Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Holy Spirit Speaks and Guides, But How?

Last year, our pastor undertook a profitable study of Acts that extended over several months.  During the study, I noticed recurring statements concerning the Holy Spirit’s work in and through the work of the gospel.  Using Bible software, I was surprised to discover 54 explicit references to the Spirit’s person and work from the first chapter (Ac 1:5) to the last (Ac 28:25).  While the Holy Spirit is God and therefore immutable, how are we to relate this activity to our day?

Planned Obsolescence
With all the divine activity in the book of Acts, one can understand the emphasis some wings of Christendom place on active, phenomenological manifestations in our time.  Jesus empowered His disciples with the ability to perform miracles (Mt 10:8), even being surprised that they were unable to perform an exorcism later in their ministry (Mt 17:16, 19).  Before ascending, He promised they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Ac 1:8; cf. Mk 16:17–18).  In addition, evidence of continuing manifestations were recorded in Corinth (1Co 12:4–10; 14:26–33).

While these manifestations were still occurring, an examination of the New Testament chronology shows a decrease in their use.  While miracles accompanied the apostles from the Day of Pentecost through Paul’s third missionary journey (Ac 19:11–12), the remainder is largely bereft of such save for visitations to Paul by the Lord (Ac 23:11) and an angel (Ac 27:23–24), plus the snakebite on Malta (Ac 28:1–6).  From the flow of the narrative, miraculous signs and leadings were typical as the apostles went to new people groups, but after the gospel was declared and churches established, the manifestations reduced in number.

The process of being witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” is a natural growth much as we would see in any individual.  We can see this on a small scale in Paul’s first letter to Corinth, where he outlined to that splintered group of believers how individual members worked together in a body (chap. 12) then later gave practical tips for their gatherings (chap. 14).  Between these two chapters, the apostle gives what is often called the “Love Chapter” (chap. 13).  While this section speaks much of love, the emphasis is too often reduced to romance and sentimentality.  Paul attempted to describe how the believers were to move from their divisions and pride to a mature, unified body, wherein the love of Christ was to be the outstanding characteristic of this maturation process.  Gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, which were vital to the establishing and early growth, was to give way to a mature love.

Paul uses two comparative examples to solidify the point.  The first, childhood vs. adulthood, is clear.  We adults understand the changes in maturity level, responsibility, and relationship that come with aging.  The second, obscured understanding vs. clear, is less certain because the phrase “face to face” evokes thoughts of our final meeting with Christ:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.  (1Jo 3:2)
However, a correlation to John’s epistle would be incorrect.  In the Scriptures, a face to face meeting is one in which the participants interact in order to understand one another.  In the context of 1 Corinthians 13, then, Paul’s use is simply another rhetorical device to describe the movement from immaturity to maturity.

Are We Missing the Point?
If spiritual maturity is of greater significance than manifestations, are we misunderstanding the Holy Spirit’s ministry?  Have some believers so built up a doctrine centered on personal revelation and manifestation that they apply their theology to Acts rather than allow the text to speak itself?  There are many points of denominational disagreement based on their theological understanding of different biblical texts, and Bible scholars are not immune to placing their presuppositions in the biblical narrative.  More than once, I have read a commentary that explained the text with something like, “This is what the passage says, but that is not what it means,” followed by an explanation based on his or her doctrinal bias.

Christians of different backgrounds can agree on what is intended when speaking of the Holy Spirit anointing, baptism, filling, indwelling, empowering, etc., though understanding of the expected manifestations will differ.  The difficulty comes in understanding and applying the Spirit’s speaking and guiding (or leading).

Ac 1:16, 20
Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, … “May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it;” and “Let another take his office.”
Ac 28:25
And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet…”

Ac 8:29
And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.”
Ac 10:19
And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.”
Ac 11:12
And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.  These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house.
Ac 21:11
And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’”
The first two verses are set apart to demonstrate that the Spirit spoke in the Scriptures, but notice that in both cases the identified speaker is someone else: the first passage has David’s expressions to God, and the second appears to be a theophany of Jesus to Isaiah.  Neither is attributed to the Holy Spirit, yet He is speaking.  We can deduce that the Spirit uses the Word of God to speak, this seems to be borne out in the remaining passages.  Philip had first received instruction from an angel to be at the appropriate spot in the road.  Peter first received a vision from the Lord before the visitors came.  Agabus was an active prophet in Judea (Ac 11:28) who affirmed and clarified what Paul expected.  We can see, then, that the normal course of communication for the Holy Spirit is through revelation spoken by the prophets as confessed in the Nicene Creed.

Ac 16:6–10
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.  And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.  So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.  And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Ac 19:21
Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.”
Ac 21:4
And having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days.  And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
These three episodes in Paul’s clearly demonstrate the guiding work of the Holy Spirit, but there is no explicit method described.  Those advocating an active mystical or supernatural movement will say the believers received a prompting or “inner voice” to determine their courses of action: what Paul and the disciples said or did was in accord with divine counsel and working outside that would be considered sinful.

The first passage, with the verbiage having been forbidden … did not allow them … a vision appeared, is the most consistent with direct intervention by the Holy Spirit.  This would be consistent with the active involvement accorded to Him, however, there is no indication what the negative commands entailed nor to whom they were delivered.  Since only the effect is mentioned, there remains the possibility that Luke, not currently with the team, rejoining at Troas where Paul received the Macedonian call, was summarizing how the Spirit orchestrated the team’s journey through that region, instead emphasizing the subsequent gospel expansion westward.  Whichever case might be accurate, an active, direct leading from the Holy Spirit would not have been considered typical decades, much less centuries, later.

The second passage is debated, because translators are mixed as to whether πνευμα is speaking of the Holy Spirit or an individual’s spirit: both are acceptable.  Whichever translation is used, the force of the sentence is not changed.  Luke is describing Paul’s God-instilled determination fueled by three principle reasons: desiring for his brethren after the flesh to believe in their Messiah (Ro 10:1), longing to encourage and be encouraged by the Roman church (Ro 1:9–13), and planning for the furtherance of the gospel westward to Spain (Ro 15:24, 28).

In the final passage, a difficulty remains.  When the disciples advise through the Spirit, their counsel is in direct contradiction to Paul’s testimony that he was constrained by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem (Ac 20:22).  Are either the disciples or Paul sinning in their claims, or is the Holy Spirit contradicting Himself?  Left with only these two options, we would be forced to choose the former as true, however, the most logical conclusion is that neither party were making a decision based on a direct revelation from the Holy Spirit but were operating and making decisions consistent with what had been revealed through Scripture weighed against desire to minister and expectations of future difficulty based on past experiences.  Much like the decision wherein Paul and Barnabas parted ways over the inclusion of John Mark (Ac 15:36-41), there were strong differences of opinion over future ministry, but neither party sinned or erred.

Ac 13:1-2, 4
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.  While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” … So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
Ac 15:28–29
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.  Farewell.
Ac 20:22–23
And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.
Three occasions in Paul’s ministry the Holy Spirit was actively speaking and guiding to make His intentions known.  Notice in this triplet a shift in the Spirit’s operation as time progressed.  In Antioch, the prophets and teachers were involved in their spiritual service (λειτουργια, leitourgia) when the Holy Spirit made Himself known.  Ministering to or serving the Lord was the regular tabernacle and temple activity of the three divisions of Levites based on the direction God had revealed in the Scriptures.  The prophets and teachers in Antioch were going about the same type of activity in the regular meetings of the assembly.  This concerted work, plus, the reception of the same message, indicates that no individualism was involved: the Holy Spirit set apart two by speaking to all five.

After prayer and fasting in preparation for commissioning, Barnabas and Paul were sent out as directed.  One may wonder if there was a divine reasoning for traveling east instead of a different direction.  The most logical possibility is that the two men wanted to use the easily accessible transportation routes to spread the message quickly through the empire.  While good, safe roads are not technically a spiritual reason for furthering the gospel, not all aspects of a ministry are divinely dictated.  We were and are presented options that are not any more or less proper before God, but one may be more advantageous depending on circumstances.

At the council in Jerusalem, those assembled had determined to pass along to the new believers what seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us, supplying a short list of suggestions.  In trying to determine how the Spirit made known that these things were good, we need search no further than earlier in the council proceedings (Ac 15:12–21).  Looking back at James’ remarks, we see him referring to a prophecy in Amos 9:11–12, stating the Lord’s intent to include Gentiles in the restoration followed by practical instructions from the Mosaic Law so as not to offend the Jews.  Even though the Spirit did not give direct or mystical input in this discussion, the brethren understood that He was speaking through the Scriptures, and they could accord His hand and approval on their instructions to the new believers.

The final passage has already been partially examined in contrast to other disciples warning Paul against his planned trip to Jerusalem.  Paul, while encouraging and warning the elders of Ephesus during a stop in Miletus, makes known to them that his trip was in accord with his own desire and God’s intention.  The only question we have is in how the Holy Spirit testified of imprisonment and afflictions.  Did He communicate directly to Paul of the approaching difficulties?  Was Paul surmising based on past and current experiences?  Or did his conclusion comprise both?  All are possible, though we might legitimately favor the first.  Since the apostolic work was not yet complete, the reassuring presence and leading of the Spirit would be necessary for the ensuing travails: they were unique to Paul alone.

First, while the Holy Spirit was active in providing supernatural signs and gifts while the apostles were active in spreading the gospel of Christ, there is sufficient evidence that this was not to be a regular, continuing phenomenon within the local assembly.  While God is sovereign in all His dealings, there are clear indicators that the Holy Spirit would not be supplying gifts, leading, and communications in the way given as the message went from Judea into Samaria and Gentile areas (cf. Ac 1:8).  The Church was intended to mature so that some spiritual manifestations would no longer be needed, being replaced by a thoroughgoing love for one another as the ultimate sign (Jn 13:34–35).

Second, we can see that individual communication directly from the Holy Spirit was the exception, rather than the rule, with the Scriptures being the source of certainty.  Believers of the earliest church understood that God spoke through the fathers and prophets until His Son came as the final Word.  The delivery of the Word continued after the Ascension through the ministration of the apostles and prophets as led by the Spirit in accord with past revelation, demonstrating that the entire Godhead was at work in revelation from beginning to end.  Personal communication or prompting by the Spirit occurred infrequently to select individuals.  More often, the Spirit would make known the message to a group for mutual confirmation.

For centuries there has been a desire in the Church for a personal, one-on-one relationship with God.  This has caused His people to move from the sure footing of Scripture and instead look inward to current inclinations, perceptions, and emotions in an endeavor to instill fervency in His people.  While the intentions might be laudable, the practices have left fleeting and mixed results.  An alleged personal word or prompting from the Lord delivered apart from what Scripture clearly states must be considered suspect or invalid regardless of how pertinent the message may be to the ears.  We are not called to heed cleverly devised tales or our inner leading, but rely on God’s Word.  It is there that the Holy Spirit still speaks and guides as it is faithfully taught in the presence of witnesses.


Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Some good work there, Steve. Excellent examination.

Steve Bricker said...

Glenn, thank you. I am constantly amazed what can be learned simply by paying attention to both the text and the teacher.

John Wiers said...

Steve, another additional point-- I'm indebted to R. Gaffin of Westminster Seminary for this-- is that each of the manifestation of supernatural outpourings-- such as speaking in tongues-- in the book of Acts is connected with another stage in the movement of redemptive history.

The theme of the book of Acts-- 1:8-- is you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. The movement of redemptive history is geographical and each of these places is geographically connected with one of those supernatural manifestations in the book of Acts.

In other words, the supernatural manifestations of tongues, etc, are the signs that redemptive history is moving to another place and including another group of people. Understanding this helps us to see that these are dealing with redemptive history among groups of people and not a model for individuals to expect to imitate.

This insight was very helpful for me and crucial to my thinking on the subject.

Thanks again for your good work here.

Steve Bricker said...

John, I had something like that in the back of my mind as I wrote but did not properly express it. Thanks for your input.