He Leadeth Me: Reflections on God’s Guidance from the Book of Acts
In his letter to the Roman Christians, the apostle Paul declares, “As many as are led by the Spirit, these are the sons of God” (Rom. 8:14). What a thought! Can it really be that part of our inheritance in Christ is to be guided by the Spirit of God in all our decisions, just as the Lord Jesus was? Paul certainly seemed to think so! Moreover, as we read through the book of Acts, we find that for the early Church this was indeed the case: In manifold ways, God graciously guided His people in the fulfillment of their mission, and in so doing provided helpful instructions and examples for us to follow. The purpose of this essay is to spotlight the main ways in which God guides his New Covenant children, and to illustrate them from the Book of Acts. May this brief meditation enrich your confidence for walking with him!
How exactly does God guide his New Covenant children? Here are ten answers, drawn from the Book of Acts.
He guides us personally
In OT times God usually guided his people through appointed leaders such as judges, priests, prophets, kings, etc. To be sure, his Spirit worked in the hearts of all his OT elect, giving them ears to hear what their leaders were saying. But it was a rare privilege for God to speak personally to the OT saints. For this reason, the writing prophets looked forward to a happy day when God would speak directly to ALL his people (Numbers 11, Jeremiah 31:31f, Joel 2:28f). And according the Lord Jesus, that day has come, for now ALL his Spirit-filled sheep hear his voice and follow him (John 10:26-27, 5, 16:13)!
He guides us inwardly
In OT times God guided his people by a pillar of cloud and fire, the Scriptures, the Urim and the Thummim, the casting of lots, and the words of specially appointed leaders. These were outwards means of guidance; the people had little or no expectation of God speaking to them inwardly. Now, however, under the New Covenant, outward means of guidance have been replaced by inward; now God is committed to guiding each individual Christian by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Again, this great boon was promised in OT times (Isaiah 30, 54, Jeremiah 31, Ezek. 36-37, etc.), and fulfilled under the New Covenant in Christ (John 16:13a, 1 John 2:26, Rom. 8:14, Col. 1:9, 1 John 2:25-26).
He uses chosen instruments
As in OT times, so in the New: God is pleased to use various instruments to guide his people personally and inwardly. But since those instruments are unique to our day, it very much behooves us to know what they are, lest we turn to OT instruments for NT guidance! The Urim and Thummin are gone (or rather, they now live inside us!). No longer are we to cast lots or look to special leaders. Rather, we are to the look to the Lord himself, and to expect him to guide us according to the uniquely NT methods he has chosen.
Here is my view of what they are, illustrated from the book of Acts.
He guides us through the Scriptures
This is by far the single most important means of NT guidance. As we read the Bible, and especially the NT, the Holy Spirit illuminates and internalizes the Word of God. It becomes our internal guidance system. Slowly but surely, Christ is formed in us (Gal. 4:19), we receive the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), and our senses are trained to distinguish between good and evil (Heb. 5:14). The result: As we walk through life and face various decisions great or small, the Holy Spirit uses the Scriptures (or Scripture-formed intuitions) to guide us. As a rule we are barely conscious of his activity, but the Spirit and the Word are at work, nonetheless. Accordingly, it is written that the early Christians devoted themselves to the apostles doctrine (Acts 2:42). Paul commended the Ephesians to God, and to the Word of his grace, which was able to build them up in their most holy faith and give them an inheritance among those who are sanctified (Acts 20). It is, then, vital that each of us has a daily quiet time; that fathers and mothers lead their children in family devotions; and that we seize every opportunity to hear, ponder, and discuss the Word of God. In so doing, we are letting the Spirit internalize God’s premier guidance system! It is the plain sense of Scripture that marks for us the path of duty, and that stands as final arbiter over every other form of spiritual guidance (Gal. 1:8).
He guides us through special promptings of the Spirit
From time to time, Christians “feel impressed” by the Spirit to do this, that, or the other thing. Such experiences are biblical. Certainly we see them in the life of our Lord, who spoke of doing only those things He saw his Father doing. We also see them in Acts. When Peter beheld the lame man at the Beautiful Gate, he was prompted to speak a word of healing to him (Acts 3). When Paul observed all the idols in the marketplace of Athens, his spirit was provoked within him and he addressed the Athenians boldly (Acts 17). In Acts, such promptings are styled as “little infillings” of the Spirit. Peter, “filled with the Spirit”, addressed the rulers of Israel; Paul, “filled with the Spirit”, rebuked wicked Elymas (Acts 4, 13). All forms of divine guidance are supernatural, but special infillings of the Spirit feel a little more supernatural than others!
He guides us through open and closed doors
Christians understand that God is the High King of Providence; that he is causing ALL THINGS to work together for the good of His people who love Him (Rom. 8). Accordingly, when faced with a decision, they seek the Spirit’s help in discerning whether or not God has arranged their circumstances in such a way as to favor the decision or discourage it. It is written that the exalted Lord set before the Philadelphian church an open door that no one could shut; doubtless they walked right through it (Rev. 3:8)! In Acts, the Christians in Antioch rejoiced that God had opened a door to faith among the Gentiles (Acts 14:24). In watching for open doors, we must also watch for joy and liberty from the Spirit to go through them; inward affirmation and outward opportunity must go hand in hand. By means of an earthquake, God opened the door of the prison in Philippi, but Paul declined to go through it, lest the jailer be executed. Rather, he waited till the jailer, newly converted, ushered him through the door himself (Acts 16)!
He guides us through counsel and consensus
Because of immaturity, residual sin in our members, or the opposition of powers and principalities, some decisions are beyond us. In such cases, God encourages us to seek the counsel of other more mature believers who know and care for us (Prov. 11:14, 15:22). Moreover, if we have sought advice from a number of believers, and all agree as to the proper course of action, it would be wise indeed to listen hard (Mt. 18:19)! This principle is beautifully illustrated in the Jerusalem Council, at which the leaders of the infant Church had to decide whether the Gentiles must obey the Mosaic Law. Having “taken counsel” with one another in a lively discussion, they finally came to a unanimous decision on the proper course of action, a course that seemed good both to them and to the Holy Spirit. Such Spirit-wrought unity is extremely valuable for discerning the will of God in difficult situations. It should be noted, however, that on rare occasions God calls a believer to stand alone in a chosen course of action, even in the face of good, united counsel to the contrary (Acts 21).
He guides us with bolts of lightning
Though the Spirit normally uses the Scriptures, inward promptings, circumstances, and counsel and consensus to guide us, he sometimes uses what I like to call bolts of lightning: special, highly supernatural forms of guidance. We observe them all in the book Acts:
- Dreams: Promised to NT believers (Acts 2), and apparently experienced by Paul at Troas (Acts 16)
- Visions: Seen by Ananias at Damascus (Acts 9), and Peter at Caesarea (Acts 10)
- Audible Voice of God: Heard by Saul at his conversion (Acts 9)
- Angelic Visitations: Experienced by Philip on the road to Gaza (Acts 8), and Peter in jail in Jerusalem (Acts 12)
- Prophets: The prophets gathered for prayer at Antioch (Acts 13); the prophecies of Agabus (Acts 11, 21)
It is important to understand that bolts of lightning are not God’s normal method of spiritual guidance; if we believe they are, we will certainly experience great frustration in our Christian life. Possibly, such things were more frequent in the days of the early Church, when the NT Scriptures were not yet complete and God was specially authenticating the ministry of the apostles. In any case, it is clear from the NT that God means believers to be guided primarily by the four methods mentioned above. That said, I find nothing in the NT even to suggest that God cannot or will not use bolts of lightning to guide his children. To shut ourselves off from the very possibility of such things is to say “No” where God has said “Yes,” and so to risk grieving the Spirit by a lack of openness to certain special adventures that the Lord may have for us in our walk with him!
He guides us by the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus
Every divinely ordained method of spiritual guidance can be counterfeited or contested by Satan’s powers and principalities. The devil can quote Scripture, burden us with dark impressions, give false readings of our circumstances, poison our minds against the counsel of the brethren (or poison the counsel itself), and feed us with lying dreams, visions, angelic visitations, and prophecies. For this reason, it is vital that God’s people learn to shield themselves from counterfeit guidance, not only by consulting the Scriptures, but also by maintaining a high view of God’s goodness; of the kind and loving way in which he is committed to leading his dear children along.
Over and again the NT reminds us of this liberating truth. The law of the Spirit of LIFE in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8). Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is LIBERTY (2 Cor. 3). The LOVE of Christ controls, constrains, and compels us (2 Cor. 5). We must let the PEACE of God rule (i.e., serve as an umpire) in our hearts (Col. 3:15). The wisdom (and the guidance) that comes from above is first of all PURE (James 3:13f). God has written—and today speaks—so that our JOY may full (1 John 1:4). And the list goes on!
One big reason we are so often led astray is that in our frailty we listen to voices from the dark side. Having a low view of God’s kindess, and of his immutable love for every son and daughter in the Beloved, we yield to Satan’s flaming arrows aimed at our flesh: doubt, fear, guilt, compulsion, anger, vain ambition, lust, and more. What do all these things have in common . . . besides that they result in terrible decisions? They are NEGATIVE, dealing out death. What do love, joy, liberty, and peace have in common? They are POSITIVE, bringing life. So then, if we deliberately embrace a Principle of Positivity—refusing to be led by negative inputs, but standing firm in our faith that a good and loving God is committed to leading us by positive inputs—we shall make great strides in our joyful, Spirit-led walk with the Lord (Phil. 4:8-9). (1)
He guides us as we do our part in the process
Paul writes that the Spirit within us moves us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. This implies that in our quest for good decision-making we have a simple but important role to play. We must meditate regularly on the Word of God, and teach it to our children. We must obey it implicitly. We must pray to God for special wisdom, and trust that he will indeed give it to us. We must wait patiently till it comes, and, if necessary, be humble enough to ask for godly advice while we wait. And above all, we must watch: watch for the joyful, peaceful, liberating, life-giving witness of the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ, who, in one precious way or another, lovingly whispers in our ears, “This is the way, walk ye in it!”
“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of Him in every place!”
- True conviction of sin, wrought by the Holy Spirit, comes with godly sorrow, and is always a positive, life-giving experience. It is worlds apart from the condemnation and false guilt that control so much of our thinking, praying, and deciding. Alas, it is too true that Christians can sometimes resist the Spirit of conviction, and so bring chastening upon themselves until, humbled and broken, they finally yield to God, only to discover that, in perfect love, he has been there all along! (Rom. 8:1f, 2 Cor. 9:7f, Heb.12:1f)