Category Archives: prophecy

Prophets Galore!

by Scott

Not too long ago, I took some time and read a major portion of the Old Testament. Basically Genesis to 2 Chronicles. Not all in one day. Heavens no! But over a couple of months. It was good to read larger chunks, to get the sweeping history of the Hebrew people and God’s work amongst them.

But there was one thing that did catch me by surprise, especially as I read the books of Samuel and Kings.

You might have not noticed it before. And the thing is, I would have expected me to previously notice, since I’m one of those charismatics around here.

There were a whole lot of prophets in the time of the ancient Israelites. I mean a whole lot. Search the word prophet in just the books of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings and the word arises about 100 times.

But it’s easy to miss this.

Why?

Well, I think when you have a particular theology that says a prophet is this or that, and this or that alone, then it’s easy to either miss or skip over what is right there in front of us.

It’s quite like the ministry gift of apostle. When people normally talk about apostles, what they have in mind is either the twelve or the twelve plus Paul. Of course, these 13 were apostles in the early church. But they were not the only ones. And I am also convinced that starting with the 12 and Paul shows our off-base approach from the beginning, mainly because we are have forgot to start with the greatest apostle of all time. You know, that guy named Jesus. Nope, not Paul. Not Peter. Not even John. It was Jesus – the sent-one from the Father, apostled with a specific mission to accomplish.

But, even after rightly starting with Christ, and then moving to the 12 and Paul, we forget that the New Testament mentions up to another 10 apostles. People like Barnabas, Apollos, James, Silas, Timothy and others. I’ve set out why I believe there were other apostles besides the twelve and Paul, which you can read in part 1 and part 2.

I didn’t really head into this Old Testament reading with a plan to catch every time it spoke of a prophet or prophets. It kind of just caught my attention unlike before in reading the Old Testament. Call it a specific Holy Spirit thing or simply what you will. But I was blown away how the word kept coming up over and over again.

First off, and this something I was quite aware of before, but it’s easy to note that there were specific prophets throughout the Old Testament that many are not usually aware of – people like:

  • Gad (1 Sam 22:5; 2 Sam 24:11; 1 Chron 21:9)
  • Nathan (2 Sam 7:2; 12:25; etc)
  • Ahijah (1 Kgs 11:29; 14:18)
  • Micaiah (1 Kgs 22:8, 14, 19)
  • Huldah, who was a woman (2 Kgs 22:14)

And, catch this. The ministry of the prophet did not end with the ‘Old Testament’, but continued into the new covenant. We’ve got folk like:

  • Agabus (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-14)
  • Antioch prophets (Acts 13:1-3)
  • Judas & Silas (Acts 15:32)
  • Specific prophets mentioned in Corinth (1 Cor 14:29)
  • The ever revelatory apostolic prophet, John

One thing I also noticed is how many times it spoke of prophets (plural) being together, rather than just a single guy (or lady) here or there. In 1 Sam 10 we read about a procession of prophets. We are told of a group of prophets in 1 Sam 19:20. We read in 1 Kings 18 that, while Jezebeel was trying to kill off Yahweh’s prophets, a guy named Obadiah, not the prophet, was saving a hundred prophets of the Lord. So when Elijah says at Mount Carmel that he’s the only prophet of Yahweh left (1 Kings 18:22), he is communicating that he is the only one that is not in hiding.

Quite overwhelming when you start to look at the biblical text and the wider spectrum of the prophetic ministry. You might walk away thinking these prophets were everywhere.

In all, being reminded that such a ministry was more active amongst God’s people than first imagined, I have 3 points that come to me. These are points that I already believed about the ministry of the prophet, but they were even more highlighted in my recent reading of the Old Testament.

1) Prophets are not mainly Scripture writers

It’s true. A prophet is not mainly called to be an Old Testament Scripture writer, just as an apostle is not primarily called to pen New Testament Scripture. They might have and some did. But this is not essential. That’s why only a few did so in comparison to the wider nature of these two ministries. In the end, a prophet is one bearing a message from God, the ‘word of the Lord’, whether that message gets put to paper or not. Therefore, while I love Scripture and appreciate the prophets who did have their hand in it, we must continually be reminded this is not essential to the prophetic ministry. And this is why, as I will again argue later, I think it very reasonable to acknowledge the prophetic gift has continued today, since it was not solely wrapped up in the production of Scripture.

2) The ministry of the prophet both alongside and post-Scripture

Half of this point is not too disconnected from the first. The Hebrew community preserved the revelation given to them by their prophets of old, with a solid portion being penned as part of Scripture. But the word of the Lord was continually active para-Scripture, meaning alongside it’s recording. Matter of fact, with Scripture normatively being written after the spoken message was brought forth by the prophet, the plentitude of prophets were functioning in a similar vein as the well-known prophets. They were speaking the word and counsel of the Lord.

But, even more, because God was always speaking and revealing himself alongside the writing of Scripture, I think this gives precedence to the continuation of the gift and ministry today, even after having a canon of Scripture. Scripture was never given back then to replace the active ministry of the prophet. And Scripture is not here now to replace this needed ministry. I’m not saying prophecies today need to be placed in the canon, somewhere after 3 John. We have a canon and a canon remains a measuring stick. And I do not believe prophecy adds anything to the redemptive revelation in Christ. But Paul makes it very clear that this ministry role is extremely important for the body of Christ. Check out passages like Eph 2:20; 3:5; 4:11-13; 1 Cor 12:28. This is one of the five ministries given to help equip the church to be all that Christ desires it to be. I’d say it’s not optional.

Prophets functioned alongside the writing of Scripture in both the ‘Old’ and ‘New Testament’ times. And prophets are to continue functioning even after both have been finalised.

3) The importance of teamwork for prophets

As I mentioned above, I was struck during this reading with how many times I read about the plurality of prophets – the procession of prophets, the group of prophets. It’s probably not unlikely that there were schools of prophets where people were trained for this ministry. Something of that nature. And amongst a larger group of prophets, there would have been lead prophets – people like Samuel or Elijah. Maybe some functioned as a kind of counsel, while others had a stronger ministry with specific prophetic insights, and then others came to the forefront as lead prophets, even finding their messages in holy writ. But we should not simply blow these ‘other’ prophets aside as somehow unimportant.

And this is why – God is all about teamwork.

Think about Father, Son and Spirit. Think about God’s empowering the church to accomplish his mission. Things about God getting his revelation to humanity. It’s team. Always has been and always will be.

And, so, these prophets worked together as team. It’s not unlike when we turn to the pages of the New Testament and consider apostolic ministry. I am very willing to recognise that someone like John or Peter or Paul had a stronger measure of apostolic ministry as compared with a Barnabas or Apollos or James. But they were still all very much apostles. The same holds true with prophets. I am thankful for Isaiah or Ezekiel. But we also miss something if we think Nathan, Gad, Huldah, and others were inconsequential. Each had their measure of gifting, their anointing, their calling and we should give space for each to function in their own measure. The same stands true for teachers, shepherds and evangelists. Though I am a teacher, my measure of gifting is my measure of gifting and not that of a Scot McKnight or NT Wright or Jamie Smith or Ben Witherington.

But, regardless of measure, prophets or teachers or apostles or whomever are called to work in team. That’s what I believe Ephesians 4:11-13 is all about – the five ministries of the ascended Christ working together to equip and prepare God’s people for ministry themselves. This is why apostles and prophets work together to lay proper foundations in the local church.

There is no lone-ranger prophet, nor apostle, nor pastor. There is only team. God functions this way. Family is to function this way. The body of Christ is to function this way.

So, in all, I hope something fresh has been opened up in the Scriptures in regards to the prophetic ministry. And I hope our eyes have been opened a bit more to the reality that a) the ministry of the prophet is much wider than we sometimes allow and b) that God always desired that this important ministry continue even now.

Report from the Street

By Marv

” The meat is in the street,” John Wimber used to say.

His aphorism goes back to Jesus’ words in John 4:32 and 34

 “I have food to eat that you do not know about.  My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”

Jesus had just prophesied open the heart of a fallen, theologically-confused woman and brought salvation to a village. Though He was tired and thirsty (vv. 6-7) and doubtless also hungry, seeing God glorified in the goodness mediated through His own words and actions was more deeply satisfying than the choicest meat and drink.

I recall being cautioned, in Seminary, against Wimber’s contention that the kind of empowered ministry Jesus engaged in here was just the kind of thing we as disciples should do, following in His footsteps. This, despite His explicit instructions immediately afterward to see the “harvest” as He did as well as His reminder that they are commissioned to be “reapers.” The works He did in the Father’s name, everyone who believes in Him will… may… should… do in His name (John 14:12). Let’s get it and let’s do it.

I have a sweet story from some who are learning to “do the stuff” or rather who are going out and doing it. A team of students from a training program at a Dallas church step out each week to lift up their eyes to the Spirit’s leading and do the works in His power which have been prepared for them. Here’s what happened two weeks ago today.

In the morning team leader “C” found himself driving to the church out of his usual route, for some reason. Passing a coffeehouse he had seen but not visited, he sensed his attention being drawn to it and figured this might the spot the Spirit was sending his team to that day.

So there they went, and when C stepped in and saw a familiar face, he knew one of the reasons they were there. The man was a minister–an evangelist–and C had known him slightly, as a customer in a different coffeehouse where C had once been an employee. So C and another team member, “M” (both men, as it happens) sat down and began to chat with him.

Meanwhile, students “F” and “S” (women, as it happens) took a look around, looking and listening for what the Spirit might be saying to them. An adjoining room where patrons sat sipping Java had artwork displayed along the walls. One odd painting caught F’s eye, because it had a small inscription in French, her native language. It read “Pour le corps,” that is “For the body.” Across the top of it a row of human figures stood holding their hands on their bellies. Below them a vicious-looking blob with bared fangs turned menacingly toward a pair of vaguely tear-shaped objects. Weird picture.

“Looks like a liver to me,” F told S, about the lopsided teardrops, and they decided to go for it. The painting hung on the wall over a lady, like a sign, and after introducing themselves to her, they casually asked her if perhaps she had had issues with her liver.

In fact she had, for not a week earlier she had been diagnosed with liver cancer. She declined their offer to pray for her healing, however, first since she was a Muslim and second because she had confidence in the treatment she had been prescribed. She was interested in talking to the ladies however. As it happens the lady was Turkish, while F is French and S Lebanese. And they talked about Jesus, who the lady, being Moslem, said did not die on the cross. Our two ladies explained not only how He did, but why. In short, they preached her the gospel.

Though she declined prayer for healing, she was happy to let them give her a blessing as she was leaving. So bless her they did, with a request for Jesus to reveal Himself to her–even in her dreams, as is reportedly not uncommon among Muslims. Saying goodbye, she kissed them on the cheek, one cultural feature all three had in common. Would she be healed? Would she come to faith in Jesus? This we likely will now know. But did she hear God’s word and sense His love from God’s people? Without question.

Meanwhile C and M were still talking with the coffee-loving minister, and by this time speaking words of encouragement over him, for he was sorely in need of encouragement it seems. F and S joined them, as their lady had left, and a mental image of a little girl flashed through F’s mind. She thought “daughter.” At the same time a cloud-like shape in the mottled floor pattern seemed to jump out at her, reminding her of a “thought balloon” you see in the comics. Had the man been thinking about his daughter?

A second before she could ask, M “stole her thunder.” “Do you have a daughter?” he asked the man. In fact he did, though he had lost contact with her for years. She was grown and living in New York. But she had been on his mind, a great deal, as he was hoping and praying to be able to restore their relationship, which had long since become estranged. So they prayed for this, of course.

Now as for what happened as they were finishing up, you have to understand that this was July in Texas and it was a typical sultry Dallas day, under a clear sky, the hot, humid air lay motionless on us all day. I can testify to that.

C’s prayer for the man had been, among other likely phrases, that God’s Spirit would blow afresh over his ministry–which refreshment he needed. They had stepped out the front door, accompanying him toward his car, when a sudden gust of wind came along, nearly knocking the table umbrellas over, and picking up fallen leaves and pedals from the bushes and swirling them in a vortex.

The man and our team stared in amazement. The event was so striking, several patrons inside the shop ran out to see what was happening. The moment then stepped off the curb, however, the wind stopped.

One man who had stepped out was impressed. “Would you mind praying for me too?” he asked. And so they did.

What do we make of this kind of thing? Acts quality? Not quite, but frankly, I think it’s getting there. Not momentous, not earth-shattering. No thousands were saved. Perhaps not one person was saved through this outing. But people were loved in Jesus name. People heard the good news. People were encouraged. People were prayed for and blessed. And for those with eyes to see, God showed Himself alive and well.

Is it easy enough to toss off every one of these details as imagination, coincidence, simple natural occurrence. Absolutely. And please do so if that is what you wish.

But I think it is a little, sweet example of how the Holy Spirit testifies to Jesus through His people and brings glory to the Father. And it is useful for illustrating a few of the ways the Lord speaks to us, as Jesus promised He would, and leads us into the works prepared beforehand that we should walk in.

It’s a remarkable report, or I guess I wouldn’t be writing about it. But really, if we believe our Lord, this is simply normal Christian life.

 

Forthtelling?

By Marv

I’m thinking the time has come to make a minor point about a certain frequently heard cliché. I heard it again over the weekend and decided to opine here on this very low-level pet peeve. Nothing earth shattering here, but allow me to get this off my chest, and then everyone please proceed to forget it, ignore me, and carry on regardless.

I’m talking about “foretelling and forthtelling,” and in particular the latter pseudo-word. Yes, I’m saying *forthtelling is not even a real word. Or if it has become one through constant usage within a certain Christianese subdialect, it is one of those which never should have existed. For example, another is *helpmate, which sprang from the froth of a misremembered “help meet” (i.e. suitable helper) in the Gen. 2:18 of the KJV.

“Forthtelling” is supposed to mean delivering a message from God, as opposed to foretelling, i.e. predicting the future. Accordingly, you hear people using these contrasting terms in defining or explaining Biblical prophecy, as if there were two subtypes of prophecy: (a) foretelling, and (b) forthtelling. Now, this is not without basis: prediction is a common element in prophecy, but by no means a necessary feature. And we do sometimes use the phrase “predictive prophecy,” which is not a redundancy, but neither does it indicate one category to be distinguished from “non-predictive” prophecy. And if you find “forthtelling” a useful way to express this, why, go ahead. But I don’t use it myself, and I’ll explain why not.

I’ve already mentioned that forthtell is not a real word. Also, the adverb forth is not really in anyone’s active vocabulary today (as far as I know) except in the stock phrases “and so forth” and “back and forth,” as well as intentionally archaic expressions such as “sally forth.” (Indeed, the building I am in as I write this has a place called a “sally port,” but still I’ve never heard anyone say they were sallying forth from it. I’ve never asked but I’d wager half the folks imagine it was named after some lady named Sally.) So why employ an obsolete expression in an effort to give a clear explanation?

Here’s my theory how this quasi-word came about: I think it arose from someone trying to deal with the etymology of the word “prophecy,” i.e. the Greek word prophēteuō. The fact is, that this word is constructed from the particle pro, which means “before” and the root pha- or phē- “to speak.” So etymologically, it’s pretty much equivalent to “foretell.”

But etymology is not ontology. In other words the origin of a word is not the same as a definition or explanation of the meaning of the word, or the nature of that to which it refers. Etymology is simply a mnemonic device, a convenient way of employing existing bits of vocabulary to point semantically to a particular concept.

It does not necessitate anything in regard to the referent. For example, the word for “read,” in Hebrew is an extended meaning of qara’ “to call,” and this no doubt came about because of the practice of someone reading aloud. But it can be used perfectly well of silent reading. In Greek, the same concept is signaled by anagignōskō, which etymologically is “re-knowing,” a derivation which makes perfect sense. However, you still don’t have to have forgotten the information to read about it.

So someone was evidently intending to dissociate prophēteuō with “foretelling” and either decided to appropriate the Latin pro, meaing “for,” or more likely mentally substitute the similar Greek preposition pros, which means “to” or “toward.” It may even be cognate with English “forth.”

But alas, that would be a faux etymology. Besides, it isn’t needed.

Okay, I’ve said my piece. I imagine “forthtell” is here to stay, but at least I seen my duty and I done it.

Terms of Empowerment

by Marv

What is the general subject of 1 Corinthians 12-14?

Spiritual gifts“? That seems to be the received rubric for the aspect of Christian life and ministry that Paul discusses there. I offer a mild objection. This is the phrase and concept people tend to use, but I wonder if it is quite adequate, and not a bit misdirecting.

Why do I say this? Well, for one reason, the phrase “spiritual gift(s)” occurs nowhere in 1 Corinthians 12-14. It occurs nowhere in 1 Corinthians at all.

Sure it does, you say: 1 Cor. 12:1 and 1 Cor. 14:1. All right, sure, but what I am referring to really is the underlying Greek phrase χάρισμα πνευματικὸν (charisma pneumatikon), “spiritual gifts.” It’s not there in 1 Corinthians. We do have “spiritual” and we do have “gift,” but not together as a phrase.

In fact that phrase only occurs one time in Scripture: Romans 1:11, and there I think it has a rather different meaning than we usually associate with “spiritual gift”:

For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—

Perhaps it does correlate closer than I am thinking, but that’s not my point today. I want to look at the terminology that does actually occur in 1 Cor. 12-14, and see what this can tell us.

1. Pneumatika

Here are the two verses I referred to above, as they read in the ESV:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. (1 Corinthians 12:1)

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)

As I observe above, the underlying Greek here for “spiritual gifts” is not the phrase charisma pneumatikon, but a single word, the adjective pneumatikon, used substantively in the plural: pneumatika. This is the rendering of the ESV, NIV, NASB, and KJV, though this has “gifts” in italics.

The supposition behind this rendering, I take it, is that the bare neuter plural adjective modifies an elided neuter plural noun, which being resupplied by the translators, turns out to be charismata, “gifts.” Maybe–I guess–if we do assume that “spiritual gifts” was the ready phrase in Paul’s day that it is in ours. I’m not so sure of it, however.

One note: in 12:1 this word appears in the genitive plural, the form being penumatikōn. Ostensibly this could be any of the three genders, though feminine being difficult to account for (sorry, ladies) that generally masculine and neuter are in the running. Paul does use the term in the masculine for “spiritual people” (of either sex). He even uses both masculine and neuter forms in the same sentence earlier in the epistle:

And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths (pneumatika, clearly neuter) to those who are spiritual (pneumatikois, clearly masculine). (1 Corinthians 2:13)

However, the 14:1 reference is unambiguously neuter: pneumatika.

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts (ta pneumatika), especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians)

In the context, I think it is reasonable to take these two instances, when he introduces the topic in 12:1 and reintroduces it in 14:1 as the same usage. Thus the latter informs us that the former is indeed neuter plural. That’s what the translation “spritual gifts” understands anyway.

But if the plural adjective pneumatika modifies an understood charismata, and so “spiritual gifts,” can we say that in the singular, a single spiritual gift would be a *pneumatikon? The asterisk is a linguistic convention to indicate a hypothetical form never actually found in the data. Of course, the adjective in that form does occur as we saw in Rom. 1:11, and elsewhere, but as a lone substantive, meaning a “spiritual gift” it occurs nowhere. In other words we have no evidence in the text of a “pneumatikon” being used to refer to prophecy or tongues or such.

Now not having an example does not disprove anything, but it also doesn’t confirm that we are on the right track with the rendering “spiritual gifts” for pneumatika.

Let me suggest something else. In both 12:1 and 14:1 the word is reasonably understood as a general category term. Greek has a well established usage which resembles these forms exactly. That is, frequently an adjective (especially formed with -ik-) in the neuter plural has an abstract sense which indicates a general subject or field of inquiry.

This is the origin of several of our English subject terms as well, those ending in -ics:

“Physics” from ta phusika. Not because of of some thing called a “phusikon,” but because it concerns things of phusis “nature.”

“Ethics” from ta ēthika, concerning things of ēthos “custom.”

“Politics” from ta politika, concerning things of the polis, “the state.”

Following in this line, ta pneumatika would simply be a general cover term for things concerning pneuma, “the Spirit,” rather than referring to a set of abilities or the instances of their use. I don’t know if “Pneumatics” has a future as a rubric here, especially as it is already used as a term for physical effects and related technology. But this would be consistent with similar terms.

2. Charisma, Diakonia, Energēma, Phanerōsis.

These four occur as rough synonyms in a sequence of four verses: 12:4-7, translated as follows:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

a. Charisma means “gift,” as in an object that someone gives you. Our sense of “gift” as a talent, as in a “gifted musician” presumably derives from the use here. I’m not sure it had that sense in Greek prior to this concept. It can also be an untangeable gift, a favor, as in “do me a favor.”

It is frequently tied to charis, grace, and indeed this is true, but it is more parallel to charis than derived from it, I think. Let me explain the derivation:

Both are derived from the verb charizomai, which has a variety of uses meaning to grant to give freely or generously, most especially to forgive. The etymology of this verb is also pretty clear, with the –iz– suffix (our –ize, Brit. –ise), suffixed to the root chara “joy.” To “joy-ize” someone is to perform an act which will immensely please or gratify them for its generosity. Thus charizomai (some kind of deponent middle voice).

The act of charizomai or quality of one doing it, is thus charis, “grace” as we ususally render it.

The ending -ma signifies a result or object of an action. So take –omai off chariz-omai and you get charis-ma (mutatis mutandis): thing given: gift.

b. Diakonia is a very general word for service, and a diakonos is a servant. This has become transliterated and technicalized in our word deacon. In the NT we do see it used for this office (Phil. 1:1 ESV), but probably never really dissociated mentally from the menial sense of “servant.” Deacon has nothing of this feel. Much less does minister, also a frequent translation of diakonos (e.g. Col. 1:25 ESV). Our word minister, meaning either a professional clergyman or a state official has moved far afield from what the Greek would convey.

c. Energēma has at its base ergon “work” (an actual cognate, originally wergon). With the prefix en– “in” it is obviously the source of our word energy. The verb energeo means “to be operative, at work, active.” Therefore, with the suffix –ma, it signifies and effect, operation, or activity.

d. Phanerosis indicates that which is normally invisible becoming seen or otherwise perceptible to the senses, i.e. becoming manifest, a manifestation.

3. Pneuma

You will recognize here the common word for “spirit,” which has a range of uses, such as:

a. God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit.

b. the human spirit

c. another spiritual being, i.e. an angel

d. an evil spirit, a demon

I submit there is an (e) sense of pneuma which refers to an instance of one of these gifts, services, effects, or manifestations, not so much the potential or ability (as we tend to think of a gift) but its actual use. We can see this in comparing two similar statements from ch. 14:

1. Pursue love, and earnestly desire (zēloute) the spiritual gifts (pneumatika), especially that you may prophesy. (v. 1)

2. So with yourselves, since you are eager (zēlōteai) for manifestations of the Spirit (pneumatōn), strive to excel in building up the church. (v. 12)

Note that the Greek underlying the ESV’s “manifestations of the Spirit” is not phanerōsis as in v. 7, but simpy the single word pneuma (in the genitive plural). Now this is translated “spiritual gifts” by such versions as NIV and NASB and KJV, just as pneumatika is, but with rather less justification. This is particularly true if we conceive of “gift” as an ability rather than an act or perceptible phenomenon.

Based on what follows then, examples of a “spirit” in this sense would be an utternce in tongues or a spoken prophecy. Or v. 26 may be a list of such:

…a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.

Now based on this usage of pneuma, I’d like to look at a couple of exegetical applications.

1 Cor. 12:10 makes the following reference: “to another the ability to distinguish between spirits.” Frequently this has been understood in terms of demonology. In other words, the ability to have supernatural insight into evil spirits that may be afflicting someone.

The underlying Greek is diakriseis pneumatōn, often rendered “discernment of spirits” and the word for “distinguishing” or “discernment” here corresponds exactly with the verb in 14:29:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh (diakrinetōsan) what is said.

“Discernment of spirits” then would not be so much identification of demons as it would be evaluating prophetic utterances. As such “distinguishing of spirits” in 12:10 would be the same as the “weighing” of prophecy is in 14:29.

This also impacts on our understanding of 1 John 4:1-3:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

(1 John 4:1-3 ESV)

I think this makes sense out of something that has bothered me. John says not to believe every spirit? We ought to believe the Holy Spirit, of course. What, are there a few others we should believe? Surely he doesn’t mean we might encounter an occasional demon who might be trustworthy.

But if “spirit” (pneuma) here be understood, for example as a prophecy, I think it makes rather more sense. And it explains why he mentions false prophets. So he’s not telling his readers to believe some demons and not others, but not just to accept every utterance of prophecy that someone speaks.

This may mean that the phrase which the ESV renders as “the Spirit of God” is not here actually a reference to the Holy Spirit. The phrase is to pneuma tou theou, and certainly does look as if it refers to the Holy Spirit, I grant. But John goes on to explain, referring to “every spirit” (pan pneuma), which certainly sounds like he means a plurality of spirits. And if this spirit confesses Jesus it is–now John doesn’t say THE Spirit of God, but “from God” (ek tou theou). By the flow of argument it seems to me he is rather saying:

By this you know a spirit (prophetic utterance) coming from God: every spirit (prophetic utterance) which agrees that Jesus has come in the flesh is from God. Every spirit (prophetic utterance) which does not confess Jesus is not from God. It’s a spirit (prophetic utterance) from antichrist which (neuter!!! i.e. antecedent is “spirit”!) you have heard was coming and is in the world already.

Understand, this is by no means my discovery (granted there’s even any truth to it), but I don’t think it is a well-known option.

I suspect though this is what lies behind the use of “private spirits” in the Westminster Confession. There is some controversy with this term. Some suggest it simply means “opinions.” Others do take it to refer to individual revelations, either accepted, tolerated, or else simply recognized as a claim by the Confession.

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (I.X.)

…with which I heartily concur.

Discerning of Spirits

Quite a while back, I had taken up the task of posting articles on the 9 giftings found in 1 Cor 12:8-10. I have looked at prophecy, tongues, message of wisdom and message of knowledge. But I wanted to follow up with some thoughts on a gift that connects quite well with the prophetic-revelatory gifts. It’s that of discerning of spirits, or as some translations call it distinguishing between spirits.

As I mentioned with other gifts listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10, this one also comes to us with the plural. It should literally be translated as distinguishings between spirits. This probably points to the fact that the gift has a variety of functions. Continue reading