November 29, 2011
Sometimes I am asked to provide a biblical case for my belief that everyday believers can regularly hear God speak to them in various ways. Here, in précis form, is an overview of my answer (for more on this discussion see my book, Kingdom Triangle, along with my co-authored book with Klaus Issler, In Search of a Confident Faith):
- Ancient Near Eastern historical narrative/biography functioned not merely to chronicle events, but to teach theology/ethics. Much of the Bible is this genre and a central theme of Holy Scripture is how we are/are not to relate to God and each other as members of His covenant people. Thus, the examples of God speaking to people (including ordinary people—Gen 25:23, Acts 6:5, and 8:6, Acts 19:1-7, esp. v. 6) throughout both Testaments are meant to teach us how we can expect God to speak (without, of course, expecting God to continue to give authoritative scripture to the whole church).
- God deeply desires intimacy and relationship with his people (cf. Isaiah 58:9-11; Hosea 11:8), and these characteristics obtain among people—human or divine—by regularly speaking to each other. The Bible is an authoritative revelation to the whole church, but intimacy and relationship require personal communication in addition to this (for more on this, see my earlier post here).
- God speaks to people to correct wrong thinking (Phil 3:15; cf. Eph 1:17, I Cor 14:24, 26, 30-31).
- The Holy Spirit speaks to us in applying the Bible’s teaching to our specific situation (I Cor 2:14).
- God speaks to us to give us guidance (Isaiah 30:21, John 10:3,4,16,27, Acts 13:2, 16:6, James 1:5). In the John texts, Jesus says his sheep hear his voice. Some have understood the context to imply that this means that the unsaved hear God’s effectual call to come to salvation. But this has the odd result that we can hear God’s speech/drawing/prompting before we are saved but not afterwards. In fact, the alleged context in John 10 (of unbelievers being called to salvation) can be taken in one of two ways: it defines the meaning of the sheep hearing Jesus’ voice (thus, limiting the text’s meaning to unbelievers) or it determines a range of application in this context (to unbelievers) of a broader principle that applies to all God’s sheep whether before or after salvation. The text does not make clear which is intended, and the latter fits other passages I am citing, the virtually universal experience of Christians, and it avoids the odd result mentioned above.
- Jesus is our model in communicating with God (John 5:19). Jesus is not speaking about His unique prerogative as God or Messiah, because the context is Jesus doing the works of the Father due to Jesus’ intimate communication with Him (and subsequent empowerment by the Holy Spirit), and Jesus explicitly says that we will do greater works than he did (John 14:12). If Jesus needed to be lead by the Father in this, how much more do we? Moreover, it is now widely acknowledged by NT scholars that Jesus did what he did as a human being we are to model ourselves after in dependence on the filling of the Holy Spirit and in communication with the Father (cf. I Cor 11:1, I Thes 1:6). Finally, Jesus delegated his authority to us and we need the same tools he needed to carry out that delegation.
- God sometimes speaks by placing impressions in our minds (Nehemiah 2:12) and through a still small voice (I Kings 19:12).
- Regarding the claim that when God speaks, it is clear and we don’t have to learn to hear his voice, (A) it seems that Samuel needed to learn to distinguish/hear God’s voice (I Sam 3:1-21); (B) there was a school of prophets in the Old Testament and, among other things, it would seem natural to think that they were learning to discern/hear God’s voice; (C) In the NT, prophesy is a gift that, as will other gifts like teaching or evangelism, grows and develops with time and experience as one learn to enter more fully into the practice of that gift. That is why there were tests of prophesy (I Cor 14:29, I Thes 5:19-22), viz., that as people learned to hear God, they sometimes made mistakes and gave words sincerely though they were mistaken. (D) We have to learn God’s most authoritative speech, the Bible, through hermeneutics, exegetical practice and so forth, and many believers are mistaken about what exactly is God’s biblical speech (in debates in textual criticism and differences between Catholics and Protestants about which books belong in the canon). If God has allowed there to be differences about what belongs in Holy Scripture and we have to work hard to learn to rightly divide it, why can’t there be differences about whether a personal communication was/was not from God and effort needed to learn how to understand such communication?
For further considerations about objections to “hearing God,” you might be interested in this ongoing series by Tim Bayless.