The Real Gift of Prophecy and the dangers of religions based on the word of a latter-day prophet

I remember being a youth and this girl in my youth group at church came up to me and said, “God wanted me to tell you…” I don’t remember what followed those words, but I do remember that it didn’t make any sense and nothing ever came from it. There are quite a few belief systems in the world today that seek special revelations in this way- either by prayer, meditation, contemplation, or some sort of self-surrender. There are a couple religions or cults that have been started based on this type of prophetic revelation (e.g. Mormonism, Islam, Iglesia ni Cristo, Scientology, Seventh Day Adventist).

As we continue through the narrative of First Samuel, we see the office of Prophet instituted by God. We see the purpose this office had. Throughout the Scriptures, we see clear instruction regarding the gift of prophecy. We will spend this morning expositing the first verse of this passage, sharing the basic biblical view of prophecy, and then we will consider the passage as a whole next week.

1 Samuel 3:1-21

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord before Eli. And word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent. It happened at that time as Eli was lying down in his place (now his eyesight had begun to grow dim and he could not see well), and the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord where the ark of God was, that the Lord called Samuel; and he said, “Here I am.”

Then he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, lie down again.” So he went and lay down.

The Lord called yet again, “Samuel!” So Samuel arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he answered, “I did not call, my son, lie down again.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor had the word of the Lord yet been revealed to him.

So the Lord called Samuel again for the third time. And he arose and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli discerned that the Lord was calling the boy.

And Eli said to Samuel, “Go lie down, and it shall be if He calls you, that you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Then the Lord came and stood and called as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for Your servant is listening.”

The Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which both ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. In that day I will carry out against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knew, because his sons brought a curse on themselves and he did not rebuke them. Therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever.”

So Samuel lay down until morning. Then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. But Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli.

Then Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” And he said, “Here I am.”

He said, “What is the word that He spoke to you? Please do not hide it from me. May God do so to you, and more also, if you hide anything from me of all the words that He spoke to you.”

So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. And he said, “It is the Lord; let Him do what seems good to Him.”

Thus Samuel grew and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fail. All Israel from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was confirmed as a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, because the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

Infrequent visions (v. 1)

In the first verse, the scene is set as we transition to the next part of the narrative. In 2:35, we read that God took upon Himself the responsibility to raise up for Himself a faithful priest who would do according to all that is in His heart and in His soul. God has already promised that He will work this out and that He is the only one on whom the accomplishing of His own will depends.

Samuel was ministering to the Lord before Eli. Word from the Lord was rare in those days, visions were infrequent. The word for visions (חזון) is a clarifier used to explain what is meant by “word of God” (ודבר–יהוה). Visions (חזון) literally refers to a word of revelation, not some sort of mystic visionary experience. This would be God speaking intelligibly to a person so that the person would transmit God’s message. The word of the Lord being rare or infrequent simply means that there was no God-ordained prophet speaking the words of God to the people. This text is actually the text in which God introduces the office of prophet to the nation of Israel. We’ve seen that people couldn’t keep the Law. We have seen through the Judges that people could not ultimately deliver themselves. Now, we will begin to see through the kings and the prophets that people cannot keep themselves secure or guide themselves to the righteousness of God. This office, like every other office given by God, is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Who has the gift of prophecy?

The answer to this question really depends on what we mean when we refer to the gift of prophecy. If we mean prophecy as it is defined here, it was a gift reserved specifically for those who held the Old Testament prophetic office. This was primarily the receiving of God’s explicit word for the purpose of transmitting that word. Though we do see a few others in the Old Testament practice this gift, as in chapter 2 and verse 27, it was particularly given to those who held the prophetic office. The last Old Testament prophet was John the Baptist. There is no longer a need for this office because the office is fulfilled in and forever occupied by Jesus Christ.

The New Testament does, however, speak of a form of the gift of prophecy. On one occasion, Paul addressed the church at Corinth in response to an unhealthy view of spiritual gifts that was causing division:

Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.

But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me. So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.

Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying?

For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue (1 Corinthians 14:1-19).

Notice that Paul encourages every person in the church to desire that he or she may prophesy. Prophecy is intelligent and edifying to the body of Christ. Prophecy is concerned with exhortation and instruction. This is to be the most prized spiritual gift. Paul even goes so far as to write that the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues because tongues are unintelligible. Paul continues and later explicitly identifies the content of prophecy in the church as the Law (1 Cor. 14:38), the word of God (14:36), and the Lord’s commandment (14:37). In the New Testament, following the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, prophecy is simply the right teaching and application of God’s written word. There is nothing mystic about it. It requires a depth of study, a depth of understanding, and the leading of the Holy Spirit who provides all spiritual gifts and all knowledge.  According to Paul in 1 Corinthians, all people are instructed to desire the gift of prophecy above all other spiritual gifts so that we might all be edifying to the body. Because the Old Testament canon of Scripture is closed and was closed as Paul wrote this, there is no need for prophecy to be received as the Old Testament prophets received it. I would not serve a purpose. God has given us His word and has instructed us not to exceed it (1 Cor. 4:6).

What if someone claims to be God’s last messenger or prophet?

There are some things we must know about the prophetic office in the Old Testament. First, it was not an office that espoused new teachings about God. Everything that the Prophets did and spoke and wrote reflected the theology of the Law (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Second, now that the Messiah has come there is no need for Prophets. In Matthew 24, Jesus is teaching about all of the experiences the apostles will have as the last days are initiated during their lifetimes:

As He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?”

And Jesus answered and said to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many.

You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.

Then they will deliver you to tribulation, and will kill you, and you will be hated by all nations because of My name. At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:3-14).

The word “Christ” (χριστος), literally means “anointed person.” Christ literally warned us that many would come beginning at the time of the apostles claiming to be anointed. They will mislead many. These are false prophets. Jesus did not eve do what these false prophets are doing. Jesus, God the Son, taught the Old Testament Scriptures during His public preaching ministry. Because we follow Jesus, we don’t believe anyone who claims to be a prophet or who claims to have secret knowledge from God. We reject any religion or worldview that does because it is contrary to the word that God has given. God has not even given His Scripture through mystic means but intelligibly according to 1 Samuel 3:1.

What if I think I hear God?

There is one occasion in my life on which I distinctly remember almost hearing God audibly. It was the most frightening thing that I have ever experienced. Many Muslims who come to Christ have a common experience in which Jesus appears to them in a dream, asks, “Why are you persecuting me,” and directs them to missionaries who share the Gospel with them. Paul had this sort of encounter on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) as did Ananias (Acts 9), Cornelius (Acts 10), Paul (Acts 16, 27), and Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27). Though it is not a universal experience, we see that it is experienced by apostles, by Christians, by non-Christians, and by some of those who are being called by Christ to salvation. These things are explicitly described in the Scriptures.

This is not the gift of prophecy as prescribed for our time and does not include God telling us to go and share a secret, special revelation with someone. So, when we hear anyone say, “God told me to tell you…” or something similar, we should be immediately skeptical because this would be the Old Testament use of the prophetic gift given explicitly to those who held the prophetic office. This form of the gift of prophecy has ceased. To those who do not think it has ceased, let us be aware of the consequences of getting something wrong when speaking as if the Lord speaks.

“‘But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).

God is serious about His own word, so serious that even before He gave the office of prophet He commanded that anyone claiming to receive revelation from God and speak that revelation to someone else was to be put to death if he or she was wrong in the smallest detail. The Old Testament prophetic gift was not even for common use while the Old Testament was still being written. We should certainly not think it to be a common gift now. In fact, every indication seems to be that the Old Testament prophetic gift has ceased in our day while a New Testament form of prophecy (preaching God’s written word) continues. Simply hearing God is not synonymous with the gift of prophecy.

Jesus is the one who now fills this office permanently- prophet, priest, and king. Everything about the Old Testament office points to Jesus. People were insufficient and unable. God Himself fulfills His covenant promise in God the Son.

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3).

The author(s) of Hebrews recognized this. They saw that the office of Prophet had ended long ago and saw Jesus as the one who holds the prophetic office perpetually. Christ is the heir of all things. Jesus is the one who upholds all things by the word of His power. Not even the apostles had the Old Testament prophetic gift. The closest we get is John in the book of Revelation, and he is expositing the Old Testament and using imagery that is already available in the Old Testament to mean the same thing that it does in the Old Testament. The office was fulfilled strictly in Jesus. We hang on the words of Jesus- who is God the Son and who inspired His word in both the Old and New Testaments of Scripture.

Application

People in this world often tend toward mystic religion. Even the Pope claims to have some spiritual knowledge and special revelation from God. This is why statements have been made Ex Cathedra. Mystics believe that there is spiritual knowledge that is inaccessible to the intellect and that this secret knowledge is attained through contemplation, meditation, prayer, or some sort of self-surrender. Sometimes we think about prophecy in a way that is more mystic or gnostic than Biblical. The Scriptures are clear on this. What is written is our only authority and is entirely sufficient for all of life and ministry.

This doesn’t mean that the Scriptures are all we can learn. It does mean that the explicit word of God as given clearly in Scripture is the authority under which we pursue any discipline. God’s word is preeminent. This is why we invest so much time and energy into the preaching and teaching of God’s word. By it we know how to approach philosophy, history, science, mathematics, the arts, and manual labor. Our understanding of who God is drives our understanding of all things. God has told us explicitly who He is so that His church might be edified.

We will be in this text next week as well. We will begin witnessing God’s ordaining work through the Old Testament prophetic office.

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