In Acts 13:2 we are told “the Holy Spirit said….,” and it’s put in inverted commas as a quote by a voice with specific instructions: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
So, did the Spirit literally speak to those gathered together at this point? And was it in a voice that everyone could hear? No explanation is given here in how the Spirit spoke, or how they knew it was the Spirit speaking, but there are people today who claim the Spirit speaks to them too. When I’ve asked how they know it’s the Holy Spirit speaking it’s almost taken as an insult, so it’s a touchy subject.
But it’s also a vital one, because it’s clear in the book of Acts that communication by the Holy Spirit is how God’s will is known in this era of Jesus’ ministry. And, fortunately, it’s this chapter, Acts 13, that gives us clues to help us know if it’s the Holy Spirit speaking, and how the Holy Spirit “speaks.”
The first clue is in Acts 13:1-2, because “in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers” who, on realizing the gigantic task facing them in Acts 11:18 that “God had granted the Gentiles repentance unto life” too, put all else aside, including food, to seek the Spirit’s help and guidance.
And when the church did that the Holy Spirit responded. So the first clue in knowing it’s the Spirit speaking is the church’s humble recognition that, in an impossible situation or challenge, trusting the Spirit is the place to start. And it has to be the Spirit inspiring that understanding too, because this is how he makes God’s will known. It’s to those who recognize the only way that we as a church can truly be witnesses to a world that knows little to nothing about Jesus is by the power, wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).
So that’s where they began in Acts 13: they got together in mutual recognition that only the Spirit could help them. But how did they know when an answer came that it was the Holy Spirit responding? By the second clue: that they all agreed. They all came to the same conclusion that the first step in this massive new mission they’d been faced with was sending out Barnabas and Saul to kick things off. Just like Acts 6:5, “This proposal pleased the whole group.”
But someone could say, “Yes, but, we did that in our church too and we all agreed, but it all turned out horribly.”
Which brings us to the third clue, that it’s on looking back that we can say with certainty it was the Holy Spirit speaking. Luke, for instance, was totally confident in Acts 13:2 that “the Holy Spirit said,” because the fruits proved it. Read the rest of Acts 13 and there’s no doubt that sending out Saul and Barnabas was obviously Spirit inspired.
Which brings us to the fourth clue the Spirit is speaking, because amazing things happen that no one could have foreseen or even guessed at, like what happened next in verses 4 to 12. I doubt any five year plan or conference to exchange ideas would have come up with that.
But how did the Holy Spirit speak? Was it through a voice? There were “prophets” in the group in verse 1, so did a prophet speak? Prophets speak today too, but how do we know they’re speaking what the Spirit is inspiring?
That’s answered for us in Acts 13:13 to 48, because what Saul said in those verses tied in totally with being a witness to Jesus, which is what the Holy Spirit had been given to the church for (Acts 1:8). So that’s our fifth clue it’s the Holy Spirit speaking, because what is spoken is absolutely in tune with why God raised up Jesus (Acts 13:30-35).
So, does the Holy Spirit still speak today? Absolutely, because we depend on him speaking to us just as much as he spoke to them in Acts 13, to know God’s will and be given opportunity to teach it – and be able to look back and know by the fruits that it truly was, and is, the Holy Spirit speaking.
And what if all five clues operate the same way in our own lives as well, when we’re personally faced with overwhelmingly challenging situations? What if we too put all else aside to seek the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and guidance (the first clue), and the conclusion we come to is obvious (the second clue), and looking back later the fruits are great (the third clue), because amazing things we could never have imagined happen (the fourth clue), and what happens becomes a wonderful witness to Jesus being alive (the fifth clue).
But that’s life for us now – as groups and as individuals – faced with the daunting task in verse 47 of “being a light for the Gentiles, that you (we) may bring (knowledge and experience of) salvation to the ends of the earth.” According to Acts 13, we can call on the Holy Spirit and he will “speak” to us, and in ways that will give us some great stories to tell too.