How does God speak to us? Samuel heard God speak. In the place of worship the Lord spoke to him three times.
He did not realise it was God. He thought it was Eli, a priest. Eli knew it was not him. He realised it must be the Lord. So Eli told Samuel that if he heard his name called again he was to reply, saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears” (1 Samuel 3.8).
Was Samuel’s experience the norm? Or was it something special? We can find examples of similar encounters with God in the Bible. Adam (Genesis 3 verse 9), Moses (Exodus 3 verse 4), and Paul (Acts 9 verse 4), are among the most obvious. But the evidence definitely points to these experiences as being the exception rather than the rule.
So how does God speak to us?
That is an important question. And it is important to find the right answer. The wrong one invariably leads to confusion or delusion; and even to heartache or heartbreak.
As we listen to the message of the Bible we can begin to find the answer to our question. The more we hear its message the more we realise God spoke to some and through the some to the many.
Take Adam as an example. Before God created the first woman, Eve, the first man was informed that he was “to work … and keep” the garden. He was also told that “he may eat of every tree of the garden” but not “of the tree of the knowledge aof good and evil” (Genesis 2 verses 15-17). We are not informed that the same instructions were given directly to Eve. Instead we are led to infer that these vital pieces of information were shared with her by Adam.
This pattern of receiving and passing on information from God is repeated with Moses (Exodus 19ff). He goes up Mount Sinai whilst the people remain on the lower ground. There God communicates his law to him. And he in turn communicates it to the people.
In both cases God speaks to an individual (Adam and Moses) and the individual imparts God’s Word to others (Adam to Eve and Moses to the people of Israel). Those who receive God’s Word in that way are spoken to by God. The method may be through an intermediary (rather than directly) but the effect is the same. They hear God speaking. It is the means by which God chooses to communicate. What was true thousands of years ago is true today.
We do not doubt that God could choose to speak to everyone individually. But that is not what he chooses to do. The majority of mankind hear God’s Word through his servants.. That was the case in ancient times. He used prophets. And it was the days after Christ’s life on earth. Primarily, but not exclusively, God used the Apostles of Christ.
The result of this process is the Bible. It is a collection of 66 books. But they are not randomly selected. Nor are they the product of mankind’s choice. The choice was God’s. The human element was to receive what God had given. Thus we do not argue that the Bible is produced by the Church. Rather we affirm that the Church recognised and received what God produced through prophets and apostles and others over many years. His revelation to mankind in written form ceased with the generation of the apostles. As the author of Hebrews argues, “Long ago God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1 verse 1f). As a consequence we are to “listen to him” (Matthew 17 verse 5; Mark 9 verse 7).
Thus, if we want to hear God’s voice we are to listen to Scripture. The Bible is the record that God has given to us of his communication to mankind over many years. It is the record God calls us all to hear and heed. A failure or refusal to listen means that we miss out on hearing God speak to us.
Thomas Cranmer puts it neatly. In the homily or sermon entitled A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture he says, “as many as be desirous to enter into the right and perfect way to God, must apply their minds to know Holy Scripture, without which they can neither sufficiently know God and his will, neither their office or duty.” In writing thus Cranmer informs us that the Bible is the Word of God. It is the infallible guide he has given to mankind. Far from ever leading us astray, rightly heard and interpreted it is the God-given authoritative guide he has given to us. It is, as a result, the final and supreme rule in all matters of belief and behaviour.
Both Paul and Peter stress that the Scriptures are given to us by God for our instruction. These apostles insist that they do not merely contain the Word of God. They are his Word (see 1 Timothy 3 verse 16; 2 Peter 1 verse 21), given by God the Holy Spirit. No other writing has that character or quality. As a result no other writing should be described as if it has.
Noting that the Scriptures were called into being by the Spirit of God leads us to another important principle. We need the Spirit who caused them to be written to enable us to understand what God has said.
This fact should not surprise us. The Scriptures were given over many years. Moreover they come to us through many different people. But they are God’s Word. That means they are a unity. It also means that they cohere. Or, to put that another way, they do not contradict themselves. That must be so because God is true and consistent with himself. In him there is no error or sin. He is perfectly holy and righteous. He never speaks untruth nor does he ever lead anyone astray.
Thus what he leads us to do by his Spirit will never contradict what he has revealed in Scripture. Our task is to rightly understand Scripture. Any interpretation of it that does not cohere with its plain teaching, understood in its grammatical and historical context, should not be seen as valid. To say that God says one thing in your heart (or the Church) but something different in Scripture is to make him contradict himself. Such is not possible. Any interpretation that leads to that situation is to be deemed wrong.
Another principle we do well to note therefore is that any particular Scripture is to be understood in the context of the Scriptures as a whole. In other words it is not just a matter of understanding a text in the context of the paragraph or book in which it lies. It is also to be understood in the context of the Bible as a whole.
Another way of making this point is to say that we need to understand a text or book in relation to God’s purpose. He has a plan. It entails having a special people who belong to him. A people, that is, who submit to his authority and do his will.
Moreover, since his people are reconciled to him in Christ Jesus alone, it follows that God’s people are Christ-centred people. As such they follow the example of Christ. He testified that the Scriptures are God’s Word (Matthew 4 verse 1-11). He also taught that they speak of him (Luke 24 verse 27). Our duty, therefore, is to do what he did. It is to listen to God speak through and by means of his written Word.
God speaks through and by his written Word. Those who heed the teaching of Christ are reassured by God that those who hear and read his written word are “like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7 verse 24). Though floods come and winds blow they stand secure. They shall never fall.
© EPC 18 January 2015