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10. Knowing what is of God

Acts 8vs9-25; 16vs6-10. Church Growing Pains.

One of Paul's prayers for the church is stated in Philippians 1vs9-11. "And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ - to the glory and praise of God." To be able to discern what is best is a vital key to successful Christian living. How did these early Christians know what God was telling them to do? How could they discriminate between a move of God and the enemy's action? The Greek word used by Paul to the Philippians is the same one John uses in 1 John 4vs1 when he urges Christians to "test the spirits" rather than accepting that everything spiritual comes from God. It was a word used in the metal business for being able to detect real gold from fool's gold, the genuine article from the counterfeit. In John's letter, and in Paul's to the Philippians, the contexts point to the Holy Spirit's witness within the believer's heart being the acid test. A heart soaked in Scripture, moved with compassion, sensitive to the present situation and yet firmly fixed on the ultimate goal, will have a firm assurance from God concerning decisions made and actions taken.

As we survey the book of Acts there are dozens of occasions when the church was confronted with possibilities and needed to make choices. We are not told in the narrative precisely how they came to their conclusions although there are a number of clues we can follow which point us in the right direction. God does not usually hide His will from His children. Our Lord Jesus Christ gave us a triple promise that still remains absolutely reliable. "Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you", Matthew 7vs7. Our Father in heaven guides His children through the Holy Spirit He has placed within our hearts.

Immediately the Holy Spirit came to rest on the disciples at Pentecost He enabled them to interpret and explain events. When the crowd assembled trying to discover what was happening as the Galilean disciples declared God's wonders in languages intelligible to a whole variety of nationalities, Peter was in a position to be clear and precise. He explained that drunkenness was not the cause of this event. Rather, "this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel" and he quotes Joel 2vs28-32. Peter knew what God was doing as the Holy Spirit brought to his mind the prophecy of Joel and helped him to apply it to the day. Being with Jesus Christ regularly in the synagogues and listening to His teaching would have planted the seeds of truth into Peter's mind. Now God makes them grow. The seeds bear fruit. It is obvious that Scripture was uppermost in Peter's mind because he quotes from Joel 2, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 in his sermon. He applies Joel to Pentecost and the Psalms to the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. This application of Scripture was to become a hallmark of his preaching. In Acts 3vs24 he appeals to the message of Scripture from Samuel onwards through all of the prophets. He says they foretold current events. In Acts 4vs11 he quotes another Psalm concerning the rejection of Jesus Christ by the Jews. By vs25 the Christians are using Scriptures in prayer to give themselves confidence against their persecutors. Verse 31 clearly links together the fulness of the Holy Spirit and bold use of God's word. The writer of Acts, Dr Luke, drew attention at the close of his gospel to one of Jesus' priorities towards the end of his ministry. On the road to Emmaus he talked with two disciples who were discussing the events of the last few traumatic days. "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself," Luke 24vs27. Back in Jerusalem's upper room Jesus joined the perplexed disciples and "He said to them, 'This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms'. Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures," Luke 24vs44, 45.

Obviously, one very important way to know what is of God is to develop a good working knowledge of the Bible. The Word of God makes us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, 2 Timothy 3vs15. It is the sword of the Holy Spirit, Ephesians 6vs17. A good soldier would use his sword in both attack and defence. A growing Christian will learn to do the same with his Bible. The Bible is like an electric fence. It can keep what it wants to keep inside the field and it can keep out what ought to be kept outside. And like an electric fence, the Bible is most effective when used in connection with the power supply. The Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures are a powerful combination.

As we look through a number of other examples of ways we can know what is of God and what is not, please remember this. None of these other occasions ever led the early church to do things, to accept things or to pursue things that were in any way contrary to the Scriptures. Since God speaks to us using the Bible, His word, it is certain that He will never contradict His word using any other way of speaking. Every time He speaks He concurs with Scripture. We will see in a moment that He may lead by a vision, He may lead through consensus of people, He may lead through a kind of spiritual hunch, He may lead through an investigative process, He may lead in other ways, but He will never go back on His word or go against His own revealed will.

In Acts 3vs2-7 Peter knew God's will when the beggar asked him for money. He did not give the man what he asked for, but he gave him what he needed, in Jesus Christ's name. During sick visiting the saints of Lydda Peter again received a word from God in his spirit to pronounce healing on Aeneas. People turned to the Lord Jesus Christ (not to Peter) when the bedridden man could walk again, Acts 9vs32-35. Luke records a specific time of prayer in Joppa before Dorcas/Tabitha was raised from the dead through the very quiet and gentle words: "Tabitha, get up". Not even a mention of Jesus' name! Peter was learning that God gives discernment in every situation as to what He wants to be done. Only the man or woman who is living in obedience and openness to God's will can know and use this inside knowledge that God gives 13vs9, 10. Paul knew it in Acts 14vs9 and 28vs8. Proverbs 1vs5 says "Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance." King Solomon himself had prayed at the beginning of his reign "Give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?" 1 Kings 3vs9.

In Acts 5vs3 Peter knew that Ananias was not speaking the truth, and similarly with Sapphira in vs9. Notice that Peter had to act in faith, trusting God that the discernment given was true. Whether it was for healing the sick or confronting the hypocritical, discernment had to be given the visual monitor of faith in order to be seen to be true. In Acts 8vs18-23 Peter discerned from the actions of Simon the sorcerer, that his heart was still inclined more for the power over people than the pure work of God. He wanted to buy the power of influence.

In Acts 15vs9 we read that even Peter had problems knowing what God was doing. In Herod's prison and awaiting a similar execution to James, he was astonished by an angel leading him out of prison. (It had happened to him before, 5vs19, 20, but he was still amazed and incredulous!) He was not sure whether it was a vision or a real event. Discernment is essential because it is not enough simply to read from the circumstances. James had been arrested like Peter. To follow just the same sequence of events, Peter would be executed too. But no! This time God intervened to release his servant. He had more work for him to do before Peter would be granted rest in heaven. Another way the church knew God's will was by a consensus decision of the whole church body. In Acts 6 all the disciples were gathered by the Twelve and told to choose seven administrators for the food relief programme. We don't know if it was a vote or what precise method was used, but we do know it was a unanimous approval, vs 5 "this proposal pleased the whole group". Paul and Barnabas "appointed elders" or "had elders elected" in Lystra, Iconium and Antioch similarly.

There is no such decision recorded in the Bible about the plan to relocate everybody except the apostles outside of Jerusalem. It was simply an immediate response to the intense persecution stirred up by Saul, 8vs1, 2. There was little time to call a meeting, pray and fast - a response had to be made individually and immediately. And God used that decision to spread the preaching of the Gospel. His will was being carried out. In Acts 8vs14-17 and also 11vs22 the church leadership hear of blessing on missions that they had not authorised. They exercise their responsibility by sending trustworthy men to investigate, to work alongside what is happening, and to eventually bring a report back. In the first instance, Peter and John confirm the work of evangelist Philip in Samaria. Peter and John used their gifts of Holy Spirit empowered teaching to encourage the converted Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit, 8vs17, and to learn the word of God, 8vs25. In the second example, at Antioch, the investigator sent is Barnabas. His fourfold ministry is an example for us:-

1. He sees evidence of God at work, 11vs23.

2. He encourages the people in their relationship with Jesus Christ, 11vs23.

3. He keeps evangelising, 11vs24.

4. He educates the converts in Christian belief and Christian lifestyle 11vs26.

The church as a whole, in Jerusalem and in Antioch, knew God's will through the spiritually sensitive men it sent to investigate what it had heard. Instead of making the church expand only in line with its own plan, the early church was spiritually alive enough to adapt its own plans and incorporate what God was doing through other people too.

In my ministry I have been in churches that are praying for God to work a mighty renewing revival. When things happen in a housegroup, in a nearby fellowship, in the youth work, they are not seen as the answer to prayer because they are not the precise way God has worked before. They were not the expected answer. Sadly, criticism and condemnation take the place of inspired investigation and often damaging splits occur where God was deliberately stretching his people.

Other ways God led His people in Acts included speaking through angels, Acts 8vs26, where an angel told Philip to leave the mission in Samaria in order to meet a man on the Gaza strip. Philip's obedience took the gospel into Africa. In Acts 9vs10 God called Ananias in a vision to meet with Saul of Tarsus. One by one God answered Ananias' objections and his obedience led to the church's mission into Asia minor and Europe. In Acts 10vs3-6 and 10vs9-17 Cornelius and Peter are drawn together by God through a combination of visions, an angel, a trance and the voice of the Lord. Notice how the non-Christian Cornelius was led to invite into his home someone who could share Christ with him. Notice too, how Peter was led to do something he had never done before, going to a Gentile home, but it was a leading into the fulfilment of Scripture and not against Scripture, Acts 1vs8, Matthew 28vs18, 19. The confirmation for Peter was in vs47 "Can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have."

The collective church was not entirely happy with Peter going to the Gentiles. They show us another way of knowing God's guidance in Acts chapter 11 and it is similarly repeated with Paul and Barnabas in Acts15. In Acts 11vs4 Peter gives an accurate testimony in the presence of those who are being critical of his actions. As he does so, God melts their objections away vs18. It is a more formal Council set up in Acts 15 to hear Paul and Barnabas show that Mosaic law is unnecessary for Gentile converts to Christianity. In vs6, 7 there is much discussion, with both sides having put their views, vs4, 5. James draws the assembly to its conclusion vs13 having listened to all sides and to the Holy Spirit too. The council carefully communicates its decision both in writing and with respected people who can explain and answer questions as to the meaning of the words. Vs31 says the people were encouraged at what was shared, obviously witnessing God was at work.

There is a great danger in talking about different points of view only with people who agree with you. That fosters division, not unity. When everyone wants to know what God is doing and saying there need be no fear of open and honest sharing of testimony and debate on the application of Scripture. Mutual respect is often a prelude to mutual agreement. Even if the agreement is the lowest possible - "You go your way and I'll go mine" - agreement on that is infinitely preferable to ongoing acrimonious accusation and counter-accusation.

In Acts 11vs27, 28 the church knew God's will through the prophet Agabus accurately predicting a future famine. (He also predicted Paul's Roman imprisonment Acts 21vs10, 11). The church took action in faith in sending a collection from their own resources to help alleviate suffering.

In Acts 13vs2 the Holy Spirit spoke to the Antioch church leadership about mission as they fasted and prayed. Whether it was through the Bible, the word of a leader, a letter from someone in the congregation, or what, we don't know. But everyone there knew it was God who was speaking. Paul and Barnabas were released from mission. However they did not always move on in such 'spiritually nice' circumstances. In 13vs50 they moved on when "expelled" from Antioch in Pisidia. In 14vs6 they "fled" from Iconium hearing of a plot to stone them. In 14vs19-20 they were actually physically stoned before they left for Derbe. In 16vs39-40 they were requested to leave Philippi by the town's officials. They kept one step ahead of Jewish agitators in Thessalonica, 17vs10, and in Berea, 17vs14. They changed direction because of another Jewish plot in Greece, 20vs3. God's leading can come in a variety of ways, from the heavenly vision to the natural instinct for self-preservation. The important thing is to know and to do God's will.

In Acts 16vs6, 7 Paul, Silas and Timothy were not allowed by the Holy Spirit to preach in Asia or Bithynia. It was obviously not God's time or they were not God's chosen instruments for that place. Their commission was clearly to go to every person in every place, but here God Himself said "Not now, not you". Galatians 5vs25 says "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit". Enthusiasm, while a great asset in Christian service, must be submitted to the Lordship of Christ day by day. Otherwise it can easily lead into the second-best and not God's best.

In Acts 17vs2 there is a Biblical basis for doing something because you have always done it. "As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures."

Some years ago a young man came up and asked me how to go about testing a call he believed he had to the pastoral ministry. I encouraged him to share his testimony with me and then I advised him to explore Bible College possibilities through correspondence and phone calls, but also to keep working in his own fellowship. By volunteering to the leaders to do some pastoral visiting, some outreach with young people and some selected discipling under their direction the leaders could test his call with him. "Keep doing what you are doing and gradually expand it" I said. The man is excitedly pursuing God's will for his life now.

In Acts 18vs1-3 Paul met with Aquila and Priscilla at Corinth and worked with them because he had similar skills. He was overcoming a long period of hard ministry before arriving there. After some witness to the Jews in the synagogue abuse drove him outside to go to those who would listen and receive his message, vs6. God graciously confirmed this move, after he had made it, with a vision, vs9-10. "Do not be afraid, keep on speaking; do not be silent. For I am with you, and no-one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city." Paul was given courage to continue by the assurance of the presence of Christ.

In Acts 18vs20 Paul encountered one of the hardest tests in knowing and doing God's will. He was asked by God-fearing people to stay on and keep ministering to them in the Ephesian synagogue. It is so hard to say 'No'. I have known times when because it was a big organisation asking me to help, it would be easy to say 'Yes'. I have known other times when because it would mean travelling to a wealthy country like America, it would be easy to say 'Yes'. I have also known times when I was asked to stay on in places even though God was calling me on. To say 'No' is hard, because it is great to be wanted. But to say 'No' is necessary because to be obedient is the only option for a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

Paul submitted to friends and officials and did not appear before the Ephesian mob even though he wanted to, Acts 19vs30, 31. Yet, on another occasion, he insisted in going on to Jerusalem even though his team and the believers around all tried to persuade him otherwise, 21vs12-14. I remember not becoming a Boys Brigade officer when everyone in my church, including my spiritual father, the B.B. captain, was sure it was what I should do. God led me into a ministry with a music group where I would give my testimony and help hump the gear in and out of their van. Through that I met Ambassadors For Christ evangelists and became aware of their training school. When I went to Katoomba, NSW, Australia I met my future wife, Brenda, and after completing the Bible College course we were invited back to Britain to become involved with the work of AFC in Britain, where we have served God since 1971. It all began by saying 'No' to everyone except to God.

Paul also used his spiritual common sense to warn the Ephesian elders about attacks on the fledgling church when he moved on, Acts 20vs29,30. He did not need a special revelation, simply a review of what had happened elsewhere. His experience led him to give a solemn warning of what could be expected, to the men who had the ongoing responsibility.

In Acts 21vs20-26 Paul ceremonially purified himself and his team in Jerusalem because godly men had shared with him that doing this would demolish one stumbling block to people hearing his message.

In Acts 23vs6 Paul stirred up differences between Sanhedrin members by deliberate references to the resurrection. He knew one party would agree while another would not. He used this to his advantage. His guidance came through his knowledge of the parties arrayed against him.

Finally, when Paul was given a confirmation that he would testify in Rome, Acts23vs11, he took every step he could to get there - to help God's purpose along. He protected himself when he had news of a plot on his life, 23vs17. He trusted himself to the Roman authorities believing God was using them to speed him to Rome, and he took every opportunity of sharing his testimony with people from governors to guards along the way. Even when the ship's captain ignored his advice in putting to sea from a Crete harbour, 27vs10, Paul still retained absolute confidence in God taking him on to Rome unscathed, 27vs25.

Our Lord Jesus Christ said "All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you", John 16vs15. The Spirit speaks to us in many ways, as we have seen, but never in a way that contradicts His own word. Keep your ears listening to God.

Discussion questions

  • If 'spiritual' can be of God or of Satan, how can we distinguish between God's leading, God's restraining and Satan's temptation?

  • Does “circumstances”

+ a Word

+ a prophecy

+ spiritual logic


= guidance" If not, is there another equation?

  • Why is 'No' sometimes very hard to say but necessary to be obedient?

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