In 1 Tim 1:18 Timothy is reminded of some prophecies made about him. These are intended to spur him on to “wage the good warfare”. But what were these prophecies? It is not possible to say for sure, but they appear to be related to God’s call and gifting on his life. Another verse that appears to relate to the same prophecies is 1 Tim 4:14, which describes an occasion when the “council of elders” laid hands on Timothy and he was prophesied over. This seems likely to be some kind of ordination or commissioning ceremony. He received a “gift” on that occasion, which may be related in some way to teaching (see 1 Tim 4:13,16). It is also possible that 2 Tim 1:6 also refers to the same occasion (although I personally see that as Timothy receiving the “gift” of the Holy Spirit, rather than a particular ministry gift).
Whilst we are not given enough details about these prophecies to satisfy our curiosity, they do serve as examples of what might be called “personal prophecies”. This is when God gives a specific message directed towards a single person. There are various examples of this elsewhere in the Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament and gospels. An early church example might be Acts 13:2 where Barnabas and Saul are given a specific prophetic commissioning.
The purpose of the prophecies that Timothy received were that he would know and pursue God’s call on his life, and would continue in it when the going got tough. Spurgeon tells an interesting story of a Mr Richard Knill who prophesied over him as a ten year old concerning his future ministry as a preacher. He says that this prophecy spurred him on to work hard training for the ministry of preaching.
There are a number of potential pitfalls when dealing with personal prophecies. First there are the unaccountable mavericks who go round issuing all kinds of “prophetic words” to complete strangers. Sentiments such as “you are called to leadership” or “you are going to preach to thousands” may sound flattering and exciting, but if God has not in fact spoken, these prophecies do more harm than good.
Second, there are those who turn a hope or a wish into a prophecy. “Next year you will be have a child” or “Your Christian band will headline at Glastonbury”, may be what you hope God will do, but this should not be confused with God actually saying he will do it. This can lead to disillusionment and cynicism, or confusion about what went “wrong”.
Third, there is the more sinister motivation of using such prophetic words to subtly control people. “The Lord is saying you should step down from worship leading and start helping with the car park”. Beware of prophecies that back up a prophet’s personal agenda. If you want to persuade someone to do something, tell them straight, rather than couching your desired outcome in prophetic terms.
These pitfalls should not however cause us to reject the concept of personal prophecies out of hand. Like any other prophecy it should be weighed, tested against Scripture where possible, prayed about, and discussed with wise friends. I believe that God is able to give a gift of faith that enables you to trust that a particular prophecy is indeed from him.
God has of course given us his Word and the gift of common sense, so none of us can pretend that we don’t know what he wants us to do, even if we haven’t received any very specific personal prophecies. But when God does speak in this way, its purpose is to stir us into faith-filled action, whether that is preparing yourself for a future ministry, or making arrangements to move to a new place, or persevering in the face of adversity. The gift of prophecy, including personal prophecy, is given for the building up of the church, and as such, it is entirely appropriate for us to earnestly desire that God would speak to us in this way.