Acts and the Voice of God

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/12/2013

How does God speak to us?

I am a bit distressed even talking about this issue because my comments are meant to try to rein Christians in a little bit, to keep them off of the fringe. I’ll be talking about the fringe more next week when I talk about how to keep from becoming spiritually weird, and some of it relates to this kind of material.

But whenever I have to rein Christians in a bit and talk about this kind of thing I feel badly because I realize that some people are straining at the bit for the best of reasons and with the best of intentions. They want more of God. They want to see more power in their life. They want to experience more of the working of the Holy Spirit in their life. And here is Koukl coming in, apparently throwing cold water on the whole operation.

I feel bad about that because I have no intention of quenching the work of the Holy Spirit. My entire goal is to be very, very careful and look closely at the specifics of what’s being held to be true to see if they do, in fact, line up with the directives given in the Scriptures. Or, are we drawing some wrong conclusions that cause us to go over the edge and maybe do some spiritual damage to ourselves and others? So, in some way, I am a conservative influence here.

I think I’m somewhat of an evangelical iconoclast because I’m always breaking up people’s parties, so to speak. An iconoclast is an image breaker, someone who kind of attacks, to some degree, cherished notions. Sometimes that bothers people and I’m sorry about that. I don’t mean to cause trouble for the sake of trouble, but I do mean to force people to think clearly and biblically, even about those ideas they cherish the most. And, to many of us, the thing that we cherish the most is this idea that we have a personal hotline to God and we ought to expect Him to speak to us about our decisions.

I had a very stimulating conversation last week about this. I talked about it on Sunday in some detail, and then a friend of mine wrote me a note and offered me eighteen references from the book of Acts that seem to contradict my point of view. So what I want to do for just a few moments is to talk about these particular references and see if they do contradict what I was saying last weekend.

I have to make clear what my point of view is so that it’s not misunderstood. Let me capsulize it for you very quickly. My point of view is basically four quick points:

First of all, learning to hear the voice of God is not taught as a Christian discipline that we must learn in order to live the optimal Christian life. This is the “hotline to God” view in which we get specialized and tailor-made instructions for our personal lives. That is not taught in Scripture.

Secondly, God sometimes does give specialized instructions, so I’m not saying that God can’t do that and I’m not putting God in a box. He does sometimes give specialized instructions. He did in Biblical times and He does in the present. But when we read in the Bible especially in the New Testament, which is what our discussion is about today when He has done it, such specialized instructions are clear first of all. They are not mumbled. They are not whispered. They are not nudged. And they are, almost without exception in the New Testament, a sovereign intrusion by God into the circumstances rather than something that is first sought by a Christian.

Thirdly, God’s intrusion in these cases is sometimes through special gifts in the body that I believe are in full operation today, but are by very nature individual. In other words, every person has his own gift and each person does not have every gift. So this working through gifts can’t be a means of every Christian hearing from God. In other words, sometimes God intervenes with a prophetic word, but since prophetic words only come through those people who have the gift of prophecy, it’s not the kind of thing we all have to cultivate, to learn to do.

Finally, there are clearly workings of the Spirit in the area of teaching, conviction of sin and comforting of individual Christians. I admit that those workings are private, individual and tailored to individual people. Those kinds of things are not in question here.

We’re going to do a little Bible study. We’re going to look at eighteen references suggested in the letter to me that was an attempt to offer contrary evidence from the Scriptures to the point of view that I just described for you. All of these references come from the book of Acts. We will see if these references actually undermine the basic point I have been making or not. In a sense, I hope the Bible study will go beyond just the meaning of the passages because what this will do, as we walk through it, is help us to learn how to be more precise and particular about our Bible study and not draw conclusions hastily or inappropriately from the Scriptures. But take a close, methodical look to get a clear idea of what is actually being averred here about Christian disciplines and God speaking.

The first verse is Acts 8:26–29. The Holy Spirit instructs Philip to go to the Gaza Road and join the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip did that and won him to Christ.

The next verse is Acts 9:10. Ananias has a vision and a conversation with God in which he receives explicit instructions from God about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Remember, Ananias did not want to go to see Saul but God said to do that and He’d take care of things.

The next reference is actually two references which are the same circumstance. It’s Acts 10:11 and following in which Peter falls into a trance and has a vision. Then the Spirit gives him explicit instructions relating to the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentile Cornelius. By the way, this happened while Peter was thinking about food. He was beginning to make dinner, in fact.

The fifth reference is Acts 10:22. Here you have the Gentile Cornelius, a nonbeliever by the way, who is directed by an angel to give an audience to Peter. So we have Cornelius contacted by God about this meeting and Peter is contacted also.

Number six is Acts 12:7. An angel speaks to Peter in order to rescue him by leading him out of jail. Now Peter was asleep at the time and even thought it might have been a dream. Then he realizes that he is out of jail and he’s been released.

Number seven is Acts 13:2–4. Here the Holy Spirit speaks in some fashion—we’re not given the details, probably through the prophets the text says were present—giving specific instructions for Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. Just an interesting note here: there were no special directives given for their subsequent journeys, only for the first one.

The eighth reference is Acts 13:9. Here the person who sent me the letter claims that the Spirit spoke through Paul. But this verse really doesn’t apply to our question. Here Paul is filled with the Spirit, the text says, then he rebukes and blinds Elymas the magician. But it doesn’t say the Spirit did any speaking, no special revelation. The cross reference to Galatians 1:16 and 17 is equally misapplied because the text merely says that Jesus was revealed to Paul, something that is true of everyone who is becoming a Christian. It’s not an example of specialized, direct revelation like we’re discussing here.

The ninth is Acts 15:28. This is the Council of Jerusalem. The leaders resolve certain theological problems through debate, discussion, and reference to the Scriptures and the miraculous work of God in their midst, and then attribute their corporate decision to the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Spirit isn’t speaking, giving them information. It’s the people speaking. They come to a conclusion and then attribute that conclusion to God. They write, “For it seems good to us having become of one mind,” and then a couple of sentences later they add, “It seems good to the Holy Spirit and us.” It seems to me that this verse actually makes my point that the Spirit usually speaks to the church through the agency of the corporate leadership of the church.

Number ten is Acts 16:6. Paul here is forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word in Asia. This doesn’t say how it was communicated, but I will concede the point for the purpose of our discussion.

Number eleven is Acts 16:10. Paul has a night vision, presumably while he is asleep, of the Philippian jailer beckoning him. So the next day he goes to Macedonia and wins the jailer to Christ.

Number twelve is Acts 18:9. The Lord speaks to Paul in another night vision at Corinth, encouraging him not to be afraid but go ahead and preach the Gospel with boldness.

Number 13 is Acts 21:4. The disciples at Tyre, where Paul has briefly stopped for a visit, keep telling Paul “in the Spirit” not to set foot in Jerusalem. I am presuming this is a prophetic utterance. What is it when someone tells another person “in the Spirit” some particular information? Generally that’s prophecy.

In Acts 21:11, Agabus directly prophesies Paul’s future imprisonment by the Jews.

Number fifteen also says Acts 21:4, which is the same verse as thirteen, so here is a duplicate reference.

Numbers sixteen and seventeen are again the same reference, Acts 22:16, in which Jesus appears to Paul in a trance while Paul is praying and has a detailed conversation with Paul, instructing him to leave Jerusalem to avoid capture, which Paul doesn’t do and then gets captured. Two times Paul disobeyed, it seems.

Finally, Acts 23:11. Jesus appears at Paul’s side to encourage him and tells him he will witness in Rome just as he has in Jerusalem.

My friend actually left out Saul’s conversion, which would be another example to add to it. This is in Acts 9:4 where Jesus speaks to him from the cloud. Remember, he knocks Paul (then Saul of Tarsus) off the horse, blinds him and says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

The letter concludes, “I look to these experiences in Scripture to affirm that the Holy Spirit speaks and instructs and encourages us to seek after that.” Then she adds, “This is only one book in the New Testament.” This last remark seems to suggest that, since one of twenty-seven books of the new Testament has eighteen references, therefore, the whole New Testament is actually full of this kind of thing.

Let’s see how this tallies up: Of the eighteen references she suggested, three were unintentional duplications of the same event, two references didn’t make the point, and she actually missed one reference that we’ll add. That leaves fourteen occasions of special revelations in the book of Acts. Of those fourteen, three were visions, two were angels, three were prophetic words, and four were Jesus either speaking or appearing. Finally, on two occasions the Holy Spirit spoke in some manner that we’re not sure of, but in those cases He did speak very clearly in at least one of the cases. The other one we’re not sure of because it just said He prohibited Paul from entering Asia.

Now who received these special revelations? Nine times out of fourteen it was the Apostle Paul, two times Peter, and one time each Philip, Ananias and Cornelius. In two of the references, by the way, the one spoken to was an unregenerate non-believer. That would be Cornelius, who was seeking God, and Paul—then Saul of Tarsus—who was not seeking God but completely in rebellion against God, persecuting the saints.

In virtually every case the communications from God were clear. The recipient did not have to develop an ability to hear. (Of course, that couldn’t have been the case with Cornelius and Saul of Tarsus because they weren’t even regenerated.) Not only were they clear, but they were intrusive. They did not have to be sought. In fact, you see people receiving this revelation who are sleeping, preparing for dinner, walking along in a few cases, and praying. Basically, they are just minding their own business, or God’s business. But in no case does it appear that they have developed an ability to receive this kind of direction. Instead, it just comes to them when they least expect it.

I apologize for what may seem like tedium in plowing through these verses, but sometimes it takes a tedious approach, step by step, to rightly divide the Word of Truth.

The suggestion was made that this was only one book in the entire New Testament, one of twenty-seven. If this was meant to suggest that there are many more references in the New Testament, then the suggestion was mistaken. Yes, it’s only one book, the book of Acts, but that is significant for two reasons. The book of Acts is an historical account which tells us what happened, usually without giving editorial comments about its applicability for us. I would counsel you to be careful what you infer from these passages. Philip was not only spoken to by the Spirit, he was also snatched away from the Gaza Road by the Spirit. He just disappeared from in front of the Ethiopian eunuch and found himself at Azotes, the text says. Talk about flying the friendly skies! But are we to infer that such a Spirit super-shuttle should be a regular replacement for Fords and Chevies or the RTD? Even if it happened ten different times in the Bible, do you think we are justified in concluding that this is a normal and expected form of missionary transportation? I doubt it.

So you must ask yourself the question, is it reasonable to suggest that much of what happened in the book of Acts was unique and was the special working of God for a particular purpose? I think that’s fair, especially given my second point: Though the book of Acts is only one book of twenty-seven in the New Testament, it is virtually the only one that gives evidence of this kind of thing. And the writings that doctrinally explain the kinds of things we see in Acts give no instruction on these kinds of supernatural revelations. Why not? It seems to me because, in this kind of thing, God finds us—we don’t need to find Him.

Are these Christian skills and disciplines being modeled for us, as my friend suggests? I think not. Instead, virtually every example cited fits into the model that I described in which special revelation happens. But when it does, it is unique. It is clear. It is unsought. And it is often the outworking of a spiritual gift of prophecy, nothing like the so-called voice of God that we’re encouraged by some to seek.

The New Testament records nothing like a still, small voice that whispers gently in our spiritual ear. Nor does the Old Testament, as far as I can tell. Instead, we focus on the only Word of God that we are commanded to seek, that we are commanded to understand, and that we are commanded to obey. That is stated in II Timothy 2:15: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.”

So, on this issue, though I thank my friend for the verses, I don’t think they make the point. I hold my ground.