PROPHESY/PROPHETS: Are they for Today?? (Part 3)

Posted by Gabriel (G²) on October 27, 2007

This is an informative article on the issue that most people seem to misunderstand nowadays regarding prophetic issues: THAT OF DISCERNMENT ( http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue81.htm ):

The Discerning of Spirits

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1John 4:1)

Twenty years ago I received a phone call from a woman who claimed to have a word from God for me. She began prophesying, “You are a great man of God, full of power, and God is going to use you in a powerful way. You are going to be a mighty warrior for God . . .” I was very suspicious of this “word from God,” knowing that God was unlikely to call me on the phone to flatter me. Knowing what it says in 1John 4:1-3 I decided to try the test literally. I asked the voice on the phone, “Has Jesus Christ come in the flesh”? The answer on the other end of the line was, “She believes that.” I said, “Wrong answer” and hung up. The spirit that was inspiring the prophecy answered in the 2nd person.

Now that I have a better understanding of 1John 4:1-3, I would not need to ask that question directly, because I would know from the content of the prophesy that the spirit motivating the prophecy was not from God. The Bible gives us objective guidelines for discerning spirits. We need to know these guidelines if we are going to avoid deception.

We live in an age where mysticism and spiritual experiences are prevalent. The days of materialistic, secular humanism have given way to the New Age of spirituality. Our era is often called “post-modern;” it is an age of subjectivism. This means that we no longer believe that science, reason, and rationality can solve humanity’s problems. Our culture has turned inward to subjective, spiritual, self-validating experiences. Now people rarely ask, “Is it true?” but ask instead, “Does it work for me?”

As has often been the case, the Christian church is again allowing itself to be heavily influenced by the thinking of the contemporary culture. David Wells, one of the first to warn about the dangers of subjectivism in the church, discusses the objectivity of Biblical truth as understood by early Christians:

The fact that God’s truth was transmitted through events external to the individual meant that it was objective, and the fact that it was objective meant, further, that his truth was public. . . The content of this truth could not be privatized, reduced within private consciousness. Those who were trained by biblical revelation could not follow the path of the pagans, who established faith on their experience of nature and their intuitions regarding human nature. Their faith was grounded solely in the objective and public nature of God’s Word. They stood alone among these ancient cultures, their faith was distinctive and unique.1

In a footnote about the statement above, Wells remarks: “In this post-modern context, where meaning has contracted into the self, criteria for discerning truth from falsehood become almost as numerous as the discerners.”2

Wells is absolutely right. Once discernment becomes subjective rather than objective, one does not have it! When a person’s inner spiritual impressions are trusted to separate truth from error, “spirits” from the Holy Spirit, and what is of God from what is not, the person becomes the prey of forces of darkness that are very adept at appearing as angels of light.

My thesis is this: discernment is objective and the Scriptures alone give us the tools to discern spirits. In this article we shall see from the Bible that this is the case.

Prophecy Followed by Judging

To “prophesy” is to claim to speak what is from God or in keeping with God’s revelation. Only the Scriptures are God’s authoritative word to man. Prophecy in the church today is not adding authoritative revelation, but exhorting, encouraging, or comforting through speaking from God’s word: “But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation” (1Corinthians 14:3). Prophecy should be taken in the broad sense of anyone claiming to speak for God. Thus the term “prophecy” covers legitimate and illegitimate speaking for God. Therefore prophecy needs to be judged.

Prophecy has a spiritual source. When John tells us not to believe every “spirit” (1John 4:1), it is because many false “prophets” have gone out into the world. The spiritual source speaks through a human spokesperson. Thus if someone claims to speak for God and is giving spiritual teaching, we must determine whether or not the teaching is from the Holy Spirit or a deceiving spirit. This is the essence of the discerning of spirits.

Consider this passage in 1Corinthians: “and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues” (1Corinthans 12:10). Many people interpret “the distinguishing of spirits” to be the subjective ability to see evil spirits and identify them – I disagree with this. One who holds this viewpoint is Neil Anderson. Let us evaluate his subjective interpretation of this passage:

In 1Corinthians 12:10, discernment is the divinely enabled ability to distinguish a good spirit from a bad spirit. It is a manifestation of the Spirit, which is to be utilized to edify the church. Spiritual discernment is not a function of the mind; it’s a function of the spirit. . . . the Spirit helps us know what cannot be objectively verified.3

According to Anderson the discerning of spirits is neither objective nor cognitive, but some type of inner impression. He misses the fact that “distinguishing” one thing from another is always an act of the mind. The mind has to decide about what is under consideration, be it types of spirits as Anderson claims or the source of a prophecy as I am going to claim. There is no such thing as non-mental discernment.

Gordon Fee points out that the order (prophecy first then literally from the Greek, discernment of spirits) is in keeping with other passages in the New Testament.4 This would mean that “discerning spirits” is the equivalent of judging prophecy. Fee ties the “distinguishing of spirits” to judging prophecy based on the similarity to Paul’s terminology in other passages. In the following paragraphs I will deal with each of the other passages that deal with this concept and defend the proposition that the discerning of spirits is the judging of prophecy.

Another passage where prophecy is followed by judging is this one: “Do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1Thessalonians 5:20, 21). It is fair to assume that the “prophetic utterances” that Paul mentions here are of the same sort that he addresses in 1Corinthians. Members of the congregation were speaking forth what they believed to be from God. To despise here means “to make absolutely nothing of” or to “hold in contempt.”5 Rather than automatically disregarding anything that was purported to be from God, the Thessalonians were to “examine” what was said and distinguish the good from the bad. The word “examine” here is dokimazo_ which has to do with putting something to the test to determine its nature. It means, “to test, examine, or scrutinize.” The same Greek word is used in this passage: “that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1Peter 1:7), where it is translated “tested.” Prophecy is to be carefully put to the test to see if it is from God.

This type of testing is objective. The word dokimazo_ is used of assaying gold (as Peter’s usage shows). It is a means of determining the true nature of the item tested. Just as Peter tells us that we need to know that our faith is genuine (which it proves to be under severe testing), we need to know if people claiming to speak for God are indeed doing so. Nothing could be more foreign to Paul’s teaching in 1Thessalonians than uncritically accepting religious teaching for subjective reasons. But this is exactly what many today do. If a teaching makes them feel happy or uplifted, they think it must be from God. This is a subjective test and will not work. False doctrine makes many people happy. Conversely true doctrine makes many people upset.

Paul also discusses the gift of prophecy in Romans 12:6, “And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith.” There is an issue of translation from the Greek here. The passage says literally, “according to the analogy of the faith.” Though some have argued that “his faith” (in the subjective sense) is in view, I do not think this interpretation fits the grammar or the larger Biblical context. Opinion on this matter is divided. Some scholars see a subjective understanding of “faith” (as the NASB translates it). Others see the literal translation “the faith” as being the objective content of the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). If, however, one considers both the literal Greek6 and the fact that elsewhere in the New Testament prophecy is to be judged, the objective understanding makes the most sense.

Charles Hodge spends several pages in his commentary on Romans arguing for an objective understanding of this passage. He wrote:

If, however, faith here means, as it does in so many other places, the object of faith, or the truths to be believed, (see Galatians 1:23; 3:25; 6:10; Ephesians 4:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:5, etc.,) then according to the proportion signifies, agreeably to the rule or standard; and the apostle’s direction to the prophets is, that in all their communications they are to conform to the rule of faith, and not contradict those doctrines which had been delivered by men whose inspiration had been established by indubitable evidence. In favor of this view of the passage is the frequent use of the word faith in the sense thus assigned to it. The ordinary subjective sense of the word does not suit the passage.7

Similarly, Lenski writes, “Now ‘prophecy’ is objective, the contents of what one may prophesy, and it is plain that the controlling norm for this cannot be something subjective, the prophet’s own trust, but in the very nature of the case must also be something objective, ‘the faith (or doctrine) once delivered to the saints.’”8

So in Romans 12:6, prophecy is once again followed by an objective test: the faith once for all delivered to the saints. The member of the congregation who gives a prophecy must be willing to submit that prophecy to the standard of the faith. It must be in agreement with the objective teachings of Scripture.

In 1Corinthians 14:29, Paul again addresses this issue: “And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.” A key concept in understanding this passage is what Paul means by “prophets.” Sometimes this word is speaking of a person with the office of a prophet (like Agabus), but often it means “one who is prophesying.” The context shows that the latter is Paul’s meaning here.9 For example, consider verse 31: “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted” (1Corinthians 14:31). Notice the possibility of any member of the congregation giving a prophecy. Paul is not speaking of a class of people, “prophets,” as distinguished from ordinary Christians. Notice also the proper result of prophecy: “may be exhorted.” This agrees with the key purposes of this type of prophecy: “But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation” (1Corinthians 14:3).

The judgment (discerning)10 of prophecy then would involve others in the congregation discerning whether or not the exhortation was a valid implication of the faith. If a “prophesying one” were exhorting people to some belief or action that was not in keeping with the apostolic teaching that Paul had delivered to the congregation, then it was to be rejected as not coming from the Holy Spirit. This is confirmed by something Paul says a few verses later: “If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment” (1Corinthians 14:37). Paul’s letter to them is objectively God’s authoritative word. Their spiritual utterance must be judged by the objective writings, not the subjective (what the “spiritual” person thinks).

So far we have seen that prophecy is always to be judged by objective standards. In a most general sense, to prophesy is to claim to speak for God. The Scriptures are God’s inspired word. Only that which agrees with scripture properly applied is authoritative and binding. Now we will examine in some detail a very important text about discerning spirits.


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