On my charismatic voyage, I have encouraged my readers time and time again to seek a sign as validation of prophetic claims. I don’t consider myself a cessationist in the strict sense. What I mean is that I don’t necessarily believe the Bible teaches that the controversial gifts such as tongues, prophecy, and healings ceased in the first century. Now, I would not call myself a “continuationist” (one who believes these gifts have definitely continued) or a “charismatic” (one who believes these gifts have continued, are normative, and is personally seeking them out), but I am not a cessationist. I suppose I could be called a “soft” continuationist. This means that while I believe that there is and has been some legitimate expression of these gifts in the church, I have never personally experienced these gifts and am highly skeptical of individuals who claim to possess them. Skeptical. That is a hard word to use in this context. But I don’t really know of a better word. Maybe “discerning,” but that sounds a little self-serving.
When it comes to the gift of prophecy, I am highly suspicious (another good word) when people claim such a gift. Oh wait . . . I need to get this out of the way: prophecy does not necessarily mean that a prediction of the future is on the table. In fact, it rarely means this in the Bible. Prophecy is simply speaking on behalf of God. No, it does not include preachers. Let me rephrase my early definition: prophecy is speaking directly on behalf of God. In the Bible this normally came through dreams, visions, or direct encounters. Heck, one time prophecy was produced through an ass. No, not that kind of ass . . . a donkey! (Numbers 22:28-30). Today, it is normally expressed this way: “God told me to tell you . . .” “This is what God is saying . . .” Or the most direct (in good ol’ King James English), “Thus sayeth the Lord . . .” But it does not have to be so direct. Prophecy can be claimed in less direct ways such as, “I think this is a message from the Lord for you . . .” Or, “This is what your dream may mean . . .” Here is a good example of a very indirect way to claim prophecy: the other day I was praying with a gentleman who came to me for prayer after a service I preached. I laid my hand on him (a symbolic gesture that has no inherent power) and prayed. Immediately after we were done, he asked me if my chest hurt in a certain spot that he pointed to on his chest. It was as if he was asking me if I had heart problems. I told him the area did not hurt. He looked confused and asked again, “Are you sure it does not hurt right here?” pointing to the same spot. “Not at all,” I responded with confusion. “Why?” “Well,” he responded, “during our prayer, my chest started hurting right here. When you took your hand off, it stopped.” Now, most people like me would not have any prophetic thoughts about such a situation. The only alarm would be for the one who is actually having the chest pain, not the one who is touching him! But this gentleman, being schooled in more charismatic circles, seemed to think that his chest pain had some transcendent message tied to it. I suppose he thought God was telling him I had heart issues.
Another situation arose this morning when I arrived at the Credo House for work. Hanging on the door was a flier from “Christians Against Nike.” And yes, it was serious. The person behind this organization believes it is his God-given calling to take down Nike. Yes, Nike – the shoe maker. Why? Well, you can read most of it for yourself (www.christiansagainstnike.com), but the confirmation of his “calling” came when he asked God a series of questions and then pointed to the first word he saw in the Bible. Each time he took it as God’s direct message to him. This led him to the mission of taking down Nike. He has been blackballed from many churches in this area.
On and on I could go with anecdotes and illustrations. My point is that people often think God is talking to/through them. A lot of people do. And I am not necessarily saying he is not. Maybe he is speaking through some of them. Whether or not you are a charismatic or non-charismatic is not the issue. However, I will go out on a limb and say I don’t believe most of these stories. I will go further out on a limb and say I think that, for the most part, the bar is set way too low for God’s prophetic word in the church today and there is internal pressure to keep it low.
What do you say when someone says, “I think I have a word from God for you”? What do you say when someone asks, “Are you having pain right here?” What is your process for establishing something as truly being from God? Often times we look only for good or encouraging news – “God told me that you are going to do great things for the Lord” or “Marry Natalie” or “start a church” – and hang our hat on that. But from what I have seen in the Scripture, good news is not necessarily a standard for messages from God (Jer 23:16-17; Acts 11:28). But we like good news, so we are more likely to want to receive such. Before my sister died, my mother believed she got a “word from the Lord” (as she put it) that my sister was not going to die (she had been mentally sick for a while and had attempted suicide a couple of times). When I encouraged her to be skeptical about the “word” she received from God, she would have none of it. She wanted it to be true so badly that she hung onto it until the day my sister died. My mother remained bitter at the Lord until her aneurysm two years later, believing that he had let her down.
I have suggested some criteria before for establishing a prophetic word. Basically, it comes down to two things, one easy and one not so easy. 1) Mark of orthodoxy. Whatever is said must square with previously revealed Scripture. I get this from Deut. 13:1-2. This one is relatively simple, as most modern prophets speak to the adiaphora (things that the Scripture is indifferent to or does not speak about such as who God wants you to marry, where he wants you to work, or whether to start this church or that ministry. 2) Mark of transcendence. This one is not so easy. This is where you have to perform some sort of attesting sign. I get this primarily from Deut. 18:21-22. After all, anyone can claim to speak on behalf of God or suppose that they might have a word from God, but how would we know if they are really from God if they are not able to provide evidence that they had borrowed from God? Again, anyone can make the claim to be God’s mouthpiece at will, but not everyone can produce a miracle at will.
In my through-the-year Bible reading today, I came across an instance where Hezekiah, on his deathbed, receives a prophecy from Isaiah that his prayers have been heard and he is going to recover and live a bonus fifteen years. Now, considering the source (Isaiah), I probably would have bitten and put a whole coat rack up here (or I would have just waited a few days to see if I actually got better!). However, Hezekiah wanted more. He said, “What sign will the Lord give to prove that he will heal me?” (2 Kings 20:8). Isaiah proceeds to give him an attesting miracle demonstrating that he really had been talking to God (2 Kings 20:9-10). It was a pretty good indication that Isaiah was from God. After all, who has the power to move the sun backwards but God! (Or the earth, for those of you who need scientific precision!)
Christ had the same issue. He faced a dilemma after forgiving some poor man’s sins (a definite no-no if you are not God). The Pharisees did not like that he forgave a man’s sins. They called him to account, saying that no one could do that but God (Matt. 9:5). Christ, aware of this, knew he needed a game-changer if he were to legitimize his exercise of an outstandingly divine prerogative. After all, anyone can claim to forgive sins. What you may not know is that this man whose sins had just been forgiven was paralyzed. “So Christ said, ‘For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, and walk’? But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – then He said to the paralytic – ‘Rise, take up your bed, and go home.’ ” (Mat 9:5-6). And guess what? The man rose and walked. Christ’s words were substantiated. It is easy to say, “Your sins have been forgiven,” just like it is easy to say, “I have a message from God for you.” But Christ was making a point. He was going to substantiate what he said with what he did – an attesting miracle. I could go on and on with examples from other Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles and prophets. The point is that when God sends his message through someone he will always accompany it with a mark of transcendence, so as to establish the prophet, the individual message, or both.
The most common objection I hear to this “you must perform an attesting sign” criteria is based on the passage in Mark where the Pharisees seek a sign and are reprimanded for it:
And the Pharisees came out and began to argue with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, to test Him. And sighing deeply in His spirit, He said, “Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.
Seems clear enough, right? Hold on. There are four problems with relating this to what I have been speaking about. 1) It is already well established that people are to expect signs to accompany God’s message. 2) John took Christ’s signs as a definite and necessary validation of his claims (John 20:30-31). 3) In other similar passages, Christ says that “no sign will be given to this generation except the sign of his resurrection” (Luke 11:29ff; Matt. 16:4ff), so there was a sign to be given. 4) Because of these things, most commentators agree that the problem was not asking for a sign, but asking for a sign when so many signs had already been given. It has to do with the insatiability of their skepticism, not their request for a sign. R.T. France puts it best:
The concept of a (usually miraculous) sign to authenticate a prophet or other person claiming divine authorisation is a thoroughly biblical and Jewish one (cf. Paul’s comment on the Jewish demand for σημεῖα in 1 Cor. 1:22). Such signs are a prominent feature in the story of Moses (Ex. 4:1–9, 29–31; 7:8–22, etc.), and are clearly intended to be accepted as proof of his divine mission, though it should be noted that not all miraculous ‘signs’ are to be trusted (Ex. 7:11–12, 22; 8:7; Dt. 13:1–3). Elijah’s calling down fire from heaven (1 Ki. 18:38) was a further spectacular example of the sort of authentication the Pharisees may have had in mind; cf. also Is. 7:10–17; 38:7–8. In the NT both Luke (in Acts) and John frequently use σημεῖον in a totally positive sense to denote the miracles of Jesus and of his followers, understood as visible indications of the power of God at work through his chosen servants (though again, as in the OT, ‘signs’ can also be performed by the opposition: Mk. 13:22; 2 Thes. 2:9; Rev. 13:11–15).
So the desire for a σημεῖον [sign]is not in itself self-evidently wrong. By adding πειράζοντες αὐτόν, however, Mark indicates that the request was disingenuous, and thus prepares the way for Jesus’ refusal of what might seem, on the face of it, a reasonable request. Coming from the Pharisees, the request denotes not a readiness to be convinced, but an excuse for refusing to respond to the clear evidence already available in Jesus’ teaching and ministry. (The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC, p. 312)
God understands the dilemma that we face. This is why he set up the “system” the way he did. This is why he is so protective of his word, his reputation, and his name. This is why when he speaks, there is a significant footprint made. This is why his messages are accompanied by signs so extraordinary that to deny they are from God would represent the pinnacle of insatiability and irrationalism.
I write this not only to protect the receiver of supposed prophecy, but to protect the “prophets” themselves. I think we can be self-deceived and pressured into finding prophetic messages from the Lord everywhere. If you think you have had a dream, vision, or message from God, honor God by requiring a sign. Don’t play “lucky lotto” Bible study and point to the first word you see to get God’s message. That is no sign or wonder. Anyone can do that. If you are praying for someone and you feel a pain in your chest, go to the doctor – don’t suppose God is telling you something about the one whose hand is on your shoulder. These types of things can totally destroy lives. These types of things bring paranoia, hope where there is none, marriage proposals that ought not be, crusades hell-bent on destroying shoe manufacturers, and (most personally), hope for a life saved when it is not God’s plan. I am not saying that there are no prophets or prophecies today, I am just saying that we have a big God who has set the bar very high for his word. Indeed, so high that no one can possibly meet it, except someone that is truly from God and can say, “pick up this pallet and walk.” Demand such a sign in your life and others’. If none is present, you should never yield your precious beliefs over to such claims. It dishonors God and redirects thoughts and lives for the worse.