Segment 4 | Christ’s prophetic testimony defined in the Johannine writings
George Whitefield’s exclamation of “the Word of His testimony” cleanly segues us to the crucial point in this essay: the prophetic testimony of Christ, in its essence, is none other than the gospel of salvation. Though many aspects of history — such as what exactly was being preached during Bickerton’s time — are sometimes impossible to reconstruct, we still have a lot we can glean from history. Then, where our knowledge of history has gaps that we cannot fill, it reminds us to lean on the one fixture that requires no reconstruction, the Word of God. The New Testament is by far, the most copied, the most widely disseminated, and generally the most enduring document from the ancient world.
As mentioned, we have to consider the title of the book: William Bickerton: Forgotten Latter Day Prophet, and properly handle the claim that Bickerton was a prophet.
So, what is a prophet, according to Scripture?
Throughout the history of redemption as recounted in the Bible, prophets were persons uniquely called by God to directly receive God’s revealed will, in order to pass on that revelation to God’s people. God spoke his word through the mouths and through the pens of the prophets. Prophecy entailed both prediction of the future — foretelling — and present proclamation and exhortation of God’s word — forthtelling. This applied to both Old Testament and New Testament prophets. According to one commentator,
“Though much of O.T. prophecy was purely predictive, see Micah 5:2, e.g., and cp. John 11:51, prophecy is not necessarily, nor even primarily, fore-telling. It is the declaration of that which cannot be known by natural means, Matt. 26:68, it is the forth-telling of the will of God, whether with reference to the past, the present, or the future, see Gen. 20:7; Deut. 18:18; Rev. 10:11; 11:3. …” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Complete and Unabridged, “Prophecy, Prophesy, Prophesying”)
The apostles and prophets together are called the foundation of the church, who were entrusted Christ’s testimony to deliver to his saints (Romans 1:1-6, Ephesians 2:20, I Timothy 1:12-17, 2:6, II Thessalonians 1:10). Through these divinely, directly appointed agents, God’s revelation culminated in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2); and with that foundation having been laid almost 2,000 years ago, since then there has no longer been a need for divinely appointed prophets and their attendant manifestations of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 2:1-4). Vine continues,
“With the completion of the canon of Scripture prophecy apparently passed away, I Cor. 13:8-9. In his measure the teacher has taken the place of the prophet, cp. the significant change in 2 Pet. 2:1. The difference is that, whereas the message of the prophet was a direct revelation of the mind of God for the occasion, the message of the teacher is gathered from the completed revelation contained in the Scriptures.” (Notes on Thessalonians, Hogg and Vine, pp. 196-197)
Yet, there is a more general sense of the word “prophecy,” in that in a way, all Christians may be understood as “prophets.” In the lone apocalyptic book of the New Testament, Apostle John recounts his encounter with one of God’s angels:
(Revelation 19:10) “Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, ‘You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony [Greek transliteration: martyrian] of Jesus. Worship God.’ For the testimony [Greek: martyria] of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy [Greek: pneuma tes propheteias].”
Obviously overtaken with fear and awe, John erroneously genuflected to the angel. The angel rebuked him, as he was a mere creature, and corrected John to worship the Creator, the only one Who is worthy to be glorified with holy adoration and praise. Now having briefly addressed the verse’s context, the point that is germane to our discussion is the Bible’s teaching, “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” This testimony of Christ is that which is alluded within the Psalms (Psalm 2:7-8, 22:22, 31:5, 68:18, 78:5, 110:1-7, 118:22) and denotes an objective declaration of gospel facts that are given as the foundation of all God’s special revelation. Borrowing from the general legal terminology, the faithful witness of this testimony always avers — and never can deny — what he has seen and knows.
When we cross-reference the use of “spirit” in Revelation 19:10 with other New Testament occurrences of the Greek pneuma (II Corinthians 12:18, Ephesians 4:23, Philippians 1:27), we ascertain the sense of the Greek word here for spirit is “purpose” or “aim.” Exegetically, what Scripture has in view is that any born-again person who possesses and witnesses Jesus Christ also possesses the spirit of prophetic revelation: the revelation of the identity of God’s Son that only God himself can give (Matthew 16:16-17).
Is the “testimony of Jesus” the extent of prophecy? Of course not. Yet, all divine prophecy is predicated upon its baseline: the testimony of Christ. Christ’s testimony also is the ultimate purpose of all divine prophecy (II Corinthians 1:20). In this broad category, the apostles identified all Christian brothers as prophetic agents and “a priesthood of all believers” (I Peter 2:5).
This is why, in the context of the apostolic scene, Paul the Apostle instructed,
(I Corinthians 14:1) “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”
(II Corinthians 2:14-16) “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”
Peter the Apostle also pronounced the witnessing purpose of the priesthood of all believers.
(I Peter 2:9) “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
So, what exactly is the “testimony” of Jesus?
Permitting Scripture to interpret itself (cf. Psalm 119:160), we find this Christian testimony abundantly defined within the corpus of John’s own writings. John even frequently used some form of the same Greek word for “testimony” that appears in his Revelation. We don’t need to defend the Bible against the Book of Mormon with a lengthy digression into the canonization process of the Bible, for Apostle John certifies his Scriptures, inspired by the Holy Spirit, as sufficient — right in the context of his gospel testimony.
I emphasize the following words to demonstrate John’s consistent use of the relevant Greek terms:
(John 3:5-8, 16-18, 31-36) “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ … For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. … He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness [Greek: martyrei] to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony [Greek: martyrian]. Whoever receives his testimony [Greek: martyrian] sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
(John 4:25-26) “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he.'”
(John 5:24, 31-37) “Truly, truly, I [Jesus] say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. … If I alone bear witness [Greek: martyro] about myself, my testimony [Greek: martyria] is not true. There is another who bears witness [Greek: martyron] about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears [Greek: martyrei] about me is true. You sent to John, and he has borne witness [Greek: memartyreken] to the truth. Not that the testimony [Greek: martyrian] that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light. But the testimony [Greek: martyrian] that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness [Greek: martyrei] about me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness [Greek: memartyreken] about me.”
(John 6:27-29) “‘Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.'”
(John 8:14) “Jesus answered, ‘Even if I do bear witness [Greek: martyro] about myself, my testimony [Greek: martyria] is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.'”
(John 17:3, 14-21) “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. … I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.“
(John 20:27-29) “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
(John 20:30-31) “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
(I John 1:1-4) “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify [Greek: martyroumen] to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us — that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
(I John 4:1-6) “Beloved, 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. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
(I John 5:9-13, 20) “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony [Greek: martyrian] of God is greater, for this is the testimony [Greek: martyria] of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony [Greek: martyrian] in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony [Greek: martyrian] that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony [Greek: martyria], that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. … And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”
(II John 1-3) “The elder to the elect lady and her children, whom I love in truth, and not only I, but also all who know the truth, because of the truth that abides in us and will be with us forever:
Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love.”