Deciphering God’s Will
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 2:19b-21 (Holman) . . .an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in
a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Get up! Take the child and
His mother and go to the land of Israel, because those who sought
the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and His
mother, and entered the land of Israel.
In the early days of Jesus’ life, His story centered on family. William Barclay told of the famous doctor, Sir James Simpson, who discovered chloroform. Simpson was born into a poor family. His parents and siblings knew he was special even in his childhood. His mother said he was “the little box of brains.” His brothers felt James would be great someday. The whole family, rather than respond with envy, closed ranks, working in a bakeshop and at other jobs, that James might have a college education and his chance.
When my Grandpa Hill returned from WW1 in 1919, he was 22. He wanted to go to college, but his younger brother was just finishing high school. My grandpa delayed his own education in order to put his brother through college. Grandpa eventually went to Moody Bible Institute and then on to Southwestern Seminary, where at age 30 he met Grandma, who was only 21. Had Grandpa not put his brother through college, he would have missed Grandma, which would have had serious ramifications in my life.
Jess Moody told me of a day when he felt he was losing his mind due to terrible pressures his church was experiencing from city hall. When his agony was its worst he dialed his dad’s number in order to hear his voice. He immediately slammed down the receiver, suddenly remembering his dad had been dead for years. Moody said his dad got his hooks down deep in him.
Never underrate the importance of family. God put His only begotten Son in a nuclear family, a husband and a wife, a mom and a dad, and later gave Him brothers and sisters. Whatever your family looks like, cherish it.
Matt. 2:22a But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in
place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.
Herod, at the bitter end of his demonic life, divided his kingdom into three parts. He gave the northeast region, beyond the Sea of Galilee, to his son Philip, who was gentle and private, easily the best of Herod’s children. Herod gave the north part of his kingdom to his son Antipas, who shared his father’s lust. Antipas married his brother’s wife, and raised the ire of John the Baptist. Antipas beheaded John and made an appearance during the trial of Jesus. Our Master said not one word to Antipas, but there is coming a day when Jesus will have plenty to say to the murderer of John the Baptist.
Herod gave the southern, largest division to his son Archelaus, who shared his father’s ferocity. He started out by killing 3000 Jews to squelch an effort by them to remove from the Temple a Roman Eagle insignia they deemed an idol. After 10 years of urgent appeals by the people to Rome for relief, Archelaus was banished in 6 AD. He was followed by the Procurators of Rome, number six being Pontius Pilate, who ruled from 26 to 36 AD.
Matt 2:22b And being warned in a dream, he withdrew to the region of
The Father, to keep His Son away from the corruption, hustle, and bustle of Jerusalem, sent Him into obscurity, to Galilee. To be holy, we must often draw away into obscurity (Has the word “private” lost its cutting edge for us?), to be alone with God. Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness. Paul stayed 3 years in Arabia. The Baptist grew up in a wilderness. Retreat often.
God gave Jesus a place to escape persecution. It is okay to elude abuse, when we can with integrity. Paul kept fleeing from city to city. The Pilgrims went to Holland. Jews came to New York. The Chin fled Burma for the USA. Fleeing religious persecution is part of the warp and woof of our country’s folklore. We celebrate it. I have a friend who says his great great grandfather came here to flee religious persecution; he stole the Bishop’s mule. I like the cartoon of two Pilgrims looking at the beautiful wooded shoreline of Massachusetts; one says to the other, “I’m coming for religious liberty, but while I’m here, I think I’ll dabble in real estate”. For us in the USA these stories remind us of many blessings millions have enjoyed here.
But for many, fleeing persecution is not an option. Jesus, John the Baptist, James, Paul, Peter, Hus, Tyndale, Grebel, and many others eventually had to face the full wrath of their detractors. Sometimes there is no place to flee to avoid persecution. More Christians are being killed now than ever before for their faith. Many have no place to go. Where will we go if we become persecuted in the USA? China, Nigeria, South Korea?
This was Joseph’s fourth and final dream in which God directed him (MT 1:20; 2:13,19). This succession of dreams he experienced raises the question; how does God communicate His will to us as individuals?
Some believe He still speaks to us in dreams. This view is prevalent where missionaries work among Muslims. Many of the latter come to faith only after encountering Jesus in a dream. My theology falters at this, but missiology always has ways of messing up our neat little belief systems.
Others say God communicates with them directly and personally. They often say, “God told me”. Before I try to tackle this viewpoint, let me make one fact perfectly clear. This I know; God can say whatever to whomever whenever and however He wants to. I am not trying to put Him in a box. I rather want to convey how I best understand His dealings with us.
I am uncomfortable with any emphasis on direct individual revelation. I feel we must be extra careful to always let Scripture fill the role of direct revelation for us. I didn’t say direct individual revelation is wrong; I said I’m uneasy about it. I can remember when we Baptists started talking this way.
The charismatics did it before we did, and we did not want to be seen as second-class believers. My parents’ generation of Baptists did not speak like this. A friend of mine once took me to task on this issue. I had the good fortune of knowing his aged mother who was one of the godliest people I ever knew. I asked, “How many times have you heard your mother say, “God told me”?” “Never.” By the way, this is also true of my saintly mother.
I may be engaging in futile semantics, but I prefer to think God gives us wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5, see also Proverbs 2). When facing decisions, we need to pray, empty ourselves out before God, earnestly seek His face, and then decide. Choose.
One thing is sure; whatever method He uses to lead us, we can have more of His guidance if we want it. Whatever we think about the mechanics of how to discern God’s will, we all agree an important part of this process is that God could have at one time told Joseph everything He wanted him to know. The cascading, successive dispensing of information reminds us God reveals His will by degrees, in stages; this keeps us waiting on Him, and living close to Heaven.
The key is constant communication with God, repeatedly retreating into the private place. We like long-term planning, but God gives us only day by day, sometimes second by second, leadership. We live in a spotlight, not a floodlight. I struggle with this. If I depicted a realistic image of me in this matter, I would be squirming in a chair, repeatedly trying to get up, yet constantly hearing God say, “Wait. Sit.” I would writhe, repeatedly check my watch, shake it from time to time to make sure it was working, and check my calendar to see if I couldn’t find something I was supposed to be doing.
Make decisions. Go forward. If you’re wrong, it’s a mistake of the head, not the heart, and God will change the trajectory of your movements.