Does God Specially Speak from the Bible?

February 2009

 Ajith Fernando

Sometimes we hear people say, “God spoke to me clearly from his Word.” Can we really hear the voice of God today? When we read the Bible we are open to hearing from God, and he can use this receptivity to communicate a message to us. Sometimes when he does so the text we are reading becomes a springboard for God to get a hold of us. After all, the Bible presents God as one who communicates with his children. There is nothing to say that he has stopped doing that. What we hear from God may not be exactly what the author of that text originally intended, though the rest of Scripture should not contradict it.

The day that I left for USA for my studies, was actually the day I left home for good. I was in USA for four-and-a-half years. I did not go home once during that time. Phone calls were very expensive in those days, so I did not call even once during the entire period. Leaving home was very tough on me and on my mother. That morning, during my mother’s time with God, she happened to read Psalm 4. Verse 3 said, “But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for himself.” It was a word of great comfort to her which enabled her to release me to go to Seminary, and then to ministry. I believe she could legitimately claim that God spoke to her from that text.

Today some people are using the term rhema to describe such messages from texts. When a special message comes from God though a text of Scripture, they call it a “Rhema Word.” The Greek word rhēma appears sixty-eight times in the New Testament and means “that which is spoken; declaration, saying, speech, word.”[1] There is some justification for the use of rhema for such messages. Often rhēma has the same meaning as the other common Greek word for “word,” logos. But sometimes there is a distinction. A scholarly dictionary states, “Whereas logos often designates the Christian proclamation as a whole, rhēma usually relates to individual words and utterances.”[2] After quoting this, Mounce cites Matthew 4:4: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word [rhēmati] that comes from the mouth of God.”[3] So rhēma can be used to mean a word from God, and one is welcome to use it as a technical term for a special word to an individual or group. However, the Bible does not require that we use it with such a meaning.

We need to be careful about overdependence on special messages that come to us when we are in touch with God through the Bible. These sudden messages are equivalent to the author of a book of instructions giving us a special hint to help us along the way. It would be an insult to the writer of the instruction book to depend solely on those special hints without reading the clear instructions given in the book. This is especially true when it comes to the Bible, which is God’s complete and sufficient revelation to us to guide us in all matters of faith and practice. So God may speak to us through a text, but we should not view that as the message God intended when giving us that text. Respect for and devotion to God would drive us to look for what God originally intended.

Besides we cannot be a hundred percent sure whether the “word” we get is actually a message from God. While we should regard the plain statements of Scripture as fully inspired by God and absolutely necessary for our faith and life, these special messages that come to us through the reading do not carry such authority. This is because we can be mistaken. If it is a word of comfort and it accords with the rest of Scripture, as was the case of the message my mother got from Psalm 4:3, we can assert that this is in keeping with God’s purpose for us without hesitation.

But if it is matter of guidance, we should be more careful about being hundred percent sure that certain specifics are from God. You may have heard of the story of a person who opened his Bible and asked God to speak to him through the passage he turned to. He first turned the passage which said that Judas hanged himself. Next his eyes alighted upon the statement, “Go and do likewise.” Then he read the statement, “What you are doing, do quickly.” Now, he should not take that to mean that God was telling him to commit suicide soon! But if he was deeply depressed and somewhat suicidal, he may come up with such a conclusion.

People in love often ask God for a word from God, open the Scriptures and get just the “word” they needed to legitimise their relationship. But here they could be simply reading into the Scriptures the message they wanted to hear. I think some of the so-called messages people say they received from God are actually interpretations and applications of texts that are the product of wishful thinking rather than of divine guidance. A boy told a girl that God showed him from the Word that she was the one he was to married. The troubled girl responded by saying that she had received no such message from God and did not intend to pursue the relationship.

Yet sometimes these “words” are from God. Seeing that we are in a receptive state to hear from him, he could use a text to impress upon our minds a certain message he wants to give us. My YFC leader, Sam Sherrard, was in the USA shortly before I left for the USA for my studies. He feared that I will fall in love with an American girl and either stay on in USA or change the course of my ministry because of that (my ministry has been with the poor and it would have been difficult to ask an American to adjust to the lifestyle my ministry led me to). He knew I was praying about a Christian girl in Sri Lanka at that time (We do not date in our culture). So he wrote to me asking whether to write to her parents about this. I grappled with God over this for several days and finally told God that I am going to write back to Sam with my decision on a certain day. The night before that day I spent a lot of time in prayer and after doing my studies went to bed at about mid-night. But I could not sleep. After tossing and turning in bed for about four hours I decided to have my devotions.

My reading for that day was Leviticus 8-10 about the dedication of Aaron and his Sons and the Tabernacle. Included in this passage is the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, who were killed for offering “unauthorised fire before the Lord” (Lev. 10:1). I could not find out what made this fire unauthorised so I checked a commentary. There I read that the problem was that they had made the right offering, but it was at the wrong time. Suddenly, like a flash, the thought came to me, “You had earlier felt that God did not want you to get committed to a girl before leaving the country. Are you now trying to do the right thing—enter into a committed relationship—at the wrong time?” I decided that this was a word from God, and with tears I wrote to Sam saying I do not think this proposal is from God.

I came home four-and-a-half years later and found that this girl was still single and later I found that unbeknown to me she had been praying about me for almost ten years. We have been happily married for thirty-two years! Later I realised that the message from Leviticus 10 was quite specific. She was the right person, but it was the wrong time.

However, because we cannot be a hundred percent sure that such messages are from God, it is necessary for us to seek advice about this from some people we trust in the body of Christ. We need to make sure that this message does not contradict the rest of scripture. If we feel that God gave us a message that would make us take revenge, or not do our job well, or marry an unbeliever, we can immediately conclude that the thought was not a message from God because it contradicts the clear teaching of the Bible.

Let me add one more thing. Often God brings a text of the Bible up from our memories in order to minister specifically to us. Regular reading of the Bible and, even more powerfully, memorisation of Scripture results in the Word being stored in our hearts. Psalm 199:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Often the Bible asks us to get the Word into our hearts (Deut. 6:6; 11:18; Col. 3:16). In times of need, this word of God hidden in the heart can resurface to minister to us.

Early in my ministry, a person whom I thought I was very committed and had helped sacrificially, made some devastating accusations against me. Essentially, he said that I was not practicing what I preach about caring for people. For about two days after that conversation, I felt so numb and hurt that I could not say much when I tried to pray. I tried to read the Bible, but nothing went in. But I kept my time with God knowing that even though I could not say much to God he would be there with me. Little by little passages of Scripture that I knew began to minister to me. They had surfaced from my memory and God  had spoken specifically to me through them.

Don’t wait till a crisis comes to read the Word so as to be ministered to by God. Sometimes in a crisis, we may not have the opportunity or the mood to read and digest what the Bible says. We need to have hidden the Word in our hearts for use during such emergency situations.

One of the best ways to hide the Word in our hearts is to memorise Scripture. One of the regrets I have about my Christian life is that I did not do sufficient memorisation during my younger days. It is much harder to memorise when you get to my age! Let me urge younger readers to regard Scripture memorisation as great boost to your life. Find ways in which you are going to memorise Scripture. The Topical Memory System produced by the Navigators is a popular and helpful tool. I have found it helpful to memorise longer passages rather than just one verse because I can then follow the trend of the authors thoughts.

God still speaks to us, and he does so most often through the Bible.

[1] William D. Mounce, Editor, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 1264.

[2] The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), p. 1121.

[3] Mounce, Editor, Expository Dictionary, 803