Read the Word.
I remember those words from my dream when I awoke one morning over 10 years ago. A month or so prior to that dream, I had surrendered my life to God by trusting in the Messiah of Israel, Jesus (Hebrew, Yeshua), to save me from eternal punishment for my sins. But I knew no one who could disciple me in the faith, I had no real knowledge of Scripture, and yet I desperately wanted to know what God would have me do next.
I had been praying about it. God, what do I do now? I would ask. Naturally I assumed that the message, Read the Word, was a clear answer to my prayer. I wouldn’t dare to suggest that God was actually speaking in that dream. However, I do accept that, in one way or another, God used it to communicate precisely where I should turn for answers. It sounded like what I would’ve imagined God wanting, so I accepted it that way. I knew I needed to simply turn to the Bible for understanding God’s will. There was no brilliant imagery, no readily identifiable person, or anything else that I would try and brag about in the dream. But the result was that I made a personal goal that day. From cover to cover, I would spend my life seeking to understand what God has said in His Scriptures.
In our modern world where false teachers crawl out of the woodwork regularly, drawing attention to themselves by claiming to have “fresh prophecies” in various ways, my own experience raises questions. I look back and wonder, How could anyone trust what they hear in a dream? How would we know whether it was our imagination, God, an angel, a demon, or nothing one could make sense of? To expand the problem further, how do we know when we’ve heard God’s voice or message at all, regardless of the source of what we are attempting to discern? Whether it’s from other people, books, news outlets, magazines, movies, music, chance encounters, social media, the Internet, or any other medium, there’s an endless supply of sources to which people will turn seeking a signal from above. So I believe it is critical that all believers possess discernment in knowing when God has spoken. My hope here is to identify this confusion’s origin, determine some scriptural principles for discernment, and discuss their application.
How Did We Get Disconnected From God in the First Place?
How did we arrive at a place where we have to wonder if we’ve heard God? Knowing what God wants is the most ancient and debatable issue in human history. In fact, the first question in all of Scripture originated in Eden with Satan asking in Genesis 3:1, “Did God actually say . . . ?” Ever since the fall of humanity in Eden, from the child to the elderly, everywhere around the world people have been confused and led astray over how to listen for God and interpret His voice, as God does not commonly speak to people audibly. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that there are three reasons why it is so uncommon to hear from God audibly.
1. Because humankind is both judged and protected simultaneously by the distance God places between Himself and Adam’s offspring. That distance is a judgment because being in God’s presence is a privilege. However, at the same time God lovingly uses that judgment of distance to protect sinful humanity from the consuming wrath His holiness demands. Unmistakably, that distance placed between God and humanity is the main reason that God communicates to the world primarily through Scripture.
If we misunderstand God’s relationship with Israel and forget the Jewish roots of our faith, we’ll certainly misunderstand other aspects of our faith.
2. Because He entrusted that purpose to His Chosen People of Israel. If we misunderstand God’s relationship with Israel and forget the Jewish roots of our faith, we’ll certainly misunderstand other aspects of our faith. Indeed, today’s unhealthy influence of false teachers concerning the prophetic gifts (foretelling and forthtelling) would be more easily laid to rest if the church could decisively clarify theological misunderstandings pertaining to Israel. The Tanakh (Old Testament) teaches that God chose Israel to be His nation as a conduit of blessing for the world in various ways (Genesis 12:3). The New Testament affirms that one of those ways involves Israel blessing the world with the oracles of God (Romans 3:2, 9:4–5). Therefore, we should automatically be distrustful of Gentiles like Mormonism’s Joseph Smith and Islam’s Muhammad, as both claimed to receive special revelation for the world from angels of God.
Ultimately, everything we need to know about God has been delivered to us through the Jewish Scriptures (both Testaments) by the people He set apart to receive His oracles.
Is it any wonder that Paul (Hebrew, Sha’ul) warned of Satan casting himself as an angel of light in 2 Corinthians 11:14? Ultimately, everything we need to know about God has been delivered to us through the Jewish Scriptures (both Testaments) by the people He set apart to receive His oracles.
3. Because the canon is closed. The last chapter of Scripture, particularly Revelation 22:18–19, contains warnings about adding or taking away from His Book. This closed canon even tells the world, in advance, what to look for concerning the next occasion when humanity can expect true prophets to come forward. Unsurprisingly, the focus is Israel-centered, as those prophets are of Jacob’s seed, and they’ll come at a unique time of trial where God will place special emphasis on drawing the nation of Israel to repentance in the Messiah (cf. Deuteronomy 4:30; 32:35–43; Isaiah 26:16; Daniel 9:24–27; 12:1, 5–7; Jeremiah 30:2–3; Matthew 24:4–35). These prophets are delineated in the book of Revelation, possibly into two groups. They are the two witnesses of Revelation 11 and perhaps the 144,000 Israelite males of Revelation 7 and 14.
Unless you find yourself in the Tribulation, you can guard yourself from anyone claiming to have new prophecies for the world, especially those contradicting Scripture.
Many scholars agree that one of those two witnesses will be Elijah, just as Scripture predicts (cf. Malachi 4:5; Matthew 17:11). Indeed, unless you find yourself in the Tribulation (Daniel’s 70th week, the time of Jacob’s distress), you can guard yourself from anyone claiming to have new prophecies for the world, especially those contradicting Scripture. That spiritual gift will resume again when Israel sees the complete fulfillment of Joel 2:28–32 in the biblically predicted future. Presently, what we really need to know are some scriptural principles for discerning communications external to the biblical text.
Learning from Zechariah the Priest
How many of us are willing to admit that we’ve been too hard on Zechariah (Hebrew, Z’kharyah), the father of John the Baptist (Hebrew, Yochanan ben Zak’aryah), for doubting an angel’s message? Before examining his story, let’s remember that the Tanakh is replete with warnings about embracing false messages and failing to embrace true messages from God. One key passage, which actually foretells Jesus Himself coming as the prophet like Moses, is Deuteronomy 18:15–22. Moses declared, “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lᴏʀᴅ has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him” (v. 22; cf. Deuteronomy 13:1–5).
But, for anyone unfamiliar with Zechariah’s true story, I believe the events with this elderly couple in Luke 1:1–25 offer some foundational answers for discerning messages purported to be from God. There we find this Levitical priest and his wife, Elizabeth (Hebrew, Elisheva), in a situation of shame. Elizabeth, a descendant of Moses’ brother Aaron, was barren. Yet, uplifting news came when an Angel of the Lord (Gabriel, or Gavri’el) visited Zechariah, who was carrying out his priestly duties of burning incense at the Temple altar. Gabriel’s prophetic message was that the Lord had heard this Levite’s prayer and would open Elizabeth’s womb. He said that their son, John, would turn many in Israel back to God to prepare the Chosen People for the first appearance of the Messiah. Zechariah doubted the message and was punished by having his voice temporarily suspended for not trusting an angel. Why? Certainly, we have the benefit of hindsight. I do not want to arrogantly assume that I would’ve behaved any better than Zechariah. But I’m willing to suggest that a study of this account yields us three principles benefiting us today.
1. The Principle of Context
First, Zechariah was conducting God-ordained worship from the Torah (Exodus 30) in a God-ordained place (2 Chronicles 7:1, 12; Ezra 1:1–4; 5:1–2; 6:14), hardly the context for a deceiving spirit to deliver a false message. So our first principle involves asking, What is the context of any message that we’re supposing to be from God? In a broad sense, living in a dispensation where God’s Word is complete means we shouldn’t expect to see angels (cf. Hebrews 1:1–2, 2:1–4). Yet, in a narrow sense we can expect that God counsels us individually through the giving of His Holy Spirit (Hebrew, Ruach HaKodesh).
We shouldn’t presume to limit God’s ability to speak into our personal lives by way of Scripture, conscience, convictions, other believers, or even dreams. But we must establish that all true, born-again believers are privileged with hearing from God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the same ways.
All true, born-again believers are privileged with hearing from God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the same ways.
We’ve every right to be skeptical of those claiming to be above others in the community of believers regarding special access to prophetic revelation, especially in claiming to hear God audibly on a regular basis. Usually, people do this to draw attention to themselves for selfish gain, arrogantly putting themselves on par with the great biblical heroes uniquely chosen for the two-fold task of mediating God’s messages in their present-day circumstances while simultaneously composing the canon through the Spirit’s power (2 Timothy 3:16–17). This contextual principle demands a determination. What level of trust can we place in anything extra-biblical supposedly speaking for God in our era?
2. The Principle of Cross-Examination
Second, in Luke 1:13 Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son” (ESV); implying Gabriel’s privilege of knowing the secret thoughts (cf. Matthew 6:6) of this couple’s prayers which brought about the consequence of a favorable answer! Again, a demon would hardly be capable of knowing the inner thoughts of God’s people. So our second principle involves cross-examining the content of a perceived divine message alongside our relationship with God. Assuredly, we must have a legitimate relationship with God for this to be possible. Have you truly trusted in the freedom from sin that He purchased for you on the cross? The Lord Jesus cautioned in Matthew 7:22–23, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (NKJV).
However, given a true relationship with the Lord, Scripture also says, “Take delight in the Lᴏʀᴅ, and He will give you your heart’s desires” (Psalm 37:4, HCSB). That is not to say that God will let you have whatever your heart desires. Rather, it is to say that if we delight ourselves in Him (through Scripture reading, prayer, worship, and holy living) He will make our hearts to desire what He wants for us. Cross-examining any supposed divine message with our personal relationship to God means seeking to understand how its content coheres with our inner thoughts and prayers. Just as Zechariah and Elizabeth desired to have a son, God confirmed that He heard and answered their prayers. Even though times have changed, and although my aforementioned dream didn’t involve angels, I was able to cross-examine the dream’s content with my prayer life (my relationship to God); it answered something I had been praying about (His will).
3. The Principle of Scriptural Authority
Third, the angel’s announcements were such that Scripture could affirm. The angel indicated that John the Baptist’s pre-Messianic ministry was going to mirror Elijah’s later pre-Messianic ministry, quoting Malachi 4:5–6 (Malachi 3:23–24 in the Tanakh). Furthermore, as both an Israelite and a priest, Zechariah shouldn’t have doubted, given Scripture’s testimony of God’s work in the births of Isaac and Samuel (cf. Genesis 18:1–15; 21:1–7; 1 Samuel 1). It would’ve been better to trust the message and wait for confirmation through prophetic fulfillment, rather than doubt and suffer rebuke until its fulfillment.
Therefore, the third and most important principle emphasizes what this entire article has been asserting. We must ask ourselves: Does a particular extra-biblical message, purported to be from God, conform to or contradict the Word of God? We know God is speaking to us when what we’ve heard conforms with Scripture. Conversely, God will never lead us in a direction that contradicts His Scripture! We must continually “take every thought captive” and compare the messages of our consciences, convictions, believing friends, unbelieving friends, and even the content of our dreams with the Bible (2 Corinthians 10:5).
God will never lead us in a direction that contradicts His Scripture!
Indeed, we cannot know the Word made Flesh (Jesus the Messiah, John 1:1,14; Isaiah 55:11; John 10:4) apart from the written Word! The message I heard in my dream, elementary as it was, certainly conformed with the Word of God. As I began studying Scripture in its entirety over a decade ago, I started in Genesis and Matthew’s Gospel simultaneously. Almost immediately, I discovered Jesus quoting the Law (Torah) against Satan: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4, NKJV; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3).
There are many passages in Scripture I could share in relation to our topic. While Zechariah had ample data from the Tanakh instructing him in prophetic discernment, we have additional warnings in the New Testament (Matthew 7:15; Luke 16:27–31). I simply cannot be exhaustive. However, two passages are paramount for all of us moving forward as we seek to run the race well. First, concerning the Messiah Himself, 1 John 4:1–3 demands that we “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” Second, concerning the Messiah’s message, Paul warns in Galatians 1:8: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”
No matter where or how we think God may be speaking to us, if it contradicts Scripture, and in particular the message concerning Jesus the Messiah and His work in salvation, do not trust it! By the illumination of the Spirit of Christ we are to let the Word be a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105).