Your Guide to Being Guided (Part 3)

“No, this is what was spoken by the prophet 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 2:16-18)


“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to find out whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

I wasn’t sure how I was going to address some of the following—or even if I was going to discuss it at all—but you can’t be part of the conversation if you don’t speak up. As with my other posts, remember that this is not a comprehensive treatment, just observations that I believe can be helpful in sorting out incomplete, biased or conflicting claims and deriving guidance from it.

‘See visions’ and ‘dream dreams.’ Sorry, but we’re going to have to talk about this.

The primary immediate application of what Peter quoted from the prophet Joel was to explain the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples that had just happened and the resulting, uh, results (how’s that for a weasel choice of words?) We apply what he said to interpret church history, 2000 years of it. But in the heat of this Pentecostal moment, it’s not disrespectful or sacrilegious to say that a bunch of people speaking in other tongues might have set off a riot.

Then as now, onlookers can have a hard time dealing with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Drunk is a pretty mild epithet compared with some of the labels I’ve heard over the years.

Peter helpfully linked what they were seeing and hearing with a “last days” OT prophecy, one of the bona fides a skeptical Jerusalem crowd might need to pay attention to a Galilean fisherman (i.e., a nobody in their eyes) who’s just commanded their attention.

But according to Peter, there you have it: a Spirit-initiated, Spirit-induced, and Spirit-empowered announcement. This is the overture to the gospel-centered preaching that follows immediately and which results in about 3000 being added to the nascent church that day.

Most charismatics don’t even blink at the “your sons and daughters will prophesy” line today because 20 centuries has erased a lot of gender bias, but in its day this would have raised a few eyebrows, as would the explicit reference to “both men and women” being recipients of the Spirit.

And, of course, most charismatics don’t have any conceptual problem with prophesying itself. Even some of the Puritans, who were hardly holy rollers, called their preaching prophesying, and, I think, legitimately.

But that leads us to dreams (Gk enypnion, a supernatural suggestion or impression received during sleep) and visions (Gk horasis, appearance, as in looks like, as well as a vision). Of the four instances of horasis in the NT, half are the first usage and half the second. In the NT, enypnion appears only in this passage.

The first question about their legitimacy should be obvious: Are they Spirit-inspired which, after all, are part of the “last days” announcement, or do they have a different origin?

First, if you take the tack, as some do, that “God just speaks through the Bible,” you have an immediate problem. It’s right there in front of you. The Spirit-inspired account of what Peter quoted and preached says “young men will see visions,” “old men will dream dreams,” and “both men and women will prophesy.” And speaking of vision, when was your last eye exam? Do you need reading glasses?

Second, there is a huge difference between some novice prophet putting his toes in the water, so to speak, by prophesying some simple message without much substance and someone who, primarily motivated by selfish ambition, greed or some malicious intent to deceive, utters something that throws a wrench in the works.

There’s a reason Paul says, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Cor 14:29). With nice symmetry he says elsewhere, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (1 Thes 5:20-22).

I know these reference prophecies specifically, but I think the “test and verify” principle applies to dreams and visions, too. We’re talking about forms of communication that, because of their purported supernatural origin, are going to be taken seriously, perhaps prematurely or naively so.

(Unlike most prophecies, however, the person receiving a dream or a vision might choose not to express them in a public setting but relate them to just one or a few others. That doesn’t negate the need to test their veracity because of the potential for deception though.)

Third, and related to the “testing” requirement, NT prophecies are not like OT prophecies. Maybe it goes without saying, but OT prophecies that we see with hindsight as fulfilled in later OT narratives or in the NT were validated by history as yet unrecorded (i.e., no biblical or other historical account yet, but later incorporated in the canon of Scripture).

Prophecies, dreams and visions in our time will have either explicit scriptural content at their core or descriptive content consonant with scriptural truth. Flights of fancy, or as Paul described in Colossians, “visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” are, ironically, a symptom of someone “not holding fast to the head” (i.e., Jesus Christ) (Col 2:18-19). In other words, if you think every prophet or person who relates a dream or vision is tight with Jesus, guess again.

Some translations say lost connection with the head. Have you ever seen someone faking a phone conversation, injecting pauses and acknowledgments (Yeah? OK. Sure, glad to do it.) as if there’s actually someone on the other end? A prophecy, vision or dream that is self-generated is like a one-sided phone call without a “connection with the head.” Don’t waste your time (or ours).

Legitimate dreams and visions are extraordinary, unlike NT prophecies, which can be regular occurrences. Because they are, I’ll address these topics in a future post, after diverting to a siding about interpretation issues.

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