When we considered the trinity last week, we looked at the Holy Spirit, and one of the things I picked up on was how He brings direction and guidance to believers. This week we look at and consider what appears to be almost a ‘throw-away’ comment: ‘At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness’.
What is the leading of the Holy Spirit? What do we mean generally when we use language like ‘God led me’, or ‘God brought us together’, or even ‘God said to me’? It seems clear to me that the Holy Spirit plays a significant role in God’s guiding and leading people, but how, exactly, does He do that? How do we know it’s God and not some random idea that has popped into our head, or some random set of circumstances that have presented themselves to us?
How does God guide us? Is it only by the Spirit? Or does God guide us in other ways? This is the stuff of this preach. I am going to start by looking at how the Spirit leads, and then open it out into considering guidance generally.
The leading of the Holy Spirit in Scripture:
Here are two occasions where the Bible records the Holy Spirit leading someone. One from the OT, the other from the NT.
Ezekiel is led by the Spirit to a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel 37:1 “The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones”.
Philip is told by an angel to go to the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch, but after he baptises him, he is transported away by the Spirit. Acts 8:39-40 “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea”.
For us, today, in the 21st Century, I don’t discount the power or ability of the Holy Spirit to ‘transport’ us wherever He chooses to (that’s called ‘translocation’). But I’d posit that is not our experience. For the vast majority of people nowadays, following God’s guidance is a complicated guessing game of trying to pick through feelings and situations and seeking to discern whether God is actually guiding us or not. I have experienced people who seem very convinced about when God is speaking to them and through them, and are unafraid of declaring it confidently. Others look on with a ‘I wish God would speak to me like that’ feeling (for the most part, I’ve always fallen into the second of those two categories).
We know that following the leading of the Holy Spirit is something to be pursued. The Psalmist prays: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Psalm 143:10). Paul tells us that following the Holy Spirit marks us out as being under grace and not the law (Galatians 5:18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law”), and it marks us out as children of God (Romans 8:14: “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God”).
When the Holy Spirit spoke to the believers in Antioch, they were all together. Luke records : “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.”” (Acts 13:2), how did the Holy Spirit speak to them? And how did they know it was the Holy Spirit?
What does the Holy Spirit lead us to do?
I just want to pick up on a few things about the kind of thing the Holy Spirit leads us to do. Some people will be very confident that the Holy Spirit leads them in the minutest detail, even down to finding parking spaces or what clothes we wear. Others will deny that the Holy Spirit leads people at all. Are either of them right? Does the Holy Spirit really lead us to a vacant parking spot? Has he really withdrawn from the life and experience of a believer?
I want to make a few comments from what Jesus says about the guidance and leading of the Holy Spirit. You can read it in John 16:8-15:
“And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment because the ruler of this world is judged.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you”.
- 8-11, describes how the Holy Spirit will work in “the World”
- 12-15 describes how he will work in “you” (the disciples – & by implication, believers)
The Holy Spirit & The World (v8-11)
Quite simple – He will convict the world of its Guilt (v8)
Talk about the Holy Spirit’s role to convict – not ours. We do have a responsibility to proclaim the gospel, but our role is not to convince people – it is to speak out. It is the role of the Holy Spirit to change people’s hearts.
This is very freeing for evangelism. Successful evangelism is not converting loads of people – it is telling loads of people!
God’s heart is always for the world.
John 3:16 – for God so loved the World
Peter 3:9 – He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance
Etc etc etc.
Modern understanding of guilt = feeling.
But guilt is not a feeling in this context – just as an unrepentant criminal will be guilty but may not feel guilty. Our position before God is one of being guilty, but many people are completely unconcerned about that – in fact, they get angry and aggro if it is suggested they are!
There are 3 aspects to people’s guilt before God: “sin and righteousness and judgment” (8b-11).
Sin: “because men do not believe in me” (v9).
Ephesians 2:8,9 tells us that it is our faith which saves us, not our deeds. We therefore have to be careful not to fall into the trap of believing that it is deeds alone that condemn the unbeliever. Whatever he has done, however bad he has been, the unbeliever can be forgiven because of the cross. What condemns people is their lack of faith.
The thing that will ultimately filter out the believer from the unbeliever is his faith in Christ.
It stands to reason, then, that the thing that the Holy Spirit will convict people about is not their deeds, but their lack of faith.
Righteousness, “because I am going to the Father” (v10).
The death and resurrection of Jesus vindicates Him as the “Righteous one of God” (Acts 22:12, 1 John 2:1)
This is important because this reinforces the point I’ve just made: righteousness is not about what we do – it refers to our standing before God. The righteous man is saved, and the unrighteous man isn’t. This presents a problem for us because the Bible is clear that there is no one who is righteous except God himself (Jesus, being God, falls into the category of “God”!).
The Holy Spirit will bring to our attention the righteousness of Christ – and thereby convict us of our unrighteousness. I believe this is precisely what Peter experienced when he exclaimed “keep away from me Lord, I am a sinful man”. Jesus isn’t here physically for us to experience that – so the Holy Spirit does it in our spirits.
Judgment, “because the prince of this world now stands condemned” (v11).
If you don’t stand with Jesus, you stand against Him: “whoever is not for me is against me” (Matthew 12:30). The Bible talks a lot about the final judgment, and points out that the ones whose names are “written in the book of life” are not condemned.
So if you are not right with God through Jesus Christ, you stand condemned with the devil – and will be subject to judgment.
These three ideas: SIN, RIGHTEOUSNESS and Judgment are things that our Godless society claims to be able to deal with itself.
Our society has claimed for itself the right to determine what will count as sin, what the standard of righteousness is, and what and where things will be judged. In doing so, it reveals its heart rebellion against God. He who is actually the judge of all the earth.
Note: although Jesus is talking about the World here, he is talking to the disciples – not to the crowds at large. We must have an understanding of this, but it is the Holy Spirit who will do these things, we don’t have to! All we have to do is to love people, to tell them about Jesus, to point them to the cross, and to enlist the help of the Holy Spirit to convict them of these things – it’s his job after all!
In v 12, Jesus’ focus shifts from “the World” to “You”. What can the disciple of Christ expect the Holy Spirit to do for him?
Again, note I am concentrating on what Jesus is saying here…
- He will guide us into all truth.
- He will take from what is Jesus’ and make it known to us
1. Guide us into all truth
A note about truth…
Truth is no longer absolute in our day – it is subjective, and it will even be knowingly discarded at times: “what is better, a lie that draws a smile, or a truth that draws a tear?” — the implication being that the lie is better (quote from Miracle on 34th Street).
The position of the Bible (and, for what it’s worth, my position) is that truth is always better than falsehood. In fact, the Bible’s position is that all lies come from the devil, and that those who lie are not of God – Satan is the liar and the father of all lies. (John 8:44)
Jesus calls Him the Spirit of truth, both in this passage and in John 14:17. This identification of the Holy Spirit with truth reminds me of the I Am saying of Jesus, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the life”. If we believe the scripture that the Spirit of Truth will guide us into all truth, why do we insist on trying to take his place? What I mean by that is, we have a habit of saying to people, especially those who are new Christians, if you want to be a real Christian you’ve got to this or that, or not do this or that. Generally, what people mean by a ‘real Christian’ is, ‘one like me’. Just because people express their Christianity differently to the way I do, it doesn’t mean that they’re not Christians. Although it is important to understand, there is a difference between minor variations in belief and practice and those which are heresy and error. Which we should call out if they emerge. The trick is to discern between the two.
We have to trust the Holy Spirit. Insisting that Christians do this or that is paramount to saying that God can’t lead his people without us! The first Christians in the Acts came up against this very issue. The Jewish Christians were insisting that the Gentile believers embraced the Jewish customs, and the Apostles had a great shindig at Jerusalem, and decided that it was wrong to do so (read Acts 15:10).
It may be that the things people do are not what God wants, it may be something that is obviously unchristian, but it is not the responsibility of other Christians to point it out. That is the job of the Holy Spirit.
2. Take from what is Jesus’ and make it known to us
Firstly, Jesus says in John 12 that He speaks not on His own accord, or on His own authority. He then says in John 16 that the Holy Spirit speaks not on His own authority, but what He hears.
The upshot of this is that I believe we, as “spirit -filled” Christians, filled with and guided by this same Spirit, have a message to speak out. That message is not ours, it is Gods. This in essence is what prophecy is, telling out God’s words by the Holy Spirit. Our problem is, however, that we are often so eager to speak out “words of Prophecy”, that we don’t recognise them as our thoughts and not God’s. This especially true if they seem like a good idea.
Everything that is God’s belongs to Jesus too (reminds me of the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, who says to the older son, “everything I have is yours”). In the Holy Spirit, we are in the position of the older son: all of God’s riches are available to us by the Holy Spirit today — now.
How does God guide us?
God guides us in all sorts of ways – here are some ways we read of Him guiding His people in the Bible.
God can lead people by directly speaking to them. In Acts 9, Paul was directly confronted by God on the Damascus road, and Acts 10 reports that God spoke directly to Peter in a dream about a sheet with unclean food on it.
In Genesis 6v12-16, we read that God spoke directly to Noah. We’re not told how, but we read that God told Noah.
The prophet Samuel heard God’s voice when he was a small boy. 1 Samuel 3v2-10 describes him going to Eli because he thought it was him. Eli gave Samuel some very sound advice: “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’” (v9).
Today, many people will witness that God has spoken directly to them. It can be quite common in ‘closed countries’ where it is dangerous (and often illegal) to be a Christian and dangerous to even own a Bible. The most obvious examples are Islamic and Atheistic nations. I’ve heard stories of Moslems in Islamic countries having a direct physical encounter with Jesus Christ and becoming believers even though they have never heard the gospel.
I would say that in my experience and for the majority of people nowadays, a physical sensation of God speaking is the exception and not the norm.
Joshua 7:2-12 Describes the people of God being beaten in battle. They knew there was something wrong about the circumstances they found themselves in. They knew from their circumstances that they needed to examine themselves and that there was something that needed dealing with. Joshua calls on God (who, incidentally, ‘speaks’ to him). He is told to have the people of God come before him by clan, family, and tribe. The problem is revealed and dealt with.
Daniel is one record of the circumstances of the exile into Babylon. If we read Daniel 1:1,2, we will find that, “the Lord delivered Jehoiachim” God allowed circumstances to develop. In fact, here it says he created them, they were under his control. Note that the Lord did this to an individual – but if you follow through, you will find that the purpose of the exile was to teach the nation. Consider this – we might have to go through things because God has a greater purpose – one BEYOND us. Sucks right?
Laying of a fleece
In Genesis 24:42-46 Abraham asked the Lord for a sign: “if I am right, let a maiden come to draw water, and when I ask her for some, she will offer water for the camels as well”
Judges 6:36-40 describes Gideon laying a fleece on the ground for God to prove it is Him. Laying a fleece is not necessarily wrong. Gideon was wrong not because he laid a fleece, but because it showed how little faith he had. He showed his little faith by not recognising and accepting God’s guidance the first time.
There is a difference between saying, “I believe you want me to do this, please confirm it” and “do something miraculous to prove it’s you”.
2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”,
Matthew 4:1-11 is Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus. Jesus uses the Scriptures again and again in the wilderness when answering Satan.
Psalm 119:105 tells us, “thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path”.
There are times when, frankly, we don’t need to ask God whether we should do something, he has already told us – in His word! When we have a decision to make, do we look to see if it is in accordance with what God would want as revealed in his word? That is the first thing we should do! I have met Christians who have fallen into sin precisely because they haven’t done this. They’ve started to do something, and have ignored God’s word. They have used arguments like “I have peace in my heart that it is right”, but what they are doing flies in the face of scripture.
OTHER CHRISTIANS, Including and especially leadership. Can often see things we can’t. Proverbs talks about the counsel of people around us. I’ll quote just two:
- Proverbs 15:22 “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers, they succeed”.
- Proverbs 11:14 “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers”.
Other relevant texts:
- Exodus 18:13-24 Jethro sees Moses struggling to do everything himself and counsels him to appoint elders.
- 1 Chronicles 12:32 “Men of Issachar who understood the times and knew what must be done” were listed among David’s fighting men.
- Esther 1:13 The king consulted experts
God gives us other Christians who will help us to live in accordance with his will. Christianity is a team game – We must be in the team, giving and receiving advice with one another. Illustration from football: Most football teams will have a manager on the sidelines watching and directing play. They will often also have a man on the pitch (usually the captain) telling others in the team where the dangers are, and where to pass the ball.
This is one of the reasons why being in a church is so vital. We can look out for one another, telling each other where the dangers are and at times protecting them from them.
Everyone has a conscience, yet typically, we ignore it when making decisions. Our consciences were put there by God, and revitalised when we became Christians (I don’t do things now that I wouldn’t have thought twice about before I became a Christian).
This is sometimes called “peace”, such as in texts like Colossians 3:15 and Philippians 4:7:
Colossians 3:15 says: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”.
Philippians 4:7 tells us that “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”.
We can often know when we are out of God’s will because we just can’t seem to find any peace about something. We can’t rest – but note, we should be wary of using this as our only source of guidance – sin can sear our consciences, and we can have “peace” about something that is sinful.
Don’t fear following God’s leading
Before I elaborate on this, I want to lay to rest something which, I think, is a bizarre outworking of this point. A general rule about the guidance of God is that God would like to give us the desires of our hearts (Psalm 37:4), NOT to force us into our worst nightmares.
This means that we must resist the masochistic understanding of the leading of God which says, if I would rather not do it – it MUST be God. This is absolute codswallop. However, there are times when we don’t want to do the right thing, or we are nervous or frightened by our anticipation. So we should not use this as a sole measure of the calling of God. However, if you’ve ever not wanted to do something God has asked you to do, you are not alone! Not by a long shot!
In 1 Samuel 16:2, Samuel is reluctant to do what God has told him to do, “but if Saul hears about this he’ll kill me”. Ananias, when told to go to Saul (a different Saul!) in Acts 9, he infers something similar … ‘but Lord, this man kills people like me!’ (“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” Acts 9:13,14).
Then we have
- Moses – (Exodus 3 & 4) God takes the initiative, God tells Moses where to go and what to do, and Moses objects. God responds to Moses’ objection with miracles, and to his continued objection with anger (frustration?) (and calling his brother Aaron to share the load).
- Gideon (Judges 6) – Good takes the initiative, God (this time through an angel) tells Gideon where to Go and what to do, but Gideon objects. God responds to Gideon’s objection with two miracles.
- Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1) – God takes the initiative, calls Jeremiah, Jeremiah objects, God tells Jeremiah what to do, where to go. God responds to Jeremiah’s objection with words of comfort.
- Jonah – God takes the initiative, God selects his man, God tells Jonah where to go and what to do and Jonah objects. God responds to Jonah’s objection with a fish!
Each time, even though the stories are slightly different, God has called someone to do something, and they’ve shied away from it in one way or another. The point though is that DESPITE their reluctance to follow the calling, God sticks with them, He encourages them and He still uses them.
Note God’s response to Samuel’s objection to His leading: There doesn’t appear to be one! God seemingly ignores Samuel’s worries. He certainly doesn’t address it directly. Does He answer Ananias? No, he just says “Go!”. Sometimes the answer to our fear is to just get on with it.
Fear of what will happen to us is completely normal. But do not be drained by your fear. Were the apostles frightened when they were before the Sanhedrin? I would say almost certainly. The answer is to find courage to do what God has called:
- Acts 4:29 the disciples asked God to fill them with boldness despite the threats they faced,
- Psalm 138:3 the psalmist says to God, “When I called, you answered me; you greatly emboldened me.”
- Ephesians 6:19 Paul writes, “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel”
From one another:
To Encourage is to put courage into someone, and to discourage is to remove it, so we should be sure we are those who EN—courage people
- 2 Corinthians 13:11 calls us to “encourage one another, be of one mind”.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:18 says, “encourage one another” and 5:14 calls us to “encourage the disheartened”
- Hebrews 3:13 tells us to encourage one another daily as long as it’s called day
I have personally known the power there is in a word of encouragement. Someone saying “hang in there” “you’re doing brilliantly” or “you can do it” can help us in those times when we just feel like giving up.
Pulling it all together
I believe that God can and DOES guide us today. That being the case, we must be careful to discern the difference between God’s guidance and our own smart ideas. Understand:
- God will never lead you to do something the Bible forbids.
- Do not dismiss the counsel of others. Especially those who love you and are FOR you.
- It has struck me that some measures we might employ for discerning God’s guidance are suspect if we don’t employ them as ‘a set’. What I mean is this, if all other indications are this is not God’s leading, but your ‘inner peace’ is telling you it is God, be wary. If your friends are saying god is guiding you in a particular direction, but all the other indications do not, I’d suggest it’s not God. I could use other examples, but you get the point. Don’t just rely on ONE indicator.
Finally, if all the signs point to God leading you, EVEN IF you are nervous or even frightened about the prospect. Trust that He is. Then, In the words of the Nike advert: ‘just do it’!