Prophecy in the Church Today: an interview with Michael Sullivant
As appearing in the Spring 2004 issue of the PNEUMA REVIEW
Pneuma Review: What is the biblical role of the prophet today?
Allow me to begin by stating that I define "prophetic" in a simple and broad way. It has generally to do with direct divine communication by the Holy Spirit to and/or through human beings. "Prophetic" then serves as an umbrella term that has many sub-categories: the prophetic scriptures (2 Pet 1:20); a spirit of prophecy, a spirit of wisdom and revelation; the gift of prophecy, a word of wisdom or knowledge; a prophet or prophetic ministry, spiritual dreams and visions; angelic visitations, Holy Spirit induced trances; audible voices from the Spirit realm and the like. Direct divine inspiration and communication is intrinsic to all prophetic activity and causes its recipient to be animated and activated by a power beyond this earth.
The proper role of a contemporary prophet is not to take the place of the Holy Spirit's role in the life of any believer or congregation. Neither is it to lead, command, correct or the Church without reference to the other ministries appointed by God. It isn't to establish new essential doctrines of our common historic faith. And, it certainly isn't to write new Scriptures.
The proper role of any modern-day "prophet" is akin to the "prophets" that are referred to in the New Testament. There are similarities between the New Testament prophets and the Old Testament prophets, but there are also many differences. The major one being the fact that through the New Covenant, every believer in Christ has an abiding anointing of the Holy Spirit that has transformed them into a living "temple". Thus, every Spirit-filled believer has a "dose" of the prophetic spirit. In the OT there was "prophetic concentration" in which relatively few people had the "word of the Lord" come to them directly. In the NT, there is a "prophetic distribution" in which the actual voice of God would be directly heard by many.
This is reflected in Acts 2 where Peter uses the Old Testament prophecies of Joel to characterize the Pentecostal outpouring as being a "prophetic" infusion. The Church of Jesus Christ is therefore to be "prophetic" by nature. In essence, God answered the ancient "sigh" of Moses that "all the Lord's people would be prophets". I like to think of it this way: on the day of Pentecost, the pillar of fire that had led the children of Israel in the wilderness, broke apart and was distributed as a "tongue of fire" resting upon every recipient of the Spirit's power. Since then, wherever a Spirit-filled believer in Christ goes, the power of the Spirit goes with her or him. This power is "prophetic" in its essence. Through the Body of Christ, the power of God has become highly mobile and the life and ministry of Jesus has been multiplied. This was right in line with the God's passionate intention and ingenious strategy to fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory.
This wide distribution of the prophetic ministry of the Holy Spirit through the New Covenant significantly changed the dynamics of prophets and their role within the community of God's people. The prophets of God are now to be relationally and functionally integrated within the larger Body of Christ where they are surrounded with the blessing and safety of many other divinely gifted believers. They do not stand alone or apart from their fellow members, and are in no way superior because of their extra dose of prophetic revelation or experiences. They simply make their special contribution along with everyone else. New Testament prophets prophesy "in part" and "according to the measure of their faith". They don't see the whole picture because they need the gifts of the other members to see and experience all that God intends to reveal. God has purposefully created this interdependent dynamic within the NT church. This characteristic distinguishes it from the prophetic dynamic of Israel in the OT in which only a selected few had the word of the Lord come to them.
In light of this, NT prophets are not to be considered infallible in their person or their ministry, just as other gifted believers are not to be regarded this way. Even the weak humanity of the apostles Peter and Paul are referred to in the NT account. Just because they themselves were anointed and used by God to inscripturate His infallible word doesn't imply that they were above and beyond error in other aspects of their lives or ministries. The words of NT prophets need to be judged and examined by the rest of the Spirit-filled community because their weak humanity might get mingled in with their message. Their words are not infallible, because they don't need to be infallible to be legitimate and helpful, as long as they are properly related and in submission to the body of believers about them. If they make errors in the transmission of their words, then they can be forgiven and encouraged instead of being rejected and stoned. Of course this requires the humility on their part to not demand some kind of "special status" in the body beyond the honor that is afforded every member of the body. If a degree of human error is interspersed with the prophetic word of a believer, this should not automatically classify them as a "false prophet". Rather their word should be tested and refined by the light of Scripture, the wisdom and mature judgment of the body, and the leaders that surround them so that any good can be gleaned from what they have delivered. If infallibility is to be the standard for NT prophetic ministry, who then would dare step out to begin to prophesy?
It is within the NT record that we are to look for our models for contemporary prophetic ministry. If you accept the above premises, then one thing becomes clear: receiving, interpreting and applying contemporary prophecy becomes more of an art than an exact science. I believe it is this way by God's design. He desires to use the challenge that this presents to draw us closer to His heart and to more deeply rely on His Spirit in our lives.
In the NT we see prophets at Corinth speaking forth for the purpose of the exhortation, edification and comfort of their church in addition to revealing the secrets of people's hearts that leads to their salvation. We see the prophets at Antioch ministering to the Lord and fasting and then hearing the voice of God regarding the apostolic mandate of Saul and Barnabas. We see Agabus and Philip's seven daughters, along with many others, predicting and confirming some specific troubles to come in Paul's future. We also see Agabus accurately predicting a famine that came upon a whole region with such authority, that believers prepared to help those who would be affected by it. We see Judas and Silas, who were called prophets, strengthening the churches through preaching lengthy messages. Indeed, prophets love to have biblical justification for their long messages! We also see in Ephesians that the NT prophets are to partner with the NT apostles as complementary ministries that help lay foundations in the churches so that they become sound, mature and well-rounded. These are the kinds of functions that we see in the NT for Christian prophets. We see these same kinds of functions I have just emphasized performed by our prophets countless times throughout the history of the Church, even to this day.
PR: What do you think are some of the main misunderstandings among believers concerning the prophetic gifts?
The most obvious misunderstanding is that they have somehow become unnecessary and God has planned that they would cease before the return of Jesus. Cessationism is clearly negated by what Paul wrote in 1 Cor 1:4-8:
I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in everything you were enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift, awaiting eagerly the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Another mistaken view is that NT prophetic ministry should be viewed as an infallible exact science or on par with Scripture. This can lead to several related errors:
- That such giftedness automatically implies maturity in character and/or doctrine on the part of the human vessel. When we want to study about the spiritual gifts we typically turn to 1 Corinthians. Yet, when we want to expose immaturity and carnality in the church, we also turn to 1 Corinthians. I think you get the point.
- That prophetically gifted people do not need to live by the same basic biblical patterns of life, ethics and standards as other believers do. That somehow these people are above and beyond these basics.
- That prophets know just about everything about anything or that God will tell them if they ask Him to.
- That God is "continually talking" to prophets and that prophets are continually hearing the voice of God.
- That prophets cannot have or enjoy aspects of an ordinary life because of their extra-ordinary giftedness.
- That prophets are not to be properly subject, like everyone else, to the governors of their churches.
A further result of the above thinking is that prophecy is given undue emphasis. People may begin to see it as the normal way to discern the will of God for our lives instead of the renewing of our minds and the wisdom of Scripture. They may act on the word of a prophet even if it hasn't been confirmed in their heart or by some other outside objective sources. Every vivid dream or picture in the mind may come to be seen as a divine communication.
PR: What is the role of the prophetic in evangelism?
Prophetic ministry is wonderfully seen in the NT as a significant means of conviction, conversion and opening up the gospel to whole new groups of people. We see revelatory words at work through the ministry of Jesus Himself. (By the way, there is a very important concept to highlight here. I deeply believe that Jesus conducted His miraculous ministry, not out of His divinity, but out of His Spirit-filled humanity. This is the basis on which He could say in John 14:12, that the works that He did, and greater works, would be multiplied through His followers who would receive the very same Spirit's power.) It seems that it was a simple word of knowledge through our Lord that led to Nathaniel's extravagant commitment to Him. It was prophetic insight that touched the heart of the woman at the well. This ultimately opened up the whole village to believe in Jesus. In fact, we see Peter's confession of Jesus as the Son of God in Matthew 16 was based on a personal revelation from the Father to Peter's heart. As Paul would later say in 1 Cor 12:1, "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' but by the Holy Spirit". A "prophetic" revelation from the Holy Spirit to the heart and mind of a human being is the very dynamic that initiates their conversion.
We see in the book of Acts how prophetic revelation is often linked with the occurrence of miraculous healings and conversions. Two outstanding examples in of how the prophetic is linked to evangelism are seen in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus and of the household of Cornelius. Prophetic visions, anointed proclamations and prayers, trances, angelic visitations and supernatural voices all played into these world-altering events. These kinds of accounts are not one-time super-human testimonies that only happened in the first century. Accounts similar to these have been repeated throughout history wherever the gospel has gone forth--especially on the front end of reaching the unreached people groups.
I know of a number of contemporary testimonies of people coming to Jesus through obviously prophetic means, the most common of these being spiritual dreams given to people who did not know Jesus as Lord at the time.
PR: Are there things prophetic individuals can do to constructively reach out to open-but-cautious Christians?
Many sincere believers have never had an obvious encounter with prophetic ministry, although they actually have "heard" the voice of God in one way or another. There are many constructive ways that prophetically gifted people can reach out and encourage fellow followers of Jesus without confusing or offending them. When I find myself ministering to believers for whom this ministry is unfamiliar, I often adapt my approach to make it more "user-friendly". If the Holy Spirit is granting prophetic revelation in their case, then it will hit the mark on its own, regardless of our methodology. One main way that I do this is to turn my prophetic insight into a personal prayer for them. Another way is to ask questions based upon the insight that I have received. Still another helpful approach is to give credible and reasoned testimony about how the Holy Spirit is still moving in these ways in our day. There are many books that contain these kinds of accounts and many people have personal stories to tell along the same lines. It has been well said that a person with a testimony is never at the mercy of a person with an argument. Finally, it is fruitless to argue with fellow believers about this matter, for we might find ourselves disobeying the great commandment while attempting to share this good news about the power of the Spirit. This is an irony that is best for us to avoid.
PR: Do you have any closing words for us?
There certainly is a great deal more that can be said about the prophetic ministry of the Holy Spirit. In closing, let me return to the well-known prophecy of Joel that Peter quoted on the day of Pentecost. I believe that this prophecy, like so many others in Scripture, contains various degrees of fulfillment.
I like to compare theses great Biblical prophecies to the overlapping picture transparencies of the human body that can be found in some encyclopedias. Each picture overlays the previous to add more detail, literally adding flesh to bones and skin to flesh. These prophecies had a true application within the generational circumstances in which the prophets first spoke them. This would be like the transparency of the human body that pictures the skeletal system. But there are aspects of these divine utterances that were not totally fulfilled in their original cultural context. God was also foretelling what would come to pass in the generation that saw the incarnation of the Christ. This could be likened to the next transparency of the body in which we see the placements of the vital organs. It is in this sense that Peter declared that what happened in the upper room that day was the fulfillment of Joel's ancient prophecy. However, there was even more to come from this word from God in the future of human experience. By simply looking at the specific content of the prophecy, it is clear that there are elements that have not, even as yet, come to pass upon the earth. These are events that are reserved for the "very last days" of the "last days" that began at the ascension of Jesus Christ. There are eschatological dimensions to the fulfilling of many of these Old Testament prophecies--much as another transparency of the body is laid over the previous ones, thereby creating a fuller picture of the whole.
I believe that over the last century, we have been witnessing an unprecedented and further fulfillment of the inter-national, inter-generational, and inter-gender outpouring of the Holy Spirit to which Joel referred. If this move of God is that precursor to the second coming of Christ, then the spirit of prophecy within the Church is not going to abate or be deterred by any force in heaven or earth or under the earth. May God help us to simply cooperate with His unfolding redemptive plan for the nations and become ever more skilled in receiving, interpreting and applying the prophetic words that His Spirit is imparting to the sons and daughters of the living God. There is even more yet to come.
Michael Sullivant oversees and pastors the prophetic ministry at Metro Christian Fellowship in Kansas City, Missouri. He is author of Prophetic Etiquette: Your Complete Handbook on Giving and Receiving Prophecy (Creation House, 2000) and Your Kingdom Come (Creation House, 2000).
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