Combining Spiritual Thoughts with Spiritual WordsThe Call of God is the Call to Sacrifice Self
When Does God Call Us?
There is another aspect about the calling of God to the various individuals in the Bible that we can notice. It is an aspect which may surprise some people. God’s calling of individuals actually significantly predates our own realization of it.
I previously mentioned the calling of God to the Apostle Paul on the road to the city of Damascus. It was at the moment on the road that Paul was blinded by the bright light and heard the voice from heaven that he knew God was calling him.
This is when Paul heard God’s voice for the first time. Nevertheless, Paul later came to realize that this calling had always been in God’s plan.
Paul wrote to the Galatians, “God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16 NAS).
Paul may have had the specific event on the road when the calling came to him, but the fact is—the calling was always there. It is just that God had a particular moment of time in mind as to when Paul was to begin acting on the calling. Before this aspect of the call to happen, there was a preparation in Paul that needed to first take place.
Isaiah said the same thing. “The Lord called me from the womb; from the body of my mother He named me” (Isaiah 49:1).
The words of the prophet Jeremiah are even more astounding: “The word of the Lord came to me, saying: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I set you apart and appointed you a prophet to the nations’” (Jeremiah 1:4-5).
It is important for us to know that God is not just “making things up as he goes along.” He is not an employer looking for someone to fill a need that has suddenly come to his organization, or a sports team owner recruiting a new athlete when a key player is injured and there is a need to fill on the team.
God does not call someone when he sees a need that suddenly happens to arise. Although from our perspective, events in our lives may be developing and evolving, God’s plan is not. God has had all things arranged from the very beginning, including the calling of these men, and including our own calling.
The Apostle Paul told young Timothy that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not because of our own works, but by His own purpose and by the grace He granted us in Christ Jesus before time eternal” (2 Timothy 1:9 BSB).
Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians, “God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 2:13-14 NAS).
What does “from the beginning” mean? Paul also wrote about this to the Ephesians, saying that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him” (Ephesians 1:4 NAS).
“Before the foundation of the world!” “Before time eternal!” That, you will agree, is a very long time ago.
Whether we consider the words of being called from our mother’s womb or being chosen from before the foundation of the world, we can see that God’s intention for each of us has been in his mind from a time before we can imagine.
What? Don’t I Get to Choose?
Some people react negatively to the fact that God has determined all of these things for them, saying that this must mean that our choices in life do not matter. This is a deep subject indeed and I have written of it in other places, but instead of departing from our present subject of being called of God, allow me simply to say here that when Paul writes of being chosen and predestined, his intention is that in knowing this, his readers will be reassured of their ancient and deep-rooted standing before God. For all of us, this fact can be of great comfort.
Indeed, that is also how I view the subject. It is comforting to me to know that God has known me from eternity, and that he has been involved in my life from the beginning.
This is also how Isaiah the prophet viewed this truth:
Now this is what the LORD says—He who created you…“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you go through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, and the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isaiah 43:1-3 BSB).
Understanding this, I know that God will also complete in me what he has begun. “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6 NAS).
How Does God Speak to Us?
It is helpful to remember that, although the calling of God comes not in any prescribed manner that we may think, if it truly is the calling of God, it will come in a way that we will not be able to ignore.
As much as Moses tried to ignore God’s calling, and Jonah tried to ignore God’s calling, they could not. In fact, none of the people in the Bible about whom we read and were called by God could ignore his calling. Nor will we be able to. We have the option to disobey God’s call as Jonah first did, certainly; but we will not be able to ignore the calling and deny that it must have been God speaking to us.
But how does God do this? How does he call us?
The writer of the book of Hebrews gives us a very instructive phrase in the very first verse of his book when he writes, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers and the prophets in many portions and in many ways…”
I will give the completion of this sentence in a moment, but first I would like to stop here and look at what the writer wrote in this verse up to this point.
In the period covered by the Old Testament, God spoke through the fathers and the prophets. Some of these individuals I had mentioned last Sunday. These were men and women who were recognized as individuals who had a vital relationship with God, and to whom God often communicated his word.
Two Words to Know
Next the writer says that God did this in “many portions (or parts)” and in “many ways.” These two words used are polumerós and polutropós. This is the only time in the Bible when these two words are used.
I cannot expand much on the meaning of the second word (polutropós), since it simply means in many ways, as in saying, “there are many ways to contact your friend: telephone call, email, text, letter, as well as others.”
We can however, learn a little more about the first word, polumerós, since the many portions has the sense of something that is comes in different segments—first one, then another a little later, then another, and so continuing.
These two words used together in this sense is similar to saying to your friend, “I will first phone you to tell you a bit of what I am thinking, but later I will send you a letter explaining my full intent, and then later still I will come to your house and we can talk about it.”
And this is exactly what the writer of the book of Hebrews means in the completion of his sentence when he writes: “In these last days, God has spoken to us through his Son.”
This is helpful for us to remember. God has used different manners to speak with his servants through the ages, but all of it was leading up to the time when God’s message would be completed in the person of Jesus Christ.
In the day in which the author of the book of Hebrews was writing, the final authority was the very Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Jesus as the Word of God
So closely was Jesus linked to the God’s communication to us that he was even called the “Word of God.”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1, 14 BSB)
Of course, Jesus Christ is no longer among us in the flesh. We cannot go out with 5,000 other people to sit on a mountainside to listen to his teachings. In these days, God is speaking to us by using a different portion, or a different manner. His words in these days come to us primarily in two manners.
The Holy Spirit as the Word of God
First of all, while we may not be able to hear Jesus speaking with our physical ability to hear, the Christian is actually indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This may not seem as “real” to you, since it is not the same as seeing a person with your physical eyes and listening to him with your physical ears.
Nevertheless, in some ways, this manner of the indwelling of the Spirit is actually even more beneficial to us as believers, since He is ever present with us. This at least is how Jesus explained it shortly before leaving.
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus told his disciples, “It is for your benefit that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate (paraklétos—Comforter, Helper, Counselor) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7 BSB).
Jesus went on to explain that the presence of the Holy Spirit among us is who works in our thinking and consciousness to first show us our own depravity and need for a savior. Then, to those who have believed, the Holy Spirit works “in regard to righteousness,” which is to say that the Holy Spirit is ever present with us to teach us how we ought to live.
When Jesus taught on the mountainside and other places; when he was in the market walking among the people, and in every moment of his day, he was teaching people how they were to live. He was giving to them a perspective of life that they had not before seen. He was teaching them how to follow the word of God and to live in a manner that was the way that God has intended for us from the beginning.
This is also the ministry of the Holy Spirit as he indwells the believer. He is with us on the mountainside, when we are in the car driving, when we are in the grocery store, and in every moment of the day he is always present to teach us how God has always intended for us to live.
For Better or Worse, We Treat the Holy Spirit Just as the People Treated Jesus
When Jesus spoke to the people, the types of reactions that he received were numerous. Many people mocked him, many rebelled against his words, and many simply ignored him.
But many others believed him. Many followed him. Many learned to listen to his words and became his disciples.
It is no different today with the Holy Spirit. Many mock or rebel, most simply ignore him, but many believe. Many follow his words and learn to live not according to the ways of the world in which they had been raised, but according to the way that God has always intended for us to live.
Hearing the Holy Spirit
When we speak of listening to the Holy Spirit, it is perhaps a little confusing to use the words “to listen for and to hear,” because this is not something that is accomplished with our physical ears. Nevertheless, that is exactly the manner in which we are to think of it. We are to consider it no different to listening to another person.
Written repeatedly in the messages to the churches in the book of Revelation are these words: “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
And Jesus told us, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you…For the One whom God has sent speaks the words of God” (John 14:26 NAS; 3:34 BSB).
But on the practical level, how is this done? How do we “hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches”? If it is not with our physical ears, then how?
The Holy Spirit Speaking Through the Scriptures
Some words of the Apostle Paul are helpful in this: “Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words” (1 Corinthians 2:12-13 NAS).
Paul was not overselling his message when he said that his words were ones taught to him by the Spirit of God. His fellow apostle Peter also said this of Paul: “Our beloved brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom God gave him. He writes this way in all his letters, speaking in them about such matters” (2 Peter 3:16 BSB).
As a matter of fact, Peter further said, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21 NAS).
Paul also affirms this by saying that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 BSB). This is exactly what Jesus told the people that the Holy Spirit was to do (John 16:8).
Combining Spiritual Thoughts with Spiritual Words
In the words of Paul, we are able to hear the Holy Spirit by combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.
We receive the words of the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures, at least primarily so. We may receive spiritual words also from someone explaining the words of Scripture to us, but most importantly, it is from we ourselves reading the Scriptures.
We should never complain that we cannot know God’s will for our lives if we do not read the Bible.
When we read the Bible, not only are we convicted of the sin in our lives and given correction, but we are also trained in righteousness (to again use Paul’s words). If I would put in some other words of Paul, we are given spiritual thoughts. These are the thoughts that we are given as we read the Scriptures, which are the very words of God (God-breathed), and which are transmitted to us by the Holy Spirit.
Some Personal Examples
Many years ago, when Vivian and I were seeking God’s will in our lives concerning committing our lives to foreign missions, we were sitting in a chapel service listening to the speaker telling the story of the Exodus of the early Israelites out of Egypt. We were, in fact, in an orientation for a mission organization, having been invited by them to go to Venezuela to teach in a Bible Institute there.
We had not yet committed to that task, however. Instead, we had put off making any decision at all concerning the invitation until we went through the orientation for the mission organization. In the weeks prior to that time, we had only been praying what I considered a bold prayer.
We prayed that during the orientation, God would make the decision plain to us. The way in which we asked him to do this was to confirm the answer in his word—in the pages of the Bible. You can see why I considered this a bold prayer, because I had read the Bible, and nowhere does it say that Don and Vivian should or should not go to Venezuela.
But that was our prayer. We had no firm preference one way or the other on whether we should commit ourselves to this work. On some days we thought it might be the best thing to go, but then on other days we thought the best thing would be to stay home. We were ambivalent on the decision. We went back and forth. However, it was important to us that we would have a firm confirmation from the Lord.
The reason that I personally felt this confirmation so important is that I had lived overseas previous to that time, and I had met and gotten to know several missionaries while they were living on the field. All missionaries go through difficult times, but there were a few whom I had met who were at the point of wondering if they were supposed to be in that work at all. They were wondering if they actually had been called of God to be in that place.
I never wanted to be in that situation, or worse yet, to put my family through that situation. I knew that if I were to bring my family overseas, we would be bound to face some situations that were difficult and discouraging. That is almost a given. However, I never wanted to descend so far in my thoughts to where I had to question my calling from God.
That is why we asked for a scripture. When difficulties came, we did not want to say, “Am I supposed to be here?”
Rather, we wanted to at least be able to say, “Lord, here is your promise. You have sent us here. Now, what am we to do about this situation?
Sitting in the chapel that day, the speaker was talking about the Exodus. He was at the point in his message where Moses was standing on the banks of the Red Sea as the Egyptian army was bearing down on the great multitude of the Israelites.
It is not completely clear exactly where the crossing of the sea took place, but many think that from the spot where Moses and the people were standing, both up the shore and down, there were steep hills or other geographic obstacles that that would prevent the people from fleeing. With the might of the Egyptian army cutting off any sort of retreat, they were, in short, trapped.
The people complained to Moses, “Was it because there are no graves in Egypt that you brought us into the wilderness to die?”
Although Moses spoke confidently to the people that the Lord would intervene, neither did he know what to do. Moses then went to the Lord with his doubts.
We are not given the conversation that must have taken place between him and the Lord, but whatever it was, Moses must have put to God this difficult set of circumstances of being trapped, asking him what to do.
God’s answer was direct and to the point: “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Exodus 14:15).
It was at that point that the Lord also spoke to me. Like Moses, I realized that in the weeks previous to when we were attending the orientation, I had constantly been putting my own set of circumstances before God, circumstances that I saw as difficult.
When the speaker read aloud the words of the scripture, it was as if the Lord was telling me, “Stop telling me about the pros and cons of either staying or going, just go forward!”
Even though Vivian and I had asked the Lord for a Scripture confirmation, I was not thinking of that at the moment, and even if I had, I certainly would not have expected it to come in a story such as that. I would have rather expected it to come from some words of Jesus, or from an admonition of the Apostle Paul or one of the other New Testament writers. It did not. It came from the words spoken by God to Moses on the banks of the Red Sea.
Whatever you may think of this confirmation, to me it was those words given to Moses that sustained me through many very difficult circumstances not only in Venezuela, but as the ministry expanded in scope, through difficult circumstances in many Latin American countries and also in other parts of the world.
As I heard the words of Scripture that in themselves were unrelated to my question at that time, the Holy Spirit used those words to give me what I will call “spiritual thoughts.” They were thoughts directed by the Holy Spirit. I did not hear these words with the ears on the sides of my head, but the words were real, and they left me with no doubt.
The second personal example of combining spiritual words with spiritual thoughts come from my experience with getting involved with a church and orphanage in Kenya. It is a ministry with which I am still involved. This task began after my retirement from overseas work.
At the time of this calling, Vivian and I were back home on our little farm in Wisconsin, and glad to be there. We had enjoyed working overseas, but I was tired from all of the activity of my work abroad. I was looking forward to some carefree years on the farm, doing not much more than taking care of my few highland beef cattle, and taking some quiet walks in the woods.
“Pretending to be a farmer,” as I often told people.
I was not looking for anything else. I was not looking for a plan for my life. I had a plan. My life was settled, or so I thought.
The work in Kenya is with an orphanage. When the Lord first spoke to me about that work, I had never before been anywhere in Africa, never had I worked with anyone that was from Africa, and frankly, I had no thoughts of ever going to Africa. It was not that I was opposed to going to that continent, it was just that I was done with traveling.
It is actually quite a long story to tell of how God presented the work in Kenya to me, but I will attempt to make it short.
Over the years, my work overseas had been challenging, but enjoyable nevertheless. However, my last assignment before coming home had been particularly difficult, and I was ready for a change in my life. When I put my travel bags away, I said out loud to those bags that had accompanied me to many parts of the world, “Maybe I will never need to use you again.”
I was done traveling, and frankly, I was even done asking the Lord for further direction for my life. As I said, I considered the rest of my life settled. I was home and I was retired. (With an emphasis on the “period”—full stop!)
Besides my farm life and quiet walks in the woods, I was (and also still am) a pastor of a small rural church called “The Log Church.” It is a historic church of our area and is, as the name suggests, a church building made of logs.
Every week, I would post the transcript of my Sunday’s sermon on a blog site that I had maintained on the internet for many years. From time to time, I would get a message from someone in the world to comment or to ask a question about what I wrote.
One day I received a message from a pastor in Kenya, who told me that they had been using my messages in the teachings for their newly formed church. I was glad to hear this, and told him so. I told him I would pray for him and for the church.
Over the next few months, he and I exchanged emails. He also sent to me some of his sermons, which I thought were very good. In the course of our email exchange, I eventually learned that the church had several orphans for whom they were providing food and shelter. The pastor told me that they were doing this for the children in obedience to the teachings of Scripture that tell us that it is the responsibility of Christians to care for the widows and the orphans.
“The greatest need in our area is the large number of orphans,” the pastor wrote to me. “So we thought that we would start there.”
Then one day, he wrote to explain to me that their outdoor latrine had collapsed, and that it had sent two boys to the hospital. The government told them that unless they rebuild the latrine, and build it safely, they would shut the church and small orphanage down.
This latrine would cost them about $700, and could I help with this?
I told him no. I said to him that I do not just send money to people. I said that he seemed like a very good man with a good heart, but frankly, how did I know that he was not a scammer?
I was not afraid of insulting him, since I really did not want to be involved anyway. I did actually believe him from the very beginning, but the fact was, I could not be sure. I would be foolish to send him money just on his word.
He sent me pictures of the caved in latrine. “I am not a scammer,” he wrote to me.
Of course, neither was this any kind of proof. Nevertheless, there was something about the situation that rang true to me. After several more emails, I did finally send them a little money to help. Not the entire amount, but a couple hundred dollars or so.
Now that I had allowed the door to be opened, I expected there soon to be another letter asking for money, but none came, at least not for a few more months.
But then, it did come. He wrote to me that they were in a critical situation at the church with the children. They had had no food for several days and there is no money. Again, could I help?
And again, I said no. It was not that I did not believe he was telling me the truth, but there was no way to know for certain, and I did not want to get involved. I said that I would pray, and I did. But as I prayed, the Lord convicted me of my hardness of heart.
Again like Moses, I gave every excuse I could think of why I should not be involved.
“I did my bit overseas.”
“I am busy here—and I’m a pastor!” I thought that should mean something to God (It did not).
“I have my retirement all figured out already.”
And finally, like Moses’ own excuse, I told the Lord, “Isn’t there someone else that can do this?”
In this case, I had not prayed for a verse to tell me what the will of God was for this. If I would have been honest with myself, I think that I would have had to admit that I did not want to know his will.
But despite my excuses and despite the fact that I did not look for any scripture to help me to know what I should do, a verse came to me anyway: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17 ESV)
That one hurt.
It is not that we can feed every hungry person in the world, but I had to begin to face myself honestly. God had given me this task, and I was closing my heart to the need. I was Jonah sailing in the opposite direction of the calling of the Lord.
Then there was also this: I was reading the passage where Jesus was teaching in a remote area, where more than 5,000 people were listening to him.
When it was getting late in the day, the disciples came to Jesus and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is already late. Dismiss the crowds, so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”
Jesus answered them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:15-16).
Again, the Holy Spirit spoke to me, combining spiritual words with spiritual thoughts. I realized that I was not unlike the disciples, who were happy to have the people hear the teachings of Jesus, but when it came to being involved with them by providing food, they wanted to send them away.
In much the same way, I was happy to have the people in that remote village of Kenya to read my teachings, but when it came to their need for food, I was telling the Lord, “Send them away.”
Finally I told Vivian, “I have to go to Kenya and find out exactly what the situation is there. I cannot ignore this need and continue my life as if nothing has happened.”
I took my suitcases down from their storage spot. They had at least one more trip to make.
I went and saw, and I got involved. I could do nothing else. I had heard the words of the Holy Spirit.
The Words of Life
Jesus told his disciples, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63 NAS).
We can choose to listen to the words spoken to us by the world and even by our own reasoning, but at the end of all things, those words will mean nothing. Those words will fall meaningless to the ground. It is only the words spoken to us by the Holy Spirit that will endure. Learn to listen for those words today.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever. (Isaiah 40:8 NAS)
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105 NAS)
Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away. (Matthew 24:35 BSB)
He who calls you is faithful, and he will surely do it. (1 Thessalonians 5:24)