How does the Lord speak to us? How do we discern the voice of God?
Some time ago, an acquaintance suggested I read, A Voice in the Wind, by Francine Rivers. I located a copy and dug in. Now I’m not usually attracted to much Christian fiction, but if you’re looking for something that will shake you out of your complacency, make you take a hard look at your commitment to the Lord, get you lamenting about the tepidness of your witness, remind you of the ways in which the Lord speaks, and make you see how much more you could be for Christ, how much deeper and more fulfilling your relationship could be with Christ…run out and get this book.
Many of us need a new vision for our personal lives. Some of us are bogged down in a sea of guilt, regret, or disappointment. Others of us feel something is missing from our lives. We need a new vision. A new way of seeing. One of the reasons, I believe, so many people—around the world—have a lack of vision is because they either never talk to God or always talk at God (telling Him all the things He should be doing). What folks tend not to do is listen for God, listen to God, converse with God.
So, in this entry, I’ll be providing an overview of the ways in which God speaks to us. Then, in the coming weeks, I’ll unpack and more deeply explore each one of these ways. My prayer is that, as we move through these days, we might each have an Epiphany that will transform each one of us. We’ll begin, however, with the story of the wise men from the East and the ways in which the Lord spoke to them.
That will take us to Matthew 2, verses 1 through 12, where we read:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Traditionally, the Christian church has remembered the visit of the Magi twelve days after Christmas, on what is called the Feast of Epiphany. Today we celebrate that day of Epiphany.
The word epiphany is defined, in contemporary lexicons, as a moment of sudden revelation or insight, a new way of seeing or understanding. It is so right that we should begin a new year with the word epiphany on our lips.
One time German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer put it this way, “We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.” The scriptures tell us the wise men looked farther than they could see; they lived under the same sky as their contemporaries, but they had a different horizon.
Some scholars have speculated that the wise men from the East may have heard about the promised glorious King via the writings of the prophet Daniel who, as you may remember, had achieved a high rank in the Babylonian court about six hundred years before the birth of Christ. The wise men, whose steps we recall today, may well have been among the many God-fearing Gentiles who lived at the time of Christ.
During the Middle Ages, a legend developed that they were kings, that they were three in number, and that their names were Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior. Because they were thought to represent the three sons of Noah, one of them is often pictured as an Ethiopian. All we know from scripture, however, is what we read in Matthew. One author notes that the magi would have been skilled in astronomy and astrology (which were closely linked in that day) and that they were likely involved in occult practices, including sorcery. It is from their names that our word for magic, magician, and imagination are derived. They believed in one god and were the most prominent and powerful group of advisors in the Medo-Persian empire and subsequently the Babylonian empire.
We learn from the book of Daniel that magi, in fact, were among the highest-ranking officials in Babylon. Because the Lord gave Daniel the interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream—which none of the other court seers was able to do—Daniel was appointed as “ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.” Because of his great wisdom, and because he had successfully pleaded for the lives of the “wise men” who had failed to interpret the king’s dream, Daniel came to be highly regarded among the magi.
Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, it seems certain that the magi learned much from that prophet about the one true God, the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming glorious King. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the Exile and intermarried with the people of the east, it is likely that word of the promised Messiah had been passed down and was known hundreds of years later, even until New Testament times.
So, having received a sign from God (a star), the magi, spoken of in the book of Matthew, set out in search of the prophesied King. King Herod of Judea got wind of their arrival in Jerusalem and the purpose of their visit; he felt threatened and asked his advisors where it was prophesied the Messiah would be born. When he was told the child was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod began to plot the death of any and all who could possibly pose a challenge to his reign.
But, in that darkness of suspicion, the light of devotion was shining. The wise men had come to worship, and they would not be turned aside.
Now, we’re not told exactly how the God of revelation caused the magi to know that Jesus had been born. What we do know is that they had been given the sign of His star. Almost as much speculation has been made about the identity of that star as about the identity of the men who saw it. Some suggest it was Jupiter, the “king of the planets.” Others claim it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, forming the sign of the fish—which was used as a symbol for Christianity in the early church during the Roman persecutions. Still others claim that it was a low-hanging meteor, an erratic comet, or simply an inner vision of the star. A quick aside here: I was disappointed that we were so socked in here that I wasn’t able to catch a glimpse of the “Christmas Star,” the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the 21st. Well, if I’m still alive in 2080, I’ll have another chance. More likely, I’ll be elsewhere and may be able to see it from another vantage point.
Well, since the Bible doesn’t identify or explain the star, we can’t be certain, but it might have been “the glory of the Lord”—the same glory that shone around the shepherds when Jesus’ birth was announced to them by the angel (Luke 2:9). Throughout the Old Testament we are told of God’s glory being manifested as light, God radiating His Shekinah presence in the form of ineffable light. The Lord guided the children of Israel through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21). When Moses went up on Mount Sinai, “to the Israelites, the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountaintop” (Ex. 24:17). On a later occasion, after Moses had inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets, His face still glowed with the light of God’s glory when he returned to the people (Ex. 34:30).
When Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matt. 17:2). On the Damascus road, just before Jesus spoke to him, Saul of Tarsus was surrounded by “a light from heaven” (Acts 9:3), which he later explained was “brighter than the sun” (26:13). In John’s first vision on the Island of Patmos, he saw Christ’s face “like the sun shining in its strength” (Rev. 1:16). In his vision of the New Jerusalem, the future heavenly dwelling of all believers, he reports that “the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
The scriptures tell us that, at the time of the magi’s visit, the family was living in a house, and it is likely that the magi arrived a year or two after Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. They presented Jesus with gold (symbolizing His kingly status), frankincense (His divinity), and myrrh (recognition of His future sacrificial death on the cross).
So—in some way, not detailed in scripture, the magi received an initial word from God and set out to find and worship the newborn King of the Jews. Did they have access to the writings of Micah, who lived 100-150 years before them? There they could have read these words: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Or did they hear a still, small voice speaking to their spirits? We don’t know.
We do know God spoke to them through a visible sign: the star And then they were warned in a dream—another way in which the Lord spoke to them—not to go back to Herod but to return to their country of origin by another route.
At the outset, I promised an overview of some of the ways in which the Lord speaks to us. In our passage for today, we’ve seen at least two, and perhaps five ways God spoke to the magi: a tangible sign, a dream, and possibly, scripture, a voice heard within or an audible voice.
So, let’s start with the last in that list and make it first in our review. God may speak to us in an audible voice. When John baptized Jesus, a voice spoke from heaven and said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). There are other instances in the Bible where God’s voice was heard aloud.
Second, He may speak to us in a still, small voice, a whisper. I love the passage from 1st Kings 19 that reads:
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by. Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
The most frequent way God speaks to me, and, I believe, to most Christians, is through that still, small voice. He spoke the universe into existence, but He also whispers quiet messages into the hearts of people.
Third, He speaks by popping words or Scriptures into our minds. How grateful when the Lord has brought before my mind’s eye a challenging word or a comforting passage from scripture at just the moment of my need.
Fourth, He speaks by popping pictures into our minds.
There have been many times during my ministry when God has spoken to me by flashing a picture into my mind. Often the Lord will bring a person’s face before me and tell me I need to lift the individual in prayer or I need to do something for them. When I pray for you, the Lord brings your faces before me and sometimes He gives me a word about a need or a concern. In a single scripture, in a single picture, we can see details that it might take a thousand words to explain.
Fifth, He speaks through dreams.
The Bible is full of references to dreams. Remember, in the Old Testament, the story of how angry Joseph’s brothers were when they heard of his dream in which the sun, moon and stars bowed down to his star? There’s Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat cows being devoured by seven skinny cows which meant that famine was about to grip the Middle East. And, in the New Testament, Joseph had a dream warning him to take Jesus and Mary and flee into Egypt, and—as we’ve been reminded today—the Magi were warned in a dream not to share with Herod where the Messiah had been born.
If God used dreams in Bible times, He certainly can and does use them now. Joel spoke of the importance of dreams when he prophesied, “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men and women shall dream dreams” (Joel 2:28). When I lie down to sleep at night, I often pray, Lord, speak to me in my Night Visions, (as the prophet Daniel called them). And the Lord does.
Sixth, He speaks by giving us sympathy pains, sensations, what feels like a physical touch.
Sometimes God may alert you to another’s need by giving you a pain or a sensation that the individual is experiencing, telling you in this way to pray for that person.
Some years ago, I attended a conference at Harvard and, when it was time to leave, I couldn’t remember where I’d left my car. I’d wandered, with friends, all over the campus, and I’d stayed later than they to have a conversation with one of the speakers. They’d gone. I was alone and I had no idea where to go. I asked the Lord to direct me. I felt a hand upon me and a gentle leading that took me from one side of the campus to the other, right to my car.
Seventh, He speaks through others.
This can be one of the most important ways God speaks to us, but it can also be one of the most difficult ways to hear or discern His voice.
God spoke very directly to me one day when I became very angry with and lashed out at my young daughter for her behavior some days earlier. She’d caused embarrassment to me in a store and I hadn’t gotten over it. She looked at me, through tear-filled eyes, and asked why I couldn’t forgive her. “God wants us to forgive each other, why can’t you forgive me? Her words cut me to the quick and were the basis of the first sermon I ever preached.
Now, I’m not saying that you should accept everything everybody says to you as a Word from God. But neither should you dismiss out of hand words that hit you where you live.
Eighth, He speaks through the Holy Spirit bearing witness.
Have you ever been reading the Bible when you came across a Scripture that seemed to grab you by the heart? When that happens, it may be the Holy Spirit bearing witness that this is a message to you straight from the heart of God.
The same thing may happen when you’re listening to a sermon or a song on the radio, conversing with a friend, or even driving down the street. Suddenly, a phrase, a picture on a billboard, or just about anything else grabs hold of you, and you know God is speaking to you.
God spoke to the Magi and to the shepherds with a vision of light and directions for where to go. Like me, you may have your own stories of the Lord speaking to you in undeniable ways. When I came to faith in Christ at a Billy Graham crusade in Boston, I felt like I was on fire. I sensed a light all around me, and I felt something akin to a cleansing wave washing over me. Not long after I came to faith in Christ, I was on a Cursillo weekend (a three-day retreat), asking God what I was to do now that He’d given me a new life. On that weekend, I again had an experience of light and was told, via a still, small voice what next steps I should take.
A light. An audible voice. A still, small voice, a whisper. A scripture or a picture that pops into your mind. A dream. Sympathy pains, sensations. A word from another person, especially a fellow Christian. The Holy Spirit speaking to us through the physical realm.
Now, we must be careful not to attribute to God those things that are not of God, but we must also—with trained discernment—listen for what God might be saying to us. As I noted at the outset, too often, too many of us, talk at God, telling Him we need this, that and the other thing. But prayer is a two-way conversation. In this new year, I pray our relationships with the Lord may grow and be a great blessing to us and to others. I also pray that, in our prayers, we might not only speak to God but listen for God. Amen?