I do believe God can speak directly to people today. We see examples of this in the New Testament, for example when God told Philip to go toward the desert (Acts 8:29), or told Agabus that a famine is coming (Acts 11:28). Paul promised that God would reveal to us – presumably by the Holy Spirit – wherein we have got it wrong (Philippians 3:15).

The question is, how much are we to share with others when we believe we have heard from God? Are we to claim “the Lord told me” when we have an impression we feel is from the Holy Spirit?

Getting it wrong 

When a word does not come to pass which was introduced by “the Lord told me”, obviously something has gone wrong. It dishonors the name of the Lord. It brings discredit upon the gift of prophecy.

Should we not apologise? Nathan did and humbly climbed down for jumping the gun by telling David he could build the temple (2 Samuel 7:4ff). Surely if the Lord says something it is going to be exactly right. 

If somebody's word does not come to pass, that does not necessarily make them a 'false prophet'. Luke portrays Agabus as a true prophet in Acts 11:28 and yet an objective scrutiny of Agabus’s word in Acts 21:11 will lead you to ask, “Is that really what happened?” Not exactly. The subsequent events were not precisely the way Agabus predicted. 

Saying “the Lord told me” is a habit some of us find hard to break. But I believe we need to. 

6 Levels of Prophecy

Prophecy is a word from God unfiltered by personal wish or human embellishment whether it pertains to the past, present or future.

Not all prophecy is of the same caliber. There are at least six levels of prophecy – as in a pyramid, starting from the bottom:

6. General exhortation - Whether to a congregation or a personal encouragement to someone, Dr. Michael Eaton calls this “low level prophecy”. The kind of prophecy Paul encouraged in 1 Corinthians 14:1 was almost certainly of this sort. I don’t think he was motivating you or me to become the next Elijah. Someone may claim to have a “word”. We are not to despise such prophesying. But it needs to be tested (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21). In any case, we don’t need to say “the Lord told me” – even if we may feel it is from the Lord. Do not claim that all you feel is from the Lord. You can always say, “I think I am supposed to share this with you”.

5. Specific warnings - Certain disciples urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Some think that Luke sides with them since he says they warned Paul “through the Spirit” (Acts 21:4). Agabus similarly warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem, saying “the Holy Spirit says” (Acts 21:11). And yet Paul refused to heed any of their warnings! Who got it right? Was Paul wrong to ignore them? Could Agabus have got it wrong? One thing is for sure: their warnings did not keep Paul from going to Jerusalem. All he would say later is that it served to advance the gospel (Philippians 1:12).

4. Prophetic preaching - Peter said one should speak as if their words were the “very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11). This is what all pastors, vicars and preachers wish for. Nothing thrills me more than when someone says to me, “How did you know I was there today? That is exactly what I needed”. Expository preaching can be prophetic without the preacher being conscious of this. Even if he or she is conscious of the Lord’s enabling, one should be humble about it and, in my opinion, not say “thus says the Lord”.

3. When forced to testify during persecution - Jesus said, “When they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19-20).

2. Non-canonical prophecy - A canonical prophet had a book named after him – like Jeremiah or Isaiah. Nathan, Gad, Elijah and Elisha are examples of non-canonical prophets. Could there be non-canonical prophets of this magnitude and stature today? Perhaps, but they are exceedingly rare. What they say must cohere with scripture – and prove to be true. So should these people say, “the Lord told me”? My response to that questions is: Why would that be necessary? If one will keep the name of the Lord out – but simply say “I feel I must say this to you” (or something like that), they might maintain their integrity, credibility and anointing – even if they get it wrong. Many a modern prophetic person could be saved incalculable embarrassment had they been more modest in their claims.

1. Holy Scripture. This is the highest level of prophecy. It includes all of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament. Scripture is God’s final revelation. No one will ever have authority to speak at this level. If any of us claims to speak on the same level as Holy Scripture we have gone too far and will be found out sooner or later.

Limits of prophecy

Remember that each of us has but a “measure of faith” (Romans 12:3). This means there is a limit to our faith. Only Jesus had a perfect faith because he alone had the Holy Spirit without limit (John 4:34).

For those who prophesy it should surely be done in two ways: (a) in “proportion” to their faith (Romans 12:6) – not going beyond their limit of faith - and (b) according to the analogy of faith. The Greek word translated “proportion” is analogia. This means comparing scripture with scripture, making sure we are within the bounds of sound theology. 

There are seasons of the prophetic. The word of the Lord was “rare” at one time in ancient Israel (1 Samuel 3:1). Amos spoke of a famine of hearing the word of the Lord (Amos 8:11). This means that sometimes God chooses to say nothing.

God may choose not to speak for a generation. If so, how foolish to pretend to speak for him.

Paul said that we know in part and we prophecy in part (1 Corinthians 13:9). This means that not even the best of prophets know everything.

How to maintain integrity

First, we should very careful to honor the name of the Lord. The third commandment – "Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God" (Exodus 20:7) includes not claiming to speak for God in order to make ourselves look good. Jesus dealt with this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33-37); we should simply say “yes” or “no” without adding the Lord’s name to enhance our credibility.

James addressed those workers in the field who had been cruelly mistreated by wealthy believers (James 5:1-12). The temptation for those poor laborers was to say “God is on our side and against you”. James thunders a warning even to them against using God’s name. It is the worst kind of “name-dropping”, that is, using God’s name to make ourselves look special.

Misusing God’s name is done when we bring him into our conversation to elevate our own credibility. We are thinking of ourselves, not him.

Secondly, the issue is God’s oath. One of the greatest privileges Christians can have is for God to swear an oath to them like he did to Abraham (Hebrews 6:9-20). The oath may be experienced when God grants a high level of faith. All prophecy must be done in proportion to our faith; when the oath is given we know for sure that we have been given a word from God. This is why Elijah was so sure before Ahab; it was God’s oath to him. Elijah did not bite his nails for the next several years if he saw a cloud in the sky. He calmly said to the king, “It won’t rain unless I say so”. How could Elijah be so sure? The oath. “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). That is oath language.

Any prophecy should make God look good rather than the prophet; otherwise we are abusing the Lord’s name.

Why would I say to you, “The Lord told me”? Am I trying to make God look God? No. I would be trying to make myself look good.

James said, “above all” do not misuse God’s name. Never forget that even mistreated Christians could not claim that the Lord was on their side and against their cruel oppressors. Or they too would be condemned (James 5:12). Misusing his name isn’t worth it.