Sunday, March 10, 2019

KNOWING THE VOICE OF GOD: PART ONE

KNOWING THE VOICE OF GOD
Are You Following the Call of God,
Or is it Merely Your Own Call to Adventure? 


(Continued from the post, Hannah, the Mother of Samuel)
True to her word, in good time Hannah weaned her small son Samuel, and when she had done so, she brought him to the house of the Lord and dedicated him to serve there. We do not know how old Samuel was at that point, but since the weaning may have had implications beyond just the literal meaning of the word, he may have been about twelve years old.

Neither do we know what his duties were at this age in the temple. The priest was an aged man, and probably nearly blind, so I am quite sure a good bit of Samuel’s responsibilities were simply to assist the priest.

The name of the priest was Eli. He had two sons of his own, but he had failed to bring them up in the fear of the Lord in their youth. As a result, they had grown to be wicked men who used their positions in the house of God only for their own personal pleasure and benefit instead of serving the Lord.

Eli himself also had not been completely faithful in the purity of his duties, and because of this he received what were to him some very sobering words from a man of God who came to him one day with a message from the Lord, telling Eli: 

This is what the LORD says: “Why do you kick at my sacrifice and offering that I have prescribed for my dwelling place? You have honored your sons more than me by fattening yourselves with the best of all the offerings of my people Israel.”

Therefore, the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: “I will honor those who honor me, but those who despise me will be disdained.” 

Then the man of God told the priest Eli, “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest. He will do whatever is in my heart and mind. And I will build for him an enduring house, and he will walk before my anointed one for all time.” (From 1 Samuel 2:29-35)

Hearing these words must have been difficult for Eli, but he knew they were deserved. He must have also suspected that when the man of God spoke of the “faithful priest who will have an enduring house,” he was probably referring to the young lad Samuel.

The prophecy had also a long-term application, as the man of God spoke of the Ultimate High Priest of prophecy. “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Hebrews 4:14).

However, in the immediate sense, he was indeed speaking of the boy Samuel. Instead of Eli’s own sons, it would be Samuel who would be assuming the office of the High Priest. Samuel would also be the last of the individuals who were to be called “The Judges of Israel.” 
A Voice in the Early Hours

The calling of Samuel to this task came one day in the very early hours of the morning, before the “lamp of God” had gone out. The lamp of God is what they called the lampstand that stood in the holy place. One of the duties of the priests was to put oil in this lamp in the evenings so that flame burned through the night. This may have even been Samuel’s own duty as a helper in the temple. Toward morning, the oil in the lamp would begin to be used up. The flame would grow weak and then go out. It was before this lamp of God had gone out one morning that God spoke to Samuel.

But there is a more subtle meaning in this phrase concerning the lamp of God as well. The text also mentions that in those days a word from the Lord came only rarely. Society had drifted so far from the teachings of the Lord that it was at a point where this light of the Lord was rarely seen. Before the light was extinguished completely, God called the boy Samuel.

Samuel was lying in his bed when the call from the Lord came to him.

“Here I am!” Samuel called out, but he did not know that it was the Lord who was speaking to him.

He then ran to where Eli was sleeping, since Samuel thought that it was he that had called him.

“No, I did not call you,” Eli responded when Samuel came to him. “Go back and lie down again.”

This Samuel did, but as soon as he was lying down, another call, “Samuel!”

Again Samuel went to Eli. “Here I am, for you called me.”

The boy could not imagine who else it could have been, so he was confused when Eli told him that it was not he, and that Samuel should go back to bed.

We are told in the account that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” This does not mean that the boy did not know who the Lord was, for his entire upbringing had been based upon the teachings of the Lord. It only means that he had not yet heard the voice of the Lord.

“The voice of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him,” the text also tells us.

Samuel did go back to lie down, but then a third time the voice came to him. Finally, Eli discerned that God must be calling to Samuel, so he instructed the boy that if he calls again, Samuel was to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

As Samuel was lying down for the fourth time, the Lord called again, “Samuel! Samuel!”

“Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” 

Other Callings

This is the calling of God to Samuel. Once the Lord had finally gotten Samuel’s attention, he began to tell the boy the things that he was intending to carry out, and what Samuel’s part would be in all of it.

We are not going to go into the message of God to Samuel at this point, but only use this calling of Samuel as a springboard to look at other callings of God in the Bible. It is important to do so, for Christians are often confused about the calling of God in their own lives. They are left wondering if what they are sensing is truly the call of God.

I have often been asked, “How do I know God is telling me to do this or that?”

It is actually not surprising that we are confused, for there are many other callings that come to us. In regard to foreign missions, for instance, I have wondered if we sometimes confuse a call to adventure with the call of God. Especially in our youth, we feel an urge to get out in the world and experience new places and new things. We want to travel to those places that we have dreamt about or read about. We are looking for a sense of purpose and of self-fulfillment.

It is not a bad thing to have this call to adventure, but we should not think that this is God calling us. It is instead the call of our own sense of excitement. Some short-term mission organizations especially seem to be based more upon a TV reality show more than on the call of God. If we want to go out and experience some of these things, of course we may do so. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that we are answering the call of God. 

Called by God

But the question remains: How are we to know and distinguish the call of God from other calls? It is a question that I have also contemplated on various occasions in my own life.

We are not alone in this. Imagine what it must have been like for Noah of ancient days, when God instructed him to build a massive ark, even when he had no physical indication that there would be a flood of any kind, much less a flood that would cover the entire globe? Nevertheless, we learn that “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” (Genesis 6:22).

How did he know that this was truly the call of God?

Or what was it like for Abraham when God suddenly told him one day to pick up his entire life and leave to live in a land he did not know?

Or even more extreme, when God said to him, “Take your only son Isaac, the son whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering on the mountains of Moriah” (Genesis 22:2).

How did these men discern that it was the voice of God that was telling them to do these things? I know the Bible is already a very long book, but I wish that it would have expanded a bit on the thought processes of these men when faced with these decisions.

There are very many accounts throughout the Bible where we learn of God calling men or women to specific tasks. In fact, very many of my previous posts and the what I have written especially in my book Witnessthe Early Years, are about individuals who had been called by God to do something extraordinary in those days. There are many lessons that we should be able to gain from each of these accounts.

As we can see with the calling of Samuel, it sometimes is difficult to know whether what one is hearing is truly the voice of God or the voice of someone else. It is often even difficult to know if these thoughts are simply arising out of our own goals or desires. How are we to discern?

In the calling of Noah and of Abraham, we saw two men who were told by God to do something that no doubt was not what they desired to do. I think this can certainly be said of the building of the ark by Noah, and especially so in the instructions to Abraham to sacrifice his own son. 

Jonah

The aspect of doing something that is not one’s own natural desire actually seems to be common in the examples that we have in the Bible of the calling of God. One of the clearest examples that we have of this is the calling of Jonah.

“Arise! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me,” God said to Jonah.

Jonah did not want to do this. It was not because he was saddened to hear this terrible news about the Ninevites. Indeed, he hated the Ninevites. The reason he did not want to deliver the message was because he knew that they would probably repent when they heard this news. Then God, because he is so kind, would probably forgive them!

This, Jonah did not want to happen.

In order to prevent God from sending him, Jonah bought a ticket on the ship headed far away in the opposite direction from the city of Nineveh. But of course, this diversion did not thwart the plans of the Lord. God caused Jonah to be jettisoned from that ship, then assigned a huge fish to swallow him in order to carry what may have been his slightly digested body to the very shores of the country were Nineveh was located.

While in the belly of the fish, Jonah suddenly became very repentant. He writes about his experience:



"In my distress I called to the LORD and He answered me.

From the belly of Sheol I called for help, and You heard my voice.
For You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the current swirled about me.
All Your breakers and waves swept over me."


Even while still in the belly of the fish, Jonah realized that God would deliver him. Not only does he repent of his disobedience, but he vows to complete the task that God has given him to do:  

But You raised my life from the pit, O LORD my God!As my life was fading away, I remembered the LORD.My prayer went up to You, to Your holy temple.Those who cling to worthless idols forsake His loving devotion.But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You. I will fulfill what I have vowed.
Salvation is from the LORD! (Jonah 2:2-9 BSB) 


After the fish had delivered him to the shores near Nineveh, Jonah fulfilled what God had called him to do. He began proclaiming in the city, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned!”

Nineveh was an extremely large city. It took Jonah three days to go through it all to preach in every section of it. From the very first day, the people examined their manner of living and began to repent. Then the king himself made a proclamation of mourning and fasting and that everyone should turn from their evil and violent ways.

“Who knows?” the king asked rhetorically, “God may turn and relent; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we will not perish.”

One would think that this would have pleased Jonah greatly. He had seen instant fruit in his calling!

But no—this was not his response. His true desire for the Ninevites again comes out: 

Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country?” he said to God. “This is why I was so quick to flee toward Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in loving devotion—One who relents from sending disaster. 

Amazingly, Jonah now wants to die. “O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

It is clear that this calling from God was not one that Jonah wanted to obey. He fought it at every step and finally only did so out of compulsion. He even complained when the calling turned out to be one that brought an entire city to repentance.

However, even with all of that, we must say that in the end, he did respond to the call of God upon him. 

Isaiah

The prophet Isaiah was a more willing respondent to the call of God. Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for Us?”

“Here am I,” the prophet responded. “Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

Isaiah’s motivation in volunteering however, was not the need for excitement and adventure. He knew his would be a difficult and thankless task. In fact, it would be quite the opposite ministry of that of Jonah. Unlike the Ninevites, the people to whom Isaiah would be sent would constantly reject his proclamations from God and only further harden their contrary opinions.

God told Isaiah, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the hearts of this people calloused; deafen their ears and close their eyes” (Isaiah 6:9-10 BSB).

Understandably, this did not sound good to Isaiah. It sounded like it would be an unfulfilling and thankless job. “How long Lord?” he asked. He perhaps was hoping it would be a short-term mission trip.

However, it turns out that God’s answer to him was that it was to be a long time. In fact, not only was Isaiah to experience only what seemed like constant failure in his warnings to the people, but also to then live long enough to witness their destruction.

Why did Isaiah do it? Again, it was not because this was the result of some inner sense of adventure or a vague idea of self-fulfillment. It was only because God had called him. Even before the prophet heard the rhetorical question of God saying “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah had been given a vision of God that would so impress upon him the absolute holiness of the Lord, that there was no other option for him than to obey. Isaiah writes: 

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood seraphim, each having six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they called out to one another: Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts; His glory fills all the earth. The doorposts and thresholds shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1-4 BSB) 

After Isaiah had received his vision, the only words he was able to utter were, “Woe is me! I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and I have seen the King and the Lord of hosts!”

Isaiah was responding not to some need of self, but only to the holiness of God. 

Ezekiel

Very similar to this is God’s calling to the prophet Ezekiel. As with Isaiah, the Lord first impressed upon Ezekiel the absolute holiness of God by giving the prophet a vision that defied any description using mere words.

Ezekiel also had a vision of the Lord of hosts. The prophet tried the best that he could to describe his vision, but again, mere words would fall far short. And again like Isaiah, perhaps the best description is to see his reaction to the vision—how it affected him. So overwhelmed was Ezekiel that he fell to his face. Then he heard the voice of God: 

Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me. To this very day the Israelites and their fathers have transgressed against Me. They are obstinate and hardhearted children. I am sending you to them, and you are to say to them, “This is what the Lord GOD says.”

And whether they listen or refuse to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. (Ezekiel 2:3-5 BSB) 

Like Isaiah, Ezekiel was not pursuing self-betterment in responding to the call of the Lord. “Self” had nothing to do with it. Like Isaiah, he was shown an indication of the holiness of the Sovereign One and had no choice but to respond when he called.

Ezekiel was responding not to some need of self, but only to the holiness of God. 

Paul

The Apostle Paul, when he was called to service by God, was actually an enemy of the church. When God called him, Paul (then called Saul) was in fact on his way to the city of Damascus to seize certain Christians in order to put them into prison.

As he neared the city, he also had a vision of the Holy One. His vision was not of the same nature as was that of Isaiah or Ezekiel, but is described only as a very bright light. Nevertheless, in the words of Paul, it was a vision nonetheless (Acts 26:19). There may also have been more to his vision that we have not been told.

Struck by the intense light, Paul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are You, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and stand on your feet...I am sending you to your own people and to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:15-18).

This was the initial calling of the Apostle Paul. Again we see that he did not enter into this ministry in order to gain some sort of self-fulfillment. In fact, he was already self-fulfilled. In fact, he was quite proud of himself up until the time he met Jesus.

Paul told the Galatians that he was advancing in Judaism far beyond his contemporaries; and to the Philippians: “I could have confidence in myself if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for any self-confidence, I have even more!

But as we saw with the prophets, the call of God is not about self-fulfillment. It is about responding to the Holy One. 

Moses

When God called Moses at the burning bush to lead the Israelites out of bondage from the land of Egypt, neither was Moses looking for adventure or self-fulfillment. In fact, he used about every excuse that he could think of as to why he should not be the one to do this task. 

“Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

“Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ What should I tell them?”

“What if they refuse to believe me or listen to my voice? For they may say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’”

“I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant, for I am slow of speech and tongue.” 

To every one of these excuses, God had an answer. Finally, Moses was out of any excuse. It was now down to what was honestly on his heart. He simply did not want to do it.

“Please, Lord, send someone else,” he said at last.

But of course, in the end, Moses obeyed. He could do nothing else. If a call upon one’s life is truly from God, there is no other option—not if one intends to continue in obedience to God. 

Not for Self, but for God

For most of the men and women whom we read about in the Bible who were called by God to a certain task or ministry, we are not given what inner thoughts they may have had, but there is not one who entered into the service of God for a certain ministry or mission who did it in order to gain some “experience” or to realize some dream of self-worth or self-fulfillment. All did it only in response to the absolute holiness of the God whom they had met. 

The Call of Self—Simon the Sorcerer

To give us some balance to this topic, I would like to also illustrate the opposite perspective—what it is like to respond to a call in order to satisfy one’s self sense or inner ambition of self. To help us in this, there is one case in the New Testament where we are told of someone who actually did have self-fulfillment in mind when he sought to minister for God. He saw it as a way to gain something for himself.  It is not a positive example.

This man was named Simon, who was a sorcerer in Samaria. The people of Samaria said of him, “This man is the divine power called the Great Power.” Simon no doubt enjoyed this notoriety, keeping the people in astonishment with his sorcery.

But then the evangelist Philip came to the area, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God and telling the people of Jesus Christ. Many believed and were baptized, and we are told that even Simon believed and was baptized. He apparently was converted from his sorcery!

As he then followed Philip, instead of seeing people astonished at his own sorcery, he himself was now the one who was astonished by the great signs and miracles that he saw Philip perform.

Later, after Philip had left, Peter and John arrived in the city, after hearing that the people had believed in Jesus. The two apostles prayed for the people to receive the Holy Spirit, laying their hands on the people to be given the Spirit.

When Simon saw this, he offered Peter and John money, saying, “Give me this power as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

His motivation was not so much because that he wanted to minister the life of Christ, but so that he could gain some sort of personal satisfaction and reputation. He remembered how self-satisfied it made him feel in the days that people were astonished by his sorcery, and he now was looking for a way for them to again be astonished at the things that he did.

Peter told him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in our ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of your wickedness, and pray to the Lord. Perhaps He will forgive you for the intent of your heart, for I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and captive to iniquity.”

Simon seemingly did repent, answering the apostles, “Pray to the Lord for me, so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” (Acts 8:9-24)

We are not told what the final outcome was for Simon, but his story is an illustration given to us to show that motivations are important when considering entering into a work of the Lord. If it is not a result of a calling from God and a response to his absolute holiness, and if instead it is a desire for some “experience” or self-realization, then I am afraid that we would have to consider carefully the words of Peter to Simon the Sorcerer. 

To Those Who Honor God

We also must consider the words of God to Eli the priest in the days of Samuel: “Now the LORD declares: I will honor those who honor Me, but those who despise Me will be disdained.”

The lesson in all of these callings of God that we have seen in the Scriptures, plus many more not mentioned, is that we must question any calling that comes to us in regards to the Lord’s work if we are doing it to satisfy some sense of self-fulfillment, sense of adventure for oneself, or any self-benefit at all.

It is not Self whom we serve, but it is the Lord, seated on His throne, high and exalted in His temple.
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I am going to continue next week with this theme of hearing the voice of God, including telling about a couple of times when Vivian and I responded to the call of God to do something

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