Beckett: Pastoral Thoughts – The Prophesying Spirit (Numbers 11:24-30)

So, Moses went out and told the people the words of the LORD. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.

Now, two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to them, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, that the LORD would put His Spirit on them!” And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Numbers 11:24-30

Immediately, we must see this occasion as a foreshadow of three others. The first is Joel 2:28-29, “‘And it shall come to pass afterwards, 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. Even on the male and female servants, in those days I will pour out My Spirit.'” This foreshadowing in Numbers and Joel’s prophecy points to what happens in Acts 2:1-33, which is the Day of Pentecost when God pours out His Holy Spirit upon Christ’s chosen Apostles and they speak in tongues.

This is not incoherent babbling that Pentecostals do when they pretentiously believe they’re speaking in tongues that are indistinguishable from a drunkard’s gibberish. The Apostles weren’t speaking some unknown language, or “the language of angels.” Rather, the Apostles were speaking as they normally would (most likely Greek), yet everyone present heard them in their own tongue, as the text itself says, “‘And how is it that we hear, each of us, in his own native tongue'” (Acts 2:8)?

This account in Numbers is also like what happens when Christ’s disciples likewise get jealous for His sake, “John said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in My name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. For the one who is not against us is for us'” (Mark 9:38-40). Jesus’ work was not left to His inner circle alone; the stranger was doing Christ’s work, whomever he was.

All these related texts raise the question, “What role does prophecy play today?” Even Paul mentions tongues and prophecy later in one of his epistles (1 Corinthians 14:2-27). However, if there is no one to interpret the tongue—that is, the language—then the person is to remain silent (v. 28). After all, if there’s no one to translate what the person is saying, it’s more than likely not from God. So, what are we to make of this?

For Charismatics, speaking in tongues is a necessary sign that you have the Holy Spirit, perfect sanctification, and even salvation. But this is far from the biblical witness. First, it needs to be made irrevocably clear that the biblical witness of speaking in tongues is merely speaking in other human languages, as evidenced in Acts 2:5-11. Historically, the Church Fathers and even the Lutheran reformers correctly viewed the miraculous ability to speak in other languages as immediate acceptance of new believers (cf. Acts 10:44-48; 11:17). They also viewed the ability to speak in other languages via training, as well as translation, as the normal gift of tongues. As they examined the Scriptures, they delineated that both the Hebrew and Aramaic phrase “to speak in a tongue” means to speak or read another language (cf. Deuteronomy 28:49; Nehemiah 13:24; Esther 1:22; Isaiah 28:11; 33:19; Jeremiah 5:15).

For the rabbis, Hebrew was the proper language for prayer (Sotah 7:1-2; Megillah 2:1), and they also considered it the heavenly language of the angels (Sotah 33a). They also struggled with whether one or more languages should be used during worship. The challenge was because Hebrew was still the primary language of 2nd Temple Judaic worship (Jesus’ day, i.e., the 1st century), but most people spoke Aramaic and Greek in Galilee and Judea (Mark 5:41; John 19:20; Acts 6:1; 21:37-22:2; 26:14). Thus, by the time Jewish-Christians began to spread throughout Palestine and Asia Minor, they took these languages with them.

Furthermore, the church in Corinth began when Paul preached at a Jewish synagogue (Acts 18:4-8), so they had already known various languages, i.e., they spoke in various tongues. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul encourages them to speak in tongues, that is, to continue using all the languages they knew how to speak in their liturgical worship (Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic). In fact, the letter itself is written in Greek, but it includes Hebrew and Aramaic terms as well (rock in 1:12 [translated “Cephas,” another name for Peter, cf. Matthew 16:18, a different word for rock]; Satan/accuser in 5:5; Passover in 5:7; amen in 14:16; Sabbath in 16:2; maranatha [Come, O Lord] in 16:22; see also 2 Corinthians 1:20).

In short, the role of tongues in the Church is simply the use of more than one language in liturgical worship. In Luther’s day, he advocated for reading the Gospel in Latin and the pastor’s sermon would then interpret it afterwards (AE 40:142). This would be like your pastor reading the Gospel lesson in Greek and then interpreting it in English! Or, as is done in some multilingual congregations, the pastor reads the Gospel in Spanish and interprets it in English in his sermon, or vice versa. However, the Lutheran Confessions contend that Latin should only be kept in the Mass (what we call the Divine Service today) only “for the sake of those who learn and understand it,” in addition to German (Ap XXIV, 3). This is why we no longer read from Latin or German in our American churches today because no one understands them anymore and there’s no one to interpret (with the exception of those very few German-speaking congregations in the U.S., such as in Frankenmuth, Michigan).

What about prophecy? Is prophecy still done today? (By the way, actors always say “prophesizing” and “prophesized” but they aren’t real words. Respectively, the real words are prophesying and prophesied. We need better writers.) While Paul encourages the Corinthians to continue prophesying in the same chapter, it must be noted that he prefaced this with saying that there will come a time when they cease (1 Corinthians 13:8). Thus, the Lutheran view of prophecy is cessationism. This simply means that the time for special revelation from God has ceased (e.g., the Prophets and Revelation). Luther puts it well.

The Holy Spirit is sent forth in two ways. In the primitive church He was sent forth in a manifest and visible form. Thus, He descended upon Christ at the Jordan in the form of a dove (Matt. 3:16), and upon the apostles and other believers in the form of fire (Acts 2:3). This was the first sending forth of the Holy Spirit; it was necessary in the primitive church, which had to be established with visible signs on account of the unbelievers, as Paul testifies. 1 Cor. 14:22: “Tongues are a sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers.” But later on, when the church had been gathered and confirmed by these signs, it was not necessary for this visible sending forth of the Holy Spirit to continue.

The second sending is that by which the Holy Spirit, through the Word, is sent into the hearts of believers, as is said here [Galatians 4:6]: “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into your hearts.” This happens without a visible form, namely, when through the spoken Word we receive fire and light, by which we are made new and different, and by which a new judgement, new sensations, and new drives arise in us. This change and new judgement are not the work of human reason or power; they are the gift and accomplishment of the Holy Spirit, who comes with the preached Word, purifies our hearts by faith, and produces spiritual motivation in us.

LW 26:374-375; emphasis mine

Thus, anyone who claims to have received special revelation from God must be met with immediate skepticism, for even the devil can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). Yet the Word of God, being living an active (Hebrews 4:12), continues to prophesy in the sense that God’s Word is proclaimed from the mouths of preachers just as it was from the mouths of the Prophets. Roughly only 10% of the Prophets’ prophesying concerned future events; most of their prophesying took the form of declaring God’s utterance. Thus, insofar as the Word of God continues to be preached today—even the future foretelling of Christ’s Parousia from John’s own special revelation—prophecy still occurs. In other words, when your pastor preaches the Word of God to you, he is prophesying. If he claims to have something “new” from the Lord, he is a liar and a false prophet.

Theology Terms Used

  • Cessationism: in the Lutheran view, the times for special revelation from God has ceased, yet prophesying still occurs insofar as it is understood as the preaching of God’s written and spoken Word.
  • Parousia: Jesus’ second coming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close