The God who speaks

This is an archived item that expired on 1 January 2017.

If I asked you to describe the God of the Bible, to sum up his nature and his character, how would you answer? I guess we might say that God’s almighty, a father, he’s love, he’s holy, and all those are true and right, but something that has struck me lately, which I know I’d have never come up with, is that what comes out very clearly from Scripture is that he’s a God who speaks.

Take a look at the start of the story: page 1, verse 3: ‘God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light’ (Genesis 1:3). God spoke, and creation came into being. Then when he created the first people, God spoke to them: ‘God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number …”’ (Genesis 1:28).

What’s more remarkable is that God continued the conversation even after Adam and Eve disobeyed and went their own way. In Genesis 3:9, as Adam and Eve hid among the trees, ‘the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”’ If we think about this, God, of course, knew exactly where they were, but he was still speaking, still wanting to carry on a conversation.

This is even more striking in the next chapter, where Cain killed his brother Abel, despite God’s heartfelt warning, ‘If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it’ (Genesis 4:7). Yet, even then, God continued to speak to Cain, spelling out the consequences of his actions (4:11–12), but also promising protection (4:15). So the clear message of these opening chapters of Genesis is that this is a God who speaks, to men and women, to good and bad.

Throughout the story God continues to speak. He calls Abraham and speaks blessing to him (Genesis 12:2–3), but he doesn’t simply speak, but holds a dialogue with him, as we see in the glorious haggling over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter 18. This is a God who engages in conversation, not just a booming voice from heaven. He speaks to Moses in the most unpromising of places: literally ‘the backside of the wilderness’ (Exodus 3:1), as Moses goes about his ordinary, everyday work. He speaks to the child Samuel at a time when ‘Samuel did not yet know the Lord’ (1 Samuel 3:7), and so had no expectation that God would speak to him. And throughout the Old Testament God goes on speaking to his people. Reading 2 Chronicles recently I was astonished to see how many prophets are mentioned there, something I’d never noticed before.

Yet then there was a long silence – 400 years when there were no prophets, so that the rabbis of Jesus’ day said that all one could expect to hear was the ‘echo of the voice’, not God’s voice itself. Why was that? We don’t know, but surely God’s character hadn’t changed. Had he stopped being a God who speaks? Or had perhaps Israel stopped listening, stopped expecting God to speak?

Until one day at the Jordan river, as John was baptising, heaven was torn open and ‘a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”’ (Mark 1:11). God spoke! The long silence was over. And throughout his ministry Jesus said that he relied on hearing God speak, all the time, about everything, ‘“He who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world … I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me”’ (John 8:26, 28).

Now, the other side of Pentecost, the New Testament says that God speaks to every Christian in the same way as he spoke to Jesus: ‘In the last days, God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy’” (Acts 2:16-18). Young and old, male and female: everyone.

As the book of Acts unfolds, we see how that works out in practice: God tells Philip to go to a desert road (8:26), asks Saul, ‘Why do you persecute me?’ (9:4), and instructs Ananias to go and bless Saul (9:10–12). So it’s not just the apostles to whom God speaks, nor even the ‘deacons’ of Acts 6, but every follower of Jesus. God also speaks as the church meets, ‘While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul …”’ (13:2)

This continued in the centuries which followed, so that in the 2nd century Irenaeus wrote, ‘In the same way we also hear of many brothers in the Church who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God.’ (Against Heresies 6.5.1).

Yet from my reading of history, and my experience of the Church, for most people in most centuries since then, this core truth about God – that he is a God who speaks, to everyone, all the time – has been forgotten or ignored. The assumption has been it was for then, or it’s for leaders, or that it’s for others rather than me. Which raises the question: has God’s character changed? Is his nature different? Of course not. So what has changed? Is it not our expectancy or our willingness to listen? So the challenge is: do I have faith in the God who speaks? Do I believe and expect that every day, all the time, he will speak to me?

Simon Coupland