Compassion should always be our over-riding motivation, and we should always offer people a way out of their situation; otherwise our words are only condemnation.
Do you dream a lot when you are asleep? Or are you more like me: you often wake up with a vague feeling that you have been dreaming but you have no recollection of any of the dreams?
We all dream; it’s just that some of us are able to recall more of our dreams than others. However, whether you remember your dreams or not, once in a while you will have a dream that you not only remember, but that you can’t get it out of your head; it keeps coming back to you, together with the feelings that you experienced in the dream.
You keep thinking about what it might mean. Or is it just my mind processing the garbage of the day while I am asleep?
Pharaoh’s chief baker had one of those persistent dreams one night – you can read about him in Genesis 40. He was in prison because he had done something to offend Pharaoh, so there was not much activity there to distract him from thinking about the dream.
Round and round it went in his head. Then he discovered that his fellow prisoner, Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer, had also had a powerful dream that had stayed with him. But they were both frustrated because neither of them knew how to interpret their dream.
Enter Joseph, son of Jacob, onto the stage. He too was in prison, having been placed there unjustly; but he had found such favour with the captain of the guard that he had been put in charge of all the prisoners.
When Joseph visited the baker and the cupbearer that morning he could see that they were down in the dumps, and it didn't take long for them to tell him the reason: they had both had vivid dreams, and they had nobody to interpret them.
Joseph had already had experience of dream interpretation, many years earlier, and he knew that this ability of his came from God. So he suggested they tell him what they had dreamt.
They were rather hesitant to do so, maybe fearing that the dreams held some unpleasant consequences for them. For when we do not know the one true God, anything which is supernatural or outside the real of our logic tends to be either dismissed or feared.
The cupbearer was the first to take the plunge and tell Joseph his dream; and the interpretation was very positive: within three days he would be brought into Pharaoh’s presence and get his old job back.
This gave the baker the courage to tell his dream too. But, unfortunately, for him the interpretation was quite different: within three days he too would be brought into Pharaoh’s presence, but he would be sent away for execution – and that is exactly what happened.
So, does God give still give warnings today – through dreams or any other means – of bad things that are going to happen to us? The Old Testament prophets are full of prophecies of impending judgment on Jerusalem, Israel and other nations, but usually these are warnings about the consequences of sin; and we read of no particularly bad sin that the baker had committed.
What about now, under the new covenant? I often come across statements claiming to be prophetic words and threatening various disastrous consequences on our Western societies because of particular sins. What are we to make of these?.
The New Testament is clear: The person who prophesies speaks to people strengthening, encouraging and comfort, and builds up the church (1 Corinthians 14:3-4).
Anything that does not fit this description – and that includes warnings of the dire consequences of sin for individuals or a group of people – is not prophecy in the New Testament sense of the word. Such words may be considered as warnings, even predictions, but they are not New Testament prophecy.
There are many warnings in the New Testament about the serious consequences of sin, but they are rarely addressed to defined individuals or groups. Indeed, Paul’s masterful exposition of God’s plan of salvation, the book of Romans, begins in chapter 2 with a warning to us to be much more preoccupied with our own sin than that of other people.
Nor do we Christians have a calling to judge those outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:12). Our message to them is the message of Jesus: the kingdom of God has drawn near, and you need to do something about it (Mark 1:15).
Why did God let Pharaoh’s baker know that he would be dead within three days? I don't know; we are only told a small part of his story, and any more than we read in the Bible is pure guesswork.
Undoubtedly Pharaoh’s cupbearer would have been deeply impressed by the very contrasting fates between him and the baker three days later; but that was only part of the overall picture.
There will undoubtedly be times when God calls us to warn individuals or groups of people of the negative consequences of a particular course of action, but compassion should always be our over-riding motivation, and we should always offer people a way out of their situation; otherwise our words are only condemnation.
The general rule is to only let words come out of our mouth that are helpful for building others up, according to their needs (Ephesians 4:29). If we have been given spiritual authority it is for building people up, not for tearing them down (2 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10).
If we feel that God has given us a word predicting negative or hard things, let us first ask ourselves: Is this for strengthening, encouragement or comfort; and will it build up the body of Christ?
If the answer is ‘No’, then we should seriously question whether we speak it out. If we Christians all followed these guidelines a bit more thoroughly, our churches would be in a much stronger place.