The Question Box

How Does the Holy Spirit Speak?

Question: What do the scriptures mean in Acts 8:29: "the Holy Spirit said to Philip," and in Acts 16:6: "they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak?

Answer: In each case the holy spirit is presented as active in directly addressing or instructing Philip and Paul. There are several possible approaches which can be taken depending on our prior outlook. Included are direct spiritual inspiration and the miraculous gifts of the spirit. There is also the issue of the holy spirit’s personality as seen from a Trinitarian or non-Trinitarian framework. The first two points will be treated briefly. These will shed light on certain aspects of the third point.

To start, we list thee possible interpretative levels. We propose that each of these is necessary to fill out the potential meanings of the texts which recount divine spirit actions. These are:

1. The miraculous level—visions or angelic appearances.

2. The providential level—a way of ascribing preaching experiences by the holy spirit’s intervention or overruling.

3. The figurative level—as a way of speaking of God’s arrangements in spoken and written retrospection about personal experiences.

The miraculous approach is the most obvious. In the context of each passage mention is made of nighttime visions (Acts 16:9) as well as direct angelic appearances (Acts 8:26). In either text the intent is to communicate a course of action to the one preaching (as shown in Acts 16:10: "concluding that God had called us"). Contrast the earlier thought that Paul received in verse 6, "forbidden by the holy spirit to speak." That these are specially mentioned is an indication of extraordinary circumstances surrounding events in the book of Acts. God’s gifts were operating mightily in them (as in Acts 16:12-18). Were these to be routine continuing events in Christian activities, there would have been little need to highlight them in such a fashion for later believers. In Acts 8 and 16 we witness direct results as God’s spiritual gifts (8:20) or those of Jesus (16:7) acting through his apostles.

Providential overrulings are a way of looking at God’s guiding hand in specific Christian experiences. In the case of Philip and Paul this method was repeatedly and openly manifested. It did not rely solely on visions or miraculous knowledge but on a connected flow of events. In these passages that theme is a continued preaching effort. These were orchestrated by a super-human agency. They bore the imprint of God’s active, living power, the holy spirit, proven by results in their preaching, gaining converts in many places (Heb. 2:3, 4). God used Philip and Paul to spread and explain his word. God was using human agencies to communicate his spirit and word to the people (Acts 8:15, 31; 16:5, 10, 13, 14).

The apostles saw much of God’s direction in their activities. They rightly viewed every daily event as directed by the holy spirit. Consider Paul’s actions when sent by a vision to Philippi (Acts 16:9, 10). He proceeded to search for opportunities to speak to hearing ears, which the Lord provided in Lydia and her household (Acts 16:12-15). With this immediacy of spiritual opportunities and powerful spiritual demonstrations they could term each step of the way as God-directed, through his holy spirit. Consider how Philip was "snatched" in Acts8:39. They visualized the holy spirit actions of "speaking," "forbidding," and "snatching" as metaphorical personifications.

Today we are free to preach the word of God with little hindrance from political or social forces. The operation of God’s spirit in our new mind, through a knowledge of God’s acts, provides a pattern of action. In John 6:39 Jesus stood and cried out, saying, "If any man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scriptures said, `From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.’ But this he spake of the spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive; for the spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified."

By Charles Ryba