How does God give assurance?
When we consider the ‘calling to mission service’ we usually think of supernatural events, like the burning bush with Moses (Exodus 3), the appearance of the angel with Gideon (Judges 6), the vision of Isaiah (Isaiah 6) or the ray of light that struck down Saul (Acts 9). And these supernatural experiences have shaped our understanding of the biblical idea of “calling”.
In Scripture, however, these are more the exception than the general rule. God can intervene in such spectacular ways, but in most cases God has given guidance through inconspicuous, quiet ways, gradually giving assurance - and this is much more the rule in the Old and New Testaments.
Let us reflect on the calling of Silas, one of the great missionaries of the New Testament and a close co-worker of the apostle Paul. We read about his calling in Acts 15:40: "but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord”. We do not hear that God spoke to him directly. On the contrary, Silas appears detached and passive. In the centre of the action we find the apostle Paul, who has a serious personnel problem. After separation from his colleague Barnabas (Acts 15:39) he is without staff and urgently needs travelling companions. Then he remembers Silas from Jerusalem, who had been on a short-term mission to Antioch and had recently returned home. Paul had got to know him personally and they had worked together well. But now Silas is back home in Jerusalem, some 500 kilometres to the south, a long journey at that time. Paul selects this person and not one the co-workers in Antioch. He does not spare any effort to bring Silas to his side. On the surface it looks like a human decision taken by Paul, born out of personnel needs, personal experience and possibly strategic considerations. Yet behind this human thinking, there is God’s guidance - and Silas accepts this event as God's calling in his life. In this example we see three basic principles:
God calls through facts
First, God uses human considerations, numbers and facts. William Carey, the pioneer of the modern mission movement 200 years ago, experienced just the same. He collected demographic data from all over the world and these opened his eyes to the unreached peoples of the world. For Nikolaus Ludwig Count of Zinzendorf, the father of the Moravian mission movement, it was a personal encounter with black former slave Anton whom he met at the coronation of the Danish king in Copenhagen. Through this encounter he learnt about the misery of the slaves in the Caribbean - and one year later the first Moravian missionaries were sent from Herrnhut straight to these islands. God uses reason (Acts 14:6), logical thinking (Acts 16:13), strategic planning (Acts 13:6), pastoral compassion (Acts 15:37), incidental circumstances (Acts 14:19) and even persecution (Acts 9:24) to lead his ambassadors and to give assurance of His calling.
God speaks through other Christians
Secondly, God often speaks to another person instead of to the person himself. In the case of the apostle Paul it was Ananias in Damascus (Acts 9:15). Jesus appeared to him, too, and called him to go to the blind Paul and testify that he would become an apostle to the nations. Jesus did not explain this to Paul directly when he was struck by the light and thrown down to the ground. In the case of Timothy it was Paul (Acts 16:3), and in the case of John Mark it was Barnabas (Acts 12.25). God often uses people to give assurance and direction to his people (Acts 9:25 + 27 + 30; 11:25; 15:40). In this way, personal conviction (subjective calling) is complemented by external factors and circumstances outside the person’s control (objective appointment). This gives strong assurance that will stand the test of crises and hardship.
Appointment as a process
Thirdly, calling is often a long process and not a one-off event. Silas’ calling appeared to be a spontaneous decision taken by Paul, but actually had a long history:
- Silas was a proven co-worker in the church in Jerusalem and had contributed to the Apostles’ council (Acts 15:22), the fundamental missiological decision on how to become and how to live as followers of Christ, i.e. that non-Jewish believers are not subject to Jewish rituals and culture.
- He was selected by the church in Jerusalem as a man of trust (verse 22) and sent to Antioch together with Paul and Barnabas.
- He is described as an outstanding person (verse 22), i.e. a natural leader, a person of integrity and natural authority, able to make wise decisions, one whose word has weight.
- He risked his life for Jesus (verse 26). This underlines his commitment and passion, his courage and willingness to serve and to take on new challenges, his bravery, his ability to live in peace with others, his wisdom and his love for Jesus.
- Together with other ambassadors Silas was appointed to explain verbally the apostles’ decision to the church in Antioch (verse 27), i.e. publicly announce, proclaim. This refers to his gift in communication.
- Silas is also called a prophet (verse 32), i.e. a person who proclaims God’s word publicly, expounds God’s truth, applying it to the life situation of the listeners, led by God’s Spirit.
- He admonished the brothers (verse 32), i.e. he was able to comfort, encourage, build up and provide pastoral care.
- He admonished with many words (verse 32), underlining his patience, persistence and perseverance.
- Silas strengthened the church (verse 32), lifting up the weak, building up young believers, working effectively.
- This took place in the multi-cultural context of the church in Antioch, one of the largest metropolises in the Roman Empire, characterised by Greek culture.
The local church as a place of training
All these qualities which Silas possessed did not develop overnight but grew slowly through years of faithful service. His long ministry in the Jerusalem church was not in vain, but was God’s training programme for him: his gifts had gradually developed, his expertise grown in ministry, and his faith expanded and been proven in ministry. God prepares his workers! This is now the person whom Paul selects as his co-worker. In summary, the fundamental question is not: "How can I find my place of ministry in world mission?" but rather: "How can I become a person whom God can use for His glory?"
The local church as a place of calling
Silas was built up by the church in Jerusalem and the church selected him and sent him on a short-term mission to Antioch where he served in teaching, discipling and pastoral care, further expanding his expertise in this multicultural city. The church in Antioch became acquainted with him – and finally adopted him as their missionary and sent him into missions: "commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord" (verse 40) - i.e. blessed and sent. This proves that at least two churches (Jerusalem and Antioch) were involved in the training, appointment and commissioning of Silas. Calling to missions is an integral part of normal church life.
Not a private decision
Are we a church like the church in Jerusalem, that identifies gifted co-workers, promotes, trains, challenges and appoints them, entrusting responsibilities to them, inviting them into the leadership team, building up the next generation of leaders? Do we search for potential missionaries? Do we give young people in our church a vision of what God could make out of their lives? Are we workers who speak into the lives of young people and appoint them for service as the church in Jerusalem or the apostle Paul did, specifically addressing potential co-workers? This is the responsibility of each youth group leader, Sunday school teacher, church elder, counsellor and pastor. This is our responsibility before God. The calling of Silas was not his private, personal decision. Many people had a part in it. Paul's final call ("but Paul chose Silas" - verse 40) gave ultimate assurance. Do we have so few missionaries today because church elders lack the courage to express a call and to send their best people? The church will not become poorer but richer and more blessed when it sends out its best people as missionaries.
What about me?
Am I willing to be sent? Would I permit another person to speak into my life and to consider prayerfully whether this might be God’s calling? David, Paul, Silas, John Mark and Timothy experienced their calling in this way. Or do we lay down conditions as to how God has to speak - and perhaps never find assurance? This is a challenge to everyone. Everyone is called to pray for young potential missionaries, to encourage and advise them, provide practical help and financial support. We are all called to be God’s instruments in the appointment and sending of His ambassadors. Am I available to God? Jesus wants to be Lord in all aspects of my life. He wants to act through my life - as a prayer partner, encourager, supporter and mission partner, as a person who speaks into the lives of others and is part of a church that sends missionaries – or possibly as a person who is himself sent. Each follower of Christ is called to share the Good News with his neighbours, colleagues and friends – and some even in a foreign culture. Your life really counts!
Dr. Detlef Blöcher