When as a young Christian I attended a Pentecostal college, a beloved administrator warned me that prophecies should always be positive. That did not match all the prophecies I read about in the Bible.
It also did not match all the prophecies I had given; for example, I had felt led to warn one Christian friend who was living unmarried with their partner that they knew better and that God was displeased. That is actually a very tame way of putting it. The message was more like, “Because you have esteemed the Lord lightly, you are lightly esteemed. Because you have dishonored the Lord, the Lord will dishonor you,” etc. I felt awful delivering that message to a friend, and I felt that I was not allowed even to stay for tea; I had to leave right after delivering the message. Had it been anything but that I felt the Lord leading me to do it, I would have talked it over with my friend in a friendlier way. (Soon after that they did quit living together—after the partner disappeared with some of my friend’s property.)
But some of the ideas about prophecy at this training school were formulated, I think, in understandable reaction against stories about a recent movement that abused prophecies and prophesied falsely and harmfully. In any case, one of the ideas was that you should never prophesy to individuals (despite how common that was in the Bible), and another was that prophecies should always be encouraging.
New Testament Prophecy is for Encouragement—Always?
The administrator supported his position with 1 Cor 14:3, which declares that prophecy is for “strengthening, encouraging and comfort” (NIV), “edification and exhortation and consolation” (NASB), or “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (NRSV, a translation that didn’t yet exist back then). The second Greek term can include an appeal or (as in the NASB) exhortation as well as comfort, but the idea is generally positive. Paul probably did expect mostly positive prophecy for the Corinthian house church gatherings.
At the same time, the prophetic process could not have been entirely positive. Prophetically gifted persons were to collectively evaluate the prophecies (1 Cor 14:29), which would probably mean that not all prophecies would pass muster. Even when spoken in an encouraging way, such corrections may not have felt entirely positive to some of those whose prophecies were not confirmed by their peers. Often in 1 Corinthians, Paul himself corrects the church, and believes that his own (apostolic) authority is greater than that of the local church prophets (14:37-38). And ideally, prophecy included revealing people’s secret sins (1 Cor 14:24-25)—although one had certainly better be sure one has genuinely heard from the Lord before trying something like that. (Even if one is right about the sins, blurting them out is not always the most effective way to bring restoration; cf. Gal 6:1.)
A couple of the clearest samples of prophecy recorded in the New Testament are the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2—3 (what “the Spirit says to the churches”) and Agabus’s prophecy to Paul in Acts 21:11. The prophecy in Acts 21:11 was that Paul was going to be bound in Jerusalem. This was not very encouraging news, but it was consistent with what the Spirit had been saying to Paul in other cities as well (20:23; cf. 21:4).
Two letters to churches in Revelation were quite comforting; both were to persecuted churches, although one was told that the Lord would deliver them from their trial, whereas the other (Smyrna, in Rev 2:10) was encouraged to be faithful to death. Meanwhile, the other five churches received varying degrees of reproofs, two or three of them rather severe. (As an aside, those who claim that prophecy should never claim, “Thus says the Lord,” also overlook these same most explicit passages of prophecy in the NT. But again, one had better be sure before one frames a message in those terms. The more we claim to speak for the Lord, the stricter our judgment if we are wrong; that is true even with the gift of teaching—James 3:1. Ouch.)
Guarding Against Immaturity
Some circles that insist that all prophecies must be positive may intend this limitation as a precaution against those who are immature in the gift harming people with harsh messages. If you’re going to make a mistake in a setting where prophecy can’t be quickly tested, it seems better for it to be harmless. To be truly harmless, though, it shouldn’t promise blessing to the wicked any more than God’s disfavor on the righteous (Prov 24:24; Isa 3:10-11). And Samuel was probably fairly immature in prophecy when, in his first experience of it as a boy, he was sent with a harsh message to the high priest who was raising him (1 Sam 3:11-14). Although Eli believed him (3:18), and I confess to envying Samuel’s clarity in hearing from God (3:19), I would not want to have been in Samuel’s sandals right then.
It is true that we should seek to encourage people with our words whenever possible—that is definitely a good rule of thumb for what is normal (cf. Prov 12:18; 15:1, 4; 25:15; Eph 4:29; Col 4:6). But if you’re going to be arrested in Jerusalem it might be helpful to know that in advance (Acts 21:11), and if your church’s lampstand is going to be removed if the church fails to repent of its lovelessness (Rev 2:5), it’s better to know that so we can respond. In fact, if we fail to warn people to turn from genuinely sinful ways, their blood is on our head (Ezek 3:18-20; 33:6-8; Acts 20:26-27).
Some people, however, may prophesy only positively as a way of expressing their faith. Is this biblical? I will address this question in part 2.