What is calling? Calling in the Scriptures

If you spend any time with people who are church planting cross culturally or are exploring moving overseas you are likely to hear the question, “How did God call you? How did you know you were called?”

However, a key question is do we see such an emphasis in scripture?

When you are chatting to a church planter and they say, God called me to move overseas and think what they are expressing is how God led them and commissioned them to serve in a particular nation, with a particular people group or in a particular ministry. At its simplest level it is used to say God led me to do what I am now doing. 

We’ll look briefly at 3 stories in scripture to give examples of God calling people. However, scriptures use of the word call or calling in a broader way when referring to how God calls people…

1.“to call” means “to invite or summon.” For example, God called to Adam (Genesis 3:9); Moses called the elders together (Exodus 19:7). We see this in the NT in the parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:16-25) and the marriage feast. There is an invitation for people to enter the marriage feast, some respond to the invitation and others don’t.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:14)

2. “to call” may be used in the sense of “to call one’s own,” to claim for one’s own possession and to appoint for a particular destiny. You see this in Romans 8:28-30.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

When calling is used in this sense, it is not merely an invitation to respond…. God’s calling of those that he has foreknown and predestined results in their coming to him and putting their calling they’ve received. If you’ve put your faith in Jesus you’ve known God calling you in this sense. 

3. The New Testament refers to the Christian life as a calling (Ephesians 1:18; Ephesians 4:1; 2 Timothy 1:9; Hebrews 3:1; 2 Peter 1:10 ). The basic call is to Christ as Lord and Savior; thus, all Christians are “called ones.”

Live a life worthy of the calling you’ve received… Eph 4:1

All Christians have been called by God to live for King Jesus. The church has a universal calling by God and commission for the gospel to go to the ends of the earth (Matt 28:18-20, Acts 1:8).

4. The call of God can be specific. God calling someone by name with a commission for a specific service. E.g. The call of Moses (Exodus 3:4-22) and the call of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1 ), the calling of Paul to be a light to the Gentiles are good examples.

3 instances in Scripture of God calling people and commissioning them to go and serve cross-culturally.

A) Genesis 12 – The call of Abram

Genesis 12:1-3

  • God clearly speaking
  • A call to leave behind security, familiarity and family.
  • A call to go to an unrevealed land.
  • Calling to go so that in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.
  • V4 “So Abram went as the LORD had told him.”

Key Lessons:

  • Not a clear call to a known place…. He had to obey and then God led him as he did.
  • Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran. → No age limit to God’s calling.

B) The call of Jonah

Jonah 1:1 

The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and call against it, for their disaster has come up before me.” Jonah 1:2

This was a clear call to a Jewish prophet to go to the capital of Assyria the great super power of the day to proclaim God’s message. Yet, Jonah fled in the opposite direction.

Why? He wanted all the blessings that God had for his own people (the people of Israel and not to other peoples or those living in other nations.

Jonah explained why he ran in Jonah 4:2 “That is why I fled and made haste to flee to Tarshish: for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relating from disaster.”

As Abram’s calling was to result in all families of the earth being blessed….. Jonah’s calling was to result in God revealing his grace and mercy to the people of Ninevah.

Key Lessons:

  • God sometimes calls the reluctant and resistant. (It is is not always people who say, “That is what I’ve always wanted to do.”)
  • When God calls people and commissions them cross culturally it is so his river of blessings, and salvation  can flow to others who have not experienced it.

C) The calling of Paul the Apostle

Acts 9 – Damascus road wanting to destroy Christians.

10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened.

God spoke to Ananias about Paul’s commission to be an instrument to carry his name to the Gentiles. This was probably around AD 34/35.Yet, is was not until AD 48 some 13/14 years later that we get to Acts 13. 

Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger,[a] Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

The contrast between Paul’s calling and Abraham and Jonah’s:

  • Paul and Barnabus did not this revelation on their own, it came through the church gathering
  • God called Paul and Barnabus two different people to serve alongside each other … rather than call a person or a family.
  • The church in Antioch sent/commission Paul and Barnabus in contrast to Abraham and Jonah either going or running without being 

Morevover, this prophetic moment in Acts 13 was the beginning of a larger fulfillment of the calling Paul had been given some 13/14 years later.

Key Lessons:

  • The key role of others prophetic words in bringing calling
  • The essential role of the local church in affirming calling and sending
  • The importance of team
  • Calling sometimes takes a significant time from God initially speaking to people stepping into what God has called them to

There are 3 different stories of God calling and commissioning people to follow his lead and serve him cross-culturally. Each story has lessons to teach us that challenge some of our expectations of who and how God calls. There is no one way that God calls people.

However, our confidence rests in the fact that we are followers of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd calls his sheep and they know his voice.