“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” – John 10:27
My friend Ben recently told me he fears he may not be saved. When I asked him to share with me the reason for his lack of assurance, I expected him to divulge that he was being mastered by some secret, besetting sin or that he was growing doubtful about the truthfulness of the Scriptures. But that wasn’t the kind of response I received. He said sorrowfully, “I don’t hear from God like I should.”
Ben’s charismatic cousin once told him that God speaks to her everyday. He asked her if she meant that the Spirit guides, influences, and “inspires” her—because he too experiences these things. She said no, insisting that God literally speaks to her—and not in a “he brings bible verses to mind” kind of way. She said he encourages her with personal words of affirmation, gives her ‘words’ to give to other people, and sometimes even informs her of events that lie ahead in the future.
Ben’s trouble reveals how vital it is that we rightly understand what the Bible means when it talks about hearing God’s voice. But before we venture into what it means to hear God, we should first consider how God most commonly speaks. I cannot find any biblical ground to stand on in saying he never speaks to believers in the way Ben’s cousin described. However, I do not believe the Scriptures portray this as God’s normative method for speaking to his people. In the introduction of his epistle, the author of Hebrews described how God usually communicates:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .” – Hebrews 1:1-2 (emphasis mine)
It has been God’s longstanding practice to speak to the general population of his people through spokespersons or prophets. And as the author of Hebrews wrote, God’s last major spokesperson was his Son. The Father gave Jesus words of eternal life (John 6:68) to speak into the world (John 17:8). He spoke many of these words while dwelling bodily on the Earth, and he spoke the rest of them by the Spirit through his hand-selected messengers (John 16:12-15). The biblical writers supernaturally remembered, received, and recorded Christ’s words so that future generations would have access to God’s final, glorious message to the world: the good news of the gospel.
To this day and until the end of days, God speaks primarily through his Son, Jesus Christ, whose words are preserved for us in the Bible—both those he spoke with his physical mouth (red ink) and those he spoke by his Spirit through the inspired writers (black ink). While the New Testament obviously does not contain every word Jesus ever spoke (John 21:25), it does contain every word the Father gave him to give to us (John 17:8).
So, understanding that God’s normative method for speaking to Christians is by Jesus through the inspired Scriptures, we can now ask the question: what does it mean to hear Jesus’ words?
In chapter 10 of John’s gospel, Christ stated that the distinguishing mark of his sheep is their ability to hear his voice. Ironically though, there were many listening to him who he said were not among his sheep (John 10:26). These people heard with their physical ears the words he spoke—yet he accused them of not hearing him. It’s obvious that the kind of “hearing” Jesus was talking about involves more than merely processing his words with our physical capacities.
He went on to say in the next verse, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Notice what the sheep that truly hear his voice do: they follow him. The only people who follow Jesus are those who believe, embrace, and bank their lives on his words. Many who were under the sound of his voice rejected what he said; therefore they did not truly hear him. But those who believed his words followed him and thereby demonstrated that they truly heard his voice.
Simply put: to believe Jesus is to hear Jesus.
Back to my friend, Ben. I asked him, “Ben, do the words you read in the Bible resonate with you as the truth that is from God?” “They do,” he said. “Do you cherish what you read in the Bible?” I asked. “With all my heart!” he exclaimed. “Does what you read in the Bible convict and challenge you?” I asked. He laughed and said, “Only every day.” “Then you hear God’s voice!” I assured him.
Some of my fellow Baptists may take issue with what I’m about to say, but I do believe God sometimes speaks to people outside of Scripture (though never out of sync with Scripture). I see nothing in the Bible that leads me to conclude he has utterly discontinued communicating in the forms of an audible voice, dreams, and visions (though the content of these forms of suspected communication must be tested against biblical revelation). However, the clearest and most common way God speaks to all his beloved children is by the sacred Scriptures. It is no insignificant thing when we read the Bible and our souls swell with gratitude, awe, comfort, fear, and praise. Our faith-filled response to these inspired words demonstrates that we are legitimate sheep of Christ who truly hear his voice.
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” – John 10:27-30