What If All of God’s People were Prophets?
The events of Numbers 11 provide poignant backdrop to the Spirit’s work in the New Testament. There is a very real sense in which the Spirit’s work in the church is the fulfillment of Moses’ prayer about Him in this chapter.
Numbers 11 records Moses’ empowering the 70 elders of the tribes of Israel. To equip these 70 men in assisting Moses in leading the people of Israel, God took some of the Spirit that rested upon Moses and applied that Spirit to the 70. The Spirit came upon those men and “they prophesied” (Numbers 11:25) – (Because that’s what men do when they encounter the Holy Spirit).
However, two of the men, Eldad and Medad, had not attended the ceremony with the other 68. They still resided in the camp when the Spirit came upon the 70. Yet, that did not limit the Spirit’s power upon them – “and so they prophesied in the camp” (Numbers 11:27).
Joshua was distressed by this unsupervised act of prophecy. Perhaps he was concerned that Moses’ authority would be undermined by men beginning to prophesy outside of Moses’ direction. Whatever the case, Joshua urged Moses,” My lord, Moses, stop them” (Numbers 11:28).
Moses provides us with a most interesting and important response: “But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’” (Numbers 11:29).
Notice first the parallel construction in Moses’ statement: All the Lord’s people were prophets – the Lord put his Spirit on them. To Moses those are synonymous expressions. The Spirit on a man makes that man a prophet. That is the only function Moses sees that connection performing. The same is true in the New Testament. Whether the Spirit is poured out, or a person is anointed, a person is baptized in, a person has the Spirit placed on him as a seal, or the Spirit fills a man, etc., nothing has changed. Those connections are always prophetic.
Perhaps more importantly, Moses foreshadows an answer to the most common objection to the statement of the preceding paragraph: “Not all the early Christians had spiritual gifts.” That statement is made as an unassailable truth that answers all the arguments of those who might seek to reject the orthodoxy concerning the indwelling of the Spirit. However, Moses’ wish is directly contradictory of that supposed axiom. He was yearning for a time when all of God’s people had access to the Holy Spirit. Did that time ever come?
In Acts 2, Peter quotes the only Old Testament passage ever quoted in defense of the Spirit’s work from Acts 2 till the end of the Bible: Joel 2:28-32. That passage begins by stating that in the Last Days the Holy Spirit would be “poured out” (and so would come upon) “all flesh.” All 70 men in Numbers 11 upon whom the Spirit was put became prophets. The same is true of the recipients of the promise of the Spirit in Joel 2. “All flesh” (inclusive of young and old, free and slave, son and daughters – which list is oddly similar to 1 Corinthians 12:13) would see visions, dream dreams and prophesy. They would be prophets. Joel 2 does not just promise prophetic access to all kinds of people. Joel promises actual prophetic powers to all flesh.
Space does not permit, in this article, an examination of the evidence of that truth’s manifestation beyond Acts 2. That will have to wait for another time. However, it is (at the least) an expositional error to dismiss the prominence of the spiritual gifts provided through the Spirit’s work in the first century church.
Much of modern teaching and preaching is focused on being applicational and relevant. Solid exposition is absent in modern sermons. Preachers hurry to place the statements of the New Testament directly into the lives of their audience. Technical or “religious” language is purposefully removed to keep the lessons accessible.
As a result, many rarely even consider that the epistles were written to real, living, and now historical people. Those people were covered under the time-limited promise of Joel 2 (a promise that we are no longer under) that “all flesh” would be prophets. The historical and circumstantial differences between them and us is important in exposition and doctrine. This is especially true relating to the work of the Holy Spirit as almost all agree He performed a prophetic work for them and not for us.
Unfortunately, our need for personal relevance trumps their real, historical experience with the special promises to the infant church. In so doing, we often minimize their needs and, at the same time, harm our understanding of scripture and our expectations of the work of God.