Why Spirit-filled Christians know they are on a mission
Those of you who are regulars on the living Word will know that we often talk about being empowered by the Holy Spirit. Well, this week I’m going to talk about almost nothing else! Because this is the week that churches celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem at Pentecost and the Bible readings that we’re going to hear tell of the time just before the outpouring, the story of that world changing revival with all the signs of God’s close presence, and its effect on the growing church and its mission shortly afterwards.
The number one world changing event — celebrated joyfully all over the world both by people have committed Christian faith and those who are more like bystanders — Is Christmas. Jesus gave up his divinity to be born as man in humble circumstances, to live as one of us but to demonstrate what a sinless human life looks like.
Equal to it in significance is the Easter season which remembers His tormented death on the cross and then miraculous resurrection. This is also widely celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Pentecost, the Jewish early harvest festival, was another time of world-changing spiritual significance. This is the time when the first disciples, surrounded by several thousand other Jewish worshippers, were impacted by an encounter with the Holy Spirit which caused them to call out praise to God for his majesty and goodness in languages that they had not learned. Those in the crowd came from all around the Mediterranean and represented many different languages and people groups and as they saw and heard the signs of God’s close intensity, and heard praise of Him in phrases that used their language, they knew this must be God.
Here are some words from Psalm 104 which speak of God sending His Spirit:
How many are Your works, LORD! In wisdom You made them all; the earth is full of Your creatures…
All creatures look to You to give them their food at the proper time. When You give it to them, they gather it up; when you open Your hand, they are satisfied with good things…
When You send Your Spirit, they are created, and You renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the LORD endure forever…
I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD.
From Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
We’re going to join the disciples who are meeting together, trying to work out what to do next and keep out of sight of the Jewish religious leaders who had condemned their Lord to death.
Jesus made several appearances in the time between his resurrection and ascending to heaven to take His place at the Father’s side.
Each of the gospels has a ‘final words’ encounter and John has two if we count the restoration of Peter in the fishing story that ends the gospel.
We are going to hear about an earlier time when the disciples are clearly in shock from the trauma of Jesus’ arrest, flogging and execution.
“Are we next?” they must have been thinking.
They are still held by what had happened. He needed them to engage with what was about to happen.
They needed to be moved from fear to faith, from distraction to expectation, and from passivity to prayer activity. And to do this, he gives them a foretaste of what was to come, as we hear now from John 20:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”
After He said this, He showed them His hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent Me, I am sending you.”
And with that He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
John 20: 19-23
Why would Jesus say “Receive the Holy Spirit!” when they were shortly to… receive the Holy Spirit?
They were about to experience the Pentecost outpouring with signs of God’s presence, with the sound of roaring wind and with flames of fire.
He also needed them, not just to receive and be transformed, but to explain to the crowd what this was, and how it had been foretold. They needed some transformation beforehand.
It’s the lesson of damping the new sponge. A new sponge out of the packet is dry and hard and water just runs off it — until you put it under a tap for the first time to soften it.
The disciples needed a dribble to be softened and made spiritually receptive, ready to receive the spiritual deluge.
They needed to change from being, understandably, shocked and frightened — to step up and become spiritual leaders and shepherds of others, with a confidence and humble authority in their new call.
So Jesus breathes on them and (as we might say) ordains them.
As we now hear the story of the Pentecost outpouring. It’s a crowd scene with thousands of incomers from every part of the Mediterranean world who have arrived for the early harvest festival — and they are perplexed by what they see and hear.
Now, notice the change in Peter from the mistake-prone and fearful fisherman, to someone who can command attention in a huge crowd and explain, with great confidence and the clarity that comes with spiritual authority, exactly what God was doing.
We pick up the story in Acts 2.
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.
When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.
Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?
Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs — we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.
“These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!
“No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
” ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
” ‘Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
” ‘I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke.
” ‘The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
” ‘And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ “
What is happening here?
The good news of Jesus and his salvation is moving out from Judaism to the wider world.
But it will be Jews who have become believers in Jesus, who will be the first leaders of hHis mission.
They have seen and heard and been impacted by God drawing near in this spiritual outpouring.
They have heard Peter explain that this present encounter is that encounter which the prophet Joel saw in the Spirit and recorded long ago, and they will now return on their various journeys taking the message of Jesus with them.
Jews did not believe that others could call on the name of the Lord. They didn’t believe everyone could receive God’s grace. Now they knew.
And there was another facet of this change and wide participation in what God was doing.
Up to now, priests in the temple have offered sacrifices and been the spiritual life. That wasn’t expected from those not seen as spiritual. The role of ordinary people was passive, watching others perform the spiritual functions.
Some churches have recreated this Old Covenant pattern using the language of ‘priests’ and ‘lay people’ and performing rituals in a front-led way of worship.
But that isn’t true to how the priesthood has now transferred to all who count Jesus as their Lord.
And they will all share a new awareness of what God is saying.
A revelatory walk with God, hearing and sharing what they are receiving from God in dreams and visions and spiritual awareness generally — this is the context for what Paul later writes to the churches, and in particular, the church he planted in the Greek city of Corinth as he begins the discussion under the headline of How We Speak by the Spirit of God.
This excerpt is from 1 Corinthians 12:
Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.
All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and He distributes them to each one, just as He determines.
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.
For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body — whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
1 Corinthians 12: 3-13
As usual we are telling this story from three perspectives but in this season, they are all post resurrection. That is the perspective most helpful to us because it is what we relate to.
The disciples with Jesus before He ascended needed to be ready to receive the Holy Spirit — and they had an initial experience of that with Jesus present.
Then the disciples are together and praying on the day of Pentecost when something like a thunderstorm occurs. The Spirit comes and both disciples and the crowd are stirred and enlivened.
Now the third perspective is a look into the church body which has grown up with this new dynamic and, as always, the devil has been at work, given opportunity by the competitiveness and pride of some of the Corinthian believers who are not as free of the old life as Jesus would like them to be.
It’s a common problem but truth sets free.
Paul explains that different spiritual gifts are like different parts of the body with the functionality all working as one. The disciples had to rediscover themselves to be leaders of God’s mission that would take them far and wide.
The work got off to a powerful start with all the incomers receiving the Spirit and then going back to their own countries — with an arresting story to tell.
And in Corinth, as in the other churches that were springing up, there was a strong spiritual dynamic producing rapid growth — together with some tensions.
We learn from this, that the Holy Spirit and His spiritual gifts are essential to his mission and we have seen in history every century or so there have been renewal movements with the Spirit putting the focus back on Jesus at the centre and His mission to reach outsiders as His priority.
Church without the Spirit becomes a club, and without the gifts there’s little to witness to outsiders that this is the place to encounter Jesus.
Just as we remember the coming of Jesus as man at Christmas, His death and resurrection at Eastertide, we need the same emphasis on the missional release of Jesus and his good news of salvation for all who will receive him and our need, our constant need for the empowering He sent for us to enable us to go out and make Him new disciples.