The Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join the carriage.” (Acts 8:29)
Some time ago a clergy man came to see me because he did not know whether to accept the offer made to him of a certain parish. He described the place to me, on the strength of which, and of what I knew of the man himself, I advised him to turn it down. Wisely enough he consulted someone else who also advised him to turn down the offer. Next morning, the clergyman sought me out again, “I heard what you said,” he began, “but I felt strongly during the night guided to accept the parish.” I was taken aback but commented, “Then there is no more to be said, you must accept it.” To make sure, he went off to the other consultant with the same result. Later in the day we two consultants met privately and agreed, that think what we might about the parish, if the man felt guided by God there was nothing more to be said. So in due course he was appointed. That was some years ago. He is still there in that parish and doing well.
I. A guiding inner voice
One of the most arresting stories in the New Testament concerning guidance is that of Philip the deacon. Not that he was a deacon as in the Catholic structure of the ordained ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, but he had been appointed with six other men to administer the early church’s relief funds. So he must have been known as level-headed, down-to-Earth, and business-like, the sort of sane person looked for as a treasurer. And Philip in particular would need to be judicious because of a complaint going the rounds in the church that Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in favor of Hebrew-speaking. So a language and a racial problem was on his hands, a touchy subject at any time. Fortunate then that Philip possessed a Greek name, as did all seven administrators. Clearly their appointment was tactful. They were also said to be “of good reputation, full of the Spirit (note that!) and of wisdom.”
The administration was successful but another trouble arose. One of the deacons, Stephen, the most able of them all, in a daring speech so provoked the religious establishment in Jerusalem that a violent persecution was pursued. As a result, men, women, and children could be seen taking to the roads to escape arrest and imprisonment. Thus Philip found himself across the frontier in Samaria. So no more office work for him, no more allocating of funds, no more placating of disgruntled Greek-speaking widows. But being “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (the two are almost synonymous in the Bible) he, completely free of racial prejudice, began proclaiming Christ to the Samaritans. What is more, the power of the Holy Spirit was clearly with him. As the New English Bible expresses the event (Acts 8:6), “the crowds, to a man, listened eagerly to what Philip said,” and remarkable cases of physical and psychological healing ensued. All this by Philip, a layman, conspicuous in the first place for his down-to-Earth administrative talents. Yet there never was such an evangelistic mission as Philip found himself conducting in Samaria. The unmolested apostles back in Jerusalem were uneasy when they heard. Samaritans accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ! What next? So in their uncertainty they dispatched Peter and John, the chiefest among them, to investigate. And when they saw for themselves they were convinced of the genuineness of all that was taking place and took back the good news to Jerusalem.
And then it happened, or didn’t it? An extraordinary experience of guidance. Philip heard himself guided by God, as by a voice within, to break off his successful mission in Samaria to journey down to the dreary road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza, a desert of a place. The action seemed crazy. No one can evangelize in a desert, not even Philip, not even a man full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom. See him there squatting by the side of that apparently God-forsaken desert track wondering what on Earth he was supposed to be doing in such a place. Would not wisdom counsel him to hurry back to Samaria to the eager crowds hanging on his words? But then, in the distance, there appeared a swirl of dust, stirred up by a carriage. Inside sat an official returning from a visit to Jerusalem to his court in Ethiopia and reading, mystified, the book of the prophet Isaiah. In a flash Philip knew why he was there. He had to join that Ethiopian in his carriage and feed into his inquiring mind the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. And wonder of wonders, the man accepted. What is more, he asked for immediate baptism which Philip administered. Then he went his way. So did the Ethiopian carrying the gospel to his own black people back in Africa. And Philip – this level-headed man – as he watched the dust envelop the chariot on its homeward way, knew that the guidance he had received was not nonsense after all. There was a strategy behind it.
So does God the Holy Spirit guide those who put themselves in his hands? Can we really trust him?
II. Guidance by opportunities
I want to answer Yes to these questions, not only on the basis of this scriptural story and others like it but from my own experience, pedestrian as it is in comparison. God does guide us as by a voice within telling us what to do, but such occasions are few and far between, and we must not trade on them lest we fall victims to spiritual pride if not fanaticism. There are however other ways by which God guides, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit to assist us to recognize them.
So I come to guidance by opportunities. Here is a man unfortunately out of work for some months, a most disheartening, perhaps even personality-disintegrating experience. But there comes on to his horizon a job training scheme. Maybe it is not what he would have liked but he is exercised whether or not to apply. What I want to say is this – that opportunity could be, I said, “could be,” God guiding that man by an opportunity, and he is more likely to accept if he is open to the concept of God’s guidance in life.
Here is a teenager with a year to spare between school-leaving and university entrance. How shall she spend it? Just at the very time she is free a terrible famine smites East Africa and there is an appeal for help in relief work. She could offer at the cost of abandoning a comfortable life at home. That opportunity could be God’s guidance, I said, “could be,” for her. But will she recognize guidance in that form?
I admit that to accept such an understanding of divine guidance – guidance by opportunities – requires also a belief in providence. That is to say a recognition that words like “chance,” “coincidence,” and “fate,” are not the only explanations of why events happen as they do, if indeed they are ever the proper explanation. If, however, there is a providential ordering of this world, and God really is the Lord of life, is it all that surprising that he sometimes guides us by the opportunities he has made to open up before us? We may not recognize them, more is the pity but we probably will if our lives are led consciously or unconsciously by the Holy Spirit of God; for it is his work to make us sensitive to God’s ways.
III. Guidance by Spirit-filled people
God guides then by an inner voice, he guides by opportunities providentially provided. Thirdly – and to this now we come – he also shows us the way we should go by providing guides to whom we may, or may not, pay attention.
The Bible, not least the Old Testament, is full of illustrations of this principle. To begin with there are the patriarchs in the book of Genesis. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, four men of faith calling us to observe faith in God as the way of successful living; then there was Moses providing for the nation of Israel laws to govern conduct and keep it safe; then there were the prophets standing by the kings and by the common people, never ceasing to encourage them, and to warn them to keep hold of the life-style entrusted to them. All these, especially the prophets were Spirit-filled men and as such were called out by God to be his guides. And Jesus was, is, the Spirit-filled guide uniquely. His Sermon on the Mount, his parables, indeed all his teaching is meant for our guidance.
And all this, written down in the Bible, makes the Bible God’s guide for us. Not that the words of the Bible are inspired as words; but the people of whom it tells were inspired by the Holy Spirit of God to be what they were, and do what they did and to say what they said. The Bible is in a class by itself as our guide; and whatever guidance may come to us from other men and women, even our own contemporaries, for God still guides by calling out Spirit-filled men and women for this ministry, what they provide cannot be God’s guidance if it is in flat contradiction to the revelation of the mind and will of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.
God guides then; sometimes by an inner voice (as it were) in our spirits, sometimes by means of opportunities occurring just at the right moment, sometimes by Spirit-filled people who act as God’s guides. All this is true but we may write off the inner voice as wishful thinking, the sudden opportunity as mere coincidence, and the Bible as an outdated religious classic. But the man or woman in whom God the Holy Spirit dwells through faith in the risen Christ will recognize the finger of God pointing the way. Philip the deacon did this when the Spirit said to him, “Go and join the carriage.” The results were impressive. They usually are when we allow ourselves to be guided by God the Holy Spirit.