Utilising Prophets in a Global Pandemic

Did you know that you have prophets in your church?

Ephesians 4 make it clear that the ascended Christ has gifted this particular bunch of folks to his Body, along with the apostles, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And these roles are not just for leaders, they are for every Christian.

Jesus has given prophets to his church! So even if you feel a bit uncomfortable about the idea of labelling someone a ‘prophet’ there are plenty of them around, and they are there for “equipping Christ’s people for works of service, so that the Body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:12-13)

I really hope that’s your experience of fivefold prophets. (I’m all too aware that there have been plenty of prophets who have not lived up to these verses, who have not humbly equipped the church and produced unity and maturity – which is why I’m passionate about discipling prophets and helping them be all that Jesus intends them to be.)

In giving prophets to the church Jesus has given us a part of his beautiful and perfect ministry. After all, Jesus is the perfect prophet, the most complete example of prophetic ministry we have ever had, and the One on whom we must model our own prophetic lifestyle and call. The fivefold role of the prophet is fundamentally there to serve the Body of Christ and help it become mature. It’s a ministry that we should be celebrating and releasing, along with the other fivefold roles.

Unfortunately, not all churches know what to do with their prophets at the best of times, let alone when there is a global pandemic happening. So in this blog I want to share a few thoughts on how churches can best utilise their prophets at a time like this – a time when so much is being shaken.

PRAYER: Now more than ever the church needs to be praying – and prophets love prayer. They particularly love being alone in their own private prayer closets, so now is a good time to challenge them to share their passion for intercession with others and to think about how to get the whole church committed to praying. Welcome their insights into how your church can develop a much healthier prayer culture.

A couple of practical suggestions:

  • Ask your prophets to mobilize a 24-7 prayer event particularly focusing on the needs of the local community and the impact of Covid-19.
  • If you are a church leader then ask your prophets to be interceding for you and your ministry at this time. Choose some that you trust and get them praying.

LISTENING: This is a time of sifting and refining, when we need to be reimagining how we do church and where God is leading us. Prophets function as the eyes and ears of the Body, alert to the purposes of God and the promptings of his Spirit. They can bring both God’s words for now, speaking into the current situation, and God’s words for the future as we discern the way forward. They can hear God for both individuals, speaking much needed words of strengthening and comfort, and corporate words for the Body, city and nation.

A practical suggestion:

  • Gather your prophets regularly (online!) over the next few months with the specific purpose of giving them a safe space to share what they sense God is saying to your church at this time. They will need this space to process everything they have been discerning over the last few months. Give them permission to seek God’s heart for words of encouragement and direction for the Body.

ORIENTATE: Because of their passion for God’s presence prophets have an important role to play in re-focusing attention back on God and reminding people of his unfailing love and care for his people. Prophets strengthen the church by helping people draw closer to God and by supplying a life-giving God-awareness. This pandemic is increasing already record levels of anxiety, fear and distraction. We need the ministry of the prophets to help us stay centred on Jesus and the peace that can only be found in his presence.

A practical suggestion:

  • Get your prophets leading a daily online ‘drop-in’ session where people can come and be refreshed in God’s presence through stillness, quiet reflection, mediation on God’s love, and prophetic ministry.

QUESTIONING: Prophets live in a place of tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, the ‘actual’ and the ‘ideal’. They are simultaneously focussed on the glory of God and, at the same time, sensitive to the existing reality in the world around them, with all its injustice and brokenness. This ‘gap-consciousness’ means they are wired to ask questions, to provoke, to confront, and to challenge the status quo. The prophet’s questioning can feel threatening for church leaders, but I believe that in this current season the church urgently needs the prophets to be bringing an alternative consciousness and helping us think outside the box. In a time of shaking we need to be alert to the new things that God is doing. The world right now is grieving, but it is also full of possibilities, and prophets are very much awake to divine promise and the newness that comes through godly questioning. They know that God is on the move and want the rest of the Body to catch up.

A couple of practical suggestions:

  • Commission your prophets to dream with God and to bring some grace-filled prayer-soaked questioning to the community. Allow them to reimagine what the church might look like post-Covid.
  • Ask your prophets to bring their prophetic imagination to the question of how, as we face a global recession, we can better offer support for the poor and marginalised in our city.

This is undoubtably a time of great shaking, for society and for the church. But there is something about the prophetic personality that relishes a bit of shaking and instinctively knows how to navigate a way through it. Fivefold prophets are alive and well in the church today. We need to find them, disciple them, embed them in community, and put them to work.

Hearing God’s Voice in a Time of Shaking

As someone who has sought after the voice of God for most of my adult life I know how comforting and reassuring it can be to hear the gentle voice of the Lord speaking to us in the midst of the storms of life. There are plenty of other ‘voices’ out there right now; voices of fear, panic and confusion that make it especially hard to connect with the ‘still small voice’ of God. This global pandemic has arrived at a time of unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression; so more than ever we need to be able to hear the kind and reassuring words of the Lord: his ‘now’ words that speak directly into our current, specific reality. We need to hear his voice in our hearts.

Jesus’ promise that his ‘sheep’ would hear his voice remains true, regardless of circumstances. This is a promise for every single one of us. The language of the Spirit – the spiritual, internal language that Jesus speaks to us through – is one of incredible depth and beauty, but so simple that a child can learn it. Through ‘listening prayer’ we can all learn to connect with the profound joy of God’s presence and the voice that speaks into our deepest needs. Even if you feel a long way from Jesus right now I want to reassure you that he’s so much closer and so much better than you can even imagine, and well able to pierce the darkness with his brilliant light and his words of love.

So – how do we tune in to God’s voice in a time of great shaking? If you are well practiced in listening prayer and the prophetic gifts, then you just have to do what you have always done, but with much more intentionality. If this is all new to you, I hope you find the following helpful:

1. Remember who God is

What better place to start than by reminding ourselves of the goodness of God! There are so many passages in the Bible that encourage us fix our eyes on God in a time of crisis and speak to us of his constant love and sovereign power. He is the Alpha and Omega who holds all things together. And to hear his voice we need to remember that it is his very nature to call us close and welcome us into his glorious presence. He is our safe place, our portion, and our delight.

God is the great Communicator, unlimited in the ways he speaks to us. He is our perfect heavenly Father who delights to talk to us. He is a relational God who speaks in order to make himself known, and to share his heart and mind with his people. Our Good Father is relentlessly good and kind, and he wants to encourage us and lead us through his voice.

2. Remember who you are

In order to hear God’s voice clearly we have to be secure in our identity as beloved children of God. We have to learn to think like a son or daughter of our perfect heavenly Father. The world around us is constantly trying to tell us that we’re not good enough, clever enough, attractive enough, successful enough. But we have to remember that we are God’s beloved children invited into the richest of relationships, recipients of unquenchable and unconditional love. He is already pleased with us and he calls us his friends. We can live in child-like faith and expectation that we’re welcomed into his presence and that we’ll hear his voice.

3. Prioritise stillness and rest

If there is one thing I’ve learnt about tuning in to God’s voice, it’s that you can’t hear him from a place of striving, stress and hurry. We can only hear him clearly if we’re listening from a place of rest.

Which is all very well, but how can we find that place of peace, stillness and rest when the whole world has gone crazy??

This is where good rhythms and spiritual practices come in. It’s possible for all of us to find simple ways to practice the perfect stillness that can only truly be found in the presence of God. We have to take on the discipline of rest.

There are many great books and resources out there to help, but here’s a simple ‘stillness’ exercise that I am regularly practicing at the moment. It helps me cultivate a God-centred peace and really helps me to tune in to God’s heart so I can hear his words of encouragement to me.

  • Find a quiet spot to sit in for a few minutes.
  • Give thanks to God that he’s here with you right now and that he loves you unconditionally.
  • Give him any worries or anxieties – he’ll gladly take them off you.
  • Practice Paul’s exhortation from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:
    • So, find something to rejoice in;
    • Choose something to pray about;
    • Be thankful about something – even if it’s as simple as being thankful for the cup of tea that you’re holding.
  • Finally, ask God if there is anything he wants to say to you. Remember that God speaks in many different ways. So you may find that a fleeting image pops into your head, or the name of a friend, or a verse from the Bible. It may be something as simple as a sense of peace or love. Just go with it; don’t dismiss it. Write it down and give thanks.

I want to finish with some words from Psalm 46, a Psalm that is very apt for the circumstances we all find ourselves in right now. It reminds us that no matter what is going on, God is the One who calls everything to stillness and to the knowledge of his reality and presence.

            God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is with her, she will not fall…

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts….

He says, “Be still and know that I am God…”

Making Sense of the Old Testament Prophets: 2

As we saw in the previous blog, one way of making sense of the Old Testament prophets is to summarise their ministry according to these two dimensions:

  • Vertical dimension: focused on protecting and maintaining the covenant relationship between God and his people.
  • Horizontal dimension: focused on God’s concerns in the world.

In this blog I’m going to unpack the Horizontal dimension a bit more, and look at how the prophet’s passion for God was often channelled into a passionate engagement with the world around him. Because, at the end of the day,

You can’t worship God and be unmoved by the things that move God.

The prophets of old knew both the ecstasy of being caught up with the glory of God and the agony of seeing the broken world from God’s perspective. For many of them, as they encountered God they simultaneously encountered the divine pathos: the deep emotions in the very heart of God. And a common outcome of this was the prophet being used by God to challenge the various injustices prevalent in the society of the day.

The best place to start is with Moses. Thousands of years may have passed but his embodiment of the prophetic role, along both dimensions, still resonates clearly. Moses heard from God and became the Lord’s friend, and it’s Moses’ ongoing relationship with God that marks him out as the prototype for all other prophets. And when God was moved by the suffering of the Israelites and initiated his great rescue plan he chose Moses as his prophet:

“And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt”  Exodus 3:9-10

Moses stands as a towering figure over the Old Testament. The Exodus story is the narrative of the Old Testament and Moses is the protagonist of the Exodus narrative – the great archetypal story of an enslaved people becoming free. God raised up Moses as his representative, commissioned to lead his people, and to confront the evil regime of Pharaoh. Through Moses, the first prophet, God’s reality crashed headlong into the dominant imperial culture, into Pharaoh’s version of reality, so that the false gods were exposed and so that God’s people could break free from oppression and exploitation.

Moses gives us a great framework for understanding the Horizontal aspect of prophetic ministry and helps us make sense of how many prophets after him engaged with God’s heart for social justice. In the Old Testament we see that part of the prophet’s role was as political commentator and activist: concerned with challenging empire and society, and taking the side of the marginalised and vulnerable. They spoke truth to power, and experienced anguish at injustice and oppression. 

Amos makes this very clear:

Let justice roll on like a river…  Amos 5:24

The Horizontal dimension of the prophet’s ministry is about calling for change: for societal transformation so that the poor, downtrodden and marginalised are protected. This is about advocacy for the powerless and being prepared to stand with the oppressed. The Hebrew prophets were not afraid of emphasising the need for God’s people to live ethically and to love justice.

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”  Isaiah 58:6

Something that has helped me make better sense of the ministry of the Old Testament prophets, especially in the Horizontal dimension, is Walter Brueggemann’s remarkable book “The Prophetic Imagination” and his insight into the prophet’s role of nurturing an alternative consciousness to that of the dominant culture. It’s a two-step process:

1. Criticise The prophetic task is to first of all name the realities of brokenness, exploitation and injustice. This means being able to stand apart from the prevailing culture and being able to speak to it, with eyes to see and ears to hear. The prophet has to be prepared to lament, to allow God to “break my heart for what breaks yours” and to then to name things for what they are.

2. Energise The second part of the prophetic task is to energise and empower God’s people by ministering hope and expectation, and propelling them into godly action. This is the prophet helping people to imagine an alternative to the status quo and anticipate God’s renewal of all things. The prophet helps us stay attuned to God’s promises and remind us that God is faithful.

In holding these two together – criticism and energising – the biblical prophetic tradition challenges the status quo of oppression and injustice and enables God’s people to embrace an alternative way of thinking and acting.

What does this mean for us?

One thing we can take from the prophets of old is that an embrace of prophetic ministry is not just about seeking God’s voice and presence, but also being prepared to represent his holy concerns. As we pursue God’s heart we will certainly encounter his heart for justice and righteousness. A mature prophetic lifestyle is about being first prepared to sit with God and lament, and then to rejoice with God and dance upon injustice.

What’s Discipleship Got To Do With It?

Here at Accessible Prophecy we love our coaching huddles! This month I’m training up six new coaches who will soon be starting their own prophetic huddles: the multiplication process that this training represents is a core value for us and a great way to grow healthy prophetic culture in many different contexts.

As many of you know from first hand experience, at the heart of the huddle you find two questions:

            What is God saying to you?

            What are you going to do about it?

These two questions illuminate the fundamental process of discipleship that Jesus presents to us time and again in the gospels, and that he uses at the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

Discipleship is at the very heart of our faith. The call on our lives is not simply to believe in Jesus but to actively follow him as disciples. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be constantly looking to Jesus to hear what he wants us to do, and then living it out. Disciples intentionally choose to listen and obey.

Discipleship is intrinsically linked to the prophetic. To follow Jesus faithfully requires a sensitivity to his voice: that ability to discern what he is saying to us in the midst of many other clamouring voices fighting for our attention. So if we want to grow a discipleship culture one of the first things we have to do is teach the people of God how to hear him, both in the written Word of scripture and through the ‘now’ words of the Spirit.

But if it’s true that we need the prophetic in order for discipleship to happen, then we absolutely need discipleship for the prophetic to flourish. A mature prophetic culture is one that is thoroughly rooted in discipleship. Without an emphasis on discipleship the prophetic is highly vulnerable to all sorts of pitfalls and hazards, such as lack of accountability, isolation and judgmentalism.

I’m thankful that here in my church in Sheffield we’ve been able to develop a prophetic culture in the midst of a strong culture of discipleship. And this has been so beneficial. It’s meant that the prophetic is rooted in accountability, and done so much to ensure there is a healthy emphasis not just on “What has God said?” but also on “What are we going to do about it?”. It’s meant that even the most gifted prophets see themselves as disciples first, and has helped develop a culture where the prophetic is normalised: we can all learn to hear God’s voice.

A discipling culture brings with it a necessary emphasis on community – we can’t do discipleship in isolation! – and this is vital for a healthy prophetic culture. The New Covenant model of prophetic ministry is very much rooted in community, and we need to create environments where prophetic expression is embedded in strong accountable relationships.

As we seek to grow a discipleship culture in which the prophetic can flourish it’s very important that we don’t confuse the ability to hear God clearly with spiritual maturity. It’s all too easy to look at an anointed prophet who is getting accurate revelation and therefore assume that he or she is a mature disciple of Jesus. Anointing is not an indication of character. Putting the emphasis on discipleship above gifting helps us to embrace wholeness and maturity. It also helps to avoid any kind of spiritual hierarchy.

It’s worth noting that some leaders are reluctant to actively disciple people who are more prophetically gifted than them. The insecure leader is going to ask, “How can I lead this highly anointed prophet who hears God better than I do?” But this is not fully understanding the process of discipleship. Discipling others is not about hearing better; it’s about holding people accountable to what God is saying to them. It’s about calling people to fruitfulness and engagement with God’s Kingdom. It’s about allowing others to imitate us as we pursue relationship with Jesus.

So let’s celebrate discipleship! We can’t grow a healthy prophetic culture without it.

Expectancy

If we expect God to speak to us then we’ll probably hear him. If we don’t, then we probably won’t.

Now, I realise that’s quite a bold statement, but I observe the reality of it frequently, both in my own life and in many people I meet. Expectancy is such a vital component of hearing God’s voice and if we’re going to operate in prophetic gifts we need to have a well-developed sense of expectation that God is going to do something and say something today.

Expectancy goes hand in hand with Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 14:1 to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. If we’re going to pursue these wonderful gifts we need to first of all desire them and then be expectant of the Spirit’s generosity and faithfulness in giving them to us.

Expectancy comes from knowing to a greater and greater degree the truth of who God is – relentlessly good and amazingly generous – and the truth of who we are – beloved children, filled with the very Spirit of truth and revelation. God is our perfect heavenly Father who delights to speak to his children; he wants us to hear his voice. An expectant mindset is nurtured as we root ourselves in the truth of our covenant identity and the kingdom purposes for which God has called us. Life in the Spirit means every moment of every day is pregnant with possibilities.

In order to grow our expectancy we need to recognise the things that can thwart and frustrate it: disappointment and fear of failure being two of the usual suspects. We have to persevere in our pursuit of God’s voice. Developing expectancy is a daily choice and an attitude to cultivate. Having a mindset of expectancy means that we have developed a particular way of thinking: “I’m a child of God; of course he’s going to speak to me, and he’s going to use me to be a channel of blessing for others. I can seek his heart for everyone I meet today.”

Each one of us needs to be growing our expectancy as individuals, but we also need to be developing a culture of expectancy in our churches. A healthy, mature prophetic culture is one in which people are excited and expectant that whenever we gather together God is present and active in our midst and that the Spirit of Revelation might just show up with some incredible truth to share with us: a community that expects to hear God with a corporate attitude of expectancy. Too often the reason we’re not seeing the kingdom of God break out in our midst with signs and wonders is because we’re not actually expecting God to do very much.

Expectancy flows from the presence of God and a renewed mind: it’s first and foremost an internal process, where we shape our way of thinking. But there is also an external process, a practical aspect of cultivating expectancy, where we intentionally create space to hear God and create opportunities to use the gift of prophecy. It’s often as simple as making room to listen to God, actively seeking his revelation together. Whenever we’re gathered we can get in the habit of saying, “Let’s just wait on the Lord for a few minutes…” It’s also about giving people plenty of opportunities to practice prophecy in a safe and releasing environment.

We can practice expectancy by starting every day in joyful anticipation of an encounter with God’s heart and his voice. And by asking him about who we might meet and how he wants to bless them. Let’s believe the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:11

How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

The Prophetic Process: Responding

In a recent series of blogs we have been exploring the ‘prophetic process’ and considering how hearing God’s voice is much more than a one-off event, but rather something to be properly unpacked and worked through. We’ve looked at the ‘tuning in’ part and the ‘discernment’ part. And finally we come to what in many ways is the most crucial element of the whole process: what we do in response to God speaking to us.

As we consider how to respond to God’s voice we find ourselves at the place where the prophetic intersects with discipleship. In many ways this intersection is at the heart of our relationship with Jesus. Because as Christians we know that the call on our lives is not just to believe in Jesus but also to follow him as disciples. And we can only consistently and effectively follow him if we learn to recognise his voice and then respond with obedience.

As disciples of Jesus we are constantly looking to him to hear what he wants us to do – and then living it out. That’s the essence of discipleship: hear and obey.

Listen to what Jesus says at the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.Matthew 7:24

It’s not enough to simply hear Jesus’ words to us – we also need to align our lives with them and obey.

We can have the most incredible 3D technicolour visions, encounter angels, and hear the audible voice of God (and there’s nothing wrong with pursuing those things), but if we don’t respond – if we don’t allow God’s voice to change us and change the world around us – there is a problem somewhere. We have to learn how to walk in obedience to whatever God is speaking to us about.

When God speaks to us he speaks for a purpose and he looks for a response. There is a profound intentionality to God’s spoken words to us. We need to be active responders to his revelation rather than passive receivers.

We need to remember that the voice of God is here to change us, not just make us feel good. When God speaks to us it’s an invitation to transformation. Sometimes the transformation will be internal – a change of heart or mind – and sometimes the transformation will be external – where we need to change our behaviour or environment – but God is always in the business of renewal. He speaks into our lives as a Good Father who desires to conform us to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29) and to use us as instruments of transformation in the world around us.

So, how do we become good responders to God’s voice? How do we learn to walk into the fulfilment of his precious words to us?

As I’ve coached many people over the years one thing I’ve noticed is that the ones who are prepared to make concrete, specific and accountable plans in response to God’s voice are usually the people who step into the greatest levels of transformation and grow fastest in the prophetic. When God speaks to us, whether he is speaking deeply into our identity, showing us how to tackle homelessness in our city, or anything in between, we need a plan. True discipleship is more than a theoretical acknowledgement of the truth of what he’s saying or vague notions of how we might chew over his words to us. We need to learn to respond intentionally and wholeheartedly every time the Good Shepherd speaks into our lives.

So the next time God speaks to you, for you, how about asking yourself these two questions:

  • How do I start to step into this in a very practical way over the next few days?
  • Who am I going to be accountable to?

The Prophetic Process: Tuning In

When did you last hear God speak to you? What did his voice sound like?

Was it like the sound of mighty waters? Or as quiet as the gentle whisper?

Whatever it sounds like, hearing God speak to us is a joy. And as disciples of Jesus and children of our perfect heavenly Father, the door is always open to his revelation. The eternal promise of Jesus is that we’ll hear and recognise his voice. In fact he wants you to hear his voice.

In my previous blog I introduced the idea of the ‘Prophetic Process’: hearing God is not an event, it’s a process – a process in which we fully engage with the intentionality of God’s words to us.

The first part of this process is Tuning In: recognising and receiving revelation from God. And in this blog I want to share some thoughts about this first step and consider how we can all find a way to do this well. I’d love everyone reading this to catch a vision for what it would look like for you to have an unhindered flow of revelation straight from the Father’s heart; because that is what is promised to us as Pentecost people who live out the reality of John 7:38. There is an invitation to live so close to God’s heart that tuning in to his frequency is a natural and everyday expression of relationship with him.

I’m going to start with these four simple steps – you’ll hear us reference them a lot at Accessible Prophecy:

  1. Know who you are: really get to grips with your covenant identity as a beloved child of God, learning to listen to him from a place of security, love and rest.
  1. Recognise all the ‘normal’ everyday ways God does speak to us and be thankful: because most of the time he speaks in normal, everyday ways to normal and everyday people – so pay attention to all the ways God is already speaking to you.
  1. Understand that we are all different and we all hear God in different ways: it’s important to identify the way you primarily hear God speak, your unique language of revelation.
  1. Be expectant: cultivate your faith that God will speak to you!

Practising these steps daily is a great way to develop a ‘tuned-in’ lifestyle. But to take things a little deeper, I want to consider the posture of such a lifestyle.

SITTING: Being a good listener is a skill. When someone really needs us to hear them we are wise to stop whatever else we’re doing and give them our full attention. Ideally we sit down with them over a nice cup of tea (if you’re English!) and look directly at them.

We choose to be fully present in the moment.

It’s exactly the same when we’re listening to God. Tuning in well requires the right posture: one of receptivity. We can’t make God speak, but we can ensure that when he does we are giving him our full attention and properly listening.

Tuning in well isn’t a technical exercise – it’s always about relationship – and we do it best when our faces are turned fully towards God, fully present, fully expectant, basking in his peace and love. This is why worship is often the best context to tune in to God’s revelation: it gives us an environment where we’ve got time, space and focus.

Tuning in well means that we are comfortable with silence – it’s enough to simply be in his presence. And wait.

And as our hearts start to leap for joy at his voice – that’s the moment when we dive in deep. We should never rush this moment; instead we need to embrace it and let it resound deeply in our spirits. We allow the door to fully open to the encounter with God, engaging all our prophetic senses. We allow the Holy Spirit to take our hand and lead us deeper into the full measure of communication from the Father’s heart.

Now I realise of course that there are situations where we don’t have all day to simply dwell in the revelation. If we’re doing prophetic ministry there are often time constraints. But even in these situations my encouragement to you is to spend a little bit longer in the tuning in.

Because at the end of the day we are talking about engaging with God’s heart – which is a vast spacious place that needs time and focus to explore.

Let us be a prophetic people consumed with the very heart of God, being prepared to take our time to explore his heart for everyone we meet. Get the kettle on and go and sit down with him. He’s waiting for you.

UNDERSTANDING PROPHETS (Part 1)

Not many people are that comfortable going around calling themselves a ‘prophet’. It’s not how I would introduce myself to someone at a party. But Ephesians 4 tells us that Jesus has gifted this bunch of folks to his church along with the apostles, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. And these roles are not just for leaders: they are for every follower of Christ.

Fivefold thinking enables us to view prophets as simply ‘one of five’: some people are prophet-shaped, a God-given role, and alongside the other fivefold callings, their ultimate aim is to build up the body of Christ:

…to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:12-13)

That is some calling!

The problem with the word ‘prophet’ is that it has so many Old Testament style associations that can lead to misunderstanding about the prophet’s ministry. Over a couple of blogs I want to explore the role and calling of prophets, but in order to do that we have to move away (to a certain extent) from an Old Testament perspective and grasp a broader paradigm more influenced by the new covenant we now live in.

In this blog I’m going to focus on how prophets are wired. What makes them tick? And in the next blog we’ll be looking at how their role works out in the life of the church.

More than anything, prophets have a passion for the heart of God. That’s where their attention keeps returning to, that’s what they’ll always be chasing after.

Prophets are focused on God and they are very spiritually aware. Therefore they are acutely conscious of the gap – ok the huge gulf – between all that is beautiful, sacred, loving, righteous and life-giving in God’s presence…. and all that is broken, messed-up, unjust, sinful and dying apart from God’s presence.

The primary impulse of the prophet is to somehow bridge that gap. To find a place – any place – where they can stand between heaven and earth and facilitate some sort of connection. To search God’s heart for the words or imagery that will draw people back to God, for actions that will demonstrate a God-shaped alternative. Prophets translate God so that the world can re-orientate itself back towards him. They eagerly pursue whatever words, imagery or action will bring the much-needed realignment of created with Creator.

The gap is a place of tension for prophets: tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, the ‘actual’ and the ‘ideal’. They are simultaneously focussed on the glory of God and, at the same time, sensitive to the existing reality in the world around them, with all its injustice and unfaithfulness. Because of this the prophet is someone who at heart wants to challenge the status quo, bringing an alternative consciousness to the dominant culture, and questioning everything that does not reflect the values of God’s kingdom. For a prophet this often feels that they are like a fish swimming up stream.

In occupying the gap prophets are wired both for worship and for warfare. Their passion for God’s heart carries with it urgency for reverence and devotion. They prioritise prayer and the pursuit of God’s presence. But their sensitivity to injustice and unrighteousness creates such a holy discontent that they are intent on confronting the powers that oppress people, whether cultural or spiritual.

Prophets are enthusiasts for God, carrying a message that he is so much closer and so much better than we can think or imagine. With their eyes turned heavenward, and awake to divine promise, they long for God’s renewal of all things. They love to release hope and expectation in the Body of Christ, anticipating the new thing that God is doing.

Prophets are wired for the message of transformation: “We have to change! Things have to change!” Remaining as we are is never an option for a prophet. Why stay here when there is something better around the corner? They know that God is on the move and want the rest of the Body to catch up. As they pursue God’s heart they discern the work of the Spirit in refining and purifying his people and speak a message of transformation to the world around them.

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Does any of this resonate with you personally? You are probably a prophet if you:

  • Have a passion to see people walk more closely with God
  • Love prayer, worship and pursuing God’s presence
  • Often get a sense of what God is saying about a situation
  • Long for every Christian to hear God’s voice
  • Tend to see things a little differently from everyone else
  • Find your heart breaking for the poor, oppressed and marginalised

Whatever fivefold ministry we most closely identify with it’s important that we get a clearer understanding of the role of the prophets and embrace the particular grace they bring to the Body of Christ.

Is Prophecy Your Normal?

So, when did you last talk openly about the things God is saying to you? If you started to share about that really profound dream you had last week, or that godly sense of urgency to challenge injustice, or that longing to express God’s word of encouragement for someone – would you just feel plain awkward?

Let’s face it: in much of our culture (both church and world) it’s just not normal to talk about prophetic things. We feel awkward and embarrassed talking about prophetic gifts. We’re worried that people are going to think we’re weird and odd. We get uncomfortable at the thought of divulging our inner conversation with God.

In many ways this is completely understandable. It’s true that there’s an otherworldly aspect to the prophetic, and sometimes it can be really difficult to express in human words what it is we are sensing the Spirit whisper to us. In the world’s eyes hearing from God is strange, and getting a ‘vision’ from God is bizarre. At the end of the day prophecy is a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit that challenges rationality and can take some getting used to.

But the problem is, if we never talk about our prophetic experiences, if we never share the things that God is sharing with us, then it’s very hard to grow a culture where the prophetic is normalised and mature. To grow a healthy prophetic culture there has to be a level of normalisation, where people are confident and free to talk about whatever it is that God might be saying to them. After all, true discipleship can’t happen in our churches if people feel awkward answering the two fundamental questions for disciples of Jesus:

What is God saying to you?  What are you going to do about it?

A healthy, mature prophetic culture is one in which people are excited and expectant that whenever we gather together God is present and active in our midst, that the Spirit of Revelation might just show up with some incredible truth to share with us.

If we don’t talk about revelation we are putting up huge barriers to the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. And by avoiding the subject we are not exactly in line with scripture:

Eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially the gift of prophecy. 1 Corinthians 14:1

Paul was convinced that prophecy was essential for any Christian community; indeed he goes on to give this instruction:

For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.                  1 Corinthians 14:31

So how can we start to make the gift of prophecy more normal in our church contexts?

Here are three suggestions:

Be intentional with language   Find language that de-mystifies the prophetic, that makes it accessible and inclusive for everyone. In some church cultures using the phrase ‘listening prayer’ rather than prophecy is much better at drawing people in. Talk about prophecy in such a way that it becomes a part of everyday conversation. Talk about it in a way that conveys the message: “We can all learn to hear God!”

Model it well   If you are in any position of influence or leadership in your church make sure that you are open with people about your own journey towards hearing God better. Give people access to your inner world of communication with God. Tell your stories, both successes and failures, as you learn to step out with the gift of prophecy.

Look at the scriptures together   Spend time studying John 10 and Jesus’ promise to his followers that they would know his voice. Read Paul’s writings on the gift of prophecy in the New Testament church. And then work out what a faithful response should be. What would it look like for your church to start “eagerly desiring” prophecy?

I love being in a church community where prophecy has become normalised. In my church in Sheffield the prophetic is expected, it’s accepted; no-one bats an eyelid if someone gives someone else a prophecy. It’s become well embedded in our culture, from Sunday services to missional communities to friends meeting up to pray for each other. This supernatural gift of God has become natural. It’s our normal.

Revelation: Ears to Hear

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”    John 10:27

Do you know what Jesus’ voice sounds like? Can you recognise it?

As we continue our exploration of different ways that we can tune into God and connect with his heart, this time we’re looking at ‘hearing’ – revelation that comes in the form of words, phrases and sentences.

On a personal level, generally I’m much more of a ‘see-er’ than a ‘hearer’ – so the times when I do hear words from God are really special. I’ve never heard the audible voice of God myself (I know a number of people who have), but there have been plenty of occasions when a word or phrase pops into my head – not connected with my train of thoughts – that catches my attention and resonates in my spirit. To me these are a good indication that it may be God speaking to me, especially if I’m already focussed on him through prayer or worship. Sometimes these words are very faint, but I’ve learnt to pay attention to them, particularly if they appear in my mind from nowhere. I pay much less attention if a thought comes to mind which is just connected with what I’ve already been thinking about – experience has shown me that this is just my brain at work: that it’s just me and my own train of thought.

The command, “Hear the word of the Lord” echoes through scripture and the Bible is full of stories of people who heard the very voice of God, though we’re rarely told the exact nature of these experiences. As is true for us today, I’m sure that in some of these it was the audible voice of God that was heard, but others would have involved the quiet internal voice.

One thing that has helped me in my own journey of hearing God better is the realisation that most of the time God speaks in whispers. He’s the God of the still, small voice, and so to tune in to him requires us to be attentive to those quiet nudges and prompts that are so easy to miss. Most of us live in a very noisy world, full of competing voices and a myriad of distractions, so we have to be very intentional about creating space and a quietened heart to hear him. Remember: there is nothing wrong with God’s voice. He is speaking much more than we realise, we’re just not always very good at paying attention.

There is something very special about the quality of God’s voice that helps us distinguish it from our own thoughts. Yes, he may talk in whispers, but these whispers have the ability to resound deeply in our spirits, and they are full of light and wisdom. Listen for the voice that is wise and kind, and you’ll soon be able to discern the voice of God.

The Bible teaches us that there is a lot of power in spoken words (after all, God created the world through his voice), and I think we sometimes need to be much bolder in speaking out the words that the Lord gives us. When we’re prophesying with pictures (which is my own experience most of the time) we’re just describing the picture; but when we’re prophesying God’s words we are speaking the very words he gives us. It’s as we align our voices with what heaven is speaking we can really start to see breakthrough in situations – really see the power of the spoken prophetic word. Remember what happened when Ezekiel stepped out and spoke God’s words:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!’”    Ezekiel 37:4

So pay attention to those specific words and phrases that just appear out of nowhere, and if they have an accompanying sense of God’s presence, then take a step of faith and have a go at speaking them out, even if no one else can hear you.

A great way to grow in hearing God’s voice is to ask him questions. It’s important that we don’t lose the child-like freedom to ask questions of our heavenly Father. After all, the One we worship has the answer to every question we could ever ask:

“Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”   Romans 11:33

“Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”   Colossians 2:3

The Holy Spirit, the Counsellor and Spirit of Truth, lives within each of us, and Jesus promises that the Spirit will teach us all things (John 14:26). So let’s be confident that if we inquire of the Lord he will have an answer for us.

Journaling is one of the best ways to listen to God’s answers: this is where we write down our conversations with God. I love to sit in a quiet place with my journal, and after a time of simple prayer and worship, start to write down my conversation with the Father. Sometimes the answers come straight away; sometimes they emerge over time as I take note of the different things he draws my attention to in scripture and as I go about my daily life.

As well as journaling there is also the habit of asking questions of God in the moment, throughout the day. Wherever we are we can ask, “Holy Spirit, what are you saying or doing here? How can I join in?” Practising this form of dialogue with the Spirit will sharpen our ability to stay tuned in to his voice. The ability to discern his voice from our own thoughts grows as we step out in faith and act on the whispers.

If you’re someone who finds it relatively easy to receive prophetic pictures but much harder to hear God’s words (I’m describing myself here!), I’d encourage you to persevere with ‘hearing’, even if it feels a bit outside your comfort zone. There is something very special about being able to hear and speak the word of the Lord.

Who has listened and heard his word?   Jeremiah 23:18