Some people look at the five or six major instances of supernatural guidance (through dreams, angels or visions) in the New Testament and assume that this is the normal method for receiving guidance today. I want to sound a number of cautions about this.
Firstly, as Packer points out, guidance by dreams, visions and direct verbal messages must be judged as exceptional and not normal, even for the apostles and their contemporaries. Barclay asks if supernatural guidance was meant to be the norm, ‘why was it so rare and why are we nowhere in the Scripture promised such supernatural leading?'
Secondly, a number of authors suggest that nowhere in the Bible were these extraordinary means of guidance sought. Elizabeth Elliot states that when God ‘guided by means of the pillar or cloud and fire, by the star of Bethlehem, by visitations of angels, by the word coming through visions and dreams and prophets and even through an insulted donkey, in most cases these were not signs that had been asked for.’ Acts 13:1-2 might suggest otherwise, after all Marshall (commenting on this passage) says that ‘the church felt it necessary to lay aside even the demands of hunger in order to concentrate on serving God and receiving guidance’ (italics added).
Thirdly, while the methods by which God guided people in the Scriptures tell us something of how he can direct people we must not forget that these events are taking place as part of the unfolding plan of the salvation story. For example the events recorded at the beginning of Acts 13 marked a unique change of direction for the church as it formally began its missionary endeavours to Gentiles. Saunders writes that ‘examination reveals that these dreams did not usually come to people in general but to special people in special situations.’
Fourthly, Robinson points out that God ‘spoke at times when He desired a major change in the church’s direction.’ Smith suggests the possibility that such guidance may be given where wisdom would suggest a different path than God intends.’ For example reason would have suggested that Philip stay in Samaria where a big revival was underway and not head off on a desert road (Acts 8:26).
Saunders writes that one ‘factor to be borne in mind is that at the time the biblical events were recorded, the New Testament was not in existence.’ However Smith points out that this is besides the point stating, ‘the guidance was not a revelation of moral or doctrinal truths such as the canon of Scripture but directives for personal decisions which couldn’t have been found in Scripture anyway.’ Although when reading the Old Testament we may remember that most of God’s people did not have the indwelling Holy Spirit, yet we still see supernatural guidance after the Holy Spirit is poured out on all believers at Pentecost.
Jensen and Payne probably are too prescriptive when they declare that ‘in terms of what we should expect or look for [with regards to guidance], and in terms of what God has promised to do, Scripture (in the hands of the Spirit) is the only method.’ However, Barclay may be giving a healthy corrective to our desire to have God relate to us through supernatural means when he points out that a wider study of Acts and the Epistles makes it clear that, normally, the apostles were guided by ordinary decisions about the situation before them. As Saunders states it ‘is a wise working principle to regard supernatural or spectacular guidance as the exception, not the rule.’