by Robert L. Gallagher
Following the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the most important component of mission.
After high school I went to university in Wollongong, Australia, my native country. I joined a small home fellowship group, which eventually grew into an influential church. Each Easter, members of the church would go to the town of Berry where we would set up tents at a showground and have evangelistic meetings. The men had a tradition of playing touch football on Saturday afternoon and during one such event in 1983, a man I did not know sat on the sidelines and watched us play. The stocky, tough-looking bloke with tattoos on his arms soon began yelling, “Give the kids a go, give the kids a go!” We gave the children a run with the ball, but the man kept on yelling. In half-jest I challenged him to join us and put his feet where his mouth was. Only then did he quiet down.
After playing for some time I got tired and went to sit down. I made my way across the field and went to jump over a picket fence. As I did this, two pictures flashed in my mind. The first picture was of the man with tattoos, whom I had since forgotten about, with his fists up, ready to fight. The second picture was of me lying still on the ground.
As I continued walking, the burly man came around the side of a tent with his fists raised and began shouting, “You call yourself a pastor?” I began to chuckle and said to him, “You’re kidding, aren’t you?” He turned around, took out his false teeth, put them into his pocket, raised his fists again and began striding toward me. Somehow I knew I had to turn and walk quietly into my tent. The man spent several minutes shouting obscenities my way and then left. That night, this man committed his life to Jesus and has since dedicated his ministry to helping wayward teenagers. I later learned that this “defender of children” had a police record for assault and battery.
Even as an impulsive, young pastor, I believe the Holy Spirit guided me that day. By God’s grace, the Lord forewarned me of what was about to happen. The Holy Spirit used the two mental images to give me knowledge and wisdom that I did not possess, namely, that the man was going to try to attack me and that I was not to resist him.
GOD’S GUIDANCE IN SCRIPTURE
God’s leading his people in similar ways can also be seen in several instances in the Hebrew scriptures. The majority of guidance in the Old Testament is seemingly by external power. The Israelites were led by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. For forty years they had the visible manifestation of God’s power before them. When the cloud or the fire pillar moved, Moses would shout a command similar to that found in Psalm 68:1: “Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered!” At that signal, the travelers would pack up their pots, pans, tents and animals, and would follow Yahweh.
During the days of the kings, the high priest used the Urim and Thummim—two stones located in a pouch under his breastplate—to hear from God. The stones communicated direction the high priest was to give to the king. There was also the casting of lots, which is found in the book of Jonah. The sailors questioned who was responsible for the storm, and through the casting of lots discovered it was Jonah. God continued to use this method of guidance until early Church days, when the disciples sought to know who would replace Judas (Acts 1:26). Matthias was chosen by lot. These are examples of the external power of God’s guidance.
In the New Testament, God not only guided through the casting of lots, but also through angels, visions and dreams. However, the majority of God’s guidance came through the Holy Spirit. This was no longer by an external power, but by an internal person. First-century mission can be seen most clearly in looking at the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Luke 3:21-22 says,
Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while he was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well-pleased.”
At his water baptism, Jesus received divine affirmation from God by receiving the fullness of the Spirit. What God spoke to Jesus was taken from Psalm 2 and Isaiah 41. Within their context, both relate to mission. Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit to do mission.
Luke 4:1a says, “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit…” Only the Gospel of Luke states that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit when he went into the wilderness. Jesus returned from the Jordan, “and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness” (Luke 4:1b). The Holy Spirit led Jesus into ministry. After the wilderness experience, we read, “And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (4:14). Again the Spirit was guiding Jesus’ ministry. In Nazareth, Jesus’ first recorded sermon begins in Luke 4:18. He unrolls the scroll and refers to Isaiah 61, “And the Spirit of the LORD is upon me.” His ministry in the Gospel of Luke emphasizes that in order to do mission, he was empowered and led by the Holy Spirit. He did not act on his own initiative. It was God’s Spirit guiding, leading and working through him that empowered him to do the Father’s will.
Over forty instances of the Holy Spirit coming upon people are recorded in the Old Testament and all were instances that included men in leadership. Although there were a few exceptions (such as David), the Holy Spirit would come upon a person when the individual was going to act for God and would leave after the task was completed. Samson was empowered by the Holy Spirit to tear out the gates of Timnon and carry them over to the hill facing Hebron. After Samson completed this, the Holy Spirit left him.
THE SPIRIT’S GUIDANCE IN ACTS
In the early Church, Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received power, namely, immersion of the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:8 says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest parts of the earth.” The disciples needed and prayed for the Holy Spirit to empower them and finally in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. A miraculous sheet of flame and a roaring sound accompanied the disciples as they spoke in languages they had never before studied. The Holy Spirit came upon the early Church and has remained ever since. Quoting Joel 2, Peter told what the Lord had promised of the Holy Spirit:
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. (Acts 2:17)
However, Peter inserted “and they shall prophesy,” a phrase not found in the Old Testament passage. He was emphasizing that when the Holy Spirit comes upon both women and men, each will speak about God. Prophecy, for Peter, was the major role of the Holy Spirit among believers, whether the individuals were young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, with status or untitled, powerful or powerless. Enabled by the Spirit, these believers were then able to leave Jerusalem and spread the gospel.
The following are a number of instances in the book of Acts where the Spirit guided the followers of Jesus to speak about what God had done through the Messiah.
—Acts 8. In the midst of a great Samaritan revival, Philip was directed to leave the city and head for an empty desert road. He did this under the guidance of an angel. The Holy Spirit then directed him to a chariot where an Ethiopian eunuch was unknowingly ready to hear the gospel message. With the combination of the angel and the Holy Spirit we see two different means of guidance that seem to be interchangeable.
—Acts 10. While deep in prayer, Peter had a vision indicating that the Gentiles were included in God’s kingdom. The Holy Spirit then guided Peter to go to Cornelius and his relatives (all of whom were Gentiles) and accept them without misgivings.
—Acts 11. Agabus the prophet, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, told the church at Antioch of Syria that the Christians in Palestine were going to experience a famine during the days of Claudius Caesar. Although the Holy Spirit sometimes worked through community, at other times, like this, he spoke through prophets. Both are needed for mission today.
—Acts 13. While Antioch’s leadership team was ministering to the Lord, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2). The disciples prayed, fasted and laid hands on Barnabas and Saul. The Holy Spirit then sent them out.
—Acts 15. After some discussion as to whether the Gentiles should follow the cultural rules of the Jewish people, the Jerusalem Council sent a letter that, in part, read, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us…” (15:28), indicating that the Spirit was involved with the decision.
—Acts 16. During Paul’s second missionary journey, he, Silas and Timothy traveled through Asia Minor, between Phrygia and Galatia, toward Asia. During this journey, the Holy Spirit, in verse 6, told them not to go where they were going. They were called to the Gentile world; however, instead of heading west, the Lord directed them toward the east. As the trio headed down the trade route toward Bithynia, the Spirit of Jesus did not let them move forward. Soon after, Paul had a vision of a man saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (16:9). Many questions arise from this passage: How did the Holy Spirit speak to Paul, Silas and Timothy? Why did the Spirit prevent them from preaching the gospel in Asia? Weren’t they supposed to go out and tell everybody about Jesus? Are there times when we should not talk about Jesus or witness to a particular people group? Why did Luke say “the Holy Spirit” in verse 6, and “the Spirit of Jesus” in verse 7? To this last question, we must consider if the author was perhaps saying that Jesus and the Spirit are both at work in the lives of believers.
—Acts 19. In verse 21, Paul sensed the Holy Spirit’s leading to go to Jerusalem and then to Rome.
—Acts 21. Agabus, inspired by the Holy Spirit, proclaimed to Paul that when he was to go to Jerusalem, he would suffer and be imprisoned. He took off Paul’s belt, wrapped it around his hands and said, “Whoever wears this belt, this is what’s going to happen to them” (21:11). The Holy Spirit spoke through Agabus to warn Paul.
Repeatedly we see the Holy Spirit’s guidance in both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. It was the Holy Spirit who led every major movement of mission expansion. Luke even makes it clear that the Spirit is both the Lord of the Church and the Lord of its mission.
RECOGNIZING THE GUIDANCE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
How does the guidance of the Holy Spirit work? Let me give two examples.
Example one. When I was newly-married and living in Wollongong, my late wife sent me to a store to buy some toothpaste. She had taught me that often the cheaper items in a grocery bin are toward the back. In those days, they used price stickers and as I looked at the package I noticed there were two stickers, one right on top of the other. As I walked toward the cashier I began to peel off the top label. Immediately I heard an internal voice say, “That’s wrong.” As I peeled off the top sticker, I noticed the one underneath had a cheaper price. I put the peeled-off sticker next to the other one and let the cashier decide which price to charge.
Have you ever heard that internal voice? Maybe you are in a lively conversation that suddenly takes a turn for the worse. The discussion is unsettling and you begin to feel uncomfortable. Or perhaps you are reading a book or watching a movie, and suddenly you sense you are wasting your time and begin thinking you should put what you are doing aside and do something more worthwhile. We are joined dynamically and functionally with the Holy Spirit; however, often we do not appreciate when the Holy Spirit prompts and nudges us in guidance.
How do you know if what you are sensing is the Holy Spirit? One way to know is that the leading of the Spirit is always within the bounds of scripture. Perhaps you have been praying for more money to come your way and you suddenly find a wallet that is filled with one-hundred-dollar bills. Does this mean God wants you to steal the wallet? The word of God is explicit that stealing is sin. Or perhaps there is an unmarried couple who are emotionally attached and alone in a bedroom on a Saturday afternoon. They pray to God, “If you do not want us to consummate our relationship then have someone come to the door.” The Bible has already given them the answer to their dilemma. Their prayer is tempting God.
Example two. In 1970 an Australian missionary and his family went to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. He began a little church and was invited to preach in the city of Popendetta in the Northern Province. One day he walked to a village that had never heard the gospel and began to share the message of salvation. While he was speaking about Jesus, the Holy Spirit gave him an impression that a young woman in the village was blind. He told the villagers what the Spirit had communicated to him and kept talking about how the Lord commonly does miracles and healings. Some of the women left the meeting and returned ten minutes later with the woman. The women put her in the middle of the group and said, “This is the woman. She’s blind.” While laying hands on her, the missionary prayed, “Lord Jesus, heal her right now.” And the Lord did.
In the same village there was a family of sorcerers. The brothers had put a curse on this woman years earlier. What was being demonstrated through the Spirit’s guidance was that the power of Jesus was greater than demonic power. The village people saw it and many believed. Even some of those who had cursed the woman committed their lives to the Lord and changed their allegiance from animism to faith in Christ. Like wildfire, the Christian movement in that community spread into surrounding villages. Thirty-five years later, there are six hundred churches and fifteen Bible schools, all run by nationals. Papua New Guinean missionaries are now being sent to Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, the Philippines, India and Australia. The Holy Spirit continues to lead this movement through signs, wonders and preaching of the word.
We need to be willing and available for the Holy Spirit to guide us. We must be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading every day. Let us wake up each morning and realize that we are joined with the blessed Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus. Throughout each day, he can prompt us to pray, send a card, make a phone call or talk with the person sitting next to us on a park bench. Expect the Holy Spirit to work in our mission today.
Robert L. Gallagher is an associate professor of Intercultural Studies at Wheaton College Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois. He has worked as an executive pastor in Australia and a theological educator in Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific.
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