Sermon Title: A word from God (The Gift of Prophecy)
Text: Acts 21:1-36 ESV (Read via video)
Speaker: Josh Hanson
Watch the sermon here.
Take notes here.
As always it’s a joy to be with all of you this weekend at Gateway Church. And there’s one thing I want you to know — and this is true if you’re worshiping with us for the first time or are joining us at our North Main Campus — I want you to know that God loves you and that I love you too.
We’re nearing the end of our time in the book Acts — a book that captures the history of the early church. We’ve been following Paul’s journey as an apostle — a man called to spread the news about Jesus to the known world.
And — our verses for today — we’ll take us back to a topic we looked at a few weeks ago — the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Today — though — we’ll be narrowing our focus to one of the Spirit’s gifts — the gift of prophecy — a spiritual gift clouded in much confusion which our verses — for today — will hopefully help to lift this cloud of confusion like the warmth of the sun lifting the fog of the morning.
But let’s begin by recognizing an intrigue we have with prophecy. For example, does anyone know what Disney owning 20th Century Fox, Trump being elected President of the United States, the pandemic, and the war happening between Russia and Ukraine all have in common? They were all predicted on the Simpsons. (Karina Kosmala, “10 Predictions from ‘The Simpsons’ That Came True,” March 20, 2022. https://collider.com/predictions-the-simpsons-came-true/.)
If you’re not a fan of the Simpsons — maybe you’ve heard of Nostradamus — who lived in the 1500s. He’s popular nowadays because many of his predictions seem to have come true. He’s attributed to having predicted people and events such as Adolf Hitler, JFK’s assassination, and the events that happened on September 11th, 2001.
People turn to psychics — not only to talk to past loved ones — but to find out about the future. A popular movie theme is one where future events — often destructive in nature — have been foretold and we’re left to wonder how the movie will end. And we’re intrigued with prophecies about the future — especially about the end of the world. One social psychologist and professor at the University of Arizona states, “that we’re drawn to prophecies because of our inherent love of things that we’re scared of. [The unknown future and end of the world] is something we [both] fear and are intrigued by. There’s a natural interest in the things that we worry about and that scare us. There’s a fascination with [them].” (“Doomsday is Postponed Again: Here’s Why We’re All So Obsessed with the End of the World, According to Psychology,” September 26, 2017.)
And if we Christians seem to be just as intrigued as our culture with prophecies — but don’t really know what to do with biblical prophecy — especially the spiritual gift of prophecy. We’ll quickly consume books on the end times — especially fictional books written by Christian authors who supposedly can tell us how biblical prophecies will be fulfilled — while being weirded out by the spiritual gift of prophecy. And — yet — think about this — we’re pretty comfortable with phrases like, “The Lord’s leading me…” or “I have a spiritual conviction…” or “God’s told me to…” — which — honestly — isn’t much different than a prophetic type word.
But — before we go further — a couple of questions for us.
Which is why we must be people of the Book — of God’s Word — so it — and not pop culture or Christian pop culture — defines, shapes, and influences our understanding of all things — including prophecy and hearing from God. For — in doing so — in allowing God’s Word to be the authority under which we submit ourselves — we’ll know how to both understand the Simpsons and Nostradamus and fictional Christian end times books and the gift of prophecy which is given to us by the Holy Spirit.
Now — as a reminder — in the Bible — the authority under which the people of God live their lives — we find the command to, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” (1 Corinthians 14:1 ESV). For more on this command — and how our pursuit of all the gifts of the Spirit — are to be done under the authority of God’s Word and in loving fellowship with each other — I’d encourage you to go listen to my sermon from a few weeks ago — titled “The Word and the Spirit.”
In addition to what we find in First Corinthians — in Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica — we read command after command after command. Paul writes, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle (got it), encourage the fainthearted (sure thing), help the weak (absolutely), be patient with them all (oooh…patience…got to practice more of it). 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil (check — no evil for evil), but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone (that’s tough but understandable). 16 Rejoice always (always…got it), 17 pray without ceasing (gotta work on this one), 18 give thanks in all circumstances (another always… got it); for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (So far so good.) 19 Do not quench the Spirit. (OK. A little weird, but not too worrisome.) 20 Do not despise prophecies, (Just jumped onboard the weird boat…) 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14-21 ESV) Got it. Got it. And got it — though all three could use some work — especially abstaining from every form of evil — cause forms of evil are everywhere these days.
So — let’s journey together — and learn about the gift of prophecy — a gift we’re commanded to both earnestly desire and not despise. A gift given to us by the Holy Spirit for our good. A gift often neglected by God’s people.
As we return to our verses — we see how Paul — and his companions — are being led by the Holy Spirit. Our verses begin with Paul — and his crew — sailing from one city to the next and to the next. And the ships they traveled by were not luxurious cruise liners — these were cargo ships that they’d hitch a ride on — putting them at the mercy of whatever path the ship was traveling. Thus Paul and his friends find themselves in the city of Tyre for a week as the ship unloads its cargo.
And — in verse four — we read, “And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem. 5 When our days there were ended, we departed and went on our journey, and they all, with wives and children, accompanied us until we were outside the city. And kneeling down on the beach, we prayed 6 and said farewell to one another. Then we went on board the ship, and they returned home. 7 When we had finished the voyage from Tyre, we arrived at Ptolemais, and we greeted the brothers and stayed with them for one day. 8 On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, and stayed with him. 9 He had four unmarried daughters, who prophesied.” (Acts 21:4-9 ESV)
Notice — first — that Paul and his companions sought out the Christians in the city of Tyre upon their arrival. Their desire was to be with fellow believers no matter what town they were in. This same desire can be fulfilled in us today when we travel for vacation or work and find ourselves in a new city or town. When you travel, do you desire to gather with fellow believers to worship God — to see what God is doing in this place you’re just passing through or visiting for a few days? Enjoy your vacations — be a faithful employee while you travel for work — but take advantage of the time you have to see what God is doing among Christians wherever you find yourself.
But — in these verses — we’re seeing an Old Testament prophecy being fulfilled. “What prophecy,” you may be wondering? It’s a prophecy found in the book of Joel. ““And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” (Joel 2:28-29 ESV)
You may remember that the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy began earlier in the book of Acts. Way back in chapter two on the Day of Pentecost, “On the day of Pentecost all the believers were meeting together in one place. 2 Suddenly, there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm, and it filled the house where they were sitting. 3 Then, what looked like flames or tongues of fire appeared and settled on each of them. 4 And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability. 5 At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. 6 When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers. 7 They were completely amazed. “How can this be?” they exclaimed. “These people are all from Galilee, 8 and yet we hear them speaking in our own native languages! 9 Here we are — Parthians, Medes, Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the province of Asia, 10 Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and the areas of Libya around Cyrene, visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans, and Arabs. And we all hear these people speaking in our own languages about the wonderful things God has done!” 12 They stood there amazed and perplexed. “What can this mean?” they asked each other. 13 But others in the crowd ridiculed them, saying, “They’re just drunk, that’s all!” 14 Then Peter stepped forward with the eleven other apostles and shouted to the crowd, “Listen carefully, all of you, fellow Jews and residents of Jerusalem! Make no mistake about this. 15 These people are not drunk, as some of you are assuming. Nine o’clock in the morning is much too early for that. 16 No, what you see was predicted long ago by the prophet Joel: 17 ‘In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. 18 In those days I will pour out my Spirit even on my servants — men and women alike — and they will prophesy. 19 And I will cause wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below — blood and fire and clouds of smoke. 20 The sun will become dark, and the moon will turn blood red before that great and glorious day of the Lord arrives. 21 But everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Acts 2:1-21 NLT)
So the Old Testament prophet — Joel — prophesied about a day when God’s Spirit would be poured out on God’s people in a new and significant way. Peter — on Pentecost — makes it clear that the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy had come. And — here — in our verses — around twenty years after Pentecost — we continue to see the Spirit of God being poured out on the people of God. We’re seeing more fulfillment of the “sons and daughters prophesying” of Joel’s prophecy.
We see this in the disciples at Tyre who — through the Spirit — warn Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Later — in Caesarea — we discover that Philip — one of the seven original deacons from Acts chapter six — has four unmarried daughters who have the gift of prophecy. Here’s my point: Joel’s prophecy didn’t have a one time fulfillment — it continues to be fulfilled as God’s Spirit pours out on the people of God as we see throughout Acts.
Which leads us to a set of rather perplexing questions. Is the Spirit of God still being poured out on the people of God today? Our answer must be yes. Where then is the Spirit’s pouring out on our sons and daughters with the gift of prophecy? Nothing in Joel’s original prophecy — or in Peter’s proclamation in Acts chapter two — nor what we see in Acts chapter twenty-one — would indicate that the Spirit’s pouring out on Christians is going to cease or change. There’s nothing that should cause us to think that Joel’s prophecy is only going to be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost — afterall — Philip’s daughters — as far as we know — weren’t present during Peter’s sermon. Neither were these unnamed disciples in Tyre who gave Paul a word “through the Spirit.” Why — then — would we assume — especially with having a clear command in Scripture to pursue and desire this gift and to not despise prophecies — why would we be content — as God’s people — without this gift being given to us as a congregation by the Holy Spirit?
Let me give you one reason why and then show you the error in this reasoning. One reason why we don’t pursue the Spirit’s gift of prophecy is because we confuse the New Testament gift of prophecy and the role of a prophet with the Old Testament gift of prophecy and the office of the prophet. And these are two very different and distinct gifts and roles. Let me show you what I mean.
If you’re familiar with the Old Testament — you’re probably aware of the Old Testament prophets — because — many of the books in the Old Testament are named after them. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Jonah, Amos, and so on. Then there are prophets who don’t have books named after them — yet — they play a pivotal role in the Old Testament — Elijah and Elisha come to mind.
Something you may not be aware of is that — in the Old Testament — there’s some nuisance when it comes to being a prophet. For example, in the book of Numbers, we read, “And the Lord said to them, “Now listen to what I say: “If there were prophets among you, I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions. I would speak to them in dreams. 7 But not with my servant Moses. Of all my house, he is the one I trust. 8 I speak to him face to face, clearly, and not in riddles! He sees the Lord as he is.” (Numbers 12:6-8a NLT)
And — yes — Moses is a prophet of God. “Moses continued, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you yourselves requested of the Lord your God when you were assembled at Mount Sinai. You said, ‘Don’t let us hear the voice of the Lord our God anymore or see this blazing fire, for we will die.’ 17 “Then the Lord said to me, ‘What they have said is right. 18 I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. 19 I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf. 20 But any prophet who falsely claims to speak in my name or who speaks in the name of another god must die.’ 21 “But you may wonder, ‘How will we know whether or not a prophecy is from the Lord?’ 22 If the prophet speaks in the Lord’s name but his prediction does not happen or come true, you will know that the Lord did not give that message. That prophet has spoken without my authority and need not be feared.” (Deuteronomy 18:15-22 NLT)
So — in Numbers — we see a distinction between Moses — the prophet — and other prophets who God speaks — not face to face to — but in visions and dreams — which sounds a lot like Joel’s prophecy. Yet — the prophetic role and gift that Moses has will continue on — God will appoint other prophets who he will also speak to in a similar way as he had to Moses — prophets who will foretell the future and give commands that must be obeyed. Again — these are the prophets we’re most familiar with in the Old Testament.
So two types of Old Testament prophets with two different kinds of prophetic gifts. One key difference being that one group received revelation from God in visions and dreams — revelation that wasn’t written down and recorded as Scripture — and another group of prophets — like Moses — who received revelation from God that was written down and recorded as Scripture. And — it’s in confusing these two — that we misunderstand the gift of prophecy and the role of a prophet in the New Testament.
So with this Old Testament understanding of their being two kinds of prophets — let’s see if we can distinguish which of these is what the New Testament gift of prophecy is most like in our verses. We’re in verse 10.
“While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” 12 When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul answered, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” (Acts 21:10-14 ESV)
And then — after having traveled to Jerusalem — we come to the fulfillment of these prophecies. We’re in verse 30.
“...30 Then all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and at once the gates were shut. 31 And as they were seeking to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in confusion. 32 He at once took soldiers and centurions and ran down to them. And when they saw the tribune and the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the tribune came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. He inquired who he was and what he had done. 34 Some in the crowd were shouting one thing, some another. And as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks. 35 And when he came to the steps, he was actually carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the crowd, 36 for the mob of the people followed, crying out, “Away with him!”” (Acts 21:30-36 ESV)
If these New Testament prophets are to be held to the standard we find in Deuteronomy — the standard held for prophets who are like Moses — the disciples from Tyre pass the test. They warn Paul not to go to Jerusalem knowing that something was going to happen to him. And something does indeed happen to Paul in Jerusalem. Other than that — though — they’re unlike Moses. These prophets aren’t authors of Scripture.
And what about Agabus? Was his prophecy fulfilled exactly as he predicted? No. Now — this may sound like me being nitpicky, but being nitpicky is exactly what’s required when it comes to the prophetic office — if we’re talking “in the line of Moses” prophetic office. Agabus prophesies that the Jews will tie Paul up. But who actually ties Paul up? The Romans — not the Jews. Yet — it’s undeniable that Agabus’ prophecy is being fulfilled though not exactly as he predicted.
So we’re left with a conundrum of sorts. Should Agabus die because his prophecy wasn’t fulfilled literally — it only kind of came true as he mixed up the Romans and the Jews. Agabus is only deserving of death if we view the New Testament role of prophet and the gift of prophecy as the equivalent of the Old Testament office of prophet in the line of Moses. But — good news — Agabus doesn’t have to die because of his prophecy — we don’t need to view him as a false prophet. Why not?
Throughout the Bible, there are many practices that take on new shape as we progress from the time of waiting for Christ to come — the Old Testament — to him having come and fulfilled his ministry — the New Testament. For example, the Passover Meal — in the Old Testament — becomes the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament. Circumcision — in the Old Testament — becomes baptism in the New. Another example — relevant to our topic — is the Old Testament office of prophet — meaning in the line of Moses-like prophet — becomes the New Testament office of apostle.
Think about this example. The vast majority of our Old Testament was written by Moses or Moses-like prophets. The other prophets — those whom God did not speak face to face to — only in visions and dreams — did not write Scripture. Now fast forward to the New Testament. When the New Testament was being formed — did you know that apostolic — not prophetic — but apostolic authorship was a key quality needed for a writing to be considered God’s Word? The question wasn’t, “Was the human author a prophet of God?” The question was, “Was the human author an apostle of God?” Showing that apostles — in the New Testament — were the new equivalent of the Old Testament office of prophets — meaning prophets in the line of Moses.
Thus this gives us biblical space for there being a group of New Testament prophets who speak prophecies that are not to be considered equal to Scripture. Which should help us to not be so weirded out about the gift of prophecy being in operation today. Because the New Testament gift of prophecy — and the New Testament office of prophet — are not about divinely ordained words that are equivalent to Scripture. They’re not commands that must be obeyed or future predictions that are sure to come to pass.
“So what are they then, pastor Josh?” Great question. And — you wanna know something fantastic? The apostle Paul — not me — answers your question in his letter to the Christians living in Corinth.
Let’s start with the verse we’re familiar with. “Let love be your highest goal! But you should also desire the special abilities the Spirit gives — especially the ability to prophesy. 2 For if you have the ability to speak in tongues, you will be talking only to God, since people won’t be able to understand you. You will be speaking by the power of the Spirit, but it will all be mysterious. 3 But one who prophesies strengthens others, encourages them, and comforts them. 4 A person who speaks in tongues is strengthened personally, but one who speaks a word of prophecy strengthens the entire church. 5 I wish you could all speak in tongues, but even more I wish you could all prophesy. For prophecy is greater than speaking in tongues, unless someone interprets what you are saying so that the whole church will be strengthened.” (1 Corinthians 14:1-5 NLT)
The apostle Paul — between giving the command to desire the gift of prophecy and stating that he wishes they all could prophesy — makes it clear that the purpose of the New Testament gift of prophecy is to strengthen the church, to encourage fellow believers, and to give others comfort.
The same apostle who writes that “He (Christ) gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:11-16 ESV)
Lest we forget — Paul reminds us here in Ephesians — that First Corinthians chapter thirteen love is the means by which the people of God are to use all of the gifts of the Spirit of God to build each other up. We’re to be building each other up in love. Strengthening each other with all of the gifts the Spirit has given us — including the gift of prophecy — and do so in love. And the Spirit gives some the gift of prophecy — not to predict the future — we’ve got Scripture to show us what is to come — but a spiritual gift to be used to encourage your fellow Christians with a word from the Lord. To comfort those who need comforted with a word from the Lord. To build up and strengthen your brothers and sisters with a timely God-given and God-honoring word spoken in love.
Some of us are supernaturally gifted with being able to speak the right words at the time when they’re needed most to encourage and comfort others — to strengthen those who are weak — to remind people of God’s love for them. And here’s all I’m asking us to do — and you may be getting sick of hearing me say this — let’s not view this ability as some natural talent — but let’s regard this for what it is — a gift of the Holy Spirit. And Paul tells us what this gift is called — it’s called the gift of prophecy.
Now — in a church our size — I understand that we’re going to have varying degrees of comfortability with many things — including some of the spiritual gifts or what we call them. That’s OK. That’s an opportunity for us to practice First Corinthians chapter thirteen love with one another — the supernatural love that’s patient and kind — a love that isn’t arrogant or rude — the supernatural love that doesn’t insist on getting its own way. A love that bears all things and endures all things. A love that never gives up on each other.
And given that we’re a larger church with multiple campuses and worship services, the best opportunity for many of the gifts of the Spirit to be practiced are in smaller group settings. So — if you’re in a Life Group — consider spending some time studying the gifts of the Spirit together. I mentioned some books a few weeks ago — on spiritual gifts — Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology chapters 52 and 53, Sam Storms’ books A Beginner’s Guide to the Spiritual Gifts and Practicing the Power. Specifically on the gift of prophecy, one book I’d recommend is Mike Bickle’s Growing in the Prophetic. If you missed those book titles, go to our website or church app and you’ll find a manuscript of this sermon where you can find all of the books I just mentioned.
But one thing I don’t want anyone to worry about is us becoming a church that’s so focused on the gifts of the Spirit that we become distracted from Christ. The Holy Spirit’s greatest desire is for us to worship the Son of God. All of the Spirit’s gifts are given to us to strengthen and build each other up in our love and commitment to Christ as a church.
So we pursue the gifts of the Spirit and use them to point each other to Christ and his love for us. For Jesus is the true Prophet of God. Who came — not only speaking the very words of God — but is the Word of God.
For as we read in Scripture, “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2a NLT)
And as he entered Jerusalem — days before his crucifixion— “The entire city of Jerusalem was in an uproar as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked. 11 And the crowds replied, “It’s Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”” (Matthew 21:10-11 NLT)
And as the apostle John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5 ESV)
The Word of all words — the Prophet of all prophets — the light shining in the darkness of our world — the hope we’re to point all people to — the news that we’re to spread — and the One in whom comfort is found — is Jesus and him alone. And — thus — not only prophetic words — but all of our words are to be used to honor Christ — to show others his love — and to demonstrate — through our love for one another — that he is our Savior and Lord. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, thank you for being a speaking God. You spoke your creation into existence. You used Moses-like prophets and your apostles to write down your Word for us. You are not silent — you are a God who speaks. Holy Spirit, give us understanding of your gifts and how we’re to use them — in love — to build each other up. Keep us humble — not thinking these gifts are deserved — for they are gifts given to us by you. Not gifts we’ve earned or deserve — but gifts to steward well. And — Jesus — you are the Prophet of prophets. The Word of all words. The light shining in the darkness. The One to whom we’re to point all people to. May our love for one another demonstrate to the world that we are your disciples. In your name we pray. Amen.
May you go strengthened and encouraged and equipped to use the gifts you’ve been given to strengthen and encourage each other in love. Amen.
God loves you. I love you. You are sent.
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