Friday, April 24, 2009

Trinity Series - Sermon #8:

If you have not been following this series, please go to the post for January 22 where an explanation of the format is given. Happy studying!

All of God:
Exploring the Mystery of the Trinity
Tongues and the Holy Spirit’s Work in Acts
Acts 2:1-24

We have been talking about the Trinity, off and on, for the last three months. Today would be a natural day to end this series since next week is Easter, the following week Roy Lyttle, our missionary in Suriname will be speaking, and then the students will be scattering. It is too soon to stop, though. We will spend at least two more weeks on this topic in late April and early May. Unfortunately for those of you who will be leaving, it will be two weeks of solid personal and practical application for all the theology we have learned in these past three months. So, even now, let me encourage you to plan on catching the sermons online at our website after you leave.

Today’s message involves a topic that creates great controversy in the church. You can tell that I spent a long time trying to devise a clever title for the message. After mere seconds of thought, I came up with – Tongues and the Holy Spirit’s Work in Acts – as in, the book of Acts. It doesn’t cover everything, but it will at least be a foundation for understanding this controversial subject with regard to how the Holy Spirit works in our lives.

During the course of our study about the Trinity, we have recognized that there are many aspects of this doctrine that are non-negotiable. For instance, we worship one God, yet we worship Him in three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are coequal and coeternal with the Father. You must believe that in order to be saved – it is a non-negotiable truth.

There is a fair amount of difference, however, in the way that committed Christ-followers understand the work of the Holy Spirit in the church’s life today. It is not that those who disagree with us on secondary matters are believing and promoting heresy, but there is no question that there are significant differences in the way believers understand the Spirit’s role in the Trinity and in the church. While we can feel confident in the conclusions we draw from Scripture about the Holy Spirit’s role today, we would do well to deal gently with our brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with us. I doubt any of us would claim that everything we believe about biblical doctrine is 100% correct. Yet, we act as though we are infallible. We would do well to take a lesson from Snoopy.

Maybe you have seen the Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy is sitting on the roof of his doghouse typing away and Charlie Brown says, “I hear you’re writing a book on theology.” A noble pursuit, for sure. “I hope you have a good title.” We all know how important a good title is – as in today’s sermon. As Charlie Brown walks away the ever-confident Snoopy is thinking to himself – “I have the perfect title,” which he goes on to say, is, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?” To which many would say, “No!”

Let me say to those of you who would say, “No I am not wrong,” that your confidence is a good thing when it comes to fundamental doctrines that are crystal clear in Scripture, such as the Trinity, salvation by grace through faith, and the authority of Scripture. Be careful, though, about the areas where godly believers differ. Always have a teachable spirit and be open to God’s truth.

As we read today’s text, Acts 2:1-24, you will become aware quickly that there is much about which believers disagree concerning the truths found here, and I do not pretend to have all the answers, though I have a theologically informed opinion. We will not stay in Acts 2, but also look at other key texts in Acts where we see reference to the gift of tongues and to the baptism of the Spirit. Because of time constraints, I will not be able to mention all of the different thoughts about these issues, but rather I will spend the time that we have giving what I think is the proper interpretation of the various texts. So, let’s get started as we stand to read God’s Word together. Acts 2:1-24:

1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.
2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.
6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.
7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in his own native language?
9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome,
11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians – we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words.
15 For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.
16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;
18 even on My male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out My Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
20 the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know –
23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.
24 God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it.”

Would you have liked to have been in Jerusalem at the temple on the day of Pentecost? What an exciting day that must have been! You will remember that Jesus had told His disciples that the Holy Spirit had been with them, but that He would come to be in them. Pentecost was the time when the Holy Spirit began to indwell believers.

Three supernatural phenomena on that day announced the Holy Spirit’s presence in the church. There was a sound of a rushing wind – not wind, but the sound of a wind. There appeared to be tongues of fire above the heads of at least some of the 120 disciples who had been waiting in obedience for the Holy Spirit to come upon them – not actual tongues of fire, but the appearance of such. Last, and the supernatural activity that is given the most attention, was the preaching of the gospel in the languages of those who were in Jerusalem for Pentecost. These languages were previously unknown to the disciples who were proclaiming the gospel.

It is possible that when the Holy Spirit came upon them that they were in a house, or it could be that the house we read about here was actually one of the many rooms in the temple. We know that when they shared the gospel in the many languages represented that day, they were in the temple. Since these disciples were Galileans and considered to be a bit backwards, the impact of their witness, delivered with what must have been impeccable diction and grammar, was astounding to the hearers.

So, the Holy Spirit came in very obvious power on that day. The primary manifestation of His power to the lost on that day was the supernatural, spiritual gift of tongues to many, if not all, of the 120 or so Christ-followers. Does the Holy Spirit still fall on us in this manner today? Is the manifestation of His presence always the gift of tongues?

First of all, remember that the book of Acts gives us a record of how God established His new covenant with those who will repent of their sins and believe that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied God’s wrath against their sins. In the same way that Jesus’ divinity was confirmed by miracles, called signs in the gospel of John, so the ability to speak in a language that was previously unknown to the speaker confirmed God’s new work amongst His people. All those who followed Jesus at this point were Jews or Gentile proselytes.

One important fact to recognize is that these were known languages begin spoken, not the ecstatic babblings of people who were practically in a trance. The speakers were sharing the gospel in languages that already existed – but, they didn’t know the languages they spoke, thus, the miracle. And they were telling their lost listeners about Jesus! Remember, the Holy Spirit’s role is to magnify Jesus and that is exactly what was happening here. The proclaiming of the gospel combined with the miraculous use of tongues was confirmation that God was now saving people through faith in Jesus.

I would like to spend a great deal more time here, but we will miss important truth elsewhere if we linger, so let’s move to Acts 8 where we will see a passage that has led to crucial differences in the way Christians understand the baptism of the Spirit. To provide foundation for the verses we will read, we should know that Philip, an important deacon in the early church, had gone to Samaria to preach the gospel. This is the first record of the gospel being preached outside of Jerusalem. That is important. In Acts 8:12, we are told that “When they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” Then in verse 14:

14 Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John,
15 who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit,
16 for He had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
17 Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.
It would appear from this text that these believers were saved when they believed the Word and that they were baptized by water at the same time. Later, the apostles came and laid hands on them, at which time they received – or, were baptized with – the Holy Spirit. Is that so, and is that the norm today?

Please know that while I do not have time to give you the evidence, this is the only time in the NT that we see the baptism of the Spirit occurring separate from salvation. Here is what you always see occurring simultaneously in other places in the NT: 1) Repentance of sins; 2) Belief in Jesus; 3) Water baptism; 4) Spirit baptism. By the way – I have to say that I am guilty of emphasizing numbers 1, 2, and 4, but not number 3 very much. It was inconceivable to the early Christians that a person would repent of sins and believe in Jesus, but not be baptized. Water baptism always accompanied faith in the early church.

So, may I ask you – have you been baptized since you trusted in Jesus? We will be having a baptismal service next week. I cannot emphasize strongly enough what an important step this is in your relationship with Jesus. While I do not believe it is a part of salvation, I will say at the very least that I find it difficult to see how a Christ-follower can advance very far in his or her walk with Jesus and not be baptized. PLEASE talk with me this week if you have not been baptized!

But, the emphasis today is the baptism of the Spirit. Why, in this one NT text, is the baptism of the Spirit clearly at a different time than repentance, belief, and water baptism? For starters, remember that this was the first time that the gospel had been preached outside of Jerusalem. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews, because they had intermarried with Gentiles and were thus considered impure by Jews. While Philip was an important figure in the early church, he did not have the stature that John and Peter did as church leaders. I imagine Peter and John went to Samaria to investigate what had happened with the Samaritans, and when they discerned that their faith was genuine, the apostles acknowledged God’s work by laying their hands on them, and when they were baptized by the Spirit, God confirmed to Peter, John, and the whole church that He had indeed accepted Samaritans into His family. This order would never again be repeated in the NT, so we must conclude that it is not the normative procedure in the life of one who believes in Jesus. Spirit baptism always occurs at salvation in every other NT instance. Those who would say, “Well, at least it happened once,” will often go on to say, “And, that’s the way God always works today.” Do you see the theological inconsistency with such a position?

Let’s go to Acts 10 to see how the gospel advanced from Jews, to Samaritans, to Gentiles. Well, let me just tell you that through a set of visions from God, Peter, who was in the coastal town of Caesarea, went to share the gospel with an important officer of the Roman Army named Cornelius, who was, as you would expect, a Gentile. When Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius, the Holy Spirit came upon him, his family, and all who were present and they spoke in tongues. Peter was convinced and said, “God is doing a work here – you need to be baptized with water,” and so they were.

Peter was excited about what God had done, but some in the Jerusalem Church were not so happy and demanded an explanation from Peter. So, Peter appeared before the Church Council and told them the story of how God had led him to Cornelius. Then, beginning in Acts 11:15, Peter said:

15 “As I (Peter) began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.
16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John baptized you with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
17 If then God gave the same gift to them as He gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”

Do you see how God used the gift of tongues to show the Jews that He was now in the business of saving Gentiles – Gentiles who were not required to become Jewish proselytes before following Jesus? It is interesting that Peter referred back to Pentecost, some ten years earlier, when recalling how they had spoken with tongues. He did not say, “The same thing happened to them as happens to us whenever we get together and worship Jesus.” No, he said, “You remember how the Holy Spirit came on us ten years ago, how we spoke with tongues? Well, the same thing happened to Cornelius’ family!” And the rest said, “That settles it – God has saved them!”

There is only one more place in the book of Acts, in chapter 19, where we read about the gift of tongues. I don’t even have time to put the text up on the screen, but it is at the very first of the chapter when Paul encountered followers of John the Baptist who had evidently left Jerusalem before Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and certainly before Pentecost. These were men who were serious about their relationship with God. Paul asked them if they had been baptized with the Holy Spirit, and they said they had not even heard of the Holy Spirit! When Paul told them about Jesus, they believed and the Holy Spirit came upon them and they spoke with tongues. Why? I think it was to confirm the message of the gospel – no matter how religious you are, you will not be saved apart from repentance of sins and belief in Jesus Christ.
Every place in the book of Acts where we see the gift of tongues, God is confirming the truth of salvation in Jesus. The only other place in the NT that we see any talk at all about the gift of tongues is in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. In those chapters, Paul is not talking about what a blessing the gift of tongues was, but he was pointing out the problems that had arisen in the church because of the misuse of this gift. Furthermore, he exhorted the Corinthians to seek after more important and useful gifts, such as teaching the Word. He does go on to say, though, do not forbid the use of tongues.

You need to know that from the second century until the beginning of the 20th century, the gift of tongues and other miracle gifts were rarely, rarely experienced in the church. Does God use this gift today? I think so! But, it seems pretty clear to me that many of the abuses of this gift that occurred in first century Corinth are alive and well today. We have seen repeatedly in this last month that spiritual gifts are intended for the good of the body, not for our personal benefit. The use of tongues today, especially here in America, is so often employed for personal benefit – to improve or confirm my personal relationship with God.

A personal relationship with God. We all want that, don’t we? It is a noble desire and pursuit. But we must recognize that there is a difference between a personal relationship with God and a private relationship with God. A personal relationship with the Triune God is available to all who call on the name of the Lord, as we were told in our Acts 2 text. The Holy Spirit baptizes us into the body of Christ and we become the children of our heavenly Father Who loves and cares for us as no earthly father ever could. All Christ-followers have a personal relationship with God.

We are not granted, however, a private relationship with God. A private relationship is one in which God reveals truth to an individual that He does not reveal to anyone else. There is no promise of such a relationship anywhere in Scripture. Everything that God is going to tell me is in His Word. Now, for sure, the Holy Spirit must enlighten my understanding in order for me to benefit from the truth of God’s Word, but it is equally true that the Holy Spirit of God will not reveal truth in my heart and mind apart from God’s Word. I spent a lot of time this past week in the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians where this truth is quite plain.

Apostles and prophets in the first century were given truth directly from God so that it might be communicated to the church. Now that the Scriptures are complete, we have all the truth we need – God will not reveal new truth to us, such as there will be fires in New York. Now, there may be fires in New York and I may have a sense that certain things are going to occur, but it is not because God is telling me the future as a result of a private relationship that I have with Him. Have you ever sensed God leading you in a particular way and it turned out that it was your own desire or conviction that had led you rather than the Holy Spirit?

Please know that when I say what I am about to say that I do not mean to lump everyone who speaks in tongues or believes that the gifts of healing and miracles should be prominent in church life into the one group. Many times, though, the ones who are focused on these manifestations of God are tempted to believe that they have a private relationship with God. When a person believes that he or she has a direct line to God that circumvents what God has revealed in His Word – even though the person would deny such a connection – the potential for theological error and tremendous damage to the church is great. And, the Holy Spirit is not the author of such confusion.

Well, it is an awkward place to stop, but to continue preaching would be even more awkward! Today’s message has been more negative than positive – about the way the Holy Spirit does not work in the church today, but it needed to be said. Even if this has not cleared up all your questions, I do hope it has increased your understanding to a small degree. Let’s pray.

Friday, April 3, 2009

It's All About God. Which Makes it All About Me. Which Makes it All About Him.

Confused yet? If this world is all there is, then I had better make the best of it, for as they say, you only go round once. After defining personal success and fulfillment on my terms, I should structure my life in such a way so as to achieve my own goals and enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts. Sickness? Accidents? Reverses? PLEASE! Don’t bother me with such negative vibes – I am doing the best I can in this life.

That’s the way it should be if this life and my own plans and schemes are all that matter. But, if a Creator exists Who lays claim to my life – well, that changes everything! I can determine my own destiny only if I created myself (which is, when you think about it, why even suicide doesn’t work!). Well, OK, let’s make it a little easier on beloved self – I can direct all of my efforts toward personal gain and satisfaction only if I am accountable to no one but myself.

None of us live that way, ultimately, do we? Instinctively, all humans recognize that every person is accountable to someone. That is why cruel dictatorships (do you know any dictators that are not cruel?) seem to be so unnatural and such a perversion of justice and fairness. The human heart cries out for justice – as long as it is being meted out to someone else!

In Psalm 50, the Creator of the universe, the Triune God (well, we know now that He was three-in-one even when this psalm was written) calls the whole earth to give account to Him. In verse 21, He accused men and women of evil deeds that were caused by a terrible misjudgment – made possible because of His decision to not always judge sin immediately – that assumed God is like one of us. Men and women had created God in their own image rather than the reverse. Man had become – and continues to be so today with more technology and creativity at his disposal – a god in his own mind.

Those who follow Jesus recognize that they owe allegiance to God. We recognize that this life is not about us, but about Him Who created and redeemed us! We gladly give Him praise for the gift of salvation and for abundant life, no matter our circumstances. In seasons of pain, our heart still beats for Him. We lose ourselves in His grace, His love, and His will for our lives.

So, Christ-followers give up on personal passions, pursuits, and dreams, right? Well, yes and no! While we surrender our plans and priorities to Him, we discover, in time, that in addition to being all about His own glory (which is OK if you are perfect and holy and 100% righteous with no chance of ever being otherwise), God is all about us! Proof? The cross! Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?”

“Hey, this is better than I thought! Now, it is not up to me to make sure all my dreams come true – but, it is up to God!” That is hardly the meaning of Romans 8:32. Did you miss the first part? He gave up His own Son for us! God’s grace and gifts do not imply a life of ease, but, rather, the wisdom for his perfect will to be accomplished and the strength to endure anything. But, think about it! God loves you so much that He focuses all of His love squarely on you. When we make this life all about us, we miss God’s full participation in our lives. When we make it all about Him, He, in turn, makes it all about us. His heart becomes our heart. His desires become our desires. Our insecurities and heartaches are swallowed up in His awesome love, mercy, and grace, and He surrounds and overwhelms us. Life has meaning and fulfillment that we did not know was possible.

When it is all about God, it becomes all about us – which makes it all about Him. Our gratitude for His work in our lives directs our hearts and praise to Him! OK, it should be that way, but it isn’t, always, is it? Sometimes when God does something good for/through us, we are greatly tempted to absorb all the good (praise, included) that comes from God’s gifts. Even as we rest in God’s blessings, the temptation is to make as much about Number 1 as possible, only now that God has intervened in our lives, we can shine in a big-time way! STOP! Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights Who does not change! (James 1:17) It’s all about Him!

God is moving in distinct and discernible ways at Grace Community Church, though we acknowledge the painful reality that many of us are suffering. It scares me, frankly, that our church seems so healthy. We are prime targets for Satan’s diabolical schemes and arrows of doubt and deception. As the ministry to which God has called us continues to grow and expand, let’s make it all about Him – and, not in a way that says, “My theology is better than your theology,” but, rather, in humble gratitude that He created us, redeemed us, and continuously pours out His grace on us, both individually and as the body of Christ. I love you, dear brothers and sisters!