By Shawn Wicks, Th.M.
Martin Hengel in his study of Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity gives his readers a vivid view of what publishing must have been like in the time of the New Testament. Unlike today where printing presses copy thousands of books with ease and speed, and individuals are able to produce hundreds of pages through word-processing software, desktop printers, and readily available paper, in the ancient world the publishing of just one scroll was costly and labor intensive. And since Christian communities of antiquity were poor, and, unlike their contemporaries, did not have expansive libraries at their disposal, it is no surprise that the gospel of Luke and Acts each work out to be exactly one scroll in length. This means Luke’s account of the life of Christ and the history of the early church was limited not so much by information but rather by pragmatic factors. This also means its content was limited to the most significant and relevant details and other “less essential” items were omitted.
Why is this significant? This means Luke’s choices of characters, events and even ‘minor’ details, were all made with painstaking care and one can rest in the knowledge then, that if Luke wrote it down, it was not just filler; and that whatever he included was of vital interest to his record. Even more so, if Luke ever repeats a matter, whatever he is communicating must have pronounced value. Furthermore, if Luke repeats information in a formulaic way, he is probably communicating a familiar experience within the early church. This is why the simple phrase, “The Spirit said…” and its derivatives should not be easily dismissed or overlooked (Acts 8:29, 10:19, 11:12, 13:2, 21:11; cf. 16:6-7, 19:21, 20:22-23). Luke clearly wants to communicate something to his audience about role and function of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer.
Luke’s clearly stated purpose in writing his two volume work (Luke-Acts) is so that his audience “may have certainty” about the respective ministries of Jesus and the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:4; cf. Acts 1:1-8). It is in this context that Luke mentions facts like angels speaking (Luke 1:13,18,28,30,34, 2:10, 24:4-7; Acts 5:19, 8:26, 10:3,12:8), dreams or visions being given (Luke 1:22; Acts 9:10-12, 11:5, 16:9-10, 18:9), and the prophetic wisdom of the prophetic Scripture (Acts 4:25; 13:47; 15:15-17; 28:25-28). So when we read the phrase, “The Spirit said…” we know what this does not mean: that an angel spoke, or a dream/vision was given, or some Scripture was being applied; for when these events occur, Luke is more than willing and ready to give us these details (see Acts 8:26-40; 10:17-23; 16:6-9 where this point is clearly demonstrated).
So, what does Luke mean when he records the historical fact that “the Spirit said” something to someone (or to several people)? Well, to answer this question, we must begin with Luke’s understanding of the Holy Spirit. For Luke, the Holy Spirit is first and foremost a Person. He is a free agent of power and communication; he is the author of (OT) Scripture. Second, the Holy Spirit is immaterial and omnipresent and fills believers with His presence in a special way (Luke 1:15,41,67; 4:1; Acts 2:4; 4:8,31; 6:5; 7:55; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9,52). Finally, for Luke, the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in the lives of believers. As Jesus dwelt in the flesh and lived with his disciples, so the Holy Spirit indwells and lives within every believer. He leads, guides, and directs believers in their thoughts, words, and actions.
So, when Luke writes, “the Spirit said” with no further descriptors, we are left with basically two options. He either spoke audibly or inaudibly. Any other option falls short for they fail to explain adequately the very specific and personal nature of the Spirit’s words. Since Luke takes pains to present the Holy Spirit as an indwelling, immaterial presence, it seems obvious to me that we should conclude the Holy Spirit probably spoke inaudibly. How does one speak inaudibly? Through the inner person (heart, spirit), that is, through thoughts, convictions, and impulses (cf. 1 Cor 2:11). When we pray this way, we very much expect God to “hear” our prayers. In return, we can expect the Holy Spirit to speak to us in much the same way. This view seems to be corroborated by the natural flow and reading of these texts.
Of course, there are those who oppose this view. They typically respond in one of two ways:
First, they appeal to Acts 15:28 as an example of the Holy Spirit speaking through the collective wisdom of leaders. This seems rather underwhelming, for the phrase “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit” is probably a direct reference to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit onto the Gentiles (Acts 15:8), or at minimum the Scripture quoted by James (15:16-17). In any regard, it is of note that the Holy Spirit is distinguished from (or among) the council leadership (“to the Holy Spirit and to us”).
Second, they appeal to the fact that these “rare” occurrences are sparse and hardly support anything normative. And while I might be persuaded to agree with this conclusion, is this not the type of intimate, personal fellowship with the Spirit expressly stated and inferred throughout the New Testament (Mk 13:11; John 14:17, 15:26, 20:22; Rom 8:15; 1Co 12:13; 2Co 13:14; Phil 2:1, 3:3; Gal 4:6, 5:16-25; Eph 2:18, 3:16, 4:30, 5:18, 6:18; 1Th 1:5; 1Ti 4:1; 2Ti 1:14; 1Pe 4:14)? To say God rarely speaks this way or only to specially gifted people is a failure to understand what Luke is trying to communicate in His two-volume work, namely, that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on every believer and is an important, active, and continual participant in their lives. To be a “Christian” is to be a “little anointed one” (cf. Acts 11:26; 1Pe 4:16)!
So, it is, we can and should expect the Holy Spirit to speak to us personally. He will call some of us into the ministry and some us to be missionaries (even to specific places and people); He will compel us to share the gospel with a specific person at a specific time. He will also warn us and convict us of sin. He will assure us of our salvation. He will drive believers to pray for others and even spontaneously give them words to say when they don’t know what to say. He will reveal things that otherwise would be impossible to know and expose issues in a person’s heart that he or she may not even know that are there. He will teach us about the things freely given to us by God. He can communicate these things in many different ways, and while this most often comes through the sure foundation of His Word and applying wisdom, it can and should come through His indwelling presence on occasion as well.
In truth, I suspect many believers have heard from and have followed the Holy Spirit without ever being aware of it. How? They have errantly confused their own thoughts and desires with His thoughts and desires. Pure thoughts, that lead us to serve him and have no specificmoral obligation deriving from Scripture or wisdom, I would suggest, are almost always communicated to us from the Holy Spirit. For when a missionary hears the Lord call Him to a specific people group and invests his life to bringing them the love of Jesus (despite all of his own inadequacies), it does such a disservice to call this merely a “wise” or a “spiritually expedient” decision. The truth is, they were called— specifically called by God through His Holy Spirit. He spoke to them and they responded. Praise the Lord!
Shawn Wicks is an elder and full-time commended minister of the gospel at Westminster Bible Chapel, an assembly of believers in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, located in Orange Country, CA. He received is M. Div. and Th. M at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, CA.