Prophecy And Preaching

David Peterson



Much of the discussion which takes place about prophecy in the church today is focused on the writings of Paul. There, the character and function of prophecy in a congregational context is particularly in view. A wider perspective on prophecy in New Testament times, however, is supplied by the Acts of the Apostles. The theme of the operation of the Spirit of God is actually a major connecting thread between Luke's two volumes,2 with seventeen references in the Gospel and more than fifty in the book of Acts. Additionally, there are a number of references to prophets and prophetic activity in both volumes. Peter's use of Joel 2:28-32 in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost is clearly programmatic for understanding the significance of the gift of the Spirit and the central importance of prophecy in Luke's theology. Within this context, it is possible to make some proposals about the link between prophecy and preaching in the early church and to apply those proposals to our situation today.


The prophetic Scriptures and the apostolic preaching.

The word 'prophecy' (proph?teia) does not occur in the Acts of the Apostles, though 'prophet' (proph?t?s) appears thirty times and the verb 'to prophesy' (proph?teuein) four times.3 By far the most common use of proph?t?s is with reference to prophetic figures in the Old Testament such as Joel (Acts 2:16), David (2:30), Moses (3:22), or Isaiah (8:28; 28:25). God is said to have foretold certain events such as the suffering of his Christ 'through the mouth of all his prophets' (3:18). The words were theirs, but God was directing their utterances, revealing his mind and will to his people through them. In particular, 'all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days' (3:24) and all testify about Jesus, 'that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name' (10:43). The many and varied strands of Old Testament prophecy are regarded by the earliest Christian preachers as providing a united testimony to Christ and the situation of the early church.4 Their written words continue to give special insight into the person and work of the Lord Jesus and to challenge unbelievers to repentance and faith (3:22-3; 8:30-5; 13:32-41).

'The law and the prophets' (13:15; 24:14; 28:23; cf. 26:22, 'the prophets and Prophecy and Preaching Moses'), or more narrowly 'the prophets' (26:22), are regularly used in the record of Acts by those engaged in apologetic and evangelistic work with Jews or Gentile God-fearers (e.g., 1 7:2-3; 28:23). The assumption is that those who accept the divine inspiration and unique authority of these writings will respond to their appeal. The prophetic Scriptures are also used by Christians to interpret their own situation and to solve dilemmas in their community life (e.g., 1:20; 4:25-6; 13:47; 1 5:1 5-1 8). Since the Holy Spirit was believed to have spoken in a unique and distinctive way through Moses and the prophets (28:25), the earliest Christian preachers expected that those who were 'sons of the prophets' and heirs of the covenant (3:25) would recognize the fulfilment of God's promises in Jesus and turn to him. Yet, Stephen highlights the other side of the picture when he says:

  • You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him - you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it (7:51 -3).
  • Stephen's long speech accuses Israel of consistent rebellion against God, reaching its climax in the betrayal and murder of the one whom the prophets predicted. Such apostasy continued in the opposition to Stephen and others who testified to Jesus on the basis of the prophetic Scriptures. This whole pattern of obstinacy and disobedience is described as a resistance to the Holy Spirit (cf. Isa. 63:10), who spoke through the

prophets and continues to speak through the witness of Christians. Those who act in this way show themselves to be spiritually uncircumcised (cf. Lev. 26:41; Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4; 6:10) and, therefore, not true Israelites. They demonstrate the need for the sort of forgiveness and transformation of the 'heart' by God's Spirit mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31-4 and the related prophecy of Ezekiel 36:26-7.

Prophecy in the last days

Given this emphasis on the special role and authority of the Old Testament prophets in the plan of God for his people, it is highly significant that the Pentecost sermon of Peter proclaims the fulfilment of Joel 2:28-32. A distinctive characteristic of 'the last days' is the pouring out of God's Spirit 'on all flesh', so that 'your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams' (Acts 2:1 7). God promises through Joel, 'Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days', and Peter repeats the words 'and they will prophesy' from the previous verse, to make the point absolutely clear (2:18). In other words, things will be revealed in dreams and visions which Israel's sons and daughters will then make known as the revelation of God. Peter's sermon is clearly programmatic for Acts, alerting us in advance to look for signs of the Spirit's presence - and especially for prophetic activity - in the believing community.5

Searching through Acts for signs of the Spirit's presence in the earliest communities, I am struck by the paucity of explicit references to prophecy as a gift or ministry operating amongst Christians. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether the disciples were actually prophesying on the Day of Pentecost, the first mention of Christian prophets is in 1 1:27-8. There we are told that, amongst some prophets who came down from Jerusalem to Antioch, one of them, named Agabus, stood up and 'through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world'. The immediate result of this prophecy was that the Christians at Antioch were encouraged to give generously to the needs of their fellow believers in Judea.

The presence of prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch is mentioned in Acts 13:1 and their names are given. No specific indication of the function of these prophets is given and it is not clear whether some of those mentioned were prophets and some teachers or whether all five exercised both ministries. Paul certainly combined the role of teacher and prophet, as Jesus did.6 It seems likely from the context that, while they were 'ministering to the Lord (leitourgount?n ... t? kyri?) and fasting', the Holy Spirit spoke through one or more of the prophets, saying 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them' (13:2). The fasting and praying which followed may have been to test the validity of this revelation or to intercede for those about to be sent off on this important mission.

Judas and Silas are mentioned in Acts 15:22 as 'leaders among the brothers' in the Jerusalem church. Sent by the apostles and elders to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia, with the letter concerning the decision of the so-called Jerusalem Council, their task was to 'confirm by word of mouth' what was written (15:27). When Luke describes their ministry in Antioch he says that 'Judas and Silas, being themselves also prophets (kai autoi proph?tai ontes), exhorted the brothers with many words and strengthened them' (15:32; author's translation). In other words, their ministry on this occasion was distinctly prophetic, but not in the sense of giving new revelation. As they explained the ruling which the apostles and elders believed to have come from the Holy Spirit (15:28), and as they talked about its meaning and purpose. God used them to encourage that congregation. Perhaps they were chosen for this task 'because they had already exercised an influential role in establishing (or proclaiming) the biblical rationale upon which the provisions of the Decree were justified.'7

Believers more generally are said to have engaged in a prophesying in 1 9:6. Paul had discovered a group of about twelve people in Ephesus, who appeared to be true 'disciples' but who had only received John's baptism and were still looking forward to Messiah's coming. Their situation is without parallel in the narrative of Acts. When Paul proclaimed Jesus as the Christ to them and they were baptized 'into the name of the Lord Jesus', Paul placed his hands on them, 'the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.'8 The language here suggests that their Prophecy and Preaching experience was being compared, at least in some respects, with that of the original group of disciples on the Day of Pentecost (2:4-11; cf. 11:15-1 7). 'They experienced a mini-Pentecost. Better, Pentecost caught up on them. Better still, they were caught up into it, as its promised blessings became theirs.'9

Acts 21 contains several references to prophesying. The disciples at Tyre were urging Paul 'through the Spirit' not to go on to Jerusalem (21:4),10 as believers in other cities had already done (20:23). Even though this is not called prophecy, there seems to be no better way to identify what was taking place. Nevertheless, Paul, who had earlier described himself as journeying to Jerusalem 'bound in/by the Spirit' (dedemen?s eg? to pneumati, 20:22), would not be deflected from reaching his goal.'11 The four unmarried daughters of Philip the evangelist are then described as those who regularly engaged in prophesying (proph?teuousai, 21:9), though no details are given. Finally, Agabus the prophet from Judea reappears (21:10-11). Like many of the Old Testament prophets, he employs a symbolic action to reinforce the point of his message and addresses Paul as the mouthpiece of God. Tying his own hands and feet with Paul's belt, he declares, 'The Holy Spirit says, "In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles".' Once again, Paul ignores the warning and refuses to be dissuaded by the pleas of his friends (21:12-1 4). He is not rejecting a command of the Spirit but, like Jesus before him, setting his face steadfastly to fulfil his God-given ministry, despite the divine predictions of suffering and arrest.

In short, then, that which is specifically identified as Christian prophecy in Acts involves prediction of future events, direction from God about the way in which the ministry of the gospel should proceed, interpretation of the significance of present activities, and exhortation based on such insight.

David Aune proposes that 'the distinctive feature of prophetic speech was not so much its content or form, but its (direct) supernatural origin.'12 Wayne Grudem has similarly argued that a revelation from the Holy Spirit is necessary for prophecy to occur but that the receipt of a revelation by itself does not constitute a prophecy. It is the report of the revelation which is called prophecy in the New Testament.13

On this definition, although Luke restricts the term 'prophet' to a select few, prophetic activity is evidenced more widely in his narrative Thus, even though Ananias is not designated as a prophet, he receives a prophetic revelation concerning Paul (9:10-16) and reports it to him (according to Paul's own account in 22:14-1 6). Again, Peter displays the marks of a prophet, in his knowledge of people's hearts (5:3; 8:20-3; cf.

Luke 7:39), and in his disclosure of what has been revealed to him. Paul similarly receives prophetic-type communications from the Lord (16:9; 18:9; 22:1 7-21), though only in 27:23-4 are we told that he immediately reported what had been revealed to him. Since the revelations given to him in 16:9; 18:9 and 22:17-21 were so critical to the progress of his ministry, it is doubtless true that he recounted them in some way to others.

Acknowledging the general helpfulness of Grudem's definition, I am nevertheless unsure about its adequacy in each case. Judas and Silas, for example, do not appear to have received a new revelation directly from God (1 5:22). Their work of exhortation was based on the decision made at the Jerusalem Council. The sequence of events in Acts 2 suggests that Peter is acting as a prophet when he proclaims the gospel so powerfully. He has insight into the Scriptures and their application but without a direct revelation from the Lord. His preaching, like the speaking in other languages, is a bold proclamation of God's deeds of power made possible by the coming of the Holy Spirit (cf. 4:8-13).

Moreover, the question remains as to how Luke envisaged Joel 2:28-32 being fulfilled for 'all flesh'. In what sense is Joel's prophecy descriptive of the experience of Christians in general?


The Spirit as power for mission.

Some interpreters of Luke-Acts have been content to argue that the 'Spirit of prophecy' given to the disciples is essentially designed to empower them for mission. This, for example, is the position of G.W.H. Lampe. Luke indicates that although the Spirit was fully present in Jesus from his conception (Luke 1:35), the endowment of the Spirit at his baptism enabled Jesus to fulfil the role of the eschatological prophet, to preach and to heal (Luke 3:21-2; 4:18-21; Acts 10:38). The disciples received a similar endowment from the risen Lord to enable them to continue his work. 'The mode of the Spirit's bestowal (at Pentecost) corresponds to their missionary vocation. It is the Spirit of prophecy, foretold by Joel, and its coming symbolized by the gift of tongues for the inspired proclamation of the gospel to the different nations of the world.'14

On this view, the Spirit in Acts may have little to do with ordinary Christian experience and is not depicted as the source of eschatological life and sonship, as in the Johannine or Pauline literature. Yet Lampe himself says, in connection with Acts 11:18 and the gift of the Spirit to the Gentiles:

  • Repentance is evidently regarded as the primary mode of the Spirit's operation in the converts, and it is natural to find that repentance, together with faith in Jesus as Messiah, is associated from the Day of Pentecost onwards with baptism in his name and reception of the gift of the Spirit.'15
  • If repentance is truly 'the primary mode of the Spirit's operation' in those who turn to Christ, the work of the Spirit in Acts should also be viewed in a regenerative role and not simply as the source of the gifts or as the dynamic for gospel witness. The programmatic promise of Acts 2:38-9 certainly links the promise of the Spirit with conversion and initiation:
    • Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call.
    • The immediate context suggests that the Spirit had a central role in forming and maintaining the Messianic community (2:41-7), creating that unique fellowship of prayer, praise and generosity, which was based on their devotion to the apostolic teaching and to the risen Lord. The role of the Spirit is so significant in the life of this community that when the deception of Ananias is uncovered he is accused of having lied to the

Holy Spirit (5:3).

Finally, the view that the Spirit was given to gift people for missionary outreach does not take sufficient account of the note of universality sounded in Acts 2:39. The promise of the Spirit is 'for all whom the Lord our God will call'.

The Spirit as the initiator of the new age

Other writers have proposed that the Spirit received by the disciples after Pentecost is essentially the same Spirit (functionally) that was on Jesus and that the Spirit in some sense mediated the religious and ethical life of Jesus. This, for example, is the position of J.D.G. Dunn. He argues that Jesus was not merely empowered for service at Jordan: his baptism in the Spirit initiated the End-time and initiated Jesus into it. As Jesus himself entered into the new age, he was also equipped for life and service in that age.'16

According to Dunn, until Pentecost, only Jesus had experienced the life and sonship of the new age and only in him was the kingdom present. Jesus' baptism in the Spirit is typical of all later Spirit-baptisms, by which God brings each to follow in Jesus' footsteps. Consequently, Dunn attempts to show that off the occasions of receiving the Spirit in Luke-Acts are concerned with conversion-initiation into the new age. The

Spirit is primarily God's response to authentic faith and only secondarily connected with water baptism, when baptism expresses such faith.

Dunn rightly seeks to link the gift of the Spirit in Acts with initiation into the blessings of the End-time, but distorts the evidence at times to fit his case. He makes a distinction between the experience of the disciples before and after Pentecost that is too abrupt and artificial, playing down every suggestion given by Luke in his first volume that the disciples were able to experience in advance, during the course of Jesus' earthly ministry, some of the blessings of the age of salvation and of the new covenant.17

The Spirit of prophecy as the organ of communication between God and his people.

Max Turner attempts a mediating position between the two views outlined above. The Pentecostal gift was not simply the beginning of the disciples' experience of the new age and neither was it simply an empowering for service for those already initiated into that age. He rightly argues that in Luke's Gospel the disciples had recognized, enjoyed and preached the inbreaking kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus. They experienced God's rule in their discipleship to Jesus and under the influence of the Spirit working through him. But his death and then his ascension posed the problem of how they would continue to experience the powers of the new age shaping their existence. John 14-16 presents the Spirit as their new Paraclete, whose role is to 'bring them the presence of the Father and of the glorified Son (14:23)'.18 In similar vein, Acts indicates that the answer to their needs was the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost, viewed as the Spirit promised by Joel (Acts 2:1 7-39).

Peter's sermon in Acts 2 is clearly foundational for understanding Luke's theology of the Spirit. The tongues phenomenon in this unique context was a matter of ‘declaring the wonders of God' in various forms of foreign but intelligible speech (2:6-11). This was not the sort of glossolalia evidenced in 1 Corinthians 14, nor was it strictly a form of evangelism, but an outburst of ecstatic praise.19 Peter interprets this as the fulfilment

of what Joel says regarding prophecy. Joel 2:28-32 (LXX 3:1-5) predicted that the Spirit of prophecy given to particular men and women in Old Testament times, to enable them to discern God's will and wisdom and convey it to others, would be experienced by all flesh in the last days. The words 'and they shall prophesy', which are found twice in Acts 2:17-18, make it quite clear that this will be the essential characteristic of the outpouring of the Spirit in the End-time. However, it is important to investigate more carefully what is meant by this promise of the Spirit.

'The Spirit of prophecy' is not simply to be identified with preaching or with predictive prophecy, since (following Lindblom) the Spirit of prophecy in Israel was more fundamentally the organ of communication between God and his people. A whole range of charismata derived from the Spirit of prophecy, including dreams, visions, tongues, and words that formed the basis of prophetic utterance and preaching. All of

these things belong to the category of what Turner calls 'prophetism'. In short, Joel's emphasis on seeing visions and dreaming dreams, was a way of predicting what Jeremiah 31:31-4 anticipated: in the End-time God would enable all his people ('from the least of them to the greatest') to know him as Moses and the prophets knew him. There would be a 'democratisation' of access to God, making it possible for all to call on the Lord for salvation and to enjoy his deliverance (cf. Joel 2:32).

Peter challenged his listeners on the Day of Pentecost to experience the fulfilment of Joel's prophecy by recognizing the Jesus whom they crucified as 'both Lord and Christ' (Acts 2:36). They could save themselves from that 'corrupt generation' by repenting and being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (vv. 38-40). Only in this way could they receive the promised forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Prophesying, in its various manifestations, would then be the means of giving expression to that new knowledge of God made possible through the Spirit.

It was exactly this promise of the Spirit which the Judaism of Jesus' day most widely expected to be fulfilled at the eschaton. What would have been really surprising was Peter's assertion that the glorified Jesus was the source of this gift (Acts 2:33). Luke's perspective in the rest of Acts is that Jesus continues to exercise his lordship in and through the disciples 'through the Spirit of prophecy acting as the organ of communication between the Father and Jesus in the heavenlies, and the disciples on earth'.20 This last statement is somewhat speculative in its claim that the Spirit is the organ of communication between the Father and Jesus in the heavenlies. But it is certainly true that Acts presents the risen Lord communicating with his disciples in various ways which fulfil the prophecy of Joel. There are crucial theological visions (e.g., 10:10-16) or visions related to the progress of the gospel (e.g., 16:9-10; 18:9-11), directions in words without vision (e.g., 10:19; 13:2), and obvious manifestations of Spirit-given wisdom and discernment (e.g., 5:3; 6:9-10).

Turner argues that this last phenomenon is closely associated with, and can result in power in preaching, as especially in the case of Stephen. But preaching is 'merely one aspect of the activity of the Spirit as the christocentric Spirit of prophecy.'21 We shall return to this key issue in a moment.

In Acts 2:38-9, the gift of the Spirit is promised to all whom the Lord calls to himself, who respond to the preaching of the gospel by repenting and being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. The purpose of such baptism is to receive the New Covenant promise of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is as if the two elements of Jeremiah 31:34 are being offered together here: a definitive forgiveness of sins and a profound transformation of Israel's relationship with God, expressed in terms of the gift of his Spirit (cf. Ezek. 36:26-7). Peter indicates that a new knowledge and experience of God is to be mediated by the Spirit, whose powerful presence was illustrated in the lives of the disciples, 'declaring the wonders of God' in other languages (2:11) and in Peter's proclamation of the gospel.

The advent of the Spirit of prophecy does not create a special class of spiritually gifted or empowered Christians over against others:

    • Rather, it brings to each the means of receiving not only 'communion with the Lord' viewed generally, but also the same concretely specified in charismata of heavenly wisdom and knowledge. These may inform the teacher, guide the missionary, lead in individual decisions, give diagnosis to the pastor, 'irresistible wisdom' and power to the preacher, or be related as prophecy to the congregation or other individuals. The 'power' received by the apostles (cf. Acts 1:8) was not something in addition to Joel's promised gift, but precisely an intense experience of some of the charismata which are part and parcel of the operation of the Spirit as Joel's promised Spirit of prophecy.22
    • The particular displays of charismata at Pentecost (2:1-12) and when the Spirit was received by the Samaritans (8:14-1 7) and the Gentiles (10:44-8) were 'appropriate divine attestations of the beginning of the whole post-ascension Christian work of the Spirit'.23 The rest of Acts does not indicate that the reception of the Spirit was universally attested by such immediate manifestations of charismata. These events were critical moments in the unfolding of God's saving purposes, as predicted and outlined in Acts 1:8. They are not to be taken as paradigms for individual experience.


The relationship between prophecy and preaching was briefly touched upon in the consideration of Turner's arguments. However, it is necessary to explore this issue more fully because it continues to be hotly debated.

The apostles as foundational prophets.

Ernest Best notes that prophesying in the Old Testament related to past, present and future: 'the prophet takes up the old revelation and applies it to the present situation; he gives under God something new; and by the incompleteness of his own revelation he implies that God has yet further "words" to speak.'24 However, since the redemptive action of God to which the Old Testament prophets pointed has now taken place in Jesus Christ, 'we do not require further or supplementary revelations.' The New Testament preacher can only be described as a prophet in an attenuated sense. The preacher 'will not expect the Spirit to lead him to utter new truths, nor can he bear witness to the incompleteness of the truth as already revealed; the Spirit can only lead him to the truth which is Jesus Christ; but he may still take up the Word of Scripture and apply it to his own day, finding perhaps new depths in it, but never anything uniquely new.'25

Best rightly points to the special prophetic status of the New Testament writers and compares them with the canonical or writing prophets of the Old Testament. New Testament prophets such as Agabus stand more in the tradition of non-canonical prophets, but are never regarded as being false prophets, in opposition to apostolic religion. He rightly opposes a simplistic identification of the prophet and the teacher but does not explain as adequately as Max Turner how the two roles or functions might be shared by the one person.

Wayne Grudem has similarly argued that the apostles truly inherit the mantle of the Old Testament canonical prophets, since they claim absolute divine authority for their words and call upon believers to acknowledge that authority (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:37-8; Gal. 1:11-12;cf.2 Pet 3:2,16).26 By contrast, the prophetic ministry given to certain members of the Corinthian church required assessment and evaluation, which implied the possibility of challenging and even rejecting such contributions (1 Cor. 14:29; cf. 1 Thes. 5:21 -2). This suggests that their prophecy did not carry the weight of being actual 'words from the Lord' in the Old Testament prophetic sense, yet it was distinguishable from other human words in that it was the result of a revelation (apokalypsis, cf. 1 Cor. 14:30), a prompting of the Spirit of God.27 The apostles functioned as foundational prophets, transmitting the revelation which was applicable to all the churches, providing the touchstone for assessing all other ministries, and subsequently forming the basis of New Testament Scripture. The revelation given to the Corinthian prophets was of a different character.

Although the Book of Acts indicates that all God's people 'prophesy' in some sense, it gives special prominence to the role of the apostles in propagating the gospel and establishing the way in which the Old Testament has been fulfilled in Christ. The apostolic sermons in Acts appear as models to guide and inspire the ministries of others, much as the apostolic letters do elsewhere in the New Testament canon. As in 1 Corinthians, there are also those in Acts who are especially designated as prophets. These are generally less important than the apostles in the scheme of things, even though they appear to receive revelations from God.

Prophetic preaching.

Scholars such as David Hill and Earle Ellis have argued that inspired preaching or teaching is actually (wholly or in part) what the New Testament means by prophecy.28 However, since early Christian writers regularly distinguished the charismata of teaching and prophecy (e.g., Acts 13:1; Rom. 12:6-7; 1 Cor. 1 2:28-9; Eph. 4:11), others have insisted that the old and widespread difference between these functions in Judaism and in the Greco-Roman world was being maintained in the New Testament.

Max Turner defines preaching as 'public announcement and explanation of religious ideas or principles, accompanied with exhortation to acceptance and compliance', distinguishing this from purely oracular speech, which he defines as 'specific verbal messages believed to originate with God and simply to be "communicated" through an inspired human intermediary'.29 The Spirit is certainly viewed as the power behind the apostolic preaching in Acts, but authoritative preaching is the effect of a number of separate activities of the Spirit.

Direct revelation may be granted to a speaker to inform his preaching (e.g. Peter's vision as the basis for his preaching in 10:10-43). The Spirit may give 'charismatic wisdom' to a speaker (e.g. Stephen in 6:3, 5, 10, fulfilling Jesus' prophecy in Luke 21:15): the wisdom given to Stephen clearly informs his interpretation of the Scripture in 7:1-53. 'Charismatic assurance and boldness' may be given by the Spirit for a specific occasion (e.g. 4:8-12, 31). The Spirit may also impart some other charisma to a speaker while he is engaged in giving his witness, heightening the effect of that preaching (e.g. the vision granted to Stephen at the climax of his address in 7:55-6 or Paul's discernment and prophetic judgment of Elymas in 13:9-1 2).30

Without confusing preaching and prophecy in the strict sense, it is clear from Acts that there can be a prophetic dimension to authoritative and effective Christian preaching. Turner's work has shown that, in this emphasis on the Spirit as 'the (direct) power of charismatic expository address', Luke differs significantly from Jewish literature of the time. His understanding appears to have been much more influenced by Christian teaching and experience.


Prophecy in the strict sense is not all that common in the record of Acts and, even when prophets are identified, they do not necessarily engage in oracular speech (e.g. 15:30-2). The apostolic sermons, with their interpretation of Scripture and insights into the person and work of Jesus, are of greater significance in the plan and purpose of Acts than most of the communications specifically designated as prophecy. Luke constantly points to the effect of preaching, empowered by the Spirit of God, to turn even the most hardened to Christ. Such preaching is at the heart of God's redemptive purpose for the nations. The ministry of people like Agabus or the daughters of Philip is given much less prominence.

It is not correct to say that the Spirit of prophecy was given solely or even primarily to direct and empower preaching. The use of Joel's prophecy in Peter's Pentecost sermon suggests that, in a sense, all are 'prophets' under the New Covenant. Through the Spirit, all who believe and turn to Christ can know the Lord and his will, and can communicate that knowledge by means of various charismata. The effect of the Spirit's presence in the early churches and in their witness to unbelievers is identified in various ways by Luke.

But the overall focus and emphasis of Acts is on how the apostolic message - which is regularly called 'the word of God' - continued to increase and spread (e.g., 6:7; 12:24; 13:48-9; 15:35), as it was preached and received in the power of the Holy Spirit. The message about Jesus is given the same status as the prophetic Scriptures upon which it is based. Here is the essential revelation of God for 'the last days'. The triumphant conclusion to the book of Acts is the statement that Paul boldly and without hindrance 'preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ' (28:31). The Word of God is not fettered! One of Luke's aims was surely to point to the ongoing need for such Spirit-empowered preaching.

If wisdom, insight and power in evangelistic and pastoral preaching are allowed to come under the general title of 'prophetism' (prophecy and related phenomena),the import of Joel's prophecy for that vital aspect of the early church's ministry becomes clear for us today. My reaction after studying this theme in Acts is to pray fervently for such an endowment of the Spirit in communicating the gospel and preaching its implications to our generation!

The Revd Dr David Peterson is principal of Oak Hill Theological College, London. He was previously head of the department of ministry at Moore Theological College, Sydney, NSW, Australia, lecturing in New Testament, Christian worship and pastoral studies.


1 This is a revised edition of 'Acts and the Spirit of Prophecy' which appeared in B.G. Webb (ed.), Explorations 5, Spirit of the Living God, part 1 (Sydney: Lancer, 1991), pp.95-115.

2 Cf. G.W.H. Lampe, 'The Holy Spirit in the Writings of St Luke' in Studies in the Gospels, (ed.) D.E. Nineham (Oxford, 1955), p.159. Lampe overstates the case when he says it is 'the connecting thread which runs through both parts of St Luke's work'.

3 The verb proph?teuein is only ever used in Acts with reference to Christian prophesying (2:1 7,1 8; 1 9:6; 21:9). The noun proph?t?s is used of Old Testament and New Testament figures alike.

4 In Acts 3:22; 7:37 Jesus himself is regarded as the prophet like Moses predicted in Deut. 18:15-16.

5 The very fact of the Spirit's presence and operation as the Spirit of prophecy is a sign of the dawning of the new age or messianic era. This note is sounded at the beginning of Luke's Gospel, when Zechariah is 'filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied' (Luke 1:67) or when Simeon and Anna recognize the significance of the baby Jesus and engage in praise and prophecy about him (2:25-38). Both John the Baptist and Jesus are presented as prophetic figures, announcing the nearness of the End-time. However, God's Spirit is not poured out on all his children until after Pentecost.

6 In 1 Cor. 14:37-8 Paul asserts a prophetic role and status similar to that of the writing prophets in the Old Testament. He claims to have written 'a command of the Lord' which gives instruction to those with prophetic gifts in the congregation about how to exercise their gifts and indicates that those who are true prophets will acknowledge this.

7 E.E. Ellis, 'The Role of the Christian Prophet in Acts', in W.W. Gasque and R.R. Martin, Apostolic History and the Gospel (Exeter: Paternoster, 1970), p.62. Ellis rightly emphasizes the role of the prophet in interpreting Scripture and providing encouragement (parakl?sis) to believers (cf. 1 Cor. 14:3).

8 These people can hardly have been Christians since they had not received the gift of the Holy Spirit when they believed. Their ignorance of the Holy Spirit (19:2) can only mean that, although they had heard John's prophecy about the coming baptism of the Spirit, they had not discovered that it had been fulfilled in Jesus. Paul's next question ('then what baptism did you receive?', v. 3) suggests that it was anomalous for baptized persons not to have received the Spirit. Cf. I.H. Marshall, Acts, TNTC (Leicester: IVR 1 980), pp.305-8 and J.D.G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (London: SCM, 1970), pp.83-9.

9 J.R.W. Stott, The Message or Acts: To the Ends of the Earth (Leicester: IVR 1990), pp.304-5. M.M.B. Turner ('Spiritual Gifts Then and Now', Vox Evangelica 15 [1985], p.11) suggests that 'prophesy' here probably does not have the sense 'to report a revelation (word, vision or dream) received', but 'to speak while under the external influence of the Spirit'.

10 The imperfect tense of the verb elegon (21:4) suggests that his friends were repeatedly urging Paul not to go to Jerusalem.

11 The reference in 20:22 is probably to Paul's decision to go to Jerusalem in 19:21 'in/by the Spirit'. Although the compulsion of his own spirit could be in view, the influence of the Holy Spirit on his spirit in this decision is surely implied. For a helpful discussion of Paul's attitude to the guidance of the Spirit in Acts 19-21 see Stott, Acts, pp.332-3.

12 D. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), p.338.

13 W. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1988), pp. 135-40.

14 Lampe, 'The Holy Spirit', p. 193. This is essentially also the position of E. Schweizer, TDNT 6 (1 968), pp.404-1 5. A helpful assessment of a variety of interpretations is given by M.M.B. Turner, Power from on High: The Spirit in Israel's Restoration and Witness in Luke-Acts, JPTS 9 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1996), pp.38-79.

15 Lampe, 'Holy Spirit', p. 187.

16 Cf. Dunn, Baptism, p.28. Turner, Power from on High, pp.48-53, notes various qualifications to Dunn's original position in subsequent writings but is still critical of his position.

17 For a critique of Dunn's central thesis that Jesus' experience of the Spirit is presented as archetypal for Christian experience after Pentecost, cf. M.M.B. Turner, 'Jesus and the Spirit in Lucan Perspective', Tyndale Bulletin 32 (1981), pp.3-42.

18 Turner, 'Spiritual Gifts', p.40.

19 Cf. D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), pp. 138-43. Carson (pp. 152-8) largely endorses Turner's interpretation of Acts 2. However, he rightly warns against jeopardizing the structure of New Testament eschatology by a failure to assert the difference which the coming of the Spirit made for the experience of believers.

20 Turner, 'Spiritual Gifts', p.40.

21 Turner, 'Spiritual Gifts', p.41.

22 Turner, 'Spiritual Gifts', p.51. Turner's wording here is better than his vaguely subjective description of what it means to experience the Spirit of prophecy on p. 41: 'the man who knows the presence of the Lord; who experiences Jesus speaking to him in his heart, and leading him; the man who on occasions in his life has felt the hand of the Lord upon him giving him (christocentric) wisdom or guidance or empowering to speak.'

23 Turner, 'Spiritual Gifts', p.52.

24 E. Best, 'Prophets and Preachers', SJT 12 (1959), p.136.

25 Best, 'Prophets and Preachers', pp. 136-7. He goes on to point out that the living Lord Jesus actually confronts people through authentic Christian preaching. However, whereas the faithful preacher may rightly be eliminated from the message, the prophet can never be so eliminated, since he himself is 'part of God's redemptive activity' (p. 138).

26 Cf. W.A. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (Lanham/New York/London: University Press of America, 1982), pp.43-54. Note the critique of Grudem's argument by D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit, pp.91-100, 160-5.

27 Grudem, The Gift or Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, pp.54-73. Grudem argues that the sort of revelation given to these 'prophets' only gives 'a kind of divine authority of general content'. M. Turner ('Spiritual Gifts', pp.15-1 6) sees rather 'a spectrum of authority of charisma' in the NT, 'extending from apostolic speech and prophecy (backed by apostolic commission) at one extreme, to vague and barely profitable attempts at oracular speech such as brought "prophecy" as a whole into question at Thessalonika (1 Thes. 5:19f.) at the other.'

28 D. Hill, 'Christian Prophets as Teachers or Instructors in the Church', in J. Panagopoulos (ed.). Prophetic Vocation in the New Testament and Today (Leiden:Brill, 1977), pp. 108-30; E.E. Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic (Tubingen, Mohr, 1978), part 2.

29 M.B. Turner, 'The Spirit of Prophecy and the Power of Authoritative Preaching in Luke-Acts: A Question of Origins', New Testament Studies 38, Cambridge (1992), 68. Cf. Aune, Prophecy, pp.339-46.

30 Turner, 'Authoritative Preaching', p.69. Turner goes on to talk of complementary manifestations of God's activity such as healings and exorcisms, which accompanied preaching and 'focused the supernatural "charismatic" intervention involved' (p. 70). But he too readily attributes the impact of Pentecost (2:41) and of the immediately following days (cf. 4:4) to such phenomena. Both the verses he cites refer in context to the impact of the preaching about Jesus (2:37-41; 4:1-4).


JPTS Journal of Pentecostal Theological Supplement

SJT Scottish Journal of Theology

TDNT Theological Dictionary of the New Testament

TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentar