1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
About Prophetic Words
Well, if the problem with the church at Corinth was that worship had become a free-for-all, perhaps the problem with the church at Thessalonica was the opposite (NICNT, 175-77). Worship is that service whereby we return to God all the praise and adoration which is due His great name. But within that service God also grants to us one of His most marvelous gifts; quite simply, God speaks to us. Worship is a dialogue where God speaks and we respond in praise, confession, and commitment to follow Him in obedience and mission. Isaiah 6:1-8 (Isaiah’s call) is one of the best examples of this. This is all to say that worship happens when God speaks to us and we respond appropriately. This was true then; it is true now.
That said, we do have to understand that since the closing of the canon (the receiving of the New Testament writings), there are no more apostles (men who saw the risen Lord and were especially commissioned by him to testify to that and granted extraordinary gifts to confirm the word of truth which they preached), nor are there any more prophets after the manner of one who may stand and say, “Thus says the Lord,” since such is rendered unnecessary now that we have the infallible Spirit-breathed writings through which the Holy Spirit speaks to us. I say this is the case now; this was not the case in the early Church era when prophets were in the churches and often foretold future events (e.g., Agabus and Philip’s daughters in Acts 11:28 & 21:9-10). Paul acknowledged the gift of prophecy and encouraged its use in the churches (1 Corinthians 14:31). But he also added that such words must be tested.
Today, though we have not prophets as they had then, people may still be “prophetic” in the sense that God still uses people to speak a word into our lives or in the church about pressing affairs. Maybe a person says to you that, based upon observation of your manner of life and spiritual gifts, he or she believes God may be calling you into ministry. Or maybe someone else sees that the time has come for the church to begin some specific ministry. (Perhaps someone else might call this discernment but then spiritual gifts are not mutually exclusive.) Regardless, Paul never says that a prophecy is to be accepted on face value but must be tested. How? Paul goes on to exhort the Thessalonians to cling to the good and abstain from even the appearance of evil. I do not believe that he was changing the subject but using these further exhortations as tests for the prophecy someone has announced: Does it meet the these basic tests? Can we detect an ill motive in what the person has said? What is the purpose of the word spoken? Does the word contradict what we know from the Scriptures? Does the “prophecy” uttered exalt Christ? Do we know this person to be one who is living in close fellowship with the Lord? Does he manifest such spiritual maturity that we may trust his word to us? (In the context of what Paul has written in this letter, is the person living an idle life or guilty of being a busybody?) Do we know this person to be mentally stable? (Don’t laugh! As a pastor, I have had to deal with this.) Are those in the church who are mature believers agreeing with the word spoken?
I have just applied moral, doctrinal, and personal tests; you might think of more. If all of these tests are met, maybe this person has spoken a word that we all need to hear and act upon. Maybe in this case we have a truly prophetic word that God has graciously given to us through this dear brother or sister in Christ. The only question now is: Will we be faithful to that prophetic word? Let us bless God that He hasn’t stopped speaking.