Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Rare In These Days

Northern hairy-nosed wombats are rare.
What was ubiquitous at one time and in one place may be exceedingly rare in others. This may be a bad thing, or a good thing ... or just a thing.

The writer of 1 Samuel notes that in the days before Samuel was called, “the word of the Lord was rare ... there was no frequent vision”.

Now, the Holy Spirit is not for a moment suggesting that the people of Israel lacked necessary direction from God for their lives, or that it was impossible to please God because nobody had the slightest idea what he wanted.

Not at all.

Israel had been given the Law of Moses; there was no lack of the “word of the Lord” in that sense. But there was “no frequent vision”. Supernatural, direct revelation was notably absent. Signs and wonders sometimes used by God to verify the authority of those who spoke for him were not to be found. It is in this specific sense that God’s “word” was rare.

Point: God does not always make his presence and will known to humanity in precisely the same way. He didn’t with Israel, and he doesn’t with the Church. We should not expect him to.

Dreams, Visions, Direct Revelation

Now of course there have been times in history — just as there will be times to come — when dreams, visions, direct revelation and prophecy have been commonly employed by God to communicate truth. God spoke directly to Noah, Abraham and Moses, and throughout the Old Testament to various prophets. The prophet Joel spoke of a time “afterward”, in which:
“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”
The apostle Peter picks up this theme at Pentecost, calling the time of which Joel spoke the “last days”, and telling the baffled onlookers in Jerusalem that the miraculous speech they were hearing from fellow Jews newly baptized with the Holy Spirit was of this same prophetic character: “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel”.

But the times of which Joel and Peter spoke are anomalous. They are the exception, not the rule. The period in history just prior to the arrival of Samuel on the scene in Israel was … well, not like that. The word of the Lord — by which I believe Samuel meant new, direct, personal revelation — was rare.

I would argue that we are living in similar times.

Not-So-Interchangeable Operations

Some Christians don’t see that. They conflate a unique first century occurrence — the baptism of the Holy Spirit, an event which signified the beginning of the Church, the Body of Christ — with the much more general ongoing obligation of believers to allow themselves to be directed by that same Spirit on a day-to-day basis throughout our Christian lives.

To Paul, this “baptism” is a done deal, something accomplished directly by God:
“In one Spirit we WERE all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”
while being “filled” remains an ongoing responsibility entrusted to individual Christians:
“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
God did the one, and we are to do the other. Baptism and filling are two different aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in this world.

Things Any Christian Can Experience

A 2010 article by J. Lee Grady in Charisma Magazine muddles these two distinct concepts, using the words “baptized” and “filled” interchangeably.

Does that matter? Sure it does.

The baptism of the Holy Spirit was a unique historical event inaugurating the Church. It was manifested in several discrete phases over a short period of years as the gospel spread from Jew to Gentile, but the phenomenon did not continue.

But because he does not acknowledge the unique character and purpose of this baptism, Grady expects the signs and wonders associated with it to be normative in the Christian life:
“When we are baptized in the Spirit, unusual ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ — which are listed in I Corinthians 12:8-10) — begin to be manifested in our lives. We begin to experience His supernatural power. These gifts include prophecy, discernment, miracles, healing and speaking in unknown tongues.

When people were baptized in the Holy Spirit in the New Testament church, the Bible says they all spoke in tongues (see Acts 2:1-4, Acts 4:31, Acts 10:44-48 and Acts 19:1-7). A lot of people get hung up on speaking in tongues because it seems like a weird thing. It’s actually not strange at all. It is a very special form of prayer that any Christian can experience.”
Any Christian? Really?

Special Priorities

For Grady, the universality of supernatural manifestations is a given. Note that when he speaks about spiritual gifts, he gives special priority to the supernatural sign gifts associated with the early church: prophecy, discernment, miracles, healing and speaking in unknown tongues. He has nothing to say about teaching, evangelism, administration, mercy and other gifts of the Holy Spirit of which we see regular evidence today. I’m sure he acknowledges them — after all, they are found in the same lists of spiritual gifts as the ones he prizes — but they are quite obviously of secondary importance to him. The things which Paul tells the Ephesians are evidences that the Holy Spirit is filling believers — singing, giving thanks and submitting to one another — do not even rate a mention from Mr. Grady.

But God does not always deal with us the same way. To expect first century miracles in the modern church is to set oneself up for major disappointment. I’ve been to charismatic Christian gatherings. I’ve seen what they call “tongues”, “healing” and “prophecy”, and they bear little resemblance to the events described in the book of Acts. Any reasonably objective observer is forced to conclude they are something different altogether.

To Do What I Choose

The parable told by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 20 has God asking this question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” That’s very important to answer correctly.

God deals differently with his people throughout history. There are eras — most of them, actually — when “the word of God [is] rare”; when supernatural phenomena are not to be found among the people of God.

I don’t want to straw-man J. Lee Grady, but I don’t think it’s unfair to note that his denomination values certain spiritual gifts above others — and that all the gifts he finds most desirable are those that, at least in the sense we find them described in scripture, are no longer being given to the people of God by the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues, Grady says, “serves as a doorway to the supernatural realm and helps usher you into the deeper things of God”. For Mr. Grady, a church without evident supernatural manifestations is a church that is merely playing in the shallows.

Let Him Do What Seems Good

If the word of the Lord is rare these days (at least in the sense Samuel used the term), well … so what? We can hardly complain that we have been shortchanged. Signs, wonders and miracles have always been exceptions, not the norm.

Whatever reasons we may come up with to explain the obvious differences in the way God deals with his people throughout history, we must always concede that what he does with us is always and absolutely his affair. We have no legitimate claim to a different role in the plans and purposes of God: one that might grant us the emotional experiences and concrete evidences of spiritual power we see displayed in the early church; one that might give us gifts we crave rather than the ones we already have.

God is allowed to do what he chooses with what belongs to him. Having given to us the promise of eternal life and an endless array of temporal and future blessings in the person of his Son, it seems unreasonable to me that his people should seek a state of affairs any different from that which he has ordained.

Or, as even old Eli put it, “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”

Amen to that.

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