Voice of the Holy Ghost
As Christians, we are to be led by the Spirit.
There are times when God speaks to us with the authoritative voice of his own spirit. In Acts 10, we see Peter going up to the open-air roof of Simon's house to pray. He fell into a trance and saw what looked to be a large sheet being lowered from heaven with all kinds of animals on it. Then he heard a voice say, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat!" Being a Jew, he refused, "No way, Lord, for I've never eaten anything profane or unclean." The voice responded, "What God has made clean you mustn't call profane." This happened three times and then the sheet was taken back into heaven.
The voice in the vision was indeed God's Spirit, but our focus is on what happened next. Peter came out of the trance puzzled by what he saw. While he was sorting it out, the Spirit spoke to him.
While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Look, three men are searching for you. Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation, for I have sent them." (Acts 10:19–20)
The Lord had appeared to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, but more importantly a Gentile, and told him to send for Peter. He sent one of his trusted guards and two slaves to fetch him.
The thing to note here is that Peter didn't have an inward witness about three men searching for him or what the Lord intended them to do with him. The story goes on to show that when Peter reached Cornelius's house, he still wasn't sure why he was there (Acts 10:29). The Spirit spoke to him authoritatively, giving him specific directions about what he was supposed to do (to a point). Once he was at Cornelius's house, he preached the gospel and the Spirit fell on everyone in the house. God, apparently, had him go to Cornelius's house to show that he was pouring out his Spirit, not just on the Jews, but on the Gentiles, too.
Samuel, the Old Testament prophet, also received a manifestation of this authoritative voice when he was just a boy.
Eli was serving as high priest, and he had taken Samuel under his wing as a young aid. One night Eli was lying in his room, and Samuel had made his bed in the temple. Samuel heard a voice call his name.
He thought it was Eli.
"Here I am, you called to me," he said to Eli.
"No, I didn't call for you. Go back and lie down," Eli told him.
Samuel left, and went back to his bed in the Temple. He heard the voice again.
He got up, and ran back to Eli.
"Here I am, you called for me."
"No, I didn't," Eli said. "Go and lie down."
It happened again, and this time Eli caught on.
"Go lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.'"
Samuel went to lie down, and he heard his name called again. He responded the way he was told.
"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
"See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle. That day I will fulfill against Eli all I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever," said the Lord.
Samuel's back and forth to Eli shows that he didn't have an inward witness of the Lord's presence or his message. It was more commanding than an inward witness; it was clear direction about the Lord's future plans for Israel and the family of its high priest.
Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch is another example of this type of manifestation and guidance (Acts 8:26–40). An angel appeared to Philip and told him to go down to a certain road in the wilderness that connected Jerusalem and Gaza. The Word says Philip "got up and went."
When he got there, he saw an Ethiopian caravan led by a eunuch who was Candice's, the Ethiopian queen, treasurer. He had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home. The Spirit spoke to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." He did and found the eunuch reading out of the book of Isaiah, the part concerning the suffering servant.
"Do you understand what you're reading?" Philip asked.
"How can I unless someone guides me?" the eunuch replied.
He invited Philip to get in and sit beside him while he worked his way through the passage, which said:
"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."
"About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this? about himself or someone else?"
With that cue, Philip was able to proclaim the good news of Christ, and win over the eunuch who was saved and baptized.
The common thread to these accounts is the authoritative voice of the Spirit and the mind behind the manifestations. In each story none of the hearers—Peter, Samuel, or Philip—had an inward witness or intuition of the Lord's leading. In other words, the voice didn't confirm something that they had already sensed. It stood as new material, previously unknown to them.
And this ties in with the Lord's mind in creating the manifestation in the first place. Contemporary Christians often say that they've heard the Lord speak to them about their personal lives or personal ministries. In each of these accounts we see the Lord manifesting the voice of his Spirit in a more spectacular way to accomplish God's larger purposes in the earth. With Peter, it was to demonstrate the pouring out of his Spirit to the Gentiles. With Samuel it was to cut off the line of a reckless high priest whose sons blasphemed the Lord. With Philip, it was to bring the gospel to Ethiopia and its surrounding regions.
If a Christian claims that he's heard God's voice, and the message doesn't appear to concern God's larger purposes, how he is propagating his gospel in the earth, then it's highly likely that the Christian has missed it. It wasn't God's voice.
We should note, too, just how rare this manifestation is. The book of Acts covers the first thirty years or so of the early church, a time period where the foundational apostles needed to hear distinctly from the Spirit because the canon hadn't yet been written. There are less than half a dozen instances where we see "the Spirit said" in the form we're talking of here. That's not to say that God doesn't speak today, but he appears to manifest in this manner only at critical junctures.
Photo Credit: "Caravaggio - Taking of Christ - Dublin" by Caravaggio - Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.