Take my voice, and let me sing
Always, only, for my King,
Take my lips, and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee.
– Frances R. Havergal
The move to Texas in 1982 was exciting and frightening at the same time. Melanie was about to begin fourth grade and cried at the thought of saying goodbye to childhood friends. Jeremy, who had just completed first grade, wondered apprehensively whether Houston had a McDonald’s. Sara Faye grieved to leave our pleasant house, which she had designed and furnished, and its yard blooming with decorative and fruit-bearing trees, lush grapevines, and a rainbow of flowers and shrubs planted by her Tennessee father with his own hands.
My anxieties came from the future, as I contemplated finding a house; fashioning from words, ink and paper the newspaper I was hired to start; and locating a church where we could best serve God. Looking back, I also felt a great burden for our brothers and sisters at the Elm Street Church, who had disbanded to find new church homes in different directions. And, while I had always tried to minister God’s word honestly and with integrity, new understanding gained over the past decade made me regret some teaching I had done on various topics in earlier years.
Within six months after we arrived in Houston, Sara Faye and I “plugged in” at the Bering Drive Church of Christ and soon were heavily involved in its various ministries. Unlike some congregations which select elders for life, Bering elders serve limited terms. In the Spring of 1983, I was one of three new men elected to the eldership. Bering also ordains its designated servants– ministers, elders, missionaries — in a formal ceremony which includes Scripture readings, prayers, responsive promises and commitments, and the laying on of hands.
A phone call from Kerry.
Two weeks before my ordination as elder, I received a phone call from a long-time friend named Kerry, a Dallas-area businessman and elder in the Mid-Cities Chapel in Arlington, Texas. “A brother will be ministering here Thursday and Friday nights of next week,” Kerry told me, “and I wish you could be present. I believe he exercises a prophetic gift.”
Like Amos in the Old Testament, I was neither a prophet nor the son of one. Not only that, I had never witnessed any contemporary pronouncement that seemed to me to measure up to biblical criteria for prophecy, and I was highly skeptical of anyone who claimed to have that gift. But I also knew the Mid-Cities Chapel which Kerry led, and I highly respected his own biblical knowledge and spiritual maturity.
Several energetic Christian families had formed this congregation a few years before, after the elders of an “anti-institutional” Church of Christ in Arlington fired their preacher for proclaiming Christ in a manner that showed us totally indebted to God’s grace and which eliminated all reliance on imperfect human knowledge or obedience.
From the beginning, the brothers and sisters at the Chapel loved each other dearly and eagerly shared Christ with their neighbors. Their joyful lifestyle soon attracted non-Christian seekers, as well as believers from a wider Christian spectrum. As they sought God’s presence and studied the Bible together, the Chapel members became increasingly open to the Holy Spirit, and God continued to bless them individually and as a body.
I had been privileged to preach Christ during special meetings at both congregations — first at the original “anti-institutional” church, then at Mid-Cities after its formation and at regular intervals throughout its development. Once when I returned home after speaking at Mid-Cities Chapel, I felt that the Lord wanted me to destroy all remaining copies of a little book I had written years before which denied that God still bestows the spiritual gifts of tongues. Even though many of the booklet’s cautions were appropriate, its dogmatic conclusion contradicted God’s word to me a few years earlier through the Scripture which said: “Our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases.” Acting on my inner conviction, I tossed the remaining 2,200 copies in the dumpster.
Under Kerry’s leadership, the Chapel members focused on Christ and emphasized practical obedience and witnessing, while they incorporated a constructive use of whatever spiritual gifts God saw fit to bestow. Because of Kerry’s faithful ministry and credibility, he seized my attention immediately when he telephoned me that Spring evening in 1983.
“Who is this man?” I asked.
“His name is Bill Roycroft.” Kerry said. “He lives in Canada, where he operates a Christian outreach for troubled teens. Once or twice a year, he travels through Oklahoma and Texas and speaks at a few congregations with whom he is acquainted. He has been to Mid-Cities Chapel several times now, and I believe you will be blessed by coming.”
A flying, turn–around trip.
My calendar indicated a busy Friday that next week. I could make this fast trip, but it would mean flying to Dallas after work on Thursday for the evening service and catching the “red-eye” return flight home. I booked my flight and entered the next week with great anticipation.
Thursday afternoon arrived and Kerry met me at the Dallas airport. We grabbed a fast bite en route to the church and arrived just before the evening service. When the time came to begin, the announced speaker still had not arrived, and the presiding brother suggested that we extend our period of praise. We had sung a half-dozen songs of worship when the front door opened and the scheduled guest came in. His car’s transmission had broken as he drove through Oklahoma, he explained, and he had spent half a day arranging repairs.
Kerry said a few words to introduce Mr. Roycroft and sat down. The speaker was conservative in both style and appearance. “Please turn with me to Genesis.” he began, “as we look together again at the familiar story of Joseph.”
My mind traveled more than 30 years back to Athens Bible School, where many a chapel speaker had extolled Joseph’s virtues and had praised his persistent faith. It seemed fitting to reflect on him again, here in this church called a “Chapel.” So, in the conversational tone of one accustomed to small audiences, Mr. Roycroft read excerpts from the Old Testament text, applied a few points to our circumstances, and exhorted us to live faithful lives before our faithful and all-knowing God.
Simply encouraging one–on–one.
Then he begin speaking to specific people in the assembly. Just calmly talking, as if one-on-one. He did not announce what he was about to do — or say what hat he had done when he finished. He never used the word “prophecy” and he did not claim to he a prophet. He simply spoke to various individuals. men and women, of different ages and races and circumstances — encouraging this one, consoling another, building them all up in the Lord.
Mr. Roycroft did not know these people and he had not talked with them in advance. He arrived at the meeting after the service had begun. Still he spoke intimately, as if he knew the secret struggles and hidden burdens of each heart, yet carefully, to protect the confidence as a sacred trust. “You, the brother on the right with the red tie,” he might say, “you wonder how you can continue to serve the Lord and carry the weight you have had to carry these past years. The Lord would say to you that he knows what you have borne, and he will always be with you. Have courage and continue as you are doing, and God will never leave your side. Live in his strength.”
He addressed no one judgmentally but spoke with great compassion to all, delivering kind words in a tender manner. “The Lord would say to the sister in the front row with the blue dress,” he began, “you are in great confusion as a new believer, because you feel pulled in opposing directions in your life. God has given you your shepherds in the church. Listen to their wisdom and receive their guidance. They care for your soul and love you in the Lord. Trust their loving leadership as one would trust a father.”
Among those present were the Church of Christ preacher who had been fired years before for faithfully preaching the grace of Christ, and his hard-working and sacrificial wife. Mr. Roycroft spoke to them both in turn, and each wept tears of joy and great release.
“You have worked very hard for God,” Mr. Roycroft told the minister’s wife. “You have often given and given to others until you had nothing left to give. You have great reward in heaven, and God will strengthen you now with his daily power for each task that he places before you.”
He also encouraged her husband. “You have been abused and persecuted,” he acknowledged, “and the Lord would say to you that you have suffered for him. He first suffered for you, and he suffers with you when you suffer in his name.” He said more, and these are not his exact words, but they were such words as these.
He talked for about 30 minutes to ten or twelve people in the same manner, and then he stopped. There were no final words to the audience this time. We were almost eavesdroppers. The last half hour had been intended for the specific individuals who had been addressed; the blessing we received was real but secondary. Someone led a benediction and we were dismissed.
I had wept, too, as he spoke to my minister friend and his wife. I knew their histories, though Mr. Roycroft did not, and I sensed divine knowledge and empathy in his words to them. The entire experience had moved me deeply. But now I was terribly disappointed as well. He had not spoken to me.
“Why did he turn off the faucet?”
I made my way through the audience and found Kerry. “Why did he turn off the faucet before everyone got watered’?” I asked. Kerry smiled. “Sometimes he has more to say later. Stand here and I’ll ask if he does tonight.” He walked over to Mr. Roycroft and apparently asked a question. Then, turning toward me, he motioned for me to go into a classroom. Kerry and his wife Kara followed. They brought three other people with them. The first was a young Nigerian student who was attending university in Arlington. The other two were my friends Mary and Randy, a married couple who were leaving the next day as missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Mr. Roycroft also came into the classroom.
“Sometimes there is more ministry after the larger group is dismissed.” Kerry said simply. “I have asked our brother if he has anything further to say.”
I He did have more to say, first to the Nigerian student, then it the Bible translators. I did not know their hearts or private spiritual Journeys, of course, but they each did. Like the others before them that evening, they responded as if the words spoken met them exactly where they were.
Finally this quiet and unpretentious guest speaker looked at me. “The Lord would say to you,” he began, “that as you enter into a new area of ministry, the Lord has gone before you and prepared the way. You do not need to repeat words to your people,” he continued. “They have heard so many words their hearts are like a well-worn path. The Lord has given you a listening heart, and he would have you to listen and to love, to minister and to care.”
He also spoke about my past. “Do not be concerned for those you have left behind,” he encouraged, “for the Lord is also with them, and he will carry out his plans for each of them just as he has purposed. And do not be anxious concerning teaching you have done in years gone by,” he said, “for the Lord would say to you that he knows your heart, that you have walked in sincerity before him, and that you have given to others the truth which he had given to you. Now the Lord would encourage you to continue to speak the truth that you know, and to leave the seed you have planted to his care.”
Someone took me back to the airport and I returned to Houston, carrying a cassette tape Kerry had made for me as Mr. Roycroft spoke. I was so awed I could barely sleep. I wanted to share details with Sara Faye but, knowing how even the mention of certain spiritual gifts instantly aroused her fear and anxiety, I hesitated to tell her what had actually occurred. When I left for work Friday morning, I placed the tape on the kitchen counter. “This is what the man told me,” I said to her. “I don’t know if you want to hear it or not, but if you do it is here.”
When I returned home that evening, she brought up the subject. “I listened to the tape,” she said.
“What did you think about it?”
“It was beautiful.” she replied. “I cried all the way through it. He talked as if he knew everything that is going on in your life.”
At this point I still had one nagging unanswered question. I picked up the telephone and called Kerry. “Please don’t be insulted.” I said, “but I have to ask you one question.”
He chuckled. “I know what it is,” he replied. “It’s the same question everyone asks. But go ahead and inquire for your own peace of mind.”
“What did you tell Mr. Roycroft last night about me?” I inquired. “I want to know exactly everything that you said.”
“Just a couple of sentences,” Kerry replied. “I told him that you were from Houston and that you had to return that night. And I asked him if he had anything to say to you before you left. That is all I said.”
That Sunday at Bering Drive, three of us were ordained as elders. All the present and former shepherds placed their hands on us and offered prayers on our behalf. Throughout the service, I thought of the passage in Timothy which says: “Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy and by the laying on of hands of the presbytery.” I marveled at God’s graciousness. “Prophecy on Thursday night, and the laying on of hands on Sunday,” I reflected. “What a responsibility I have to fulfil this charge!” I asked God for strength and faith for the task he had given me to do.
What is biblical prophecy, anyway?
Was Mr. Roycroft exercising the spiritual gift of prophecy? If “our God is in the heavens and he does whatever he pleases,” that is a question I must ask. What is “prophecy” anyway? Does it mean telling the future? Does it always, or even usually, result in new books of the Bible? As I search the Scriptures. I must answer “No” to both questions.
As frequently noted, the biblical word “prophecy” does not mean “fore-telling” but “forth-telling.” Prophecy is simply a direct message from God, spoken through some individual he sees fit to use. Both Old and New Testaments mention many people who delivered God’s word — usually to a particular person or group, for a definite purpose, under specific circumstances. Although their messages were inspired by God, they were not intended for general distribution. Often we do not even know what they said. The Bible records some of these utterances and omits others. Scripture also includes stories and words of many people who never communicated a message directly from God. The Bible simply does not equate the gift of prophecy with the creation of new Scripture.
If prophecy is not intended to result in new Scripture, what is its purpose? The 14th chapter of First Corinthians says more about prophecy in the church than all the rest of the Bible combined, and it identifies three goals of this grace-gift. The person who properly exercises the grace-gift of prophecy edifies, exhorts and consoles. Or, to put it in regular language, he or she “builds up” others to Christian maturity, “stirs up” someone to godly action, or spiritually “binds up” a person who is weak, broken, or torn down.
Does God still speak through people?
But whom does God use to deliver such a word? The answer must surely be, “Whomever he pleases to use.” Moses once expressed a wish that all God’s people might prophesy, but in his day prophecy was very limited. Yet God apparently intended to reveal his word more widely at a later time, according to the text of the first Gospel sermon recorded in the Book of Acts. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter begins his remarks by quoting Joel’s prophecy concerning the “last days.” At that time, God promised to “pour out his Spirit on all flesh.” When that happened, Joel predicted, “your sons and your daughters will prophesy.” Peter informed the astonished crowd that those “last days” had now begun. That was why Peter could now promise that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
The New Testament identifies certain individuals as “prophets,” some of whom also wrote Scripture. But it also mentions other ordinary men and women who prophesied, who are not called prophets and who never wrote any Scripture. Before Jesus was born there were Elizabeth and Zachariah and, during Jesus’ infancy, holy Simeon in the temple. God can even speak through his enemy, as shown by the high priest Caiaphas who prophesied concerning Jesus’ death.
The Book of Acts introduces us to Agabus, Judas, Silas, and Philip’s four daughters, who were known to be prophets. But it tells us of others, such as the twelve Ephesian disciples, who were never recognized as prophets although they prophesied on some particular occasion. Paul places prophecy at the top of the list of ministry gifts to be desired, even as he insists that not all believers will ever prophesy. It is all in God’s own sovereign hands, who distributes different gifts to various believers just as he pleases.
But what did the biblical gift of prophecy look like? How can we recognize it if we see it today? Does Scripture provide us any guidelines or tests for assessing a prophecy? Here we need to forget the special effects of Hollywood and focus instead on the Word of God. Throughout Scripture, the person giving God’s word is not usually frenzied or in a trance. He or she is not emotionally overwrought or out of control. That may characterize false prophets and pagan revelations, but it does not usually describe genuine prophetic ministry in biblical times or today. The prophetic word is a straightforward human word in every mechanical sense, but it is revealed directly to the speaker by God himself.
Negatively, the apostle Paul warns us not to quench or extinguish the Spirit, or to regard prophecies lightly. On the positive side, he commands us to examine everything, then to retain what is good and reject evil in every form. There are many false prophets in the world. John warns. Christians are not to be gullible or naive. We are to test the spirits — and any message that purports to originate with God.
The Bible provides many tests.
John tells us in the last book of the Bible that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” When the Spirit comes, Jesus had said, “he will glorify me.” The grace-gift of prophecy will always exalt Jesus Christ and inspire greater faith in him. Anyone speaking by the Spirit of God will say “Jesus is Lord.” Whoever says otherwise is a false prophet.
True prophecy always agrees with God’s revelation given in Scripture. Any so-called prophecy which contradicts the Bible is wrong. It is as simple as that! We need not fear being misled by a David Koresh, whose early teachings directly opposed God’s clear and unequivocal commandments, clearly marking him as a false prophet.
A word inspired by God is also known by its effects. As we have already seen, its purpose is to build up, stir up and bind up the body of Christ. This grace-gift is not for chastising or condemning, or for issuing new commands which the recipient did not already know. Most modern “prophets” tail this test as soon as they start speaking, including all those who say: “God told me to tell you to send me money! ” An early disciple in the second century said that anyone who asks for money is a false prophet
Do we quench the Spirit?
Scripture encourages us to hospitality by holding out the possibility that we might entertain angels without knowing it. In a similar way, I believe we ought always to speak godly words, with the realization that some of them might spring directly from God. How often have you thought of some word of encouragement, exhortation, or solace, which you felt you should say to someone else — then you quenched the Spirit by never communicating the word? How frequently have you been encouraged by the well-spoken word of another person at the moment you needed to hear it most? How many times have you found new strength from a timely word of exhortation, to keep going when you thought you couldn’t take another step? Or felt your heart rise with new hope, from the depths of depression, when someone said just the “right” word? Where did those godly words originate? Why were they were so effective in Christ’s service? Might they not have been, without our knowing it, words of prophecy?
Spanning two decades in my own life, God used two Christian ladies — Mary Alice Ciampa, in St. Louis, Missouri, and Maude Miller, in Athens, Alabama — to encourage me with such specific words. These godly women, mothers of faith, rekindled my hope in many dark hours, as they repeatedly assured me that God had a future for me which could be neither understood in the midst of, nor ultimately hindered by, the circumstances then present. I will not be surprised if, in glory, God informs me that both ladies were exercising a prophetic ministry. I do not know if they would be surprised by that or not.
One thing is sure. When Jesus returns, prophecy will end. There will be no further need for it then, since we all will speak with him face to face. Until then, even our lips, consecrated to God, may be “filled with messages” from the loving heavenly Father. If you feel you have a good word for someone — say it! Who knows but that God has given it to you for them? After all, “our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases.”