June / July 2015 - Vol. 80
the Prophetic Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the
by Bruce Yocum
Let me now sing of my friend
[Agabus] came up to us and taking Paul’s belt, tied
his own hands and feet with it. ‘Then he said, Thus
says the Holy Spirit...’ Acts 21:10
The prophets of both the Old and New Testaments did a great deal more to communicate the word of the Lord than just saying, “Thus says the Lord.” They composed songs (or sang songs inspired by the Holy Spirit). They performed dramatic actions. They even gave their children prophetic names: “In fact, they showed no hesitation in availing themselves of all manner of forms in which to clothe their message. None, secular and sacred alike, was safe from appropriation as a vessel for discharge of his task by one prophet or another.” 1
The simplest and most direct form of prophecy is the prophetic oracle, in which the prophet addresses the people of God in plain speech as if it were the Lord himself speaking. A prophetic oracle may or may not contain such idioms as “The Lord says” or “The Holy Spirit says this.” But whether or not these familiar prophetic phrases are employed, it is clear from the speaker’s presentation that the speech proceeds from the Lord.
Oracles are blunt. They state the message of the Lord without elaborate presentation. Therein lies their greatest usefulness. There are occasions (frequent occasions) which call for the simple statement of the message God has for his people. Prophetic oracles present a direct word as a direct word, and state simply, “This word is from the Lord.”
Perhaps the most common form of prophetic speech is
exhortation. The fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts
mentions two prophets, Judas and Silas, who came to
Antioch and “exhorted the brethren with many words, and
strengthened them.” Exhortation (or encouragement, as it
is often translated) is speech which revives, renews, or
strengthens people. It builds up their hope and gives
them new courage. Most of us are familiar with
exhortation, although we probably have not called it
that. The well-known halftime pep talk which the coach
gives to his team, for instance, is exhortation.
Oftentimes we may know that the Lord wants to say something to his people, yet do not feel that we should prophesy. In such cases, we should perhaps yield to an inspired exhortation. In some ways, inspired exhortation allows us greater freedom for expression than direct, first-person prophecy. We can communicate the Lord’s word at greater length or in more detail is otherwise possible. We can express our own convictions about the Lord's word or use personal examples to explain how the word can be applied. Just two weeks before writing this I attended a gathering of Christians from my hometown. As we were praying together, I felt inspired to speak a word. But when I considered the message, I realized a story I had just read could express it better than a first person prophecy. So, rather than prophesying, I gave a prophetic exhortation including the story as an illustration.
If you ever feel that the Lord wishes to speak through you, direct prophecy does not appear to be the right way to his word, try expressing it through a prophetic exhortation. Some people fear that speaking an exhortation rather than a prophecy will weaken the force of God’s word -- perhaps people will think we are only expressing some personal convictions. If we believe our exhortation is God’s word, we can say that. If it is, our words will carry God’s authority.
At times God will inspire a person to pray publicly in a way that touches and moves the hearts of those who hear. At times too the prayer will have in it the unmistakable element of prophetic revelation. When Zechariah and Simeon prayed in thanks to God (see Lk 1 and 2), their prayers were thoroughly prophetic. Through those prayers God revealed the plan he was unfolding in the lives of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Prophetic prayer often has a place in worship of the Lord. Ezra 9:6-15 and Nehemiah 9:6-37 are examples of prophetic prayer. When Ezra prayed before the people, the people were deeply affected, His prayer had power because it was inspired. A truly inspired prayer will turn people’s hearts to the Lord, and will lead them to a deep praise and worship of God. When inspired prayer is present, worship of God is a powerful and transforming experience.
Prophetic prayer is as easy to yield to as direct
prophecy. If you are praying and feel that the Lord has
given you something to pray publicly, just speak out,
and let the power of the Holy Spirit do the rest.
PROPHECY IN SONG
Some of the most beautiful and moving melodies and lyrics I have heard were prophetic. Prophetic sons most often occur in the context of worship, and serve as an encouragement to even greater praise of God. Many of these songs describe God’s goodness, his love, or his majesty, in a way which almost compels us to bless God and praise him.
Receiving a prophetic song is similar to receiving a simple prophetic message. Sometimes you will begin to hear in your mind a word from the Lord, and then a melody to go with it. Other times you may receive only the words of a prayer or message, but feel urged to sing the message rather than to speak it. When that happens, if you just choose an opening note and begin to sing, the melody will come. Or, you may receive only a melody, but as you begin to sing, the words will be given to you. Prophetic song does not come when you decide to set something to music, but when you are inspired to sing in the Holy Spirit. In other words, you don’t compose a prophetic song, you receive it.
Normally prophetic song will be given to people who have a good singing voice. God uses the natural gills which he gives to us to support the spiritual gifts which he bestows. If you do have a good singing voice, you should be open to receiving from the Lord a prophecy in song. But keep in mind that there are surprises in the ways of the Lord. Maybe you don’t think that you can sing at all. Well, I have heard people who have been trained in voice try to sing prophecy with embarrassing results. It helps to know that God normally uses our natural gifts; but that shouldn’t keep us from receiving any gift which he wants to give.
When Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4) that she had five husbands, and was now living with a man who was not her husband, she replied, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” That reply would have come naturally to most people at the time of Jesus. They knew that a prophet could bring hidden to light and lay bare the secrets of the heart. Scripture abounds with accounts of prophets who revealed secrets they never have known except through the action of the Holy Spirit. To cite one example, the prophet Elisha knew that his servant Gehazi had lied to get money from a man whom Elisha had cured (2 Kgs 5).
From time to time God may reveal things to us which we not otherwise know, just as he revealed Gehazi’s theft to Elisha. Four years ago I was counseling a young woman troubled by serious emotional difficulties. I knew that the Lord wanted to help her, but I myself was at a loss about what to do. At the of one session, we sat down to pray together. As we prayed the Lord showed me an incident involving a small child and her mother. I saw the incident in very great detail, almost as if a movie was being shown in my mind. A girl who appeared to be four years old was sitting in her living room playing with some toys. Suddenly her mother came into the room and began to yell at her. She spanked the girl severely and sent her to her room. As I saw all of this, I understood (how I am not sure) that the little girl had been wetting her bed at night. Her mother was angry because it had happened again. The little girl was frightened, and frustrated. I understood (again, I don’t know how) that she felt helpless; how could she control what had happened in her sleep?
I was a little nervous about mentioning this, but I finally worked up the courage. I told the woman that I thought something had happened between her and her mother when she was about four years old. As I described what I had seen, she became more and more excited. The revelation was an exact description of an incident she had almost forgotten.
Every detail matched. Talking about that spanking given many years before led us to some insights that eventually helped her overcome some of her emotional problems.
Revelations of facts which we could not know on our own can be a powerful and convincing work of the Holy Spirit. The woman at the well came to believe in Jesus because e knew things about her that he could never have known but through God’s revelation. Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians, "If all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face he will worship God and declare that God is really among you" (1 Cor 14:24-25).
There are two areas in which we need to exercise care with prophetic revelation. First, we may be wrong when we think that something has been revealed to us. Second, it is not always appropriate or helpful to say anything about the true revelations which we receive.
We could be wrong. Imagine what would happen if you walked up to a woman who had been faithfully married for fifteen years and said, "You have had five husbands and you are now living with a man who is not your husband." When we receive true revelation, we may become the instruments of a dramatic conversion. But when we have received something false, we can only hurt, offend, or embarrass another individual. The more serious the matter which we think has been revealed, the more serious is our responsibility to discern and judge it. We must always be prudent about such matters.
Again, God may give us a true revelation, but not want us to act on it. He may be revealing something just so we can pray and wait for him to act. I do believe, however, that most of the time when God shows us something, he will also show us what he wants us to do. If we seek for his guidance about how to act (or not act) on the revelation we receive, we can avoid mistakes.
God wants to equip us to serve him, and revelations can
be an important part of that equipment. But they have to
be approached with caution and wisdom. If we exercise a
reasonable amount of care and common sense, revelation
can bear fruit for the Lord.
The Lord can speak through prophecy to individuals just as he can to groups of people. Through Agabus (and many others) the Holy Spirit warned Paul of the troubles awaiting him in Jerusalem. From time to time we may also experience the Lord giving us a specific word for some other individual. The word may give direction to someone who is trying to make a decision; it may encourage or console; it may convict a person of sin, as Nathan’s prophecy convicted David of his sin in killing Bathsheba’s husband (2 Sm 12).
My own first experience with prophecy for another individual is worth relating, because it demonstrates the powerful effects that such prophecy can have. As I was praying one morning six years ago, I looked up and saw another man sitting across the room I knew this man rather well, and there was nothing unusual about seeing him in the room, for he often prayed there. But as I looked at him that morning, I sensed that the Lord had something to speak to him. I went over to him and told him that I thought I should prophesy to him. He looked a bit surprised. The prophecy which I spoke was very simple. God knew him and loved him Later that day this man came to me to thank me for the prophecy. The knowledge that God loved himCloved him enough to speak to him personally had a profound effect. Two years later he again thanked me for what I had done that day. That simple word had been for him a support and encouragement through many difficult times Often, he told me, it would come back to his mind in the midst of trials and bring with it an inner strength and refreshment.
Public personal prophecy should normally not be
allowed. That is, prophecy directed to an
individual in a public setting. Receiving personal
prophecy in such a setting is intimidating, and can have
(and often does have) the effect of giving the prophecy
more authority than it deserves.
For many of us the archetypical prophet may be John on
the Island of Patmos:
Or it may be Ezekiel: "In the thirtieth year in the
fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was
among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were
opened and I saw visions of God.. ." (Ez 1:1).
Probably nothing else makes us feel so different from the prophets, so alienated from their experiences, as the visions they received. Visions seem to have about them an air of unreality and mystery and spectacle. And yet visions are no more mysterious than normal prophecy. Actually, they ought to be expected.
Through visions God opens up to us his actions and his plan in a new and powerful way; they have impact. I was startled, to say the least, the first time I received a vision. After all, I considered myself a reasonable and down-to-earth sort of a guy. And I didn’t think any reasonable and down-to-earth person should be having visions!
But in the summer of 1969, while I was on retreat with a group of men in Canada, I had a vision. We were all praying together one night, and I felt that the Lord wished to speak to us through prophecy. I began seeking the Lord to hear his word. Suddenly, I seemed to be standing on a large level plain. A huge crowd of people was walking toward me. I could not see any leader, but all the people were moving along together as if following someone. The question I had read many times in the books of the prophets immediately came to my lips, "Lord, what is this?" I think, in fact, that I actually asked the question half out loud because at that moment I was not particularly aware of the other people in the room. Then I heard the Lord speaking, just as he normally does in prophetic revelation:“These are my people. They follow me where I lead....”
In a minute or two the vision ended. What was I to do next? Tell people that I had had a vision? So much for my reputation as a reasonable and down-to-earth guy! But I plucked up my courage and said, "Ah, brothers, I think I’ve... uh... had a vision!" As I went on to explain what I had seen and heard, the other men responded just as they would respond to the word of the Lord in a spoken prophecy.
If we receive prophetic visions, we should share them with others properly. There is no reason to act as if something very strange or mysterious has happened. We can simply give a matter-of-fact description of what we have seen and heard. The vision can then be tested and judged as any other prophecy is tested and judged. If it is from God, it will bear the testing.
We should also talk about visions with dignity and restraint. I was tempted to half joke about my first vision, because I felt slightly embarrassed by it. But if a vision is from the Lord, embarrassment or joking will take away from what he wishes to do through it.
I have a relatively active imagination, and when I first experienced visions I thought I might be imagining them. That is a reasonable consideration: many people do mistake their own active and colorful imaginings for prophetic visions. But though such mistakes do occur, they mean only that we must apply the same tests to visions that we apply to every other form of prophecy. People who are emotionally unstable or prone to imagining things should not be relied upon in prophecy at all. We should know that a person is reliable before we accept his or her visions.
Thus the Lord said to me: “Make yourself thongs and yoke-bars, and put them on your neck. Send word to the king of Edom, the king of Moab...” Jeremiah 27:2-3
The prophets of both the Old and the New Testaments brought drama and impact to their prophecies by performing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, actions that vividly portrayed the message they proclaimed. Hosea and Isaiah gave their children prophetic names (Hosea 1:4, 6,9; Is 8:3). Jeremiah, the champion prophetic actor, buried a waistcloth (Jer 13:1), smashed an earthen flask as a sign of destruction (Jer 10), walked around wearing an oxen-yoke (Jer 27), and bought a field as a sign of future restoration (Jer 32).
All of these actions were inspired dramatizations of
the prophetic message. The prophets did not perform them
because they wanted to be dramatic; they performed them
as the word of the Lord. Today we can see many people
performing what they claim are prophetic actions --
holding demonstrations against abortion, or trying to
save the lives of several beached whales, etc. In a
broad sense of the term, we might justly call these
actions "prophetic symbols." But acting at the immediate
command of the Lord in support of an inspired prophetic
message is a different matter. The power of truly
prophetic actions comes from the Holy Spirit who
TONGUES AND INTERPRETATION
Therefore he who speaks in tongues should pray for the
power to interpret.... If any speak in a tongue, let
there be two or at most three, and each in rum; and let
one interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let
each of them keep silence in the assembly and speak to
himself and to God.
Paul spoke very strongly to the church at Corinth about speaking in tongues in meetings of the church. Speaking out in tongues was to be done only if the message spoken could be interpreted. The reason Paul gives is common sense: unless the message is interpreted, no one will understand it, and therefore, no one will profit from the message. It is clear that at times the Holy Spirit does inspire individuals to speak out in tongues in Christian meetings. When the message spoken is interpreted, all are “built up.”
I have been asked on many occasions, “Why should God inspire tongues and interpretation? Wouldn’t it be simpler for someone to just speak the message in an intelligible language in the first place?” I do not have an answer for a question like that. It seems clear that God does inspire tongues and interpretation. It would be better for us simply to exercise and receive the gift with thanksgiving rather than to ask why God why God works in this way.
This article is adapted from the book, Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Church Today), (c) copyright 1976, 1993 Bruce T. Yocum. Available from Tabor House.
publishing address: Park Royal Business Centre, 9-17 Park Royal Road, Suite 108, London NW10 7LQ, United Kingdom