Prophetic Discernment In An Uncertain World

The last King of Judah was having a very bad day. His rule was insecure from the start. Everyone knew he was a mere puppet—installed by the authority of Babylon after King Nebuchadnezzar dethroned his nephew, Jehoiachin. The Babylonian siege was brutal, leaving Jerusalem a vassal state with little hope. Yet here was Zedekiah in the temple courtyard, going through the motions of a faithful Judean king. What the commoners didn’t realize was that Zedekiah had ambition. Jerusalem might stand a slim chance of survival if he could somehow enlist the help of his neighbours to resist Babylon. If he played his political cards just right, he would go down in history as the king who made Jerusalem great again.

Undermining his plans was the prophet Jeremiah. That constant bearer-of-bad-news was still walking around wearing his wooden yoke symbolizing submission to the enemy. He was urging not only Judah but ambassadors from neighbouring states—Edom, Moab, Ammon, Tyre and Sidon—to give up, to serve Babylon! He arrived in the temple courtyard wearing his wordless sermon in the sight of everyone.

Prophecy is an essential Pentecostal experience. As the Spirit-empowered community of Jesus, we recognize that God uses ordinary people to share timely messages with others. I’ve spent the last few years studying how Canadian Pentecostals experience prophecy. It turns out that our modern-day experience is very similar to the Old Testament prophets.1 Prophets recognize the presence of God and receive the prophetic impulse. They exercise discernment before declaring (or, like Jeremiah with his yoke, acting out) the message. The entire prophetic experience often carries profound emotional and physical sensations.

The question of discernment—that moment after hearing from God but before speaking—is the step that concerns me the most. To be honest, I’m not sure we practice discernment well. We tend to leave that responsibility to the person prophesying, although some people also share the task with a pastor or worship leader. But do we not believe in the priesthood and prophethood of all believers? Should not the whole body of Christ have a role in discernment?2

Another question: What criteria do we use for evaluating the truth and timeliness of a prophetic message? Some people quote the three terms of 1 Corinthians 14:3 (NRSV): upbuilding, encouragement and consolation. But what about harsher messages?3 When it comes down to it, our ultimate authority is Scripture. A study commission from The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada recognized this when they wrote, “Contemporary prophecy is not recognized as a canonical word that operates as the norm for God’s people on the same level as the Scriptures.” Further, “The criteria to be used in evaluating prophecy include the Scriptures.”4 Amen! Pentecostals around the world agree with these bedrock truths: modern-day prophecy is not equal in authority to Scripture and must be tested by Scripture. If someone prophesies, “Jesus is not Lord,” then we can be sure that the prophecy is false.

My problem is not with the truth of the above paragraph—it’s that it doesn’t go far enough. Scripture is a rich, multifaceted narrative that is lived out or performed in flesh-and-blood communities of faith. Have you ever heard a prophecy that was biblically true but still didn’t feel quite right? Let’s revisit the last king of Judah.

When Jeremiah entered the temple courtyard that day, he wasn’t particularly loved—by the people or by the leadership. He had been prophesying doom-and-gloom for some 35 years and his latest stunt with the yoke didn’t do much to boost national pride. The words he had declared for months rattled the hearts and minds of the people gathered for worship: “Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live” (Jeremiah 27:12, NRSV). Imagine the mixed emotions of the crowd: anger that a person claiming to speak for God urged devotion to a pagan ruler, fear that the prophet may be right, and perhaps irritation that the old curmudgeon had thrown a wet blanket over their worship time.

Into this awkward situation strides Hananiah, who’s name means “Yahweh has been gracious.”5 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel,” declares Jeremiah’s prophetic rival, “I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 28:2, NRSV, emphasis added). Jeremiah glares across the courtyard. Imagine a slow, sarcastic clap. “Amen!” replies Jeremiah with barbed irony, “May the Lord do so” (Jeremiah 28:6, NRSV). In a rage, Hananiah marches across the courtyard, tears the wooden yoke from Jeremiah’s shoulders, and snaps it over his knee. This was prophetic theatre at its finest.

Who would you believe—Jeremiah or Hananiah? I know who I would want to believe. Let’s return to the discernment question and put our biblical criterion to the test. Jeremiah, deeply rooted in Deuteronomic theology, recognized that God’s people had broken the Mosaic covenant and would suffer the full weight of the covenant curses including expulsion from their land (see Deuteronomy 28:15–68). Jeremiah appealed to the prophets who came before him, who had all prophesied “war, famine, and pestilence” (Jeremiah 28:8, NRSV). The burden of proof surely lies with the prophet who declares peace! Jeremiah’s prophetic message was thoroughly biblical. The problem is—so was Hananiah’s.

Hananiah’s message drew from the prophet Isaiah who declared that Zion was untouchable:

“Look on Zion, the city of our appointed festivals! Your eyes will see Jerusalem, a quiet habitation, an immovable tent,

whose stakes will never be pulled up, and none of whose ropes will be broken”

(Isaiah 33:20, NRSV, emphasis added).

Listen to the finality of those words: immovable, never, none. It’s difficult to understand Hananiah’s prophetic message as anything other than biblical. The people gathered for worship that day were faced with a dilemma: which biblical message would they heed? Which message was from God, and which was from the prophet’s imagination? We face the same dilemma when someone delivers a prophetic word that, although biblical, might feel off. Andrew G. Shead states the dilemma well: “There is no test by which one can invariably and publicly verify that what one hears are the words of God, yet one is held responsible for putting one’s trust in them if they are and rejecting them if they are not.”6

Here’s the hard truth: We will never know with absolute certainty whether a prophetic message is from the Lord. Obviously, if the message is unbiblical, then we are free to ignore it and move on. If it is biblical, we have a more challenging question to face: Is it God’s word for this moment? Here are a few simple suggestions to help us navigate this question. First, let’s abandon the idea of certainty. Prophetic messages are grasped by faith, which does not offer objective verification. Second, let’s normalize communal discernment. When someone shares a prophetic message, our default should never be to make an individual decision to accept it uncritically, but rather to discuss and pray about it together. Pausing after prophecy to practise discernment may feel disrespectful or even faithless at first, but Spirit-inspired Scripture is clear on this point.7 This leads to a final suggestion: humility. Every person I interviewed for Pentecostal Prophets had this in common: they have made mistakes. Just imagine a prophetic community where people speak in the cadence of humility, gladly submitting their words to the discernment of the community gathered in the name of Jesus, filled with the Spirit. It’s time to replace the solo declaration “thus says the Lord” with “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”8

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