The Impact of Context

The other day I was reading an article on the practice of prophetic ministry–I’m not going to say where; it was in print and not on the web–in which the author claimed that a prophet does not have to get it right. In fact, he said, a person with the gift of prophecy may get it wrong early in their career as they are “practicing.” The reason I’m not concerned with the specific source here is that I’ve heard this a number of times amongst those involved in the modern prophetic movement.

Before I go on, let me note that I do believe that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit continue to the present. I don’t, in principle, have any problem with someone exercising the gift of prophecy today. I write a bit more about this in the pamphlet Spiritual Gifts: Prophecy. But I do think that the modern prophecy movement has become very careless with the concept of “the word of God” and runs a serious risk of driving people from the church.

Now back to my reading. At one point the author quoted Deuteronomy 18:22 in support of his position. To get the precise wording he used to support his point, try NIV or the NASB. Let me provide my own translation for reference:

When a prophet speaks in the name of YHWH, and that word does not happen or come true, it is a word that YHWH has not spoken. The prophet spoke presumptuously. Do not fear him. — Deuteronomy 18:22

I translate “fear him” to match the text used by the article I was reading. I would tend to translate “Don’t be afraid of it,” that is don’t be afraid of the prediction contained in the word. This author, however, used this to indicate that one is not to be afraid that this person was a problem, i.e., they might just be practicing and thus one shouldn’t be afraid–let them grow into their gift.

Now that’s an interesting interpretation, and though I might admit that, with this verse alone, an argument could be made for it, I would still regard it as an improbable interpretation. But if one reads the context, one can reject that interpretation with certainty. At a minimum, the context should go back to verse 15, so read together verses 15-22. Now let me make another point on method here. Don’t take my word for the full context. Go look at chapter 18, and glance at least at the chapter before and after, and ask what it is appropriate to consider as the immediate context of this verse. It is quite possible to alter the interpretation by incorrectly dividing a passage.

The key verse here is verse 20 (my translation): But as for the prophet who presumptuously speaks a word in my name which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.

See how one little verse, only two verses before, turns this on its head? You should not fear the word (or the prophet) because he is speaking presumptuously, speaking what God has not spoken. That’s sin, and it’s equated to speaking in the name of other gods. Thus Deuteronomy 18:22 cannot be used to support the notion that a prophet can speak incorrectly while “practicing” and that there is no problem with this. Indeed, the penalty for that action in this passage is death.

In application, I’m not advocating the death penalty for false prophecy, but I do believe we need to seriously adjust our behavior in those churches and groups that accept prophecy. We need to be prepared to “test the spirits” and to at a minimum speak up when something is wrong.

For more information on context, see my essay Understanding Context.

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