It is more than 50 years since the charismatic renewal movement affected many of the denominations in the British church, and more than 100 years since the Azusa Street revival, which many see as the origins of the Pentecostal movement, now the largest cause of church growth world wide. But the idea of the visible, active work of the Spirit of God amongst his people continues to cause division, both ecclesial and personally. Many Pentecostal denominations include a very specific theological understanding of the Spirit in their confessional statements (distinguishing between the ‘sign’ of the Spirit bringing speaking in tongues at the moment of conversion, as distinct from the spiritual ‘gifts’ in 1 Cor 12.1 ff) and many see themselves as representing the ‘latter rain’ (Joel 2.23) signifying the ‘end times’ in contrast with the ‘former rain’ of the first Pentecost.
The same is true at a personal level—that very often, the phenomenon of the experience of the Spirit is divisive, even threatening, and reflective of theological and personal differences of perspective. When on my gap year in Israel in 1981, I spent two weeks lodging with some American Pentecostals in Jerusalem, and it was clear that they expected me to lay hands on people in prayer and pray in tongues—whether I felt comfortable with that or not! Some years ago we visited a local church in Dorset for a baptism service where there were a good number of visitors, and the church was ‘into’ the ‘Toronto blessing‘. It all looked very strange indeed to the visitors, and there was little explanation of what was going on!
In considering what to make of the work of the Spirit, and how to relate what we see and experience to our theological outlook, there are three things we need to do—three directions in which we need to look.
For many people, a genuine experience of the work of the Spirit in their lives marks a break with the past. This might be a break with a pre-Christian past, when they encounter God with living faith for the first time. But for many people, this break occurs within their Christian journey, as was the case for me. They might have had a genuine sense of commitment, and be striking to live the Christian life, but encounter the Spirit opens up a whole new dimension to Christian living and makes relationship with God real in a way which was not true before, so that it looks very much as though something had been missing previously. This perspective can easily open up divisions between church groups, with some claiming to experience an authentic engagement with God which is missing from more formal expressions of Christian faith. And both these perspectives are then read back into the two Testaments in Scripture: the Old Testament represents formal religion, centred on human effort, whereas the New Testament represents authentic belief animated by the Spirit of God.
But reading Acts puts the lie to this. There is no doubt that there is something remarkable going on, summarised perhaps in Luke’s beautiful understatement in Acts 19.11 ‘God did no ordinary miracles through Paul’—these were not the miracles you would expect to see in everyday life! And this new, post-Pentecost Jesus movement is causing quite a stir. But what is striking in the early speeches of both Peter, Paul and Stephen (in Acts 2, 4, 7 and 13) is their emphasis not on newness and discontinuity, but on continuity with the past. Peter claims that ‘this is that about which the prophet Joel wrote’ (Acts 2.16); Stephen describes Moses in the same terms as Jesus, a leader rejected by the people but confirmed by God who is now doing signs and wonders as a demonstration (Acts 7.35–36); and Paul argues that Jesus is the fulfilment of the promise to David, in the words of the hymn, ‘great David’s greater son‘ (Acts 13.36–37).
We should therefore expect the Spirit of God today to be doing the things that the Spirit of God has always been doing (unless we want to contradict the central belief of the whole of Scripture, that ‘God is one’, Deut 6.4, James 2.19):
- bringing order out of chaos, something out of nothing, and light out of darkness, as in the creation narrative of Gen 1.1–5. The Spirit hover or flutters over the primeval waters, suggesting the imagery of a bird’s wings;
- creating a path for the deliverance of his people by opening a way through barriers, as in Exodus 14.21;
- enabling the skills that are needed for worship, that God’s people might know his presence, as in Exodus 31.3;
- rushing on people and enabling them to prophesy and speak his word, as in 1 Samuel 10;
- calling, anointing and equipping individuals for positions of leadership amongst his people, as in 1 Sam 13;
- shaping and empowering the one who brings wisdom, power and restoration to his people, as in Isaiah 11.1–3;
- breathing afresh, and bringing new strength and life to the whole people of God, as in Ezekiel 37.
The promise of Joel 2.32, that God was pour out his Spirit ‘on all flesh’, is not so much distinctive in what the Spirit will do in giving visions and dreams—the Spirit has been doing that all through God’s dealings with his people. The distinctive thing is its universality—poured out on all the ethnically Jewish people of God, and then spilling over onto all humanity as they turn to God’s anointed leader, Jesus.
And this sense of continuity was not a pragmatic defence in the early days of this Jewish renewal movement; it is the hallmark of the apostolic witness. To the very mixed Jewish-Gentile community of Corinth, Paul insists that the central message of the gospel is ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15.3, 4). This is, in fact, the distinguishing feature of all orthodox, canonical scripture and teaching—that is sees what God has done in Jesus as in continuity with and fulfilment of the hopes of the Old Testament. And it is of practical importance in breaking down barriers and dealing with suspicion; the Spirit of God might well be ‘doing a new thing’, but it is always and everywhere the same old new thing that God has always been doing! And it is part of what it means to believe in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so is rightly understood as the inheritance of all Christians.
If we need to look back to understand the Spirit’s work, then we need to look forwards to understand the Spirit’s significance. In helping the community in Corinth to make sense of ethical challenges that it is facing, Paul looks back and draws on the Scriptures of Israel, but in the midst of this he makes an extraordinary statement:
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Cor 10.11)
The word for ‘end’ (or in some translations ‘culmination’) is telos; for Paul, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit is the goal, or end, to which everything earlier was pointing. Paul’s theology is, in this sense, thoroughly eschatological; we are now living in the ‘end times’, marked by the pouring out of the end-times gift of God, the Spirit, who brings God’s future into the present. This is exactly the same as Peter’s perspective at Pentecost; this is the promise of Joel for the ‘last days’.
Although Paul sees that the work of the Spirit is only partial and not yet complete (1 Cor 13.12), what we have now is an anticipation, which both gives us a glimpse of the future and is like a guarantee that it will come to pass. So Paul uses the language of a ‘deposit’ (arrabon) in 2 Cor 1.22 and 2 Cor 5.5, and this is in close proximity to the language of ‘new creation’ for those who come to faith (2 Cor 5.17) which anticipates the new creation of the whole cosmos depicted in Rev 21. The creative work of the Spirit is seen in the creation of new life, the life of faith. Paul says the same in Eph 1.14—that the Spirit is a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come to keep us in hope until we see the fullness of redemption.
Jews expected the resurrection to take place at the end of the age, when God would come to restore all things. But both Jesus’ resurrection, and the resurrection life that we begin to life by his Spirit, have pulled the future forward into the present. We are therefore the ‘first fruits’ of the harvest of God—we are in the corner of the farmer’s field which has had more rain and sun than the rest, and so have ripened early, and represent what God intends for the whole field, and so are offering to him as a sacrifice. That is why the Spirit came at Pentecost—the festival of First Fruits! The exercise of the gifts of the Spirit (tongues, prophecy, faith and healing) should therefore not leading to people thinking we are weird—but to them testifying ‘God is truly amongst you!’ (1 Cor 14.25)
One of the mysteries of the vision of the New Jerusalem is the apparent absence of the Spirit. We see the throne of God and of the lamb (Rev 22.3), but if Revelation is trinitarian, where is the Spirit? I believe that the Spirit is represented by the ‘river of the water of life’ that flows from the throne, which waters the tree of life that (paradoxically) grow on either side of the river—fulfilling Ezekiel’s vision of the river from the temple that brings life to all the earth in Ezekiel 47, so that the leaves of the tree bring ‘healing to the nations’ (Rev 22.2). That is why the Spirit has been given—which leads to our third direction of looking.
It is commonly suggested that God is at work in the wider world, and beyond the bounds of the ‘church’ (however that is understood). But the biblical description of the Spirit almost always says the opposite: that the Spirit makes real the present and action of God in a world from which, in some sense, God is absent. (The whole notion of God’s presence in certain places or amongst certain people depends on the corresponding notion of absence.) That is why, for example in Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit is starkly contrasted by Paul with the preceding list of the ‘works of the flesh’.
All through the New Testament, God’s people are a community of the resurrection in which the presence of God in his living temple is made real by the Spirit. This means that the Spirit is constantly at work in transforming God’s people, enabling them to live distinctively in contrast to the world around them. (Sociologist Rodney Stark traces the practical differences this made in the first century world, both in terms of sexual ethics and in terms of the compassionate response to disease, which meant that the early Christians had a measurably better survival rate in the face of plagues and epidemics.)
John expresses this contrast in describing himself as ‘your brother in tribulation, and kingdom, and patient endurance that is ours in Jesus’ (Rev 1.9). As Jesus said ‘In this world, you will have tribulation…’ (John 16.33). Christians are not exempt from suffering—indeed, as we experience suffering, we also experience the comfort of God, which we are to share with others who suffer (2 Cor 1.3–4). And this is the work of the Spirit in us, who ‘groans within us’ (Romans 8.26) both with the groans of God’s people under oppression (Acts 7.34) but also with the groans of Jesus in compassion as he sees a world in need of healing and help (Mark 7.34).
We look to the past to understand the continuing work of the Spirit; we look to the future to see what the Spirit wants to work in us and the world; and we look around to see the need, to be moved to compassion, and to realise that the gift of the Spirit is not one for us to hoard, but to be poured out on all flesh through our ministry, our prayer and our testimony.
(These are written up notes from a sermon preached at St Paul’s, Howell Hill, on January 28th 2018.)
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