In a recent issue (Jan. 1980) we considered the scriptural guidance for a church to reach a decision; yet it is just as important for each individual believer to discover the will of God and to do it. Younger believers have momentous decisions to make concerning their life-partner, their task in the assembly, and the career which they should follow. Older believers are often naturally indecisive, and need the Lord’s guidance just as much. At the judgment seat of Christ, the decisions I have made will be more significant to me than those of the assembly of which I form a part Rom. 14. 12; 2 Cor. 5. 10.
One of those involved in the fundamental decision at the church at Jerusalem regarding the place of the old covenant in the gospel, Acts 15. 4-29, was a visitor from Antioch, the apostle Paul, a man already used to being at the cross-roads of decision. From the record of his experiences, we can learn much about how the Lord leads a believer facing a decision.
Some of our difficulties in reaching a right decision arise from not appreciating that Jesus Christ is Lord from the moment of our conversion. It is the solemn duty of the evangelist to be faithful in representing the Person of the Saviour. As struck to the ground, Saul of Tarsus in his conviction called Him “Lord” both before and after he heard Him say, “I am Jesus”, Acts 9. 5-6. Saul’s first question was “Who?”; his second was related to guidance. Instinctively he looked to the revealed Lord to command His servant. The Lord is true to His promise, that the one who sets himself to do the will of God will know the origin of truth, John 7. 17. Saul was not given his life’s route right up to his death-bed then and there; the first command was to go no more than a yard, “Arise”; the second took him little further “go into the city”. Further guidance was conditional on obeying these simple commands, “and it shall be told thee what thou must do”. Oh to trust and obey my Lord as simply as this!
Paul’s conversion, as ours should be, was so precious to him that we learn years afterwards more about it from his own testimony than from Luke’s account. Paul said that Ananias taught him in the city a precious truth, in measure applying to every believer, “chosen … that thou shouldest know his will”, Acts 22. 14-16. What a high and holy purpose! The only specific direction Paul received through this brother was the command to be baptized. “One step at a time”; but have you obeyed this one yet? There are dangers in putting it off: “And now why tarriest thou?”, said Ananias.
Guidance comes in different ways at different times, whether to Paul or to us. Sorpe are sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s will in the heart and mind, some learn it through the Lord’s messengers, some see God’s will as they ponder Scripture, Joseph responded to the Lord through his dreams. Matt. 1 & 2. Thus we do not know just how Paul was directed into the knowledge of the right way on each occasion, but it is clear that he learnt to recognize his Master’s tones and to obey.
Some decisions affect the assembly, and our brethren and sisters need to be in fellowship with us over these. This is how it happened when Paul and Barnabas were called to go on the first missionary journey from Antioch, Acts 13. 1-4; 14. 26. There were five prophets and teachers named in the assembly there. The Lord had made provision that two might be spared for some months at least. The Holy Spirit declared His will to the Antioch assembly in some way which they clearly recognized, but Scripture suggests that He had already prepared the two individuals concerned: “the work whereunto I have called them”. His command to the church was that, although they had been welded together in close fellowship, now the prior claim of the Spirit of God upon two named individuals required that they should be set apart for His sovereign purposes: “Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work”. There is in this story some of the isolation and loneliness which many a Christian has felt in deciding to follow the Lord’s leading. Paul and Barnabas had been active Christians, and yet they were ready for the revelation of God’s will: “As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted”. See what part the others played: they raised no questions or objections; they single-mindedly kept in touch with the Lord throughout, “fasted and prayed” ; the assembly were identified with the enterprise, “laid their hands on them”; and they willingly surrendered them to the work, encouraging them, “they sent them away".
About their next (presumably) visit to Jerusalem, Paul declares that this move was by revelation, Gal. 2. 1 -10, and not a personal whim or desire, nor primarily at the suggestion of his brethren (though Acts 15. 2 could refer to the same occasion). Whether it was by dream, vision, prophet, or inner conviction, the sensitive apostle recognized the will of God and acted upon it.
After the important meeting at Jerusalem which we considered in the previous article, Paul and his companions returned to Antioch with the comforting message of relief to the Gentiles whose liberty in the gospel had been threatened. While awaiting new guidance, Paul and Barnabas resumed their earlier ministry to the believers there. The glamour of missionary service had not made them despise the task of teaching and preaching in their home assembly, Acts 15. 35. Clearly it was Paul who first appreciated that the Lord was calling to the mission field again. Subsequent events confirmed that this was no mere human desire, but the Master’s will. Barnabas had another exercise of heart (typical of his concern for inexperienced Christians), and this was to give John Mark another chance. In the event he took him to Cyprus, the scene of the happier part of Mark’s first missionary endeavour and before his frailty overcame him at Pamphylia, 13. 13; 15. 37-38. In this ministry Barnabas was successful, 2 Tim. 4. 11 ; Col. 4.10, as much as he had been in caring for the converted persecutor of the Christians, Acts 9. 26-29; 11. 25-26. What is more, Paul was encouraged to choose another companion, Silas, to share the rigours of missionary work, 15. 40. Whether or not to give Mark another chance brought a clash between Barnabas and Paul, and although, the outcome was undoubtedly overruled by the Lord, fellowship was spoiled, Satan gained an advantage, and at best a compromise was reached so as to avoid the missionary effort stopping altogether. Did Paul make a right decision ? It seems that he, rather than Barnabas, sought the fellowship of the Antioch church, who were happy to recommend Paul and Silas to the grace of God, 15. 40. What a wise course this is – for a Christian who has come to a decision to seek his assembly’s fellowship! Seven years afterwards Paul was happy to associate Barnabas’ missionary attitudes with his own, 1 Cor. 9. 6, which suggests that the Lord had restored their fellowship.
After accomplishing his task in the Phrygian and Galatian churches, Paul sensed that he ought not to return home immediately. But now away from Christian advice, the missionary party was faced with several alternatives, Acts 16. 6-10. They actually attempted to go north, but the Holy Spirit intervened; yet He had forbidden them to preach in the south. It is important to see that it was not then the time to go into the province of Asia ; later, when it would no longer be a pioneering situation, Paul was to be greatly used at Ephesus, 1 Cor. 16. 8-9. How did the Holy Spirit direct Paul in all this? Sometimes he recognized in an opportunity the Spirit’s leading, as clearly as an inviting open door, 1 Cor. 16. 9; 2 Cor. 2. 12; cf. Col. 4. 3, through which the Lord could trust him to go. As with the Israelites at the Red Sea and Jordan, Paul and his companions were led to the very brink of the water before they were given further guidance. Is not this the experience of so many believers wanting to know which way to go? At Troas the Lord’s guidance was by a night vision. Paul knew of no other help to offer the Macedonians than the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Is there a note of relief in Luke’s report, “… assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us"?, Acts 16. 10. What a privilege to be convinced of the Lord’s will when faced with a decision I The missionaries’ response to guidance was immediate, and they set about securing their sea passage.
As this second missionary journey drew to a close, Paul was allowed a brief call at the city of Ephesus, Acts 18.19-21. Here his behaviour showed the determination behind his plans. He would not be persuaded to delay his departure, as he had a prior claim upon him to present himself before the Lord at the temple, Exod. 23. 17, although he expressed his desire to return to Ephesus. While this may have been a legitimate desire, it might not have been the Lord’s way, and so he added, “if God will”. Surely he had learned this attitude from the Lord Jesus Himself, who before Bethlehem said through the prophet, “Lo, I come…to do thy will, 0 God”, Heb. 10. 5-10. Step by step He fulfilled this purpose during His life down here, John 4. 34; 5. 30; 6. 40. Even faced with the ultimate test, He could say in Gethsemane, “Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done”, Luke 22. 42. Without the slightest degree of exaggeration, this blessed Person could view His whole life on earth and, relative to the Father’s will, could say, “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do”, John 17. 4. Consistent with His own behaviour, He could include in a pattern prayer for disciples, “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven”, Matt. 6. 10. This was passed on to the church: “We ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that”, James 4. 13-17. Do we practise this doctrine, and in a sincere manner, and not with mere formality? Paul made a godly habit of this attitude. Writing to the Corinthian Christians, with his integrity questioned, demanding that he should visit that church, he promised to come soon, although only “if the Lord will”, 1 Cor. 4. 18-19.
Paul’s example influenced the believers around him as the third missionary journey drew to an end. In Philip’s house at Caesarea, Paul was tested by Agabus’ prophetic declaration that the apostle would lose his freedom if he went on to Jerusalem, Acts 21. 10-11. Paul’s resolve and readiness to offer himself in imprisonment and death silenced his more cautious well-wishers who recognized that the apostle’s determination was not born of foolhardiness, and they said, “The will of the Lord be done”, 21.14. Just one believer seeking the Lord’s will and following it today may be just the example other Christians around need.
Epaphras undertook a ministry on behalf of Paul’s Christian friends at Colosse, and this reveals the apostle’s influence. In faithful, fervent prayer for the Colossians, Epaphras asked, “that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God”, Col. 4. 12-13; see too Paul and Timothy’s prayer, Col. 1.9. As each of us seeks to be sensitive to that holy will, may we too desire that each of our brothers and sisters should discover and obey the Lord’s will for them.
Thy will, O Lord, be done, whatever the cost
To us, who but for Thee had still been lost;
For Thou hast set us free Thy will to do,
And Thou art set in love to bring us through.
Thy will be done! It is Thy heart’s desire
For all Thine own. O may we never tire
Daily therein to find our souls’ delight,
As we pursue our path through this dark night.
Thy will be done! Thy holy will, so blest;
Surely for us ‘tis Thine own path of rest,
To follow Thee and bear Thy yoke in love,
Till called by Thee to yon blest realms above.
Thy will be done; we’d wholly live to Thee,
Till God shall take us home with Thee to be;
To ever dwell in love unmeasured deep
Whether we hear Thy call, or fall asleep.
E. H. Chater