By Dwight Sandoz
June of this year represents a significant time for me because it completes four decades of active ministry. A number of changes have taken place in the church of Jesus Christ and in my life and family over this forty-year span. I am not quite ready to confess with the Psalmist, David, when he said, “I was young but now I am old,” (Ps 37:25) but I now enjoy the senior discounts when offered to me. Through the years of ministry, I have observed the guidance believers attributed to the Holy Spirit and have noticed that sometimes the Holy Spirit directed people in wonderful ways and other times the voice they heard may have come from their own passions and desires. God gives a consistent, repeated instruction to the churches in Revelations 2-3 and that instruction applies to the church through the ages, “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13,3:22). Believers and churches should listen to the voice of the Spirit for direction and guidance.
Some often ask, “What is the Spirit saying to you?” and that question should remain a primary concern of the church. A good place to begin the search for the direction of the Holy Spirit should be the book of Acts, which gives insight into the practices of the apostles and the response of the early church to the Spirit’s direction. We find the phrase, “the Spirit said,” three times in the book of Acts. Acts chapter 8 records the account of the Spirit’s instruction of Philip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch. Acts 10, gives the story of Peter and the Spirit’s command to go the house of Cornelius. Finally, Acts 13 notes the Spirit told the church to send Saul and Barnabas who were commissioned for their missionary journeys. These passages give insight to the normative direction of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus gave important instructions before His ascension. “Do not leave Jerusalem but wait for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4) and He further explained, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus made the timeless Spirit/witness connection that the book of Acts applies, demonstrates, and teaches to the church. The Holy Spirit primarily works to fulfill the mission of God, (missio Dei), and calls the church to share the message, (the gospel or good news) in every place. Followers of Christ should consider this as normative behavior and expect personal and corporate witness of the good news that Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost.
Acts 8:26-40 provides the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch and gives insight into the guiding voice of the Holy Spirit. Philip received direction as he traveled on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza and he saw a man reading while traveling in a chariot. While observing this man, “The Spirit said, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’ So, Philip ran to him…” The first instruction of the Spirit to “go” gives a missional voice that continues throughout the book of Acts. The man responded to the gospel and requested Philip baptize him in response to his confession of faith in Jesus. This passage notes two keys that continue in Luke’s account in Acts. First, the missional command of the Spirit, and second, the immediate response of Philip.
Jesus foretold this work of the Spirit “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27). Philip’s ministry fulfilled the teaching of Jesus and gave a normative expression of the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit superintendents this work of witness as Jesus foretold in Acts 1:8 and the normative work of the Holy Spirit to fulfill the mission of God.
God’s missionary nature, found in the Old Testament and the gospels, became central in the book of Acts. The lives of all believers should exemplify the work, the gifts, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Expounding on the gifts and fruit of the Spirit goes beyond the scope of this brief discussion on the missional voice of the Holy Spirit, however these should persist as normative in the life of every believer.
The missional voice of the Spirit continues in the account of Peter and God’s call to go to the house of Cornelius. Peter does not expect to hear what the voice of the Holy Spirit speaks during this time of prayer as Luke records,
11 and he saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen, the Holy Spirit gives a missional command. “19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.”
Peter obeys the voice of the Spirit and a significant shift in the advancement of the gospel takes place when Cornelius and those in his house respond to the gospel message and God pours out His Spirit on a non-Jewish community. The Spirit leads the church as a community of witnesses empowering the church to share the gospel. The Spirit speaks to both Philip and Peter to “go.” The missional voice of the Holy Spirit, the open doors that followed represents God’s normative work through the Holy Spirit.
Luke records the words, “the Spirit said,” for the third time with the launching of Saul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey; “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.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2-3). The Spirit not only instructs individuals to go but He commands to the church to send. This prophetic sending launched the missionary journeys that greatly expanded the church. The church in Antioch became a sending church through the direction of the Holy Spirit.
The passages in Acts that use the phrase, “the Spirit said,” communicate a missional voice in the instructions of the Holy Spirit. The person and work of the Holy Spirit continues to carry out the mission of God in the world. While not a comprehensive discussion of the Spirit speaking to individuals or to the church, the three passages recording “the Spirit said” provide instruction for listening to the Spirit today. The Spirit continues to speak to believers saying, “go,” and He continues to instruct the church to “send.” Believers should make this a primary prayer, “Holy Spirit, where should I go as a witness and who should I help to send?” As this becomes a priority, the church continues to respond to the missional voice of the Holy Spirit.