2. Recognizing God's Voice (1 Kings 19)

Audio (48:13)

'St. Elias' (10th or 11th century AD), icon in St Elias Monastery (Greek Orthodox), Shwayya, Lebanon.
'St. Elias' (10th or 11th century AD), icon in St Elias Monastery (Greek Orthodox), Shwayya, Lebanon.

We've established that hearing God's voice is a pattern throughout the Old and New Testaments. Seeking the Father early in the morning to get his marching orders for the day is the pattern that Jesus lived before his disciples. But what kind of voice should we expect?

God does speak to his disciples in words and sentences, which we'll consider in this lesson. He also speaks and leads by nudges, promptings, and in other ways (which we'll explore in Lesson 3).

But for now, let's examine God's voice that comes in words and sentences by looking at a well-known Old Testament passage where Elijah hears God's voice on Mt. Sinai as a "still small voice," a voice that is preceded by -- and contrasted to -- ferocious wind, earthquake, and fire. After we consider Elijah, we'll look at other Bible instances of God speaking to his servants in clear words filled with direction or comfort.

Elijah's Great Victory and Deep Depression (1 Kings 17-19)

The prophet Elijah appears during the reign of Ahab, who is king of the northern kingdom from 875 to 852 BC. Ahab and his wife Jezebel have led the nation deep into the worship of Baal. Jezebel isn't Jewish, but Phoenician, and fanatically promotes the pagan fertility god Baal and his female consort Asherah. She personally supports 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (1 Kings 18:19). Ahab has systematically killed all of God's prophets that he can find. Elijah the prophet has declared a drought and has been in hiding for years.

Elijah personally challenges Ahab to a public contest on Mt. Carmel to see who will accept a sacrifice by fire -- Baal or Yahweh. On the appointed day, all morning long and far into the afternoon, the prophets of Baal try every way they can to get Baal to answer them, but to no avail. Then Elijah builds an altar and sacrifices a bull on it. Immediately, God's fire falls and consumes the sacrifice -- and even the stones of the altar. All the people fall to the ground and acknowledge Yahweh as the true God. Elijah slays the false prophets, and then calls on Yahweh to end a three year drought. God answers with a deluge. It is a clear, ringing victory for both Yahweh and his prophet Elijah.

But when Jezebel learns that her favorite religion has been discredited and her prophets killed, she threatens Elijah with death. Elijah runs for his life, all the way south to Beersheba, in the southern desert of Judah. Then he leaves his servant there and goes out into the wilderness a day's journey. The Scripture records:

"[Elijah] went a day's journey into the desert. He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. 'I have had enough, LORD, he said. 'Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.' Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep." (1 Kings 19:4-5)

A psychologist might conclude that Elijah is suffering from depression. He has many of the symptoms: exhaustion from years of stress, no remaining energy, no zeal, sleeping except to take food, then sleeping again. He is filled with fear. He has isolated himself from people, leaving his servant behind in Beersheba. He has gone into the desert to die.

Elijah has lost hope. His lifework as a prophet seems to have amounted to nothing, in spite of spectacular, though temporary, victories. Twice, when Yahweh asks what he is doing there, he offers the same self-pitying complaint:

"I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too." (1 Kings 19:10, 14)

He measures his own personal worth by his accomplishments and has come up short. "I am no better than my ancestors" (verse 4b). Elijah is in sad shape.

The Theophany to Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-13)

It is fascinating and instructive to see how gently God restores his broken servant Elijah. An angel meets him in the desert and feeds him, then feeds him again. There's no scolding, no blaming.

After a forty-day journey on foot Elijah arrives at Mt. Horeb, another name for Mt. Sinai. "There he went into a cave and spent the night" (verse 9a). Rice suggests that the translation might be better, "the cave," since a definite article is used in Hebrew, suggesting that this was a famous or well-known cave. Perhaps it was the "cleft in the rock" on Mt. Sinai where Moses had seen God hundreds of years before (Exodus 33:22).[19]

The technical name for an appearance of God is a "theophany." It is clear from this passage that the author wants his readers to see Elijah's encounter in the light of Moses' experience on Mt. Sinai. Here are the main points of comparison:

Elijah (1 King 19:9-13) Moses (Exodus 33:18-23)
"The cave." (vs. 9) "A cleft in the rock." (vs. 22)
"Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD...." (vs. 11a) "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock." (vs. 21)
"The LORD is about to pass by...." (vs. 11b) "When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by." (vs. 22)
"[Elijah] pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave." (vs. 13a) "My face must not be seen." (vs. 23b)

But now we see a difference. When God appears to Moses, he speaks the divine name Yahweh, and recounts his characteristics of mercy and justice (Exodus 33:19; 34:6-7). But when God appears to Elijah it is in a still small voice.

The author lists in a very structured way the things that God is not in (verses 11-12)

"A great and strong wind... but the LORD was not in the wind.
An earthquake but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
A fire but the LORD was not in the fire.
And after the fire the sound of a low whisper." (NIV)

Clearly, the author is trying to make a point by contrasting the "low whisper" with the loud and spectacular displays of wind, earthquake, and fire. What's the point? Probably that God's presence is best conveyed in personal communication with his servants, not in some showy, spectacular display of power. The essence of God's nature is not power -- though God is fully capable of displaying overwhelming power. Rather, the essence of God is in his relationship and communication to the person. In New Testament terms you might say, "God is love" (1 John 4:8) or perhaps, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1).

God certainly shows love to Elijah, even though Elijah's confidence has faltered. God restores him gently.

  1. Yahweh asks him, "What are you doing here, Elijah" (vss. 9, 13), and then listens patiently to Elijah's self-pity without rebuke.
  2. Yahweh reveals himself in his gentle voice. When God cares enough to talk to us personally, we know he loves us. He could scare us to death with his power, but instead he seeks to engage us with his voice.
  3. Yahweh gently tells Elijah, "go back the way you came...." (vs. 15a). It's sometimes hard to go back after we have done embarrassing things, but it is an important part of our healing and restoration.
  4. Yahweh gives Elijah new assignments (vss. 15-17).
  5. Only after all this does Yahweh speak a gentle rebuke: By the way, you're not the only one left; I have 7,000 who have been faithful to me (vs. 18).

This gentle process of restoration reminds me of Jesus restoring Peter: "Do you love me, Peter? Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-19). Sometimes we're called to restore those who have failed or fallen. Gentleness, rather than harshness, is God's way.

"Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:1-2)

The Still, Small Voice (1 Kings 19:12b)

We've considered the context of the Elijah passage. Now let's examine at the phrase that is often quoted with relation to the nature of God's voice -- and rightly so. What do we learn from it? The phrase is variously translated:

"A gentle whisper." (NIV)
"The sound of a low whisper (ESV)
"A still small voice" (KJV)
"A light murmuring sound" (NJB)
"A sound of gentle blowing" (NASB)
"A sound of sheer silence"[20] (NRSV)

It can't mean all of these things! What can we make of it? The phrase consists of three Hebrew words:

  1. Qôl, "voice, sound, noise."[21]
  2. Demāmâ, "whisper," a rarely used word that denotes "calmness, stillness, silence, whisper," from dāmam, "be silent, still; wait."[22]
  3. Daq, "thin, fine, gaunt," from dāqaq, "to crush, grind, break in pieces."[23]

While any of the popular translations shown above could be correct in their translation, I think "gentle whisper" (NIV), "sound of a gentle whisper" (ESV), or "still small voice" (KJV) are most likely -- and helpful -- since qôl is clearly a "voice" (rather than an undefined sound) in verse 13 that follows. "Murmuring" (NJB) or "blowing" (NASB) are interpretations rather than translations of the Hebrew words.

Learning from Elijah's Still Small Voice

There are several things to learn from this passage, though let's be careful not to assume that all manifestations of God's voice will be like Elijah experienced. For example:

  1. God's voice is not always quiet. Sometimes it booms like the sound of many waters (Ezekiel 43:2; Revelation 1:15; 14:2; 19:6), thunder (John 12:28-29; Revelation 14:2), and loud trumpets (Hebrews 12:19; Revelation 1:10; 4:1).
  2. God's voice is not always gentle. Sometimes it comes to bring a strong rebuke (Acts 26:14).
  3. God's voice in not always even a voice or sound. Sometimes it is an impression, or a nudge, a dream or vision, as we'll explore in Lesson 3

So let's not assume that Elijah's still small voice is normative. However, it is common among Christians, and beloved for a number of reasons.

1. God's voice is often quiet. Sometimes, unless you're trained to recognize God's voice, you might mistake it for a passing thought. I expect that sometimes God would like to talk to us, but too often we aren't listening. Or there is so much noise in our life and so little quiet, that God's gentle voice gets lost in the clutter.

Having said that, I know that God is fully capable of getting our attention if he needs to. But he would rather have us listen to him of our own volition. I have a three-year-old granddaughter who has developed a habit of "selective hearing." (We husbands can develop that, too.) Her mom will say something and she'll ignore it. Oh, I know that she heard it, because sometimes I'll ask her what her mother said, and she can usually repeat it. But she's not tuned in to listening and responding. Rather she's more intent on continuing to do whatever she's engaged in, or in whatever she can get away with. We can be like that with God.

It is quite possible that you've heard God's voice already, but didn't recognize it as such. It doesn't have to be loud or spectacular to be God.

2. God's voice can guide us in what to do. God gives Elijah an assignment to anoint three men -- two kings and his prophetic successor.

I was once the interim pastor of a small church that, after a few months of my term, was acting increasingly dysfunctional. One of the leaders had a gripe about the regional denominational organization, and was trying to force the church to move its affiliation to another organization. When she realized that I wouldn't support this action, she began vicious a rumor campaign with the purpose of getting rid of me. It was difficult for me and others. The church was filled with tension. Half-truths and innuendos circulated unabated. Finally, I went to the Lord with a sort of cowardly prayer: "Lord, if you want to remove me from this assignment, it's okay with me." Before I had even finished my prayer, God spoke four words ever-so-clearly to my heart: "I want you here!" It brought great peace to me, as now I knew I was in God's will. Later in the week I found that my wife had received the same direction. We stayed. It was messy. But God brought health and stability -- and eventually a new pastor -- to that church.  

Sometimes God's voice comes to clarify direction for us.

3. God's voice can provide comfort when we are anxious. Elijah is fearful and exhausted, depressed and hopeless. God comforts him by giving him new work to do -- a new assignment. Jesus comforts and restores Peter in a similar way -- with a mild rebuke -- by asking him three times to care for his sheep, restoring him to his former ministry. As we'll see in a moment, God's word regarding Paul's thorn in the flesh is this kind of comforting word.

God also comforts Elijah by pointing him to a spiritual companion, Elisha, who will share his sometimes lonesome life with him, and eventually succeed him so that his life's work will continue after his passing. What a blessing!

4. God's voice can bring a rebuke. Sometimes, we need God to set us straight, to correct us and our errors of thinking. Elijah has been complaining, "I, only I, am left." God informs him that fully 7,000 people have not compromised their faith in Yahweh. And 7,000 may imply even more than the literal number. Seven is the number of completeness for the Hebrews, while 1,000 is their "big number," like "a million" is for Americans. So 7,000 may mean "a great many" people are still faithful to Yahweh.

We shouldn't be afraid of God's rebukes; rather, we should welcome them. The Proverbs reminds us:

"My son, do not despise the LORD's discipline
and do not resent his rebuke,
because the LORD disciplines those he loves,
as a father the son he delights in."
(Proverbs 3:11-12; quoted in Hebrews 12:5-6)

God blesses us by leading us onto the right path when we've strayed -- not something we should avoid.

When I was a new pastor, I found myself complaining that most of the men in the church didn't take their responsibility to maintain the church buildings, so I, the pastor, had to do it. Self-pity! Yet, there was a faithful member, Les Beyea, who did show up to help. One day, while I was complaining, God rebuked me with the seven words, "Shut up and let me bless you." I didn't understand it at the time, but I stopped complaining. Later, I realized that Les Beyea was God's tutor to teach me home maintenance and give me the confidence to add an addition to my home, and later build my own new house and supervise building classrooms and worship centers. God indeed was blessing me when I was complaining. God is amazing -- and gracious!

Sometimes a word from God can combine comfort and rebuke. Once I was praying earnestly for one of my sons who had been wandering. I was praying based on my authority as his father, etc. On that occasion, God spoke six words to me: "He's my son too, you know." It was both a comfort that God had my son in his hands, as well as a gentle reminder that I didn't have to convince God of something that was clearly his desire too.

Q1. (1 Kings 17-19) Why do you think the author contrasts the "still small voice" to the wind, earthquake, and fire? How does God's voice comfort and renew Elijah? Why is it easy to miss God when his voice is gentle and quiet?

Samuel Anointing David (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

We've looked at Elijah. Now let's turn to other servants of God. Samuel has full conversations with the Lord concerning his ministry assignments. For example, God tells Samuel just how to anoint a new king from among Jesse's sons without alerting Saul, who would kill him if he knew (1 Samuel 16:1-3).

When Samuel arrives in Bethlehem, Jesse lines up his sons before the prophet and Samuel goes down the line. You can see Samuel's own personal inclinations creeping into the selection.

"When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, 'Surely the LORD's anointed stands here before the LORD.' But the LORD said to Samuel, 'Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.'" (1 Samuel 16:6-7)

God speaks directly to Samuel's mind. For each of the other sons, Samuel senses a "No" and goes on to the next. When God says "No" to all seven sons before him, Samuel asks Jesse if he has any more sons. Sure enough! Jesse sends for David. Then God says:

"Rise and anoint him; he is the one." (1 Samuel 16:12b).

This seems to fit my own experience -- an occasional clear sentence with important content. But more likely God's communication to me consists mainly of, "Talk to Mary," or "Yes, go ahead," or, "No, wait." We'll explore this further in Lesson 3

But We're Not All Prophets

In the Old Testament, the phrase, "The word of the Lord came to...." was the sign that God had raised up a prophet. So far as we can see from Scripture, God's instructions to prophets were mostly in words. Word messages are common in the New Testament, as we'll see. (In addition, you'll often see in the Bible God speak words through dreams, visions, and angels. I'm not trying to be comprehensive here, just to point out some particular communications that we can learn from.)

I can anticipate your response: "But we're not prophets. We can't expect to hear God's word."

Not so fast.

When the Spirit falls on the 70 elders at Mt. Sinai, Moses muses, "Would that all God's people were prophets" (Numbers 11:29). Looking forward to the outpouring of the Spirit in the Messianic Age, Joel prophesies:

"And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days." (Joel 2:28-29)

When the Spirit is poured out at Pentecost, Peter interprets the speaking in tongues by quoting this prophecy of Joel. As we noticed in Lesson 1, all God's people now have access to the Spirit -- and therefore, as they seek him, to the mind of Christ. While we all can potentially utter prophecy on occasion (1 Corinthians 14:1, 5, 31), few will have the ministry office of prophet (1 Corinthians 12:28-30; Ephesians 4:11). Nevertheless, through the Spirit, the communication channel for God to speak to us (and through us) has been established for all God's children. We just need to learn how to use this new-fangled technology.

Words of Encouragement

The still small voice to Elijah brings comfort and restoration. Paul, too, receives several words of encouragement from the Lord over the course of his ministry. They are memorable -- often short -- but they provide him the assurance that he needs at the time.

Paul has a way of stirring his enemies to violence when he talks about Jesus and performs miracles in Jesus' name. The Jews persecute. The pagans get upset. Paul receives more than his share of violence -- lashings, beatings, stonings, imprisonments (2 Corinthians 11:24-26). By the time he arrives in Corinth on his Second Missionary Journey, he is weary, and perhaps frightened, as the Jews begin to agitate the populace against him. Knowing his weakness and fear, God speaks to him in a night vision:

"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." (Acts 18:9-10)

Another time, Paul is afflicted with some kind of problem, "a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me" (2 Corinthians 12:7). There's lots of speculation about what it was. A person? A demon? I expect it was some kind of chronic physical ailment. We don't really know. In three extended sessions of prayer Paul pleads with God to take it away -- without response. But then,  God speaks to him a word, a sentence:

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9a)

Though the answer isn't what Paul wants, he is profoundly moved by it, because God has taught him a wonderful truth: He is strong when he depends on God. The result is that Paul begins to exult in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:10). His whole attitude has been changed by a personal word from God.

In a third instance, Paul has been attacked and falsely accused by the Jerusalem Pharisees, who plan to kill him. As he sits in the Roman barracks, beat up and discouraged, God's speaks to him:

"The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, 'Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.'" (Acts 23:11)

As Paul senses the Lord's presence, he knows that he is not alone, that God has this all in hand, and that God has a plan he is working out for the future. Paul's wounds may still be aching, but his heart is lifted up. He has heard from God.

Finally, just before a shipwreck on his voyage to Rome, an angel brings him a word of assurance that he subsequently shares with the ship's crew:

"Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you." (Acts 27:24)

Q2. (2 Corinthians 12:9a; Acts 18:9-10; 23:11; 27:24) How do you think it feels to Paul for God to personally encourage him when he is afraid and hurting? What do we learn about God that he speaks to Paul in this way?

Guidance to Travel to Jerusalem -- and  Confusing Interpretations

The story of Paul traveling to Jerusalem at the conclusion of his Third Missionary Journey is instructive concerning God's voice. It begins with Paul seeing extraordinary miracles in Ephesus, with many people burning expensive occult books and turning to Christ (Acts 19:9-20).

"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.'" (Acts 19:21, ESV).

If you didn't know better, you might think that Paul decides[24] on his own. The NIV interprets it this way, taking "spirit" as human spirit, rather than Holy Spirit.[25] But as the story progresses, we find that this isn't Paul's decision, but the Spirit's directive.

"And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there." (Acts 20:22)

The phrase "compelled by the Spirit" (NIV), "as a captive to the Spirit" (NRSV), "constrained by the Spirit" (ESV), "bound in the spirit" (KJV), uses the Greek verb deō.[26] The verb means "to confine a person or thing by various kinds of restraints, bind, tie," here with the connotation of binding and imprisoning.[27] And the Greek syntax makes a specific contrast between "I" (Paul) and "the Spirit."[28] This isn't my choice, Paul is saying, it's the Spirit of God who compels me to go to Jerusalem at this time.

It's important that Paul knows God's direction for sure. Because it isn't long until various believers and prophets sense "in the Spirit" what will happen in Jerusalem -- imprisonment. And "in the flesh" they interpret this result as a reason why he shouldn't go there. He says to the Ephesian elders on the beach at Miletus:

"And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me -- the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace." (Acts 20:22-24)

Paul is Jesus' witness, and he must go to testify wherever his Master sends him. When his ship reaches Caesarea, a Roman port on the coast of Palestine, towards the end of his journey, a well-known prophet named Agabus travels to meet him.

"Coming over to us, he took Paul's belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, 'The Holy Spirit says, "In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles."' (Acts 21:11)

The prophecy is accurate. But his friends try to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem. They conclude that God's will just can't include pain and suffering for the great apostle.

"When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem." (Acts 21:12)

The "flesh" resists pain and struggle. The "flesh" can keep us from doing what God tells us to do, if we're not sure of what God has told us.

"Then Paul answered, 'Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.' When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, 'The Lord's will be done.'" (Acts 21:13-14)

And so Paul continues his journey to Jerusalem, and to inevitable imprisonment -- Jesus' will for his beloved servant Paul. Paul's clear direction while in Ephesus keeps him from giving in to other people's desire for his safety.

Q3. (Acts 19:21; 20:22-24; 21:12-14) What would have happened if Paul hadn't been sure of his instructions from the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem? Would you have tried to dissuade him? It's comforting to receive encouraging words. What level of maturity does it take to receive a direction that might lead us into hardship and danger? What happens when we choose the easy way, when God leads us on a difficult path?

Instruction to Testify in Rome (Acts 23:11)

We already considered the following verse as one of the Lord's words of encouragement to Paul. But I want us to see it in the context of the next phase of guidance. Paul is imprisoned in the Roman barracks in Jerusalem. Jesus says to him:

"Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome." (Acts 23:11)

Remember Paul's desire while still in Ephesus to visit Rome after he reaches Jerusalem?

"After I have been there, I must also see Rome." (Acts 19:21b)

In Ephesus, he was guided by the Spirit to definitely go to Jerusalem, but the thought of Rome is there, as well. The "must" in both Acts 19:21b and 23:11 is the infinitive verb dei, "to be under necessity of happening, it is necessary, one must, one has to, denoting compulsion of any kind."[29] Now, in prison in Jerusalem, Jesus renews and clarifies that Rome is the next objective.

It takes two years in prison before the ship leaves for Rome with Paul on board, but Paul knows what's coming. He just doesn't anticipate all that intervenes in the meantime. For protection, Paul is taken to Caesarea,  the Roman capital of the province of Judea and kept under guard in Herod's palace. For the next two years he has to deal with various kings and politicians.

Felix, the Roman governor, who leaves Paul in prison to do the Jews a favor -- and hopes to receive a bribe (Acts 24:26-27).

Porcius Festus, Felix's successor as Roman governor, who wants to do the Jews a favor by asking Paul to answer charges in Jerusalem (where his enemies have vowed to assassinate him). To avoid a mock trial in Jerusalem, Paul exercises his right as a Roman citizen to have his case heard before the emperor Caesar (or his representative) in Rome. Paul utters the legal words: "I appeal to Caesar!," setting in motion his transfer to Rome (Acts 25:10-12).

Herod Agrippa (a Rome-appointed Jewish king of part of Palestine) and his wife Bernice, who discuss the case with Festus and hear Paul's testimony. They conclude:

"'This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.' Agrippa said to Festus, 'This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.'" (Acts 26:31b-32)

This is all "politician talk." They know that there is no substance to a legal case against Paul. But both Festus and Agrippa want to please the Jewish religious leaders, so in reality, they have no intention of releasing him, even if he hadn't appealed to Caesar. Nevertheless, they blame his continued confinement on Paul's appeal to Rome so they can feel good about their injustice.

But God is at work in spite of the politicians. He has directed his servant Paul to be a witness for him.

"Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome." (Acts 23:11)

Paul's arrest in Jerusalem actually enables Paul to give his testimony before:

  • The crowd in the Jerusalem Temple (Acts 21:40-22:21).
  • The Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders (Acts 22:30-23:10).
  • The high priest, elders, and Felix the Roman governor (Acts 24:1-21).
  • Felix and his wife Drusilla, a Jewess (Acts 24:24-26).
  • Festus the new Roman governor (Acts 25:6-12).
  • Festus, King Agrippa, and his wife Bernice (Acts 26:1-29).
  • The soldiers guarding him and the ship's crew on the voyage to Rome (Acts 27).
  • The residents of Malta, and Publius, the Roman official of Malta where they shipwrecked (Acts 28:1-10).
  • The Jewish community in Rome (Acts 28:17-28).
  • The Praetorian guard in Rome, charged with guarding Paul (Philippians 1:12-14).
  • Caesar, the Emperor himself (Acts 27:24).

All this comes about because Paul is sure enough of God's guidance that he obeys the Lord to travel to Jerusalem -- despite the dangers -- and disregards the counter-counsel of a New Testament prophet and the whole Christian community! And so Paul fulfills what the Lord has initially told Ananias:

"Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." (Acts 9:15-16; cf. Matthew 10:18)

What are we to learn from this? Be sure of what God tells you and then persist in it. God knows what he is doing. And Christ will do great things through you as you listen and obey.

The Embarrassment of Not Persisting

I've learned the hard way that God knows best. My wife and I were heavily involved in a political campaign to keep open a library in our community after the county's decision to close their library branch. As all this was evolving, God spoke to me during a spring church leadership retreat: "You won't be involved in the leadership of the library" (or something like that. I wish I had written it down!).

A few months later, with the future of the town's library secured, the town began to take applications for people to serve on the Library Board. I really wanted to be on the library board, so I began to second-guess what God had told me months before. Perhaps I misunderstood, I reasoned. So I submitted an application, fully expecting -- and hoping -- to be appointed. When others were appointed instead of me, I was hurt. Surely I was better qualified!

My pride and immature desire for recognition had drowned out God's word to me. As I realized this, I was deeply embarrassed. I knew better! I knew what God had said, yet I didn't cling to it. Fortunately, no great harm was done -- except to my pride. But it taught me a lesson in humility and the importance of holding fast to what God tells me, even if I don't understand it.

Don't Hesitate to Go with Them (Acts 10)

Two clear examples from Scripture stand out to me of God speaking a definite word to direct a disciple's ministry.

The first concerns Peter. He is on a the roof praying in the coastal city of Joppa, when he has a trance and a dream. Three times he is commanded to eat unclean animals; when he refuses, the word comes: "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." When he awakes from the trance, the lesson strong in his mind, and the Spirit speaks clearly to him:

"Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them." (Acts 10:19b-20)

Sure enough, when he goes downstairs, there are the three men -- Gentiles -- and Peter agrees to go with them, beginning an adventure that leads to the evangelization of the Gentiles all over the known world.

Q4. (Acts 10:19-20) Why was it important for Simon to get a very clear command from the Spirit to go with his visitors? What would he have done if the word weren't so clear? What does he do when criticized for taking this action (Acts 11:2, 12)? What kind of faith does it take to obey the Spirit and take an action you know you'll be criticized for later? Do you disobey when you know you might face criticism for obedience?

Separate for Me Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-3)

Another such word comes to group of believers gathered in Antioch:

"1  In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2  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.' 3  So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off." (Acts 13:1-3)

When God speaks to a group of people, we call it prophecy. There's not a whole lot of difference in the mechanism between prophecy and an individual hearing God's voice. In each case the Holy Spirit speaks something to a person in intelligible words. In the case of prophecy, the prophet relays that message to the group -- often at the same time as it is being revealed to him or her.

I mention this because it is an example of a clear sentence from God that can provide direction in ministry.

Lessons for Disciples

Let's summarize some of the things we've learned as we've reviewed God's voice to his servants in words and sentences.

  1. God doesn't always speak quietly; sometimes his voice is loud and strong.
  2. God revealed himself to Elijah in a "still small voice" (1 Kings 19:12).
  3. God's voice is often quiet. Thus we can easily miss his voice in the clutter of our minds, through "selective hearing," or mistake it as one of our own passing thoughts.
  4. God's voice in words and sentences can guide us what to do.
  5. God's voice can provide comfort when we are anxious.
  6. God's voice can also set us on the right path with a gentle rebuke.
  7. God's voice can correct our preconceptions, as God did when Samuel was seeking a king among Jesse's sons (1 Samuel 16:1-13).
  8. God's voice doesn't come only to prophets (Numbers 11:29). Since the Holy Spirit was poured out on the whole church at Pentecost (Acts 2), all of us have the Holy Spirit, who provides access to God's message, even if we don't hold the ministry office of a prophet (1 Corinthians 14:1, 5, 31; 12:28-30; Ephesians 4:11).
  9. God's voice can bring words of encouragement to us when we are afraid and discouraged as he did to Paul on several occasions (Acts 18:9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Acts 23:11; 27:24).
  10. God's voice can bring us clarity, even when others dispute what God has shown us to do. Paul had such clarity about traveling to Jerusalem, even though people warned him "in the Spirit" what would happen there (Acts 19:21; 20:22-24; 21:11-14). Paul also had clarity about testifying in Rome, though politicians tried to make his imprisonment sound like his own fault (Acts 19:21; 23:11).
  11. We are wise to persist in what God has shown us and to resist second-guessing God because of our unsurrendered desires.
  12. Words from God can also give us direction for ministry. Examples are Peter taking the Gospel to the Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10) and Paul and Barnabas embarking on their First Missionary Journey (Acts 13:1-3).

Week 2 Assignment. Learn to Quiet Yourself and Listen

One of the chief reasons we miss God's voice is because we don't take time to listen. We rush through our devotions and then we're off to work or making breakfast or dinner, or something. We don't take time to listen.

I've found that it's much easier to quiet myself at the beginning of the day, before I review my e-mail and read the news. Those activities get my mind going a mile-a-minute in all sorts of directions. So the best time to spend with God is before I begin the activities of the day, when the day is new and my spirit is fresh.

I understand that this doesn't work for everyone. If you're a new mother, for example, there may not be quiet at the beginning of the day. Or you may not be a "morning person." You'll need to find some work-arounds, different times of the day when you can take some minutes with God by yourself.

If there are people around, explain that you're going to be praying for a few minutes. Then withdraw into your own thoughts. The more you do this, the better you'll be at it.

Whatever time and place works best in your circumstances, know that one of the keys to hearing God is to quiet yourself before him. The Quakers call it "centering down," quieting one's mind and spirit before God. My pastor sings simple, repetitive praise songs. Some traditions repeat a prayer over and over again. Others recommend breathing in and out, listening to your breathing as a way of quieting your thoughts.

I usually focus my attention on God through praise and worship. I might sing a hymn or praise chorus, or read a psalm. I've found that when I read silently, my mind can wander to other things. But when I read aloud it's easier to keep focus. I find that as I spend a few minutes in worship, my thoughts become less scattered and become aligned with God's.

These are all techniques to quiet one's spirit. Don't get hung up on the virtues of one technique over another. Your purpose here is to get the swirling currents of your mind quieted all flowing in the same direction -- towards God.

Available in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

Once your spirit has become quiet, I encourage you to talk to God about what's going on in your life and listen.

"Be still, and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10)

"The LORD is in his holy temple;
let all the earth be silent before him." (Habakkuk 2:20)

Your assignment this week is to practice quieting your spirit before the Lord so you can listen. Then talk to your mentor and/or spiritual partner about your experiences of quieting your spirit before God.


Father, thank you for the gift of your Holy Spirit that enables us to have access to you, to your voice and to your thoughts. I pray that you'd help us to quiet ourselves before you so we can hear you as you speak to our hearts. Thank you for caring about me so much that you'd stoop to talking to me personally. And I know that you care just as much about my brothers and sisters who are studying this with me. Thank you! In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"The LORD said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper." (1 Kings 19:11-12, NIV)


"When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, 'Surely the LORD's anointed stands here before the LORD.' But the LORD said to Samuel, 'Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.' ...'Rise and anoint him; he is the one.'" (1 Samuel 16:6-7, 12b, NIV).

"And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days." (Joel 2:28-29, NIV)

"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." (Acts 18:9-10, NIV)

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9a, NIV)

"Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome." (Acts 23:11, NIV)

"Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you." (Acts 27:24, NIV)

"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.'" (Acts 19:21, ESV)

"And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there." (Acts 20:22, NIV)

"Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them." (Acts 10:19b-20, NIV)

"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, NIV)


[19] Gene Rice, Nations under God: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Kings (International Theological Commentary; Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 158-161.

[20] Donald J. Wiseman, 1 and 2 Kings (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary; Eerdmans, 1993) says, "'Stillness' is not incompatible with words for 'sound, voice' and the word 'thin' (dāqqâ)." So Rice (1 Kings, p. 160): "a filled, gripping perceptible, silence or stillness."

[21] Qôl primarily signifies a sound produced by the vocal cords (actual or figurative). In poetical passages (for the most part) the denotation embraces sounds of many varieties....  qôl should be distinguished from and compared to hegeh, higgāyôn (a low noise or utterance), hāmôn (a tumultuous, agitated noise or uttering), rēʿa, terû'âa (a shout of alarm, or joy)" (TWOT #1998a).  Qôl is used broadly: (1) 'sound, voice, call' of a man, sheep, flute; (2) 'noise, sound' of battle, ram's horn, words; (3) 'voice' of God (Holladay, p. 315).

[22] Demāmâ, TWOT #439a. Rice, 1 Kings, p. 160. "'Calm' (of wind), cessation of any strong air movement, 'humming stillness' (1 Kg 19:12) (Holladay, p. 72). Elsewhere in the Old Testament the word is used only at Job 4:15-16 and Psalm 107:29.

[23] Herbert Wolf, TWOT #448b. Rice (1 Kings, p. 160) says, "Daqqah refers to that which has been reduced and made 'thin, fine, small,' but also may have the sense of 'soft, gentle.'" Holladay (p. 73) defines it as "'thin' -- (1) scanty (hair, grain), (2) 'fine' of hoarfrost, dust, (3) 'lean' of cows, dwarfed, (4) 'soft' (quiet, 1 Kings 9:12)."

[24] "Decided" (NIV), "resolved" (NRSV, ESV), "purposed" (KJV) is the very common verb tithēmi, "put, place," here, "have (in mind), resolve" (BDAG 1003, 1bε).

[25] Either "spirit" or "Spirit" is possible, since there are no capitals or lower-case in the early Greek manuscripts to tell you. The capitalizations in English Bibles are the translator's decision.

[26]  Deō  is in the perfect passive voice ("having been bound").

[27] Deō, BDAG 221, 1b. The sense is caught well in the NRSV translation, "as captive to the Spirit."

[28] The Greek uses the pronoun egō, "I" -- usually omitted unless there is a specific point to make. "The Spirit" here has the definite article, "the Spirit," so Paul is deliberately setting up the contrast between "I" and "the Spirit."

[29] Dei, BDAG 214, 1. Dei is the infinitive of deō, "bind, tie," that we saw in Acts 20:22.

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