Prophecy is messy.


Often hard to hear.

But good and loving.

We’ll learn about this truth in a brief account of Paul’s trip to Rome. He was going there as a prisoner to be judged for his crime: preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Early in this journey on a ship, poor weather was making progress on the Mediterranean difficult, and the season for fair weather was growing short. We’ll pick up the account there: “Since much time had passed, and the voyage was now dangerous because even the Fast was already over, Paul advised them, saying, ‘Sirs, I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.’ But the centurion paid more attention to the pilot and to the owner of the ship than to what Paul said. And because the harbor was not suitable to spend the winter in, the majority decided to put out to sea from there, on the chance that somehow they could reach Phoenix, a harbor of Crete, facing both southwest and northwest, and spend the winter there” (Acts 27:9–12). 1

Shortly thereafter, a tempestuous storm blew up. Luke wrote, “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned” (Acts 27:20).

However, Paul told the men on the ship that an angel had informed him that, in spite of the dire situation, everyone on board would live. But they weren’t out of danger yet, and when it appeared that the ship would run aground, possibly killing everyone on board, “…the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, and had lowered the ship’s boat into the sea under pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.’ Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship’s boat and let it go” (Acts 27:30–32).

This time, they listened. They all stayed put—and lived.

We could go on with the story, but all turns out well, except for the loss of cargo.

Here are some truths that seem evident from this account.

Truth One: It is very difficult to hear a true prophetic voice when you are the person who has the knowledge of a situation locked down—like the centurion, pilot, and owner of the ship in our story—and possesses power. For other examples, I could site the responses of kings and leaders to, well, just about every prophet in Scripture, including Jesus Himself. When He foretold the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, it was the final straw for the Jewish leaders at that time. He was arrested.

Surely, Paul must not have been surprised when the warning he gave was ignored out of hand. Just put yourself in these men’s shoes, or in the shoes of your profession. You’ve been on the job for ten years, doing it pretty well, and some new hire strolls up and warns you that your actions are wrong and perhaps dangerous.

Sure. That will get a good hearing every time.

Truth Two: The Lord will confirm the words of a true prophet. At first, no one in power believed Paul. However, after what he prophesied came to pass, the sailors listened to him when he warned them to stay on the ship instead of abandoning it. (See verses 30-32 above.) This is one of the ways Christians are to determine whether prophets are false or true. What they say must come to pass.

Truth Three: God’s true prophets make situations messy but ultimately good in the end. No author on board the prison ship wanted to delay the journey. That would be uncomfortable. Nonsensical.

Prophecy is a tricky deal. It always has been and is in the Church today as well. I don’t lay claim to being a prophet, but the Lord has spoken some things to me. Most of them have been confirmed. Two are still sitting on the back burner. However, although much of what the Lord has told me is uncomfortable, the Lord has not yet told me to go “speak truth to power.” If He were to do so, I would have little hope, outside a strong presence and conviction of the Holy Spirit, that those who thought they were secure and knowledgeable of their situations—yes, including church pastors and leaders—would give what I said much consideration at all.

Prophecy is messy. Uncomfortable. Hard to hear. Neverthless, the Lord tells us to earnestly desire to prophesy and connects it to loving the Church: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1). The conclusion: Apparently God planned prophecy to function in this untidy way. This method of communication is what He has ordained. This is the way God thinks. We do not.

Welcome to fellowship with the God who has knowledge of all that exists, including the future.

However, we must all be careful, because we are very much like the centurion, the pilot, and the ship’s owner. We should not be high-minded but fear. All of us who have labored in our jobs for any substantial length of time may think we have almost unassailable knowledge of our occupations and the situations surrounding them. Although what is spoken in prophesy may seem incredible to us, such words should be the subject of prayer and not be dismissed out of hand. (I speak here about realities outside the realm of Scripture. Clearly, little in the Bible would have helped these shipmen to ascertain the truth or falsity of what Paul said.) The Lord will answer us if we prove not proud. We must remember that He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Prophecies are messy—but good. We are not to despise them. “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:20–21).

1Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Artwork compliments of the Smithsonian Art Museum.