Thursday, January 23, 2003

Test everything; Cling to what is good.

This past weekend, I attended a prophecy seminar. Now such things come in two varieties. The most common, I suspect, have to do with what the Bible has to say about the end times and how close people think we are to them. The seminar that I attended was of a second variety, which is the use of the prophetic gifting to build up the church.

The gift of prophecy gets very good billing from Paul, "Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be strengthened." (1 Corinthians 14:1-5) Note how Paul begins here, "be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy." Why is it that this gift is so rare and, perhaps worse, its reliability so low?

The catch is that those with the gift of prophecy will never be confused with those who have the gift of teaching. They do things like Agabus who "took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it, and said, 'The Holy Spirit says this: "This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will tie up the man whose belt this is, and will hand him over to the Gentiles."'" (Acts 21:11) Or take Ezekiel who played toy soldiers (Ezekiel 4:1-3). In other words, prophets tend to be symbolic and often have the freedom to make utter fools of themselves, e.g. when Micah says of himself, "For this reason I will mourn and wail; I will walk around barefoot and without my outer garments. I will howl like a wild dog,and screech like an owl." (Micah 1:8)

Now when I teach or write, what I have to say is open to fair-minded analysis. But how does one judge the one who has a prophetic word? How does one evaluate a woman lying on the floor, as I have seen, screaming as if she were in the transition stage of child-birth labor? You will not find the scripture to write her off!

This weekend, there was a woman who sang her prophetic words. She led off a team of five prophetic types, but the others had little chance to participate, because she sang whatever notes and words that came into her head for a full hour. During this time, she sung actual words to three people. The rest of the time was a rambling mixture of praise and general exhortation. Was this performance to my preference or liking? Of course, not! Could it have been of the Holy Spirit? Yes, it could. So I did what I do in such situations, I put off judgment and observe how things develop.

The next day, this same woman again took up song and again consumed so much time that the others again had little time to participate. My suspicions rose all the more. Two events clinched the matter for me. The first is that she had a personal word for me. She spoke of the rest that I needed from the arguing that surrounded me. Being one who enjoys labor and one who enjoys having a peaceful home, her remarks did not seem to fit. The second event occurred when I later advised her of missing the mark with me. She did not take the criticism well, and picked up her things and left. Since then, I have felt released to say that, at least on this occasion, her gifting was suspect.

Against such things, one could retreat to the safety of non-charismatic evangelicalism. People certainly mature in such an environment and things rarely get sloppy. But Paul challenges that path, "Do not extinguish the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt. But examine all things; hold fast to what is good; stay away from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Thessalonians 5:19-23) Why would Paul advise us to "not treat prophecies with contempt" if they were not at times contemptible? And, it would seem, treating prophecies with contempt is a form of quenching the Holy Spirit. According to Paul the answer is in testing and not in extinguishing. For the evangelical, it means an increased openness to the diverse ways of the Holy Spirit. For the charismatic, it means to be on the look out and not to give yourself over to something that is strange until you or someone else has certified that it is of the Holy Spirit and not of the person or worse.

Test everything; Cling to what is good. There are reliable prophetic voices out there--and some of them just might sing for an hour. These are men and women more in the service of God and mankind than to themselves. (And by the way, everything I have said applies to teachers, pastors, evangelists and apostles also.)

Friday: In wrath, remember mercy

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