As I have been reading through the New Testament, on my way through the Bible chronologically from start to finish, I have come to the Book of Acts. I wrote most recently about the prominence and importance of testimonial evidence for Christ. I continue to be struck by the key importance of this eyewitness testimony and the highly relational way in which God reveals Himself to people in Acts – and continues to reveal Himself to people today .
Jesus, of course, attracted people who gathered to him, joined him and followed him. Literally, they lived with him, ate with him, traveled with him, and followed him where he went. Thus, they became witnesses to everything he said and did.
As I continue reading in Acts, I have come today to the story of Peter, the apostle, and Cornelius, the Roman Centurion who lived in Caesarea. I wrote about this story not long ago, in Reflection on the Unity for which Jesus Prayed: Peter & Cornelius, but today I see a different twist that runs with the theme of eyewitnesses and God revealing Himself to people.
I wrote a piece on the Sons of Issachar recently. They are referenced in 1 Chronicles 12:32. The Sons of Issachar were 200 chiefs of the descendents of Issachar who joined David with a multitude from the other tribes of Israel when David was hiding from Saul who sought to kill David.
Saul was Israel’s first king. He was the king the people demanded, and God gave them, despite the fact that they were rejecting God as their king in the process. Saul got caught up in his own power and position. Saul was beginning to lose touch with reality, developing jealousy toward David and suspected David was out to get him. Thus, he sought to kill David.
God, in turn, was about to reject Saul as king because he ceased to listen and follow God’s instruction given through the prophet, Samuel. God had already chosen David to succeed Saul, because he was a man after God’s own heart.
David, for his part, loved and honored Saul because God had made him king. David had multiple opportunities to kill Saul, but he refused to do it, leaving Saul’s fate (and his own fate) completely in God’s hands.
Still, men from every tribe of Israel began to gather where David was hiding, including men from Saul’s own tribe (Benjamin), who were some of the first men to join David. The 200 chiefs of the Sons of Issachar, too, joined David, and Scripture says of them, specifically, that they were men “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do”.
That phrase has been invoked by people who style themselves modern prophets who support the presidency of Donald Trump. They claim, of course, that they are men who understand the times. They claim to know what the United States should do, particularly in regard to Donald Trump.
I don’t dismiss what they say out of hand. God has spoken at various times through people who were considered prophets. One of the hallmarks of “the last days” is prophecy, visions and dreams. Peter announced the last days were starting when he stood up on the Day of Pentecost and quoted the prophet, Joel:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
Acts 2:17-18 (quoting Joel 2:28-32)
Though some people believe that these displays of God’s power and authority were only for a dispensation in time, long enough for the Holy Spirit to lead the disciples into the truth and preserve it in what we now call the New Testament, I don’t see evidence of that in the New Testament itself. I think we should expect God to be able to work through people today through prophecy, visions and dreams, and I believe He does!
We, in the west, are not very open to God working that way. We have staked out our position on the embankment of reason, logic, theology and sound doctrine. We are quite uncomfortable with the “messiness” of experiential phenomena like prophecy, visions and dreams.
Yet, outside our western sanctuaries and cloistered halls of learning, these phenomena are regular experiences of Christian life. People who have done short-term or long-term missions often encounter these phenomena in places where people are not presumptively skeptical of what God can do.
Visions and dreams are ubiquitous in the stories of Muslims coming to faith in Christ. I once spoke with a Muslim woman who described for me a vision of Jesus coming to her in the midst of a near death experience she lived through and a subsequent “waking vision” of Jesus gaining her attention in the nick of time to save her son from being hit by a bus. She became a believer in Jesus because of these visions, though no one preached a word to her.
Her supernatural visions, though, didn’t lead her to a place of sound understanding of God and His word. They caused her to believe in God and Jesus, but she gravitated toward extremes in biblical understanding. This is just an anecdote, but I think there is a lesson to take away from it.
It would be a mistake to dismiss out of hand the prophecies, visions and dreams that people claim to have today, but we also need to be careful. Paul admonished the Thessalonians, “Do not despise prophecies…!” (1 Thess. 5:20) But he added an important qualifier:
A friend of mine, my closest friend in college a dear brother in Christ, shared with me something a friend of his shared with him. His friend claimed it to be a prophecy from God. I give it you as it was given to me. He said:
“In the wake of the panic-demic, a great national re-set will settle into the culture. We will witness clarifying ‘adjustments’ to what we value or hold dear. Healthy ones. Already this has served as a great sifting….. [W]e (collectively) have not lost much, though we have faced the specter close on the horizon. When the dust settles, we may be surprised to find ourselves in a much better place. Immunized perhaps by just a taste.”
Many people don’t believe that God gives people prophecies today as He did in Scriptural times. Indeed, if God does still do that, we should be careful to accept them. As Paul said then, “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21)
Were all of the prophecies Paul was talking about then written down?
No. We have letters from Paul and other close associates of Jesus, but we don’t have the prophecies Paul was talking about to the Thessalonians. Those prophecies, I believe, were for them. They weren’t to be despised [ignored, treated as nothing and lacking value][i], but they were to be tested.
Testing prophecies means taking them seriously. The word for “test”[ii] here implies that the prophecies are to be put to the test, examined and proven by testing. This is not a skeptical exercise, as a 21st Century believer (or unbeliever) might suppose. The idea was to prove what is good.
Perhaps, our reluctance to think that prophecy is a way God still communicates to us today is based in our lack of understanding of what is meant by prophecy. We think of predictions of things to come. Indeed, the Old Testament is full of such prophecies. Jesus also predicted things.
Prediction and foreshadowing of future events is partially what prophecy can mean, that isn’t all that prophecy means. The Greek word translated “prophecy”[iii] can mean simply speaking the mind of God. Hopefully, your pastor does that when he preaches!
Prophecy does tend to have predictive elements to it, but that isn’t all that it is, and prophecy doesn’t have to be predictive. It can simply be admonishment, encouragement, provide comfort or otherwise speak the mind of God in a particular moment or circumstance. When we seek to comfort or speak a timely word to a friend, praying to God for wisdom, we are attempting to use the gift of prophecy.
Sometimes we fail. We kind of know it when we do. What we say falls flat. But sometimes, we feel the Holy Spirit in the words that are spoken that confirms we have hit the mark. This is prophecy.
Prophecy is a timely word, a fitting word, a word that resonates with Scripture in the moment. It’s a word that carries some weight in the moment such that it encourages, comforts, rebukes, corrects or has whatever affect the Holy Spirit gives it. If you are blessed to have a good preacher in your church, your preacher may speak the mind of God (prophesy) most Sundays.
Prophecy isn’t to be confused with the gift of teaching. Teaching is the gift of being able to pull the meaning out of a text and communicate it clearly. The gift of prophesy is the ability to make Scripture poignant and apply it in the moment providing direction for the future. A preacher with the gift of teaching and the gift of prophecy is a rare gift.
So, back to my friend’s friend.
I am not going to hang on what he said like Scripture. I don’t think that is the purpose of prophecy, and especially not since the time of Christ. Still, I take it seriously. It rings true to me.
In Dr. William Lane Craig’s book, Reasonable Faith, he addresses the role of reason, or the lack thereof, in faith. At one point, he responds to a somewhat common position – that we don’t need reason; we just need to preach the Gospel – this way:
“Now, there is a danger…. Some persons might say, ‘We should never seek to defend the faith. Just preach the Gospel and let the Holy Spirit work.’ But this attitude is unbalanced and unscriptural, as we shall see in a moment. For now, let us just note in passing that as long as reason is a minister of the Christian faith, Christians should employ it.”
While just preaching the Gospel isn’t necessarily wrong, we shouldn’t abdicate the use of philosophy, logic or reason in support of the Gospel. Of course, there is another, danger: an unwarranted and non-critical confidence in human reason.
An atheist, scientist recently took issue with Dr. Craig and the statement quoted above. He astutely noted that Craig’s suggestion that reason should be employed only if reason “ministers” to (supports) Christian faith implies that Dr. Craig believes reason should not be used if it doesn’t support the Christian faith. In a recent podcast, Dr. Craig confirmed that is exactly what he meant.
For the atheist, scientist, the suggestion that reason should take a backseat to faith is anathema. Reason is the highest standard, the “magisterial” standard, of arbitrating truth for the materialist who doesn’t ascribe to the Person of God, the supernatural or metaphysical reality. No surprise there of course.
For the atheist/materialist, there is no higher standard of proof for determining reality than human thought.
As important as I think sound human reasoning is, I agree with Dr. Craig. I have long held that the human capacity to reason should not be given such a magisterial place in a material world. By that, I mean that a materialist’s confidence in his own capacity to reason is utterly misplaced if he is right about materialism.
It’s an interesting conundrum. A materialist has no choice but to rely on his own capacity to reason on a materialist worldview. He has no other tools in the toolbox, but this tool is not adequate for the job they require of it. Let me explain.
“For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10) (ESV)
When I read this, I immediately ask myself, “How do I measure up to this standard?” Have I exhibited a godly grief that produces repentance that leads to salvation? I think that’s the natural inclination.
I search myself, my past and present experiences, my behavior and my orientation toward God, and I measure myself on the scale that is presented, not just in this passage, but in any passage. Scripture is not just a prescription; it’s a barometer.
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) (ESV)
I felt that active and sharp character of the Bible when I first read it in college, and it is not any less active or sharp in its affect on me today. If I am conscious of the “interaction” of the Scripture in relation to the thoughts and intents of my heart, it provides a third person view, in effect, into my self in relation to God.
Still, I am tempted to think, “How can I measure up?” Regarding the verse above, I am tempted to consider how I can generate a godly grief that produces repentance that leads to salvation. My mindset is, “How can I do that?” or “What does it take to accomplish that?”
As I dive deeper into the verse, though, I begin to see something else. That something else gets to the heart of my relationship with God. It is the heart of the Gospel.