Recovering the Spirit of Prophecy: Empowering the Resurgence of First-Century Christianity
In order to understand God’s purposes in the earth, each generation must ask itself the same questions that were posed by threatening to the leaders of Judah when they returned to Jerusalem following the Babylonian exile: “Who in the world are you, and what on earth do you think you’re doing?” (Ezra 5:1−3). These questions penetrate to the very core of human existence, for they require conclusions first to identity and second to function—first, to being, second, to doing.
Much of humanity is simply clueless. They stumble blindly about with no clear sense of personal identity or purpose in life. When asked who they are and what they are doing, they often demonstrate both their ignorance and their apathy, glibly exclaiming, “I don’t know, and I don’t care!” These are the blind who lead the blind in a staggering lurch toward the yawning ditch of oblivion. Their faceless anonymity is played out on the stage of purposeless existence, and they are destined for interment in an unmarked grave.
Unfortunately, the Christian church frequently can be accurately described by this pitiful appraisal of humanity in general More often than not Christians are anointed with blissful ignorance, and they saunter along in apathetic stupor. Those Christians who are both religious and ignorant and apathetic are doubly dangerous both to themselves and to the world about them, for they cloak their ignorance and prejudice in the holy garments of religiosity, and they can mask their sloth as “waiting on the Lord.”
A strong and anguished cry, however, arises from the hearts of a small remnant of believers. These are they who not only know about God but also know the living God in a face-to-face personal relationship. They want to understand God’s purposes for the time in which they live, and they are determined to align themselves with those purposes when they discover them. They seek to understand, therefore, who they are and what God has called them to do. They also demonstrate singleness of vision and purpose by investigating and discovering what God has done, what he is doing, and what he will yet do on planet Earth.
When applied to divine purposes and assignments, questions of identity and purpose can be answered only in the context of a third question, “What has the Lord said?” Balak, the Moabite king, posed this anxious question to Balaam, the quintessential prophet for hire (Numbers 23:17, NRSV). Taken from a tiny microcosm of the macrocosm of human anguish, this interrogative echoes the groaning cry of virtually every human being who has ever lived upon the face of the earth. Since the time that God discontinued his evening dialogues with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, human beings have experienced the pain of separation from God—a pain most noticeably manifest in the loss of continual communion with the Creator.
God’s Search for Humanity
The very idea of contact and communion between the infinite and the finite, between the immortal and the mortal, between the divine and the human is patently absurd! Certainly there is no possibility that man, with the limitations of his being, could ever initiate contact with God. The truth is, however, that humanity is and has been God’s unique personal project, the intense focus and object of his eternal plan.
Humankind was the crowning achievement of God’s creativity, the last production of the primeval six-day explosion of divine creation. In fact, humanity was the first creation that God ever declared to be “tov me’od” (very good). Humanity was and is God’s grand experiment with the transcendence of love, which is the very essence of his own nature (1 John 4:8). It is an ongoing experiment, the end of which is as certain as the immutability of the Creator himself (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8); however, it is an experiment that has been playing itself out on the ever-unfolding stage of time.
Since the time when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, human beings everywhere have been engaged in the quest to hear from God. In most cases, however, they have either sought to hear from God on their own terms or from a god created in their own image. History is not, however, the record of man’s search for God, nor is it an account of man’s attempts to hear from God. It is the record of God’s intense preoccupation with what Abraham Heschel called God’s search for man. And man’s passion for God pales in comparison with God’s passion for man.
In truth, man’s search for God is unendingly futile without “God’s search for man,” for the only way in which anyone can learn anything about God or his will is for God to choose by his divine sovereignty to reveal himself to humankind. All that can be known about God today is what he has chosen to reveal. It is never the product of man’s acumen, nor is it the result of human investigative skills. Understanding from and about God can be imparted to men only by the Spirit of God through the act of divine self-disclosure.
A Formal Invitation to Communion
The good news is that God has further taken the initiative and has chosen to communicate with man and fill the void in the human heart. Holy Scripture is the record of God’s ongoing search for those who would share personal communion with him during history’s first forty-one centuries. “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1). God’s election of those to whom he would impart his Word and will followed no clear pattern except one: they were all “holy” men and women. They were kings and shepherds, queens and homemakers, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, but they all had one thing in common: they “spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21, NKJV).
The problem with most people has been that they have not wanted to hear what God has said. Just as Balak did not want to hear the message when Balaam informed the king that he had good news and bad news from Yhwh. The good news was blessing for Israel, and the bad news was that no one could curse what God had blessed (Numbers 23:8). And despite the fact that Balak was prepared to expend enormous wealth to hear a different word, God’s communique remained consistent, immutable, and undeniable. God said what he meant, and he meant what he said.
When people decide not to hear God’s word, he simply stops speaking. And when God stops speaking, the silence is deafening. When people stop listening to the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12), nothing remains but futile quests to find insight in an earthquakes, fire, tempests, or other spectacular phenomenon. When God stops speaking, men can exhaust themselves searching for another divine word, but they will never find it.
Is it any wonder, then, that God told Amos, “Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land, not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather for hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea and from the north even to the east; they will go to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, but they will not find it” (Amos 8:11, 12, NASV)? While this text was predictive of historical Israel’s coming discomfort, its principles apply to every individual or people group that turns its back upon the already revealed Word and will of God. When people stop following God’s bidding, he stops bidding. Then they are hopelessly lost in a vortex of self-doubt, wildly scrambling to gain their equilibrium, crying out in for a ray of light in the darkness, and being overwhelmed with an ever-increasing sense of impending doom.
Failure to hear the voice of God’s bidding does not, however, handcuff God. When people refuse to listen, God moves—on! God’s very nature precludes inactivity on his part. He is ever active, never static. He is (not was) the Creator, and he is still creating. He is still making all new things by making all things new. He is ever restoring by reforming. He is ever building by rebuilding. Likewise, God is ever “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3, NIV), speaking the same creative words that summoned forth from nothing the totality of existence at the beginning of time (Romans 4:17), and maintaining the creation by continuing to speak the word of re-creation (Hebrews 1:3).
Even in the face of humanity’s greatest efforts to destroy and thwart his purposes, God inevitably snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, builds a sparkling jeweled city out of the debris of an earthquake, and brings pure gold out of a consuming fire. Man’s infidelity never obviates God’s fidelity. Man’s deafness never mutes God’s voice. He will speak to those who have engaged their hearts to hear and obey. For a moment, the heavens may seem like brass, but in God’s own time, they will echo with the resonance of the divine Word. “Though the vision tarry,” he says, “wait for it,” for “it will surely come; it will not tarry” (Habakkuk 2:3).
God’s Servants, the Prophets
Amos also established an immutable divine axiom when he said, “The Sovereign Lord surely does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7, NIV). God always takes the initiative to communicate his will to man, and he never ceases doing so through those enigmatic voices of prophetic insight and their provocative, incisive, and penetrating, clarion call. At every important juncture in human history, God has had men and women with a prophetic anointing on their lives, and he has faithfully communicated his will and pleasure for the ages and for their own particular segment of human history to them. God always looks for those to whom he can entrust the understanding of what he is doing in the world and whom he can trust to be instruments in his hands to bring about his good pleasure. More often than not, these divine messengers do not even understand the prophetic spirit that has moved on them. They have no grandiose visions of self-importance. They are simply impassioned with a divine Word, and they speak that Word without fear or favor.
It is a simple fact of history and the scriptural record that God has done nothing with regard to humanity in any generation until he has revealed his plan to men and women of prophetic insight. Before he destroyed the earth with a flood, God announced the impending deluge to Noah, who, as a “preacher of righteousness,” became his prophetic voice in the earth (2 Peter 2:5). Before God rained fire and sulfur on Sodom, he revealed his impending wrath to his friend Abraham. Before he commissioned Nebuchadnezzar to destroy Jerusalem and take the Israelites to Babylon in chains, he revealed both the impending destruction of the Holy City and the duration of the people’s captivity to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 25:11-12). Before God sent his only begotten Son into the world, he predicted that event through hundreds of prophetic utterances, finally setting John the Baptist, the greatest of all prophets, on the stage of history to “to prepare in the desert the way of the Lord” (Matthew 3:3). Even on a very personal level, he revealed to both Anna and Simeon that the Christ child whom they held in their arms would be “for the glory of Israel and the light to lighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:25-38).
In many, if not most occasions, the men and women whom God chose as channels of his Word did not fully understand the extent of their message. They simply spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). More often than not, their words were cryptic, designed to conceal a message from their own time but to reveal it in another era. They did not, therefore, attempt to add their own personal interpretation of their prophetic words (2 Peter 1:20). Sometimes, they were even unaware of the prophetic nature of their calling, understanding only that they were impelled by an inner passion that could not be quenched to speak the divine Word that was committed to them (Jeremiah 20:9).
Prophets, whether male or female, do not always come from the most illustrious backgrounds. Indeed, they are often farmers like Elisha and shepherds like David, handmaidens like Abigail and seamstresses like Huldah (1 Kings 19:19; 1 Samuel 16:11; 1 Samuel 25:25; and 1 Kings 22:14, respectively). They emerged from the am ha-aretz (the “people of the land”), the common folk. A shining example of this is the account of the manifestation of prophetic insight in the days of David: “The Issacharites … knew how to interpret the signs of the times, to determine how Israel should act” (1 Chronicles 12:32, TNK). Kings and priests do not have a monopoly on insight.
It is not always the illustrious, the erudite, or the noble who understand. More often than not, it is the obscure, the ignorant, the humble who are sufficiently dependent upon God that they can hear his voice. This is the truth expounded by the prophet Joel who declared that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit upon “all flesh,” influencing “sons and daughters” to prophesy (Joel 2:28). The prophetic “increase of knowledge” that Daniel 12:4 predicted has always resulted from the flash of inspiration that God introduces into the minds of all flesh, so that his purposes are fulfilled in both spiritual and secular dimensions (Job 32:8).
Leaders with Insight
One of the great needs in the Christianity today both locally and translocally is for the manifestation of true apostolic and prophetic ministry to complement the church’s evangelistic, pastoral, and didactic ministries. Both of these gifts were given for insight into the purposes of God and for establishing and strengthening the church in the “resent truth” (2 Peter 1:12). The function of apostolic gifting is revealed by the the Greek word apostolos and the Hebrew shaliach, both of which mean “one sent.” This word shaliach was used to describe Jerusalem’s only water source, the Pool of Siloam (Shaliach) which received its waters that were “sent” from the Brook Kidron through a tunnel. The term apostle, therefore, was not an innovation created by Jesus for the first-century church. Moses was designated as the “apostle (shaliach) of the True One, the faithful one of the house of God, and his servant.” Since Moses was an apostle “sent” by God, it was only reasonable that Jesus should also be called shaliach, “the apostle (apostolos) and high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1). The connection of the word shaliach with the Pool of Siloam should give an indication of the importance of apostolic ministry for providing the church with the life-sustaining water of fresh revelation in terms of insight into God’s purposes. The church’s apostolic ministry, therefore, has always been gifted to individuals who have had a ministry and message parallel with that of the Jewish institution of the shaliach.
In similar fashion, the word prophet in Hebrew is nabi, which literally means “a bubbling up” or “a pouring forth,” with the implication of being an effervescent water source like a spring or artesian well. In their older forms, both the noun nabi (prophet) and the verb nabah (prophesy) related to speaking in “an ecstatic state” of “religious ecstasy.” This idea springs from the word naba, which is cognate with nabi and means “to bubble up” or “to pour forth.” The implication by the Hebrew word nabi itself, then, is that the prophet is one who effervescently speaks words from God by making “ecstatic pronouncements.” He or she is literally “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” as Peter declared (2 Peter 1:20). Again, the idea of fresh water, emblematic of the insight of the Holy Spirit, is clearly implied in both apostolic and prophetic ministry.
The nabi in Israel was the prophet, who, whether male or female, provided leadership that featured an ongoing outpouring of the words of God through the agency of the Spirit. As Martin Buber noted, “Nabi is originally the attribute not of a class or profession, but of a condition … which from time to time seizes the men exposed to the ruah, gathering them and driving them over the land. … the single nabi, when he is called not to ‘declare’ his message, but to ‘perform’ it, is subject to the influence of the power that precedes the word.”
The Need for Prophetic Insight
Following the leadership of a shaliach or nabi is not always comfortable, especially for the followers who prefer a more structured—and, therefore, “safer”—environment. Instead of searching the Scriptures for prophetic insight, however, communities often crystalize around the knowledge of the past so that corporate structures, systems, or doctrines become sacrosanct objects of adoration. When the original vision that spurred devotion to God and the excitement of walking in the light becomes enshrined in inalterable programs, practices, and teachings, men have created an idol that blocks their view of the divine light. When this occurs, religion becomes insipid, irrelevant, dull, and oppressive. When faith is replaced by creedalism, worship by routine, and love by mechanics, the visual acuity that once provided far-reaching vision becomes occluded by the cataracts of crystallization.
The need for ongoing revelation through prophetic insight is seen in the fact that God has not chosen to manifest all of his will for all of mankind in one moment of history. He himself tells us that “the path of the just is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18, NIV). The pleasure of God is revealed “from faith to faith” (Romans 1:17). The eternal Word may have been cryptically encoded in the words of prophets of a previous era; however, it is not fully understood until it is time for that particular segment of God’s plan to be unfolded. That is why even Paul confessed that at that time he then saw through a darkened mirror while anticipating the day when everything would become clear and apparent (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The continually unfolding revelation of God’s intended activities and his quest to find men and women of vision and insight to whom he can reveal his will was described by Solomon in this manner: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Proverbs 25:2). It is a simple biblical fact that God has hidden understanding in his Word, encoding insight in both events and pronouncements that are not readily apparent in a cursory reading of the text. This is why it is incumbent upon all those who fear the Lord to “search the Scriptures” which “testify of the Messiah” (John 5:39).
What Is God Saying Today?
What are the words of the Lord for this day? What is the prophetic vision that can help us understand our own segment of God’s plan for the ages? Is there a word for us today, or are we hopelessly adrift in a black expanse of nothingness? Fortunately, we have God’s own personal word and signature on the document that gives us hope. “I am Yahweh, I change not,” he says (Malachi 3:6). If he has ever sought for man, his search is still ongoing. If he has ever communicated his vision to humans, he still is the enlightener of the soul.
If we are living in the time of the end of the age and the return of Jesus is approaching, what should the prophetic vision for our time be? What has the Word of God predicted for God’s people in this era? What should believers in YHWH be doing in preparation for the consummation of the age? Peter gives us this clear answer to these questions: “And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:20, 21). The apostle emphatically concludes that the heavens will retain Jesus until the time of restoration of all things.
If we are living in the time immediately preceding the coming of Jesus, then the key word for our day is restoration, and not just a minimal restoration but a restoration of all things. Jesus will bring about the ultimate restoration at his return; however, his coming will be preceded by a time of restoration, a day of preparation for the Sabbaical Millennium. The sign and prophetic watchword for the times of Messiah, therefore, is restoration, and the people who are in touch with prophetic insight for that time will be those who are inflamed with a passion to restore all things.
Facilitating Prophetic Restoration
Now is the time for men and women of vision to stand up and be counted. It is not time to take our ease in Zion, resting on and boasting in the laurels of past accomplishments. It is not time to cloister ourselves in ghettoized communities with the Elijah syndrome of isolationism and separatism (1 Kings 19:9), focusing on the part of the restoration that God has already imparted unto us. It is not time to create bureaucracies that make memorials of the ashes of yesterday’s fire and deify yesterday’s—or even today’s—prophets by making their teachings sacrosanct and unimprovable. It is not time to be infected with the insidious disease of self-exaltation and self-righteousness that is manifest in legalism and closely followed by judgmentalism that roundly denounces everyone and everything that is not doing what we are doing. It is not time to be swept up in soulish, ego-inflating tangential concepts that exalt peripheral ideas and external, fleshly forms over the prime commandments to “love” (John 13:34) and “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). It is not time to fall prey to Satan’s devices that marginalize us in extremism so that our witness to God’s revelation of restoration is rendered ineffective.
It is time to shake ourselves and move forward, following the cloud of divine revelation where God is leading and feeding his people (Exodus 40:36−37). It is time for us to remain on the cutting edge of prophetic insight for our time, ever following the light that increasingly shines brighter (Proverbs 4:18) and knowing that we will come to know only if we follow on to know the Lord (Hosea 6:3). It is time to walk circumspectly, keeping our eyes focused on the centrality of Christ so that Yeshua will have preeminence in all things (Colossians 1:18).
It is time that we redouble our efforts in research and development of the Hebraic heritage of our Christian faith, realizing that we probably have just scratched the surface in the restoration. We must take our cue from the prophets, sages, and kings of Judah who heard God’s call to restoration following the Babylonian captivity and returned to Jerusalem to dig through the rubble of the Nebuchadnezzar debacle, find the foundation stones for the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, and complete the process of restoration. Like those leaders, we must have a clear vision of who we are and what we are doing: “We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth,” and we are restoring “the city which a Great King in Israel built” centuries ago (Ezra 5:11).
Like the reformers of the sixteenth century, we must see ourselves as Christian Hebraists dedicated themselves to Veritas Hebraica so we must make Sola Scriptura not just a motto, but a commitment to reinterpreting the Scriptures in the light of the grammar of the text and the history and culture of the people through whom and for whom they were given. We must fully recover the rich legacy from Judaism that was lost to the church when it was covered over with the rubble of human teachings by Hellenization and Latinization that gripped the church after the apostolic era. We must strip away the accretions church tradition to expose the foundational stones of Judaeo-Christian teaching that was established by the prophets and sages of Israel and perfected by Jesus and the apostles of the church.
It is time to go boldly into the future, holding high the banner of truth alongside the banner of love for our fellow man who may not yet share our insight. We must redouble our efforts to continue “marching to Zion,” leaving behind the dust of Babylon (“confusion”) in our quest to restore the New Jerusalem. Like our father Abraham, God has called us out of Babylon so we can journey to the land of promise. We must ensure the fact that we never allow ourselves to become “hung up in Haran” in a compromised middle ground between Babylon and Jerusalem. We must hear God’s voice calling us “all the way” out of Babylon. We must understand that this restoration is a recovery and renewal of “all things spoken by the prophets since creation.” The mercies of God are “new every morning” so the searching heart can never find itself “at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1). We are a pioneering people who constantly push the edge of the envelope. It is an uncomfortable position in which to find ourselves; however, it offers us the exhilaration of knowing that we are on the frontier, pointing the way for others to walk into the move of God for our time.