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Responding to the Holy Spirit

Toby Galloway

Responding to the Holy Spirit is a fundamental aspect of the mature Christian life. As lovers of Jesus, those responses are the steps which make-up our walk with God.

In discovering personally what it means to respond to the Holy Spirit, we can find many examples in the Bible, especially in the Acts of the Apostles; which could more accurately be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit. This book is not so much a record of what the Apostles were doing, as what the Holy Spirit accomplished in and through them.

One of the best compliments you can give a contemporary church is to compare it to the Early Church – that is, during the time of Acts. In those days, the Apostles and followers of The Way had no history to refer to, nor structure to give them security. Each step they took was in response to God, their only security being what Jesus had taught them and the leadership and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit they would have been without direction and without power. That is why Jesus said it was better that He go away, and send the Holy Spirit to them.

There are many and varied accounts in Acts, of the Apostles and others finding their way in unknown and often life-threatening situations. It could have looked like they were making it up as they went along, but in fact they were being guided by the Holy Spirit.

Without the Holy Spirit they would have been without direction and without power

One such account is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian. Philip (not to be confused with Philip the Disciple), was one of the seven Deacons chosen by the Apostles, who went on to preach the gospel to multitudes in Samaria. It was while in Samaria that “an angel of the Lord” came to him:

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
(Acts 8:26-40)

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.)  So he got up and went. There he met an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home, sitting in his chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.”  So Philip ran up to it and heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”  The man replied, “How in the world can I, unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.  Now the passage of scripture the man was reading was this:

“He was led like a sheep to slaughter,
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In humiliation justice was taken from him.
Who can describe his posterity?
For his life was taken away from the earth.”

Then the eunuch said to Philip, “Please tell me, who is the prophet saying this about – himself or someone else?”  So Philip started speaking, and beginning with this scripture proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him.  Now as they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water! What is to stop me from being baptised?”  So he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptised him.  Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him any more, but went on his way rejoicing.  Philip, however, found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through the area, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.


God has brought this passage to my attention over the last year – in clear and specific ways and in three different countries. On each occasion, I was there because of my response to the Holy Spirit – He had put that place on my heart. When it first happened I felt thankful to God for His encouragement and that He was with me there.

The second time, I was amazed at God’s generosity and further encouragement. By the third time, I started to feel that God was not only giving me encouragement but that He actually had more to say to me. In pursuing this, I had the sense that He was wanting me to pay closer attention to what Philip did in response to the Holy Spirit, and to learn from his expression of faith.

Because of my love for God, I have a deep personal desire to walk with Him like this. So as I’ve let the story of Philip and the Ethiopian settle on my heart, there are four particular aspects that stand out.

Hearing God
To start with, we must be in a position that we are able to hear God’s voice, and then make it our business to respond to what He is saying. However, if we’ve limited our availability to God, we’re unlikely to hear what He’s wanting to say. In Jesus’s words “The one who has ears had better listen!” (Matthew 11:15)

The prophet Isaiah had such a heart after God that when he heard God’s question “Whom will I send? Who will go on our behalf?” (Isaiah 6:8) and without knowing any more, his unequivocal response was “Here I am, send me!” From then on, Isaiah became the man God called him to be.

Further on in the book of Isaiah (30:21), he talks about hearing God’s voice:

‘You will hear a word spoken behind you, saying, “This is the correct way, walk in it,” whether you are heading to the right or the left.’

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between God’s voice and our own thoughts and feelings. It tends to become clear when we involve close friends, or let go of worrying where a response may lead, trusting in God’s ongoing direction. Sometimes it’s marked by a quiet knowing in our hearts, that “still, small voice”. But it’s only when we – like Isaiah – live with our lives fully and freely given over to God, that we will hear His voice.

Obeying God
When He speaks to us, God expects our obedience. The Holy Spirit gave Philip an unusual direction to go and stand by a road that leads through a desert. Not an obvious place for God to send one of His messengers, but God didn’t need Philip’s understanding, just his obedience.

When He speaks to us, God expects our obedience

The word “obey” appears countless times throughout the Bible, which underlines the value God places on our obedience. Jesus’s own words to His disciples couldn’t be clearer: “If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” (John 15:10). He loves our obedience, there is no better way to express our love to Him. Whenever God speaks, it’s our privilege to obey.

God’s Plans But Our Steps
Like Philip, we don’t need the plan for today, next week, or the rest of our lives. God invites each of us on a great adventure, and the best adventures unfold like a mystery tour with twists and turns, full of unexpected and often wonderful events. That’s the life God has for each of us when, rather than making our own plans, we place our trust in Him.

God then told Philip the next step, to go up to the chariot. God always has another step for us to take, but He’s dependent on us being attentive to His voice, and ready to respond when He speaks.

But God also depended on Philip using his initiative. Overhearing the Ethiopian reading from Isaiah, he asked if he understood what he was reading. Philip took a risk in addressing a high-ranking official like this, not thinking of his own safety because his trust was in God. Because he was representing God, he was free to share the good news of Jesus, without worrying what might happen to him.

Likewise, if we represent ourselves rather than God, we make ourselves the focus. But Paul urges each of us in Romans 12:1, to be a “sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God”. In doing so, we make our lives about Him, not about ourselves, which enables Him to use us and reveal Himself through us to whoever He wishes.

God’s Authority
Rather than representing ourselves we have the privilege of standing in God’s authority. God needed Philip to represent Him to the Ethiopian. Baptising the Ethiopian was possibly the first gentile baptism recorded in the Bible. It would have been no small thing for Philip to do something as radical as baptising an Ethiopian, but Philip simply knew that in doing so, he was carrying out God’s will

Similarly, each of us need to know the difference between when we are acting with God’s authority and when we are acting on our own. When, as mature Christians, we act only and purely in response to God, we also know that we represent Him and have His authority.

None of us can know the consequences that flow out of our obedience to God. Being such a high-ranking dignitary in Ethiopia it’s fair to assume that this man’s conversion led to the establishment of the Christian church in Ethiopia. No small consequence as a result of Philip going “south to the desert road”.

You and I have the privilege of being called to be available and obedient to God

For me the overriding message of this story is to always be making my life available to God for His purposes, so that I can be directed by the Holy Spirit. My responses to Him should always be ongoing, leading to further responses; so that instead of sporadic or separate steps, I am consistently walking with God, so that He can have His way in me and through me.

Two thousand years after this event, it must be no different for each of us who are followers of Jesus, and filled with the Holy Spirit. Like Philip, you and I have the privilege of being called to be available and obedient to God, because of our love for Him. In this way, we free Him to express Himself through our lives, in present day Acts of the Holy Spirit.

– Toby Galloway

*All Bible references are taken from the New English Translation
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