Hearing God’s Voice in a Supernatural Way
TThe Bible does not leave us to wait till the New Testament to share the ongoing ministry of the Spirit. The Spirit is embedded in the stories of the Old Testament as well. Such is the case with the story of Samuel to which we now turn.
The word supernatural simply means “of or relating to the existence outside the natural world.” It is not a duality. We don’t live here, i.e., in the natural world and God lives “out there somewhere” in the supernatural world. Supernatural and natural coexist in the present. There is simply a thin space that separates them. We can be naturally supernatural in our lives, i.e., relating to how the “outside the natural” world invades our present “real world.” At its root is the “now but not yet” language of the kingdom. If anything, the supernatural world is the future invading the natural all around us and is a glimpse of the target for designing our present way of life. Not in some quirky, unnatural way, but in real fellowship with the Creator God who calls us to a life for the sake of others.
BackStory of Samuel’s Story
The Samuel story comes in the Act of the story that I have labeled Covenant coming at the end of the book called Judges and the beginning of the book call Samuel (1 & 2). Israel is coming out of a time period in which they have been over several generations settling the land that God had given to them. The pattern of the tribes of breaking Covenant stipulations and receiving the judgment from God that was a part of the Covenant, which was often loss of land to a surrounding kingdom. The next step in the cycle in this part of the story was crying out to God for someone to deliver them from their new found bondage. God would oblige and send them and there would be a period of rest. Here is the grand narrative of Scripture played out in a smaller scene of Scripture: Chaos, the breaking of Covenant stipulations; deliverance, redemption from the chaos, and restoration.
Into this ongoing cycle, the story of Samuel begins, which is about hearing and doing. The first three chapters of 1 Samuel concentrate on the birth, dedication, and youth of Samuel. Chapter one provides a prophetic historian’s description of the birth of Samuel (1.1-18). The story of 1 Samuel is set in the historical framework of the period of the Judges. By way of background, each village in Israel had a group of elders, which was its rulers. History suggests that Elkanah, the husband of Peninnah and Hannah, was one of these village rulers.
The writer of 1 Samuel sets up a tension at the beginning of the story between Peninnah and Hannah, the two wives of Elkanah. Peninnah 1had children with her husband, but Hannah had none. This made Hannah very vulnerable in her society because that society provided a certain status symbol for a woman who had given birth to children. Those who had no children were looked down upon by those who did have children and were treated by them as second-class citizens, as a societal stigma. Children were seen in ancient Israel as a symbol of fulfillment.
Year after year when Elkanah would go to Shiloh to offer sacrifice, he would give Peninnah a portion of the meat while giving Hannah a double-portion. This may have been his way of consoling Hannah, while Peninnah used the graciousness of her husband as a way of irritating Hannah (1.6-7).
The childlessness of Hannah had two effects on her life. It provided a set of glasses through which she viewed life. Scripture says that her condition was one of bitterness, weeping, and a refusal to eat. She spoke of her condition as misery in her prayer. It is tragic when we are so other-focused on what we consider to be a major problem in life that we are unable to experience the simple joys of life that God provides for us. In her misery, she did not recognize the grace of God in her husband Elkanah. While she had no child, she did have a loving husband who thought of himself as being better to her than ten sons.
In her misery, Hannah took her bitterness to God and began to make a new priority list. She prayed for a son and told God that he could have as a gift the very child she wanted most in life. God answered her prayer (1.19-20). She conceived and gave birth to a son and named him Samuel. Hannah promised God that she would give him to his service and so she did.
In 1 Samuel 3, the story continues and demonstrates for us the contrast and movement of Samuel from one guide to another. The first observation we can make is from verse one where we are told that Samuel was ministering before the Lord. This phrase means that he was carrying out his assigned duties in the tabernacle at Shiloh. The text tells us that his mentor in these activities was Eli.
A second observation is in 1 Samuel 3.1b, “In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.” The term “word of the Lord” is a technical designation for the revelation given to the prophets. The word “rare” is “precious” in the sense of a gem, which is precious because it is scarce or rare.
The next idea shared in the sentence has been translated in various ways. One translation suggests, “…visions were not granted.” The implication: there was no one whom God could get to listen to him.
Samuel continued his duties at the tabernacle at Shiloh as well as sleeping there. The text says, “The lamp of God had not yet gone out…” This does not refer to the lamp in the sanctuary, which was supposed to burn continually (Ex 27.20; 30.7-8). It may suggest that because of Samuel’s ministry, there was still a divine presence in Israel. There is a similar saying concerning David’s son in 1 Kings 15.4.
While Samuel was sleeping, the Lord spoke to him three times and, on each occasion, Samuel went to Eli thinking that it was he who was calling him. On the third time, Eli finally realized that it must be God who was calling Samuel. This may be a sad commentary on the position of Eli as the leader of the community and supports what the writer’s contention was in 3.1, the word of the Lord was rare.
Eli told Samuel how to respond when he heard God call again. The text says that God “…came and stood there,” and Samuel says, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
Let’s note the process of this story:
- Samuel was in a place where God could speak to him. He was in the tabernacle, in the presence of the ark, the very place where God abode.
- God spoke to Samuel, but Samuel did not know that it was God who was speaking.
- After several times, his mentor[ref]Some find in this story the idea of “spiritual director” that we discussed above.[/ref] helped him to understand that it must be God who was speaking to him.
- When God spoke again, Samuel was ready to listen.
How does this story suggest some possible ways to hear God’s voice?
- God’s word may be “rare” for some of us today, not because he has stopped communicating, but because we do not have our antennas tuned to the right frequency. We may have been so blinded by the teaching that God only speaks through his word because all the other gifts have ceased, that we don’t listen in another area because we don’t believe it exists.
- We may not hear God speak because we are not in a relationship with him. When he does speak, we are unsure that it is his voice because of our declining relationship. We may be doing all the “ministry things,” but not really know him.
- It is not God who is not speaking. It may be we who are not listening.
In Chapter 2.27-37, an anonymous prophet gave a word to Eli. The point of the contrast appears that he was a mere spokesperson of God, with no responsibility but to convey the message. This should speak volumes to us about God’s propensity to speak through us with no fanfare, no accommodations, and no accolades from our peers. Samuel, on the other hand, was to be God’s appointed national leader as well as his spokesperson. While there was a word of guidance to Samuel as an individual, the arena in which it was to be carried out was in the community of God in which he was living.
At this point, along with the following three areas, we usually encounter resistance within the Evangelical movement, especially from those who hold to a Dispensational Theology and say that God no longer works in these supernatural ways.
God’s supernatural voice comes in many varieties. Most of us are accustomed to hearing about a still small voice (1 Kings 19.12, KJV) deep within. That has a somewhat mystical feel to it. Others have experienced God’s voice in a not-so-gentle and serene way. Elijah provides an illustration of this “still small voice deep within.” In the story of 1 Kings 19.1-14, God appears to Elijah in this way. He told him to go and stand on a mountain in the presence of God, because God was about to pass by him. There was a powerful wind, then an earthquake, then a fire, but God was not in any of these. Scripture suggests to us that after the fire came a “gentle whisper.” God spoke and Elijah heard. The contrast here suggests that, in this case, God is not present in what is seen and heard, but in what is unseen and heard only by the prophet. There are three things to recognize here: First, God chose to speak to Elijah in the midst of his turmoil. Elijah thought he was going to be killed (v. 10). Second, the actual speaking came as Elijah discovered himself in the presence of God (v. 11). Note: We are not told what God said to Elijah on that occasion. Third, Elijah knew it was God’s voice (v. 13).
Here we can discern one of the ways for God’s supernatural voice to be heard in a natural way. How did God act in relationship to Elijah? God came to him in the midst of his hardship. It was only as Elijah responded to God and realized that he was in his presence that he could hear this “gentle whisper.” He knew the difference between the “gentle whisper” and the roar of the wind, shake of the quake, and smoke of the fire. He responded to the voice. How God acted with Elijah is how he will act with us as well. We can expect him to appear in our times of hardship revealing his presence so that we are not deceived into thinking that we will hear his voice in what can be seen, but in what cannot be seen. Remember, God spoke, Elijah heard and responded to what he heard. While this appears to suggest God’s will for an individual, we must again keep in mind that Elijah was a prophet to Israel. He was guided by God for the sake of doing God’s work within the community (v. 16).
God has many ways to speak to us. Within part of the church in today’s society, it is, as we noted above, believed that God only speaks to us through Scripture. In another part of the church, it is believed that he speaks to us in Scripture, but with the added belief that he also speaks to us through the gracelets. What is a gracelet?
We have followed the King James Version (KJV) in naming groups of things together like “spiritual gifts.” We have raised up a whole industry around this concept. We have spiritual gift inventory tests, we have spiritual gift definitions, and we have spiritual gift sightings. In some quarters of the church, we are fixated on the concept of spiritual gifts as we figure out which one we have. The newer translations have settled on taking KJV’s “spiritual gifts” language and simply translating it “gifts of the spirit.” I think we could take that concept one step further and call them “gracelets,” because each manifestation of one is simply a “droplet” of God’s grace into our daily lives. So in this writing, I will call what is usually read as “spiritual gifts,” simply “gracelets,” meaning a bit of God’s grace flowing through us to its intended goal.
As we turn to the subject manner of prophecy, it is fair to say that the churches who believe that some of the gracelets have ceased to exist at the coming of the Bible would see the preaching of Scripture as prophecy. The churches who believe that all gracelets mentioned in our sacred text are still active today would see prophecy to be a spontaneous set of words coming directly from God at the moment they are uttered. Let’s take a closer look.
Prophecy has been defined as communicating the pulse of God’s heart for edifying the church. Prophecy is not an aptitude or talent. It is the actual speaking of words given by the Spirit in a particular situation and ceases when the words given by the Spirit cease. In the Greek world of Paul’s day, there were two distinct kinds of prophecies that were taught by the Greek philosopher Plato. The first was called mantic prophecy or the prophecy of inspiration. The one who was prophesying was doing so by the power of the divine. Plato taught that the one speaking was “possessed” by the god and in those moments became his mouthpiece. The second kind of prophecy was prophecy of interpretation. It was an acquired skill. Here the person prophesying had the ability to interpret omens and signs by rational discernment. A part of the church has chosen to make the distinction, which Plato taught, but unfortunately, they have opted for the latter over the former. Preaching is prophecy because it is interpreting Scripture and is an acquired ability. Paul stood within a long-standing Hebraic tradition that prophecy was inspired speech. The Old Testament prophets prophesied in two ways: foretelling and forth-telling. It is the latter of these two ways, which the prophets spent most of their time giving. They were the preachers of the day. They were interpreters of the events, which concerned the children of God. But the difference between them and today’s preachers, who would fall in the second of Plato’s categories, is that their prophecy was that of inspiration.
Following this ancient breakdown, every Jesus follower who has heard a sermon has heard a form of prophecy even if they have never tipped a toe inside a Pentecostal church where one may hear an inspirational prophetic word.
Does personal prophecy occur in the NT Story? Luke shares the story of the prophecy of Agabus concerning Paul in Acts 21.10-14, which serves as an example of inspiration prophecy. The text implies that this prophecy was given about Paul, to Paul and the assembled believers (21.1-12). The prophecy of Agabus has, in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles, often been called “personal prophecy.” The phrase “the Holy Spirit says,” in this text (Acts 21.11) is compatible to “this is what the Lord says,” which was the speech of authority that came from the mouth of the Old Testament prophets when they were preaching. This phrase is the determining factor, which makes this a prophecy. Remember, Paul had already written the passages in 1 Corinthians concerning prophecy by the time this event happened. In this story, there was symbolic action, which had two parts: the binding of Paul’s feet and the binding of his hands. Symbolic prophetic action was not a new form of prophecy. Some of the Old Testament prophets practiced it (Ahijah: 1 Kings 11.29-40; Isaiah: Isa 20.2-6; Jeremiah: Jer 13.1-11; 28.10-11; Ezekiel: Ezek 4.1-3). The second part of the prophecy was a verbal explanation of the symbolic part. The message was specific: Paul would be captured in Jerusalem by the Jews and delivered to the Romans. Agabus gave no additional information or elaboration. The prophetic word pointed to what would happen to Paul. It did not request or demand any action on any one’s part and Agabus did not offer any commentary on it.
What is apparent from this passage is that the people responded in a different way than Paul responded. They responded without the full information that Paul had at his disposal.
First, Paul knew he was going to Jerusalem (Acts 19.21). Second, he knew that prison and hardships faced him in every city including Jerusalem. He knew this because the Holy Spirit had been warning him of such (Acts 20.23). The people, as well as his own team (21.12), pleaded with Paul not to go. When they found he could not be dissuaded, they gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.” In this story, Luke presents a prophet with a clear word from God concerning Paul, which only confirmed what the Holy Spirit had already been saying to him. This pattern is one of the ways that God will act on behalf of his children. He spoke to the individual, i.e., Paul, concerning what was ahead of him. Then, he spoke through Agabus to Paul and the community concerning what Paul already knew to be true from the Holy Spirit.
What can be learned from this passage about God’s will? God will not speak to you through someone else what he has not already been speaking to you personally. When he does speak to you in a community setting, it will be confirmation of what he has already said to you. So many followers in the Pentecostal and Charismatic part of the family have been led astray by using this story as a way of giving a “personal word of direction” to a fellow brother or sister. Remember, bad theology just makes you ….[ref]Some interpreters find in this story that Paul disobeyed God’s will and then was imprisoned. He is viewed as being stubborn, strong-willed, and proud in his own ability to hear from God and not willing to listen to the community as the Spirit gave utterance.[/ref]
Prophecy as a Kind of Warning
In 2 Kings 6.8-23, we see the gift of prophecy as given to Elisha to warn the King of Israel of impending danger. Elisha gave the word to the king in the form of a warning. “Beware of passing that place, because the Arameans are going down there” (6.9). This certainly provided information about God’s will for the army of Israel.
These are only two illustrations of how God acts to guide his children using the prophetic gift. In the case of Paul, it confirmed what he already knew from the Spirit. In the case of the King of Israel, it provided a clear word for the army’s need for protection and safety from their enemy. We can be assured from these stories that God cares about our safety and will provide a supernatural word for us to protect us. You can expect that God will also speak to present communities in the same way. It is his will to speak and no amount of googling God’s will, will help us discover this. It is his initiative, not ours.
Teaching and Pastoral Guidance
We do not often think of God using a supernatural voice to guide us (unless we live in a charismatic community that often sees this function as the only way in which God speaks). Remember, that God gives the situational gracelet of pastor-teacher to the body as one who at the moment of pastoring is an equipper of the children of God so they can do the work of God in this present evil age. This situational gracelet guides in sharing and showing what God wants his children to become. This whole process is just as supernatural as any of the other gracelets given through us by the Spirit. I am not talking about advice on buying houses, dating, marriage, etc. I am talking about guiding the community of which he or she may serve (preferably a he and a she) as under-shepherd(s) into knowing and doing the works of Jesus. After all, the writings of the New Testament were sermons to demonstrate how God acts with his family. And yes, one of them, Hebrews, may have been written by a woman.
Beyond Natural Events
In addition to the above ways in which God shares his will in our journey, there are other events beyond our natural realm to which we should look. First, we will observe the “time-honored” idea of “putting out a fleece.” Second, we will look briefly at angels and visions. Finally, we will talk a bit about fasting.
Putting Out a Fleece
If as a follower of Jesus you haven’t ever heard of this idea, don’t worry about it. Some followers of Jesus, at one time or another, have tried to determine God’s will for their lives by “putting out a fleece” (a Christianese statement, if there ever was one) in which they were trying to determine a “yes” or a “no” answer from God concerning his direction for them in advance of making a decision.
This idea is all based on a story in Judges 6 in the Old Testament about a guy named Gideon placing (may indicate “on the ground” or “before the Lord,” etc.) a “fleece” (the coat of wool of a sheep or similar animal) and asking for a response from God.
The late John White wrote in his book The Fight:
Gideon’s fleece has become the basis of a practice among some Christians which is called “putting out a fleece.” In essence, when you put out a fleece you say to God, “If you really want me to carry out plan A, then please make the telephone ring at 9:10 P.M., then I will know that plan A is what you want.” (You can make the “fleece” anything you wish, just so long as it can serve as a “sign” to you.)[ref]John White, The Fight: A Practical Handbook to Christian Living (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 165.[/ref]
White goes on to encourage believers with the following advice, “Forget about fleeces. If you’ve never used them, don’t start. If you have, then quit.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] You might be getting the picture that “putting out a fleece” is just another way of googling God’s will.
The two questions to be answered here are: First, was Gideon trying to determine God’s will in advance by putting out a “fleece?” Second, does this give us a model or practice for Jesus followers today?
The historical setting described in Judges 6 argues against the “fleece” as being a method by which Gideon was trying to determine God’s will in advance. In chapter 6, Gideon was told by an angel that he would defeat the enemy of Israel (6.11-16). Gideon requested a sign from God so that he would know that it was really God to whom he was speaking. He received a second supernatural visit from God who consumed by fire the offering that Gideon presented (6.17-24). In 6.33-35, the story informs us that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Gideon. It was then that Gideon asked for another sign to further substantiate that the promise of God was true (6.36-40). Judges 7 tells us that the enemy of Gideon and Israel was defeated.
There are several points that suggest that the contemporary Christian practice of “putting out a fleece” to discern the will of God in one’s life is nothing like what occurred in the story of Gideon in Judges 6.
The “fleece” of wool that Gideon put out was not simply a circumstantial sign. It was a miraculous display of supernatural power. God had already provided several supernatural encounters for Gideon, i.e., the angel, the offering consumed by the fire of God, God speaking to him, and the Spirit of God coming on him. After all these supernatural events, it seems unlikely that Gideon was asking for a mere circumstantial sign to determine God’s will. God had already told him his will.
Gideon was not employing the “fleece” to determine God’s guidance. He was using it to gain confirmation of guidance that God had already given. What Gideon was asking for by the fleece was enough faith to believe that it was God who had spoken (6.37). He was not asking if he was making the right decision.
What Gideon did by this repetitive questioning of God could be interpreted as a display of doubt on his part, rather than being an example of a proper approach to finding God’s will. With all that Gideon had experienced, God’s will was plain. God graciously accepted Gideon’s lack of faith and gave him this final sign. But this does not suggest that Gideon’s perpetual testing of God was appropriate or should be followed by believers today in trying to discern God’s will in life.
This practice may, in fact, be dangerously close to divination.[ref]Divination is the art or act of foretelling future events or revealing occult knowledge by means of augury or an alleged supernatural agency. Divination Answers.com http://www.answers.com/divination (accessed November 23, 2010).[/ref] Requests for signs are often designed to force the hand of God. God does use signs. He did so with Jesus’ mother Mary who was given a sign to confirm the word of God to her. God chose the sign and the time when the sign was given to her. Using fleeces assumes that we have a right to determine the sign, when God should reveal it, and determine how it is to be interpreted. It puts us in the driver’s seat, in control, if you please. This is another way in which the culturally selective value of individualism gets in the way of seeing the plain will of God.
If you remember nothing else about this story, remember this: God is the initiator of guidance. Our difficulty, we don’t allow God to initiate, we jump out in front and tell him to follow our lead. We do not have the freedom to determine the context in which God will speak and guide us. We must let God be God and lead us in the correct paths — one of the many benefits that come from the metaphor of God as a shepherd (Psalm 23). One of the idols of modernity is the idea that the individual is more important than anything else. Is that an idol that you hold on to and worship? God demonstrated in the New Testament that he has no tolerance for those who demand signs to help them believe (The scribes and Pharisees, Matt 12.38-39; Zacharias, Luke 1.11-20).
What we can determine then is that “putting out a fleece” to ascertain God’s direction in advance of a decision is not a biblical motif. Gideon did not use the “fleece” to obtain guidance, but to confirm guidance already given. His motivation was not a desire to do God’s will, but a reluctance to follow God’s guidance because of his own doubts. In the words of John White, “If you’ve never used them, don’t start. If you have, then quit.” Short, to the point, and excellent advice for all Jesus followers using this spurious way of googling to find God’s will.
Angels and Dreams
Our mind can hardly respond to believe that an angel would appear to us to give us guidance. However, this is a frequent way by which God communicated his guidance to his family. The first time we find an angel visiting a human being in the biblical record was the story of Hagar. Then there is Abraham (Gen 22.11, 15; 46.16), Lot (Gen 19.1ff.), Jacob (Gen 28.12), Balaam (Gen 22.22), David (2 Sam 24.17; 1 Chron 21.16; 21.30), Elijah (2 Kings 1.3, 5), Zechariah (Luke 1.13, 18), Mary (Luke 1.20, 24, 30, 34, 38), Joseph (Matt 1.20, 24; 2.13, 2.19), Philip (Acts 8.26), Peter (Acts 12.8), and Paul (Acts 27.21), who all met angels whom God had sent on an errand. We must remember that these visits came quite unexpectedly. The people to whom they came were not fasting and praying for a supernatural angelic event to occur to provide guidance. They came at the initiation of God. They still do!
My late father-in-law told a story of when he was a kid traveling with his father who was a farmer and a circuit-riding Methodist preacher. One evening as he was handing out hymn books to those entering the tent for the meeting, a very well-dressed individual came in and sat on the back row all by himself not far from where my father-in-law was standing. As the musical part of the service began, the individual simply raised his hands and in Pentecostal terms (my father-in-law in his adult life was a Pentecostal preacher), the presence of the Lord quietly appeared in the room, folks raised their hands, wept, knelt, etc., all without prompting from the “song leader.” Then the individual lowered his hands and a natural segue back to the singing of the music occurred. He did this same action during the service two or three times with the same results. Before the end of the service, he walked back past my father-in-law and handed him the hymnal giving him a broad smile and walked out of the tent which was set up in a large open field with only a few cars parked around. This whole series of events amazed my father and caught his curiosity, so he followed the individual outside as he put it, “in no more than fifteen seconds.” The individual was nowhere to be seen or found. No cars left. No one was walking away from the tent. He had simply disappeared. After the service was over, my father-in-law told his father what he had observed. In a simple word, his dad told him, “must have been an angel.”
I know, I know, it’s difficult for us Westerners to get our heads wrapped around such a story. But, it surely could have happened and may still happen. Here’s an interesting side tale. To my knowledge other than telling the story a few times over the years, my father-in-law or his dad did not make this a centerpiece of ministry and hype and spin it to their advantage. One wonders what could be learned from that action within churches today who thrive on abundant stories that grow bigger and bigger with the telling. Thinking critically about that story, what if it was an angel, what if it was his job that night to be the portal for the presence of God for those gathered in a way that change happened in the lives of these people and God’s will for their lives in that present moment was accomplished.
Joseph and the Angel of the Lord
The stories in Matthew surrounding the birth of Jesus demonstrate how God’s will can be lived into, which is one step at a time. In these stories, Joseph was guided in a supernatural fashion. He was guided by a series of dreams and angelic visitations. Here is a summary of the story.
First, Joseph was guided to marry Mary when visited by an angel (1.20-24). The book of Hebrews, written by and to a second-generation church, tells us that angels are ministering spirits who are sent to serve the ones who are believers (Heb 1.14). It is not impossible today for you to have a visit from an angel to guide you. If it does occur, it will be to help you within the community as it did for Joseph for the larger community of humankind. Second, Joseph was guided to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus (2.13-14). This is the second occurrence where Joseph is given guidance by a supernatural-transrational means. Third, Joseph was guided by an angel to leave Egypt. This was not unlike God’s children leaving Egypt (2.19-21). Finally, Joseph was guided to go to Galilee (2.22). There is supernatural guidance that can and will occur in your life. Be prepared for the unexpected!
To help his reader understand how this supernatural guidance occurs in the life of Joseph, Matthew shares a pattern which the angel used in his communication with Joseph. When he was told to marry Mary (1.20-24), this is the pattern that materialized:
- First, there was a command (v. 20a): “take Mary home as your wife.”
- Second, there was an explanation of the command (20b): “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
- Third, there was another command (v. 21a): “you are to give him the name Jesus.”
- Fourth, there was another explanation (v. 21b): “because he will save his people from their sins.”
- Finally, there was a response (v. 24): “Joseph did what the angel of the Lord commanded.”
When Joseph was told to go to Egypt (2.13-14), you can see the same pattern transpiring.
- First, there was a command (v. 13a): “Get up … take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there.”
- Second, an explanation of the command (v. 13b): “for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
- Finally, there was a response (v. 14): “So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt…,” In this case, there was an immediate response.
In the third illustration, there is the same design. Joseph was directed to leave Egypt (2.19-21).
- First, there was the command (v. 20a): “get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel.”
- Second, an explanation of the command (v. 20b): “for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
- Finally, the response (v. 21): “So he got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.”
You can plainly see that the pattern that God used in all three occurrences was the same:
- He gave a command.
- He gave an explanation for the command.
- There was an expected response.
What we can construe from Matthew’s story about Joseph is that God speaks in this fashion. The biggest downfall of Jesus followers in trying to follow God’s supernatural guidance is to move too fast—to hear the command and be on the move before we understand the reason for the command. Becoming a cautious optimist is one of the most useful tools for any Jesus follower to adopt. We may note that this activity did not come about because Joseph was fasting and praying to hear from God. These angelic visits are the acts of God for his family, Joseph and Mary, and for Jesus himself. They are for us as well.
Paul and the Angel
Another example is the story of Paul’s fourth shipwreck in Acts 27. (In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul wrote that he had been shipwrecked three times. This was written before this shipwreck, which is recorded in Acts 27).
On his way to Rome as a prisoner, Paul warned those on the ship by saying, “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” A storm occurred that nearly destroyed them and in Acts 27.21 Paul says, “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss.” Then he exhorts them to continue because he has heard from God. By an angel, God encouraged Paul that he and his shipmates would live because Paul would stand trial before Caesar.
We will use two biblical narratives, which will demonstrate this concept.
| Peter’s Vision
The first is Peter’s vision in Acts 10.9-23. It was noon when Peter went to the roof to pray. While there, he became hungry waiting for the noon meal to be prepared. While Peter was hungry, God broke into his circumstance and spoke to him, sharing his will in regard to the Gentile, Cornelius.
One point that this passage teaches implicitly is that God spoke to Peter using the physical focus of Peter as a tool. Peter was hungry. God gave him a vision of food and told him in the dialogue what to do about the food.
This suggests to us that we do not have to work up some “spiritual” posturing to manipulate God into hearing his will for us. God is shrewd enough to speak to us in our natural everyday circumstances. We really can be supernaturally natural.
| Paul’s Vision
Another example is Acts 16 in which we see the story of Paul wanting to minister. He was continually on the move, but is halted by the Spirit. Finally, in a vision, a man from Macedonia visited him and told him to come to Macedonia and help. The point to note is that Paul was not sitting still waiting to find out what God wanted him to do. God’s will was occurring during his own movement to find places to minister. In short, he wasn’t googling to get an answer. We are so prone sometimes to wait, want a sign, get a clue before we do anything because we have a deep-seated fear that we will miss what we are really supposed to do. All the time, God is hoping that we will find what he is already doing where we are and put our hands to it. We live so backwards.
The direction was where to go so that he could continue his proclamation of the gospel. The results: One town threw him in jail. Another checked out everything he said. In Athens, they laughed at him. In Corinth, I believe that Paul was ready to quit when God spoke to him in a vision and told him to stop being afraid and keep on speaking (Acts 18.9-11). God also told Paul in the vision that he was with him and would allow no harm to come to him. Finally, God told Paul in this vision that he had many people in the city of Corinth. Acts 18.11 says that Paul stayed for 18 months teaching them the word of God. Again, while this looks like it was an individual discovering God’s will, it was really an individual who was already working for God in a community and was being told by God to stay and minister to the community. There are numerous other examples of God’s will being comprehended through visions. It looks certain that while Paul received the vision, the community often helped him understand the validity.
Fasting is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Christianity. We have used it to try to get God to do something for us. Our way of fasting may just be yet another way of googling God’s will. However, fasting is not to be done so that we can receive something from God. Fasting is something we do because we have become a part of God’s family. God initiates—we fast. Jesus did not decide to go into the wilderness, depending on which Gospel writer you read: he was either “led” into the wilderness or “driven” into the wilderness by the Spirit. God initiated and Jesus followed, then fasting occurred.
An often-used example of fasting and God’s will is the story shared by Luke in Acts 13. We are told that there were prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch (13.1). While the church was worshiping and fasting, the Spirit spoke. We should note here that the Spirit spoke while they were worshiping and fasting. The late F. F. Bruce, a noted British scholar, stated in his commentary on Acts that he believed that there are indications that believers were especially sensitive to the Spirit’s communication during fasting.[ref]F. F. Bruce. The Book of Acts. (Grand Rapids, MI. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 245-246.[/ref] Their worship and fast were not to gain direction from God, but merely a part of their piety. After the Spirit spoke to them, they still fasted and prayed longer before they responded to the word of the Spirit. This indicates that they wished to be sure that what the Spirit had said was, in fact, what they should do.
How do fasting and God’s will come together? Surely this section of Scripture shows us that fasting is not something that makes God our puppet. Fasting was a part of the early church’s piety. During that special time with God, he may choose to speak to us and share his will. But we must be cautious rather than quickly run right out and do what we believe he is telling us to do. One must note here that this was a community activity rather than an individual activity. That’s so difficult for us to get our head around because we have been taught that fasting is a way to get God to do what we would like for him to do.
God does use supernatural means to help believers know his will, but “putting out a fleece” is not one of those supernatural ways, while an angelic visitation is a real possibility along with visions and fasting.