THE MIRACULOUS – TOPICAL STUDIES
© Rosemary Bardsley 2007
Note: this study is not about guidance or instruction regarding moral choices or doctrinal choices, both of which are already pre-defined for us by the moral and doctrinal teaching of the scripture, and where any choice contrary to these boundaries is an expression of both disobedience and unbelief. This study is about guidance and instruction regarding life’s decisions in non-moral and non-doctrinal areas such as where to live, whom to marry, where to go, what to do in terms of ministry or vocation, and such like.
In some sections of evangelical Christianity there is quite a strong emphasis on ‘finding the will of God for your life’ or ‘getting guidance’ about personal life decisions and choices. In the extreme it is taught that ‘God has a wonderful plan for your life’ and you have to find it. Failure to ‘find God’s will for your life’ is then understood to result in ‘missing out on God’s best’ or ‘missing out on God’s blessing’.
While at one level this sounds very wonderful – that God has a specific plan mapped out in detail for my life – at another level it is actually quite devastating, generating a range of quite negative outcomes that erode the joy and peace that God promises to those who believe in his Son. That it has a negative outcome is not surprising, as it has no valid basis in the scripture.
When we look at the New Testament evidence for supernatural guidance it is really quite different from the above guidance mentality and rather more minimal than this mindset would lead us to understand.
JESUS CHRIST AND GUIDANCE
Supernatural guidance at the time of the birth of Christ
Surrounding the birth of Christ we find specific supernatural guidance and/or instruction:
 The following people were informed and guided by angelic visits:
- Zechariah [Luke 1:11 -20]. An angel appeared before Zechariah in the temple.
- Mary [Luke 1:26 -38]. The angel Gabriel was sent to speak to Mary.
- The shepherds [Luke 2:8-15] were instructed concerning the birth of the Christ.
 The following people were guided by dreams:
- Joseph [Matthew 1:20 -21]. An angel appeared to him in a dream.
- The Magi [Matthew 2:12 ]. Were warned in a dream.
- Joseph [Matthew 2:13 ]. An angel appeared to him in a dream.
- Joseph [Matthew 2:19 -20]. An angel appeared to him in a dream.
 The following person was supernaturally instructed by the Holy Spirit:
- Simeon [Luke 2:26 -27]. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would see the Messiah before he died, and guided him to the temple on the day that Jesus was taken there for dedication.
When we look at these instances of supernatural guidance and instruction we understand quite readily that they are not held up as examples that we should try to reduplicate in our lives, or examples of the kind of guidance we can expect God to give us. They are intimately connected to the unique event we call ‘the incarnation’. Take away this unique birth and this unique Christ who is the focus of all of these supernatural interventions, and the whole significance and relevance of these examples of divine intervention in human lives is also taken away.
To ask or expect God to do the same kinds of things in our lives is to forget that we are not the Christ. We are not the One towards whom the whole of the Old Testament is looking forward with eager expectation. We are not the One whose coming brings to ultimate fulfilment the key promise given to Abraham. We are not the One upon whose shoulders the salvation of the entire world rests. This is no ordinary birth. No ordinary life. He who is the eternal and infinite God is about to confine himself in human flesh and human time. The biggest miracle of all is about to unfold before our human eyes. God’s final self-revelation is about to be given to mankind. God’s ultimate provision of repentance and reconciliation is about to be put in place. For this greatest of all miracles these lesser miracles of supernatural guidance and instruction prepared those most intimately involved.
Christ’s use of the Old Testament scriptures as guidance
Throughout the four Gospels we find Jesus Christ making specific life choices on the basis of specific statements in the Old Testament. For example:
- He chose to live in Capernaum to fulfil what was written [Matthew 4:13 -17]
- He interpreted Isaiah 61:1,2 to refer to him and his life and ministry [Luke 4:16 -21]
- His choice to teach in parables was grounded in the scripture [Matthew 13;10-15]
- He deliberately went to Jerusalem so that all that was written about him would be fulfilled [Luke 18:31 -33]
- He chose to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, because it was written [John 12:14 -15]
- He knew his disciples would desert him because it was written [Matthew 26:31]
- He faced his death knowing that that death was written [Mark 14:21 ]
- He knew in advance that he would be killed alongside criminals because it was written [Luke 22:36 -37]
- He refused to call angels to rescue him, because the scripture had to be fulfilled [Matthew 26:54]
- His arrest occurred so that the writings of the prophets could be fulfilled [Matthew 26:56]
Christ’s use of specific Old Testament verses as guidance/direction/explanation for his personal actions and decisions is never in the Bible presented as an example for Christians to follow. In fact, he and he alone has the right to take verses from the Old Testament and apply them to his own decisions. [Remember, we are not talking about moral choices or doctrinal truths or guiding principles, but about life’s decisions.] The Old Testament speaks of Christ. It is prophetic of Christ. It points us forward towards him, telling us with expectant joy, what he will be and do and achieve. Even verses which in their original context have application to the people in that specific historic situation, speak also of Christ and what he would do during his incarnation.
When Christians, zealous for the will of God in their lives, apply Old Testament verses to the trivia of their lives, they are actually trivializing and personalizing those verses which are part of God’s big picture about the Messiah and the salvation he brings. Such actions reveal a serious misunderstanding of the purpose and the content of the Scripture. They are taking that which is prophetic of Christ, and was deliberately embedded by God in the scriptures as prophetic of Christ, a part of his great eternal plan of salvation that has relevance for every person on the planet because it reveals the Christ, and giving it a personal, time-bound, limited, temporary, subjective meaning and application. This is not the purpose or the meaning of the Scripture. It is not about me. Its focus and its purpose is to reveal Christ.
None of the apostles is reported to have used the Old Testament in such a personalized, trivial way, and none of them gave any instructions about getting the Lord’s guidance this way. For them, the Old Testament spoke of Christ. They used it to explain his person and his salvation, not as not a source for personal or even corporate decision making. [The one reported exception to this is Peter’s reference to Psalm 69:25 and 109:8 as the basis for the corporate decision to appoint a replacement for Judas.]
Other factors in Christ’s decisions
As we read the Gospel’s we find the following factors influenced Christ’s decisions about where to go and what to do, when to do it and what to say. It is here that we find the kinds of things that are legitimate factors on which to base our non-moral, non-doctrinal choices.
Personal psychological and physical needs:
- The presence of the crowds motivated him to go up the mountain [Matthew 5:1], to cross the lake [Matthew 8:18 ], to enter a house secretly [Mark 7:24 ] in order to get away from them.
- He often chose to stay outside of towns, in lonely places, because of the way the crowds in the towns pressured him [Mark 1:45 ; Luke 5:16 ]
- The need for rest [Mark 6:31 -32]
- He went to a lonely place because he heard of John the Baptist’s execution [Matthew 14:13 ]
Personal spiritual needs:
- He dismissed the crowd so he would have time to pray [Matthew 14:22 -23]
External human factors:
- The imprisonment of John motivated his return to Galilee [Matthew 4:12 ]
- His choice about how much to teach people was based on ‘how much they could understand’ [Mark 4:33 ]
- When one Samaritan village would not welcome him he went to another [Luke 9:51 -56]
- The content of his messages was chosen on the basis of his knowledge of the hearts/thoughts of those present [Mark 2:8]
- He accompanied his family [John 2:12 ]
- He left Judea and returned to Galilee when he learned that the Pharisees found out that many people were becoming his disciples [John 4:1-3]
- He stayed in a Samaritan town because its inhabitants asked him to [John 4:40 ]
- He withdrew from the crowds when he knew they intended to make him king by force [John 6:15 ]
- He left a certain place because the Pharisees were plotting to kill him [Matthew 12:14 -15].
- He purposely stayed away from Judea because the Jews were waiting to take his life [John 7:1]
- He stopped teaching in the temple because the Jews were about to stone him [John 8:59 ]
- He stopped moving among the Jews and went to a desert place because they were plotting his death [John 11:54 ]
- He was baptized because he considered it ‘proper … to do this to fulfil all righteousness.’ [Matthew 3:15]
- His choices about adhering to ritual and Pharisaic laws were made on the basis of his true understanding of the Scripture [Mark 2:18 -27; 3:1-5]
- He made his decisions on the basis of his long term mission not on the basis of immediate need or opportunity [Mark 1:36-39; Luke 4:42-44]
- He threw profiteers out of the temple because their actions dishonoured God [Matthew 21:12 -13]
- The will of the Father [Mark 14:36 ] was more important than his personal human feelings
- The priority of the Father [Luke 2:49 ]
- He deliberately delayed responding to the message about Lazarus’ sickness so that God would be glorified [John 11:1-6]
- Common Jewish practice – he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath days, and preached in the temple where the crowds were [various references].
- He went to Jerusalem for the Jewish feasts [John 2:13 ; 5:1]
His personal love:
- Compassion for people in need [Mark 1:41 ; 8:1-2; Luke 7:13 ]
All of the decisions listed in this section are made on the basis of factors common to us all – personal needs, the actions or needs of others, basic biblical or theological principles, religious or cultural factors, and personal love. Christ, the perfect human, made life and ministry choices on the basis of these factors; it is therefore legitimate for us also to make our life and ministry choices on the same basis.
When we look at some of these factors they are decidedly secular - some seem self-focused, some seem that he was, for short periods of time, forsaking his mission and ignoring the needs of the crowds because of his own personal needs. Do we judge Christ to be ‘unspiritual’ on the basis of these choices that he made? No, for the scripture tells us that he was without sin, and that he perfectly glorified the Father. Nor then should we judge ourselves and others when we make decisions on the basis of non-spiritual factors.
Jesus and supernatural leading:
There is one occasion on which Jesus is reported to have been led by the Spirit: He was led by the Spirit of God into the desert to be tempted by Satan [Matthew 4:1; Luke 4:1. The Mark 1:12 uses a stronger word – ‘sent’ (NIV), ‘driveth’ (KJV); the Greek is ekballo – the word used for ‘casting out’ demons].
This is the only reported instance of supernatural leading, and it was in relation to an incident intimately related to his identity as the Son of God and his purpose to die for our sins.
Should we seek or expect to be led by the Spirit? While not excluding the fact that the Spirit of God does lead or move the people of God, there are several factors here that should instruct us to be very cautious in seeking or expecting the kind of leading that occurred here:
 This is the only reported instance of this kind of guidance in Christ’s life.
 The Spirit led Christ into the wilderness specifically to be tempted by Satan.
 The temptations were unique to Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This is quite clear from the way Satan expressed them.
 There is no record that Jesus actively sought this leading. It was something done to him by the Spirit. He is the passive recipient of the Spirit’s forceful action.
The one thing that we can learn from this in relation to our own decision-making is that the Spirit of God, if he so wills, is well able to move us in any way and in any direction, quite independently of our seeking such leading. It is not something we are commanded to expect or instructed to seek.
What we are not told about Jesus Christ:
 We are that he was guided by dreams or visions. [His conversation with Moses and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration was not a dream or a vision. It was a unique re-appearance on earth of these two men, representative of the law and the prophets, whose writings Christ alone came to fulfil.]
 While we are told that angels ministered to him [Mark 1:13 ], we are that he was guided by angels.
 While, as we have seen, he made some of his decisions in direct fulfilment of the Old Testament scriptures which pointed to his life, ministry and death as the Messiah, we are that he searched around in the scriptures for guidance about what choice to make next. Nor are we told that as he read the scriptures specific verses impacted him as guidance for his next decision. He knew that he had come to fulfil and in fulfilment of the Scripture – something that is not, and can never be, true of us.
 While we are told that he prayed, and that he always did the will of his Father, we are that he asked his Father to tell him what to do at each point of decision.
Jesus Christ was unique. There are aspects of his life that can never be examples for us to follow. They are part of his incarnation and salvation and, therefore, can never be true of anyone other than the Christ. But he was also one of us, subjected to every pressure of human life that we are subjected to [Hebrews 4:14 -16], a real human being seeking [and succeeding] to live a life of commitment and glory to God. In these areas we can learn from his example in decision making. That example is, with one exception, surprisingly empty of supernatural guidance. It is, however, a perfect example of a human life lived fully for the glory of God and fully within the clear boundaries for human life defined by the Word of God.
THE EARLY CHURCH AND GUIDANCE
Apart from one instance in Acts 1 in which the eleven apostles replaced Judas by applying an Old Testament verse to their present situation, there are no reports of this personalized application of the scripture to non-moral, non-doctrinal choices of believers in Acts and the Letters. What we do find is listed below.
Instances of supernatural guidance or instruction
- Acts 8:26 – an angel of the Lord instructed Philip to go south to the Gaza road. There he met the Ethiopian, who was subsequently converted through his teaching.
- Acts 10:3-7, 22 – an angel of God instructed Cornelius to send for Peter.
- [Acts 12:7-11 – an angel rescued Peter from prison - this is physical rescue, not guidance]
- Acts 27:23-24 – an angel told Paul he would indeed go before Caesar, and all the people on the ship would survive
- Revelation 1:1 – the contents of the Book of Revelation were made known by an angel.
[Note: There is some lack of clarity in distinguishing between visions and reality. The word translated ‘vision’ [horama] also means ‘that which was seen’; hence, Cornelius is first described as having ‘a vision’, but subsequently as having been spoken to by a real angel, as distinct from just a vision of an angel. When the angel rescued Peter from prison, Peter himself thought it was only a vision of an angel, only later realizing that it was a real angel.]
- Acts 9:10 -17 – the Lord spoke with Ananias in a vision
- Acts 9:12 – Saul had a vision of Ananias coming to him and restoring his sight
- Acts 10:9-19; 11:4-10 – Peter’s vision of the sheet of unclean animals, by which God prepared him to respond to Cornelius’ request.
- Acts 16:9-10 - Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading for them to come and help. They concluded that this was where God wanted them to preach the gospel.
- Acts 18:9 – the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision, encouraging him to keep on teaching in Corinth .
- Acts 22:17 -21 – Paul, in a trance, saw the Lord speaking to him
- Acts 26:19 – Paul referred to his encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road as a vision.
- 2 Corinthians 12:1 – Paul infers that he received several visions
[Note: Peter and Paul, on the occasions referred to in Acts 10, 11 and 22, both state that this vision came to them when they were in ‘a trance’. On each of the two occasions the trance came upon them when they were praying. The word ‘trance’ – ekstasis – is used in this manner only in reference to these two occasions; elsewhere in the New Testament it is used to refer to amazement.]
The word revelation [apocalupsis] means the uncovering or unveiling of something previously hidden.
- 2 Corinthians 12:1,7 – Paul refers to his ‘surpassingly great revelations’
- Galatians 1:12 – Paul received his understanding of the Gospel ‘by revelation from Jesus Christ’.
- Galatians 2:2 – Paul went to Jerusalem ‘in response to a revelation’
- Ephesians 3:3 – the mystery of God’s grace was made known to Paul ‘by revelation’
 Divine intervention
There are a few occasions in which direct divine intervention in human decisions is reported:
- Acts 8:29 – the Spirit told Philip to go to the Ethiopian’s chariot and stay near it
- Acts 8:39 – the Spirit took Philip away from the Gaza Road
- Acts 10:19 ; 11:12 – the Spirit gave verbal instructions to Peter as he reflected on his vision
- Acts 13:1-4 – the Holy Spirit told the leaders in the Antioch church to set Barnabas and Saul apart for the work to which he had called them.
- Acts 16:6,7 – the Spirit prevented Paul and his companions from preaching in the province of Asia and would not allow them to go into Bithynia . [We are not told how this was done – whether by natural or supernatural means; nor are we told whether they knew it was the Spirit blocking them at the time, or only in retrospect.]
- Acts 20:22 – Paul felt compelled by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem [Note: some translations read that Paul felt compelled in his own spirit, rather than by the Holy Spirit.]
- Acts 21:4 – some believers ‘through the Spirit’ urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem [this verse is in serious tension with the previous reference if the latter is understood to be the Holy Spirit compelling Paul].
- Acts 23:11 – the Lord spoke to Paul telling him he would testify in Rome .
Note: it is recorded that Paul left room for God’s will to override his human plans and decisions [Acts 18:21; Romans 15:24-32].
Of the above references to supernatural guidance:
- The majority relate to getting the apostles and their associates to take the gospel to new areas – to the Gentiles, to Europe , to Rome , and, in the case of Philip, to a man who would take it to Africa .
- A significant number relate to Christ revealing the truth of the gospel to Paul.
- 3 relate to the Lord either encouraging or protecting Paul
- The very large majority were either given directly to Paul, or concerned Paul.
- The only other people guided in these supernatural ways were Peter and Philip.
Nowhere are these instances of supernatural guidance held up as examples of the kind of guidance we should expect, nor as commands to look for this kind of guidance. They are simply reported or referred to as facts from the life of these few apostles.
What conclusions can we make?
 God is obviously able to guide people by supernatural means.
 These supernatural means were used by God in the early church at critical points to ensure the gospel spread beyond Judea . It is reasonable to believe that, if he chose, God could use such means today to move people to take his gospel to specific geographical areas. It is not however valid to conclude that he needs to use this means, or that he will use this means. As we will see in the next section, he more commonly moved his people and his gospel around the world through their [or others’] decisions based on natural factors.
 The instances of ‘revelation’ of the truth of the gospel to Paul obviously cannot be repeated. Paul, like the Old Testament prophets, was an instrument of God for the reception and recording of his truth. We now have that truth in written form. Paul himself classified any addition to the original gospel as ‘false teaching’; in fact he indicated that if he himself added to it or altered it he should be cursed [Galatians 1:6-9]. This is an area in which we have to be extremely careful: every false cult that the author has researched is the result of someone claiming to have received a revelation or visitation from God or from Christ or from an angel. One major world religion has the same origin. [Please read the studies on false teaching on this website.]
 Similarly, the unique call and commissioning of Paul as Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles was unique and unrepeatable. Nowhere does the New Testament command, require or expect believers to have such a calling and commissioning.
 We can and should, as Paul did, trust God to override our human decisions according to his will. Such trust and confidence acknowledges both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Such trust is far more spiritual in a true biblical sense than expecting or demanding supernatural guidance by way of visions or visitations. He who most truly knows God can most truly trust him, and in that trust, most truly honours him as God. Faith simply trusts God, it neither needs nor demands to see.
Instances of decisions made by human and physical factors
By far the majority of non-moral, non-doctrinal decisions made in the early church were made without any obvious prior divine intervention by way of instruction and without any reported request for supernatural guidance. They were made on the basis of human factors, physical factors and ministry related factors. On one occasion Satanic interference is reported.
 Human factors
- Acts 6:1-4 - The apostles appointed deacons in response to physical human need, and so that they themselves would not have to leave off their spiritual ministry
- Acts 9:23-24 – Saul left Damascus because the Jews conspired to kill him
- Acts 9:29 -30 - the Christians took Saul from Jerusalem to Caesarea and sent him to Tarsus because the Jews tried to kill him.
- Acts 11:19-20 – persecution scattered believers to other towns
- Acts 13:50-51 – Paul and Barnabas moved from Psidian Antioch to Iconium because of persecution and expulsion.
- Acts 14:5 – a plot to mistreat and stone them made them leave Iconium
- Acts 14:19 -20 – Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra, so they left the next day.
- Acts 15:36 -41 – human decisions, including human disagreement
- Acts 16:38 -40 – official request that they leave the city
- Acts 17:10 – because of persecution the brothers sent Paul and Silas off under cover of darkness
- Acts 17:14 – because of persecution the brothers sent Paul to the coast and took him to Athens ; instructions to Silas and Timothy to join him ‘as soon as possible’
- Acts 18:3 – Paul stayed and worked with Aquila and Priscilla because he was a tentmaker like them
- Acts 18:27 – Apollos wanted to go to Achaia; the brothers encouraged him
- Acts 19:21 – ‘Paul decided to go to Jerusalem ’
- Acts 19:30 ,31 – Paul given advice by believers and some provincial officials
- Acts 20:2-3 – a Jewish plot made Paul change his travel plans
- Acts 20:16 – Paul was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem ; this affected his travel plans
- Acts 25:11,12; 26:32 – Paul’s appeal to Caesar precipitated his being sent to Rome
- Romans 15:20 – human ambition
- Romans 15:23 – human longing
- Romans 15:24 ,28 – human planning. [Paul did, however, acknowledge that his plans would only happen ‘by God’s will’ - verse 32].
- 1 Corinthians 16:12 – Apollos was unwilling to go with the brothers, despite Paul urging him, but he would go ‘when he has the opportunity’.
- 2 Corinthians 1:15 -16, 1:23 -2:4 – Paul changed his plans about visiting Corinth in order to spare them an unpleasant visit.
- 2 Corinthians 2:12,13 - Paul stopped preaching in Troas , where ‘the Lord had opened a door’ for him and moved to Macedonia because he ‘had no peace of mind’ because he did not find Titus there.
- Galatians 2:18 – Paul ‘went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter’
- Philippians 2:19 – Paul wanted to send Timothy to Philippi so he could come back to Paul with news of how they were going.
- Philippians 2:25-30 – Paul thought it necessary to send Epaphroditus back to Philippi , because he had nearly died, and they were worried about him.
- 1 Thessalonians 3:1, 5 – Paul could no longer stand not knowing how the Thessalonians were progressing in their faith so he sent Timothy to them
- 1 Thessalonians 3:5 – Paul’s fears concerning the Thessalonians also contributed to his decision
- 2 Timothy 4:9, 21 – Paul asked Timothy to do his best to come to him quickly, because Demas has deserted him, and to do his best to get there before winter
- 2 Timothy 4:20 – Paul left Trophimus in Miletus because he was sick.
- Titus 3:12 – Paul told Titus to do his best to join him at Nicopolis, as he had decided to winter there.
These are all very ordinary, human, non-spiritual factors. They include both positive and negative human factors. Yet they are the basis on which decisions in life and ministry were made.
 Physical factors
- Romans 1:13 ; 15:22 – unnamed hindrances
- 1 Corinthians 16:5 – since Paul would be travelling through Macedonia , he would call in on the Corinthians
- 1 Corinthians 16:6 – Paul might stay in Corinth for the winter so that they can help him on his journey
- 2 Timothy 4:21, Titus 3:12 – the approach of winter
 Ministry related factors
- Acts 6:1-4 – they wanted to be free of physical responsibilities so they could focus on spiritual ministry
- Acts 11:22 – the church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch
- Acts 11:25 – Barnabas went to Tarsus to get Paul , and brought him back to Antioch
- Acts 13:46 – when the Jews in Psidian Antioch rejected the gospel Paul turned to the Gentiles
- Acts 15:2-3 – the church in Antioch appointed Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem to settle the issue of circumcision
- Acts 15:22 – a decision made by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem
- Acts 21:20-26 – Paul followed the advice of the believers in Jerusalem
- Acts 23:6 – Paul’s choice of what to say was based on his knowledge of the audience
- Romans 15:20, 23 – Paul’s ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known together with the fact that there was no more place for him to do so in the territory where he’d been working to date.
- Romans 15:25-28 – the service of the saints in Jerusalem [taking the gift from Macedonia and Achaia]
- 1 Corinthians 16:4 – Paul would go with the men taking the collection ‘if it seems advisable’ for him to go.
- 1 Corinthians 16:9 – Paul planned to stay on at Ephesus ‘until Pentecost because a great door of effective work had been opened’ to him there.
- 2 Corinthians 8:19 – Titus was chosen by the churches to accompany Paul
- 2 Corinthians 9:4-5 – Paul sent men ahead to Corinth in advance to prevent their being ashamed when he came
- Ephesians 6:21 -22 – Paul sent Tychicus to the Ephesians so that they would know how he was doing, and encourage them
- Colossians 4:7-8 – Paul sent Tychicus to Colosse so he could let them know his circumstances, and encourage them.
- 1 Timothy 1:3 – Paul urged Timothy to stay in Ephesus so that he could speak against the false teachers
- 2 Timothy 4:13 – Paul asked Timothy to bring Mark with him because he was helpful in Paul’s ministry.
- Titus 1:5 – Paul left Titus in Crete to ‘straighten out what was left unfinished and to appoint elders’.
Here we find corporate as well as individual human decisions based on ministry related factors. Even Paul, the great apostle, submits, for the most part, to these corporate decisions. Similarly, others acted on the basis of his decisions. There is no record that they ‘sought the Lord’ in these matters. Maybe they did, but it is not recorded. All we know is that they made these decisions on the basis of their understanding of the gospel and their perception of what seemed best for their ministry for Christ and his church.
 Interference from Satan
- 1 Thessalonians 2:18 – Satan hindered Paul, preventing him from going to Thessalonica.
While we commonly feel like blaming Satan for hindrances, obstacles or difficulties in implementing our ministry related decisions, the New Testament does this only on this occasion. This fact should make us very cautious about interpreting reality this way. It is obvious from section  above that it is not Satan, but human actions, [some admittedly sinful], that are the immediate cause to which the apostles attribute most of their decisions.
What we don’t find in the New Testament church
- We find any reports of the believers praying about what they should do next or where they should go next.
- We find any commands to ask the Lord what he wants us to do next.
- We find Paul asking his readers to pray that the Lord would show him what to do next [but we do find him asking prayer for boldness in preaching and for protection.]
- We find any reports of a church leader asking a person to ‘pray about’ whether or not he/she should take on a suggested ministry. The church leaders simply told others what to do. Sometimes they were obeyed. Sometimes their advice or suggestions or requests were disregarded.
- We find any reports of people getting, or church leaders requiring a person to have, a ‘word from the Lord’ directing them to a specific ministry, vocation or location.
- We find any reports of people having a scripture verse to confirm their calling.
- We find people trying to ‘find God’s plan for their life’.
- We find people worrying about missing out on God’s best or God’s blessing because they might have missed his ‘will for their lives’.
We might well ask: If we don’t find any of this in the New Testament, then how on earth did all of these perceptions and expectations get into the evangelical church which prides itself on standing on the Scriptures?
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT THE WILL OF GOD?
There are different aspects of the will of God
When the Bible speaks of the will of God is does so with the following meanings that are referring to something quite different from my non-moral, non-doctrinal decisions:
 God’s will is his sovereign overriding eternal purpose, which was in place before the creation of the world, and which no one can abort or change.
 God’s will is the incorporation of individuals into this eternal purpose.
 God’s will is the honour of his Son.
 God’s will is that we believe in Christ.
 God’s will is the salvation of the lost.
 God’s will is the eternal security of all who believe in his Son.
 God’s will is his revealed moral standards defined in the commands and principles laid down in the scripture, that is, our sanctification
These are the aspects of God’s will that are consistently taught in the scriptures. They permeate its pages. We are constantly confronted and challenged by them, and by the critical nature of our response to them, for it is on these aspects of God’s will that our eternal destiny hangs, and that living our lives to God’s honour and glory depends. It is on these aspects of God’s will that any human relationship with God either stands or falls, is either validated or invalidated.
All of my moral and doctrinal choices should be made within these definitions and boundaries of ‘God’s will’.
The relation between my non-moral, non-doctrinal choices and ‘God’s will’
That other aspect of the will of God in which our personal non-moral and non-doctrinal choices are in focus, does not have the importance or significance in the Bible that is given to it in some sections in the church. In fact, the Bible leaves this aspect of ‘God’s will’ in God’s hands; it does not present it as something we have to discover before we make specific decisions or plans, but as something we can and should confidently trust, and allow, him to accomplish.
Thus we find the following:
- The request/commitment expressed in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, while encompassing all of the revealed aspects of God’s will listed above, also includes, of necessity, this unrevealed aspect of his will, and humbly and confidently leaves it his God’s loving and powerful hands.
- Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane , while expressing his personal desire to avoid his foreordained death on the cross, prayed ‘yet not as I will, but as you will’ and ‘your will be done’ [Matthew 26:39,42]. Here he submits to his Father’s outworking of his eternal will [type 1 above].
- Paul made decisions based on the various factors we have seen earlier in this study, but left room for God to override the implementation of those decisions according to his will [Acts 18:21; Romans 15:24-32]. This example seen in the life of Paul, is stated as a command by James.
- James instructs us that when we make our ordinary decisions, for example about whether to go to town tomorrow, we should do so acknowledging that God could well intervene and bring about something totally different from what we had planned [James 4:13-17]. James teaches that this is the right attitude for humans, who, unlike God, have neither knowledge of nor control over what will occur tomorrow. James is not saying that we should first find out what God’s will is and then make our plans. James is not saying it is wrong to plan. What James is saying is that we should make our plans, on the one hand acknowledging our weakness and ignorance, and on the other hand committing our plans and what comes of them to God’s sovereignty, knowledge and power. Such is the trust and confidence of those who know God as Father.
What truth is there in common guidance-related statements found in sermons and Christian books today?
 Common statement: ‘God has a wonderful plan for your life’
Yes. He does. His plan is to involve you in his eternal purpose of salvation in Christ. His will is that you should not perish, but come to repentance and live with him in a relationship and state of being called ‘eternal life’. His will is that you should live your life to his glory, by trust and obedience to both his promises and his commands.
This is the only plan for your life that the Bible teaches about.
What about Jeremiah 29:11? This verse speaks of God’s plans for the nation of Israel after his judgment on them [the 70 years of exile in Babylon ] was completed. This restoration of Israel was an essential for the eternal purpose of God – the coming of the Christ and salvation through him – to be implemented. The Christ had to be a descendent of Abraham, in the line of David; the Christ had to be born in Bethlehem , raised in Nazareth , killed in Jerusalem .
What about Psalm 139? Read it without filtering it through the presuppositions of the ‘guidance mindset’. If verse 16 is speaking of a detailed, day by day, step by step, ‘will of God’ for my life, all we can say from this Psalm is that it certainly does not tell us we have to find that will or we miss out on God’s blessing. Rather, it pulsates with absolute confidence that it is God himself, not us, who will by his sovereign power, knowledge and love bring his purposes for us to pass. We cannot get away from him, even if we want to. We cannot thwart his purposes, even if we try to.
 You have to ‘find God’s will for your life’
No. You don’t have to find it. God has already revealed it in the Scriptures, as described above. There is no biblical command to find, pray or search for the will of God for your life.
 If you don’t find God’s will for your life ‘you will miss out on God’s best’ or ‘on God’s blessing’.
Yes. And no. No, because what is understood as God’s will in this statement is not what the Bible teaches as God’s will. Yes. Because if you never learn of Christ and his salvation, and if you never accept Christ and his salvation [which is God’s will], you most certainly miss out on both God’s best and God’s blessing, because every spiritual blessing God has for you is found in Christ alone. Those who have received Christ can never miss out on God’s best or God’s blessing for they have God’s best and God’s blessing: they have Christ. There is nothing better or more blessed than that, for all the spiritual blessings that God has for you have already been given to you in Christ [Ephesians 1:3].
 A Christian can be ‘out of God’s will’
No. Not in terms of life’s non-moral, non-doctrinal choices – choices about career, partner, place of residence, ministry. Such choices are never a biblical issue if made within the boundaries defined in the scriptures – for example, what God is concerned about is not which specific person you should marry, but that you should marry a believer, not an unbeliever.
No. in such a way that you are cut off from God or from salvation
Yes. In this: that every time we sin by disobeying his moral commands or disbelieving his revealed truth, we are deliberately stepping over the boundary of God’s will into a choice excluded by God’s will. Sin is never God’s will. He can and does use it in bringing about his sovereign purpose, as we will see below, but sin is never God’s will. Each sinful choice we make – every time we disobey or ignore his revealed commands or his revealed truth – we are, in that choice, acting out of God’s will.
How much better the witness of the church would be if we were as concerned about this moral and doctrinal aspect of God’s will as we are encouraged and taught to be regarding the other, non-moral, non-doctrinal aspect of God’s will!
 You should get ‘a word from the Lord’ before making a commitment to mission or ministry.
No. This is not taught anywhere in the Bible. We already have the Bible, the Word of God, which instructs every one of us that we are, and are to be, ‘the light of the world’ and the ‘salt of the earth’ whose responsibility it is to glorify God on earth [Matthew 5:14-16].
 We should ‘seek the Lord’ in matters of decision.
No. When the Bible instructs people to ‘seek the Lord’ or refers to people ‘seeking the Lord’ it is not in terms of specific decisions but in terms of
Faith and worship:
- seeking him – that is, whole-hearted commitment to God and his commandments
- seeking him – in terms of worshipping him
- seeking him instead of following and trusting in idols or occult powers
- seeking and depending on his help in times of threatened disaster
- seeking his face – that is seeking his mercy and forgiveness when one’s sins deserve his judgment
There is no biblical reference where ‘seek the Lord’ means trying to find out what decision he wants us to make in our specific circumstances. To change ‘seek the Lord’ so that it means ‘seek the Lord’s guidance’ is to seriously and wrongly reduce the clear meaning of the biblical phrase ‘seek the Lord’ which focuses our quest and our desire on God himself.
How then does God guide us today?
 By the boundaries set in place by God’s clearly revealed truth
The written word of God, and its primary focus on Christ, puts in place timeless boundaries defined by God’s nature, action and purpose. What he has revealed about himself, his actions and his purpose, and also about the purpose for which he created us, is a fence within which all of our decisions [both moral and doctrinal and non-moral and non-doctrinal] are to be made. We are to do nothing that is contrary to his revealed nature and his revealed purpose, and we are to do all things with his glory and honour in mind. This is the boundary inside of which Christ lived his human life. He came to glorify the Father [John 1:18 ; 17:4; 1 Corinthians 10:31 ].
 By the boundaries set in place by his written commands and revealed principles
The written word of God contains laws and principles which are to be applied to the specific decisions of our lives. For example, the ‘you shall not murder’ of Exodus 20:13 expresses the principle of the sanctity of human life, which Christ expanded in Matthew 5:21 -26. These God-given biblical laws and principles put a boundary around all of our choices and actions – moral, doctrinal and non-moral, non-doctrinal. These are also the boundaries within which Christ lived his human life.
I would suggest that both of the above are ‘supernatural guidance’. Indeed, if we don’t understand the scripture as God’s supernatural revelation, then our perception of the Bible is clearly different from its own perception of itself. God, in a sovereign and gracious act of supernatural revelation, gave us the written word, by which he has made known to us both himself and his will and purpose for our lives, and has done so in such a way that he does not override that human ‘freedom’ to which we so jealously cling, but rather confronts, challenges, calls and commands us to align ourselves with him: with his nature, his will and his purpose.
 By his own [often unseen or unrecognized by us] intervention in our lives
It is usually only in retrospect that we can with any certainty recognize God’s intervention in our lives. But that he does intervene, and even interfere, in our lives is clearly evident in the scripture:
- As we saw above, Jesus, Paul and James, all refer to leaving room for God’s will to override human desires or choices.
- Our personal belief in Christ is clearly the result of God’s sovereign intervention in our lives [Matthew 11:27 ; 16:17 ; John 6:44 , 65]
- God’s hand is upon us, even before we acknowledge him or think anything at all about his will [Galatians 1:15 ; see also Jeremiah 1:5; Psalm 139].
- God has both the ability and the liberty to get us to do his will, sovereignly overriding our opposition to doing that will [examples: Jonah, Jeremiah, Gideon, Moses, Paul].
- God has the ability to take even that which is utterly opposed to him, and remains utterly opposed to him, and to use it for his good purpose [Romans 8:28]. Examples:  the life of Joseph [Genesis 45:5-8; 50:19-21], in which a long string of sins – his father’s, his own, his brothers’, Potiphar’s wife’s, the butler’s - resulted in Joseph being in prison in Egypt just when the Pharaoh needed someone to interpret his dreams, and then, to appoint as prime minister;  the death of Christ, in which God took hold of and used the treachery of Judas, the duplicity of the crowds, the hatred of the Pharisees, the weakness of Pilate, and judicial system of Rome, and wove them together to bring to fulfilment his eternal purpose in Christ which he had put in place before the beginning of time. Not one of the people whose sinful actions brought either Joseph or Jesus to God’s appointed place had any idea at all that God was taking hold of their godless actions and working his will. Not even Joseph understood this while it was all happening. Only Jesus, involved in God’s plan from the beginning, knew exactly what was going on.
This intervention and interference of God in his sovereign power and purpose is not something that we have to look for. Rather it is something we have to believe and trust: that God is, as his word states, working in all things for our good, and over and above that, working in all things to bring about his purpose. With this trust we need not fear any perceived failure to ‘find his will’ [a perception not generated by the Bible, but by our exposure to evangelical tradition]. We need not fear that a foolish, or even sinful, decision of ours will cause God’s will to fail. He is bigger than our choices and our decisions. They, good or bad, wise or unwise, are tools in his hands by which he, in a supernatural way, brings his will to pass.
With only a very few exceptions the biblical references to God leading or guiding, or prayers for his leading or guidance, fall within the three above categories. The expectation of God’s leading or guidance is not an expectation that God will miraculously reveal the next step a person has to take, but rather  that God will teach from his ‘law’ [that is, his Word] what is the appropriate way to live, and  that God will personally bring the person to a place of safety or security.
Where the concepts of leading or guidance occur in biblical poetry, which many of them do, it is instructive to note the parallel concepts in the verses in which they occur:
In several Psalms ‘guide’ and ‘lead’ are paralleled by ‘teach’.
In several Psalms ‘guide’ or ‘lead’ are paralleled by ‘bring’.
In Psalm 139:10 ‘guide’ is paralleled by ‘hold’.
They are not about us asking an absent, remote and disconnected God to tell us what to do next, but refer to the fact that God himself goes with us, teaching and instructing us from his Word, holding us by the hand, so that he will bring us safely through the circumstances or situations of our lives in such a way that he is honoured and we are brought safe home. This is the kind of guidance the Bible affirms; this is the kind of guidance for which biblical men of God prayed. It is not ‘give me the specific instructions for this decision and I’ll do it’, but ‘come with me as my Guide and Teacher whom I trust to get me to the end goal’. It is the presence of God in the pillar of fire, leading his people on [Exodus 13:21 ]. It is God, the Shepherd, carrying the ‘lambs’ in his arms and gently leading ‘those that have young’ [Isaiah 40:11]. It is God, taking the hand of the ‘blind’ and removing the obstacles from their path, staying with them every step of their way [Isaiah 42:16]. It is God, always with us, holding our hand, counselling us, taking us safe into glory [Psalm 73:23-24].
 By personal factors
As we have seen in the study on spiritual gifts, spiritual gifts sometimes coincide with God’s commission or calling. Similarly, God’s calling often coincides with one’s total being – one’s spiritual gifting, one’s natural talents or learned abilities, one’s personality, one’s background experiences. This is because God’s sovereign hand is upon us from, or even before, the moment of our conception. He made us. He knows us. All of our lives he has been working in and with us, taking all the good and bad that we have done and that has been done to us, using it for our good, and weaving it into his grand eternal plan. Nothing, not even the horrible stuff, is wasted in his, the Master’s, hands.
Take Jeremiah, for example. Jeremiah knew himself to be a quite, shy, introverted person, to whom even the thought of being a public speaker was as frightening as hell. He didn’t want to do it. He tried to get out of it. But God knew, indeed God had planned, that this timid young man was the ideal person through whom he would give his rebellious people a final call to repentance. Jeremiah – timid and shy yes, but also, because of that very timidity, compassionate, caring, tender, gentle, a man who would so hate the message he had to speak that he would weep real tears as he gave it, pouring out, on God’s behalf, all the love and anguish of God himself as he cried over the rebellion and fate of this lost and hopeless people.
The calling of God is not something we have to seek and find. It comes out of the person God has made us. Has he given us a compassionate, loving heart? Then he expects us to be compassionate. Has he given us administrative ability and experience? Then he expects us to use it. Has he given us great understanding of his word? Then he expects us to communicate that understanding to others. Has he blessed us with material wealth? Then he expects us to share it. Do we have a powerful burden to reach the lost? Then he expects us to reach them. This is the thought in the gift passages in Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Peter 4:7-11. It is also the thought in the Parable of the Talents – Matthew 25:14-30. In addition, while there are some obvious questions arising from it, Paul gives a general instruction in 1 Corinthians 7:17-23 not to change the circumstances we were in when God called us.
Obviously, we are here in a very individual, personal, subjective area. We could easily go astray here. We can misread ourselves and our abilities. Sometimes our circumstances may have caused the suppression of who we really are. Sometimes the people we have lived with have been so negative that we can no longer see anything positive about ourselves. But even these things in God’s hands are not loss.
It is here that the fellowship of believers and the advice or instruction of church leaders are valuable and valid means by which God can, as he did in the New Testament, direct us along the path of God’s calling for us.
 By directions given by church or Christian organizational leaders.
The Scripture commands us to be subject to those in authority over us. Barnabas, Paul and others, took on ministry appointments allocated to them by the church.
 By miraculous, supernatural means
God can and does at times use extraordinary, or miraculous, supernatural means. It occurred once in the life of Christ – and that was in relation to his divine identity and saving role. It occurred several times in the life of Paul, twice with Philip, and once with Peter – most, if not all, of which related to getting the gospel taken into new unreached areas. Many were related to Paul’s appointment as an apostle to the Gentiles by the glorified Christ. None of these instances were guidance about Paul, Peter or Philip’s personal details – should I marry or not, who should I marry, what job should I choose, where should I live.
While these few instances affirm that God can and did guide miraculously, it is obvious that miraculous, supernatural guidance is not the norm. As we have seen, most of Christ’s decisions, (apart from those specifically related to God’s eternal purpose that was being fulfilled in him), and most of the apostolic decisions, were made on the basis of ordinary everyday factors.
To seek supernatural guidance is to want to walk by sight, rather than by faith, to demand from him that which true trust does not need. To fear to move without supernatural guidance is to forget that he is our loving Father – loving us so much that nothing can separate us from his love. To fear a ‘wrong’ decision on our part will deprive us of God’s best or God’s blessing, is to misunderstand and misrepresent both who Jesus Christ is and the salvation Jesus Christ obtained for us, making both depend on our action rather than on our Father’s grace, and assuming that there is something better than Christ or more blessed than the complete salvation we have in him.
To seek or demand supernatural guidance is also to forget that God is ‘our Father in heaven’ – the sovereign Lord of all, the Almighty, who not only loves us, but who also has the whole universe under his control, and can bring his will to pass in our lives without our needing to know what that will is.
Footnote : It is ironic that those who most strongly instruct us not to move until we have discovered ‘God’s will for our lives’, forcing us to find out what is God’s will in any given point, are commonly those who most strongly object to the concepts of predestination or election and shout in support of human ‘free will’. On the one hand, in the matters of lesser importance and only temporary significance, we are made totally dependent on God’s decision; on the other hand, in the matter of the most serious importance and of eternal significance, we are told it all depends on our decision, our freedom of will, our choice - that God doesn’t enter into it all. On the one hand, that which the Bible never mentions is commanded; on the other, that which the Bible teaches strongly is denied.