In some ways, Mary’s experience may have been more straightforward than many of the other followers of Jesus on that first day of the resurrection, because Mary also had the physical presence of Jesus with her when others did not. Nevertheless, we are given stories of various people who heard the voice of God.
A Voice in the Early Hours
Apart from Mary, there are many other individuals of the Bible who also learned to recognize the voice of God. The child Samuel of the Old Testament was one of these. Samuel was the name of a young lad who lived about three thousand years ago or so, in the days when Israel was ruled by Judges. His task as a young boy was to serve in the temple of the Lord.
The calling of Samuel to his work as a prophet 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 throughout the night. As a helper in the temple, this may have even been Samuel’s own duty. 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 assumed it was Eli, the High Priest. Samuel was the priest’s assistant, and the priest was the one who would usually call out for him. Samuel, upon hearing his name, ran to where Eli was sleeping.
“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 God. 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.”
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 inwardly 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. For instance, I have served much of my life working with churches in other countries, and I have met many from America and other countries who have also been involved in similar types of works. Some have told me that they have always wanted to travel the world, and working in foreign missions seemed to be for them a good way to do it while still serving the Lord.
These types of comments have led me to wonder if what we sometimes take for the call of God to be actually more of a “call to adventure.”
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 have 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. They promote their works by emphasizing the “adventure” aspect of it.
If we want to go out and experience some of these things with a sense of adventure, of course we may do so. But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that we are answering the call of God.
Besides a desire for adventure, there are other personal goals for self-fulfillment that we may have. It is also a question that all who feel called to enter into a musical performance career and even a speaking career must ask themselves: “Am I doing this because I want to serve God, or am I doing it because I love performing?”
Called by God
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 Noah 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).
These were truly astounding instructions. How did Noah know that this was actually the call of God? Might he not have instead thought that he was going mad? Others certainly must have thought that he was.
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 would have liked if it had 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. 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.
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.
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 came up with a plan. He 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. God then assigned a huge fish to swallow Jonah in order to carry what may have been his slightly digested body to the very shores of the country were Nineveh was located.
After the fish had delivered Jonah to the shores near Nineveh, the dissenting prophet 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. He declared 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! This does not often happen!
But no—joy was not Jonah’s 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 is sorry that the Ninevites actually repented! So distraught was he over this that he 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, Jonah did respond to the call of God upon him.
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. From the beginning, 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 see the destruction of the land.
God told him, “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, and until the houses are left unoccupied and the land is desolate and ravaged” (Isaiah 6:11).
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.
There was yet another reason that Isaiah could do nothing else but respond to God’s calling upon his life. Isaiah had seen the holiness of the Lord.
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 had been witness to the holiness of the Lord of hosts. He was responding not to some need of self, but only to the holiness of God.
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 that could be explained by using mere human 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, the meagre words of the human tongue would fall far short. And like Isaiah, perhaps the very best description is to see what his reaction was 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.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus
We might also remember Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary was a young girl, excitedly engaged to the man with whom she had fallen in love. The couple was not wealthy, and planning for their life together had challenges enough.
Then one night, Mary was visited by an angel of the Lord with some troubling news: “The Holy Spirit shall soon come upon you and overshadow you.”
The angel told her that the result of this visit by the Holy Spirit is that she would conceive and give birth to a son, whom she was to name Jesus.
Might not have Mary felt the same as many of the prophets of old may have felt of themselves, “Am I imagining all of this? Might I even be going mad?”
If it was true what the angel told her, it would indeed be a great honor, but frankly, that is not how Mary felt at the moment. In the immediate sense, it only presented problems. How would she explain this to Joseph, her fiancée? After finding that she was with child, would he change his mind about going through with the wedding? Certainly, that was the culturally appropriate thing to do.
And what would be the result of her life in that culture? She would be shunned and rejected by everyone.
Nevertheless, despite all of these obstacles and fears, Mary’s response to this message was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it happen to me according to your word.”
Mary turned her fears into a song:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
For He has looked with favor on the humble state of His servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me.
Holy is His name.
His mercy extends to those who fear Him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who are proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel, remembering to be merciful, as He promised to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55 BSB)
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 nonetheless a vision (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. Actually, 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.
When Jesus called his first disciples, they left everything to follow him. They simply abandoned their former means of employment. Those who were fishermen left their nets and boats on the shoreline. Matthew was sitting in his tax booth where he was in charge of collecting the local taxes. When Jesus called him, Matthew simply got up, left ledgers, tax money, left everything, and followed Jesus.
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 “adventure.” Their motive was not so that they could 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 sense of importance or inner ambition.
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 in the name of 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. Apparently, he was converted from his sorcery!
But as he then began to follow Philip, instead of seeing people astonished at his own sorcery, Simon 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 learning of Philip’s previous visit and 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, but instead 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.
“Your heart is not right before God.”
To Those Who Honor God
God told 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 in regards to the Lord’s work, self and our own personal goals should not be factors in deciding what we are to do. I will not say that a sense of adventure or some other considerations will never enter at all into our thoughts (all of life is an adventure), but if we are primarily responding in order to satisfy some sense of self-fulfillment or some other form of self-benefit, then it would be perhaps better to examine our decision more carefully.
If we are faithful in our decisions, we will find that God will give us lives that are rewarding and fulfilling. It will not be we ourselves who strive for a self-rewarding life and to be self-fulfilled. In following God, it is not Self whom we serve, but it is the Lord, the Sovereign Lord of the universe.
Paul said that he found that all former things that he saw as benefit to him, he later saw as a hindrance to his life. In fact, those former goals were more than a hindrance. He saw them as rubbish - as garbage in his life.
"I count all things as loss compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:8)
Or as Mary, the mother of Jesus said, “The Mighty One has done great things for me. Holy is His name.”
Knowing the holiness of God, our response will be those of Isaiah the prophet after he had had the vision of the Holy One:
I heard the voice of the Lord saying: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for Us?”
And I said: “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)