One time I visited a new church. During the worship time, the man in front of me turned around, laid his hand on my shoulder and said God had a word for me. I was shocked. I wasn’t used to this type of thing. If God wanted to say something to me, why not just tell me Himself?
But I was curious, so I said to go ahead. Slowly he shared the word with me, and as he did, my mouth almost hit the floor. Everything he said was right on. How did he know this? He said things, secret things, that only God knew. Had he read my mind? He said intimate things I had written in my journal. Had he swiped my journal? I was dumbfounded.
In principle I knew God cared about me. In principle I knew God listened to me when I prayed. In principle I knew God was near. But suddenly this experience made these principles real. At that time in my life, I needed them to be real.
The gift of prophecy is the ability to receive a message from God for another person. The Bible says to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially personal prophecy. This means that as the Church, we’re called to prophesy. But if people are prophesying, it also means something else—the Church needs to know how to respond to prophecy. I wonder how many of us know what to do when we receive a prophetic word.
In Thessalonians 1, the Apostle Paul gives the church some good advice on how to respond to prophetic words: 1) examine everything carefully; 2) hold fast to what is good; and 3) avoid every form of evil. This instruction wasn’t just for the first century Christians; it’s an injunction for today.
Committing to this three-fold process will ensure we receive what is from God and avoid what is not from God. By examining a prophetic word, we’re not judging the person who gave it, or doubting the veracity of the word, but instead we’re obeying God’s ordained process as revealed in Scripture.
As a principle, we ought to wait for a confirmation of the word. Think of it as a safety net. If the word calls for a change in your life, it’s better to wait for God to confirm it.
First, examine everything carefully.
To examine is to “inspect or inquire closely” or to “test the condition.” This entails study and investigation. Before deciding a message is from God, run it through a series of tests. In The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, Dr. Sam Storms presents five tests:
Conformity to Scripture
Second Thessalonians 2.15 says to, “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught.” The traditions are the teachings of the apostles—informed by the Old Testament scriptures and inspired by the Holy Spirit, and canonized in the New Testament. Therefore, prophetic words must agree with Scripture.
First Corinthians 14.3 says that “one who prophesies speaks to men for strengthening, encouragement, and comfort.” Unless it’s a corrective word by an ordained prophet preceded by an effort by God Himself, prophecy must encourage.
First Corinthians 13.1 says, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or clanging symbol.” Prophesying without love brings disorder and chaos. Love is the foundation for speaking words from God. When prophecy is given without love, it will discourage, which is opposite of its intended purpose.
Proverbs 15.22 says, “Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.” Bring the prophetic word before your community. The members can help examine the word with Scripture, and may have a different perspective that is helpful.
God will not contradict Himself. If He has already spoken something to you, future experiences will support the prophetic word, not contradict it.
The process of testing a prophetic word might look different from person to person. Some are comfortable judging a word after a short investigation while others require a more strenuous approach. Whatever length of time or depth of examination, it’s important to choose a process that is intentional. The level of your investigation will determine the level of your comfort to move to the next step, or wait, depending on the word.
Second, hold fast to what is good.
Once you’re satisfied you believe the word is from God, Scripture says to hold fast to it. To hold fast is to “stick with determination.” According to Storms, we are to believe it, obey it, and preserve it. Whatever the word reveals—the past, present, or future—regard it when making decisions and remember it in prayer. God will accomplish what He has said (Isaiah 55.11), so we partner with Him through belief and obedience until His Word is fulfilled.
Third, avoid all forms of evil.
Paul instructs the Church to avoid evil the same way he tells the Church to avoid sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4.3); it’s the same word. Evil can mean “contrary to Scripture.” So, Paul is saying to flee from messages that are contrary to Scripture just like you would flee from sexual sin. If you are in the midst of receiving a prophetic word and it does not conform to Scripture, cut it short. It might be awkward, but far better an uncomfortable situation than evil words coming at you. By repeating this emphasis on scriptural conformity, Paul shows how important it is to check prophetic words with Scripture.