How do we know the will of God? Upon what should we base decisions about where to go or what ministry to undertake? How do we figure out when to start a ministry or when to end it?
As Paul wraps up the letter we call 1 Corinthians, he offers some final instructions and greetings. In that section that so many of us skim over, there are a couple of fascinating descriptions of what was presently going on with Paul and his associates as they made decisions about where to go and when. And, if we watch them, we will see that the way things were done in Paul’s day, 1st century Christianity long before the canon of Scripture was closed, is not exactly what we might expect.
Why do I call this different? Consider what you would expect. Most of us grew up expecting that, if a decision had to be made, the people would simply pray about it, hear from God, and follow that leading. Surely this model of decision-making would be what Paul would follow. If we go by the model of decision-making popularized by Henry Blackaby and his book Experiencing God, the decisions would be made based on prayer, circumstances, and the counsel of other believers. (Blackaby also includes the Bible in his list of ways that God speaks to us, but the Scriptures were not yet finished at this point in the life of the early church.) But, in fact, it does not seem that we see evidence of discernment following that model.
1 Corinthians 16:8-9 – 8 But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, 9 for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.
First, note how Paul decided to stay in Ephesus. He says that a wide door for effective ministry had opened for him. That certainly sounds like circumstances and ministry opportunity—going where God is at work—is behind his decision. But, on the other hand, we also see that many adversaries have arisen against Paul there. The mobilization of adversaries would be what many people see as circumstances telling them to close up shop. But in this case, Paul wanted to stay, he wanted to finish the work, and he was willing to endure the hardships. But Paul does not tell us that God told him to stay there or that the effective ministry would be in any way easy or supernaturally successful.
In fact, a study of the church in Ephesus throughout the coming years shows us that this congregation was repeatedly led by some of the biggest names in early Christianity including Paul, Timothy, and John. But, by Revelation 2:1-7 (which at its latest was written in A.D. 95), Jesus is sending a note to the church warning them to return to their first love which they have forsaken. And Jesus warns that if they do not repent, he will remove their church from existence.
1 Corinthians 16:12 – Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.
Interestingly, Paul wanted to send Apollos to Corinth. He believed that this strong and passionate preacher would have a positive impact on the easily excited and dangerously corruptible church there. But Apollos did not go. Why? It was not a divine revelation that kept Apollos at home. And, it is fascinating that Apollos’ choice not to go right now flies in the face of a request made by Paul, who clearly asked this favor, but did not order it with apostolic authority. No, it seems that Apollos simply was unwilling to go at present, but he said he would go later.
How did these men who loved God make these choices? From the words we have, it seems that they did not rely on any sort of mystical means or extra-biblical revelation. Instead, these men, who were certainly devoted to the Lord and to prayer, made their choices as to what to do based on something that appears more simple.
For sure, the decisions of these men would have been bound by Scripture. God’s word is how God speaks to us—we all agree on that. Any decision that would violate Scripture would be out-of-bounds. Any decision that refused to obey a clearly given command in Scripture would also be unacceptable. But, though God commanded the spread of the gospel, he did not tell individual followers of Jesus, at least in this case, whether to stay in Ephesus or go to Corinth.
Circumstances do not appear to have played a particularly determining role here. Paul had both opportunity and adversaries. But the Corinthians had clear need. God was at work in Ephesus and in Corinth. The Spiritual gifting of the Corinthians shows that the Spirit of God was moving in their midst while the corruption in the body showed how greatly they needed a stable teacher to straighten them out. But neither Paul nor Apollos was headed their direction right away. Only Timothy, a young man with a reputation for timidity was planning to pass through.
Neither can we assume that the decision was made based on the counsel of other believers. Paul, in Acts, was known to go places against the advice of others. Apollos was counseled by Paul to go now to Corinth and did not want to do so.
What then? Are these guys missing the will of God? No, I do not think so. But they did not use mystical means to determine what to do. Instead, they obeyed Scripture, they prayed, they weighed circumstances, they trusted the Lord, and then they did what their hearts desired. No voice from heaven came to any of them. They just loved God, participated in proper spiritual practices as believers, and went where seemed best to them. They discerned the will of God based on obedience to Scripture and the desires of their hearts.
Without question, the Holy Spirit of God was at work in the lives of Paul and Apollos to direct them where the Lord wanted them. We cannot doubt that God moves quietly in the lives of his servants to place them where he wants them. What we do not see, however, is any claim on the part of either man that God specifically told either of them which town to go to. Paul saw an opportunity he did not want to give up. Apollos simply did not want to go right now. But neither verse of this passage says to us that God ‘said” to either man not to go. They exercised a personal, Christian freedom not to go to Corinth right now.
How should this impact us? I actually think it is comforting and freeing. The Lord moves his people without requiring them to claim a word from him. So long as we are loving the Lord in our lives, praying and obeying his word, we will be free to make choices. And, if we trust the sovereignty of God, we can know that we need not fear that our choices made in good faith and in line with Scripture will ever do any harm to the ultimate plan of God. So, we love God. We pray. We study Scripture. We pay attention to godly counsel. But, at the end of the day, as we delight in the Lord, we expect that he will give our hearts desires that will honor his name and fulfill his secret plans. (c.f. Psa. 37:4; deu. 29:29).