When the Holy Spirit Speaks: Strong Feeling—or Words?
By Kyle Pope
In our discussions with friends in the religious world, it
is not uncommon to hear people claim that the Holy Spirit has led them to do or
to say something. Many such people
believe strongly that the Holy Spirit leads them in a direct manner, separate
from the guidance found in the word.
When questioned, in most cases, what they really mean by this is that
they have felt a strong feeling within which led them to say or do
something. It is always important
to test all things by the standard of Scripture. On this issue, this is especially important, lest we find
ourselves in the same position as the false prophets in the days of Ezekiel,
“who follow their own spirit and have seen nothing” (Ezekiel 13:3).
Are there times in Scripture when the Holy Spirit spoke to
Christians through a strong feeling?
As a test case we can survey the accounts in the New Testament in which
we are told that the Holy Spirit spoke.
As a record of the early church, and a history of the Holy
Spirit’s work in the church, how does it describe the Spirit’s
guidance to Christians?
There are six instances in which such direct guidance is
recorded. The first example
relates to the preaching of Philip to the Ethiopian nobleman. When he sees the man in his chariot,
Scripture tells us: “Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go near and
overtake this chariot.’” (Acts 8:29). We notice that the Spirit’s communication to Philip
was clear, concrete, and in the form of a complete sentence. A second example, occurred when Peter
saw the vision of the sheet lowered from heaven with animals in it. Scripture records: “While Peter
thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold, three men are
seeking you. Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I
have sent them’” (Acts 10:19-20). Here we see two complete sentences. One sentence expresses knowledge of
things beyond Peter’s senses (i.e. there were three men). The second sentence commands certain
behavior. These were not just
Two examples concern the prophet Agabus. The first reveals: “And in these
days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus,
stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine
throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius
Caesar” (Acts 11:27-29).
While this account does not reveal the specific words of the Spirit, the
nature of the revelation indicates a great level of specificity. We note that the Spirit revealed to him
there would be 1) “a famine”; 2) it would be “great”;
and 3) it would span “throughout all the world.” The second came when Paul was returning
to Jerusalem. The text records:
And as we stayed many days, a
certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. When he had come to us, he took Paul’s belt, bound his
own hands and feet, and said, Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the
Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt, and deliver him into the
hands of the Gentiles.’” (Acts 21:10-12).
In this revelation there is not only a complete sentence but
the command from the Spirit to the prophet to use a prop—Paul’s
belt, to illustrate what would happen to him. We see this is much more than a strong motivation within the
heart of Agabus. It is clear
communication in words.
Two final examples both concern Paul. While in Antioch, we learn about
prophets in the church in that city.
Of these prophets, Scripture records: “As they ministered to the
Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Now separate to Me Barnabas and
Saul for the work to which I have called them.’” (Acts
13:2-3). Here the Spirit
identifies men by name—“Barnabas and Saul.” Here the Holy Spirit commands their
appointment for a specific work.
These are words which were spoken, recorded, and understandable. A final example, echoes what would be
declared by Agabus. Paul relates:
“And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the
things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in
every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me” (Acts
20:22-23). Here, once again, the
Spirit uses clear words declaring that “chains” and
“tribulations” await Paul.
This was clearly not strong feeling, it was communication which could be
recorded, written down, and clearly understood.
There is no question that the apostles were promised that
the Holy Spirit would speak through them (Mark 13:11). There is also no question that the
apostles were promised that the Holy Spirit would directly guide them (John
16:13). These promises were not to
all believers—the means through which the Holy Spirit guides believers in
general is through the word of God, the “sword of the Spirit”
(Ephesians 6:17). The pattern of
Scripture is that when the Holy Spirit did speak directly to believers it was
in words, “which the Holy Spirit speaks” (I Corinthians 2:13). Any strong inclination of the heart
which does not follow this pattern can not reliably be viewed as the guidance
of the Holy Spirit.