In the first article we outline God’s chosen method for guiding His people today. We said that it involved the application of Christian values and standards “to all of the factors which bear upon the decision we have to take”. We will now consider briefly five examples from the N.T. which illustrate how the early disciples reached their decisions. Please read each of the passages in full.
The apostles faced a problem. The Greek-speaking Jews in the church were complaining that the widows in their community were being neglected in the church’s distribution of goods. What was the apostles’ reaction? Listen to their own words, “It is not fitting that we should leave the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, look out from among you seven men…”, vv. 2-3. In view of the spiritual ministry which the Lord had committed to them, it would not have made sense, the apostles concluded, for them to have spent their time dealing with such matters; others must do it. No outward sign or mysterious inward conviction was needed. The realization that, from a spiritual standpoint, it would not be “fitting” for them to become involved was enough.
Here we meet Agabus. One cannot help feeling rather sorry for Agabus; he seems to have been the one always to bring the bad news; cf. 21. 10-11. This time his task was to announce an imminent famine. The response of the Christians of Antioch to this news was automatic; note “Then”, v. 29. The known teachings of the Lord about the responsibilities of Christian love and fellowship were sufficient. Their response to the situation was dictated by the application of a Christian set of standards!
In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul explained his reasons for not having visited them sooner. It had not been lack of desire on his part. Far from it. It was just that he had been too busy previously to fit in the necessary time. He had been fully committed to preaching throughout the region from southern Palestine to northern Macedonia, 15. 19. His first priority had lain with those areas which had not already heard the gospel, v. 20.
Now, however, circumstances had changed. Churches had been planted in key centres throughout the whole region and Paul felt therefore that he had no more real scope there, v. 23. Consequently, Paul reviewed the situation. He knew that he could impart some spiritual gift to the Roman believers. He knew also that he would be able to preach the gospel at Rome, and possibly use his visit there as a springboard into Spain. These considerations settled the matter for Paul. Without waiting for any special “Macedonian call’ or such like, he set about planning and praying towards a journey to Rome—“in the will of God”, of course, 1. 10 lit.
To the Corinthians, Paul had expressed his hope that, the Lord permitting, he would be able to spend some time with them soon, 1 Cor. 16. 2-5. But he hadn’t arrived and some people in the church began to accuse him of being fickle and of making his plans too hastily, 2 Cor. 1. 17. In explaining his absence, Paul insisted that he had a valid reason for not coming. This was not, we note, that he had not “felt led” to go. Rather, aware of their continued misbehaviour, Paul had decided to spare them the pain and sorrow of his coming to them “with a rod”, 1 Cor. 4. 21; 2 Cor. 1. 23. Spiritual wisdom had prompted him to delay his visit until he could go “in love and in the spirit of meekness”.
For one reason and another, Paul had urged Apollos to revisit Corinth. Apollos, however, was not at all willing to go. There is no indication, we note, that Apollos required somebody to press into his hand an envelope containing his exact fare as evidence of the Lord’s leading. Indeed, Paul was able to assure the Corinthians that Apollos would come “when he shall have convenient time” (that is, at the earliest opportunity).
It is clear then that, in seeking God’s guidance, the early church did not normally require miraculous signs, visions or enormous coincidences. Nor did they necessarily accept circumstances as an adequate guide. Those factors which entered into their decisions were assessed and interpreted in the light of their knowledge of God and of any relevant teaching He had given.
Our Bibles tell us that when Jonah fled from the presence of God to Joppa, “he found a ship going to Tarshish”. Yet we know that this “coincidence” was in no way an indication of God’s will for him. Interpreted in the light of God’s earlier word to him, the convenient ship represented a temptation for Jonah and not an evidence of God’s leading.
We could cite too an example from the life of David, when fleeing from king Saul. At one point, Saul entered a large cave in the wilderness of En-gedi. Unknown to Saul, this happened to be the very cave where David and his men lay hidden, 1 Sam. 24. 1-7. David’s men tried to persuade David that by this means God had delivered Saul into his power and that he (or they) should take the opportunity of killing Saul. David flatly refused. He had another yardstick for discovering God’s will. He knew that God had appointed Saul to reign over Israel. Notwithstanding the circumstances, David realized that the Lord would never lead him into any ways other than “the paths of righteousness”.
In the final article we shall consider how we are to relate scriptural teachings and standards to our decisions.
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