Does God speak to us in multiple ways, including audibly?
Another email question came in, this time about hearing the voice of God. This person had been facing push-back from some believers who don’t believe that God speaks to us. This post is trying to answer the question about whether God speaks, with that challenge in the background.
The Bible records many ways that God has spoken and can speak to people. The answer to this question will be based on two things:
1) How does the Bible show that God speaks?
2) Does God still speak the same way today?
Let’s take each in turn.
– How does the Bible show God speaking?
The Bible shows us that God is, by his very nature, a communicator. This is an important place to start. Many people view God as far off, uninterested or unable to communicate to us. Taking a look at the nature of God as a communicator helps us answer both of the questions above.
To begin, it’s important to realize that God is inherently relational. Remember, he is a Trinity, three persons who have interacted with each other forever. God didn’t become relational after creating us. He has always been that way. He has been speaking and listening and loving and interacting – without ceasing – from eternity past and will be into eternity future. On top of that, it is no accident that God created by speaking a word. He could have used any method imaginable to create, but he decided to do it through a communicative act – speaking.
It is also no coincidence that Jesus is The Word. Jesus, therefore, points to the communicating nature of God by being the very expression of God to humanity. In addition to his name, The Word (logos), the fact that Jesus came from heaven to earth shows that God intends to speak to us. He wants to relate to us. He does not remain distant and aloof, but is present and, as theologians say, immanent.
The ways God communicates are various and many. Below are but a few references for each.
- God speaks through creation – Psalm 19.1-4; Romans 8.19-20
- God speaks through the prophets – Hebrews 1.1; Daniel 9.10; Ezekiel 1.3; Matthew 1.22
- God speaks through dreams – Acts 2.17 (quoting Joel 2.28ff); 1 Samuel 28.15; Genesis 20.30, Job 33.14-16
- God speaks through angels – Luke 1-2; Daniel 8.15-16; Acts 11.13
- God speaks through the Scriptures – 2 Timothy 3.16; 1 Peter 1.20
- God speaks through Jesus – Hebrews 1.1-2; John 1.1-3
- God speaks directly to us – Acts 9.1-15; Genesis 12.1-7
- God speaks through a donkey! – Numbers 22.21-29
- God speak by the Holy Spirit – most of the examples above are an example of this.
In fact, all the ways that God speaks involve, in some form or fashion, his Holy Spirit. God says that his word, the Bible, is the sword of the Spirit in Ephesians 6.17. The prophets of old spoke by the Holy Spirit (Acts 7.51-53 and 2 Peter 1.21). Prophets in the New Testament spoke by the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12.7-11). The dreams were from the Spirit (Acts 2.17). He’s involved in it all. So, though there are many ways that God can speak to us, it all seems to be through the work of the Holy Spirit. Even when God speaks to us through others, we believe that the Holy Spirit is the one who guides them (consider Acts 8 where Philip preaches to the Ethiopian eunuch but is sent by the Angel of the Lord – likely a reference to the Holy Spirit) and he orchestrates events for us to hear from God.
What we see from the Bible is that God can speak to us however he wants to. He can show up at our house or in our dreams. He can use the Bible or our circumstances. He speaks to us through nature or through a prophetic word, directly to and through us or through another believer.
God’s written word, the Bible, is the primary way that God speaks. It is the most consistent way he speaks and the most reliable, since it is the affirmed and attested Word of God which allows us to test and validate any other form of speaking that God wants to use. It is what keeps us from following only our own wishes or thoughts and attributing them to God. The Bible is the standard by which we measure any other message from the Lord. But it is certainly not the only one that the Bible tells us about.
– Does God still speak the same way today?
This is a little bit trickier to answer. First, let’s discuss burden of proof.
If a believer, a person who affirms the Bible as true, claims that the way God told us to expect him to speak to us in the Bible is no longer valid, the burden of proof lies with them. We would expect that, since we still affirm the manner of salvation taught by the Bible, and we still affirm the truth about God taught in the Bible, we should also affirm the way God shows us that he speaks in the Bible – unless there is a good reason not to. That is the burden of proof: give a good reason to think things have changed.
Claim 1: The gifts of the Spirit (and we’ll focus on prophecy here) were intended for the days of the apostles before the Bible was completed and are no longer active today.
In Acts 2, Peter quotes Joel 2 on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to fill the apostles and the disciples with them with his presence. Peter said that God would pour out his Spirit, resulting in dreams and prophecies “in the last days.” He said this to prove that what he and his fellow apostles and disciples were doing was from God. In other words, Peter saw himself living in the last days. If Peter was living in the last days, surely we are, too! Jeremiah, in chapter 30, also refers to the last days and it is clear in context that those days are the days that Jesus comes and those after it. Micah 4 talks about the last days also, and Matthew interprets those days as being fulfilled in Christ. In other words, the age of Christ and the Church is the last days. They are not future for us, they are now!
If this is so, then we should expect that the prophecy of Joel would still be in effect. If we’re living in the last days, we should see the Spirit being poured out on our sons and daughters (and all believers) and the result being dreams and prophecies from God.
It’s true that Paul says the age of prophecy (and tongues and supernatural knowledge) will cease in 1 Corinthians 13.8-13. But this will happen when completeness comes (verse 9). Has the completeness come? Some suggest that it has because the Bible is complete. But there is nothing there to suggest that the writing of the Bible brings completeness. It comes when we see God fully, face to face, and know him fully. It must be that Paul is referring to the time when Christ returns. Then, of course, prophecy will end or cease. There will be no need for prophecy when Christ returns because we’ll hear from him directly at any time, not through prophets.
But some may remind us that Ephesians 2.20 says that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. If this is true, the argument goes, since the foundation has been laid (and, they claim, since there are no more apostles – a ground that must, itself, be proven) there are no more prophets. But this line of reasoning is not self-evident; it needs to be proven.
Just because the foundation is laid on the apostles and prophets does not mean that no more apostles or prophets can exist after the foundation is complete. Part of the reason is that the role of the prophets is not only to lay a foundation for the Church. For example, when a prophet (Agabus) tells Paul that he will be arrested if he goes to Jerusalem, this is not a prophetic word that lays a theological foundation for the Church. It’s not even a warning that Paul must heed to save the fledgling Church community. In fact, Paul doesn’t even follow the implied advice. He goes to Jerusalem knowing that he will be bound.
There are many reasons for prophecy, but the one that Paul makes explicit reference to in 1 Corinthians 14.3 is for the edification, encouragement, and comfort of other Christians in the worshiping community. That need remains for all time, or at least until Christ returns. Going back to 1 Corinthians 13.8-13, we see that we still need prophecy because we do not know fully. We do not see fully. We still need to hear encouragement from God and we still need specific insights into our specific situations (for example, you will get arrested if you go to _______!). The answer to what I do today or tomorrow to serve the Lord may not be found in the Bible text, even if what I hear must be held up to the gold standard of God’s word – the Bible – to make sure that I heard correctly, or at least that I’m not acting in conflict with the revealed word of God.
Claim 2: If God still speaks to us today (primarily a reference to prophecy), then it would be new Scripture. Therefore, it cannot happen.
The Scripture is, in many ways, a record of prophetic words (though it’s not only prophecy). Since the Scriptural canon – or collection of Bible writings – is closed, the argument goes, there cannot be more prophecy. But this thinking is not permitted by Scripture. Why? Because the Bible mentions multiple examples of prophecy where the actual words of the prophecy are not recorded in Scripture – both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. If there are prophetic words that are not recorded in the Bible, that must mean that the all prophecies are not inherently Scripture.
In the Old Testament, there are multiple times that people are referred to as prophets or examples are given of people prophesying even when the words of the prophecy are not given. For example, King Saul and his men prophesy in 1 Samuel 19. But we have no idea what they said. Numbers 11.25 mentions the seventy elders who prophesy, but without a record of what they said. There are many examples of this. Likewise, in the New Testament, there are examples of prophets when there is no record of what they said. The most obvious example is in Luke 2 when the prophetess, Anna, speaks to Mary and Joseph about Jesus. Not only do we not know what she said, there is no record of any previous prophecy that would have, presumably, indicated to the world that she was a prophet. Again, in Acts 2, Peter says that sons and daughters will prophesy but we have no record of what these prophecies are. In Acts 21, we see Philip’s four daughters begin to prophesy, but we don’t know what they said.
This shows that the argument about the completeness of the Bible is a poor argument. Not all prophecy is Scripture. New prophecies are no problem for the integrity of the Bible. The Bible, itself, leaves room for real and true prophesies that it has no record of.
Claim 3 – The examples of God speaking today are inferior, and therefore not at all the same as the examples in Scripture.
This, to me, is a strange claim. It is suggested that since we don’t see anyone prophesying authoritatively today, then they must not be prophets and that there are, therefore, no more prophecies. But both legs of this argument are suspect.
What makes a prophet authoritative? It would be that his/her prophecies are true. In the Old Testament, there were only a few prophets. God used them, generally, to speak to the entire nation. If someone presumed to speak for God but it was found that their prophecies were not true, they were to be stoned to death. In the New Testament, there were many, many prophets – because every believer had the Holy Spirit and was given spiritual gifts. They were, generally, used by God to encourage their local communities (1 Corinthians 14.3). And when they spoke a prophecy, the community was supposed to weigh that prophecy. If it were lacking, there is no mention of killing the prophet. We might imagine that the prophet would be rebuked, but we don’t know.
If this is the case, that all the prophecies must be tested, does it mean that anyone who fails to prophesy correctly is not a prophet? It doesn’t seem to follow. If many of the prophecies are found to be true, does not that mean that the words from God were genuine (barring the occasional dumb luck)? If one is then wrong, does that negate all the previous words from God? Does that mean the person does not have a prophetic gift? I don’t think so, not any more than a teacher who teaches something wrong is therefore not using the gift of teaching – and every teacher teaches something wrong at some point.
In truth, we don’t have any explicit examples of people getting a prophecy wrong in the New Testament. But this only means that we cannot argue that it never happened, nor can we argue that if it had happened then the person was killed (or ought to have been killed). An argument from silence is no basis for a major theological assertion – certainly not good grounds to say that prophecy experienced today is inferior to that in the New Testament era or that the gift has ceased.
Besides, there will always be impostors and inferior uses of all the gifts, including hospitality and preaching. Does this mean that those gifts are not operating today? No one claims that. Poor examples of a gift do not negate the reality of the gifts. If a person is sharing bad prophecies, the prophecies need to be deemed such by the community and that person should be stopped. If they are validated and true, then the community should encourage that person in their gifting.
There are a few other arguments that people make in support of the view that God no longer speaks to us today, but most of them hinge on these main arguments. If the primary claims are not substantiated, the other lesser claims fall.
In the next post, I’ll talk about the practical reality of hearing from God today.