By Dr. Christopher Cone
Tyndale Theological Seminary
As believers there are certain principles to which we must be thoroughly committed. For example, our experience cannot determine our theology. Instead, we must submit our experience and our theology to God’s word. Peter illustrates this principle for us when he explains that even though he had witnessed Christ in His glory at the transfiguration (Mt 16:28-17:2; 2 Pet 1:16-18), the prophetic word regarding Christ—or God’s revelation—confirmed the issue (2 Pet 1:19-21). What Peter says on this subject is important, because even if God did presently use experiential or sensory means, it would be secondary to His word.
Tongues, Prophecy, and Knowledge
Peter also describes in those verses how God spoke to people—the Holy Spirit moved men to speak the word of God (2 Pet 1:21). Certainly, God did speak to people in dreams and other ways (e.g., Heb 1:1). And Paul agrees that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16-17). Still, in 1 Corinthians 13 Paul describes how the confirming gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge—gifts whereby God spoke to people—would fulfill their purpose and come to a conclusion.
In a context describing the superiority of love (1 Cor 13:1-13), Paul explains that the gift of tongues would cease on its own (13:8). Tongues was a gift which enabled people to speak God’s word in actual languages that the speaker didn’t understand. This is illustrated in Acts 2:9-11, a passage which includes a list of at least sixteen different languages or dialects by which God used the disciples (and those with them) to proclaim God’s gospel. This gift served as a sign to unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22) that God had sent His Holy Spirit (Acts 2:36-38, 10:45-46, 19:5-6). Paul rebuked the Corinthian church for not utilizing the gift properly at times, and challenged them regarding the importance of love. After that commentary in 1 Corinthians, written in about 51AD, the Bible never mentions the gift of tongues again—not even in the letter Paul wrote to that same church just a few months later. Very early in church history, the gift of tongues had fulfilled its purpose and ceased on its own, just as Paul said it would.
Partial prophecy and knowledge (1 Cor 13:9), on the other hand, would continue until the complete would arrive (13:10), at which time the partial—or incomplete—would be ended. Considering the Greek terminology and syntax of 13:9-10, the issue is not that prophecy and knowledge would be fulfilled by the coming of the complete (to telian), but rather that partial (ek merous) prophecy and knowledge would be ended by it. The simplest understanding of these comments by Paul, is that there would come a time when God’s revealing through prophecy and words of knowledge would come to a conclusion—that He would have said all He had to say. It is evident that milestone is achieved at the conclusion of the book of Revelation, when Jesus leaves the reader expecting no further communication from God (with only the remaining exception of the two prophets of Revelation 11) until the return of Christ (Rev 22:18-20).
Hebrews 1:1-2 tells us that while God used many methods in former times to communicate, in these last days, He “has spoken to us in His Son.” Jesus prepared His disciples for His ascension, telling them the Holy Spirit would come to guide them into all the truth (Jn 16:13-14). Upon His departure, He reminded them to “make disciples…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Mt 28:20). The Holy Spirit fulfilled that ministry of guiding the disciples into all the truth, as Peter says, “men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:21). Jesus’ communication, through the Holy Spirit to His disciples, was finished at the end of the book of Revelation.
So, does God speak to us today? Can we interpret dreams or other experiences as His revelations to us?
Simple answers: no and no. We have to understand where we fit in the chronology of God’s unfolding plan. There were times when God used dreams to reveal His plans (e.g., Dan 2, etc.), but as the above passages describe, He simply doesn’t utilize those methods right now to speak to His people. That is not to say that He can’t use dreams or other experiences to spur us to thought or even possibly to draw my attention to His word—certainly He uses many circumstances in our lives to encourage, nudge or even redirect us. But God has spoken, His word is the only thing that of which we can be certain. As 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, all Scripture is God-breathed, and useful to equip us for every good work.
Knowing the Will of God
So, how do we know what God would have us do in areas that His word hasn’t specifically addressed? For example, a believer may wonder if he or she should move from one vocation to another. Gideon had a fleece. Hezekiah had shadows. But what do believers have to give us confidence in the Lord’s direction? How can a believer know God’s will for his or her life when the Bible doesn’t specifically address it?
James 1:5 tells us if we are going through difficulty and we don’t know how to handle it, that we should ask Him for wisdom, believing in Him, and He will provide it. That means if we are focused on Him as He prescribes, He will give us what we need in order to maneuver the challenges of life. Not by some mystical revelation, but by provision of wisdom so that we can make sound decisions.
Also, Psalm 37:4 is an encouraging and liberating passage: “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.” If I am taking pleasure in Him, then what my heart wants will align with what He wants. When making difficult decisions, we can simply pursue His glory (1 Cor 10:31), ask Him for wisdom believing He will provide (James 1:5), and delight in Him (Ps 37:4). We can make the tough decision and trust Him with the outcome.
He provides confidence, peace, and direction, if we will but listen to what He has already said and has already provided. Let’s stop asking Him to repeat Himself, and just take Him at His word.