yes. The New Testament does not have a category of loose cannon, unaccountable prophets wandering around delivering messages. Such “prophets” have certainly appeared in church history, but always to the detriment and damage of the church. God calls all Christians, including prophetically gifted ones, to submit to duly appointed local church leaders (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Corinthians 14:37–38). And in the case of prophecies, we also submit to the evaluation of our brothers and sisters in our local church (1 Corinthians 14:29–33).
Now, if you sense God has laid a text on your heart for a friend, your pastors will not object to your encouraging someone else with the Scriptures. But if you think the Spirit may have given you specific revelatory information regarding someone else, you should seek the blessing of your pastor-elders before sharing it. What this looks like depends on the preference of your leaders. The point is this: make sure to test specific information first — and this is all the more true the less experienced you are in using this gift. The more you demonstrate consistent accuracy and upbuilding of others to your pastoral leaders, the more they will trust your judgment. But you should not be regularly exercising what you believe is a prophetic gift without their knowledge and blessing.
7. What if my church leaders hold a cessationist view of the revelatory gifts?
Then do not seek to exercise what you understand to be a gift of prophecy while under their pastoral authority. Make sure, though, that you understand clearly what they mean, and don’t mean, by “prophecy.” Many cessationists believe that certain phenomena continuationists call “prophecy” occur, but because they reserve the term “prophecy” for infallible, authoritative Scripture revelation, they call the phenomena by other names, such as “spiritual impressions” or “promptings.” Vern Poythress, a highly respected evangelical theologian, has written an insightful paper to help cessationists and continuationists recognize common ground between us. If your pastor-elders prefer to call this phenomena by a different name due to sincere doctrinal conviction, submit to them by using their terminology.
But if your church leaders prohibit any “prophetic” phenomena, then submit to their authority for as long as God has you under their authority and pray for the Spirit’s wisdom and guidance and seek the counsel of wise, spiritually mature Christians as to what Christ may want you to do with regard to your convictions on this issue.
8. Where does the New Testament tell us to “practice” (grow in skill through repetitive use) prophesying?
It doesn’t, explicitly. Neither does it explicitly instruct us to practice teaching or leading or praying for healing or discerning spirits or numerous other things. But after observing Jesus’s school of disciples, Paul’s missionary strategies, and reading Ephesians 4:11–12, which tells that apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers “equip the saints for the work of ministry,” it should be more than clear to us that no one who receives a spiritual gift receives it in its fully mature form. Everyone grows in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). We all repetitively practice the gifts we receive from the Spirit in order to grow in our effective use of them. Prophecy is no different in that respect.
In the context of churches that are not used to the prophetic gift operating in a corporate setting, or for some reason are too large or programmatically constrained, small groups can be a place to encourage the use and maturing of this gift.
9. What if you practice prophecy and the first 20 times you’re just plain wrong?
Then you haven’t received the gift. Perhaps you haven’t received it yet, or perhaps you won’t receive it. “Earnestly desiring” to prophesy obeys the apostolic imperative and pleases our Lord (1 Corinthians 14:1). But he may not be pleased to give you this gift because he’s pleased to give you another gift that is likewise indispensable to the body (1 Corinthians 12:14–31). I know what this is like. I’ve received this gift for others a handful of times in my life, but it’s been rare. Others I know receive this gift much more frequently.
So, ask for it, but don’t force it. Let the sovereign Spirit distribute the gifts as he will, and be content with what you receive.
10. How do you know when to share what you think is a prophetic word and when to wait?
If in doubt, wait. Paul tells us to exercise the gift of prophecy in proportion to our faith (Romans 12:6). The weight of this counsel increases with the gravity of the prophetic word you’re discerning. So if you wake up in the middle of the night with a prophetic sense that someone is in trouble and you should pray, then pray! It’s not a huge risk to check in with that person later. But if you have a prophetic impression that someone is struggling with pornography, for example, it is wise to pray first and ask God for confirmation. And, if at all possible, that sort of impression should be passed by a pastor or wise, mature counselor for evaluation before sharing with the individual concerned.
Not all prophetic words or impressions are meant to be shared. Some are meant only for intercession. The more serious the prophetic impression, the more prayer-bathed and informed discernment it requires.
A number of years ago, I had a strong impression that the Lord was leading two friends I knew to get married. At the time, they seemed interested in each other but were not yet dating. The impression was unusually strong, yet I (rightly) feared saying anything to either of them. When it persisted, I submitted it to wise pastoral counsel and was confirmed that I should not share it but that I was likely being given this impression for the purpose of prayer. I followed this wise counsel. The two friends soon began courting and ended up marrying.
Again, don’t assume a prophetic word or impression must be shared. And I emphasize: the more serious the impression, the more prayer and counsel and evaluation it requires before sharing it with the people involved.