Prophecy – the gift of the new covenant
It is generally stated that what happened on the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the first disciples, was that as an immediate result of the outpouring, they all ‘spoke in(with) tongues’. Certainly, this phenomena was what struck the gathered crowd so forcibly. But I think we need to look again at the text. I think that this first evidenced gift was not only ‘tongues’, but, more importantly, it was prophecy. And I think that prophecy today is misunderstood within the churches – that it should regain its rightful place as THE ‘family’ gift of all believers. Let’s see.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.”
This, of course, is in fulfilment of the promise of Jesus. If we flick back one chapter, we will see that during the forty days He was with them after the resurrection, He ‘spoke to them about the kingdom of God’. And it was in one of these sessions, during a shared meal, that He commanded them to wait in Jerusalem for ‘the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about’ – which Jesus calls ‘the baptism with the Holy Spirit’. This special dispensing of the Spirit would give them power and was to be essential and fundamental in their being His witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’. (Acts 1 vs 3 – 8). So this provision of the Spirit of God:
- Is a gift
- Is the Father’s promise, spoken of by Jesus
- Is a baptism’ ‘– and John’s baptism in water is a picture of it. They would be ‘immersed’ in Him
- Would ‘come upon’ them
- Would provide them with power to be witnesses to Jesus
And we understand this event to be the founding of Christ’s new covenant church, to be His representation on earth until He comes.
On the great day of the Feast of Pentecost, seven weeks after the Passover, this astounding event takes place. Passover was two things to the Jew:
- The celebration of the new harvest – the bringing of the firstfruits of the field to the Temple, in thanksgiving
- The occasion when they celebrated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, 49 days (50 including the actual day of Passover). After the exodus from Egypt.
We must see the significance of this. 50 days after the death of Christ on the cross (our ‘exodus’), The Spirit of God is poured out upon ‘all flesh’. As the Law was the spine of the old covenant, so the Spirit is the ‘spine’ of the new. The whole of that former covenant was administered through the Law of Moses. So the structure and shape of the Christ-instituted new covenant, in His blood, is to be God’s own living, vital and vibrant Spirit, not laws engraved on stone. There, God gave those laws by writing them with His own finger. Here, He pours out His heart. The symbol of the former is stone. The symbol of the new is fire. Then, it was ‘dead letter’. Now it is white-hot holiness, the symbol of the very presence of God in His new Temple, the church, and its composite believers. The shadow is replaced by the substance. God brings about what the Law, great as it was, could only point to. And the lesser Law of Moses must give way to the greater glory of the Spirit of God Himself.
Tongues of Fire
- What they heard – was the sound of a mighty, rushing wind – the ‘ruach’ (breath) of God, which filled the whole house.
- What they saw – was the appearance of a great fire, with licking flames, descending, then dividing so that individual ‘tongues’ of fire separated and came to rest on each one.
- What they experienced – was this great in-filling, which prompted them to pour out their hearts in inspired praise and worship to God, and in languages they had not learned, the Spirit Himself providing the words and sentences in these unknown (to them) tongues. What are they saying? We are told a little later – they are ‘declaring the wonders of God’ (vs 11).
And this was the fulfilment of what Jesus had told them. This was what they had had to wait for. This was the beginning of the vast expansion which flows the gospel out to the waiting world, and becomes the source of salvation to all who hear. This is the fountainhead. Some of the descriptions used:
The Spirit ‘comes upon’ them (Acts 1 vs 8). He descends. He was not there (at least in this abundant, new way) before, and then, he is there. Where does He come from? From the place where the Father and the Son are. He is the gift of the Father, sent by both the Father and the Son. He is the Advocate Jesus has promised to be with them in His place – and this is now possible for a world of believers, throughout the ages. The Lamb of God has entered into the true Holy of Holies, bearing His own blood. Our great High Priest has gone where He now remains, and He has sat down – the role of atonement is finished.
“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.” (vs 32, 33)
And so the promised Spirit is now ‘delivered’ –the postman has done his job!
And note this – He comes on them individually. He appears as a ‘fireplace’ with a burning conflagration. But the flames themselves draw apart and each believing disciple receives his own personal tongue of flame, resting upon him. Thus God indicates that this new people of His are dealt with as individuals joined in the one Spirit, but nevertheless treated and dealt with distinctly.
The Spirit comes around them. He fills the house. There is accompanying noise and sound, to convince the senses of all that He is coming – and has come. Just as on Sinai, the mighty presence of God was announced in such a way that no observer could be in any doubt – and they trembled with fear. So it is now. But oh, what a difference! What greater glory is this! Not mere angels, but the very being of God descend this ladder, and will never depart until the Sender returns. What overflowing joy He brings.
And thus, they are baptised in Him. John had baptised in water. It was the ‘medium in which his disciples had been immersed – completely submerged. Mirroring the Jewish practice of mikvah – the ceremonial bath which was a requirement for cleansing before Temple worship – every last hair of the head had to go beneath. But this deep cleansing effected now by this ‘washing in God’ did everything that immersion in water could only promise. This is reality. That was just shadow.
The Spirit comes into them. They are not only immersed, they are invaded. This baptism is internal as well as external – they are filled with Him. Every crevice of their being is in contact with Him. Nothing remains unsaturated. They are Spirit-soaked. If ever you have gotten really wet in a torrential downpour of rain, you’ll know what that is. This is internal God-saturation.
But then, not only filled, but overflowed. Flooded. God’s gift is given, pressed down, shaken together and overflowing. My picture is of an open-top jar or cup standing under a running tap, until the flowing stream of water fills – more, more, more – but then there is no more space to fill and the water streams down the outside of the cup. Now, no part of either the inside or the outside of the vessel is not in contact with water. It runs into, over and around all of the cup’s surfaces.
The Spirit remains with them – He comes to rest on them (Acts 2 vs 4). Jesus has promised this Spirit to be with them forever. He will not depart, even though Jesus has had to – and He has told them that if He had not gone, the Spirit would not come. But now He is here, He is here, in each believer’s heart, for eternity – AND YOURS!
Oh, my brothers and sisters, how little we think on this. This is what happened with YOU when you believed in Christ. This is what God did in your life. Is it any wonder that in that precious moment, you were changed forever? You may not even have been aware of it. Perhaps you cannot place a date and time on it. But God’s word tells you that as sure as you are His, you are His because this happened to you.
“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? … “
—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2 vs 5 – 12)
But now, let us pause, for a while, at that phrase ‘declaring the wonders of God’. We must consider not only the phenomena – the ‘speaking with other languages – we must also look beyond and ask ‘what is actually being said here?’
First, we will see, first, that the significance of this is that whereas in those former days, God had only ever spoke, by His Spirit, through the Old Testament prophets, in the language of the Hebrews, now he speaks in all the languages of the world. Indeed, it is for this purpose that He has established Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple in their midst. So that on this day, there would be gathered together peoples from ‘every nation under heaven’. So that, at last, here, in this God-chosen location, at last, they could hear this message – of all the wonders of God in the sending of His Son into their very midst, and all that had happened, and that he had subsequently done. This is incidence, not coincidence, His design all along has been aimed at this day, in this place – to bring the ambassadors of the nations together, to prime them all by speaking to them in their own tongues, then to send them back, like fired arrows, to their own places bearing this gospel, this news of salvation. These, then, would be the forerunners of the Apostles of the first church, taking the news of this day back and spreading it throughout the word.
What an astounding strategist is this God of ours. All the world is His, and He uses it just as He will, for His glory. At every turn it serves His purpose, and will glorify the Son and bring honour to Him – whether it likes and owns Him or not. He is unstoppable. Believer, do not doubt it – this is your God!
Second, we will note that the miracle here is in the speaking, not the hearing. This is very clear, although some have wondered. Each foreigner hears in his own language what one (at least) of these Galileeans is saying – the hearer understands the speech as he would normally. The surprise is that these are untutored Galileeans (you can almost hear the sneer behind the word). And the ‘enabling’, we are told, is of the Spirit-empowered speaker. Here is the first and primary indication to these disciples that they would indeed be Jesus’ witnesses ‘to the end of the earth’. Different tongues would be no barrier – God would overcome that in an instant, even though they had never been to language school.
Third. And then, we will see that the content of this astounding outpouring of supernatural speech is that they are declaring the wonders of God. All that he has been doing in Jerusalem and Judaea in and through the Christ. The one who had been so rejected, scorned, tortured, murdered, but who is demonstrated, in true glory, to be the image of the invisible God. Their hearts are full. So must their mouths be too.
Now, it strikes me that this is the very essence of prophecy – to be declaring the wonders of God. And we will see that this is the way this same Spirit prompts Peter to expound what is happening on this day of true glory.
Peter stands to explain. How does he know what has happened in this last hour? Well, of course, the Spirit will provide that. So what does God say about this?
Peter says this is a direct fulfilment of a very old prophecy – from Joel:
“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 vs 17, 18)
Let us examine that.
- The Spirit will be poured out on all people
- Sons and daughters will prophesy – a Spirit-succession to subsequent generations
- Young men will see visions
- Old men will dream dreams
- Even the least and the lowest in society will be recipients and will also prophesy
- And … (gasp) … Even women!
- There will be signs
- There will be salvation for all who call on the name of the Lord (Christ)
So this prophecy of Joel is a promise that has heavily to do with prophecy. The great blessing of this outpouring will be that ALL will prophesy, and/or experience prophetic insight (dreams and visions). This is what these disciples are doing on the street in Jerusalem, at 9 in the morning – they are prophesying in fulfilment of god’s promise through Joel. And here is God’s wonderful promise as to who may be included in all this:
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Not for Apostles alone, then. For ALL whom He will call. For generations to come. The prophetic promise of God for each believer – they will prophesy. This is the ‘norm’ for the Christian. Brother, sister, when you ‘declare the wonders of God’, that is what you are doing – you are prophesying. When you say things to other believers or to the unsaved, speaking b the Spirit who fills your heart – you are prophesying. You are ‘inspired by the Spirit’ and you are speaking forth words from Him into your world. Too often, we think of prophecy in old covenant terms. We see it as what it was, as recorded in the pages of our Old Testament. Here was this man or that, who had been called by God to bring his words to a nation who were far from Him, or even to a king who needed rebuke for his sins. Or there, a word of encouragement and promise to a destitute and desperate people. Or occasionally, some foresight as well as insight as to what God would do in the days to come. But all that ever was, all that we see there is ‘shadow’, not the reality itself.
Why should we imagine, then, that new covenant prophecy would be precisely the same? Should we not expect it to be more – much more, now that the Son is revealed? We should not ‘trim it back’ so that it looks like our expectation, with a ‘thus saith the Lord’ style announcement to waiting ears. That will be to make it less than the fullness God now gives, now that the Spirit is poured out on all flesh for all time. We should see the shadow in the substance, but not confine the substance to the shadow.
“What do these things mean?”
Here is the practical outworking of this.
First, freedom for the ‘speaker’, the ‘prophet’. When we speak to each other, we can joyfully and eagerly expect God, the Spirit, to be bringing His truth, His encouragement, His comfort through our shared words. That is ‘prophetic living’, if you like – and it is what this new life in Christ should lead us to expect. But we have no need to voice it as if God is speaking directly through our mouths. WE are doing the speaking. We can say to each other, ‘I think’, or ‘I sense the Lord wants to say to you…’ without feeling that our ‘prophecy’ loses authority because of that. Indeed, that is being honest.
Second, freedom for the ‘hearer’. This leaves the hearer with choices. They are not placed in the insidious position of thinking ‘is this God speaking to me direct? If I disobey, am I disobeying God?’ No, it is left to the hearer to ‘weigh what is said’ as Paul says to the Corinthians is the way that prophecy should be heard. We must take it back to God’s word, not be forced to decide if we ‘believe in’ and trust the authority of the speaker. We must allow that the ‘prophet’ just might have misjudged or got it wrong. And this will not then be fatal to us. We will not have to decide whether or not we ‘stone the false prophet’, as they did under Mosaic Law.
I wonder whether you might have experienced those times when something that has been said to you, in a particular time of need of some kind, or something that you said to another brother in that position has somehow ‘rang true’, or, as we say, ‘resonated’ with them. You may not have thought it them, or think it now. But I believe that’s prophecy. God using human mouths to bring His words to the hearts of His children. Jesus speaking. Mercy and grace. Strength in times of need.
You might have heard the story of the little one, who, in the course of growing up, went through a time of being afraid of the dark. So Mum said to her, as a good Christian Mum, that her Lord Jesus was looking after her, even though she could not see Him; that he was in the night with her and would not leave her. So the next night, the little one’s voice calls “Mummy, Mummy. I’m frightened.” Mum replies, “Now, you know what we said about Jesus looking after you, don’t you?” And the little girl calls back, “yes, Mummy, I believe that. But I need someone with skin on.”
That’s what you, and the Spirit’s voice in you is. Christ with skin on.
Preacher & Teacher
Studied Theology at London Bible College
Lives in Northampton, Northamptonshire UK
Serves a moderator for the New Covenant Grace Facebook group.