|Series Theme: Living with Uncertainty|
PART FOUR: Aftermath
‘Living with Uncertainty' Meditations: 30. Dealing with Doubts
Jn 20:25 “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
And So? So Sunday has come and gone and we know he is risen, but the uncertainty remains. In fact it is as strong today almost, as any other day. Yes, we are certain that he has risen but what next? The texts are not clear, they were not written as a cohesive team effort, each seeking to co-ordinate with the others. No, they worked with what they had and, if I may use an illustration I often use because I think it covers such situations well, it is like different reporters turning up at a major road crash involving a number of vehicles and they each report from their perspective which, although accurate, is different.
Go or Stay? We'll come to the end of the first week in a moment but let's consider some instructions that were given, starting with Matthew. Consider the angel's instruction to the women: “Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you.” (Mt 28:11) but then a few minutes later the women meet him. The angel didn't say they wouldn't see him before they left, merely that they should convey to the others his intentions that they should go up to Galilee where they would have time with him. Mark has basically the same thing. Luke winds his Gospel up fairly quickly after including the ‘road to Emmaus' incident and Jesus coming to the disciples in the evening in Jerusalem. It all comes to an end rather prematurely it feels, but then he is going to write a follow-up, Acts. John fills in some gaps with his account of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus who gives the information, “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father.” (Jn 20:17) Again don't read what is not there. He does not say, “I am going to ascend now,” he is just declaring part of what is yet to come. Indeed John then includes the account of how Jesus came to the disciples there in Jerusalem (Jn 20:19-). Whether it is John (which I believe) or another writer, as some suppose, but in chapter 21 we find Jesus meeting the disciples in Galilee (which Luke summarizes in Acts 1). Only after the weeks in Galilee, when they then return to Jerusalem where the disciples need to be as witnesses to the coming Holy Spirit, does Jesus ascend. Each of the details from each individual writer are fulfilled.
A Week Later: But there is a significant incident that John records, that none of the Synoptics in almost their hurry to wind up their Gospels included - and maybe John includes it as writing many years later Thomas has died and he no longer needs to spare his blushes – and it is of Thomas's struggle to believe. When Jesus went to the disciples at the end of Sunday, Thomas was not there when the rest encountered Jesus. When Jesus has left, and Thomas returns, he has great trouble in believing them all. (Jn 20:24,25) A week later (v.26) Jesus comes again and all of Thomas's doubts are dispelled (v.26-29).
Ongoing Question Marks: But there is something about this encounter that is important and we so easily miss it in our focusing on Thomas. It is that “ A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them.” (v.26) Notice here a number of ‘uncertainties', questions marks that hang over this account. Note three things:
- first of all – “a week later” . Seven days on and they are still in Jerusalem; they have not yet left for Galilee.
- second, why was this? See: “the doors were locked” . They were still fearful of possible arrest, still fearful of the authorities and although they have been reassured that Jesus has risen, there are still big question marks, so they are still in hiding a week later.
- third, “Jesus came and stood among them”. The fact was that he had not been with them over this past week, they had been alone and he had not come to them previously (since the last Sunday) otherwise Thomas's doubt would have been resolved earlier. Where had Jesus been???
An Unresolved Mystery: Where has Jesus been in that week? Why did he keep disappearing and leaving the disciples? Why hadn't he stayed with them all soon after he rose from the dead? Why had he gone to Emmaus which is some seven miles or so west of Jerusalem? (Lk 24:13) There is so much uncertainty here that it would fill a book. The absence of all these details suggests the Lord simply says, “You don't need these things.” Yes, but it would have been useful to know; why are we left in uncertainty? OK, it is pure speculation, but did Jesus want the disciples just to settle down and absorb the enormity of what had happened? Did he want to give them time to reflect on the wonder of it all just as we have over these past few weeks? Did he go, perhaps, to Bethany, and stay in secret with Mary, Martha and Lazarus? Had he gone on the trip to Emmaus specifically to bring about he events recorded? And so, we are left with holes in the record which, intriguingly – and it is intriguing – that none of the Gospel writers thought to fill. Maybe they simply didn't know, perhaps no one knew or those who did kept quiet about it. The is mystery here, uncertainties galore, but they just don't affect the outcome.
The Outcome for us? The literal outcome here is that the disciples end up in Galilee – which we'll consider tomorrow – and then to witness the ascension and then experience Pentecost, all of which are good sources of uncertainty and which we will consider before we finish. But what about us? How do we handle these gaps in our knowledge of what followed Easter Sunday? Should these gaps, these uncertainties, these unknowns, affect our faith? Well they may provide ammunition of the cynical unbeliever but that speaks more to their ignorance than to anything else.
I used to have an old friend many years ago who made a wise statement that has stayed with me ever since – there may be things in the Bible I don't know or don't understand, but the things I do know and do understand enable me to trust God for the things I don't. That is the truth; there is so much here, so much in the accounts that we have been considering over these past weeks, that we may have a bucket-full or three of uncertainties but actually they pale into insignificance in the light of all the things that are clear.
One of the marvels, I find, is that these people who lived two thousand years ago, didn't have my computer, struggled with writing on materials that were not always easy to get hold of, and yet wrote reams and reams of material to let us know what they saw, what they experienced, to help us believe. When John wrote near the end of his Gospel, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name,” (Jn 20:30,31) he was being blatantly honest about his goal in writing, in his old age, this incredibly profound Gospel. It's for us, to help us believe. He had been there for three years with Jesus. Was he worried about the bits that the Synoptic writers had missed out all those years earlier when they sought to record the basics that they had of Jesus? Not worried, no, he just got on, dragging out of his memory the details of the things the Master had said in those three incredible years, and adding to some of the things the others had written. Was he concerned to provide a picture-perfect record of what took place, with no gaps, no question marks? No, he was just consumed with what he did know and trusted the rest to God. He had a wealth of knowledge and experience and he didn't want to take it to the grace without it being passed on. No problem, John, thank you!
Us today? We are not called to have a faith that relies on picture-perfect information, as I just described it. We are to imbibe the wonder of what we do find in the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament, and allow that to be food and drink that the Holy Spirit can take to build us up and confirm us in our faith. The gaps we can leave to God. The more we know His presence the more we find our doubts dissolving away. It's Him, His presence, that will confirm us in who we are. His word is there to start us off and feed us along the way but it is ‘knowing Him' that is the crucial thing that holds it all together. At the beginning of this new week, rejoice in this: He IS risen, He is with us! Hallelujah!
‘Living with Uncertainty' Meditations: 31. Establishing for the Future
Acts 1:3b He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God
What's Next? I have a suspicion that if you had been one of the Twelve following Jesus around for three years in Galilee, down to Judea, back to Galilee, and so on, the phrase that would be in the back of your mind most would be, “What's next?” That phrase, if I am right, now takes on a new urgency and uncertainty is as strong as ever, if not even stronger now than before. Jesus is back, we're going back to Galilee. Are we going to pick up where we left off? Was his death and resurrection just another of the long list of things on his agenda? What other things will we be seeing now?
Teaching: We'll come back tomorrow to the incident at the sea of Galilee, seen in Jn 21, but for now I just want us to focus on the more general description that Luke gives us. Matthew had finished with, “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go, ” (Mt 28:16) and what we refer to as The Great Commission (v.19,20) and he ends there. Matthew, with his kingdom focus throughout, basically finishes with Jesus' instruction that might be summed up as, “Keep doing all I taught you, guys.” Peter, through Mark , with his somewhat abrupt and forthright style, simply finishes with the resurrection. That was enough for him; perhaps to put in more would have been too personal. An addendum, added in some manuscripts, takes it through the expanded Great Commission to the Ascension, but it is a very brief-note-style add-on that feels like it was just that, possibly an add-on by someone else. John , we know, takes us to Galilee and the drama with Peter, whereas Luke concludes his Gospel with some teaching and the ascension, again a rather abrupt finish. It is perhaps because of that, that we find Luke picking up the story in ‘The Acts of the Apostles'.
The Continuation: Yes, it is clearly Luke writing Acts : “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.” (Acts 1:1) Clearly the same person as seen in Luke 1. In the first fourteen verses Luke writes about
a general description covering what happened (v.1,2)
how for forty days (which must include the first week in Jerusalem) he taught the disciples more about the kingdom, (v.3)
Jesus' instruction for them to wait in Jerusalem for the coming Holy Spirit, (v.4-5)
the disciples asking is this the time for Israel's independence to be restored (v.6)
Jesus' declaration that it is not for disciples to know the Father's timing (v.7)
the promise that His coming would bring power to enable them to be his witnesses, (v.8)
Jesus ascension (v.9) which must have been outside Jerusalem (see v.12)
the angels telling how Jesus will one day return (v.10,11)
how the eleven and the women settle in to pray (v.13,14)
and so the book moves on.
Questions & the Kingdom? We have already suggested the first question, “What's Next?” Another one, from our viewpoint is, what did Luke mean about Jesus speaking about the kingdom ?
We've already suggested that Matthew's ‘Great Commission' had that thought behind it: “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” (Mt 28:19,20a) with the reassuring encouragement that, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” (v.18) and, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” ( v.20b) i.e. my presence, my power and my authority will always be with you to enable you to continue to do the things we've been doing, bringing my Father's reign onto the earth.
Luke has already in his Gospel taught them how all that had happened was in accord with the Scriptures and this encouragement is to enable them to go and be his witnesses after they have received power (Lk 24:45-49).
It is interesting that the Mark's ‘add-on' includes things that are very much kingdom descriptions: “He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mk 16:15-18) The final words of that chapter in Mark are very much again kingdom descriptions: “Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.” (Mk 16:20) The kingdom in each of these is about preaching and power.
By contrast, in John's Gospel, there is no such teaching, just some very personal anecdotes that explain the future of some of the apostles. Perhaps John felt it had already been spelled out in the Synoptic Gospels, and in his own Gospel, so that the concluding chapters didn't need to reiterate the kingdom aspect; it was already there integrated in his message that Jesus is saviour and lord of all.
Other Questions? Behind all that we've just been considering, I suspect that, at the very least, the disciples are struggling with the thought that AGAIN Jesus won't be with them, and so how are they going to cope, how will they deal with the antagonism of the authorities, and what does this coming power reference mean? They clearly show their uncertainty by asking, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They clearly wonder about the nature and extent of this ‘kingdom' in the days to come. When Jesus tells them, “ It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority,” (v.7) he is declaring a principle that the apostle Paul would later reiterate, “we live by faith, not by sight,” (2 Cor 5:7) i.e. learn to trust God to lead on a daily basis and leave the big agenda to Him.
And Us? The trouble with a simple study like this is that it is too easy to read the words and miss the significance or importance of them. From what we have been considering perhaps we should conclude with the following questions and considerations:
1. Is our Christianity ‘service' orientated or kingdom orientated?
- ‘Service' can mean pre-planned, human inspired gatherings or activities. The ‘kingdom' contrast is about Holy Spirit power initiated gatherings and activities that bring the fruit of salvation, changed, delivered and healed up lives. Do we know this sort of Christianity? If not we need to be praying.
2. Have we individually and corporately received the power of the Spirit, putting aside debates on ‘when' it happens, and focusing on has it happened? Do we have that power?
- ‘Power' is revealed in love and goodness of character (seen in the fruit of the Spirit – Gal 5:22,23) AND in the ability to convey the gospel in word and action that produces changed lives. Do we know this level of life and ministry transformation? If not, we need to be praying.
3. Do we focus on the minutiae of ‘church life' rather than the will of God that calls us to go and make disciples for Him and change the world – with His power? You know what follows!
‘Living with Uncertainty' Meditations: 32. Establishing People
Jn 21:16 “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Who Next? We have just covered the overall picture of the disciples' quandary about going up to Galilee and then what happened up there as conveyed by Luke, but we would be very much remiss if we failed to consider the specific incident in Galilee that is very much Peter-focused, as John reveals it. Just as a prologue, so to speak, note Peter's identification earlier on: “two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew.” (Mt 4:18) Thereafter he is often referred to as Simon Peter (Lk 5:8, Jn 1:40, 6:8,68, 13:6,9 etc.)
And Peter? If you tried to summarise Peter you might say, ‘bold and brash,' in fact if he was in your youth group or church, he would be the guy always saying something, making bold declarations, asking awkward questions, possibly someone you found irritating because he's always in your face. Some of the key strong declarations he makes with Jesus are:
“ Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Lk 5:8)
“ Explain the parable to us.” (Mt 15:15 which earned the rebuke, “Are you still so dull? ”)
“ You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16)
“Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Mt 16:22)
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Mt 18:21)
“We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Mt 19:27)
“Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Mt 2633)
“Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” (Mt 26:35)
Some of those seem pretty great statements of faith, others feel they are somewhat rude and brash. But that's the sort of guy Peter is, but the trouble is, and he doesn't realise it or own up to it, he has what I would call feel of clay. He's not perfect and indeed his forthright faith sometimes leads him to step over the mark of what is right or wise or acceptable in nice Christian company! We've seen it before so we don't have to dwell on it too long, but because he doesn't know himself he doesn't take steps to avoid blundering in where angels fear to tread. In fact, if you think about Thursday evening and Jesus' prophesies about what he will do, wisdom says the best thing he could have done was run away and lock himself in a room for the next twelve hours – but he will never do that; he's the out-front guy, the guy who loves to make wild (faith-filled) statements, ask awkward questions and be there with a sword ready to defend the Master who obviously can't defend himself! Idiot!
But the trouble is that I have this horrible feeling that if I'd been there I would have done the same and blown it in the same way. I've done similar! If you think you wouldn't do it, it just means you've never been that sort of ‘up-front' person who risks it for Jesus, sometimes stepping out in faith, sometimes in presumption, sometimes getting it gloriously right, sometimes disastrously wrong.
Peter's Problem: No, Peter has this major problem, in fact it is a threefold problem: First of all, he knows that Jesus knows about his threefold denial, not just because he prophesied it but because he actually saw it: “ Peter replied, “Man, I don't know what you're talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter . Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him.” (Lk 22:60,61) Second, now they have ALL been instructed to go up to Galilee where Jesus will meet them and, third, although Peter has already seen Jesus (on his own – 1 Cor 15:5 – and in the company of the others), Jesus didn't say anything about it and yet, deep down, Peter knows it IS going to come up again and he is not at all comfortable with that thought.
Jesus sets the Scene: One cannot help but wonder if Jesus very purposely set up the scenario, specifically for Peter's sake. Consider: they have gone up to Galilee, they are by the lake and although they don't know it, Jesus has gone ahead of them. As they sit around wondering, Peter (typically) gets frustrated and declares, “I'm going out to fish.” (Jn 21:3) He's with the other three fishermen-disciples and three of the others, and so, presumably taking his old boat that he hasn't used for three years, they go out fishing and caught nothing (v.3c) Then someone on the shore, who is sitting by a small fire, calls out to them suggesting they throw the net out the other side. It is at this point that it takes on a whole deja-vu feeling because, suddenly they are so swamped with fish they can't handle the nets (v.6). It is at that point that John realises what is going on as he remembers that time that we find in Acts 5 where exactly the same thing happened. Whatever is going on, Peter feels he's got to be there so dives overboard and swims in ahead, leaving the others to drag the net ashore. (v.7,8)
Encounter with Jesus: And so begins the encounter between Jesus and Peter that Peter has been dreading. Jesus calls them to have breakfast with him and breaks bread and cooked fish for them. Did they glance back in their memories to the two times he had fed the crowds with loaves and fish?
“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter…” (v.15a) Here it comes, the dressing down the probable declaration about how he felt Peter had let him down, but instead it is something else. “ Simon son of John.” (v.15b) Three times he addresses him in this manner. What is he saying, Peter was rarely addressed like that? This is a very basic description, going right back to childhood, identified by his father as all sons were. Not, “Simon, my leader, my disciple,” but Simon who is identified by his family. It is as if Jesus is saying, Peter, let's go back to before all this and start again from the basics, of who you are; let's ignore your failings, let's just see the simple you, a son of your father, a fisherman like he was. Ignore all your three glorious years of doing the stuff with me, you fisherman of a fishing father. Let's start here. Now come the three questions .
First of all: “do you love me more than these ?” (v.15) What does that mean? Do you love me more than these fish? Am I more important to you than fishing – I mean I've just caught you going back to your roots? Don't look round at these others. Come on you said a little while back that they may all desert me but you wouldn't. How do you feel about that now? Do you love me more than these guys, because you've implied that a while ago? Peter has been through the mill of failure and self-recrimination, he has not a shred of pride to stand on, so cannot reply with comparisons, just a simple, “you know that I love you.” OK, says Jesus, good enough, feed my little ones.
Second: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Just a simple straight forward question. We've cleared away the recent history, let's just be ultra-simple. OK, you are who you are, so you no longer want to do comparisons, so let's go back to your roots, fisherman, son of a fisherman. With no other claims as to who you are, do you love me? “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” I know you know I love you, so why are you asking me - Lord? I've already said it once so, yes, I realise even as I'm saying it – YOU KNOW I love you. OK, “Take care of my sheep.”
Third: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (v.17) Same question. “Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” Why are you asking me again and again? I've said it three times, Lord I don't know how to say it any other way, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Got it! Peter, you realise I know everything there is to know about you and that is vitally important, not only about the past and why I chose you, but it is vitally important that you remember this in the days to come because, “when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (v.18) Three times Jesus has tasked Peter for the future: “Feed my lambs,” (v.15), “Take care of my sheep,” (v.16) “Feed my sheep.” (v.17) However we might want to take it, Jesus is giving him progressive pastoral-teaching responsibility over his church for the coming years.
And Uncertain Us: This amazing story has some profound principles behind it:
1. Calling and who we now are – and we're all called – is not about qualification or ability or background; it is all about whether we love Jesus. Is he – who he is as found in Scripture – the very heart of our faith? Is who he is – as we have experienced him since we first came to faith – still the very heart of our faith? (?Rev 2:4)
2. Failure does not necessarily disqualify – it's how we respond to it that is important. Repentance is the key to return. Jesus always accepts that. It doesn't matter how you've blown it, if your heart is for God, for Jesus, as aching as it may be, the future is still wide open for you with Jesus.
His arms are open to each of us – the loud brash ones and the quiet reflective ones – the great failures and the ones yet to step up and sink in the waves. He comes to dispel your uncertainty with a new day, a new hope, a new walk. Take his hand and walk it. He IS risen, He IS with you, He is for you!
‘Living with Uncertainty' Meditations: 33. A New Uncertainty - Ascension
Acts 1:9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Whaaat? I don't know if it's just my imagination but the ascension of Christ rarely seems to be preached today, but that is a shame because it says something vitally important. Is it because the thought of a human body going up into the sky to disappear in a low cloud seems to stretch modern credulity to breaking point? It shouldn't any more than Christ's resurrection or any miracle for that matter.
Historically Accepted: It is strange if we seem to be unhappy with proclaiming it because historically Creeds, Catechisms and Confessions all made a point of including it: The Apostles Creed – “who ascended into heaven”, the Nicene Creed – “he ascended into heaven”, the Athanasian Creed – “rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven”, the Heidelberg Catechism Q49 “Of what advantage to us is Christ's ascension into heaven?”, the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q28: “Wherein consists Christ's exaltation? A28: Christ's exaltation consists in his rising again from the dead on the third day, in ascending up into heaven,” and even the wordy Westminster Confession of Faith, “which also he ascended into heaven “. There it is declared again and again.
But Scripture? Our key verse here must be out starter verse in Acts 1 but note how each Gospel writer concludes their Gospel. Matthew, we noted previously, in his kingdom-focused Gospel concluded with the Great Commission and went no further. For him, that was the important point with which to finish. In Mark, the add-on we've seen before, included, “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.” (Mk 16:19) Luke concludes his Gospel with, “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God,” (Lk 24:50-53) and then picks it up in his continuation in Acts. John makes no mention of it, obviously feeling the others had covered it adequately and he didn't need to confirm the points he was making about Jesus ministry time, that this aspect added to it.
In Acts, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, the nearest Peter gets to it is, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:33) In this and subsequent preaching his big emphasis is on the resurrection that vindicates the work of Christ. The apostle Paul speaks of how God, “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 1:20) but numerous times speaks of how Christ is seated at the Father's right hand in heaven (e.g. Rom 8:34, Phil 2:9, Col 3:1)implying he has ascended there. But it is the writer to the Hebrews who spells it out most clearly: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” (Heb 4:14) He also refers to Christ beside the Father – Heb 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2 – and Peter makes a similar declaration in his letter – 1 Pet 3:22. We'll expand on this in a moment.
The Event: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11) From these verses observe the following: i) Jesus ascended bodily, ii) the angels declared that this would be the same way he will return – seen in the sky. But why did it happen like this? Forgive me if I take three paragraphs from a previous series, “Focus on Christ”:
Visible Ascension: Look at the language of the verses surrounding this event: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes , and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (v.9-11) Five times there is reference to the fact that the disciples SAW Jesus leave. There is surely significance to this. It is as if Jesus wanted there to be a number of witnesses to his departure. He wanted them to be able to say, he has definitely gone – we saw him go!
Leaving the Earth: There is a second thought that follows on from this. It is the fact of him going up into the sky away from the earth. Now of course we would say that heaven is not “up there” but another dimension, but the fact of him “leaving the earth” says his time on the earth has come to an end and so don't ever go looking for him. He's not an eternal, ageless man who continually walks the earth. He has left and gone back to heaven. In other words, the period or time for his earthly ministry has finally come to an end. His activity on earth will continue, but now by his Spirit in his followers. His person now exists in heaven as many references in the New Testament testify to.
Ascended to the Father's Right Hand: We should also note that not only was the Ascension about leaving the earth, it was also about arriving back in heaven, where we are told a number of times Jesus sat down at his Father's right hand. But first, let's note that there are 13 mentions of this fact: Mk 16:19 / Acts 2:33 / Acts 5:31 / Acts 7:55 / Rom 8:34 / Eph 1:20 / Phil 2:9 / Col. 3:1 / Heb 1:3 / Heb 8:1 / Heb 10:12 / Heb 12:2 / 1 Pet 3:22 Note the things these verses say about Jesus in heaven. He:
- has a place of honour at the Father's right hand
- he is there as Prince and Saviour
- he pleads for us there
- he's been given a name above all others
- all angels and authorities bow before him
To Conclude: I would also add as a summary that he is there to oversee and administer the kingdom. One of my favourite set of verses that I believe clarifies the day in which we live is, “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:24-26) See it clearly: he IS reigning in heaven over the earth and will continue to reign until he has finished his present work that is to rid the earth of everything that was not there when the Father and he first created it, i.e. all forms of sin and its effects. I always link this with the prophetic Psa 110:1,2 – “The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The Lord will extend your mighty sceptre from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”
When Jesus ascended it wasn't just to terminate his earthly ministry, it was to return to heaven to sit beside his Father, and in a few earth weeks pour out his Holy Spirit, and then through Him administer the coming of the kingdom through his body, the Church, for as long as the Father decreed until the end. Without the ascension we have the great uncertainty – how did the story finish on earth, where did he go, what did he do? No, we have none of that uncertainty because we know he returned to heaven to continue his work from there, but in and through us. How amazing! Worship him and rejoice in your part in all this.
‘Living with Uncertainty' Meditations: 34. The Uncertainty of Pentecost
Acts 2:4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [ a ] as the Spirit enabled them.
More Whaaat? The Day of Pentecost and the record of Acts 2 is both amazing and glorious AND a source of uncertainty, questions and doubts in many. Was this a one-off marker-in-the-sand event or did it have greater ongoing significance? Was it just for those caught up in it, or does it have meaning for us today as well?
Personal Testimony: I need to make a confession before I go any further. I come from an Evangelical, Pentecostal, Brethren, Baptist, Free Church, Charismatic, Restorationist background. I have had the privilege of having friends from each of these areas and experiences within them in the Christian Church. I have had the privilege of travelling and teaching abroad for many years. I was filled with the Spirit, rejected the experience, came back to the experience, spoke in tongues and have a reasonable gift of prophecy. My biggest concern in these studies is that we study what the Scriptures actually say and if our experiences don't match the word, we pray that God will bring us in line with His word. I believe in all the Eph 4:12 ministries and all the 1 Cor 12 gifts and, over many years, have experienced most of those gifts sometime.
Yet today I am retired and part of a church that would like to think of itself as charismatic but isn't. I know of Elim Pentecostal churches that would like to think of themselves as Pentecostal but aren't. As I look around the Church I don't think many of us are doing what Scripture reveals. When it comes to the Spirit, I believe we often talk the talk but rarely do the real stuff – and I include myself in that. It is probable that in these studies about the Holy Spirit I am going to ask some awkward questions, but I ask them equally of myself. There are rumblings in the Christian undergrowth that God may be coming in worldwide revival – and don't we need it – but mostly although my heart feels it, my eyes see little signs of it yet. I am uncertain where we are going, both in these studies and in the Church. I do not stand on a high place and preach down, but I do believe we each need to be honest as we face what the Scriptures actually say. Can we try and do that? Let's consider what happened to the disciples first.
First the Disciples: They have received Jesus' marching orders – or to be precise his ‘sitting and waiting' orders (Acts 1:4) – they have been waiting and wondering in Jerusalem, praying much of the time. What else can you do when the Master has left you and you feel helpless? Peter tries to bring a semblance of order and normality to reinstating the Twelve (Acts 1:15-26), according to scripture you understand (Acts 1:20). Yes, they have and know their scriptures, and they have their marching orders. That ought to be enough surely? We've got the completed canon, we've got the Great Commission, what more do we need? They organised and appointed a twelfth apostle, so we've got the leadership sorted out. We're ready to go. What more do we need? But the Master spoke of waiting for power (Acts 1:8), saying we will be baptised (immersed) in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). How long do we have to wait for that? He just said, “in a few days” (v.5). How long is that? What does it actually mean?
The Pentecost Experience: What then followed on the Day of Pentecost….. hold on, Pentecost? There were three annual feasts all Jewish men were required to attend: the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Tabernacles. (Deut 16:16). Unleavened Bread followed Passover, as we've seen, and the Feast of Weeks, otherwise known as the Feast of Harvest or Pentecost, came fifty days after Passover (Gk. pentekostos means fiftieth) and celebrated the completion of the grain harvest. In God's economy this was a day of harvest, at the end of which at least 3000 souls had been brought into the kingdom. What a harvest!
But what happened? First of all the experience : This is a preacher's delight – there was a sound, a sight and strange speech. There was “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.” (Acts 2:2) The sound is of a violent wind and wind signifies power. Then, “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” (v.3) Now fire normally burns up but when, like the famous burning bush of Ex 3, it doesn't destroy, it is a sign of the holy presence of God. Finally, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (v.4) They were empowered to do something they were not naturally able to do. These ‘tongues' were languages that visiting foreigners could identify as being their own native languages (v.8) and so they were empowered to cross cultural and linguistic boundaries – the curse of Babel (Gen 11:7) appears to be removed supernaturally.
Second, the effect: First of all note the disciples. It is often thought the disciples were in the upper room, hence “the whole house” of v.2 but the fact that Jews in the neighbourhood heard it all suggests the disciples we impelled out of the house by the Spirit into the open, out of their place of security, out of their place of quiet prayer, into the public forum. Dare we suggest that when the Spirit comes in power he bursts into and through His people into the public domain, the same domain where Jesus ministered.
But then notice, second, the watchers and listeners. They come to see what is going on, they are attracted by the noise and want to see what it is all about. Dare we suggest that when the Spirit comes in power, the world will beat a path to our door to see what is happening. But then don't expect them to come clear-headed: “a crowd came together in bewilderment.” (v.6a) Why? “because each one heard their own language being spoken.” (v.6b) When they see the power and presence of God it will leave them bewildered. How can these things happen? Moreover, “Utterly amazed, they asked…” (v.7) This bewilderment will turn into amazement as they take it in and that in turn will provoke questions, and then more questions: “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” ( v.12) Amazed speaks of surprise, perplexed speaks of being puzzled, even baffled, by events that are beyond them. So don't be surprise when some will jump to wrong conclusions: “Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.” (v.13)
So then note again, third, the disciples again. Questions need answers. “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd.” (v.14) The fact of Peter standing up may negate the earlier comments of being expelled from the house, but not necessarily. The fact that this experience went on and on for at least a short while, may mean it was somewhat overwhelming requiring them to sit down again. His standing “up with the crowd” may simply be a description of him moving into the midst of the growing crowd. However, whatever is the truth of the situation, the fact that the crowd are acting this way, and jumping to wrong conclusions, provokes Peter to get up and speak out loudly and boldly presenting an answer to the questions and confusions of his fellow Jews. We are given the main gist of his ‘first Christian sermon' but he obviously goes on – “with many other words” (v.40) – warning and pleading with them to repent (see v.38) and some three thousand responded to his word (v.41). Although the words are not there, it is obvious he is speaking under great anointing, with the Holy Spirit so empowering his words that this large number responded.
To Recap: Now before I recap, I realise this will raise many questions and perhaps it is right to suggest that this is a unique day but a day that demonstrates perhaps true revival, the coming of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit and the effects of this, which we will need to consider before we finish. But what have we seen?
1. The Spirit: came with the sound of power, came with the sight of the holy presence of God, came releasing supernatural speech
2. The disciples: were empowered to do something not possible before, were expelled from the place of safety to the public arena, were anointed to preach with power that brought a great harvest.
3. The ‘world': heard what was going on and were perplexed, confused, amazed, asked questions and jumped to wrong conclusions, listened to anointed answers, and responded in large numbers.
Questions that Arise: The presence and the work of the Holy Spirit has always been controversial, both outside the church as on this day, and inside it, sadly, as people have struggled to cope with a sovereign work of God that bypasses intellect and opens up the supernatural power of God in and through the body of Christ, the church. I suspect many of us would respond positively to what we have read here but will question, if this happened then, why doesn't it always happen and is there anything we can do to make ourselves available to God for Him to do it regularly? Some would describe this unique day as the first Christian revival taking place and perhaps that is true, which means it is a sovereign work of God that cannot be repeated, and we certainly can't make it happen, only God can. However it is not the only picture of the coming of the Spirit in Acts, so perhaps we should lay all our uncertainties on the table and simply see what Scripture says as we move on in the next study.
In the meantime, as we look at the world around us and the relative ineffectiveness, in the West at least, over the past fifty years say, of the Church, can we see the effect of that? Can we see that the world has moved steadily away from God with the result that self-centred godlessness prevails and brings behaviours throughout society that are unrighteous and self-destructive? What is the answer to all this uncertainty? It is that we pray for God to come in power again, in and through us (which means making ourselves available to Him) to change the Church and challenge the world. Can we do that – daily?
‘Living with Uncertainty' Meditations: 35. More Uncertainty about the Spirit
Acts 10:44-46 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
Where Next? Before we go drawing any conclusions in what for some is a controversial subject, I want to observe three other incidents in Acts when the Spirit came:
1. Acts 8:14-17
- Philip goes to a city in Samaria, preaches the Gospel with signs and wonders and people are saved (Acts 8:5-8), It is indeed power evangelism. There are obviously many believers .
- word gets back to Jerusalem so Peter and John are sent to investigate (v.14)
- when they get there they lay hands on the believers who then receive the Spirit (v.15-17)
- the impartation is so obvious that Simon the sorcerer wants the same ability (v.18,19)
2. Acts 10:44-46
- Cornelius was a Roman soldier (Acts 10:1) and he and his family were devout and god-fearing (v.2)
- one day in the middle of the afternoon he had a vision in which an angel told him to send to Joppa and find Peter and ask him to come (v.3-6). This he does (v.7,8)
- they arrive next day about noon and Peter has just gone to pray (v.9)
- he too has a vision in which he is told to eat unclean meat (v.10-16)
- as he is wondering about this the servants arrive and the Spirit tells him to go with them (v.17-23)
- the next day he comes to Cornelius's house where Cornelius had called together his family and friends to meet Peter (v.24-26)
- Cornelius explains about his vision (v.30-33) and Peter shares about Jesus (v.34-43)
- while he is still speaking the Spirit falls on the Gentiles in the company and they too start speaking in tongues and praising God (v.44-46)
- Peter acknowledges they have just experienced the same as they had on the Day of Pentecost (v.47) and he recognises them as believers who need baptising in water (v.48).
Note: This is clearly a God-devised encounter (two visions), and Cornelius was godly but just didn't know about Jesus. When he hears, he and his family obviously believe. As they do, the Spirit falls on them with obvious signs – tongues and praise, a sovereign act of God to hungry believers.
3. Acts 19.
- Paul arrives in Ephesus. Those he meets with are clearly believers but have obviously not received the Spirit (Acts 19:1-3)
- after they have been baptised in water, Paul lays his hands on them (and presumably prays) and the Spirit comes on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.(v.4-6)
Progression: I believe, in the four accounts we've considered, we can see a progression:
1. In Jerusalem the Spirit fell on believers (the disciples)
2. In Samaria the Spirit is imparted to Samaritan believers by the laying on of hands
3. In Caesarea, the Gentiles were believers in God and as soon as they believed in Jesus, the Spirit came.
4. In Ephesus the (undefined – Jew or Gentile) believers had not been filled but were prayed for with laying on of hands; they were then filled.
Because of this apparent progression, or difference in those receiving the Spirit, it is difficult to formulate any “this is how it ought to be” dogma. But there are four things about this experience in each of these four accounts we have considered so far:
- first, the filling is a clear and distinct, outward experience and,
- second, in each case a separate cultural group of believers received the Spirit, and
- third, the experience of being filled results in the individuals (in three of the four experiences) all being released in gifts of tongues and prophecy and praise,
- fourth, in each case the recipients were expressing their need or shortcoming: Disciples (absence of Jesus), Samaritans (no Spirit experience), Cornelius (wanting to hear from Peter), disciples (needing more from Paul). Hunger for more is fundamental.
Background: Now perhaps we should not be surprised by this for two reasons that we find when we go back into the Old Testament:
Reasons No.1 – Prophecy. Joel had prophesied, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” (Joel 2:28) which Peter says is specifically fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost.
Reason No.2 – Practice. In the book of Judges we see again and again the Holy Spirit coming on individuals to enable them to be and to do what they could not do before He came (see Judg 3:10, 6:34, 11:29, 13:25, 14:6,19, 15:14) We also see it earlier in Exodus in respect of the one called to manufacture the Tabernacle: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills” (Ex 31:1 and 35:31)
Seeking Clarity: So let's clear away an uncertainty that often circulates, (out of unbelief I would suggest) that you can be filled with the Spirit and not be aware of it. Each of the four Acts' accounts, the Joel prophecy, and the Judges' examples, ALL show they was something utterly distinctive in the change of the person. Well, some would say that is exactly what happens when a person is ‘born again' and I would have to agree (if it is real). It is clearly a work of the Spirit as Jesus said (Jn 3:5-8) but the truth is that it isn't merely a matter of belief: the apostles believed in the risen Jesus, the Samaritans were obviously new believers, Cornelius believed in God, the Ephesus disciples believed in Jesus and were described as ‘believers'.
And Us? It does seem from each of these that, in these four defining examples in Acts at least, the issue is spiritual need, acknowledgement of shortcoming, and submission to God, and we might extend that to say, for service. Yes, when we are born again we are indwelt by the Spirit, hence Paul's general words to the church in 1 Cor 3:16, 6:19 and 2 Cor 6:16 but, in the light of these passages above, if we want to be honest, if we want to be those who wholly submit ourselves to the word of God, we have to ask ourselves, have I known that time of filling that clearly imparted spiritual gifting? It is not just am I a nice Christian, do I read my Bible, do I pray, do I witness, do I go to church, but have I had that encounter with God that is about power and releasing.
I have recently heard a well-known and respected Bible teacher say that all the illustrations in Acts simply show that fillings take place again and again, and although I believe that is true, (and we'll need to examine that in a subsequent study) these accounts do NOT show that. They show that different individual cultural groups – Jewish believers, Samaritan believers, Gentile believers and a mixed group of believers – receive this filling at specific times. They are all one-off, first time fillings, clear and distinct from when they first believed in Christ. Now that may be God's way of emphasising the ‘filling' aspect of the Spirit's work that may not necessarily be obvious in the joy when a person first turns to Christ, and Luke uses these to say, this is for all believers from whatever grouping.
From observing my own experiences and that of others, I would suggest that that ‘releasing' is not only into tongues and/or prophecy (although I believe those are usual parts of it) but, perhaps seen as that release of praise in the accounts, an almost bigger releasing is in a sense of love, joy and freedom in the Spirit that brings praise and worship into a new dimension. Those three things, I would say, are almost a more certain guarantee that it happened.
But we need to see how these things work out practically in subsequent studies. In the meanwhile, if the Lord is convicting you through His word (not mine) that this is an experience that you want, that you need a greater experience of His Spirit and His power in your life, then Jesus was quite clear: “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for ] a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:10-13) Be blessed as you pray.
‘Living with Uncertainty' Meditations: 36. No Second-Class Believers
2 Cor 4:7 we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
2 Cor 4:7,8 (Msg) If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That's to prevent anyone from confusing God's incomparable power with us. As it is, there's not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we're not much to look at. We've been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we're not demoralized; we're not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do.
A Right Perspective: In this uncertain area of the coming and experiencing of the Holy Spirit, so often there are fears and criticisms born out of insecurity, and a wrong perspective can thus be held by people on all sides of the discussion. A person who is filled with the Holy Spirit is not morally, ethically, or spiritually superior to someone who has not yet been filled. A person who has not been filled is not a second class citizen or a second class Christian. Samson is often referred to as a carnal charismatic. The Spirit came on him again and again (Judg 13:24, 14:6,19, 15:14) and yet he was a man given over to his own pleasures. The remarkable thing that the Lord shows again and again and again throughout Scripture is that He does not wait for a person to be perfect before He uses them. In fact the truth is that every single person the Spirit comes on (and fills) is imperfect
Earthen Vessels: Look at our starter verse above and the beautiful expression of it in the Message version. If you are a gardener you may have clay or pottery flowerpots. Paul says our lives (all of us!) are like those flowerpots, often rough finished, maybe cracked or chipped, nothing to write home about! BUT, and it is a big but, these pots, these lives, contain the Holy Spirit with all His glory. He is our glory, not anything of us.
Growing Up: Being filled with the Holy Spirit is about being available to God to be empowered to be used by God. The apostles expected every believer to grow up, to mature, and to be available to God to be used by Him. We often use the example of the Jewish family of Jesus' day, say. The father would often work, if he were a craftsman, from a workshop at home and run his business from there. Imagine a son watching his father working (the girls mostly had the job of growing up, having and raising children, although Prov 31:10-31 shows a much bigger picture than most of us have of such a role). The son is too young to enter into his father's business but he watches and learns and gradually the father introduces him into some of the work. What is the father's goal? To bring his son to maturity to eventually take over the business.
Jesus' Model: What is the model we see with Jesus and his disciples? He modelled doing the will of the Father and then he gave the Twelve the opportunity to do the same (see Mt 10:1-) and when the numbers grew, he got the seventy-two others to do the same (Lk 10:1-), who returned with joy at the wonder of it all (v.17). At the Last Supper Jesus laid out the mandate for future believers: “ whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.” (Jn 14:12).
What had Jesus been doing? “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.” (Lk 4:18,19) Note the word says the Spirit empowers this. Without the Spirit we cannot enter into the Father's work. Jesus later spelled it out, “ Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) You can spiritualize these things (and I think it is legitimate to do so) but the primary meaning has to be literal. Jesus did these things and expects his ‘body' today to do them, but mostly we don't. Hence some changes are needed. We need the Spirit, we need to be filled with Him, and we need understanding, so let's try and bring that.
Body Parts: Paul wrote a whole chapter (1 Cor 12) on the importance of understanding we are each just parts of Jesus' body today: “ Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Cor 12:27) and earlier, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” (v.11). On the Day of Pentecost, when the believers were filled and spoke in ‘tongues' we read, “as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts 2:4) In Romans 12 when Paul speaks of gifting, notice the words, “with the faith God has distributed to each of you,” (v.3) and, “different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” (v.6) At the end of 1 Cor 12 Paul asks, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (v.29,30) a clearly rhetorical question with the obvious answer, “No!” We are the part of the body God equips us to be and that is nothing to do with being good enough but being available and having a heart open to God.
Personal Testimony: Many years ago, I happened to be reading a book that included some comments about dubious American TV evangelists. Without realising it I found myself thinking, “Lord, how could you use such people?” Cutting across my mind flashed the Lord's answer, “The same reason I use you.” Wow, that felt uncomfortable. What did He mean? Before I could think another thought, the Lord spoke to me: “Son, I use you not because you are right but because you are available.” Wow, that clarified my perspective. You will never be good enough to serve the Lord, but you can open your heart to Him and be available.
Perhaps to make the point even more strongly, I should recount another incident that occurred a few years earlier. We had just become parents for the first time and on this day I crept up to our bedroom where our still fairly young baby was asleep in her cradle and gazed down at her, and it was then I found myself in a conversation with the Lord. You know it is the Lord when the stuff that comes cuts right across your thinking. As I gazed down at my daughter, the Lord spoke into me, “What do you think of her, son?” Instant response: “Lord, she's wonderful.” Not so obvious question back: “What does she do?” Thoughts. “Er, she cries a lot, messes her nappy (diaper), wants feeding in the middle of the night and wakes us up and…. “ “But what do you think about her?” “Oh, she's wonderful, Lord!” “But why do you think that?” Instant answer: “Because she's mine, Lord.” Instant response: “And that's why I love you, because you are mine.” And I was never the same again. I needed reminding of it again and again but there is the truth, you can't earn his love, and indeed you often mess up, but He loves us because we are His. End of story! Well, actually no, it's the beginning of the story.
And Us? The starting point is that He loves you, that's why He sent Jesus for you (Jn 3:16 – see ‘loved'). He knows you mess us from time to time (see 1 Jn 2:1,2) but He still loves you. As His child, because you surrendered your heart to Him, He has made you a new person (Jn 1:12,13) and His Spirit indwells you. If we grow, with His enabling, there will come a point where we say, “Lord, I want more, I want to be available to you, I want to be used by you,” and that's where we come to the question of being filled with his Spirit. Yes, you may already be serving him. After I became a Christian and was baptised, I was leading seven Bible studies a week but it was only subsequent to that, that I was filled.
Concluding Testimony: In case it may help someone, may I share what happened to me. In a previous study I shared I was filled with the Spirit (it came about when I felt very needy, shared with my mentor, we prayed and I just got filled with an immense joy that was unexplainable) but later renounced the experience. I taught it but for some reason that is beyond me today, I backed away from it and rejected the ‘second blessing' idea until a day when the Lord obviously thought it was time for a change. In my office there was a friend, another Christian, who dropped past my desk and just burbled the Lord at me. After he left, I felt distinctly uncomfortable. I happened at lunchtime to call in to a local Christian bookstore where to my surprise I ran across, now working there, a lad I had prayed over for the Spirit several years ago and he just poured the Lord out all over me. I left muttering about frothy Christians. That evening an older fellow youth-leader dropped in to talk about youth work and again just burbled the Lord over me. After he left I prayed, “Lord, I am an idiot. Please forgive me. These three guys today have something I once had and I know what it is. Please forgive me and fill me again.” He did! The power and the presence and the joy of the Lord fell on me – and remained!
So: So, if you are quite comfortable where you are and this is all beyond you, fine. Be blessed where you are. Enjoy Him and enjoy serving Him. If you want more, and you want to be used more, then may we finish with the verse we finished the last study: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:12,13) Ask, believe, receive, and be blessed!
‘Living with Uncertainty' Meditations: 37. Effects of the Spirit's Moving
Jn 3:8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.'
Acts 4:8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…
Acts 4:31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
Acts 11:24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
Be at Peace: As I have suggested before there are often fears and doubts and uncertainties about the Holy Spirit which the Lord understands but simply warns us against speaking wrongly of Him (Mt 12:31,32). To deny the work of the Spirit is to deny God. But uncertainties are understandable, but it is the way we respond to them that is important. I testified in the previous study how I foolishly experienced the Spirit moving, backed away from it, yet was graciously drawn back in repentance to receive again. The Lord looks for hearts that are open to him, even if they are uncertain. Be at peace in all this.
Uncertainty is Natural: If a leader like Nicodemus (Jn 3) was confused, don't be surprised if we often get confused. To take Jesus' analogy about the wind, many of us feel fearful simply because don't know when He is going to turn up and what He might do. We live in a world that teaches us to be in control so it is natural to be nervous when God turns up and takes control out of our hands. It is natural but we are not called to be natural, we are called to be supernatural. We are to live by faith not by sight (2 Cor 5:7), we are to live not by human wisdom but by Holy Spirit and scriptural guidance.
Effects: I want to finish these reflections about the uncertainty of the Spirit by noting the fruitfulness that comes when we allow the Spirit to lead, inspire and empower us. In the previous study I used the analogy of a son growing into his father's business as a picture of what God wants for us, and when we see the things He says He expects of us, we realise that these are things we cannot do by our own ability.
Boldness: Using our verses above, in Acts 4 when Peter is brought before the authorities we see him, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” (v.8) and Luke surely means us to see that it was because of this that he could answer them fearlessly and proclaim the Gospel. In Judges we have seen the Spirit come upon people to make them bold and courageous leaders. When we are filled with the Spirit there comes a new freedom to stand up and be God's people. At the end of Acts 4 when the church are praying, the Spirit comes on them all and they were all filled so that “they spoke the word of God boldly”. (v.31) We desperately need some Holy Spirit boldness to speak into the world today.
Characteristic: When a problem of administration arose in the church in Jerusalem the instruction of the apostles to the other believers was, “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” (Acts 6:3) The experience of being filled, that results in visible changes in a person, was apparently obvious in the early church. “They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” (v.5) If you referred to someone as a ‘Spirit-filled believer' you were saying there was something about them that stood out – a freedom in God, a love and joy in the Lord, and often wisdom – that could be seen! There was no wondering. Shortly afterwards we read of Stephen, “Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.” (v.8) Is this what caused the enemy to stir up opposition against him and yet, “they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” (v.10) This opposition was to lead to him becoming the first Christian martyr. But see all those things describing him: full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, full of God's grace and power, performing great wonders and signs, speaking fearlessly with great wisdom, and able to face death fearlessly. This is the life potential for those “filled with the Spirit”. If the modern church cannot live up to these descriptions, is it because we use the words but don't experience the reality of the Spirit?
Similarly in Acts 11, Barnabas was described as, “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” (Acts 11:24). He was the man we know as an encourager (v.23), the one who drew Paul into ministry (v.25,26), who clearly was a significant teacher (v.26b)
A Quick Glimpse at History: We are sometimes not very good at understanding church history but let's conclude this study with a quick refresher in respect of history and the Holy Spirit. It is said that you can find throughout the two thousand years of church history, little pockets of believers who were open to the Spirit but t he so-called Azusa Street Revival , in Los Angeles, that started in 1906, brought out into the open the place and role of the Holy Spirit, which had already started to be considered in some ‘holiness churches'. Pentecostalism was born resulting in the formation of Pentecostal churches & denominations which spread worldwide. This teaching and experience restored the Holy Spirit to His proper place, but mostly stayed within Pentecostal churches
That is, until in the 1960's when a change came which someone described as, “individual believers seeking the Father for his promised gift of the Holy Spirit.” Out of his came a fresh awareness of the existence, experience, function, and role of ‘the body of Christ'. The Charismatic Movement was born with personal Spirit-filling and gifting, and our place within the body, being taught and experienced in new ways. Unlike Pentecostalism the charismatic movement did not create new denominations but Spirit-filled believers continued their experience within their existing denominations.
In the 1990's a new wave of Holy Spirit activity burst out across the world with the phenomena referred to as the Toronto Blessing, where the Spirit, sovereignly it seemed, broke in on individual believers as they gathered and brought a new joy and a new freedom to the people of God. It was not revival and mostly did not appear to stir evangelism into being. It was first and foremost a restoration of the wonder of being God's children.
Now we may not have been around and experienced these times of blessing but the truth was that in each case new life poured into and through the church. Each of these were different from revival which is a sovereign powerful moving of God inside and outside of the church to bring fresh life to believers and a harvest of souls into the kingdom.
And Us? Wherever we stand, whatever our experience of the Spirit and whatever our feelings in respect of Him, one thing in today's world and today's church is obvious: we need a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whether He comes in revival sweeping all before Him sovereignly, or whether He comes in renewal and reinvigorates His Church to be what He wants it to be, is down to Him and we will have to wait to see. In this again there is uncertainty. There are signs in all that is going on in the midst of the world activities that the Lord may be getting ready, thus Isaiah's (Isa 4:3-5 Msg) call is appropriate:
in the desert! “Prepare
for God 's
How can we put it even more clearly? Speak into this spiritual desert, this wilderness that is the modern world. Put your lives right for God is coming. Do all that needs doing to set your life right so that there is no hindrance in it to prevent Him coming and working in and through you. Clean it up, get rid of things you know would not bless God when He comes, fill in what is missing in your life and experience, and open up your heart to receive all He has for you, and then look for the coming of His glory. Amen.
‘Living with Uncertainty' Meditations: 38. Review
Psa 46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
Goal: Before we sign off with this series, it might be helpful to recap where we have been and review what we have learnt.
Part 1: Pondering on Uncertainty and Certainty
We started out recognising that not only is there uncertainty in living in this fallen world, but there is also uncertainty in the life of faith following Jesus. When he said to his disciples, “Follow me” it was to trust him when you didn't know what the next day would hold and where he would be leading them. Obeying Jesus, we noted, was the only way to stand in the face of the storms of life that come. In fact, we went further, it is obvious from the Gospels that Jesus purposely led his disciples into uncertain situations to teach and train them. There was further uncertainty with Jesus' timing, especially when he appeared to delay in the face of need.
Yet we learned in all that, that God is too big to argue with, He knows best, Jesus knows what he is doing as he leads us, and although we may often not understand what God is doing, His goal is to lead us into a place of complete trust in Him. Everything about His will, His purposes and His kingdom is certain and sure for He is working off a perfect plan formulated before Creation. We further identified our uncertainties through the questioning psalms of David, and we saw the certainty of God's provision from Abraham through to Elijah and Elisha and saw His care for us revealed.
Part 2: On the Way
Moving on from general principles, as we started looking towards Easter, we sought to see what it must have been like to be one of the disciples as Jesus set his eyes on his coming death in Jerusalem with references to that death, which his disciples struggled with. And yet with power over death we saw him raise Lazarus from the dead and the incredible effect that that had in stirring up the enthusiastic crowds on one side but the hostile religious authorities on the other. We saw him controlling the time frame by settling his ministry for a short while to the east of the Jordan, then coming back through Jericho, still teaching and still healing and calling people, to eventually come back to Bethany in preparation for the final week, waiting on his Father on the Sabbath to hold the right perspective of what was coming.
Part 3:The Last Week
We considered the uncertainties of that last week, how he came into Jerusalem on the Sunday with fanfare and the sound of triumph setting hearts on fire for the coming of the kingdom – but then letting it all dissipate. How he came next day and upset the temple market, but then stood back on Monday. How in the next few days he taught in the temple precincts raising the temperature of the religious opposition of the authorities against him, but with purposeful teaching that revealed them for what they were – unbelieving hypocrites who would receive the judgment of God. Thus their ire grew to boiling point, and with help from Judas on Thursday evening, they arrested him, followed by the most shameful trial of history. Yet all this took place in the awareness of his ongoing teaching with his disciples at the Last Supper, revealing exactly what would happen, and how they should live in the days to follow as his disciples. Despite the incredible uncertainties of the disciples, there was the ultimate certainty that Jesus was in total control in the midst of it all and right the way through it - just as he still is today. Thus came his terrible death, sacrificed by religion and the expediency of the world, yet as the Lamb of God to redeem the world. Silence, shame and self-recriminations would have followed on the Saturday until on Sunday morning the greatest certainty of all – that dead men stay dead – was proved wrong and he rose from the dead and showed himself to his disciples who struggled (like we so often do) to believe the impossible, and we learnt that with God there are no uncertainties, no impossibilities.
Part 4: Aftermath
We sought to follow the events that followed the Resurrection. We saw how the Lord returned to reassure unbelieving Thomas, but we faced the fact that we still don't know so much of what Jesus did in that period. Eventually we saw Jesus take the disciples back to Galilee on retreat, to receive teaching about the coming kingdom, and we saw the beautiful way Jesus not only reinstated Peter but set the course of his future. On return to Jerusalem, we saw the uncertainties and certainties of the Ascension. But then came a time of uncertain waiting and then the incredible pouring out of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. There we paused recognising the nature and characteristic of this experience that had echoes throughout Acts, covering all cultural people groups, and experience that transforms powerless believers and enables them to be the body of Christ that continues the work of God, the bringing of the kingdom on earth. We faced the frequent powerlessness and ill-equipped nature of the modern church that seems to have so little impact on a declining world, and pondered on the need we have to call on the Lord to come in power, either sovereignly in Revival or to re-equip, reinvigorate the Church in Renewal, to be what it was originally designed to be, the ongoing body of Christ, revealing the Father's love and blessing to the world, the bringer of the kingdom or reign of God as He seeks to call the world back to Himself.
And So? Key things, perhaps to hold onto:
- uncertainty is a natural part of life and of being a Christian.
- in the midst of all that uncertainty, Jesus is still Lord.
- He does not change and the will of God does not change.
- His will is to draw us to himself, redeem us, train, and equip us, change us so that we can join in his ongoing work and be part of it while we wait for his return.
- His very presence with us, his Holy Spirit, is the means of resourcing us with his power, his guidance, his wisdom, his grace, his revelation, everything we need to join him in that work.
- Without his Spirit, our tendency is to wallow in uncertainty – over who we are, where we are going, what is happening to us and around us, and how we can cope.
- With his Spirit, as we submit our lives to him (Rom 12:1), not conforming to the world around us, we will know his will and do it (Rom 12:2-7) by his enabling.May it be so. Amen.