In my struggle to understand all of this, I have found that Christians have very different kinds of advice when it comes to knowing God’s will. The first is what I would call the needle-in-the-haystack view. These aren’t the official, professional terms; these are just my own ways of describing these views. This view says that God has one fixed will for your life and your job is to find it. It conceptualizes God’s will as very difficult to find. It’s like finding the needle of God’s will in the haystack of all the distractions of the world, the flesh, and the devil that come roaring through your life; and it’s a great recipe for discouragement.
If you know the teaching around this view, many fine distinctions are made which make the discovery of God’s will for your life even more challenging. God’s “perfect” will is that proverbial needle in the haystack. But, you may actually be in another lower tier, such as God’s “preferential” will, or his “perceptive” will, or his “permissive” will. I never knew how to find out which “p” I was on—so I just hoped I was on the right one.
Second, there is the elephant-in-the-room view. This view is the opposite of the first. This view says that God’s will is right before your eyes all the time. Just get up and do it. You don’t need any mystical experience or special invitation; you just need to seize the day. This view is summarized by the phrase, “the need constitutes the call.” If you see hungry people, you don’t need to spend time praying about helping them. If you have the ability to feed them, then feed them. If you see people who need evangelism and you have the ability to evangelize, then just do it. But many of you will see all kinds of needs that you can throw yourself into, and you may have gifts for an endless array of Christian needs. There are endless good things to do and ways to serve God. How do you know which one to choose and devote your life energy to? What do you do if the elephant in the room becomes a herd of elephants?
The third view is the follow-your-passion view. This is where you get all the spiritual inventory websites. These inventories are like the Christian version of Myers-Briggs. Through these tests, you find out what your gifts and inclinations are. If you are gifted with raising awareness for human-trafficking, then you should do that. If you’re gifted at preaching the gospel, you should do that. If you’re gifted at administration, there’s a school waiting to receive your gifts.
But many of you have multiple gifts. And many of you have gifts you have yet to even discover that you have. It may take decades to fully realize some of the gifts God has given to you. Furthermore, sometimes God calls us to areas that don’t really fit our inclinations or gifts, and he surprisingly equips us in ways we would have never dreamed.
In the midst of Paul’s missionary journey, we find out a lot about God’s guidance in Paul’s life and in the life of the church in Antioch which commissioned and sent out Paul and Barnabus. Interestingly, if you look at these texts carefully, none of them fit into the needle-in-the-haystack, elephant-in-the-room, or follow-your-passion views. We see some very different ways in which God’s will was discerned in the New Testament. Perhaps all of this deserves a deeper look.
The Church in Antioch
In Acts 11:19–21, we are introduced to the church of Antioch, planted by those unnamed disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene. Let’s explore some of the features of the church in Antioch.
Antioch is a church that exercises spiritual gifts.
In Acts 13, the church has matured and they are exercising spiritual gifts. In this passage, we meet prophets, pastors, and teachers in this church. If you look at the four lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament found in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and the two lists found in Ephesians, we see that only one gift is found on all four lists: the gift of prophecy. Right in the book of Acts we see that this young church already has prophets present. Now in the Scriptures a prophet is not limited to those who foretell the future. That, of course, does happen. But more often, a prophet is someone who forth-tells—which means someone is gifted to explain or proclaim God’s Word, and give guidance and direction for the church. In other words, prophets are crucial to knowing God’s will. The gift of prophecy is one of God’s provisions designed to help the church understand and know his will.
Antioch is a church with diversity.
The second thing we notice about the church in Antioch is that it is very diverse. There are three kinds of diversities in this church that I want to highlight. First of all, we have ethnic diversity represented by Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, who grew up in Herod’s household. By examining the names and the few clues in the opening verses, we know that this group includes Jews and Gentiles in leadership, with diversity in economics and education. We also see geographic and cultural diversity. Not one of the leaders mentioned in Acts 13 is even from the same country. None of them are from Antioch. In fact, they are from five different countries that include Cyrene, Cyprus, North Africa, Turkey, and Jerusalem. This provides a glimpse of the global vision of the church.
Antioch is a Spirit-directed church.
Third, the church of Antioch is a Spirit-directed church. While they are worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit gives guidance to the church gathered together. Now we often think about discerning God’s will as a personal struggle. Here, we see the Spirit of God speaking corporately to the church with a prophetic gift. The Holy Spirit instructs the church to set apart Saul and Barnabas for the work to which God was calling them.
Think about how challenging this must have been for the church at Antioch. They are the fastest-growing church in the world, and by the close of the second century, the Christians in this region will number a quarter of a million believers, making it the one of the leading hubs in the growing Christian movement. Antioch is also important because it was here that the first Gentiles who had no prior connection to Judaism as proselytes or God-fearers had come to faith in Jesus Christ. Antioch also had a kind of “dream team” pastoral staff.
Their lead pastors were the apostle Paul, the greatest theologian the church has ever known, and Barnabus, who had such strong pastoral skills that he was known as “the son of encouragement.” Yet, one night at their prayer meeting, the Holy Spirit speaks and says, “Send out Saul and Barnabas for the work to which I have called them to.” They were being led to send both of their pastors out to plant new churches. That had to have been challenging for them. But, we are discovering that the nature of the church is always to be pressing out to new places and among new peoples as we plant the church afresh in every community.
The Birth of the Missionary Band
The church in Antioch was being called to bring the gospel to new, distant places. The problem with this is that the nature of any church is that it is located in a particular place. A church doesn’t change locations week after week. A new structure was needed which would allow the church at Antioch to extend their witness and ministry to other places. The result was the birth of the missionary band, a small mobile group who were free to travel from place to place and focus on evangelism and church planting. This is the “spiritual direction” they received from the Holy Spirit. This new structure (not a church structure, but a missionary structure) is what unleashed a massive advance of the church. This separate structure, Paul’s missionary band, was able to plant churches in Cyprus, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus, which form the spine of church growth in the book of Acts.
The church at Antioch itself could not plant any of those churches because their structure, as I noted, was fixed to one location. But the mobile, missionary structure had the flexibility to do this. Thus, the real breakthrough of Acts 13 is not just the calling of two gifted individuals, but a whole new structure that will allow the church to rapidly spread to new places.
You have probably heard about the Asbury College revival of 1970, one of the great revivals of the twentieth century. But, if you actually look at the history of the Asbury revival, the reason it became known as the Asbury revival and spread across this country is because someone had the foresight to realize that the revival would be limited if it just stayed in Wilmore, Kentucky. They created a secondary structure, and they actually created bands of students who went out from Wilmore and traveled all over the country, sharing what God was doing in Wilmore—and revival broke out there as well.
You can see that the church structure and the traveling band-type structure are both crucial for the way the church expands. This was actually the original purpose of the itinerant system in the Methodist world. If you look at the early days, all itinerancy was designed to spread the church, evangelize, and plant new churches. Sadly, the original design of the itineracy has been largely lost and, in its place, it has become what one United Methodist pastor has called, “a temporary chaplaincy and promotions system.”
In Acts 15:36, Paul suggests to Barnabus that they launch a second missionary journey since the first had been so successful. However, the two enter into a dispute over whether to include John Mark as part of the team, and they end up separating, with Barnabus taking John Mark, and Paul taking Silas. This must have been an unsettling experience—to have God so clearly calling them to go out as a team, and yet, to be in such sharp disagreement that they have to separate. As it turns out, this is just the beginning of the problems Paul encounters in his second journey. In Acts 16, we find Paul traveling through the region of Galatia, and then we are told that he is “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6 ESV). Then, they try to enter Mysia and Bithynia and “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them” (Acts 16:7). In chapter 13, they had clearly been called into this mission, but now in chapter 16, they are finding nothing but closed doors.
It is very easy in the face of a closed door to doubt the original call of God. Have you ever been there? I’ve been there. It’s very easy to forget in the dark what you learned or heard in the light. Paul and his missionary band have this experience, and they are at a loss as to what to do. They don’t know what the next step should be.
I have been in this situation. One of the things I learned through those trials is the knowledge that even when God says “no” and all the doors seem to be closing, in the long run, God’s “no” is always a deeper “yes.” If we are patient, God will, in time, reveal his plan, and it is always a better, deeper plan for us that better fulfills his mission and calling in our lives.
This happens to Paul and his missionary band. They have all these closed doors, but then Paul gets a vision of a Macedonian man beckoning them to come over and help them. The “no” of separation and closed doors becomes, over time, the deeper “yes” of the Macedonian call, and the emergence of Silas as an important new leader in the life of the church.
Once they cross over into Europe in response to the Macedonian call, they meet a woman named Lydia in Philippi. She and her household become the first Christians in Europe. Very quickly though, Paul finds himself arrested, and both Paul and Silas are thrown into prison. Think about it. Paul and Barnabas supernaturally receive God’s call to form the first missionary band, but it eventually ends up in division and sharp disagreement. In the second mission, they determine to bring the gospel farther than ever before, but at each point the Holy Spirit seems to close the door. Then, finally, they get direction about going to Philippi, but very quickly find themselves arrested and thrown into prison. Although it must have been difficult to see God’s way through this, their experience in prison becomes God’s greater “yes,” because after the earthquake, the jailer and his whole family come to Christ.
But still, the difficulties continue. Paul finds an open door in Thessalonica, but when he gets there a mob tries to kill him. He has to escape in the middle of the night to Berea. As the apostles travel from town to town, not always by their choice, they keep spreading the gospel. The mob follows Paul to Berea, so he escapes to Athens. But none of his companions could join him there, so he’s left alone in Athens. He finally makes it to Corinth where he meets huge opposition. Finally, the Lord appears to Paul in Acts 18:9–10,
saying, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (ESV).
That is a great and powerful assurance from the Lord about his calling in the life of Paul. But, there is a lot of turbulence between Acts 16 and Acts 18. Some of you who are reading this may be experiencing life between Acts 16 and Acts 18. You know that God has spoken to you in the past, and he has given you guidance and a sense of direction. But now you are experiencing spiritual turbulence. Perhaps you have come up against closed doors. You probably have not been thrown into prison for your faith, but there are times when maybe you feel like you have. The Bible tells us that all of God’s promises are “yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Our greatest disappointments can become his appointment. Part of the life of faith is persevering through the difficulties, knowing that God is actually using his call, and even the difficulties, to form us and shape us.
There are three big takeaways from these passages as we think about the Spirit’s guidance in our lives. First, in the New Testament, the gathered church clearly plays a much stronger role in discerning God’s will than we have realized. Do we have a place for the church to speak into our lives? When the apostles had the vision of the Macedonian man, they still met together and decided that it must be God’s will for them to go to Philippi. Second, we have to do a better job persisting through roadblocks and various closed doors that we meet which shout “no” to us. The book of Acts models this. We must be persistent in God’s call. And, finally, we need much greater openness to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The prophetic gift is greatly neglected. I haven’t been to many churches that have nurtured the prophetic gifts, yet this is one of the key gifts in the New Testament, and it did not die out with the apostles.
Did you enjoy this entry? It is part of a book by Timothy Tennent titled, The Spirit-Filled Life. In its pages, Tennent studies acts of the Spirit in the Old and New Testament, historic conversion stories, as well as modern examples from around the world, exploring the three great channels through which the Holy Spirit works in our lives:
- power for global witness
- holiness for sanctified purity
- discernment for faithful living
Are you ready to be filled with the Holy Spirit? Pentecost wasn’t just a one-time event but is an ongoing process—the knot that ties the church to its holy, empowered mission in the world.
Are you looking for the fire of God to fall upon your life? Be ready. You, too, can be filled with the Holy Spirit, and it will change your life and the life of your church forever.
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