One of the subjects that always seems to find prominent space on the shelves of Christian bookstores is the subject of hearing from God. There are even sub-genres in this area, such as hearing from God by means of the classic “still-small-voice,” listening for God’s voice through the reading of scripture, or discerning God’s will through a series of opening and closing doors. Still others extol the virtues of seeking wise counsel, or relying on an inner peace, or desiring deeper expressions of the more charismatic gifts of the Spirit.
Surveying the books that are published each year, it seems pretty clear that we are always seeking some assurance that God speaks to us, and that we (meaning “me”) can actually hear from God in some fashion. And when our actual experience of hearing from God falls short of daily communication with the Almighty, our disappointment sells even more books, including several new books asking whether God speaks to us at all.
Many of you know that Exodus was founded in large part on a belief that God speaks to us all, but that our churches are structured in a way that misses one of the key ways in which God speaks. The method of hearing from God that I see most ignored by our churches, yet so profoundly present in the New Testament, is the deliberation of the body.
From the birth of the early church, it seems that the apostles were constantly deliberating together to discern God’s will and to hear His voice in the church. Keep in mind that these people personally experienced the ministry of Jesus Christ, were powerfully affected by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and witnessed first hand many more miracles than are recorded in the scriptures. From Luke’s account in the book of Acts, we also know that these apostles experienced visions, dreams and the audible voice of the Lord. And yet, in the midst of this explosive activity and the evident work of the Holy Spirit, we see the apostles routinely deliberating together as a means of hearing from God.
Think back to one of the most crucial decisions faced by the early church: whether or not Gentile believers would have to adhere to the Jewish law to be saved. The issue was decided by a council in Jerusalem, as recorded in Acts 15. In that passage, we see the council engaged in a lively debate: “The apostles and elders met to consider this question,” which was made “[a]fter much discussion…” (Acts 15:6-7a). The church body deliberated together, hearing from the likes of Barnabas, Paul, Peter and James. And when they had come to a final decision, here is how they communicated that decision: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…” (Acts 15:28).
Notice that there was no signs, no wonders, no visions, no dreams and no audible voice. And yet the assembly confirmed that it was the Holy Spirit’s will that the decision be the one determined by the council. In other words, the Holy Spirit’s voice, and His earlier activity in revealing God’s will for the Gentiles (see e.g., Acts 11:1-18), was heard through the process of deliberation.
Other examples abound. A personal favorite is Paul’s vision of the Man of Macedonia in Acts 16. Even after the Holy Spirit would not allow passage to Bithynia, and Paul received a vision of man begging him to come to Macedonia, the apostles still met together to deliberate. The word used in Acts:16:10 is the Greek word symbibazo, meaning to corporately reason or to put together, and which many English translations render “conclude,” that God had called them to preach the gospel in Macedonia.
So here is an audacious claim: when you listen to the interaction which we recorded, you may be listening to the voice of the Spirit, manifested in the deliberation of the body. While every talk was carefully researched and painstakingly put together to anticipate how the discussion might progress, it was often the act of corporately reasoning together — symbibazo — that brought out the insights which resonate so deeply with those who experience these podcasts.
In our next post, we’ll talk more about how deliberation helps us to better hear the voice of the Spirit, and explore further why this discipline is missing from our churches.