In order to interpret and understand how God deals with His people during the Church era, we must be aware of the times, particularly times of transition in God’s program for His people.
There has always been a lot of confusion regarding the way God speaks and makes His will known to us. We see how God spoke to certain people in the OT and we think, perhaps that’s the way God should speak to us. We see how God spoke to people in the book of Acts, and we think, perhaps that’s the way God should speak to us. Just as God revealed His will through angels and visions and dreams and prophecies in the Bible, we might assume that God reveals His will to us in the same way today.
What we need to understand about all this is that out of all the believers in both Old and New Testaments, God only dealt with a handful of people in the above ways. Visions and dreams, etc., were not the norm for most believers. These were the very few exceptions. They did not define the rule. It’s a tragic mistake to think that this was the normal way that God revealed His will to His people — either in the Old Testament or in the New. I say tragic, because when believers apply the experiences of those few, and assume that this should be normal for everyone else too – regardless of the time period – they set themselves up for disappointment, and perhaps disillusionment.
In the OT, they didn’t have the full written OT Scriptures until the 39 books were completed. Until then, God spoke to His people through the prophets whom He chose — like Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Isaiah and others. Before God raised up prophets, He spoke directly to a few others, like Adam and Eve and Cain and Job and Abraham.
There’s absolutely no biblical evidence that God spoke to anyone else in the same way other than what the Scriptures reveal. He spoke through a few prophets to the rest of His people. As for visions and dreams and angelic messengers, they too were for the privileged few (and only on a few occasions), and there was normally great significance attached to those occasions that related to God’s overall plan and purpose for His people — and usually, it ultimately had Christ in view. God never spoke to the common individual believer as He did with the few — especially for the purpose of revealing His will for their personal lives. We don’t see that in either the OT or the NT. If we fail to see the rarity of this, it will likely lead to serious deception.
Once the OT Scriptures were completed, there was no longer any need for God to speak to His people through the prophets or through dreams, visions or angelic messengers. Once the OT was completed in written form, there’s no evidence that God continued to speak to His people through those ways. In fact, once the OT Scriptures were completed, God didn’t speak to His people in those ways again until Christ appeared — and again, it was only through a few. The miracles that some of the prophets performed in the OT, confirmed the word they spoke. In other words, the miracles validated the message they spoke as being from God.
There was a four hundred year gap between the completion of the OT Scriptures and the arrival of Christ. Those are known as the four hundred years of silence. There’s a good article about this time period by Ray Stedman, titled, “The Four Hundred Years Between the Old and New Testaments,” Below is a quote from that article:
After Malachi had ceased his prophesying and the canon of the Old Testament closed — that is, the number of the books in the Old Testament was fulfilled and the inspired prophets ceased to speak — God allowed a period of time for the teachings of the Old Testament to penetrate throughout the world…..
….It is amazing how God utilizes history to work out his purposes. Though we are living in the days that might be termed “the silence of God,” when for almost 2,000 years there has been no inspired voice from God, we must look back — even as they did during those 400 silent years — upon the inspired record and realize that God has already said all that needs to be said, through the Old and New Testaments.
Therefore, when Jesus arrived, we had the same type of situation that they had in the OT prior to the completion of the OT Scriptures. God’s people were without the NT Scriptures. God was once again speaking through Jesus and the prophets in the same manner as He did in the OT. The word that Jesus and His Apostles and prophets spoke was confirmed by miracles, just as we see in the OT. I need, again, to point out that it was very few individuals through whom God spoke to His people in both testaments. God did not speak to the average believer like He did to and through those few. Furthermore, just as visions and dreams and angelic messengers were seen during the writing and gathering of the OT Scriptures, we see the same thing in the beginning of the NT era — and once more, only to a few. Once the NT Scriptures were completed, there was no longer a need for God to speak to His people through the Apostles and prophets — just as we saw with the completion of the OT Scriptures. The pattern is there to see for anyone willing to take an honest look at it.
It’s important that I keep emphasizing this: The prophets that God spoke to and through were few in both Old and New Testaments. And the visions and dreams and angelic messengers that characterized those times, were few; it was not the norm for the average believer. That idea is nowhere found in the Bible. We must understand that in both cases — in both Old and New Testaments, those were transitional periods of time, times of transition until the written Word of God was complete. In the case of the NT – the days of Christ and the Apostles – it was a time of transition from Old Covenant to New Covenant, from OT to NT, from Israel to the Church. Those were special times in history that we will never see again. They were special times that required a special revelation from God, through only a handful of people. It was in no way the norm for God to reveal Himself to and through the average Christian in such ways; the Bible provides no such evidence.
If we don’t understand how God dealt with His people in both testaments, and why He dealt with them the way He did, we can have the wrong idea about how God speaks and leads and reveals His will to us today as New Testament, post-apostolic believers. We make a major mistake when we assume that God will speak to us and reveal His will to us the same way He did to the few that we see in both Old and New Testaments.
It’s biblical error to read about how God revealed Himself to the few – through any of the ways we’ve discussed in this study – and make the assumption that this should be the common experience for Christians today. This is not what the Bible reveals. This is not what the Bible teaches. That’s an idea that is based on a limited understanding of God’s overall plan for His people — and for the world. It’s very presumptuous to think that God will do for us what He did for the very few out of all the believers in either Testament (time periods). That’s simply not the normal way that God has revealed Himself to the average believer at any point in history.
As long as a Christian clings to this false notion that God reveals Himself to us in these ways (visions, dreams, personal prophecies, etc.), and that’s what they’re waiting on God for, they’ll likely never know God’s will for their lives. This erroneous understanding of Scripture has caused so much confusion in the Church.
The fact is, I’m not Moses, and neither are you. I’m not David or Elijah or Jeremiah, and I’m not the Apostle Paul or the Apostle Peter, and neither are you. They had a significant purpose in the overall plan of God, and so God dealt with them in unusual ways. We don’t have the same purpose in the plan of God that they did. We must accept, and live, according to the purpose that God has for us at this particular point in God’s plan for His people. We either adjust or we face great disappointment – and quite likely – disillusionment. That’s what unfulfilled expectations do.
I have no doubts that God had a specific plan and purpose for the miracle gifts – and for the associated visions and dreams, etc; – in the beginning years of the Church that He doesn’t have for us today. The way that God carried out His will among His people then is not the same as it is for post-apostolic Christians.
However, I believe there may be exceptions to how God normally operates among His people today. To be frank, I hesitate to even talk about possible exceptions, because I think there’s a danger that if we leave even a crack in the door, people will tend to fly it wide open — and then we’re right back to where we started. If we accept that there could be exceptions, I believe some may be more open to those exceptions than we should be, which could lead to deception.
The only reason I consider such an idea is because God is sovereign and He can do whatever He wants. Moreover, we must acknowledge that even with God’s complete written revelation, we don’t have a perfect knowledge or understanding of all that God does, or why. Thus we must be careful not to assume too much, or too little. Nevertheless, we must exercise extreme caution in this realm of possibility. In such cases where God may have a purpose in operating outside of the general program He has for His Church today, everything must be tested and validated with both the Word of God and with wise, discerning and responsible leadership — as well as with other mature Christians who have walked with the Lord for a long time, and who have a sound understanding of the Scriptures.
Let’s be clear about what God requires of us today. We’re to live according to God’s written Word — primarily via the NT Scriptures. We’re called to live and walk by faith, as we rely on the Holy Spirit for direction and power. Specifically, that requires us to live a life of Spirit-filled wisdom, as He applies His Word to our lives. What we’re not called to do, is to seek God’s will via prophecies or visions or dreams or angels. Nowhere are we instructed to do that. What we are instructed to do is to live according to the wisdom of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Anything beyond that is up to God. If He wants to reveal Himself and His will in some miraculous way, that’s up to Him. But we’re not to seek it or wait for it.
We must keep everything in proper perspective. We must maintain a healthy scepticism in regard to the unusual. We should never assume anything to be of God unless it’s been completely confirmed. While God may work through visions and dreams in some situations in the world today, we should be skeptical anytime we hear of it. Those who claim to receive visions and/or dreams from God on a regular basis, we can automatically disregard them. Those who claim to be prophets and claim to receive prophecies regularly, we can automatically disregard them too. Those who claim to be healers and claim to heal people regularly, we can automatically disregard them as well. I can say with confidence that all of these types of individuals are phonies, because it’s outside of God’s ordained program for His people today. But let’s be clear, God still performs miracles today. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether the miracle gifts have ceased. I believe the evidence is more than sufficient that they have.
Those who claim to have received a prophecy about their personal life, it must be recognized and validated by God-ordained leadership. It also must be in the context of seeking God’s will according to God’s plan for us today — namely, according to the written Word of God, Spirit-filled wisdom, and faith. I don’t believe anyone will ever receive a prophecy from God by seeking it and waiting for it. That’s not the biblical way of seeking direction for our lives. And let me be very clear, personal prophecies are highly unlikely, because this sort of thing was rare even in the early years of the Church. I’m not saying that God would never ever do it, but I believe it would be an exception at the highest level.
Just as miracles and healings today are not the result of someone with those gifts (but because God simply chooses to do so), so with prophecies — of the foretelling type. If this ever occurs, it’s not because someone has the gift of prophecy, but because God simply chooses to do so. In addition, if God did speak a prophecy through someone, I believe it would have to be of real significance to the Church worldwide (or at least on a large scale) — not ordinary guidance for someone’s life. Even in the examples of Paul and Barnabas and Timothy and Simeon and Anna, the revelations and prophecies relating to them had Church-wide and worldwide significance. Therefore, while it’s highly unlikely that anyone will receive a personal prophecy about their lives today, if they do, I believe it will have special significance as it relates to the cause of Christ and to the Church on a grand scale — and never contrary to the written Word of God.
As for visions and dreams, I believe that Jesus does reveal Himself and the gospel message to people in places where Christianity is outlawed and the Word of God is severely scarce. There are plenty of people who give testimony to that, particularly those who live in Muslim countries. However, in regard to visions and dreams that pertain to our everyday lives, where Bibles and Christian churches are everywhere, we have to be very very careful to accept such claims. We must maintain a healthy skepticism about these sorts of things, and never assume that they are for real. Everything needs to be unmistakably validated.
I have to point out once again that, even in the early years of the Church, visions and dreams were rare, and when they were given and received, they were very significant in nature, relating to Christ and God’s redemptive plan for mankind. While it’s possible that God could reveal His will via dreams and visions outside of those perimeters, there are no NT examples of that, and that’s a fact we can’t disregard.
Therefore, all claims of receiving dreams or visions to get a different job or move to another state or who to marry – or such like things – should be rejected. Those types of things don’t fit the biblical examples. I get the idea that within Pentecostal and charismatic circles, when it comes to visions and dreams, just about anything goes. That type of understanding and expectations, can lead to serious deception. If God does reveal His will outside the normal scope of His plan for us today, we can be confident that He will make it unmistakably clear, and that it will have far-reaching importance. But again, that is to be determined by God’s Word and godly leadership as they provide wise counsel.
The message I’m trying to communicate here is that while God may reveal His will to someone in a miraculous way – if He has a special purpose in it – we should have a highly skeptical mindset toward such claims. Nothing should be automatically accepted as being legitimate. Everything must be irrefutably verified. We can be easily deceived by what we believe we’re hearing from God, and so everything out of the ordinary must be discussed with the spiritual leaders that God has placed over us. This is a good example of why it’s so important to unite with a local church (1 Pe 5:1-8). Church involvement is God’s will for all of us. As Christians, none of us are to be an island unto ourselves. We’re all members of the same body, and all members are designed to work together within that body.
Therefore, when it comes to something as exceptional and important as miracles, visions, dreams, prophecies, etc. (which would all have significant meaning), those who believe they’ve experienced something along those lines, need to bring it before the God-ordained authority that He has placed over us in our local assemblies. These types of things would be of such rare occurrence, that it’s imperative that they be confirmed as being from God. Again, we can be very deceived by what we believe is from God, and so this verification process is absolutely necessary in order to prevent us from going down a path that is not of God.
In regard to tongues-speaking, the tongues commonly spoken in churches today should not be accepted as biblical. The genuine gift of tongues of 1 Corinthians 14 has ceased. Moreover, even if it did still exist today, the NT hasn’t given us enough information about it to even correctly identify it. We don’t even know what it’s true purpose was. It’s a gift of mystery.
In regard to the tongues that were spoken on the day of Pentecost, we know what their purpose was. Those were known foreign languages, used to speak to those present who understood them. In primitive places of the world today, where Christianity is unknown, and where there is a language barrier, I believe the gift to speak in their language could be given. I don’t have a problem with that. In situations like that, it would be similar to the beginning years of the Church.
In summary, we should be very suspicious of all so-called prophecies (both personal and general), visions, dreams, and even miracles and healings, unless completely and unmistakably confirmed. These types of things are to be viewed as the rare exception to the ordinary plan that God has for His Church today — not as a common occurrence.
I want to talk more specifically as it relates to how God speaks and leads individual believers today. The miraculous is not the norm, and should not be sought. As followers of Christ today, we must be faithful to follow His revealed plan for His people in post-apostolic times, which is to live according to the commands and principles of His written Word, and to live the Spirit-filled life of faith and wisdom. Learning to walk in this manner takes time. It’s a growing process. It’s completely unbiblical to seek God’s guidance by way of some miraculous revelation. We’re to seek God and His guidance via His plan for us today, and if He wants to reveal Himself in some miraculous way beyond that, that’s up to Him. But we must be faithful to seek Him and His will according to His way, not according to our own personal preferences. We can’t make demands of God. We can’t require God to speak and lead in the same miraculous ways that we see in the Bible. He’s not given us that freedom.
Moreover, as NT Christians, we cannot be living as OT believers under the Old Covenant. Even Jewish believers today are to live according to the teachings of the NT. Whenever we place ourselves in the shoes of OT believers, we run into problems. To do so only leads to confusion. It’s especially important not to place ourselves in the shoes of the few whom God dealt with in unusual ways — for example, as He did for Abraham, Isaac (and Rebekah) and Jacob, the prophets and certain kings. If we place ourselves in the shoes of the OT few, in anticipation of God dealing with us the same ways, we will be very deceived by what we think we’re hearing. It was unusual the way God revealed Himself to those few, as opposed to how He dealt with His people in general.
Therefore, it’s necessary that we keep ourselves where we belong, and that’s under the authority of NT teaching. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn principles for life from the OT, but as NT Christians we must be very careful how we apply what we read in those Scriptures. The Old Covenant belief system was specifically for Old Covenant believers. We are New Covenant believers in Christ who have been given the NT Scriptures to live by. We must never confuse the two, or it will lead to erroneous teaching and erroneous beliefs.
When it comes to the miraculous, whether it be miracles in general, or healings, prophecies, visions, dreams or tongues, etc., we must be wise. We must exercise spiritual discernment. Don’t believe everything that comes down the pike. To do so is foolishness. Just because someone makes certain claims about themselves or about their gifts or experiences, it doesn’t mean it’s of God. Never assume anything out of the ordinary to be of God unless it’s been unmistakably confirmed. We must be extremely careful about such claims. There are too many phonies and too much false teaching and deceptions in the Church today not to be highly suspicious about claims of miracles and revelations and “manifestations of the Spirit.”
I get the idea that many Christians view it as a lack of faith if we don’t believe people who claim to be a prophet or an Apostle or a healer, or who makes claims of revelations or miracles — but that’s a deception in itself. We are to be fooled by no one. Everything we hear and observe must line up with the written Word of God, and validated by wise, sensible and godly leadership, who have a sound understanding of the Scriptures.