Prophecy and Preaching in Acts

©David Peterson (2009)[1]


Much of the discussion that takes place about prophecy amongst Christians today is focussed on the writings of Paul, where 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. 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 in Luke’s theology. Acts 2 suggests that Joel is describing what it means to be Christian in terms of receiving ‘the Spirit of prophecy’.

There are seventeen references to the Spirit in the Third Gospel and about fifty in the Acts of the Apostles (more than in any other New Testament document), signalling the importance of this subject for Luke. Indeed, it may be argued that the theme of the operation of the Spirit of God is a major connecting thread between these two volumes.[2] While many of Luke’s references to the work of the Spirit are not controversial, considerable debate about the meaning and significance of some of his teaching continues to take place.

First and foremost, there is discussion about the nature and purpose of the Pentecostal gift in Acts. Why was the Spirit given to the earliest Christian communities in the way that Luke outlines? Does Acts present a view of the Spirit’s work differing significantly from that of other New Testament books? In the context of investigating this issue, this paper will focus on what is meant by prophecy in Acts and explore the implications for Christian life and witness today. I will be particularly interested to explore the relationship between prophecy and preaching in Luke’s presentation.

The nature of prophecy in Acts

The prophetic Scriptures and the apostolic preaching

The word ‘prophecy’ (προφητεία) does not occur in the Acts of the Apostles, though ‘prophet’ (προφῆτης) appears thirty times and the verb ‘prophesy’ (προφητεύω) four times).[3] By far the most common use of προφῆτης is with reference to prophetic figures in the Old Testament such as Joel (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). 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 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., 17:2-3; 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., 1:20-22; 4:25-30; 13:47; 15:15-18).[5] Since the Holy Spirit was believed to have spoken in a unique and distinctive way through Moses and the prophets (1:16; 4:25; 28:25), the earliest Christian preachers expected that those who were ‘sons of the prophets’ and heirs of the covenant (3:25) would recognise 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. Is 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. Lv 26:41; Dt 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 31.31-34 and the related prophecy of Ezekiel 36:26-27.

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 2:17). 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 (Acts 2:18). In other words, things will be revealed, which Israel’s sons and daughters will then make known as the word 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.

Joel’s prophecy also announces that this outpouring of the Spirit is an immediate prelude to the consummation of history:[6]

I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Joel 2:30-32a, as cited in Acts 2:19-21)

Specific indications of prophetic ministry

Searching through Acts for signs of the Spirit’s presence in the earliest communities, one is 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 11:27-28. 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. Perhaps the prophetic ministry of Agabus also included a specific exhortation to respond to his prediction in this way.

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 supplied 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.[7] It seems likely from the context that, while they were ‘ministering to the Lord and fasting’, the Holy Spirit spoke through one or more of the prophets saying, ‘Release for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (13:2). The fasting and praying that 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 (καὶ αὐτοὶ προφῆται ͗όντες), exhorted (παρεκάλεσαν) the brothers with many words and strengthened them’ (15:32). This expression appears to emphasise that their ministry on this occasion was distinctly prophetic, but not in the sense of giving new revelation. As they explained the ruling that 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 other believers. 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.’[8] The parallel in our churches today is that biblical preaching, in one way or another, explains and urges a positive response to apostolic writings.

Believers more generally are said to have engaged in prophesying in Acts 19:6. 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 and they were baptised ‘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’.[9] The language here suggests that their 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. 11:15-17). Stott suggests that ‘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.’[10]

Acts 21 contains several references to prophesying. First, the disciples at Tyre were urging Paul ‘through the Spirit’ not to go on to Jerusalem (21:4).[11] But Paul had already been warned ‘in every city’ by the Holy Spirit that prison and hardships were facing him (20:23). Perhaps such warnings came through the prophetic ministry of other believers. Even though the urging in 21:4 is not called prophecy, there seems 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’ (δεδεηένος ἐγὼ τῷ πνεύματι, 20:22), would not be deflected from reaching his goal (cf. 20:24).[12] The four unmarried daughters of Philip the evangelist are then described as those who regularly engaged in prophesying (προφητεὐουσαι, 21:9), though no details are given about what they said and did. Note that Paul gives guidelines about women praying and prophesying in Christian gatherings in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16.

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 prediction and speaks 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 (21:12-14). He is not rejecting a command of the Spirit. Like Jesus before him, he sets his face steadfastly to fulfil his God-given ministry, despite clear predictions of suffering and arrest.

In short then, explicit Christian prophecy in Acts is rarely mentioned. It involves prediction of future events, direction from God about the way in which the ministry of the gospel should proceed, interpretation of an apostolic letter and its significance, and exhortation or praise based on such insights.

Aune suggests that ‘the distinctive feature of prophetic speech was not so much its content or form, but its (direct) supernatural origin.’[13] But the prophetic ministry of Judas and Silas in Acts 15 does not easily fit into that framework. Luke certainly restricts the term or title ‘prophet’ to a select few, though prophetic-type activity is sometimes evidenced more widely in the early Christian communities. Thus, even though Ananias is not designated as a prophet, he receives a prophetic revelation concerning Paul and his future (9:10-16). Again, Peter displays the marks of a prophet, in his knowledge of people’s hearts (5:3; 8:20-23; cf. Lk 7:39), and in his experience of revelations in visions and dreams (10:10). Paul similarly receives prophetic-type communications from the Lord (16:9: 18:9; 22:17-21; 27:23-24) and combines the roles of apostle, teacher and prophet.

Having said this much, however, the question still remains as to how Luke envisaged Joel 2:28-32 being fulfilled for ‘all flesh’. Why is there not more widespread evidence of prophetic activity in Acts? In what sense is Joel’s prophecy descriptive of the experience of Christians in general?

The fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy

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 Lampe. Luke indicates that although the Spirit was fully present in Jesus from his conception (Lk 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 (Lk 3:21-22; 4:18-21; Acts 10:38). The disciples received a similar endowment from the risen Lord to enable them to continue his work. The Holy Spirit is clearly promised in Acts 1:8 to enable the disciples to fulfil the prophetic role of the Servant of the Lord, bringing unrepentant Israel back to God and taking the word of salvation ‘to the ends of the earth’ (cf. Is 49:6). ‘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 symbolised 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:[15]

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.

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 2:38-39 certainly links the promise of the Spirit with conversion and initiation:

Repent and be baptised, 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 (2:41-47), creating that unique fellowship of prayer, praise and generosity, which was based on their devotion to the apostolic teaching. 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).

Again, the view that the Spirit was given to gift people in a particular way (tongues, prophecy or preaching) 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’: but did all the early Christians receive the Spirit of prophecy in the same way and engage in missionary activity?

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 Dunn. He argues that Jesus was not merely empowered for service at Jordan: his baptism in the Spirit initiated the Endtime and initiated Jesus into it. As Jesus himself entered into the new age, he was also equipped for life and service in that age:

The descent of the Spirit on Jesus effects not so much a change in Jesus, his person or his status, as the beginning of a new stage in salvation-history. The thought is not so much of Jesus becoming what he was not before, but of Jesus entering where he was not before—a new epoch in God’s plan of redemption—and thus, by virtue of his unique personality, assuming a role which was not his before because it could not be his by reason of the καιρός [time] being yet unfulfilled.[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 all 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. Thus, he proposes that the disciples of Jesus attained authentic faith only at Pentecost.[17] But this is hardly consistent with the picture of their response to Jesus at the end of the Third Gospel, where we are told that they ‘worshipped him’ (προσκυνήσατες αὐτόν, Lk 24:52). Luke appears to have reserved this description of their response to Jesus for the climactic moment of the Ascension, to indicate that this was at last the real recognition of his identity by the disciples.[18] Moreover, at the beginning of Acts, before Pentecost, the disciples acknowledge the divinity of the risen Jesus by praying to him as Lord (Acts 1:24-25).[19] Dunn makes a distinction between the experience of the disciples before and after Pentecost that is too abrupt and artificial.

When Peter compares the experience of Cornelius and his household with that of the disciples in the upper room, saying ‘God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 11:17, NRSV), Dunn argues that ‘so far as Peter was concerned, their belief in him and commitment to him as Lord and Christ did not begin until Pentecost.’[20] The participle in the expression ἡμῖν πιστεύσασιν need not be understood in a strictly temporal sense but may be taken circumstantially, meaning ‘to us having believed’ (NIV, ‘to us who believed’). It is also possible that the participle could be taken with the pronoun αὐτοῖς (‘them’), giving the sense, ‘God gave to them when they believed in the Lord Jesus Christ the same gift as he gave to us’.[21] At all events, this verse must be read in the light of Luke’s presentation of the developing faith of the disciples. It would be foolish to minimise the significance of Pentecost for the disciples and to suggest that there is little or no difference in the situation of believers before and after that event However, Dunn plays 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 (e.g., the forgiveness of sins through Jesus, the certainty of having their names ‘written in heaven’, a growing awareness of the significance of Jesus and of their own identity as the community of the Messiah).

Dunn further distorts the evidence when he argues that the Samaritans did not receive the Spirit at their baptism because their faith was imperfect, and that Peter and John were sent from Jerusalem to Samaria ‘to remedy a situation which had gone seriously wrong somewhere’. This ignores the claim of the text that they went because they heard that ‘Samaria had accepted the word of God’ (Acts 8:14). It was only when they arrived that they saw the need to pray for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit. The ‘delay’ in the giving of the Spirit in this case must be attributed to God’s sovereign will and purpose and be related to the outworking of Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:8. The gift of the Spirit in this particular situation was withheld by God apparently to ‘draw the connection between Samaritans and the Jerusalem church through the apostles, Peter and John’.[22] Given the division and animosity between these two communities that had existed over many centuries this act of God was surely designed to secure mutual acceptance and unity where racial and religious prejudice might have naturally hindered true fellowship in Christ. This certainly appears to be the motif in Peter’s report of the testimony of the Spirit to the conversion of the Gentiles to the Jerusalem church in Acts 11:15-18.

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

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 recognised, enjoyed and preached the in-breaking 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).[23] 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 2:17-39).

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.[24] Peter interprets this as a fulfilment of what Joel says regarding prophecy (Acts 2:14-21). Joel 2:28-32 predicted that the Spirit of prophecy given to particular men and women in Old Testament times, to enable them to bring God’s will and wisdom to the people, 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 Endtime. However, it is important to investigate more carefully what is meant by this promise of the Spirit.

Prophesying is not simply to be identified with preaching or with prediction, since 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’. At one level, Joel’s emphasis on seeing visions and dreaming dreams, was a way of pointing to the fulfilment of what Jeremiah 31:31-4 anticipated. The time was coming when 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, cited in Acts 2:21). So the Spirit has a soteriological role (10:44-47; 11:15-17).

At another level, the Spirit would enable believers to understand the significance of what God was doing in their lives and to make it plain to others. Seeing visions and dreaming dreams refers to the reception of that new knowledge of God and prophesying refers to the communication of what is received. So the Spirit has a role in edifying the church (9:31), and making evangelism possible by ordinary believers (8:4-8; 11:19-21).

Peter challenged his listeners on the day of Pentecost to experience the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy by believing the gospel and recognising 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 baptised 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 that the Judaism of Jesus’ day most widely expected to be fulfilled ‘in the last days’. 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.’[25] 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 that fulfil the prophecy of Joel. There are crucial theological visions (10:10-16), or visions related to the progress of the gospel (16:9-10; 18:9-11), directions in words without vision (8:29; 10:19; 13:2), and obvious manifestations of Spirit-given wisdom and discernment (5:3; 6:10).

Turner argues that this last phenomenon is closely associated with, and can result in power in preaching, as especially manifested in the case of Stephen (7:55-56). Obviously the sermons in Acts are a major source of the book’s theology. Power in preaching is a major emphasis in Acts, but is not to be confused with the essence of the Pentecost gift. According to Turner it is ‘merely one aspect of the activity of the Spirit as the christocentric Spirit of prophecy’.[26]

Turner’s link between Joel’s prophecy and Jeremiah 31:31-34 is helpful as a background for the interpretation of Acts 2:38-39. The gift of the Spirit is promised to all whom the Lord our God will call to himself, who respond to the preaching of the gospel by repenting and being baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. The purpose of such baptism is to receive the New Covenant promise of the forgiveness of sins (v. 38, εἰς ͗άφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν) and the gift of the Holy Spirit (καὶ λήμψεσθε τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος). This passage illustrates the normal expectation of the apostles for those who responded appropriately to the preaching of the gospel. It is as if the two elements of Jeremiah 31:34 are being offered together: 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. Ezk 36:26-7). Peter indicates that this new knowledge of God is to be mediated by the Spirit, whose powerful presence was illustrated on the Day of Pentecost in the disciples’ ‘declaring the wonders of God’ in other languages (2:11) and in Peter’s proclamation of the gospel.[27]

Contrary to some Pentecostal and charismatic teaching, the advent of the Spirit of prophecy in Acts 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.[28]

The particular displays of charismata at Pentecost, and when the Spirit was received by the Samaritans (Acts 8) and the Gentiles (Acts 10), were ‘appropriate divine attestations of the beginning of the whole post-ascension Christian work of the Spirit.’[29] Apart from 19:6, 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, when new people-groups were reached with the gospel. They are not to be taken as paradigms for individual experience. Yet the prophesying anticipated by Joel was meant to be experienced and shared by all believers in some measure. For that reason, we are bound to discern this phenomenon in a variety of ministries not specifically described in Acts as prophesying. We are also bound to reflect on ways in which prophesying continues to be manifested in the life of the church throughout the ages.

Teaching and prophesying in the church today

The relationship between prophecy and preaching was briefly touched upon in the consideration of Turner’s arguments. However, it is important to explore this issue more fully because it continues to be hotly debated. 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.[30]

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.[31]

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. This is signalled in various ways elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, Paul insists on the foundational and abiding authority of the message he received from the Lord (Gal 1:6-16), his distinctive role in explaining and making known ‘the mystery of Christ’ (Eph 3:1-9), and his status as one who can write ‘a command of the Lord’ (1 Cor 14:37). Prophets such as Agabus stand more in the tradition of non-canonical prophets in the Old Testament, but are never regarded as being false prophets, in opposition to apostolic teaching. Best 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.

Grudem has similarly argued that the apostles and other New Testament writers 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.[32] 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 Thess 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 (ἀποκαλύψις, cf. 1 Cor 14:30), a prompting of the Spirit of God.[33] The apostles functioned as foundational prophets, transmitting the revelation that 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.

The argument that inspired preaching, exegesis or teaching are actually (wholly or in part) what the New Testament means by prophecy has been asserted by writers such as David Hill and Earle Ellis.[34] However, since early Christian writers regularly distinguished the charismata of teaching and prophecy (e.g., Acts 13:1; Rom 12:6-7; 1 Cor 12:28-9; Eph 4:11), it seems likely that the old and widespread difference between these functions in Judaism and in the Greco-Roman world was being maintained. In Acts, prophesying is a ministry shared by all believers in different ways, though it is particularly manifested in those designated as prophets, either in prediction or in encouragement. Teaching was clearly an apostolic function in the first place (2:42), though it was soon carried out by others (11:26; 13:1; 15:1; 18:25), both formally and informally. Prophecy and teaching appear to overlap in the ministry of preaching.

Prophetic preaching

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.’[35] The Spirit is 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.

The sequence of events in Acts 2 suggests that Peter is acting as a prophet when he proclaims the gospel so powerfully. He has unexpected insight into the Scriptures for an ‘unschooled’ Jewish man (cf. 4:13), though there is no indication of a direct or immediate revelation from the Lord. His preaching, like the speaking in other languages, is a bold proclamation of God’s deeds, made possible by the coming of the Holy Spirit (2:11; cf. 4:33). It doubtless also reflects the post-resurrection teaching of Jesus (Lk 24:44-49; Acts 1:1-8) and the deeper understanding of God’s will revealed to Peter then.

Like this one, the sermons recorded later in Acts involve teaching, but they are prophetic in the sense that they convey profound Scriptural insights, exhort the listeners with God-given discernment and authority, and bring about remarkable conversions. Luke constantly points to the power of the apostolic preaching to turn even hardened opponents to Christ. Such preaching is at the heart of God’s redemptive purpose for the nations.[36] Acts 20:18-35 is the only model of pastoral preaching offered by Luke (though see 14:22). This too has a remarkable impact on those who hear it (vv. 36-38).

Acts is really the story of how ‘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. It is ‘the word of the Lord’, the revelation of God for ‘the last days’, which any believer can take and share (8:4; 11:19-21). The triumphant conclusion to the story of Paul’s trials is the statement that ‘boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ’ (28:31). The word of God is not fettered, by persecution or imprisonment! One of Luke’s aims was surely to point to the ongoing need for such teaching and preaching, by those empowered by the same Spirit of God.

If wisdom, insight and power in evangelising 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 Christian ministry becomes clear. ‘Revelation’ may be communicated to the church, not in the sense of a totally new message, but as a deeper understanding of God’s character and purpose (cf. Eph 1:17 [ἀποκαλύψεως]; Phil 3:15 [ἀποκαλύψει]).[37] The Spirit gives wisdom for debates with unbelievers (cf. Stephen in 6:3, 5, 10, fulfilling Lk 21:15), and the interpretation and application of Scripture in preaching (7:1-53). Assurance and boldness may be given by the Spirit for specific occasions, together with the discernment necessary to proclaim a relevant message (e.g. 4:8-12, 31; 7:54-60).[38]

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 influenced by Christian teaching and his experience of the outworking of Joel’s prediction in the life and witness of the earliest churches.


‘The Spirit of prophecy’ that has been poured out on all who turn to the ascended Lord Jesus may be manifested in the following ways:

  1. Inspired praise – expressed in testimony to Christ and to ‘the wonders of God’, spoken or sung (good Christian songs must surely convey and encourage this in their wording);
  2. Convincing proclamation – applying the Scriptures to the person and work of Christ in ways that move people to repentance and faith and grow the church numerically;
  3. Discerning debate – arguing for the truth of the gospel with a wisdom given by the Spirit that opponents cannot resist;
  4. Strengthening exhortation – encouragement for believers that enables them to stand firm and persevere, thus maturing the church.

These ministries of the Spirit may operate in a range of contexts through believers with different gifts and opportunities. They may also combine in the ministry of what is commonly called preaching, providing a prophetic dimension to the teaching of the Scriptures and the proclamation of the gospel.

[1] An updated version of an article first published as ‘Acts and the Spirit of Prophecy’, in B. G. Webb (ed.), Explorations 5: The Spirit of the Living God (Part 1) (Homebush West: Lancer, 1991); revised and republished as Prophecy and Preaching: Acts and the Church Today, Orthos 16 (Buxton: Fellowship of Word and Spirit, 1997). See also D. G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Nottingham, Apollos, 2009), 60-65, on the Holy Spirit.

[2] Cf. G. W. H. Lampe, ‘The Holy Spirit in the Writings of St. Luke’, in D. E. Nineham (ed.), Studies in the Gospels (Oxford: Blackwell, 1955), 159.

[3] The verb προφητεύω, is only ever used in Acts with reference to Christian prophesying (2:17,18; 19:6: 21:9). The noun προφήτης 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 Dt 18:15-16.

[5] Cf. D. Bock, ‘Scripture and the Realisation of God’s Promises’ in I. H. Marshall & D. Peterson (ed.), Witness to the Gospel: the Theology of Acts (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998), 41-62.

[6] 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’ (Lk 1:67), or when Simeon and Anna recognise 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. However, God’s Spirit is not poured out on Jesus’ disciples until after Pentecost.

[7] In 1 Cor 14:37-38 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’ that gives instruction to those with prophetic gifts in the congregation. They must exercise their gifts in accordance with his apostolic and revelatory function. True prophets will recognise his authority in this regard.

[8] E. E. Ellis, ‘The Role of the Christian Prophet in Acts’, in W. W. Gasque & R. P. Martin (ed.), Apostolic History and the Gospel (Exeter: Paternoster, 1970), 62. Ellis rightly emphasises the role of the prophet in interpreting Scripture and providing encouragement (παρακλῆσις) to believers (cf. 1 Cor 14:3).

[9] These ‘disciples’ can hardly have been Christians already 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?’ in v. 3) suggests that it was anomalous for baptised persons not to have received the Spirit Cf. I. H. Marshall, Acts, TNTC (Leicester: IVP, 1980), 305-8 and J. D. G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (London: SCM, 1970), 83-89.

[10] J. R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: to the ends of the earth, the Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: IVP. 1990), 304-5. M. M. B. Turner (‘Spiritual Gifts Then and Now’, Vox Evangelica 15 [1985], 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’.

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

[12] 20:22 probably alludes to Paul’s decision to go to Jerusalem in 19:21, ‘in/by the Spirit’ (ἐν τῷ πνεύματι). Although the compulsion of his own spirit could be on 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, 332-33.

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

[14] Lampe, ‘Holy Spirit’, 193. This is essentially also the position of E. Schweizer, TDNT 6 (1968): 404-15. A helpful assessment of a variety of interpretations is given by M. M. B. Turner, ‘The Significance of Receiving the Spirit in Luke-Acts: A Survey of Modern Scholarship’, Trinity Journal 2 NS (1981), 131-58.

[15] Lampe, ‘Holy Spirit’, 187.

[16] Dunn, Baptism, 28. Cf. Dunn, 31-5, 41-2.

[17] Dunn, Baptism, 38-72. For a critique of Dunn’s central thesis that Jesus’ experience of the Spirit is presented as archetypal for Christian experience after Pentecost see M. M. B. Turner, ‘Jesus and the Spirit in Lucan Perspective’, Tyndale Bulletin 32 (1981).

[18] So argues J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible 28A (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985), 1590. It is interesting in this connection to note the development in the recognition of Jesus and his identity on the part of the disciples in the progress of Luke 24.

[19] Marshall, Acts, 6,) rightly points to the fact that the choosing of the apostles by Jesus is expressly mentioned in Acts 1:2, suggesting that he is the Lord addressed in 1:24, who must choose the replacement for Judas, just as he chose the Twelve in the first place (cf. Lk 6:12-13).

[20] Dunn, Baptism, 52.

[21] C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ICC Vol. I (Edinburgh: Clark. 1994), 542.  Barrett also considers that in grammar and sense the participle could properly be taken with both pronouns.

[22] D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit A Theological Exposition of I Corinthians 12-14 (Homebush West: Lancer, 1988), 145. See further his reflections on pp.146-50 and Marshall, Acts, 156-58.

[23] Turner, ‘Spiritual Gifts’, 40.

[24] Cf. Carson, Showing the Spirit, 138-43. Carson (152-58) largely endorses Turner’s interpretation of Acts 2. However, he rightly warns against jeopardising the structure of New Testament eschatology by a failure to assert the difference that the coming of the Spirit made for the experience of believers

[25] Turner, ‘Spiritual Gifts’, 40.

[26] Turner, ‘Spiritual Gifts’, 41

[27] It should be noted that there is normally a prevenient work of the Spirit through the testimony to Christ by believers, which brings unbelievers to the point of baptism or commitment. Then they receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit. However, 10:44-47 illustrates a different pattern, with the Spirit being given prior to any overt expression of repentance and faith in baptism.

[28] Turner, ‘Spiritual Gifts’, 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.’

[29] Turner, ‘Spiritual gifts’, 52.

[30] E. Best, ‘Prophets and Preachers’, Scottish Journal of Theology 12 (1959), 136.

[31] Best, ‘Prophets and Preachers’, 136-37. He goes on to point out that the living Lord Jesus actually confronts people through authentic Christian preaching.

[32] Cf. W. A. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in I Corinthians (Lanham/New York/London: University Press of America, 1982), 43-54. Note the critique of Grudem’s argument by Carson, Showing the Spirit, 91-l00, 160-65.

[33] Grudem, Prophecy, 54-73. Grudem argues that the sort of revelation given to these ‘prophets’ only gives ‘a kind of divine authority of general content’. Turner ‘Spiritual Gifts’, 15-16, 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 (I Thess 5:19f.) at the other.’

[34] 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), 108-130; E.E. Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic (Tübingen: Mohr, 1978), part 2.

[35] Turner, ‘The Spirit of Prophecy and the Power of Authoritative Preaching in Luke-Acts: A Question of Origins’, New Testament Studies 38 (1992), 68.  Cf. Aune, Prophecy, 339-46.

[36] Although 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 OT 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 NT. 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.

[37] Claims of direct supernatural revelation to individuals in our own time, comparable to that received by Ananias or Agabus, must obviously be tested in a given situation and the insights weighed against the teaching of Scripture. It is not legitimate to rule out the possibility that God might give people such revelations today. But preachers and teachers can pray for an outworking of Joel’s promises in their own ministry, without expecting God to speak to them directly or to give them predictive power.

[38] Turner, ‘Authoritative Preaching’, 69, notes that the Spirit also imparted other charismata to speakers in Acts while they were engaged in testifying to Jesus, heightening the effect of their 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 13:9-12)


3 thoughts on “Prophecy and Preaching in Acts

  1. Dear David,

    Thank you for this very helpful overview of the Prophecy and Preaching as found in Acts. The mantle of authority from OT prophets to NT apostolic authority resonates well with the evidence as presented by Best, Turner and Grudem. A lingering question remaining for me is more of a pratical nature in the light of the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in ‘the last day’s of the already/not yet we find ourselves. Is there there room in your summary above for visions and dreams as continuing means by which the Holy Spirit brings a ‘prophetic’ message results in inspired praise, conviction, clarity and edification to fellow believers? I would very much appreciate your thoughts and pastoral reflections on this.

    Finally, you were most encouraging to me some 18 years ago when I spent a day at Tyndale house doing some research on Homosexuality – pointing me to some fine work to be presented at a forthcoming Moore College School of Theology. I was a country hick from Western Australia, trying to put together a biblical response to the Perth Synod’ rather vague position. Thankfully, Peter Brain, who was then a Rector in Perth,subsequently penned a minority report which was pastorally sensitive and biblically faithful. Thank you for taking time to speak to me … Albeit very whisper like … in between the bookshelves of Tyndale’s library. It was and remains a highlight of my visit to Tyndale house.

    Warm regards,


    1. David,
      I am sorry it has taken so long for me to get back to you: I somehow missed seeing your comment until now. I believe that visions and dreams in Joel’s prophecy refer to the manner in which revelation is received and that prophesying refers to the manner in which revelation is conveyed. When we come to consider these activities under the New Covenant, we must remember that revelation for all God’s people comes through Christ and his apostles. What is written for all time in Scripture will normally be the inspiration for authentic prophetic ministry (note how Paul makes his teaching the touchstone for prophesying in the congregation at Corinth in 1 Cor. 14:37-38). God may give individuals new insight into the meaning and application of the revelation he has already given (Eph. 1:18; Phil. 3:15), but not new revelation that is applicable to all his people everywhere. Specific guidance is given to individuals or groups through dreams and visions in Acts 10; 16:6-10, though it is interesting to see how those visions were tested and approved in different ways in the associated narratives (see my commentary on this). God gave guidance about ministry strategy rather than revelation which was to form the basis for prophecy.


  2. Thank you so much David for still making the effort to respond. You have given me a perspective I had not given much consideration. And yes, I do believe there is no longer any Spirit inspired revelation with canonical authority … just not sure what to make of Grudem and Turner re. gift of prophecy.



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