What are the most important work and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer? Put another way – what is the nature, what is the essential character of the Holy Spirit as he works in our lives? A fortnight ago we thought of the Holy Spirit as the Lord, the Giver of life, the breath of God in creation Who brings new birth (John 3) and a new creation 2 Cor 5:17. Next Sunday morning we will be thinking about the Holy Spirit as the Helper, who helps us to know Jesus better, to be more like Jesus and to tell others about Jesus. After that we will think about spiritual gifts and the ways in which the Holy Spirit equips us to serve God.
You might be surprised when I tell you that throughout the Bible the most frequently mentioned and the most important activity of the Holy Spirit is NONE of these. Tonight I want to help us understand the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit from a new perspective! Biblically the most widely referred to and most important activity of Holy Spirit is actually this – inspiring prophetic gifts and messages. The essential character of the Holy Spirit promised in OT and experienced in the church in NT is the communicating Spirit, the Spirit who inspires prophecy.
We find the words prophet, prophecy and prophesying 384 times in the OT. The ways in which prophets received God’s message varied. So did their subject matter and the ways that they delivered God’s messages. But the prophet was always essentially God’s spokesman in the world. The authenticity and authority of all prophecies rested upon their divine origin: “thus says the LORD”. God spoke to the prophet and the prophet then spoke to the people. And it was the Spirit of God who inspired the prophets so that they received direct revelations from God. This was the dominant activity of God’s Spirit in OT. It was the “Spirit Who inspires Prophecy” who was the agent of direct communication between God and his prophets, inspiring them with dreams and visions and messages.
Before the birth of the Church at Pentecost the Holy Spirit only came upon special individuals for specific purposes or occasions. But even Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” (Num 11:29). In Joel chapter 2, God promised that in the Latter Days the Spirit will come and rest upon all God’s people, communicating prophecies, dreams and visions. “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” (Joel 2:28).
And this is the promise fulfilled at Pentecost
Acts 2:16-18, 38-39
According to Peter’s sermon there on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit poured out on every Christian is the fulfilment, not so much of Old Testament promises of a new creation or a new heart, but of Joel’s promises of the Spirit who inspires prophecy. Acts 2:38-39 indicates that it is THIS Spirit who is poured out on ALL who repent and believe. Peter repeats Joel’s words for emphasis, “and they will prophesy”. This underlines the principal activity of the Holy Spirit who came down and filled the church, the Spirit who had inspired the prophets, the Spirit who inspires prophecy. It is first and foremost THIS Holy Spirit who is now given to every believer, the Spirit who is “the channel of communication between God and man”. So now ALL believers will be able to see visions and dream dreams, ALL believers will be able to prophesy.
There’s a simple phrase which sums this idea up very well – “the prophethood of all believers.” We’ve heard the phrase, “the priesthood of all believers,” the idea that every one of us can come into God’s presence and pray – we don’t need special priests as intermediaries. The prophethood of all believers implies the reverse, the corollary. We won’t need other people to bring us messages from God – God will speak directly to ALL of us – because the Spirit who lives in every Christian is the same Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets! Preacher and Old Testament theologian Bob Gordon commented, “It is this universalizing of prophetic potentiality to every believer that marks the greatest difference between Old Testament and New Testament prophecy.”
We find this promise fulfilled throughout Acts. Time after time the church receives prophecies, specific revelations from God, giving guidance, assurance, solutions to problems and predictions about personal and national events. See e.g. 13:2ff; (Antioch) 15:28ff; (Guiding Council) 20:23; (warning Paul) 21:11 (Agabus) and 11:28 (predicting famine). Throughout Acts the Holy Spirit is more than anything else the Spirit who inspires prophecy.
If you stop and think about it, so many of the activities of the Holy Spirit are actually the works of the communicating Spirit. Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Paraclete, “another Counsellor / another Helper” (14:16), who continues Jesus’s work of revealing God and bearing witness to Jesus. In John’s gospel the Paraclete is the Holy Spirit in a special role, as the personal presence of Jesus in the Christian while Jesus is with the Father. The Helper’s activities include teaching (14:26), testifying (15:26) and guiding into truth (16:13). He will “speak what He hears … tell you what is yet to come … take from what is mine and make it known to you” (16:13ff). All these are activities of the Spirit who inspires prophecy bringing believers into direct communication with their heavenly Father.
The Spirit brings eternal life, and what is eternal life but a personal relationship with God, mediated by the Spirit? “This is eternal life, to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Jesus says in John 17:3. Again according to the apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit makes us God’s children. The Spirit is the agent of our Sonship, the agency of our relationship with God, the one who cries within us “Abba, Father”, “the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children”. And it is the Spirit who inspires prophecy who does these wonderful things in our lives.
Think about the apostle Paul. Paul himself experienced revelations, dreams, visions and inspired speaking. (Acts 16:9f; 18:9f, 2 Cor 12, 1 Cor 2, etc). Paul also clearly viewed the activity of the Holy Spirit inspiring prophecy as an essential and ongoing aspect of the life of the Early Church. So when he comes to speak about spiritual gifts, in 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul reckons that, next to love, prophecy is the gift to be valued most highly (1 Cor 14:1-5, 24-25, 29-32; 12:29-13). But what does prophecy mean in the Bible?
Prophecy means not only fore-telling events in the future (e.g. Mk 13) but more often forth-telling a revelation from God. So when the Jesus is blind-folded and mocked, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” (Lk 22:64) the expectation was that any true prophet would receive supernatural knowledge from God about people and events. Jesus knowing the sinful life of the woman who anointed him in Luke 7:39, and Jesus’ knowledge of all men’s hearts (Jn 2:24) are examples of prophecy.
David Watson gave this definition of Christian prophecy. “While the written word is God’s truth for all people at all times, the prophetic word is a particular word, inspired by God, given to a particular person or group of persons, at a particular moment for a particular purpose.” Prophecy is not just good Bible teaching. “Prophecy would express a new word from God as such, whereas teaching would tend to denote more a new insight into an old word from God,”. “Prophecy receives its content through revelation, teaching from tradition”.
According to Paul the function of prophecy will always be to build up the church, “strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” (14:3). Paul would like all believers to prophesy but recognises that not all will be used by God in a regular way as prophets. He envisages that some believers will exercise a regular ministry as “prophets” subject to their recognition by the local Christian community, whereas others (not known as “prophets”) will occasionally prophesy. But Paul longs that ALL Christians would prophesy.
Paul teaches specifically about the gift of prophecy, but there are a number of other spiritual gifts listed in 1 Cor 12 and 14 which can be grouped together under the general description of COMMUNICATING GIFTS because they involve God speaking to believers in some way. All of these are aspects of what the Bible broadly means by prophecy.
1 Corinthians 12:7-11
“Words of knowledge” and “words of wisdom” refer respectively to specific supernatural insight into situations and to divinely revealed solutions to practical problems. “The discerning of spirits” refers to a God-given knowledge of the divine, satanic or psychological origin of another’s prophetic words or of their actions. Speaking in tongues as a private prayer language and the interpretation or explanation of tongues in public are also prophetic phenomena. In Acts 2 Peter used Joel’s promises about prophecy to explain what the people were seeing and hearing, which was actually the disciples speaking in tongues. All these communicating gifts are activities of the Holy Spirit who inspires prophecy.
Prophecy and these other communicating gifts all rest on Christians receiving revelations or messages from God. But what are the kind of ways that Gods speak to people in the Bible and today?
God spoke and God still speaks to people through:-
Dreams (Deut 13:1, Joel 2:28)
PBT DREAM – start of Borehamwood – seating arranged differently, –
lively children racing being noisy ( few children in church in reality)
In dream lots of complaints afterwards -> meaning =
1. children have to be a priority in life of church
2. we won’t get children in church until we are ready to welcome them
Visions (Dan 7:15, Acts 7:55-56; 16:9-10; 18:9-10))
Pictures (Jer 18:1-6)
Voices (1 Sam 3:4, Acts 9:4)
God can also speak directly to people through situations and circumstances, subjective impressions, riddles, allegories and parables. Last but certainly most important, God speaks to us through the pages of Scripture, through His word, the Bible. And of course the Bible gives us the standard by which all other “words from God” must be tested and judged.
I believe in the prophethood of all believers. I believe that God the Holy Spirit is often trying to speak to us in all these kinds of ways – but we all have so much to learn about Listening To God. David Watson wrote, “God is the living God … and every day He wants us to enjoy a living relationship with Him, involving a two-way conversation”. But we can so easily forget that our Christian life should be a relationship with God. We can easily sink into duty and routine. In our prayers our conversations with God can so sadly become one-way monologues.
Margaret Jarman, in her Presidential Address to BU back in 1987, said, “Have you listened for God’s voice speaking directly to you? Have you considered that He may speak through your intuition, through your imagination, through dreams and visions, through flashes of inspiration?” Most of us need to grow in the many ways of “Listening to God”! We need to explore silence in prayer and meditation much more, to learn to hear God’s messages to us more clearly.
We need to learn to recognise prophetic messages when we hear them. In general it is the sense of the prophetic message which is inspired, rather than the precise words. So prophecies delivered in King James’ English or in the first person in the name of God are no more authoritative or authentic for that. `Prophesy does not rant.’ (Michael Green)
Pentecostals may be used to that kind of “explicit” prophecy. Pentecostals may prefers direct speech. But as good evangelicals we may be too shy to speak on behalf of God. We might tend to say something like, “The Lord laid this on my heart last night …” and carry on in indirect speech. These “words from the Lord” which we may have may come from an equally strong experience of revelation, yet because we report them to others in a different form they may not be recognised as “prophecy”.
An example of that kind of “unrecognised prophecy” might help. 15 years ago I was in a church meeting which was on the point of approving a scheme of major renovations to the buildings costing £40000 when one member said, “I was praying about this. Our God is a great God. This scheme isn’t big enough.” The mood and direction of the meeting was transformed and six months later the church embarked upon a much more ambitious project for structural alterations costing three times as much, which proved to be a turning point in that church’s life and growth and witness. That prophecy was a very powerful message from God.
It is not the way the message is delivered but the element of direct communication from God, which is at the heart of this kind of unrecognised Christian prophecy. Convictions like that about the will or the heart of God, shared with church or friends after prayerful reflection, fit very well into the New Testament pattern of prophecy. Looked at in that way, very many Christians might realise that God HAS actually spoken to them and through them. And as we move forward into exciting new directions as a church, we need to be very open to hearing God’s voice, guiding us and leading us and challenging us and correcting us, whatever the ways He may choose to speak to us.
There are so many other things to say about prophecy. Next week I will share some examples of prophecies and of words of knowledge and dreams and pictures which have been significant in the lives of Christians and churches. And when we begin to think about listening to God we also need to know how we should test and evaluate the things we believe God may be saying to us through prophecy, and I’ll talk about that next week as well.
In the NT, prophecy and prophetic gifts aren’t peripheral to the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. They are central activities of Spirit who inspires Prophecy. And no Christian is excluded from God speaking to us or through us in such ways if He chooses. Indeed we all could expect to receive much more direct communication from God, because we have all received the communicating Spirit, the Spirit Who inspires prophecy. So we share in `the prophethood of all believers’. That is the very reason why we are committed to being led and governed by the whole Church Meeting.
We all need more education about prophecy. We all need more experience of hearing God speak directly to us. But above all, we all need greater expectation. We may expect the Holy Spirit help us to understand the Bible, but some Christians can be deaf to the Spirit if He speaks to us through prophecy or dreams or visions or pictures.
Samuel prayed, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” We can pray that same prayer, confident that God still wants to speak directly today, not just to some but to all of his children. Because each believer has received that Holy Spirit who inspires prophecy and communicates revelations. But we all need to become more open to the word of God coming to us in all sorts of different and unexpected ways. Or when God does speak, we may not hear Him!
`Eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. ….. He who prophesies edifies the church.’ ` Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. Do not treat prophecies with contempt. ‘
`Speak Lord for your servant is listening’ (1 Cor 14:1,4; 1Thess 5:19-20; 1 Sam 3:10)