God reigns (Isa. 52:7), and this means we need to be concerned about God’s will. This also means that we must be concerned with knowing what God wants and knowing how God communicates His will. Remember that the Holy Spirit is the Revealer of God’s mind (1 Cor. 2:13), so we must pay attention to what the Spirit has revealed. Here we are asking how basic communication works because this will inform us about how God communicates with us. What we are talking about here is typical of all communication. If you want to communicate your will to someone, how will you do it? If God communicates His will to us, how does He do it? There is no magical formula here. However communication occurs is how anyone’s will is made known, and God has communicated to us in the very same ways we would try to communicate to others, whether we are parents, workers, employers, and in all other avenues of life. All we are doing here is recognizing, in a logical and reasonable way, that God communicates His will to us in the same way. If we are going to understand God’s authority, we should step back and consider how this happens.
It’s How Communication Works.
There are some basic premises in understanding how God communicates His will or authority. God communicates His will in the same ways we communicate our wills. By understanding how we fundamentally communicate, we will understand more about how God communicates.
People may buck against the idea of “establishing” authority from God, but the issue is simply how God communicates His will. When we know that, we’ve answered how His authority is made known. How is anyone’s will communicated? If you are going to communicate what you want, how will you do it? This gets to the heart of the issue. Really, there are three basic ways to communicate something:
First, we tell others what we want. This is direct and can be an order or statement.
Second, we show others what we want and how to do it. Illustrations, examples, or models are part of this process.
Third, we imply what we expect others to get by what we say or show. This can even be done through gestures or silence, depending on the context. When people “get it,” then they have inferred from the implication what we wanted them to get. For example, a principle might come from what we are told, and we may infer from the stated principle a proper application to our current situation.
Any attempt at communication will utilize at least one of these. Try to communicate without them! If others disagree just ask them to express that disagreement without telling, showing, or implying anything about it. Telling, showing, and implying are logically self-evident. No further proof is needed, as objections to this are self-defeating and logically incoherent.
Does this kind of communication come from God or man? Our abilities to think logically and communicate do come from God. He made us creatures with the need and ability to communicate, and this is just how it is done. To help us understand God’s authority, then, we need to start with the logical premises and show that there is no way around how communication works. We are simply reminding people of the fundamental logic that underlies all communication, including God’s.
The process of telling, showing, and implying is not itself a method of interpretation. Rather, it is a recognition of how we get the raw data that then is interpreted. In other words, we start with the facts: what did God say? What has been shown? Then we proceed to interpret these.
Tell, Show, and Imply in Action: Acts 10
We have argued that communication, in its most basic form, takes place through the process of telling, showing, and implying. No one can communicate without doing at least one of these in some form. This is what the communicator brings to the process. The receptor, on the other hand, takes what is told, shown, or implied and interprets that material. The receptor is asking, “What do these mean? How do they apply to my situation?”
Scripture gives multiple and varied examples of these forms of communication as they express God’s will. We are going to focus here on how God communicated His will to Peter in Acts 10. As a Jew, Peter had grown up learning not to associate with gentiles (vs. 28). This is understandable, given that God was clear about His people not mixing with the pagan nations. All of this was about to change, and this change illustrates the process of telling, showing, and implying. It is also the way that Peter knew God’s will about preaching to the gentiles.
First, God showed Peter a vision that was intended to teach something vital about God’s intentions. Peter had gone up on a housetop to pray but fell into a trance in which he saw this vision of an object like a sheet lowered down by the four corners (vv. 9-16). In this sheet were four-footed animals, creatures, and birds. Then a voice told him to get up, kill these creatures, and eat. Peter refused, saying that he had never eaten anything unholy or unclean. The voice responded, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happened three times. Peter was shown something by God, and he recognized this, as he indicates in vs. 28: “God has shown me…”
Second, God directly told Peter to go with the gentiles who were coming to ask for him. After the vision, while Peter was contemplating what it meant, three men showed up looking for him. Before, Peter might have tried to avoid this circumstance. However, the Spirit told him, “get up, go downstairs and accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself” (vs. 20). Peter was told to go, so he did.
Third, Peter inferred that he should not call any man common or unclean. Peter had to think about what that vision meant, coupled with the fact that God told him to go with those men to the gentiles. He figured it out, as his words to Cornelius demonstrate: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. That is why I came without even raising any objection when I was sent for. So I ask for what reason you have sent for me?”
Peter drew a required conclusion based on what he had been shown and told. The context helped to make it obvious. Yet there is nowhere in the text where God says, “The gentiles are now clean and you may preach to them.” Perhaps Peter could have reasoned that the vision was only about animals and food, not men. Nowhere in the vision is there anything about men. Perhaps he could have concluded that God wanted him to go with those men for some other reasons. Those gentiles were the ones who said that Cornelius wanted to hear a message from him. How did he know they weren’t lying? How could he trust them? He had to trust what he was told, and he inferred that what God showed him was really about men.
Peter put all the pieces together. The vision showed him something about clean and unclean. The Spirit told him to go with them and that this was all from God. He trusted the Spirit and the context. When he arrived, he realized the implications of what he was told and shown. He was not to call any man common or unclean.
Through telling, showing, and implying, God communicated His will to Peter. “But wait a minute,” one might object. “The purpose of this passage isn’t to explain how God communicates His authority.” No, God’s purpose was to communicate something to Peter, who, in turn, would communicate the gospel to Cornelius and his family. This would then show that the gentiles were proper recipients of the gospel. All we are doing is paying attention to how this happened. We are seeing the ways in which God communicated His will to others. We are not creating a new form of interpretation; we are observing and making an application.
The situation in Acts 10 shows us that God values the entire communication process. He could have told Peter explicitly not to call any man unclean, without giving him a vision. He could have spelled it out completely for Peter. Instead, God chose to show him something, tell him something, and imply something that he expected Peter to understand by putting all the information together. God values the process that includes implication and inference. He values the ability He has given to us to reason things out and draw warranted conclusions. He wants his people to think through the implications of what is told and shown in the expression of His will. This is “tell, show, and imply” in action. If God valued that process, so should we.
The communication process is straightforward in principle. There are only so many ways to try to communicate, and these will always entail some form of telling, showing, and implying. There is just no other way to do it. Our argument is that God has communicated to us in these very ways. He tells us what He wants, shows us what He wants, and implies what He expects us to get. This is not some special method of interpretation, but rather a process by which we, as the receivers, recognize the data given to us by God.
1. How does communication work? Why would we say that “tell, show, and imply” are the primary ways?
2. How does understanding the fundamental communication process help us understand God’s authority?
3. How would you respond to the question, “Does the communication process come from God or man?” Why?
4. Why would we say that “tell, show, and imply” is not itself a method of interpretation? How does the process give us the raw data?
5. How did the vision given to Peter, in Acts 10, show him that he should not call any man common or unclean?
6. Why did the Spirit tell Peter to go without any misgivings? Why would Peter have had misgivings?
7. What relevant information did Peter have in order to infer what he did about preaching to the gentiles? What reasoning process would cause one to conclude what Peter did?
8. Why would we say that God valued the “tell, show, and imply” process? Why should we value the process?