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Hearing God, Part I: God’s Plan, Our Privilege

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Hearing God

Copyright © 2006, 2015

Jim Kerwin

Image of a woman listening; used under license from www.123rf.com/profile_kozzi kozzi / 123RF Stock PhotoDoes God really speak to us today?1

Jesus put it very simply but very pow­er­ful­ly—“My sheep hear My voice” (John 10:27). It has been God’s plan from the very outset that men and women should have the privilege of communing with God, that is, that they should have the pleasure of knowing God and being known by Him, of speaking to God and hearing Him.

“My sheep hear My voice.” Yet as with many straightforward teachings of Jesus, countless of His “sheep” tend to miss the impact of such truth in their lives. Whether they spiritualize it away or have never considered that there is a practical application to their own lives, these believers are missing out on the blessing of this inheritance for the saints. Not a few Christians react in strange ways when preachers start talking about hearing God’s voice.

  • Some are certain that God couldn’t possibly mean to speak to them because they aren’t “spiritual enough.”
  • Others have had the phenomenon explained away by certain schools of Biblical interpretation—“God used to speak with people, but He doesn’t any longer.” In other words, once God finished with the Bible, He turned off most direct two-way communication. (There is actually a very well-intentioned reason for this, which we’ll look at in the next article.) Rather than being a two-person conversation, prayer is like leaving God a voice-mail—He probably got your message, but what He does with it from there is anyone’s guess.
  • Other Christians fear what they might hear if God really did speak to them; after all, He might convict them of sin, or (worse!) send them to the mission field or something equally distasteful—like loving their neighbor in some practical way. (I’m having a little fun here, but if the shoe fits, wear it!)
  • Still others (a small minority, I hope) preface their manipulation of God’s people with the words, “God says.”

There is also the group of active believers who experience some encouraging leading from God. They have experienced being led by Him. Maybe it is as they are strongly impressed with a particular Scripture passage that is clearly apropos to a particular situation about which they have been praying. Or they may have a feeling (like a hunch or intuition, only stronger and more focused) that they should do a certain thing, and when they follow through, they find that God has blessed in a particular way. They sense Divine guidance and are glad for it, as well they can be. But it seems like only a minor percentage of this group hears God’s voice.

I believe the average born-again Christian hasn’t really considered the matter very much, hasn’t realized the privilege of hearing from God, and doesn’t understand that being able to hear God’s voice is part of our inheritance in Christ. And in order to feel assured that such an experience is from God, not to speak of receiving motivation to seek such an experience, they would like to know that the matter is Scriptural.

God’s Plan: From Genesis to Revelation

The Bible teaches us that God has meant for us to hear His voice from the very beginning. Mankind was created to have fellowship with God. The first thing the Creator does after creating Adam and Eve is to speak to them. After speaking Creation into existence, God speaks and takes counsel with Himself (Genesis 1:26) to create mankind, a counsel He carries out immediately (v.27). And as they stand before Him, the first Man and Woman, God speaks blessing to them and says to them, “Be fruitful… multiply… replenish… subdue… have dominion!” (v.28) God blesses them by telling them their purpose, their life’s work—all while speaking to them and fellowshipping with them.

God goes on fellowshipping and speaking with them, He speaks to them of their inheritance, “Behold, I have given to you…!” and He enumerates their blessings in great detail (Genesis 1:29). God even speaks about how they can walk in His will (2:16-17).

So we can see in the beginning, in the Book of Genesis where we find the seed-plot for God’s revelation throughout the rest of the Bible, God’s purpose was to speak to these creatures made in His own image and likeness.

If we fast-forward to the Book of Revelation, we see that God still wants believers to hear Him: “he that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith…” (Revelation 2:7;3:6).

God Continues Speaking—to Sinners

Even when Man turned his back on God (ultimately, this was because Man refused to heed what God had spoken to him—“Yea, hath God said…?”), God, in His love (even while administering justice), continued to speak to Man and Woman. Yes, even when they were sinners, it was possible for them to speak to and hear from God. The way the story of The Fall is presented, part of the great tragedy is that, in being expelled from the Garden, they gave up personal, intimate fellowship with God. In the delightful way the King James Version and the ASV render the passage: “They heard the Voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3:8, where the Hebrew word qol is rendered “voice” as it is in verse 10 and in the majority of times it appears in the Old Testament). Though Adam and Eve hide, the Voice of God still comes to them. God exposes their sin, yet in the midst of their conversation and the delivery of the Divine sentence, God still speaks a prophetic blessing over them (Genesis 3:15).

Although the ability to hear God’s voice seems to wane during the early chapters of Genesis, we see God taking a personal, speaking interest even with Cain (who, John says, “was of that wicked one”—1 John 3:12). He counseled Cain, warning him of what was in his heart and future if he didn’t repent of his attitude (Genesis 4:6-7). After Cain’s murder of Abel, God speaks with him again, exposing his sin and meting out his punishment (vv.9-12). Even then, there is a two-way conversation, with Cain pleading for a mitigation of the sentence, and God responding (vv.13-15).

If God spoke with Cain, I do not think that it is far-fetched to believe that He also spoke with other men and women at that time. In fact this seems implied, if the First Couple’s expulsion from Eden is contrasted with Cain’s banishment. Although Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden, it never says of them what it says of Cain—“And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord” (Genesis 4:16).

God Speaks—to Unbelievers!

Thank goodness that God speaks to sinners, or none of us would ever hear His voice! But in passing on to some better-known Scriptural examples of believers who could and did hear God’s voice, I would like to point out that God spoke to people besides those who were His own. (This comes, no doubt, from the fact that the blessing of hearing God comes down to fallen mankind through the original inheritance received by Adam and Eve.) Consider, as a few examples from the Old Testament and New Testament, that God spoke to:

  • Various Pharaohs—Genesis 12:15-20; 41:1-25. 2 Chronicles 35:20-27 points out a spiritual irony, about how a heathen king, a Pharaoh named Necho (or Neco) could hear the command of God (v.21), whereas Judah’s godly king Josiah didn't believe “the words of Necho from the mouth of God” (2 Chronicles 35:22).
  • The Abimelech (note that this is a kingly title, like “Pharaoh” for the ruler of Canaan in the time of the Patriarchs)—Genesis 20:3-7;
  • Hagar: Here is a woman who was “only” a female slave; nevertheless, God spoke to her, not once, but twice—Genesis 16:7-14; 21:14-20);
  • Wily, dishonest Laban—Genesis 31:24, 29;
  • Money-loving Balaam. Most people only remember God speaking to this prophet through his donkey, forgetting that the Lord spoke to him several times before he set out on his journey. Numbers 22:9-13, 18-20.
  • Cyrus, King of Persia: Before he was ever born, God spoke of this man, calling him both His shepherd (Isaiah 44:28) and His anointed (Isaiah 45:1), making tremendous promises to him (Isaiah 45:2ff). God stirred up the spirit of this powerful ruler and spoke to him (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1,2). He became God's chief agent to send His people from seventy years of captivity back to the Promised Land.
  • Pilate’s wife—Matthew 27:19. This isn’t as clear a reference to hearing from God as some of the others, but there must have been a reason the Gospel writer Matthew felt inspired to include this detail that Mark, Luke, and John omit.
  • Cornelius, the centurion—Acts 10:1-6, 30-32.

(Nota Bene: A wonderful book that focuses on how God has spoken to unbelievers in order to prepare them for the Gospel is Don Richardson’s classic Eternity in Their Hearts. It is one of the most spiritually profitable books I have ever read, and I recommend it to all my readers.)

God Keeps Speaking to Great and Small

If God spoke with unbelievers, how much more should He speak with believers? Bear with me, patient readers, as I “stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance” (2 Peter 3:1) to show you how often God spoke to various of His people in the Old and New Testaments. Although we look at them now as “giants of the Faith,” in their own time and place many were fairly obscure. The difference in their lives seems to have been that when God spoke to them, they recognized the Voice and acted in obedience. Consider how God communicated directly with:

  • Noah: The only thing we know about Noah before he began his career as history’s most famous shipwright and captain is that he was righteous and that he found grace in God's eyes. God spoke to this previously obscure man. Genesis 6:13-22; 7:1-4; 8:15-19, 21-22. As the story develops, we also see that Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth possessed the ability to hear God along with their father—9:1-17.
  • Abram/Abraham: If Abraham, the father of faith, hadn’t been able to hear from God, where would the rest of us be now? We don’t know much about Abram’s relationship with God prior to Genesis 12:1-4, but it is possible that their friendship probably started before this. (Friendship? Yes, God speaks of this man as “Abraham My friend” in Isaiah 41:8. King Jehoshaphat refers in prayer to Abraham in the same way in 2 Chronicles 20:7. And James 2:23 makes it emphatic: “he was called the Friend of God.”) God continues to speak and confirm promises through Abraham’s life (e.g., Genesis 12:7;13:14-18). From the time of the formal ratification of their covenant, their encounters take on the form of conversations (Genesis 17:1-22; 18:1-15), even times of intercession (18:16-33). Even in the greatest testings of Abraham's heart, God's guidance and encouragement are this man’s portion (Genesis 21:11-13; 22:1-2ff, 11-12, 15-18).
  • Sarai/Sarah: There was at least one time when God engaged Abraham in conversation and promised Sarah’s pregnancy (Genesis 18:9-15). Sarah, who was eavesdropping behind the tent flap, heard this and “laughed within herself.” (Remember that Abraham had laughed about this earlier too. See Genesis 17:17.) Embarrassed, perplexed, and fearful that her eavesdropping and her secret doubt were discovered, she engaged the Theophany in a “Did not!”—“Did too!” exchange. It wasn’t until later, when God turned her laughter of doubt into laughter of joy, that she realized God’s good humor and great grace in it all (Genesis 21:5-8).
  • Rebekah: We see Rebekah as a romantic figure (in her earlier life) and as a woman who, motivated by favoritism, fostered intrigue and deception in her own household (in later life). However, her neighbors probably just thought of her as the wife of the leader of a nomadic clan. Yet God spoke to her when she sought Him about a problem pregnancy (Genesis 25:21-23).
  • Isaac: We don’t know as much about Isaac’s life as we know about the lives of his father and his son Jacob. Nevertheless, the Scriptures are careful to record that God spoke to him as well (Genesis 26:2-5, 24).
  • Jacob/Israel: We have no record of God speaking to Jacob before he was middle-aged, but from that point on, he can clearly hear God at important junctures in his life. See Genesis 28:10-22; 31:3, 9-13; 32:23-30; 35:1, 9-13; 46:2-4.
  • Moses: This article would become a book by itself if we had to comment on every time God spoke with Moses, since we would have to quote much of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy verbatim. Let’s just say that between the Burning Bush experience (Exodus 3-4) and the solemn ascension up “the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah,” (Deuteronomy 34:1-5), God spoke with Moses as with a friend (Exodus 33:11).
  • Joshua: This great general’s life story is known well enough so that we won’t enumerate his recorded encounters with God. Though we pick up the official story of God speaking to him in Joshua 1:1-9, it is worth noting that throughout Moses’ life, Joshua was no stranger to the presence of God, since he was Moses’ servant (e.g., Exodus 33:11b).
  • Samuel: From early childhood Samuel could hear God’s voice (1 Samuel 3). In this, he is seems to be a type of those Spirit-filled believers of whom God says that young and old, adults and children, male and female, free and slaves will be able to speak prophetically what they hear from God (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:16-18). Although the instances are too numerous to list here exhaustively, the biography of this man of God in the first book bearing his name makes it clear that even in his old age, he still conversed with God (1 Samuel 16:1-13) and helped to shape the destiny of his nation.
  • Solomon: Until the waning years of his life, Solomon’s life was guided and blessed because he heard God. (1 Kings 3:5-15; 2 Chronicles 1:7-12)
  • The Prophets, from the “big guns” like Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, to more obscure prophets like Huldah, Nathan, and Amos, all share this in common—their adventures and writings are replete with direct communication with the Almighty. What is the function of a prophet if it isn’t to deliver words from the mouth of God?
  • Gideon: Poor Gideon seems best remembered for his “fleece tests” when it comes to learning God’s will. That’s a shame, because both in the Person of the Angel of the Lord and directly, the Lord spoke to Gideon. Eight times the Divine Record clearly states that “the Lord said unto Gideon.” (See Judges 6:11—7:11, especially Judges 6:16, 23, 25-26;7:2-3, 4, 5, 7, 9. As for the Angel of the Lord, He is mentioned in many of these Old Testament passages. I don’t have the time to elaborate on the teaching that the Angel of the Lord is none other than a theophany or pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. For a more detailed background on the subject see my article Who Was the Angel of the Lord?)
  • Manoah’s wife and Manoah: Both of Samson’s parents, probably simple Israelite peasants, heard from God in the Person of the Angel of the Lord as well (Judges 13).
  • Job: This man, too, heard from God (Job 38; 39; 40; 41) and the revelation changed his life forever (42:1-6). Eliphaz the Temanite, one of Job’s “comforters,” heard from God also (42:7-8), and this helped to bring about the resolution of Job’s situation (vv.9-10).

And that just touches on the Old Testament. Consider these examples from the New Testament:

  • Jesus: Is it fair to include Jesus in this list? After all, wasn’t He both the Son of God and God the Son? Yes, but that misses a key element of His Incarnation, to wit, that He emptied Himself of His Divine prerogatives and privileges (Philippians 2:6-8), especially the marginal reading of v.7 — laid aside His privileges) and lived in fellowship with, in dependence on, and in obedience to God the Father. Thus He could say, “…I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught Me, I speak these things. And He that sent Me is with Me: the Father hath not left Me alone; for I do always those things that please Him” (John 8:28-29). As the Representative Man, the Second Adam, Jesus lived in a listening, obedient relationship with God, and in this matter of hearing God, I believe He is our ultimate example.
  • John the Baptist: At the heart of the forerunner’s spectacularly successful public ministry was this—“the word of God came unto John” (Luke 3:2).
  • Paul: At the instant of his conversion, Paul could hear the voice of God—even though it surprised him when he found out to Whom the voice belonged (Acts 9:1-6; 26:12-18)—and within a day or two he had also received his first vision (9:12). From there on it seems like hearing God’s voice and receiving God’s leading was the norm, rather than the exception. Read these as some of the examples in Paul’s life: Acts 13:2; 16:6-7, 9-10; 18:9-10; 20:23; 22:17-21; 23:11; 27:21-25; 2 Corinthians 12:1-9.
  • Peter, James, and John: These three men were present to hear God speak audibly on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9). Peter later refers to this very event in an epistle (2 Peter 1:16-18). Hearing God’s word also propelled Peter into a world-changing cross-cultural ministry (Act 10:9-17, 19-21). John, among other things, is famous for having seen and heard the things he recorded in the Book of Revelation.
  • Zacharias: Here is a man who was a faithful, but obscure, priest all of his life (like many faithful, but little-known, pastors we know and admire). His angelically delivered word from God, though not through the Angel of the Lord, came through Gabriel who stands “in the presence of God” — Luke 1:11-20. (One also suspects, on the basis of his prophetic utterance in verses 67-79, especially verses 76-79, that Zacharias heard the voice of the Lord subsequently as well.)
  • Simeon (Luke 2:25-35): Here is a godly man who had an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit many decades before Pentecost. The Spirit was upon him (v.25); the Spirit revealed a wonderful promise to him v.26); and the Spirit led him (v.27). Even if it is argued that the words of verses 29-32 aren’t a prophecy, surely the words of verses 34-35 are personal prophecy inspired by revelation from God’s Spirit. He, indeed, could hear God.
  • Mary: Given the marriage customs of the time, it is most probable that Mary was only in her mid-teens when she heard God’s words through Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38).
  • Joseph, Mary’s husband: For Joseph, like his ancient namesake, God always seemed to speak through dreams, before the Birth (Matthew 1:20-25), before the Escape (Matthew 2:13), after Herod’s death (vv.19-20) and again during the family’s return from Egypt (v.22).
  • Ananias of Damascus: Other than his key role in Saul’s conversion, we know of nothing remarkable about Ananias. He seems to have been simply a “disciple.” And yet he could converse with God, hearing Him distinctly, asking for further clarification, and was confident enough in what he heard that he obeyed immediately and fearlessly. See Acts 9:10-18.
  • Philip the Evangelist: Philip’s ministry career had a significant impact, breaking a longstanding cultural barrier, successfully evangelizing Samaritans. Nevertheless, at the height of his success in Samaria, he obeyed God’s clear directive to make a seemingly senseless journey. His obedience put him “at the right place, at the right time” to win a soul who became the firstfruits of Ethiopia’s church. Read the story in Acts 8:26-40.
  • Exceptions or Examples?

    But someone might say, “Yes, that’s all well and good, but don’t those examples just prove that God only speaks to certain individuals whom He has chosen, men and women who have a special calling or purpose in His divine plan?” To this I would reply that we should always be mindful of the words of the Apostle Paul: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).

    Furthermore, all of God’s people under the New Covenant are chosen and have a special place in His economy. Jesus said so: “…I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain… I have chosen you out of the world…” (John 15:16,18). What is the uniqueness of New Life in the New Covenant if it isn’t the fact that God dwells in each born-again believer? What is the oft-repeated testimony of the New Testament if it isn’t this:

    • He [i.e., God the Holy Spirit] dwelleth with you and shall [from the Resurrection and Pentecost forward] be in you (John 14:17);
    • Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27);
    • God dwelleth in him, and he in God (1 John 4:15);
    • His Spirit that dwelleth in you (Romans 8:11);
    • The Spirit of God dwelleth in you (1 Corinthians 3:16);
    • The Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us (2 Timothy 1:14);
    • God dwelleth in us (1 John 4:12).

    Our Privilege:
    Indwelling, Communion, and Communication

    It is at this point that we begin to see the very wonderful and personal nature of the privilege God grants us. Perhaps giving thought to a question would help us see it more clearly: Why would God, in all three Persons of the Trinity, want to come and dwell in you, precious Believer? You could, I suppose, supply a Scriptural answer and say something like, “So that we could be “partakers of the divine nature.’” [2 Peter 1:4—this is Peter’s way of explaining the same glorious phenomenon that are declared in the list of verses above.] Yes, true—but what does it mean in your present, day-to-day reality? Why does God dwell within (if He really does, that is, if you have really experienced the fullness of the New Birth) if it isn’t to have an intimate relationship with you?

    Too many Christians get “the blessings of God” confused with The Blessing of God—that is, God Himself, the Blessed One. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dwell within each believer because His great desire and our great need is for constant communion with Him. This is the whole secret of 1 John 1, the key to the rest of the epistle. What does this have to do with God speaking to us? Simply this—communion and communication share the same root linguistically and conceptually. The famed Christian poet Frances Jane (“Fanny”) Crosby had her finger on the truth of this when she penned these words:

    O, the pure delight of a single hour
    That before Thy Throne I spend
    When I kneel in prayer, and before Thee, Lord,
    I commune as friend with friend.

    [From I Am Thine, O Lord]

    Beloved, it is my observation from almost fifty years of Christian life and ministry that prayer is not a “pure delight” for most Christians. But the why of this problem is clear—prayer for so many is often laborious, mechanical, and unsatisfying because it is not communion, not communication. All the talking flows one way. Where is the communion, the excitement, the joy, the mystery in that?

    It Definitely Affects the Taste of the Food!

    May I draw an analogy from my own life? For seven years, I was “out of the ministry’” and involved in a highly demanding secular job. As the responsibilities of the position grew, they required more and more business travel. I stayed in nice hotels and could eat in nice restaurants, all at the company’s expense. When I was “in the ministry,” money was fairly tight (most pastors will know what I mean) and meals in restaurants were few and far between. Suddenly, any night of the week when I was traveling, I could eat almost anywhere and order anything I wanted—steak, lobster, crab, lamb, sushi—and any cuisine I could imagine—Italian, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, French, German, African, American.

    If that causes some envy in you (or if your stomach is growling at the moment), hear the rest of the story. After the first two weeks of travel, I quickly found the novelty and appeal of the “restaurant experience” wearing thin. I remember being in a restaurant (a Bennigan’s in the Blue Ash area of Cincinnati, as I recall). I had looked over the menu three times and could find absolutely nothing interesting. The perky waitress finally bounced back to my table, and chirped, “Well, what are you going to order tonight?” And I said (much to her confusion, as it turned out), “Um, have you got any cold, leftover meatloaf?”

    I asked that because, being a Wednesday night, it’s a good chance that we might have been having that very thing at home. I would much rather have been eating at home with my family, whatever they were having. But more to the point, it was an epiphany—my memories of “good meals” had hardly any association with restaurants and little to do with the food tasted. The remembered joy of past repasts had everything to with the fellowship with friends or family at the table. Those meals were times of celebration, enjoying each other’s company, sharing intimate thoughts, relating the personal experiences of our lives, testifying to God’s working in our lives.

    And yet there I was, night after night, eating alone. (You can always spot the businessperson away from home. Just look around the next time you eat dinner in a restaurant. He or she will be at a table all alone.) I would have traded any meal and dessert on the menu for a slightly stale or soggy peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, if only I could have eaten with my wife, one of my daughters, or a Christian friend. The food was immaterial; what I really wanted was the fellowship, the communion, the intimacy that comes with a shared meal, an interesting two-way conversation. In a sense, I wanted to eat or imbibe something of my dinner companions’ lives, and be the richer for it.

    Are You Eating Alone?

    So, how are your “meals” when you pray? Do you seem to be the only one at the table? (I’m picturing this as a “sit-down” restaurant, but my fear is that a drive-through fast-food meal might better describe the prayer time of many North American believers.) Is God the “Waiter” to Whom you give your order from your “prayer menu”? When you get what you ordered, it’s probably nutritious, but is it satisfying? Instead of a lonely vigil, what if your prayer time were a meal at which God was the loving Host, not just sharing of His “stuff” but sharing Himself? What if you finished each meal full of what He had shared?!

    This is the way God means prayer to be—two-way communication. Are you led by the Spirit of God? If you are a true child of God, you can and should be, because the inspired apostle declares, “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God” (Romans 8:14).

    Are you really a sheep of Jesus’ flock? Jesus provided a simple test so that we might be sure: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). Take that word of the Lord as an assurance of something wonderful God has for you. Take it as a challenge—you can come to a place where you can hear His voice if you believe you can and you are willing to do so. You believe God’s plan, and you would like to live in the reality of the privilege.

    Ah, but maybe you don’t yet hear God’s voice and wonder why you don’t. We’ll consider the possible reasons for that in the next article, Hearing God: Part 2: Why Many Christians Don’t Hear God.


    1. Copyrighted image used under license from kozzi / 123RF Stock Photo
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