HOLY SPIRIT POWER
”Therefore, I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God.” (Romans 15:19)
There is no doubt that the twentieth century was the century of Holy Spirit re-discovery for the church. It began with a global phenomenon of Holy Spirit movements not dependent on one another but producing the same result. The Welsh Revival of 1904, Asuza Street in Los Angeles in 1906, spreading to Scandinavia, Europe, the UK, Australia and South America. Add to this an amazing revival in Pyongyang in 1907 and you have an undeniable statement of God’s agenda – a century of Holy Spirit renewal and revival. Not without controversy of course, but these events were followed by the Latter Rain revival during the middle of the century and then the Charismatic Renewal during the last quarter. In terms of social movements throughout history, the last phase of the movement has become the most prolific in the history of mankind. The number of people impacted by the Holy Spirit now exceeds 600 million in every nation on every continent and within every identifiable stream of the Christian church.
All of that is to say that God has always intended a church that is notably identified with Holy Spirit power. While there has never been an era of Christian experience without people who sought and engaged with Holy Spirit power, the church as a whole was lost to the Spirit as it came under various cultural constraints during the Christendom era, then from the Enlightenment and its successors. It seems that every vessel of refreshing and revival that set its sail to fresh wind from heaven seems to easily founder on the rocks of human flesh in some form or other. The words of Paul to the Galatians sound a perennial prophetic warning:
“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes, Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3)
To make the observation that Paul’s ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision was built by Holy Spirit power will probably draw the same response as saying, “A mother’s milk is good for the baby.” No one is going to debate the point. The problem for us is that we agree with the words but are not willing to make them an essential part of our practice. I will never forget a comment by contemporary Chinese church leader, Brother Yun (cp. the book, “The Heavenly Man”) when he made his first visit to the United States and spoke in many large churches. When asked by an interviewer what his impression was of the American church he replied, “I am amazed at how much they can do without the Holy Spirit.”
If we take our modeling from the ministry of Jesus we will soon become aware that we have major work to do. A gospel comment on our current state might well come from Luke 9 where Jesus’ utters his most despairing words of the whole time he was on earth. I am talking about despair and not just pain and anguish. When he comes down from the mountain of transfiguration with Peter, James and John in tow the disciples are found to be in an argument with religious leaders. The incident is due to the fact that a man brought a demon-possessed son to be delivered and they weren’t able to do it even though they had had previous experience. Here is what he said to them,
“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” “He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” “ (Matthew 17)
I consider myself fortunate to have lived my Christian life during some exciting decades. As someone who was born again and nurtured in the evangelical stream of the church, I was also among those who embraced the Holy Spirit empowering offered through the Charismatic renewal in the early 1970’s. The controversy, as well as the excitement of that time, seems to be quietly morphed into something that has become respectable and mainstream. We have not fallen for the intimidation of traditional legalism like the Galatians. But we do seem to have morphed into a form of professional institutionalism that replaces personal Holy Spirit dependence with church program dependence. The more we offer carefully choreographed professional excellence as a substitute for discovering Holy Spirit presence we will find ourselves losing the power we need where we need it most. I am told that the average regular church attendance in western societies like ours has dropped to around 1.5 occasions per month. Even if this is supplemented with attendance at a home based Bible study group (now fortnightly during school terms rather than weekly) it amounts to approximately 1.25 hours per week. If a large percentage of church budgets and of resources is injected into the weekly meeting we are spending a lot of money convincing people that they just need to watch the professionals do their thing rather than equipping and releasing them to depend on the Holy Spirit everywhere every day.
When Paul found himself in Athens, the major centre of cultural influence in the Mediterranean world at the time, he did his usual thing by going to the synagogue, but it seems that there was no response to the gospel there. He also went to the marketplaces and a debate with some philosophers led to an invitation to speak to the Greek equivalent of a parliament. We have an account of his speech on that occasion and it is interesting from many points of view. A few people hung around and that’s all we know about gospel ministry in Athens. When he moved on to Corinth we are left in no doubt as to his feelings. He recounts them very succinctly in 1 Corinthians 2,
And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
It is possible that the experience in Athens was a modest wake-up call even for someone as focused as Paul. It may be too great an assumption for us to make that his resolve and re-kindled dependence on the simple message of the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit was a reaction to what had happened (and not happened) in Athens. His words to the spiritually supercharged believers in Corinth are challenge enough without knowing the certainty of the context. Like Paul in Greece, we are surrounded by a deluge of marketing eloquence and human wisdom. It bombards us from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep. It is the assumption of everything we see and hear. No wonder it is hard for us to avoid mission-drift not to mention message-drift. Our only hope is to keep on making a similar resolution as a way of combatting the mainstream culture that wants to tell us what we have is either weak or foolish.
My attention is drawn particularly to the last few phrases of Paul’s words, “so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” In our discipling, if we depend on slick persuasive words we will need to keep up a succession of hyped-up statements that appeal to the emotions but do nothing to connect the heart of a person to the Holy Spirit. If we take the risk and make a resolve to unashamedly depend on the Holy Spirit then the people we are seeking to reach and disciple will be much more likely to do the same.
We just have to ask the question, “Is what happened today a human story or a Holy Spirit story?” Here is a suggestion. Start reading any part of the Bible you like and look for the Holy Spirit stories. See how an everyday human story was suddenly transformed into a Holy Spirit story. Build a dossier of how ordinary human people became the agents of something the Holy Spirit did. See also where and why the people missed out on being Holy Spirit people doing Holy Spirit things. As you start to see these things begin to think and pray about your own circumstances and get some ideas as to how you may get to understand what God wants to do and how you can serve that purpose.
If you have never been filled with the Spirit or have no understanding of what it is like to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, start to read about it in the book of Acts and through into Paul’s letters. Ask Christian people who know the Holy Spirit to help you to get to know his presence and power in your own life.
There is no way a ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision will be possible without the power of God. Jesus made this point clear to the disciples who waited for the Day of Pentecost to come. That empowering presence changed everything. When people gathered from every nation under heaven and watched the 120 disciples worshipping God in the power of the Spirit the phenomenon defied all religious and human logic. When Peter stood up and preached the gospel they felt Holy Spirit power inside them as they heard the words on the outside. Their baptism and experience of Holy Spirit power created a supernatural community. If you want a definitive description of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit you can read about it in Acts 2:36-47,
“Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off —for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words, he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had a need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
It was so much more than speaking in tongues. When you think that this community was made up of people who came from all around the Mediterranean just count the personal and social miracles that are described in the first and most striking definition we have of what makes a group of people a church. All of these were produced at once by Holy Spirit power. When Paul wrote to the Romans, approximately twenty-five years later he was talking about exactly the same thing. This is the kind of Holy Spirit power that will make ‘NoPlaceLeft’ a possibility.