A while back, a reader wrote to query what I meant by a comment on the call of Barnabas and Saul to wider service in Acts 13.1-3: "With the completed canon of Scripture the Holy Spirit no longer speaks to men in this direct manner, yet every believer is responsible to attend to the written Word, which is still living and powerful. This is how the Lord feeds our souls and guides our steps". What I was trying to address was the practical matter of how God speaks to His people today. Does He communicate, as in Old Testament times, through an audible voice from heaven, or through a special theophany such as the angel of the Lord, or through inspired prophets? Should we be seeking visions and voices? Even in those days, when the Scriptures were as yet incomplete and God was gradually disclosing His mind, it was to the already written Word that people were so often directed, and in which they found their guidance and encouragement (Neh 8.1-8; Ps 1.2; 119.11-12). In contrast to those who were advocating occult practices, Isaiah referred back to God's law as the immutable touchstone of truth: "And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead? To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Is 8.19-20). His language is terse and trenchant: why turn to the dead and dark when we have for our guidance God's living, illuminating Word? People crave the sensational when in fact Scripture is enough.
Of course, it is with the incarnation that we reach the pinnacle of divine revelation, for "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son" (Heb 1.1-2). In the Lord Jesus God has said all He wishes to say. The New Testament thus consists of the testimony of Christ in the flesh (the four Gospel narratives) plus His post-ascension instruction from heaven through the apostles, whose inspired letters contain teaching He did not impart to the disciples while on the earth. "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you" (Jn 16.12-14). In this crucial passage the Lord Jesus pre-endorsed the writing of the New Testament, stamping it with His personal authority. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost would enable the apostles infallibly to pen the teaching with which God's revelation comes to its full stop. Right at the end of the New Testament Jude significantly speaks of the "faith [that is, the body of doctrine revealed in the Scriptures] which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude v.3), while John slaps a solemn ban on adding to or subtracting from the final book of the canon (Rev 22.18-19). The volume is complete.
How then does God speak to His people in the twenty-first century? In Acts 13 New Testament prophecy was still a functioning gift, and I assume it was through the named prophets at Antioch that the Lord made known His will for Barnabas and Saul. But there are no longer any divinely inspired apostles or prophets in the world. The former had to be eyewitnesses of the Lord's resurrection (and, according to 1 Corinthians 15.8, Paul was the last of those); the latter, granted special revelation from God, were associated with the apostles during the foundation stage of the church (Eph 2.19-20), a time period both brief and unique. We now find all our instruction in the written Word.
The Lord Jesus Himself paved the way for this at both the start and the end of His public ministry. In the wilderness, quoting apposite extracts from Deuteronomy, He demonstrated that Scripture is both our spiritual food and our sufficient armament against Satan (Mt 4.4ff). Let no one dismiss the Old Testament as irrelevant. He who could have banished Satan with a display of divine glory graciously restricted Himself to the same weapon possessed by the weakest of saints – the written Word. If the Bible can deal with the devil, it can certainly answer all lesser needs.
Then again, just before His departure to heaven, Christ deliberately weaned the disciples away from reliance upon His physical nearness by directing them to the Word as the means through which He would be made known to them in the future. Luke 24 moves towards the Saviour's ascension by establishing this principle. And it was needful. People who had relied for spiritual strength upon His bodily presence and audible voice must now learn to rest on the Word. There are three key moments. First, the "much perplexed" women at the empty tomb were told to cast their minds back to the Saviour's earthly teaching: "Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. And they remembered his words" (vv.4-8). The answer to distress was to be found in recollecting His oral ministry. Second, the "sad" couple on the Emmaus road were taught to find their sustenance in Old Testament Scriptures which predicted the character of Messiah's activity: "Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself' (vv.25-27). Kingdom splendour was by no means cancelled but only deferred, for the pattern was suffering first, then glory. But don't miss the Master's strategy. Instead of immediately disclosing His identity to those puzzled disciples, the as yet unrecognised Lord pointed them to the Word as the way to understand His programme. And it was that which caused their hearts to burn. In short, sadness was dispelled by a proper grasp of Biblical doctrine. Third, both sources of truth, the oral teaching of Christ and the Old Testament, harmoniously combined in the Lord's final lesson to a group of followers who were "terrified", "affrighted" and "troubled" (vv.37-38): "And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures, And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day" (vv.44-46). Whether we are perplexed or sad or troubled, the remedy lies in God's written Word. And it is in the completed Word, which I believe is "that which is perfect" mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13.10, that we find all we need for Christian living. It contains precepts (to direct our steps), promises (to cheer our hearts), and principles (which we can apply to the demands of daily life). Although, for example, the Bible does not tell a man exactly what job to pursue, it does tell him he is responsible to support himself and his dependents (2 Thess 3.7-12). Although it doesn't name the woman he should wed it lays down clear teaching about the indissolubility of marriage and the importance of marrying "in the Lord" rather than embarking upon an unequal yoke (1 Cor 7.39; 2 Cor 6.14). A local Bible Class used to have the motto, "The Word of God – nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else". That's the pattern for today. We don't seek for visions or voices (people can so easily be deluded) but feast instead upon the living Word. It takes hard work but it cultivates daily dependence upon our God.
To be continued.