One of the paradoxes of Christian ministry is that leaders are first and foremost followers. When Jesus called His first disciples–those who would give leadership to His church–He told them, “Follow me.” So unless we are following Jesus, we have no business leading others.
Most of us agree with that in principle. But in practice it gets more difficult. How can we be sure we are following Jesus as we lead others? When we face difficult and complex issues in ministry–personnel selections, financial choices, directional decisions–how can we be confident we are doing what God wants done?
That’s a question I’ve been considering as I’ve studied through the book of Acts this year. Acts is a great place to look for an answer to this question because it gives us case studies of how God led the first Christians who launched out in mission.
After reading and re-reading the book of Acts, I’d answer that question like this: God leads those in ministry by His Spirit. Throughout Acts we read about the Holy Spirit’s ongoing involvement in the lives of those who were engaged in ministry. In fact, some biblical commentators refer to the book as the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”
But that answer is still rather vague, isn’t it? You might be thinking, “Well, exactly how does that happen?” I’d answer by saying that God leads believers by His Spirit in three primary ways. While these three ways are found throughout the book of Acts, examples of all three show up in chapter 16. [If you take a moment to read through Acts 16, you’ll track better with my comments below.]
I’ll start by focusing on one of the three ways and deal with the other two in successive posts. Finally, I’ll wrap things up by reflecting on how we can integrate and apply what we learn about God’s leading to our current ministry situations.
God leads through providential provisions
Acts 16 opens with Paul and Silas launching out on a second missionary journey (the first missions trip is chronicled in Acts 13-14). As they come to the city of Lystra, they meet Timothy, a young man who is highly regarded by the believers in his church. Paul sees in Timothy a perfect replacement for John Mark (who had deserted the team on the first missions trip).
While you could say meeting Timothy was just a happy coincidence, it’s more accurate to view it as a providential provision. God sovereignly directed Paul to Timothy, providing him with a “son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2) and life-long ministry colleague (see 2 Timothy 4:9-13).
We see a similar providential provision when Paul, Silas and Timothy come to Philippi. They make their way to a nearby river “expecting to find a place of prayer” (16:13). Here they happen to meet a woman named Lydia who believes the gospel message and welcomes them into her home. She helps launch the church in Philippi. Again, God provides just the right person for the extension of the mission.
We could point to still another providential provision later in the chapter. After Paul and Silas are locked up in jail, God sends an earthquake to open the prison doors (16:25-34). The earthquake was perfectly timed to open both the prison doors and the heart of the jailer on duty; he “fell trembling before Paul and Silas” and asked, ‘What must I do to be saved?” (16:29-30).
Throughout the chapter God directs His servants by providentially orchestrating circumstances to provide what was needed at just the right time: a young apprentice for Paul, a woman to host the fledgling church and a earthquake to move a Roman jailer put his faith in Christ.
God still works providentially in lives and ministries today. He connects us with the right people at just the right time. He shakes things up to open eyes and hearts to the gospel. He sovereignly works to guide and provide for those who are on mission for Him.
We’ve recently seen this happen at Heritage in some personnel additions. God moved circumstances in some stunning ways to direct us to several individuals who were the right fit for our staffing needs.
So God can lead His people through providential provisions. But that’s not the only way God’s Spirit leads those on mission. Next time, we’ll explore a second way.