Moses was having a bad day. The whole nation was complaining that they wanted meat, and God was ticked off. People were dying and crying and Moses was tired of carrying the whole weight. So Moses told the LORD, “If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now — if I have found favor in your eyes — and do not let me face my own ruin."
Moses needed help. But God had a solution other than killing Moses. He told Moses that not only was he going to provide meat for the whole nation; he was going to provide them enough meat for a month! And he was also going to get Moses some help. He told Moses to gather together 70 elders and the LORD was going to put some of the Spirit that was upon Moses upon them.
Moses couldn’t believe his ears. Impossible as it was to provide that much meat out in the wilderness, Moses told the people what the LORD had said and gathered together the elders at the meeting tent. Then the LORD came down in a cloud and took of the Spirit that was upon Moses and put it upon the 70 leaders. When this happened they all prophesied. Even two guys who were supposed to be there but stayed behind in the camp also received the Spirit and prophesied.
Now Joshua, Moses’ aide, didn’t like the way this looked, and told Moses so. But Moses replied, "Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the LORD's people were prophets and that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!"
Would Moses get his wish? Nearly every prophet in some way prophesied of a coming time when God’s Spirit would be outpoured. It would be the day of the King and the kingdom. Before the day of Pentecost, after Jesus’ resurrection, the Apostles asked Jesus if this was the time that the kingdom would be restored. This was just after Jesus had taught them over the last 40 days about the kingdom. Jesus didn’t rebuke them for still not understanding, but told them that “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus’ answer, as always, went to the heart of the issue. In lieu of an immediate full and complete manifestation of the kingdom - the restoration of the kingdom – there would be an outpouring of the Spirit in power so that the people of God could be a witness to Jesus throughout the whole world.
As Joel had prophesied, one of the results of the outpoured Spirit would be prophecy. Throughout the book of Acts, when people had the Spirit come upon them, they often prophesied. Paul wrote that we should all “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy”. Why did Moses and Paul want God’s people to be prophetic? Why does the Holy Spirit desire to manifest himself in the church through prophecy? Is there some aspect of the kingdom of God, and of our witness to Jesus, that cannot be seen apart from the prophetic?
What is prophecy? The prophet Amos wrote, “God has spoken, who can but prophesy?” John, in the book of Revelation, writes that the “Spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus.” Prophecy is where someone, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, says what God is saying to a person, a group, a nation, or a situation. The person acts as God’s voice. This may be about the future, but is also often about the past and the present. In Revelation chapters 2-3 Jesus is seen speaking to the 7 churches. He reveals, through what he tells John to write, something about himself, something about how he sees them, what they have done, are doing, what they should do and what Jesus himself will do. This is the essence of prophecy. It is God personally communicating through his servants his intentions to others.
This is the kind of help Moses needed. He needed others to come alongside and be God’s voice to the people. The load was way too much to bear for one person. Paul wanted us to eagerly desire the supernatural ability to be God’s voice to others. Why? Because Paul wanted us to help each other know God in reality, not just in our imagination. We all want God to genuinely enter into our lives and interact with us. Without prophecy, God can be too distant, intangible, and transcendent. With prophecy we can hear God’s voice in a tangible way. So “if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!" It is to this reality of God among us that prophecy is meant to be a witness. This is how prophecy builds us up in our faith. Through prophecy we can see Jesus active in our midst.
The gift of prophecy needs to be reclaimed by the church. It has fallen on hard times through misunderstanding, misuse, and abuse. Even the basis for this gift, the outpouring of the Spirit, is either discounted or misapplied. Paul warned us not to be ignorant of these things of the Spirit. Yet much of the body of Christ lives as if prophecy is irrelevant. Because of this, our witness to the world that Christ is among us is often without power. Our impact on the world is not what it could be. And why should we have impact if all we are offering is just another set of ideas and practices, albeit good ones? Paul never wanted the gospel to be presented in this way.
Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians, said “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.” They knew that God chose them because the gospel came to them in more than just words, but also in the power of the Spirit. He also wrote to the Corinthians “my message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.”
One of my deep disappointments regarding the emerging church movement is its apparent rejection of the practice of the gifts of the Spirit. In its effort to distance itself from the excesses, doctrinal immaturities, exclusiveness, and fundamentalism of some of the previous ‘Spirit’ movements in the church, it has turned a deaf ear to many of the more dramatic types of genuine Spirit manifestation. Although this is not without some justification, I think that Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians that they should not despise prophecy is also applicable to us today.
The passage in Thessalonians reads like this: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” As with all of Paul’s exhortations, there was a good reason for giving them. If we could not put out the Spirit’s fire, why would he have exhorted us not to put it out? But what did Paul mean by the Spirit’s fire? Does anyone besides me hear echoes of the words of the prophets? Without the fire of the Spirit the distinction between the holy and the profane would be blurred. Fire marks the line of that which is totally devoted to the Lord from that which is not yet so devoted. But it is the Spirit’s fire, a fire not of our own making. Yet that cannot mean that the Spirit’s fire can burn without our consent and complicity. If it could burn in such a way, without our consent, then how could we put out the Spirit’s fire? So for the fire of the Spirit to burn in us we need to agree with the Spirit. This results in a passion for the things of God – love, holiness, faith, compassion, forgiveness, truth, justice, fidelity, and so on. By agreeing to live like this we are in step with the nature of the Holy Spirit. The more we are consumed by these virtues the more we are ‘on fire’ by the Spirit.
Yet there is an aspect of the Holy Spirit’s fire that manifests itself in the supernatural, in things that happen that defy natural explanation, which we also need to consent to. This will bug the rationalist who must have all things explained in a natural, causative way. The difficulty in explaining the supernatural is that it cannot be explained naturally. How come everyone isn’t healed, or why did God answer that prayer but appears not to have answered this other prayer? The rationalist wants rules so it will work the same way every time. There probably are rules and principles governing the manifestation of the supernatural power of the Spirit of God, but they are not natural rules. This is not magic. It is a relationship with the supernatural Being who made it all and who desires to share his life and power with his children.
Our witness to Christ is that he is real. Prophecy, done rightly, will help to confirm our affirmation that Jesus is risen and is truly among us by the Spirit of God. This is why Jesus wanted the disciples to wait until they had been “clothed with power from on high” before they began their witness. Jesus didn’t want the gospel to be just another religion. He wanted the world to know that he is really the Son of God, the Son of the One-and-Only-Who-Made-it-All. They would need the power of the Spirit to declare this in a manner consistent with the message. Only by a demonstration of the character and power of the Spirit can the church be truly incarnational.
Will Moses get his wish? The potential is there. God has poured out his Spirit. The Church needs to decide if it can have the faith to receive it in order to hear God and say what God is saying. Maybe then we all can be, each in his own way, a prophet of God.