Hearing God’s voice through the Scriptures

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There’s this old joke about a man who, wanting directions from God from Scriptures, opened his Bible randomly to see what God wanted to tell him. First, he read that Judas “hanged himself” (Matt. 27:5). Another random opening led him to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) and finally “What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27). The moral of the story is about the importance of reading Bible verses in context. That is, we need to know what the original author’s intention was in writing those words and can’t expect God to speak to us through such a manner of just randomly flipping open the Bible.

Related to the above, I came across a chapter in Bill Johnson’s Secrets To Imitating God (formerly entitled Dreaming With God) entitled “Celebrating the Living Word” (Chapter 8). As some readers would already know, I love Bill Johnson’s ministry. I’ve read almost all of his books and in the same way I’ve gained so many insights into Scripture through Pastor Joseph Prince’s teaching/preaching ministry, I’ve experienced the same through Bill Johnson’s books.

I’m quite cautious of flaky charismatic ministers. I know there are so many flaky charismatic leaders out there. However, I want to be careful not to be too critical of them – that’s why I have defended Todd Bentley (to a certain extent) in this blog in the past. I think flaky charismatics tend to be very anointed in many ways, though also open to deception. We ought to be wary of deception, yet recognize the anointing and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think Benny Hinn, for example, is greatly anointed in healing. However, I probably wouldn’t agree with a lot of his other stuff (like some of his theology, his lifestyle or even the style of his meetings).

Through Pastor Joseph Prince’s sharing through the years, one can tell that he too is very cautious of flaky charismatics and charismania – in my opinion, to the point of over-reacting sometimes. A sad result of flakiness is that charismatism has gotten such a bad name and non-charismatics (and even some charismatics) throw the baby (authentic charismatism) out with the bathwater (flaky charismatism).

And all this is why I appreciate Bill Johnson’s ministry so much. I think John Wimber would probably be remembered as the most respected and balanced charismatic who has ever lived. Wimber’s with Jesus now. Perhaps the most respected and balanced charismatic alive today is Bill Johnson.

I don’t think Bill Johnson is a great theologian. And that’s perhaps a plus point. Great theologians are somehow seldom good at the practical charismatic stuff. You have people like John Piper and Wayne Grudem who are great theologians and both very open to charismatic stuff, but I don’t think they are good at the practical charismatic stuff. And you have people like Benny Hinn who is greatly anointed in healing, yet you wouldn’t want to trust a lot of his theology. It’s hard to find someone who is both well grounded theologically and yet greatly anointed in doing the charismatic stuff. I think Bill Johnson is probably the closest to that – though perhaps leaning more to the practical stuff.

The fruit of Bill Johnson’s ministry is simply undeniable. You just have to respect the guy. And while the fruit of his ministry doesn’t validate every single thing he says or teaches, here’s a guy that I know I have so much to learn from. Yes, I’m uncomfortable with some stuff he says. But for a left-brain Christian like me who loves good theology and lacks in the areas Johnson is gifted in, that probably isn’t such a bad thing.

And with that long introduction, I quote a portion from his book for your consideration:

Often I would come to the Bible with a need and God would address it clearly from His Word, again and again. There were times when He spoke so clearly from a verse, yet I knew that what was ministering to me wasn’t what the writer originally intended. But it was a living word, a sword, ministering to the very need of my heart.

…The God who speaks through circumstances and unusual coincidences wants to talk to us again through the pages of His Word, even when it appears to be taken out of context or is not exactly in line with what appears to be the author’s original intent.

…In studying the Old Testament prophecies quoted in the New Testament, it doesn’t take long to realize that Jesus and other writers of Scripture took many Old Testament passages out of context to prove their point. The common thought today is that the Holy Spirit worked that way for the Scriptures to be written, but it is unacceptable to do this today because the canon is complete. How could it be wrong to use the same principles used to write the Scriptures to interpret the Scriptures? That rule is designed to keep us from creating doctrine by experience and contradicting orthodox Christianity. While the reason is noble, the rule is not biblical

How is it possible to set a rule of Bible interpretation that the Holy Spirit Himself did not follow in inspiring the Bible? And to say that it is no longer allowed because the canon is complete has little merit as the Holy Spirit is with us, and He knows what He meant when He wrote it. This is potentially dangerous because of the bent of some toward creating unholy and/or inaccurate doctrine, but it does not justify removing a necessary tool of the Spirit that He uses to speak to His people. There is danger, but there is also great treasure. This is the necessary tension. (p. 141,143, 145-146)

What struck me first about what Johnson wrote was his belief that God could speak to people through Scriptures even though what spoke to them may not have been what the biblical writer originally intended. He appeals to the fact that even the NT writers took many OT passages out of context to prove their point. I thought this was very interesting. I’m no NT scholar (and I may be getting a bit out of my depth here) and I hadn’t heard of this line of thinking before but I recently read that what seemed out-rightly ridiculous (i.e. the fact that NT writers took many OT passages out of context to prove their point) was actually something of a debate in academic circles. While Graeme Goldsworthy wrote that “contrary to what is sometimes suggested, the New Testament writers were not in the habit of quoting texts without reference to their context”  (Gospel and Kingdom, p. 19), other scholars, however, would probably agree with Johnson. An example would be Richard N. Longenecker who wrote that “It is my contention that… Christians today are committed to the apostolic faith and doctrine of the New Testament, but not necessarily to the apostolic exegetical practices as detailed for us in the Next Testament” (see G. K. Beale’s The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?). Maybe here too is a defense of the charismatic distinction between a Logos and Rhema word? Just a spontaneous thought that needs to be developed further…

Moving on, in that same chapter, Bill Johnson acknowledged how in one occasion his church and him heard wrongly about a healing/resurrection – “…we didn’t actually hear from God and missed it with all our prophetic pronouncements” (p. 149). I greatly value his honesty here. Being in charismatic circles for over a decade, I’ve heard too many prophecies which have missed it and very few charismatics are humble enough to acknowledge they could be wrong and apologize when they are wrong. Charismatics need to adopt more humility when it comes to the prophetic. Yet the existence of lots of situations of hearing God wrongly doesn’t invalidate the fact that God speaks and it shouldn’t prevent us from seeking to hear correctly. One thing I’ve read over and over again is that we have to be prepared to fail if we want to succeed. If we’re too afraid to fail, we won’t try. If we don’t try, we won’t learn. People constantly refer to this when talking about entrepreneurship – an entrepreneur always takes risks and a successful entrepreneur is one who has failed many times. And the same for succeeding in healing (i.e. when praying for someone) and hearing God’s voice. As Bill Johnson wrote:

It is obvious and easy to assert that those who try to hear God from the pages of Scripture will not always hear clearly. Some of us will make huge mistakes and claim to have heard from God when it wasn’t Him at all. Yet, to succeed, one must be willing to fail. (p. 148)

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  1. Usually one of the safeguards in knowing whether we’ve really heard from God or not is whether what’s heard agrees with scripture.

    Which makes the whole idea of taking scripture out of context slightly discomforting.

    That being said, I do wonder about the NT writers and whether they did do that.

    The Gnostics did take a great deal of OT out of context in their writings. Who’s to determine whether the gnostic version or the NT is right?

  2. Hi Jared,

    Good to see you commenting here. I guess I’m quite interested in God’s voice that does not have much to do with Scripture – extra-biblical which isn’t anti-biblical. I think this includes what Johnson is saying because while he would be open to hear God’s voice (extra-biblical, in a sense) through Scripture, he wouldn’t equate what he hears as Scripture. For example, if Bill Johnson felt through reading verses on resurrection that God is trying to tell him that this person who is dead would be resurrected, he would acknowledge that this is in a sense extra-biblical and we can’t tell through Scripture if his impression is from God or not. Or if God tells you to go over there to speak to someone, that’s of course not against Scripture but you also wouldn’t say it’s Scriptural. And if God (or someone) reveals to you that this person is facing this or that issue in his/her life, Scripture isn’t really going to help you to know if what you hear is from God or not. For all these cases, the bible doesn’t tell you if it’s right or wrong – only the fruit will show if it’s from God.

    Of course, if you feel God is telling you to divorce your wife/husband, surely that’s not from God as Scripture has something to say about that. This extra-biblical impression is anti-biblical and thus is definitely not from God. But for other areas that are not directly dealt with by Scripture, it’s really hard to gauge if it’s from God or not – except by seeing the fruit.

    So I think there are lot of instances of hearing God where the Scripture doesn’t help a whole lot in determining if it’s of God or not. This may be slightly discomforting when abused of course, but there have been wonderful and edifying fruits too in the charismatic world when it’s not abused. As has been widely documented, even the Reformed and Presbyterian John Knox received extra-biblical prophetic revelations.

  3. Hey stillhaventfound,

    I gave your email to the friend who I thought might be interested in the website. He’ll give it a thought and email you if he has any enquiries.

    I think one of the things that make people uncomfortable about taking the scriptures out of context is that when Jesus was tempted in the desert after 40 days, Satan himself quoted scripture, albeit out of context), and Jesus responded in turn with the scripture, which demonstrated an example for the need of a strong understanding of the scriptures.

    And dare I say it, memorising it as well! (Although that tradition seems to be diminishing in our modern churches and sunday schools)

  4. Hey Sam,

    Good point there regarding Satan taking Scriptures out of context. I think that’s where one has to be careful. And Johnson doesn’t deny that he’s got it wrong at times.

    I think a good grasp of Scripture is very important. When Johnson talks about God speaking through Scriptures (in an “extra-biblical, not taking into proper context” way), he would agree that this kind of hearing God through Scriptures will definitely not contradict Scripture – which is probably the way the devil used Scripture. Thus in that sense, it’s unlike how the devil used Scriptures. In these special circumstances, I think it’s the fruit that will ultimately determine if it’s from God or not.

  5. Thanks for the blog – great thoughts!

    Another bill johnson quote that speaks volumes to me about this subject:

    Bill Johnson: “It’s difficult to expect the same fruit of the early church when we value a book they didn’t have, more than the Holy Spirit they did have…”

    I come from a very legalistic letter-of-the word background that totally denied the Holy Spirit. I am slowly undoing some of the bad impact of this on my life. I have been in charismatic churches for most of my adult life now and am growing so much.

    I am thinking now that reading scripture without the relying on the Holy Spirit to speak to us something fresh and convert logos to Rhema is as dangerous as and grievous as trying to live a life out of principals and knowledge of ‘logos’.

    We are told not to grieve (speaks of lack of character and sin that offends) the holy spirit but also not to quench (stop the flow of, stop up the power of) the Holy Spirit. Crossing either of these two boundaries is bad news and learning to live within without tiptoeing on the edge of our preferred boundary will require me to change.

    For me thats learning to listen to the Spirit each time i open up the word and not being surprised to see something different or hear something different. It also requires me to learn to use discernment and be humble and teachable, and to be ok with making mistakes (in a safe and accountable environment) in order to grow into full maturity. The ephesians model church where all the gifts are at work in their office (or appointed place in the body) is for that purpose ‘maturing of the saints’. I have grown so much by being in a church that has a Prophet, Apostle, Evangelist, and teacher all doing their thing in full release.

    For others staying within the above boundaries might mean grounding themselves in scripture a little better so they don’t risk get too ‘flaky’ or deceived.

    Balance is the key – i totally agree with your post here. And i do See Bill Johnson as being someone who is well balanced. The modern body hasn’t really been taught well to use their discernment and know how to use the H Spirit inside them to know if what they’re hearing and interpreting is truly God’s heart. I hope i grow in this.

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