“Thus saith the Lord. You are like cinnamon rolls baking in the oven. God is preparing you for a feast. Do not be burned! Do not let the icing be poured upon you making you a soggy pastry! Do not be eaten by the birds of prey or be scorched by the hellfire because you stayed too long in the oven!”
Wait…what? For some people, this is not too much of a stretch for what passes for prophecy these days. It seems that if someone is so bold as to pronounce “Thus saith the Lord” before their metaphor-laden monologue in the middle of a church service, then many will accept it as a “word of the Lord” without examining its content. Perhaps the speaker is just really hungry. Or maybe he/she has a common ailment in church circles today: the fear of silence. Whatever the reason, it is possible that what one believed to be prophecy in the moment, turns out not to be so. We ought to give grace and mercy to those who dare to speak on behalf of God – even it proves to be a mistake. Despite such mistakes, the gift of prophecy is still a vital element in the church today.
Paul makes it clear that anyone can potentially prophecy. “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy.” (1 Corinthians 14:5) Caiaphas, the high priest at the time of Jesus’ death, made a bold statement in John 11:50. “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” The irony is that it was he who did not realize what he was saying. John comments, “He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation.” In other words, though Caiaphas was an enemy of Jesus and meant something completely different when he spoke about Jesus’ death, God used him to prophesy to the Jewish people that Jesus would die for all of them.
That seems to be just the trouble with prophecy. Even those who speak it may not know they are doing it at the time. In fact, even a donkey prophesied in Numbers 22. So the character or integrity of the speaker is not as important a consideration as the content of the prophecy. God can use anyone to speak to His people – even asses!
A common misunderstanding is that prophecy always predicts the future. While it often points to the future, most prophecy actually pertains to the present or even reminds the hearers of the past. The easiest way for me to remember these distinctions is by using two terms: foretelling and forthtelling. Foretelling is prophecy with future consequences. It is usually in the form of an if/then statement like “if you do this, then I will do that.” Forthtelling is prophecy with present day ramifications; it is what God is saying right now to His people. It may bring comfort or judgment or a warning or a reminder or a challenge or consolation, but its ultimate goal is building up the people of God (Thiselton, NIGTC, p.964).
Prophecy is usually “spontaneous, Spirit-inspired, intelligible messages, orally delivered in the gathered assembly” (Fee, NICNT, p.595). However, prophecy “does not necessarily exclude teaching and doctrine” (Thiselton, NIGTC, p.963). In other words, a sermon might be prophetic, but that is the exception more than the rule. Unprepared and spontaneous utterances seem to be norm, but they should not define prophecy either.
There is so much more that can be said about prophecy, but rather than describe how it operated in Paul’s time, I thought it might help to hear the words of Jesus from a different perspective. Rather than thinking of Mark 13:11 as a prediction of the future, try to think of this as an encouragement for you yourself to prophesy today. “Say whatever is given to you at the time; for it is not you speaking but the Holy Spirit.” May God give us the words to say and the boldness to say them.