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If I had a crystal ball and could see into the future and tell you anything from it, what would you like to know?
Pop out your phone and tell me on slido just now - I know, a church where you’re meant to look at your phone during the talk!
What’s not to like!
What would you like to know from the future?
Who’s going to win the Tory leadership contest?
Or the tennis or the golf?
Will the stock market go up or down?
Or how about something really important: Who’ll win Eurovision next year?
Will you get that grade ... that job ... that house ... that date?
… what would you like to know?.. live interaction
Who here wouldn’t like to know the future - at least something of it?
Now as Christians, we believe in a God who knows the future, a God who sometimes has shared some of that foreknowledge with us through what we call prophecy.
And today and we continue to follow the story of the very first churches nearly two thousand years ago, prophecy comes into the foreground.
One of the things I love about our practice of walking through the bible in order bit by bit is that means the bible sets the agenda for what we talk about Sunday by Sunday not the person standing at the front.
At least I like the idea of that - but sometimes it makes us talk about things we wouldn’t otherwise choose, things which are complex or difficult or divisive.
Prophecy is definitely one of those things I wouldn’t otherwise choose to talk about!
And I want you to know up front I’m going to take about 5 more minutes than usual this morning because there’s a lot to cover.
Let’s be frank: it’s a controversial topic - one where we’ll have a range of views as a church - and even if you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, there’s a whole range of views among your peers, too: some folk think this is ridiculous while others study horoscopes or have their fortunes read to try and get a glimpse.
We’re going to look together today at what the bible wants to teach us about prophecy.
Paul, a key leader in the early church, is on his way to Jerusalem.
So let’s hear the next chapter of our story.
We’re in the book of Acts and we’re at chapter 21.
So that’s page 1118 in these blue bibles - it’d be great to have you turn there and follow along as we dig in.
Acts chapter 21 and page 1118.
And Alex is going to read for us this morning.
Ok, two weeks back, with Ian teaching us, we saw Paul, the guy at the centre of the story here, say he is “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem - Acts 20:22-23 - yet in every city the Spirit warns him that trouble awaits him there:
Here we get to see one of those warnings up close and personal where we’ve just had summary statements so far.
But before we get into that I need to take a step back and talk about something that’s very precious to us as a church: keeping secondary issues secondary.
There are lots of things Christians, who accept the Bible as their authority, as their rule, have come to different views on - prophecy is one of them.
We call things “secondary issues” when people who really want to understand what the bible teaches have reached different conclusions on what exactly it is that the bible teaches.
We want to be a church where people with different views on secondary matters choose to practice generosity towards one another and so can come together around the things we agree are primary: around Jesus and the Gospel and God’s mission.
We want this because the bible itself teaches us to behave this way - and if you wanted to see that, Romans chapter 14 is where to look.
It tells us how to work together around what it calls “disputable matters” or secondary issues.
It tells us we’re not to quarrel about these things, not to treat others with contempt or to judge when there are different views.
We are to be fully convinced in our own minds of our own views, yet to act in love towards others with different ones.
That’s what we want to do - that’s who we want to be as a church.
Importantly, Romans 14 is a call to both sides to serve the other, to make space for them and their views rather than trampling on them.
This means if you’re here this morning and you’re thinking “prophecy yeah!” then you need to act out love to those at the other end of the spectrum.
And it means if you’re here thinking “prophecy noooo!” then you, too, need to act out love to those at the other end of the spectrum.
If that sounds easy in theory, in practice it’s tricky - and it’s something we’re still working out as a church.
But it’s where who we want to be, where we want to go.
So if you’re a follower of Jesus here today, whatever your view on prophecy know that you are welcome.
I’m going to be sharing some of my own views this morning but you don’t have to agree with me to be at the heart of HopeCity.
We hope we can all listen together to what the Bible has to say and see what we can learn no matter what our views.
And you’re going to need your thinking hats on today because this is not easy or straightforward.
[back to text]
So the Holy Spirit has been warning Paul in every city that trouble’s ahead.
We’re not told how that works - like some of the supernatural stuff we met a few chapters back, where the Spirit kept Paul and his team from going this way or that way on their journey.
The bible doesn’t tell us everything we want to know - and the truth is the bible just doesn’t tell us that much about prophecy or how it works in the church - part of why Christians have come to different conclusions.
It doesn’t seem like Paul is going looking for this guidance in each city, it reads like he can’t avoid it, like it naturally comes up as a part of his time with the believers in each place.
And perhaps that’s through prophecy - in one of the letters he writes to one of these churches, it sounds like prophecy is a normal part of church gatherings there, at least. 1 Cor 14:26
1 Corinthians 14:26 (NIV)
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters?
When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.
Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
… so this section is talking about when they gather as a church - and it goes on to say...
In that church, it sounds like there are lots of prophets and lots of prophecies flying around every week in a communal time together; that a prophesy can come to someone suddenly during a gathering so they might need to interrupt; and that their purpose is instruction and encouragement.
Not clear that’s every church even back then, or that it should be today.
But perhaps this is how Paul’s been repeatedly warned “by the Holy Spirit” on his journey towards Jerusalem - and in today’s reading, as Paul and his group travel, they stop in with another church.
In verse 4 it looks like the same thing happening again - only it’s a little different this time: Acts 21:4
Not just a warning about what’s ahead, but what appears to be a direction: don’t go.
We need to stop and think about this for a moment.
How could the Spirit be compelling Paul to go to Jerusalem - Acts 20:22 - and also urging him not to go just a bit later?
Maybe we only get a compressed summary and the full story is a divine warning of what’s ahead: trouble - then a very human urging as a result: don’t go.
That would be my human response!
Certainly that’s exactly the pattern we see later in this same passage.
That’s the explanation some commentators run with and the one I would lean towards.
But there’s another option we should consider: in that teaching we looked at about prophecy, notice with me there it said that prophecy should be “weighed” 1 Cor 14:29
we don’t get any detail on what that means or how to do that but it seems like New Testament prophecies are not just meant to be swallowed whole right away.
You read the same sort of direction in another of Paul’s letters to early churches: 1 Th 5:20-21
Why would you need to “weigh” or “test” prophecy?
Perhaps because it’s easy to get get it wrong, to only get a part of the message or only get a hazy sense rather than see clearly - that’s the suggestion in 1 Cor 13:9-12
When it speaks about a “reflection in a mirror,” the mirrors of 2000 years ago were not nearly as good as ours today and wouldn’t give you a precise, clear image; that’s the distinction it’s making between seeing face-to-face, seeing directly and clearly vs. seeing a hazy, distorted reflection.
That’s the other explanation people put forwards for what we read here: this “don’t go” is a prophecy that should be weighed and found wanting, a prophecy that doesn’t pass this test we’re talking about.
So, two different ways of understanding that - but then this guy Agabus shows up and he’s got his theatrical belt prophecy for Paul - there are precedents for this kind of acted-out prophecy in the Old Testament, by the way, but this is the only time we get a dramatised prophecy in the New Testament.
It doesn’t seem like it’s part of a regular church gathering - here it seems like Agabus has come specially with this message for Paul.
Now Agabus we’ve seen before, though only once and a long while back, so you might not remember it - he’s already foretold a famine which has then come to pass - Acts 11:28 - so he’s got track record, he’s got game.
When he tells you something’s coming, you’d better prepare.
And - if you’re into prophecy - this is a very significant moment because it’s one of the very few times in the new testament that we get to see the content, the actual words of a new testament prophecy to get a sense for what they might be like.
So let’s look at the detail of what he predicts.
It’s future-telling like almost all prophecy we know the content of in the New Testament.
It’s concrete and specific rather than mysterious and vague.
And notice also that he’s not tentative about it - there’s no: “I feel like maybe God is saying” here.
But on first inspection it doesn’t seem to quite match what actually happens.
Acts 21:11
The Jewish leaders will bind Paul and hand him over to the Romans, he foretells - but as we’ll see next week, it seems it’s the Romans who do the binding at the bidding of their commander: Acts 21:33
And it doesn’t read as if the Jews handed Paul over to the Romans either: they were busy trying to kill him - and seem miffed when the Romans grab him Acts 21:35-36
So maybe there’s another example here of that need to weigh or to test prophecy - certainly that’s what some commentators and theologians argue.
But let me give you the other side to that, too: if this prophecy should have been weighed and rejected, or at least taken very tentatively as only “seeing in part”, there’s no suggestion that’s what happened here.
The crowd around Paul responds to Agabus’ prophetic act by pleading with Paul not to go - even weeping.
They seem to take it as accurate - at least accurate enough to mean a change of direction is required.
They certainly don’t reject it or shut it down as an error - their response would make no sense if that was their conclusion.
Maybe they just messed up their testing or forgot about it - but it’s not just them: even Paul tells them he is ready to be bound which suggests he, too, sees the prophecy as accurate, not failing the test, but foretelling his future - a future with trouble, but trouble he is ready to face.
So maybe this isn’t an example of a prophecy that “failed the test”.
And those tensions between it’s details and the following narrative?
Well, the first people to seize Paul in the narrative are the Jews, and although we’re not told that they bound him here, it is possible they did - later on when Paul re-tells the same story, he says he was arrested before being handed over to the Romans which would definitely suggest being restrained - so maybe we’re just getting a summary rather than every detail in what comes next: Acts 28:17
Prophecy - not simple stuff.
What do we want to do with this as a church?
What should you do with this as an individual?
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