In his first letter to the churches in the region of Ephesus, the beloved apostle John addressed three specific categories of people: little children, young men, and fathers.
I write to you, little children, because yours sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. I write to you fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the wicked one. I write to you, little children, because you have known the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one (1 John 2:12-14).
It’s obvious that John is not writing to literal children, literal young men, or literal fathers because by definition, their maturity is not measured by biological age but rather, development of character and spiritual understanding.
Little children are little children because their centre of reference is the fact that their sins are forgiven and they have a relationship with the Heavenly Father. Young men are young men because they have become aware of their spiritual muscles; their centre of reference is the power of God and a desire to change the world. Fathers are fathers because they ‘know him who is from the beginning’ – they have an understanding of God’s eternal purpose. Like Moses, their centre of reference is the nature and ways of God (Psa. 103:7).
We see these three categories of spiritual maturity represented in every sphere of ministry and church life. For example, there’s a lot of ‘little children preaching’ going around at the moment – plenty of excitement and motivation, but very little depth of understanding.
There’s also quite a lot of ‘young men praying’ – casting out this, pulling down that, binding and loosing something else – fervour to overcome the devil and take our cities for God. But alas, there seems to be very few ‘fathers’ in the land – people who are able to interpret the purposes of God in our generation.
In this article I would like to address what I call ‘little children prophecy’, or to put it another way, low risk, one size fits all, prophetic utterance. ‘My little children prophecies’ go something like this: “I love you with an everlasting love, I will never leave you or forsake you, I will be with you as you climb the hills and walk through the valleys, I am coming back soon” saith the Lord.
Is there anything wrong with that kind of word? No, absolutely not. Except that it’s too general to be a game changer or a life saver. You could deliver that word to anyone and it would be right. But it doesn’t really tell people anything that they don’t already know from reading the Bible.
The apostle Paul said that prophecies should not be despised; however, they should be tested and judged (1 Thess. 5:20-21; I Cor. 14:29). But how can you judge a prophecy that is as general and obviously scriptural as the above quoted example? You might as well try judging the Bible itself! And how can you tell whether or not it has come to pass? Its interpretation is totally subjective, with no defining measurements or indicators.
Samuel: a study in hearing, seeing, and speaking
In studying the life of Samuel, the great prophet of pre-monarchic Israel, we discover the three main characteristics of a prophetic person and the three essential ingredients of a prophetic word. The name ‘Samuel’ literally means heard by God, and has to do with the faculty of the ear and the ability to listen and understand. Samuel was also known as a seer, one who had the capacity to discern spiritual realities and access ‘classified information’ outside the scope of natural apprehension. Samuel was also called a prophet, which literally means one who speaks for another, and was recognised as a mouthpiece or spokesman for the word of God.
Thus, prophecy and prophetic ministry involves hearing, seeing, and speaking. To put it simply, prophecy is declaring what one has seen or heard in the Spirit. I would like you to notice the level of maturity in Samuel’s prophetic ministry, and in particular, the detailed content of his prophecies. For example, when prophesying over Saul, the soon-to-be crowned king of Israel, Samuel declared:
“When you have departed from me today, you will find two men by Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah; and they will say to you, ‘The donkeys which you went to look for have been found. And now your father has ceased caring about the donkeys and is worrying about you, saying, ‘What shall I do about my son?’’
“Then you shall go on forward from there and come to the terebinth tree of Tabor. There three men going up to God at Bethel will meet you, one carrying three young goats, another carrying three loaves of bread, and another carrying a skin of wine.
“And they will greet you and give you two loaves of bread, which you shall receive from their hands. After that you shall come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is. And it will happen, when you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying.
“Then the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you will prophesy with them and be turned into another man. And let it be, when these signs come to you, that you do as the occasion demands; for God is with you” (1 Samuel 10:2-7)
Wow! That is what I would call a high-risk, case-specific prophecy. In a matter of hours Samuel would be proved very right or very wrong, with no middle ground and no margin for error. Moreover, it would be very easy to judge whether or not the prophecy was of God. Because once one starts naming names, quoting numbers, and setting dates, one ups the ante to rarefied levels.
The X-factor of Spirit-inspired prophecy
There is an element in Spirit-inspired prophecy which I call the ‘X-Factor’. In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul asks, “Who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” (1 Cor. 2:16). This of course is a rhetorical question, first posed by the prophet Isaiah and which, by its very nature, demands a negative answer (Isa. 40:13). For as the Lord said, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9). However Paul turns the question on its head, declaring “but we have the mind of Christ!”
Paul acknowledges the impossibility of a natural man accessing the knowledge of a supernatural God, again quoting Isaiah: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9). So what then? Is the chasm between God and man too wide to bridge? No, for according to Paul, “God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God … we have received the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (1 Cor. 2:10,12).
As Jesus said, “When He, the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit is also called ‘the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God’ (Eph. 1:17). The word reveal literally means to ‘unveil as if drawing back a curtain, thus allowing one to see what was previously hidden from view’.
The X-Factor in Spirit-inspired prophecy is knowledge which cannot be apprehended by any means apart from a supernatural revelation of the Spirit of God. It is classified information … high level intelligence … things that only God sees and only God knows … the secrets of people’s hearts … deeds that are done in darkness … deals that are done behind closed doors.
Recently, there have been a number of prophecies circulating regarding political upheavals, economic storms, and natural disasters. For the most part, these have been promulgated by well-known and highly-respected preachers/prophets. Is there anything wrong with these prophecies? No, not really; except for the fact that they are long on generalities and short on specifics … And also the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly supernatural about the information contained therein.
With all due respect, I contend that one could reach the same conclusions by reading the Financial Review or watching Fox Business News. Furthermore, many of these so-called prophecies are really ‘no-brainers’ – things that economic futurists like Harry S. Dent have been saying for years based on demographic studies and trend analysis.
My contention is that if these prophecies are really from God, there has to be an X-Factor present, knowledge which cannot be apprehended apart from a supernatural revelation of the Spirit of God. Or to put it another way, ‘classified information’ or ‘high level intelligence’ that one could not possibly obtain by simply studying history, reading charts or analysing trends.
Moreover, I am affronted that after telling us that the world as we know it is about to end, the only advice some of these prophets can offer is to ‘pray’. Now, I believe in prayer as much as the next person, but for goodness’ sake, when God warned Noah that the world was going to end, he didn’t tell him to pray; rather, he told him to build an ark, and gave him a detailed blueprint of the design and specifications so that he could secure the future of his family.
All I am asking for is more accountability and greater maturity in regard to the gift of prophecy. It’s high time we stopped playing games as little children and even flexing our muscles as young men, and started assuming responsibility, as fathers, for God’s purpose in our generation.