I believe that skydiving is safe. However, you aren’t going to see me getting into a plane with one of those flimsy parachute contraptions strapped to my back!
Clearly, belief is not the same as putting our trust in that thing we say we believe.
That’s a good principle to keep in mind when we look at extra-Biblical encounters with God. Yes, extra-Biblical.
God makes Himself know first in His creation.
Yesterday as I was driving to church, I passed this maple tree in full autumn colors (yes, here in California, we don’t have lots of trees that turn into gold and red and yellow and brown, but the ones we have stay around a long time). As I slowed to admire the beauty, a woman walked by, never looking up, apparently oblivious to the glory swaying over her head. How sad, I thought, that God is so present and people can completely miss Him.
Because of His great love, of course, God went farther, revealing Himself through prophets, His Law, His Word, and His Son.
But that’s not all. He also revealed Himself through dreams and visions and angel visitations. The Bible records any number of these, and we’re especially reminded of them at Christmas time. Angels appeared to shepherds, wisemen discovered the birth of the King of Judea by studying the stars, Mary learned she would become pregnant from an angel, Joseph too, and then he had a dream warning him to take his family and escape to Egypt.
There’s more. The wisemen were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. The Holy Spirit revealed to a man named Simeon that he would not see death until he beheld the Messiah–which he did when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple on the eighth day. More amazing, the Holy Spirit also communicated something to Jesus’s cousin John, while he was still in the womb, and as a not-yet-born baby, he “leaped” when Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth, his mother who was carrying him.
So, yes, God reveals Himself in many ways. Some believe He no longer does so, but I find this position a stretch that doesn’t fit either Scripture or reports from various parts of the world today. From any number of sources, I’ve heard recently of people coming to Christ as a direct result of a dream or vision.
And yet . . .
I think a look at the Apostle Paul’s life in regard to visions might be instructive. Certainly he had an extra-biblical encounter with the living Christ. It’s why he made an about-face and stopped persecuting Christians to become one himself.
He also had a vision of what he referred to as the third heaven, though he left open the possibility that he’d actually been transported there bodily (see 2 Corinthians 12:2-4). But here’s the thing. Paul did not formulate his theology based on his vision.
His encounter with the living Christ was consistent with Scripture. Apparently his vision of the third heaven was not because he made no claims based on that vision–no special standing before God or position in the church, nothing new Christians were to believe or do.
In fact, in his letter to the Colossian church, he was clear that visions were not a sound basis for deviating from Scripture.
Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind (2:18 – emphasis mine).
Paul believed in visions. He had them. And yet here he is saying that things not consistent with Scripture–self-abasement and the worship of angels–were not to become part of the practice of the church simply because someone had a vision that said those applications should be included. Visions weren’t enough of themselves to become the basis of doctrine.
That’s a good rule of thumb, I think, and a means of escaping much false teaching.