It is easy to read into Scripture what we want to find there—and this is a particular problem when it comes to justifying our doctrines or behaviour. In this article, I want to examine what the book of Acts tells us about how God communicated with the first Christians, and how this bears on what many believers are claiming today. I have confined myself to Acts because most believers look on that book as presenting normal Christian practice, and I wish to take them up on their own ground. Having said that, I believe that Acts, while giving us many of the features of Christianity, actually presents a transition from Judaism to Christianity and therefore needs to be interpreted with caution. It is a record of what took place, but it is not necessarily a guide in all instances as to how we should proceed today.
One striking feature of the book of Acts is that the majority of the communications from God recorded there are indirect—that is through angelic agency, visions and the like. Even when Paul was addressed directly from heaven by the Lord himself, he refers to it years later in Acts 26: 19 as the “heavenly vision”. Nowadays people do of course claim to be spoken to by angels or to have had visions, but a considerable number also allege that God spoke to them directly. Such persons will eagerly point out Scriptures in the book of Acts that appear to justify their claims. That the writer of Acts records God as speaking to Christians without any mention of an intermediate agency being involved is certainly true. However, to assume that this means that believers heard God speaking audibly to them in every case is not correct. For example, when Paul says that “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city, saying that bonds and tribulations await me” (Acts 20: 23), the form of words employed by Luke strongly suggest that this was the Holy Spirit speaking through men. The testimony of the Holy Spirit to Paul was not continuous but in every city—that is, whenever he came across God’s people. Indeed, we have indirect confirmation of this later on in the book when the disciples at Tyre “said to Paul by the Spirit not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21: 4), and the testimony of the prophet Agabus in Caesaria that “Thus saith the Holy Spirit, The man whose this girdle is shall the Jews thus bind in Jerusalem” (Acts 21: 11). Similar comments could be made about other Scriptures. Thus in Acts 13: 2, the “Holy Spirit said, Separate me now Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” but whether this means that He spoke directly or through human agency in the assembly at Antioch is not stated. What is clear is that all present heard what was communicated. In Acts 15: 28 the assembly in Jerusalem asserted that they had been made aware of the Holy Spirit’s mind, though the context makes it plain that this communication came about through the utterances of the saints present in the meeting rather than the Spirit speaking independently of human agency (compare vs 7–21). In Acts 16: 6, 7, “the Spirit of Jesus” (that is, the Spirit that was sent by Him—see John 15: 26) did not allow Paul and Silas to go to Asia or Bithynia. This may have been by means of an audible voice or (and perhaps more likely) by so arranging circumstances as to make such trips impossible. None of these incidents offer conclusive proof as to direct speaking from God.
Indeed, despite what people may be saying today, direct communication from God is the exception rather than the rule in Acts. The conversion of Saul has already been alluded to (see Acts 9: 3–8; 22: 6–11; 26: 12–18), and he is explicitly told that it is “Jesus” who is addressing him, but even here we need to be careful as to how we are defining our terms. It is important to bear in mind that the Lord Jesus is “[the] mediator of God and men” (1 Tim. 2: 5), and that God reveals things “to us by [his] Spirit” (1 Cor. 2: 10). While both the Son and the Spirit are God, they are also distinguished from God (see John 1: 1; 1 Cor. 12: 4–6; 1 Thess. 4: 8) and their communications are thus, in one sense, indirect and from God. As the Lord Jesus Himself said, “the words which thou hast given me I have given them” (John 17: 8), and (in relation to the Holy Spirit), “he shall not speak from himself; but whatsoever he shall hear he shall speak” (John 16: 13).
Bearing in mind what has already been said, it is significant that God never speaks to the saints in Acts as their Father—and, perhaps even more striking, that there is not a single instance of them addressing Him as Father either. Prayer to God there most certainly is (see Acts 4: 24–31), but the language used is more in keeping with the Jehovah of the OT. Thus God (and not Jesus) is addressed as Lord, (vs 24, 26, 29), while Jesus is referred to as “thy holy servant Jesus” (vs 27, 30). Indeed God is only spoken of three times as Father in the Acts, twice by the Lord Jesus (see Acts 1: 4, 7) and once by Peter (see Acts 2: 33). Turn over to the Epistles, and we find that it is usual for the saints to be addressed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and for eulogies to be offered to Him in return. Again, John’s Gospel (written long after the setting aside of Israel, unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke) contains as many references to the Father as the other three Gospels put together, and is explicit in saying that God is to be worshipped as Father (see John 4: 23). These facts add yet more weight to the idea that Acts is transitional in character, and is not necessarily a bench–mark for the present day.
The first divine communication in Acts is the Lord speaking to His own disciples after His resurrection but (and this is significant) before He had ascended into heaven (see Acts 1: 6–8). This was Christ talking to those who knew Him “according to flesh” (2 Cor. 5: 16)—something we, in our day, know nothing about. Our knowledge of the Lord is by the Spirit, for we “have not seen” Him and yet we “have believed” (John 20: 29).
Next we have “two men … in white clothing” (Acts 1: 10)—presumably angels—addressing the disciples after the ascension but before the Lord communicated His mind by means of the drawing of lots (vs 23–26) regarding the replacement of Judas. This incident preceded the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven, and is Jewish in nature (see Lev. 16: 8; Joel 3: 3). To fall back on the practice of drawing lots to ascertain God’s will is essentially to go back to the practices of the previous dispensation. Of course, some may object that the disciples who cast lots in Acts 1, were the same disciples as in John 20, where the Lord breathed into them and said “Receive [the] Holy Spirit” (v22). The assumption made is that the Lord’s words are the explanation of what He had just done—that is, by breathing into them, He had imparted to them the Holy Spirit. In actual fact, I may be told to receive someone long before they arrive. Thus the Lord’s words are anticipative of what was to follow at Pentecost, for He also commanded His disciples to “remain in the city till ye be clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24: 49). Until Jesus was glorified it could only be said of the disciples that they “were about to receive” the Spirit (John 7: 39, my emphasis), and this is clearly still true in John 20. The disciples cast lots because they had not yet received the Spirit.
None of these cases in the first chapter of Acts ought to be used as a pattern for today as they precede the formation of the Church on the day of Pentecost. In essence they do not belong to Christianity and to quote them in support of modern practice is to fail to cut “in a straight line the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2: 15).
The first communication from God after the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit is by means of an angel, and (along with the use of visions), this is largely the pattern throughout the remainder of the book of Acts. In Acts 5 we read of how one of these ministering spirits opened the doors of the prison in which the apostles were incarcerated and instructed them to “stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life” (v20). In a sense the veracity of the message delivered was confirmed by the miraculous power of the messenger. However, there are also fallen angels operating in this scene, both overtly and covertly—hence the apostle’s injunction “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, if they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4: 1). Such persons, being pawns of demons, will not only appear as “apostles of Christ” and “ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11: 13, 15) in terms of what they say, but can also perform works of power (see Matt. 7: 22)—hence miracles are no guarantee that God is working.
Leaving this aside, the thought conveyed by God speaking through the instrumentality of angels is that of distance. The message is no less divine and authoritative, but it lacks intimacy. The prominence given to angels in Acts is a reflection of the transitional nature of the book, for the dispensation of law which was then passing was initiated “by [the] ministry of angels” (Acts 7: 53), and was also marked by distance, for the way into the sanctuary had not yet been made manifest (see Heb. 9: 8). Interestingly, angels are hardly mentioned in the Epistles (apart from Hebrews which refers to them historically in relation to Israel).
In Acts 8: 26, “[the] angel of [the] Lord spoke to Philip, saying, Rise up and go southward on the way which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza: the same is desert”. A little later we read that “the Spirit said to Philip, Approach and join this chariot” (v29). Some have supposed that the angel is still referred to, since angels are spirits (see Acts 23: 9; Heb. 1: 7), and the question of whether the ‘S’ in ‘Spirit’ should be capitalized or not is a matter of spiritual judgment and not translation (the original manuscripts are written either wholly in capitals or in lower case). Others think that the Holy Spirit is indeed intended, and that He either spoke directly and audibly to Philip, or inaudibly to his mind rather than his ears. Thus while a great deal has been built upon the supposed ‘certainties’ of this passage it is abundantly clear to the unbiased mind that there is room for differences of opinion. To base doctrine on historical record (as in Acts) rather than apostolic instruction (as in the Epistles) is always hazardous.
In Acts 10, Cornelius is addressed by an angel in a vision (see vs 3–7; 30–32)—which perhaps suggests an extended distance between God and one who, though his prayers and alms had gone up as a memorial before God, was not one of the chosen nation. The fact that Cornelius addresses the angel as “Lord” is not proof that he felt that He was actually speaking to the Lord Jesus, as this would be the natural form of address to any perceived dignitary. Indeed, there is no evidence that Cornelius had heard of Jesus Christ, only that he was pious and feared God (see v1).
Angelic agency is also used to release Peter from Herod’s prison (see Acts 12: 7–10), though initially the apostle “did not know that what was happening by means of the angel was real, but supposed he saw a vision” (v9). The final mention of God speaking through angels is in Acts 27, when Paul addresses the men with him on the boat to Rome: “For an angel of the God, whose I am and whom I serve, stood by me this night, saying, Fear not, Paul; thou must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted to thee all those that sail with thee” (vs 23, 24). In both these instances, the circumstances are clearly extraordinary and cannot be said to form the basis of normal, everyday practice.
Turning now to visions, it is clear that these are indirect communications because God is speaking through the suspension of normal consciousness. Scripture describes them as not real (see Acts 12: 9) in the sense that they are not part of ordinary physical reality. Stephen may have seen a vision (see Acts 7: 55, 56)—the spectacle he describes seems only to have been witnessed by him. Visions were employed by the Lord to speak to Ananias (see Acts 9: 10–16), and also to speak to Paul about Ananias (see v12). In the latter no speaking is recorded, though the fact that the name of the man Paul saw coming to him is revealed indicates that the sight must have been accompanied by a voice. A little later in the book, the apostle Peter entered into an ecstasy and saw a vision in which he was addressed by a voice (see Acts 10: 10–17; 11: 5–9). He addresses the speaker as “Lord”, although it is not clear that he would have understood this to be the Lord Jesus, “Lord” being a title that is used of both the Father (see Matt. 11: 25) and the Son, as well as God in a broader sense (see Acts 3: 22). Once the vision was over (and while Peter was still pondering what it might mean), we read that “the Spirit said to him, Behold, three men seek thee; but rise up, go down, and go with them, nothing doubting, because I have sent them” (Acts 10: 19, 20; see also Acts 11: 12). The use of the emphatic ‘I’ is not conclusive, but it does seem to suggest that the Holy Spirit (rather than an angel) is intended, and no intermediate agency was involved in delivering the message. Furthermore, since no angel is mentioned in connection with Peter’s experience, the introduction of the expression “the Spirit” would seem most likely to refer to the Holy Spirit. It may be that the importance of the event made such direct speaking essential (Peter was about to use the keys of the kingdom to open the door of blessing for the Gentiles).
As a result of a vision by night (see Acts 16: 9, 10), Paul and Luke concluded “that the Lord has called us to announce” the glad tidings to the Macedonians. Another vision by night to Paul at Corinth confirmed him in his ministry there: “And the Lord said by vision in [the] night to Paul, Fear not, but speak and be not silent; because I am with thee, and no one shall set upon thee to injure thee; because I have much people in this city” (Acts 18: 9, 10). In Acts 22: 17–21, Paul relates how he became in ecstasy in the temple, and “saw” the Lord saying to him “Make haste and go quickly out of Jerusalem, for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me” (v18).
There appears to be no obvious reason why God communicated by means of angels in one incident and by a vision in another (and the two are sometimes combined). Both, however, suggest distance, as befits the transitional nature of the book of Acts. In connection with this, it is worth glancing at another book strongly associated with both visions and angels—the Revelation. Thus while the Epistles were simply written communications from God, the Revelation given to John is a record of the “things that he saw” (Rev. 1: 2)—that is, a vision (see Rev. 9: 17). That Revelation should have that character is understandable since it is largely occupied with the final week of Daniel’s seventy weeks (see Daniel 9)—essentially, the completion of the age (see Matt. 24: 3). This is the age that preceded Christianity and yet which will also be wound up after the Church has been removed from this scene. I would suggest that the way God characteristically communicates with His people in the present era is not through visions (or angels—also prominent in Revelation), but through the reading of what He has written down for us. The way the Epistles were produced would seem to teach us this.
In conclusion, there is considerable evidence that what we read of in the Acts is not to be taken as a pattern for present–day Christianity. That there are features that are truly characteristic of the Church is doubtless true—and we would expect this in a book that marks the transition between the old dispensation and the new. However, to say that God routinely communicates through angels and visions now is to fail to recognise the nearness into which the Christian has been brought, such that through Christ we have access “by one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2: 18). That there are incidents of direct communications from God in the Acts is also true, but these are extraordinary cases, and should not be used to detract from the Christian’s fundamental need to read his Bible and to pray. Seeking after ‘voices’ is to reject the pattern of communication that God has prescribed for our day.