Words of knowledge, wisdom and prophecy: what are they, what’s the difference between them and why should you care?
There appears to be a crisis in some parts of the Christian church today, a crisis about spiritual gifts.
What are spiritual gifts? Who should operate in them? And when, where and how should they be used? These are just some of the questions being asked.
Confusion abounds, particularly with the prophetic gifts. And one question, in particular, stands out to me:
What’s the difference between words of knowledge, words of wisdom and prophecy?
In this article, I'll discuss these three spiritual gifts. I’ll explain what they are, why they are helpful and some of the potential pitfalls of each one.
Words Of Knowledge And Wisdom: Challenging A Worldview
I have seen some blog posts which seem to be relatively comfortable with the gift of prophecy, but try to explain away words of knowledge and wisdom.
They say that prophecy is a gift from God, but words of knowledge and wisdom are not prophetic gifts: they are instead related to understanding the bible.
These explanations attempt to alarm the reader by stating that those who say, “I have a word from God for you” are speaking for God in his place. The argument goes that these people are, therefore, not to be trusted.
I understand why some people feel like this. People may be hurt by such words if they are shared inappropriately or in a judgmental way.
In those circumstances, it is natural to avoid them …and to come up with seemingly biblical arguments to justify their position.
However, those arguments could not be further from the truth.
The reality is that:
- words of knowledge and wisdom are indeed prophetic gifts.
- they are part of God’s grace to his church (that means you and me).
- Jesus himself operated in and demonstrated the positive use of these gifts.
Words Of Knowledge And Wisdom As Spiritual Gifts
In the letter to the Corinthians, we find a list of spiritual gifts:
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.
All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Corinthians 12:7-11, NIV)
There are various lists of spiritual gifts in the bible, but this is the one that specifically mentions the three we are discussing today.
Note that they are described as the “manifestation of the Spirit”.
The word manifestation does not mean that these gifts are something mysterious or elusive. Neither does it mean they are something understood purely with our minds.
The reality is that these manifestations are concrete applications of the power of God expressed through his Holy Spirit.
The fact that wisdom and knowledge are listed as messages (or words in some bible versions) indicates that they are spoken.
I’ll look at each one in turn and explain:
- What the gift is
- How it’s used in the bible
- How it should be used today
What Is Prophecy?
Prophecy is about speaking God’s heart and intentions to people.
It is sometimes about the future, but it nearly always expresses God’s love in some way.
Prophecy may also be combined with words of knowledge or words of wisdom, in order to increase its impact.
How prophecy is used in the Bible
The bible is replete with prophecy and prophetic words.
Most Christians will be familiar with the books within the Bible which were written by, or about, the prophets of the Covenant.
Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah are the most famous. They predicted many things, including nearly every aspect of Jesus’ life, with incredible accuracy.
Many Christians are comfortable with prophecy as far as the Old Testament is concerned.
What some may not realise is that the gift of prophecy is also present and in use in the New Testament too.
Jesus himself prophesied the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem, as well as the trials and tribulations his disciples would face.
And there are several examples in the book of Acts, demonstrating the disciples’ use of prophecy to extend God’s kingdom.
One such is the prophetic dream the Lord gave to the apostle Peter, which opened up the gospel to gentile believers.
How prophecy should be used today
Since prophecy expresses God’s heart, Christians today should seek to use the gift of prophecy to love the world around them and win people to Jesus.
Paul says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).
As one of the spiritual gifts, the gift of prophecy is one way the Lord enables us to show his power to those around us.
The prophets of old often gave dire warnings to God’s people. However, the message of prophecy in the New Covenant is usually to bless people and reveal the truth of the gospel to them.
What Are Words Of Knowledge?
A word of knowledge is where God reveals something about a person or situation that is unknown to the prophet.
It may be simple or complex but will contain specific details that only the person it is shared with could know.
For example, God may reveal to the prophet the name and date of birth of somebody before they have been introduced.
Or, when praying for someone, the Lord might show the prophet a picture of what that person was doing the previous day.
The important thing with this is not the word of knowledge itself, but the effect it has on the person hearing it.
Someone receiving a word of knowledge will find themselves confronted with the reality of God and his knowledge of them. For a Christian, it is a reminder that God knows us and our situation, better than we know ourselves.
How words of knowledge are used in the bible
I’ll use two examples to demonstrate words of knowledge, both from Jesus himself:
Jesus and Nathanael
In the first chapter of John’s gospel, Philip takes Nathanael to meet Jesus.
As they approach, Jesus says that Nathanael is an honest man, with no deceit.
Nathanael becomes curious and asks how Jesus knows him since they have never met. But Jesus reveals that he saw Nathanael “under the fig tree before Philip called you” (John 1:48).
Any doubts we may have about whether or not this was a word of knowledge are dispersed by Nathanael’s response: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
Jesus and the Samaritan woman
In John’s gospel, chapter 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
He strikes up a conversation with her, which is itself unusual for a Jew and a Samaritan, in those times.
However, partway through their conversation, Jesus steps into the supernatural by sharing a word of knowledge with her.
He asks her about her husband and she says she has no husband. Jesus then states that what she said is true: She has had 5 husbands in the past and is now unmarried, but with another man (John 4:17).
This word of knowledge brings revelation to the woman, who realises he is a prophet.
How words of knowledge should be used today
Words of knowledge are specific and require knowledge we don’t possess ourselves.
Therefore, we can only receive words of knowledge directly from God.
However, God is good and loves to give good gifts to his children.
We can ask him for words of knowledge when we are praying for people and practice sharing those words with them.
It’s important to seek feedback, so we know when we have got them right or wrong. Then we can grow this gift into maturity.
What Are Words Of Wisdom?
A word of wisdom is a message from God which brings insight, inspiration and understanding into a situation.
More than that, a word of wisdom will remove confusion and may also bring a sense of peace to those affected.
Words of wisdom are sometimes difficult to pin down, but we can understand them better by contrasting them with prophecy and words of knowledge:
Words of wisdom vs prophecy
Prophecy may speak generally into a person’s life or situation.
A word of wisdom will be more specific and have an “aha!” or “eureka!” feeling about it. It’s as though a lightbulb has just been switched on to illuminate our concerns or worries.
In other words, although a generic prophecy may have similar effects, wisdom is usually more incisive.
Words of wisdom are about God cutting through difficulties with his wisdom and understanding. In some cases, it’s almost like God’s lateral thinking!
A prophecy may speak of the future, but a word of wisdom helps us understand how to get there. It is the application of God’s word to us.
Words of wisdom vs words of knowledge
If a word of knowledge is about the current state of a person or situation, then a word of wisdom helps us know how to change things to bring about blessing.
Our current state may be influenced by the past, perhaps by our parents or some childhood trauma.
A word of knowledge may reveal a truth about that past, but a word of wisdom will tell us how to break through in the present.
How words of wisdom are used in the bible
The best example of a word of wisdom in the bible is that of King Solomon when he had to judge between the two women who argued over a baby:
One woman states that the other woman’s baby died in the night and that they swapped the two babies, while she slept. When she woke up and looked at the infant next to her, she immediately knew it wasn’t hers.
They begin to argue in front of the king, who now has the difficult task of judging between them.
The king said, ‘This one says, “My son is alive and your son is dead,” while that one says, “No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.”’
Then the king said, ‘Bring me a sword.’ So they brought a sword for the king. He then gave an order: ‘Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.’
The woman whose son was alive was deeply moved out of love for her son and said to the king, ‘Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!’
But the other said, ‘Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!’
Then the king gave his ruling: ‘Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.’
When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.
Solomon was already known to be a wise king, but here the Lord gave him a specific insight. He received a word of wisdom, which revealed the truth.
How words of wisdom should be used today
I believe that words of wisdom are different to the general wisdom we receive as part of growing in character in Christ.
We can ask God for wisdom just like Solomon did and the Lord is gracious to us. Wisdom then becomes part of how we express the fruit of the spirit.
However, there is a place for specific, incisive wisdom in the moment which brings about breakthrough and release.
This is where a word of wisdom appears as a spiritual gift, a tool God uses to bless his people.
Abuse Of Words Of Wisdom, Knowledge And Prophecy
Sadly, these gifts can also be abused.
If spoken in a directive way or out of a judgmental heart, they can be used for our own selfish interests. They may even be used to manipulate people into doing what we want.
However, the true gifts are not about manipulation: they are given for the blessing and building up of the church.
It is, therefore, vital that we keep hold of the Father’s heart of love. We must stay humble as we use these gifts and ask people to pray through what they receive, not tell them what to do!
And particularly with words of knowledge and wisdom, we must be willing to learn from our mistakes.
Words Of Knowledge, Wisdom And Prophecy: Conclusion
Words of knowledge, words of wisdom and prophecy are spiritual gifts given to the church.
We can use them to bless those around us and glorify the name of our Lord Jesus.
I hope you have seen how the gifts of knowledge, wisdom and prophecy are related to one another and yet distinct.
Let’s seek more of these gifts, so we can bless God’s people and those around us.
Has this post helped you to understand the difference between these spiritual gifts?
Have you got a story to share about words of knowledge or wisdom?
Let us know in the comments below.
I have enjoyed this piece and even bookmarked it. I have been enlightened and blessed.
You’re welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
This write up is indeed helpful to my ministry. Thanks
So helpful! I always knew I was an encourager. Then I was corrected that I had the gift of words of knowledge with prophecy, and the spirit of encouragement. This helps me understand more what I am being given to bless others and how to be more specific when sharing what I see.
Thanks for letting me know: that’s great!
Be blessed as you bless others with your gifts! 🙂
Thank you for this piece Tim. After reading 1Corint 12 this morning, I found this gifts overlapping and you have a done great job dissecting them. I have been told I am an encourger too, Infact people seem to easily confide in me. I hope to receive a revelation someday on the specific gift God has chosen to manifest in me.
I have question: how we can realise the words of knowledge? If you stand up and say someone here had headache or someone here left hand is painful. Is this is a word of knowledge or maybe he guess or he saw something ? Can you explain for me? Thanks Daniel [Edited for clarity]
Thanks for your comment: that’s a good question!
It does sound like a word of knowledge, but you’re right that it’s also possible for someone to make an educated guess, perhaps based on something they saw.
That’s why it’s important for words of knowledge to be tested, in the same way that prophecies should be.
And prophetic people need to be honest with themselves, as well as with other Christians, whether they really heard from God or not.
That said, God has sometimes spoken a word of knowledge or prophecy to me through me seeing a person’s face or a situation unfolding in front of me.
The important thing to do in this case is to pray and ask the Lord what he wants to say to that person or situation (if anything) and be obedient to him.
I’d like to ask two questions regarding your article.
1) In your definition of prophecy, you mention that prophecy “nearly always expresses God’s love”. Does a prophecy always have to encourage and comfort people? Can’t prophecy reprove, rebuke or correct people? I guess the view that prophecy should always be encouraging and comforting comes from Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 14:3: ‘He that prophesies speaks edification, exhortation and comfort to me.’ But should we restrict our definition of prophecy to this one verse of scripture? Aren’t there other New Testament scriptures where prophecy serves to reprove or correct? Why do we have to restrict ourselves to only one verse? After all, we don’t usually restrict ourselves to only the nine gifts listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. Everyone agrees the list of gifts in 1 Cor. 12 is incomplete. Why don’t we apply the same principle to the definition of prophecy in 1 Cor. 14. Isn’t there a sense in which the listing of the functions of prophecy in 1 Cor. 14:3 is incomplete? For example, in the book of Revelation, many of the prohecies of Jesus regarding the seven churches in Asia Minor contain warnings and reproof.
2) In the examples you gave of word of knowledge, reference is made to the prophet. For example, you said: “. . God may reveal to the prophet the name and date of birth of somebody before they have been introduced.” Is it only the prophet who manifests the gift of word of knowledge? Can’t a believer who is not a prophet manifest this gift?
Thank you for raising those two questions, you’ve touched on some very important points.
To your first question, I would say that yes, prophecy can certainly rebuke or correct and expressing God’s love does not necessarily mean the same as “encourage and comfort”.
A lot of this is related to the heart of the person sharing the prophecy and even a rebuke can express God’s love if shared in the right manner.
For example, when Jesus called the Pharisees a “nest of vipers” he condemned them with scathing language.
However, I believe that he did that out of a heart of love for them, in the hope that some might change their hearts and come to believe in him.
For us in the modern church, we must be very careful with prophecy that rebukes or corrects because if we get it wrong, we can hurt people terribly.
That’s why I teach anyone learning the gift of prophecy to start with encouragement and comfort words, until they are used to hearing God’s voice more clearly.
To question 2: I think it’s perfectly possible of a “non-prophet” to have a word of knowledge.
However, part of what I’m sharing in this post is that I believe words of knowledge and wisdom are prophetic gifts, so in a sense, the two are one and the same.
I hope that helps to clarify things.