Does the Holy Spirit speak to Christians today? In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is quite active and talkative. Should that be our expectation now?
I know that’s a loaded question. Discussions about the ministry of the Holy Spirit often are. (But that’s nothing new in the history of the church.) It’s still worth asking: should you expect the Holy Spirit to communicate with you as he did, say, for Philip in the eighth chapter of Acts?
To refresh your memory, Acts 8:26-40 is Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. It begins with an angel of the Lord telling Philip “Rise and go!” to a certain road. Philip “rose and went” (what else could you do when an angel of the Lord appears?). He then has what must be one of the easiest evangelism experiences in the history of the church. A traveling Ethiopian, who “happens” to be returning from worshipping in Jerusalem, is on the road in his chariot. It just so “happens” that this man is reading the prophet Isaiah (aloud, as was the custom in ancient times), specifically Isaiah 53:7-8. All this is unbeknownst to Philip until, in v.29, the Holy Spirit explicitly says to him, “Go over and join this chariot.” He overhears the Ethiopian reading Isaiah 53 (talk about a softball!), asks if he understands what he is reading, and then begins to preach Christ. Result? A roadside baptism – and the gospel claims yet another people group for the risen Lord Jesus.
So is v.29 something we should expect? The Holy Spirit said to me, “_______________?” At least two other places in Acts, 10:19 and 13:2, record the Holy Spirit speaking to individuals. Does the Holy Spirit still speak to us today? I believe the answer is yes – but with a qualification.
If you started to get uncomfortable when I talked about the Holy Spirit speaking to someone today, I can probably guess why. You’ve heard someone begin a sentence with, “The Holy Spirit told me,” and then launch into something totally off-the-wall but, in this person’s mind, totally unquestionable because, after all, the Spirit told them. Are you going to question the Spirit? I’ve had those conversations, too. And the result of that kind of “Spirit-listening” has, in my experience, never been spiritual fruitfulness or maturity but rather the opposite: confusion, emotional ups and downs, and spiritual immaturity.
So here’s my qualification: from the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost until the return of our Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit is at work to exalt Jesus, edify the church, and evangelize the world. Those three categories – exalting, edifying, and evangelizing – are the biblical parameters in which we can and should expect the Spirit’s ministry. (See John 16:14, 1 Cor. 12:7, and Acts 1:8.) When someone tells me “The Spirit said ___________,” those are the criteria by which I evaluate what is said (assuming, of course, that the statement isn’t clearly unscriptural in some other way, such as “the Spirit told me to leave my wife”). But within those parameters, I believe we are to expect, long for, and seek the active ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The argument often raised against this position is that Acts presents a unique moment in the history of redemption. It is the birth of the church, the inspired record of the fulfillment of Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” I am in complete agreement with that statement. Acts does present unique moments in redemptive history as the gospel spreads to each of the areas Jesus promises. Paul’s proclamation of the kingdom in Rome in Acts 28:31 represents the gospel reaching the limits of the known ancient world. But let’s not forget: the gospel still must spread to the ends of the earth! 2000 years later, Acts 1:8 is still being fulfilled. The earth is not yet covered with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the seas (Hab. 2:14). People from every tribe and language and people and nation do not yet worship the risen Jesus (Rev. 5:9). Until the gospel is proclaimed to every people group, until the Lord calls the full number of the saints into the kingdom, until the whole work of salvation through Christ to the glory of the Father in the power of the Spirit is complete – there is still work to be done. And we can expect the ongoing ministry of the Spirit as we participate in this glorious mission.
photo by Sparetomato