“God told me that he wants you to a missionary.” “God has put it on my heart to pray for you.” What do we do with statements like that? Does God still speak? And does he speak to us outside the Bible? That’s what we’re thinking about in this episode of Thinking Theology. Does God still speak through people? What about prophecy? Does God still prophesy through people? Or does he only speak to us through the Bible?
“God told me that he wants you to a missionary.” “God has put it on my heart to pray for you.”
What do we do with statements like that?
In the last few episodes of Thinking Theology we’ve been looking at God’s words in the Bible. The Bible is God’s words written for his people, by his Spirit, about his Son. The Bible is God’s authoritative word and we need to listen. The Bible is God’s powerful word.
But does God still speak? And does he speak to us outside the Bible?
That’s what we’re thinking about in this episode of Thinking Theology.
Does God still speak through people? What about prophecy? Does God still prophesy through people? Or does he only speak to us through the Bible?
Hi. My name is Karl Deenick. I’m a pastor, theologian, writer, and Bible college lecturer. Welcome to Thinking Theology, a podcast where we think about theology, the Bible and the Christian life, not just for the sake of it, but so we can love God more, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
Prophecy is about Jesus
In thinking about how and whether God still speaks, a good place to start is with Acts 2.
Acts 2 is the account of God pouring out the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of his promise in the Old Testament. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection has opened the way for God to remake humanity in the image of Jesus. And that begins on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 as the Spirit is poured out on believers and the Spirit unites them with Jesus and all that he has accomplished on their behalf.
Peter and the other disciples are gathered together when a sound like the blowing of a violent wind suddenly comes upon them. They see tongues of fire coming down from heaven and resting on each of them. And when the neighbours hear and see what’s happening, a crowd begins to form.
But then miraculously the disciples begin to speak in other languages that they hadn’t known before. And the crowd who are listening are absolutely astonished.
It’s at that point that Peter says, that what was happening was the fulfilment of something Joel prophesied in the Old Testament. Peter says in Acts 2:17–18,
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:17–18 NIV)
Peter says that what was happening on the day of Pentecost was not only the beginning of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the people who trust in Jesus. But it was also the beginning of a great prophetic movement. In the past God had spoken through a few prophets here and there but now with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit all kinds of people will see visions and dreams and will prophesy.
But what Peter means by that is really, really important to understand. If we’re not careful what we’ll do is import our understanding of what we think that means, rather than looking at the text of Acts 2 to understand exactly what Peter means.
And what’s really interesting is that Peter says that what he and the other apostles are doing in Acts 2 is prophesying and fulfilling Joel’s prophecy.
But if you read Acts 2, there are no dreams or visions that the apostle’s share and there are no predictions of what will happen in the future. There’s no words about what God will do in this person’s life or that person’s life.
Rather what you get in Acts 2 is Peter explaining how Jesus is the Messiah and how Jesus has come in fulfilment of the Old Testament.
So Peter says in verse 29,
“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet….
So David was a prophet. But what did David prophesy about?
But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:29–33 NIV)
David’s role as a prophet was to look ahead to the coming of Jesus and to his death and resurrection.
Peter’s role and the role of his fellow apostles was not to speak about what was to come so much as to be witnesses of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
They speak about Jesus who has come. And the message that they were speaking to the crowds was the message of the Spirit who, Peter says, “you now see and hear.”
Similarly, Peter writes in his first letter, in 1 Peter 1:10,
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.
So the prophets in the Old Testament spoke about “this salvation”. That is, the one Peter has outlined in the verses just before. The salvation which is through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, the Son of God. The Spirit of Christ in the prophets was pointing to the sufferings of Jesus and the glories that would follow.
But then Peter goes on to say,
It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. (1 Peter 1:10–12 NIV)
So the same Holy Spirit that was given to the prophets in the Old Testament to speak about the Messiah who was to come; that same Holy Spirit has now empowered the preaching of the gospel.
Peter says, “Even the angels long to look into these things.”
The mistake that we can make, I think, in thinking about prophecy is that we think that the greatest mystery in life is what we will do and what will happened to us and how God will use us. But in the Bible the greatest mystery is the mystery about Christ. That is, the message of the gospel. That through his own dying on a cross, God would save a people for himself.
It’s called the mystery of God because for ages past is was kept hidden. It was spoken about in shadows and in mystery by the prophets of the Old Testament, but it’s now been revealed in the preaching of the gospel. And everywhere that the gospel is preached and brought to bear on the lives of people, there prophetic ministry continues. When God speaks through people to make the gospel of Jesus known, the work of prophecy continues.
So listen to what Paul says in 16:25–26. He writes,
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith…. (Romans 16:25–26 NIV)
What the Bible is saying is that prophecy is fundamentally about Jesus. It’s about the revelation of the mystery that was hidden for ages past and which has now been revealed.
In fact, Revelation 19:10 gives this rather remarkable definition of prophecy. It says,
For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. (Revelation 19:10 ESV)
To say that prophecy is about the testimony of Jesus Christ doesn’t mean that prophecy is only about evangelism and telling people who don’t know Jesus about him. It’s a bit like saying that the Bible is about Jesus.
Prophecy broadly understood is not just evangelism. It’s showing people how the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ. It’s challenging people to repent and believe in Christ. It’s showing people the new life that Christ has called us to live in obedience to him. It’s challenging people to take up their cross and follow Christ.
Prophecy is the word about Christ which challenges, rebukes, encourages, equips, trains, makes wise for salvation, which is really the purpose of the whole Bible.
God Gives Us His Spirit So That We Can Speak About Jesus
So prophecy is primarily about the testimony to Jesus Christ.
But not only is that the heart of prophecy, but that’s also the key reason that God has given his Spirit to his people. That is, so that every Christian can speak words about Jesus.
In seeing that, it helps to look at what God said to some of the Old Testament prophets and then to also look at how that is paralleled in the New Testament.
So God says to Moses in Exodus 4:11–12,
“Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” (Exodus 4:11–12 NIV)
Or in Deuteronomy 18 God tells Moses,
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. (Deuteronomy 18:18 NIV)
Or God says to Jeremiah in Jeremiah 1,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
But Jeremiah says,
“Alas, Sovereign Lord … I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.” (Jeremiah 1:4–9 NIV)
But now listen to these words in the New Testament from Matthew 10. Jesus says,
On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. (Matthew 10:18–20 NIV)
What is striking is that in the OT when the prophets spoke it was by the Holy Spirit that they spoke. It was the Holy Spirit who gave them the words to speak. But now Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will give words to his disciples. Again, not to tell the future, but to proclaim Christ.
And you see the same thing in the book of Acts. When the Holy Spirit comes on people with power they don’t speak a new message about the future but they proclaim the gospel about Jesus.
So Jesus says in Acts 1:8,
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NIV)
Or in Acts 4:8 we’re told,
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them… (Acts 4:8 NIV)
And then Peter preaches a gospel sermon.
Or in Acts 4:31, it says,
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (Acts 4:31 NIV)
Similarly, Acts 11:23–24 tells us about Barnabas:
When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord. (Acts 11:23–24 NIV)
Does God still speak? Yes, God still speaks. He uses us to speak. In the past God used a few prophets to speak about the coming of Jesus, but now that Jesus has come, God pours out his Spirit on all believers so that they can speak about Jesus.
The most exciting and wonderful blessings that the Spirit brings to our lives is the power and ability to speak words about Jesus into a lost world.
Christians often think, “Well, God could never use me because I don’t know the right things to say.” But God has given us his Spirit for exactly that purpose to empower us to speak.
If we know that gospel we can make it know to others as well. We can make known to them what they didn’t know before. And we can do that because God has given us his Spirit for exactly that purpose.
Does God Give People Insight into the Future?
So the heart of prophecy is speaking the truth about Jesus. And God empowers every Christian with his Spirit to do exactly that.
But doesn’t answer the question of whether God still ever gives people special insight into future like he did in the past?
I think it’s reasonable to suppose that God still can and does at times prompt people with respect to the future.
There doesn’t seem to be any reason to suppose that he wouldn’t do that any longer. And there are certainly a few examples of that in the New Testament.
There are examples of the Holy Spirit leading people in plans and in decisions. We see that in Acts, as the Holy Spirit leads Paul and others regarding where to do their missionary work. So in Acts 13 it says,
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” (Acts 13:2 NIV)
And it does seem in experience, too, that the Holy Spirit does prompt and prod us to do certain things.
I remember a friend of mine was going for a walk one morning and she walked past a man waiting at a bus stop, and she thought to herself, “I should talk to that man.” She kept walking and then she thought, “No, I really think I should go back and talk to that man.” And so she went back and asked him if he knew Jesus or something like that. At which point he broke down and by the time the bus came this man wanted to trust and follow Jesus.
I remember in my own experience too, I once had the overwhelming conviction while I was reading a part of the Bible that I should go and talk to a particular and make sure they were ready to die and to make sure that they really trusted in Jesus. Their life didn’t seem to be in immediate danger but I felt very convicted that I should do it so I prayed and went. We had a wonderful conversation and we prayed together. And two or three weeks later they were admitted to hospital suddenly and within about 48 hours they had died.
The Holy Spirit certainly prompts and stirs us to do things and we ought to be responsive to those things.
But we also need to remember that impressions, thoughts, ideas, and strong emotions are not the sure word of God. Feelings and ideas and impressions can be wrong and misleading. And so we need to test them against the Bible and hold them loosely. We can’t trust them in the way that we can trust the sure words of God in the Bible.
But more than that, we also need to keep absolutely crystal clear that the reason God has given us his Spirit is not so that we can do some neat party tricks, or so that we can know God’s plans for our lives or the lives of others.
God’s great gift of the Spirit is for the purpose of making his great gospel known. God has spoken so that we would know his Son, Jesus, and so that others would know him too.
If that disappears from our understanding of what it means to speak prophetically then we’ve missed the point.
How Does the Spirit Equip Us to Speak?
But a final question, then, is how God puts his words in our mouths. How does he do that? How does the Holy Spirit equip us to speak about Jesus?
Well, of course, God can do that directly. He can put words into our minds and hearts to speak. But one of the key ways that God equips and trains us to speak is through the Bible.
It was the Holy Spirit who caused the Bible to be written down for us. And the Holy Spirit has not suddenly decided to abandon the Bible.
The Bible is not a dead book. The Bible is the living word of God. And the Holy Spirit still speaks to us through the Bible.
We tend to think that supernatural insight must be something that comes to us spontaneously. But according to the Bible, even just to understand the Bible is supernatural insight.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 that we only understand the gospel because God has given us the Holy Spirit.
We saw earlier those words of Peter, in 1 Peter 1:10, where he says,
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care…. (1 Peter 1:10 NIV)
The prophets searched intently and with the greatest care. They didn’t just put their feet up and wait for the next revelation. They searched and combed through the Bible.
And one thing you notice when you read the prophets is how steeped they are in the Bible. They knew the parts of the Bible that they had inside out. And the words that God gave them to speak were applications of the Bible. The apostles constantly refer to the Old Testament in their evangelism and in their letters. You couldn’t do that without knowing the Bible really well.
It’s entirely possible that God could give us some spontaneous, supernatural insight into what the Bible means. But almost the entire emphasis of the New and Old Testaments is that God prepares people slowly to speak for him by teaching them and through them studying his Word.
It’s a mistake to think that God is only speaking through us when we say something unprepared and spontaneous. As though God is only involved in our lives at the last minutes and has been absent from our lives for the long years of formation and correction that we’ve already lived.
Does God still speak? Yes. God still speaks to us in the Bible. And in the Bible the Holy Spirit equips us to speak words to people. God puts his words in our mouths to build up the church, to proclaim the good news about Jesus, to call people to repentance, to train us for every good work and to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
That’s it for this episode of Thinking Theology. And that’s it for this year of Thinking Theology.
There will be a special bonus episode in the next week or so dealing with the current pressing issue of vaccination and how we as Christians should think about that. In that episode I’ll be speaking with my sister, Associate Professor Dr Elissa Deenick, who is a research immunologist with the University of New South Wales and the Garvan Institute. She’ll be joining me to talk about vaccines, Covid and Christianity. So look out for that.
And next year we’ll be continuing on with Thinking Theology by looking at who God is and what he’s like.
Please join me then.