Spirit of Prophecy

In my daily Bible reading, I’m coming up on Ezekiel, and he’s making me nervous.

Always in the back of my mind is a series of books that I want to write some day, about how people understand mystical experiences, the supernatural, prophecy, etc. I have in mind at least three books: The first one would cover the Old Testament and be titled, “Saul among the prophets,” referring to the two times that King Saul got distracted from whatever errand he was on because he ran into a group of prophets, had some kind of ecstatic experience, and ended up in a daze and naked. The second book would be called, “You may all prophesy,” from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and it would cover what the New Testament church thought about these things. The third book would be about the early Christian era, and I would call it, “With a loud voice,” which is a quote from Ignatius of Antioch. Around 100 AD, he wrote a letter to the church at Philadelphia, where he asserted that what he said during a church service had been a prophecy, because he said it, “with a loud voice, with God’s own voice.” (What grand aspirations he has for a soldier, you say. It’s all right. I know of a newspaper man who once wrote a tome on Biblical authority.)

Anyway, because I have this in the back of my head, I’m always asking the question, “What exactly was this experience like?” When God said to Samuel, Look not to his appearance, what exactly did Samuel experience? Was it an audible voice, a thought inside his head? How did he know it was God and not his own idea? Was there some sort of sense of dread?

Ezekiel is especially hard to answer these questions. He has these dramatic experiences, where he is taken to some place, shown some awesome thing, and it’s not always entirely clear if what happened was in some sort of trance, or if he physically saw it with his eyes. Did he go afterwards and see char marks on the ground along the paths of the four living creatures?

But more close to home is that Ezekiel, being one of the most dramatic of the prophets, sets the standard for people who want to prophesy today. I am not a cessationist, and I think cessationists make their job too easy when they simply say the canon is closed. People have always had experiences. In former times, some of these were from God and some were nonsense. What help is it to say that now we are confident that all of them are nonsense? It’s a great help to those who want to be materialists and Christians also. But it’s kind of a Tolkien view of the world: In a former age, the world was flat and boundless, but in our current age, God has bounded it by curving it in upon itself. The way to the land of the Valar is now closed to mortals. They don’t seem to notice that, in Tolkien, the new rounded earth is a smaller, dimmer world.

But as I say, slamming the door closed on spiritual experiences is a kindness to folks who don’t have those experiences, and wonder if they should. But it’s a great harshness to people who continue to dream dreams and see visions. Those people are forced to resign the brighter half of their lives to the stuff of mental institutions and illegal pharmaceuticals. Yet they keep on seeing things.

As I said, Ezekiel in a lot of ways sets the standard for people who want to see visions. I mean, boy did he see them. But how much did he see them, and how much was it merely a divinely blessed imagination? I suspect the Hebrew word would have been the same.

It’s not an academic question for folks like me, with highly… enhanced… imaginations. If I’m meditating on a thing, and a picture comes into my mind, and boy what a humdinger, and with it comes a sense of dread and awe, how do I report it? How did Ezekiel report his experiences? “And saw a picture in my mind of four living creatures; whether they were real and imagined, I do not know. But as I contemplated these creatures, my heart rate was highly accelerated, and my hair stood on end.” Therefore: the word of the Lord. The ancient saints didn’t have the advantage of writing off Ezekiel’s visions simply because they were visions. (Unless they were Sadducees, but then the Sadducees were no saints.) There wasn’t any value in waiting to see if Ezekiel’s vision of the four creatures “came true.” There was no predictive element. Like all scripture, there was a certain component of his experience that must be self-authenticating.

And yet, charismatic though I am, I see in Ezekiel not only the authoritative word of God, but also the imaginative foundation of every two-bit quack and self-assured heretic in church history. Here is George Fox interrupting formal public meetings to ask why church houses are called churches. Here is William Blake writing vaguely seditious poetry, calling his acid-etched engravings visions of fire. Here is the hook for all the people Jude warned us about.

As the angel said to John, “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” As surely as there are antichrists, there are prophets who testify for them. Their visions must surely sound and feel quite a bit the same.

Here is scripture, both our model and our instructor. Let us handle and divide it carefully.

Baptisms and Re-baptising

Acts 19:1-5

And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.”

And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?”

So they said, “Into John’s baptism.”

Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.”

When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.

This passage came up in my Bible reading this morning, and I wanted to tease it out a little bit.  Paul comes upon some disciples, presumably Gentiles, and he notices that there’s something missing.  So he asks them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit.”  Presumably, this means that the thing that he noticed missing was some visible evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work.  Upon further inquiry, he discovers that they were baptized “into John’s baptism.”  I take that to mean that they were repenting of their sins and believing in an unnamed christ, with the anticipation that they would one day gain the further information of who that christ was.  Paul supplies the missing piece, that the christ in question was Jesus Christ.  All twelve of them accept this information readily, and are baptized again, into Jesus Christ.  At this point, the Holy Spirit supplies the missing part that Paul noticed – they speak in tongues and prophesy.

I’m gong to completely ignore the question of whether regeneration, baptism into Jesus, receiving the Holy Spirit, and supernatural gifting are inextricably interlocked.  We can say that they are closely associated, but that it’s possible to be a bit patchy on a few of those items, and move on from there.

What caught my attention this morning was the concept of rebaptism.  Baptists, of course, are known for rebaptism, especially for those who were baptized as infants.  But I’ve always been a little leery of it, because I felt that getting baptized again involved among other things a repudiation of your former baptism.  It’s not like a bath, and it’s not like communion.  In some ways it is like circumcision.  If you have to do it again, this must mean there was something not quite right about the first time, so that it didn’t take.

So, my parents, when I was about 12, heard a new teaching about what baptism accomplishes, and were persuaded to get baptized again.  My mom recommended it to me, but I felt that the dunking I got when I was 5 was quite sufficient.  This was in spite of the fact that, right around that time, I had a major turn in my walk that looked a lot more like true repentance than what happened when I was 5.  But, as Luther said, the whole Christian life should be one of repentance.  If repenting some more was the basis for rebaptism, we ought to get rebaptized every day.

But here we see some folks getting baptized all over again, and they don’t seem to be repudiating their former baptism.  You don’t reject John the Baptist when you accept Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of everything John preached. On the other hand, having met Jesus, you can’t stay with John.  Or rather, you could, but that wouldn’t make you a Christian, would it?

Rebaptism from John to Jesus doesn’t seem to be a requirement.  Paul was baptized into Jesus and I think never into John.  James, and John the apostles were disciples of John before they came to Jesus, and there’s no indication that they were baptized again, any more than there’s an indication that Jesus baptized John the Baptist.

So it looks like rebaptism is okay, but it’s a totally optional practice.  Probably it’s not even a guaranteed method of getting the gift of tongues.

I’m still not sure what to do with groups like the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, who apparently believe that it is acceptable to separate from other groups of Christians along the lines of Reformed doctrine, but perfectly reasonable to stay together across the issue of infant baptism.  They have churches that practice infant baptism, and churches that only baptize on profession of faith.  Usually those guys can be friends, but they can’t be the same denomination.  The Baptist church tells the guy who was baptized as a baby that his baptism was basically a meaningless event, every bit as invalid as an infant marriage, that he must say his vows and go under the waters again.  I think the Presbyterian church says basically that  the infant baptism is every bit as valid as an infant marriage – as long as you stayed with it, it must have took – and that it’s the remarriage as an adult that is kind of silly.

Paul here tells the Corinthians that the messiah is Jesus, and they are so excited that they go and get baptized all over again.  They come up spluttering and speaking in tongues.  And one thing is certain: after that the Corinthians definitely new how to speak in tongues.