Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.Acts 16:6-10
I was talking to a friend the other day about hearing God speak to us. This person asked me, “What is the purpose of labeling what we hear from God with names that come from the charismatic stream like “word of knowledge” or “prophetic word,” etc.? Can’t we ditch the labels?” It’s an important question that I want to unpack here.
First, Jesus is clear that God does speak to us and that we can hear Him (we’re not talking about audible voice here). We see this throughout the Bible.
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.John 10:2-4, 27
God can communicate with us through scripture, mental or emotional impressions, thoughts that are not our own (still, small voice), mental images, dreams, visions, patterns, life-circumstances, etc. And He most often does this through the Holy Spirit.
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.John 14:26
Of course everything the Spirit says to us will align with the principles and truths of scripture. Anything outside of that is not from God. But in order to grow as a disciple of Jesus, we have to grow in our ability to hear and obey.
Traditions of the church that are not from the charismatic stream of Christianity hesitate to call this kind of direction communication from the Lord “revelation” because they don’t want to put it on par with scripture. And this is a good impulse. Even the charismatic stream makes a strong distinction between the authoritative revelation of scripture and the personal communication that comes from the Lord speaking directly to us. Scripture is what holds ultimate authority. Everything else from the Lord is more personal, subjective communication and must submit to scripture.
Traditions of the church that are not from the charismatic stream are also more comfortable with phrases like, “I got an impression from the Lord,” or “I felt prompted by the Lord,” or “I felt led by the Lord to…“, rather than saying things like, “I got a prophetic word,” or “I felt like I got a word of knowledge.” These terms that are often seen as “charismatic labels” simply come from language that the apostle Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 as he lists what are sometimes called the “supernatural gifts of the Spirit.”
But, as to our original question, why use these labels anyway if they can sometimes cause people to be skeptical or wary? There are a few reasons:
- First, sometimes it is best not to use these labels. If we can get our point across by saying “promptings of the Spirit” or “impression from the Lord” then we should do that. No need to overcomplicate things.
- The labels exist because they speak to the reality that prophecy, words of knowledge, words of wisdom, and discerning the spirits all serve different functions. While they are all direct communication from the Lord, they accomplish different purposes. Mixing them up can be harmful. Let’s be clear about definitions:
- A word of knowledge is when the Lord downloads a small bit of information about a person or situation to us through the Spirit. This gift is often a “door-opener” that can lead into physical healing, a prophetic word, or evangelism.
- A word of wisdom is when the Lord downloads a small bit of His wisdom to us, usually in the form of advice or direction, about a person or situation. I believe many leaders of organizations and counselors get these and don’t know they are coming from the Lord.
- Discerning the spirits is a diagnostic tool informing us about the human spirit (people’s motivations and desires), heavenly spirits (movements of the Holy Spirit or the angelic), and/or demonic spirits (how the enemy is attacking or manipulating a person or situation). This gift often diagnoses the problem.
- Prophecy is hearing God’s heart for a person or situation (usually future-oriented, calling out a person’s real identity, how God sees them, or where God is taking them). Prophecy declares God’s word over a person or situation, which often has the power to bring about God’s purposes for that person or situation. If discerning the spirits diagnoses the problem, prophecy speaks to the solution.
- Because each of these forms of direction communication is essentially its own gift, they need to be responded to differently. Sharing information with people about themselves that we received supernaturally (a word of knowledge) can become just a parlor trick unless it has purpose (usually in the form of prayer for healing, a prophetic word, or evangelism). Discerning the spirits can help us diagnose the problem but we don’t prophesy the problem over people. We prophesy the solution. So, understanding what kind of communication we are getting from the Lord is just as important as the ability to receive that communication.
Unpacking these labels is really important for discipleship. Every follower of Jesus needs to know how to hear from the Lord and receive direction communication from the Holy Spirit. We also need to grow in our understanding of what to do with that word once we receive it.
Sometimes God’s direct communication is just for our own strengthening, encouragement, and comfort. Sometimes we get a word for someone else. Church leaders need to be training their people in knowing what to do when we get a word for someone else and how to deliver that word with care, wisdom, and love.