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Listening to the Holy Spirit
Will Wisbey was a successful young estate agent, and was fiercely sceptical of Christianity. One Sunday in April 2007, a friend invited him to an evening service at HTB. During that service, someone had a ‘word of knowledge’ that went like this: ‘There is a man here who is expecting a soft-top sports car to be delivered in the next two days. He has worked all his life so hard to achieve success. Work has been his life. He’s got the car, the house, the lifestyle, and he‘s not happy. And God wants him to know that there’s something more important for him to focus on.’
Subsequently Will wrote, ‘I couldn’t believe it. My new car was arriving in two days’ time and I hadn’t told anyone. I was earning £100k a year. My life was my work. The car was the nicest I’d bought and it was arriving in literally two days. That night, for the first time in my life, I really prayed.’
Will encountered Jesus Christ and was filled with the Holy Spirit. He says, ‘Now I know Jesus does exist. He loves me and he is with me.’
Many of us live in a busy and noisy world. In the midst of all the noise, talk and distractions how do we hear the voice of the Holy Spirit?
Each of the passages for today has something to say about this whole subject of listening and, in particular, hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.
1. Listen to words of wisdom and knowledgeProverbs 20:15-24
One of the ways in which the Holy Spirit speaks to us is through ‘knowledge’ (1 Corinthians 14:6). This could be through a ‘word of knowledge’ or a ‘word of wisdom’ or it could be through a wise and knowledgeable person.
‘Gold there is, and rubies in abundance, but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel’ (Proverbs 20:15). Or as The Message puts it, ‘Drinking from the beautiful chalice of knowledge is better than adorning oneself with gold and rare gems’ (v.15, MSG).
One of the ways in which we can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit is through seeking advice from those that have this gift of wisdom and knowledge: ‘Make plans by seeking advice’ (v.18). ‘Form your purpose by asking for counsel, then carry it out using all the help you can get’ (v.18, MSG).
The book of Proverbs is itself full of wise advice. It tells us to be careful of the gossips who betray confidence, and to avoid people who talk too much. ‘Gossips can’t keep secrets, so never confide in blabbermouths’ (v.19, MSG). One well-known gossip had this maxim embroidered on her cushion: ‘If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone come and sit by me’!
Another piece of wise advice is the warning against taking revenge, ‘Don’t ever say, “I'll get you for that!” Wait for God; he’ll settle the score’ (v.22, MSG).
Listening to the Holy Spirit means listening to the Word of the Lord. ‘A person’s steps are directed by the Lord. How then can any understand their own way?’ (v.24). We need to listen to the Spirit as he speaks to us through the Scriptures.
Lord, thank you for these words of wisdom and knowledge. Thank you that your Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Scriptures such as the Proverbs we read today. Help us to hear and obey your voice.
2. Listen through the gifts of the Holy Spirit1 Corinthians 14:1-19
As we saw yesterday, by exalting love Paul is not in any way downplaying the importance of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He is stressing both: ‘Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy’ (v.1).
Prophecy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit through which the Spirit speaks to the church. In this passage Paul stresses the importance of this gift for the church. Indeed, he says that it is even more important than speaking in tongues: ‘I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy’ (v.5a).
Although Paul was speaking into a situation where the gift of tongues was in danger of misuse, he was still remarkably positive about the use of the gift of speaking in tongues. Paul says that those who pray in tongues edify themselves (v.4). It is a good gift for everyone (v.5). Tongues is a way of praying in the Spirit (v.14) and is primarily thanks and praise (vv.16–17). He wrote, ‘I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you’ (v.18).
But here he makes a distinction between the use of the gift in private (which he generally encourages) and the use of the gift publicly in the church. If one speaks in tongues in church there needs to be an interpretation (vv.5,18–19). When it is used together with the gift of interpretation it becomes the equivalent of prophecy: ‘Those who prophesy are greater than those who speak in tongues, unless they interpret, so that the church may be edified’ (v.5b).
The gift of interpretation enables the church to be edified after a tongue has been given publically (v.5). All those with the gift of tongues should pray for this gift also so that the church can be edified.
Prophecy is the ability to hear what God is saying and pass it on to others. It is a spiritual gift of very high importance in the church, and should be eagerly desired (v.1). It is not necessarily about the future. Usually it is a forth telling rather than a foretelling.
The early Christians came to see the Old Testament as essentially prophecy (see, for example, 2 Peter 1:20). The Old Testament is the prophetic witness to Jesus. The New Testament is the apostolic witness to Jesus. There is no equivalent today in terms of authority.
The words of prophets today are not of equal authority with the prophets and apostles whose words form the Scriptures. Scripture is for all Christians, in all places, at all times. A prophetic word is a particular word, inspired by God, given to a particular person or persons, at a particular moment for a particular purpose. It is ‘a very human – sometimes partially mistaken – report of something which the Holy Spirit has brought to someone’s mind’ (Wayne Grudem).
Nevertheless, as we have seen Paul places a very high value on the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1) because it is a gift that builds up the church (v.4) and can also have an impact on those who are ‘unbelievers’: ‘If an unbeliever ... comes in while everybody is prophesying ... the secrets of their hearts will be laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”’ (vv.24–25). That is exactly what happened to Will Wisbey.
Prophecy needs to be tested: ‘Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said’ (v.29).
- Is it in line with the Bible?
God is not going to contradict himself.
- What is the character of the prophet?
Is it a person of love? (14:1).
- What is the effect of the prophesy?
Paul writes, ‘Those who prophesy speak to people for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort (v.3). True prophetic words will always be positive in the sense that they will strengthen, encourage and comfort people.
On the whole, prophetic words are confirming what the Holy Spirit has already placed in our hearts. If you are unsure about a prophetic word, do not act hastily but do what Mary, the mother of Jesus, did – wait and ponder it in your heart.
Lord, help us as a church to create an atmosphere of expectation to hear the Holy Spirit speak to us as we listen – eagerly desiring to hear words of prophecy, whether through a tongue and interpretation, or word of knowledge, or ‘revelation’ or ‘instruction’ (v.6). Help us all individually and as a community to be better at listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit.
3. Listen to good advice and prophetic words2 Chronicles 10:1-12:16
Rehoboam made a big mistake. The Holy Spirit spoke to him through the elders. They said, ‘If you will be a servant to this people, be considerate of their needs and respond with compassion, work things out with them, they’ll end up doing anything for you’ (10:7, MSG).
Rehoboam made the mistake of rejecting the advice of the elders (v.8). He listened instead to some extremely bad advice from the young men he had grown up with. He told the people ‘If you think life under my father was hard, you haven’t seen the half of it. My father thrashed you with whips; I’ll beat you bloody with chains!’ (v.11, MSG).
He ‘did not listen to the people’ (v.15). When all Israel saw that ‘the king refused to listen to them’ (v.16), they rebelled.
But God did not give up speaking to Rehoboam. The ‘word of the Lord came to Shemaiah the man of God’ and he was told to go and tell Rehoboam, ‘This is what the Lord says …’ (11:2–4a).
This time the king and the people were unified in listening to the Lord – ‘they obeyed the words of the Lord and turned back from marching against Jeroboam’ (v.4b).
Later, God spoke again through the prophet Shemaiah: ‘God’s word: “You abandoned me; now I abandon you”’ (12:5, MSG). Again, they listened. They ‘humbled themselves and said, “The Lord is just.” ’ (v.6). As a result, ‘When the Lord saw that they humbled themselves, this word of the Lord came to Shemaiah: “Since they have humbled themselves, I will not destroy them but will soon give them deliverance …” ’ (v.7).
Lord, we need great wisdom in hearing your voice and knowing which advice is from the Spirit of God and which is not. Help us to distinguish between good and bad advice. Help us to hear the voice of the true prophets and to reject the advice of the false ones.
1 Corinthians 14:4
‘Those who speak in a tongue edify themselves.’
When a friend was asked some years ago whether she would like the gift of tongues, she replied, ‘If it helps.’ I need all the help I can get. I am so grateful to God for this gift as many times, when I have been unable to articulate what I’m feeling, I have used this gift to pour out what is on my heart.