Peter’s Pentecost Sermon

This Pentecost I thought I’d take a look at Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon.

Acts Chapter 2 is quite a long chapter, and Peter’s sermon takes up a considerable portion of the number of verses. Indeed, while the actual coming of the Holy Spirit takes place in only four verses, Peter’s speech takes up well over half of the chapter.

Luke obviously thought it was important, though sometimes we’re more apt to focus on the action, the event of the Spirit’s Coming.

Certainly the event itself is vital. It’s been described, with justification, as the birth of the Church, and without it, there probably wouldn’t be a Church as we know it. And yet, over half of the crucial chapter is Peter making a speech.

In some ways I almost wonder why it’s in there. What’s so important about this speech that it’s recorded in at least gist form for posterity?

It’s not like it’s a major section of moral instruction like the Sermon on the Mount, or a major Christological teaching like Colossians 1. Why did Luke consider it so important to record, and why did God consider it so important to preserve?

It’s one of several major speeches or sermons in the Book of Acts: there’s this one, there’s Stephen’s defence speech to the Sanhedrin, there’s Paul’s speech to the Areopagus, and there are several of Paul’s defence speeches before Roman magistrates. And in a sense, my question is the same for all of them: why is this here?

Peter’s “sermon” here is the first time there’s ever been an evangelistic talk given by someone who’s only human. In that sense it has the same overall purpose as Paul’s speech to the Areopagus: evangelism. Perhaps Luke intends these as “sample evangelistic messages” for us to draw on, emulate and learn from.

As such, the two speeches couldn’t be more different. Peter’s speech starts from a remarkable miraculous sign, takes in Biblical testimony, the life of King David, and several prophetic Scriptural statements and comes to Jesus’ identity as the promised Messiah from the perspective of the fulfillment of Scripture. Paul’s speech starts from the city of Athens’ rampant idolatry and the altar “to the unknown god”, takes in logic, pagan Greek poetry originally written about Zeus, and cutting-edge contemporary thought about the nature of reality and comes to Jesus’ identity as the Creator’s representative on Earth from the perspective of someone to whom Jewish Scripture was an unknown source.

The two speeches reflect their different audiences’ needs, and illustrate the dichotomy Paul mentions in I Corinthians 1: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom”.

If I’m right in my hypothesis that Luke (and the Holy Spirit) intend these sermons as illustrative messages for “how to do evangelism”, then Peter’s speech should be seen as “how to do evangelism with Jews” – people having the Scriptures and recognising their authority, who know that there is one God and know much of what He is like from His Scriptures. Paul’s speech, conversely, is “how to do evangelism with Greeks” – pagans, people not knowing the Scriptures or recognising their authority. It’s an important difference, and one we should bear in mind, because it’s no good quoting Scripture to back up a point if your audience doesn’t recognise Scriptural authority.

Nevertheless, Peter’s sermon is for Jews. Jews from all over the world, but Jews. Many of whom would have been in Jerusalem for Passover and seen the events of Holy Week, heard the reports of the resurrection, even, and not known what to make of it all.

Peter’s speech is occasional, made in response to the crowd’s desire for an explanation of the fact that 120 Galilean hicks were loudly declaring the praises of God in languages from all over the known world.

This is as remarkable as a busload of East Texan rednecks suddenly speaking fluent Khalkh Mongolian, Dari, Quechua and Swahili. For all that America is a “melting-pot” of diverse nations and cultures, Americans are even worse than the English when it comes to learning foreign languages, and Galileans were just as uncosmopolitan. Something, evidently, was going on, and whatever it was was very remarkable.

Into this knowledge vacuum Peter steps, with an explanation of what is going on that ties together the present events, Scriptural prophecy, the Messianic expectations of that Scriptural prophecy and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s very clever, actually.

Peter’s first order of business is to counter the mockery of those who blamed all the noise and commotion on the disciples’ drunkenness. No, it cannot be; it’s too early in the morning for those who start drinking at dawn to be fully gone, and too late for the all-night carousers. No, he explains, this is a fulfillment of the prophet Joel’s words, about the coming of the Holy Spirit on all flesh.

This is fairly straightforward, but to our Western, non-Jewish ears, the next part looks like a non-sequitur. “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God…”

What we’re missing is the fact that the implications of Joel’s prophecy were that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was a sign of the age of the Messiah’s Kingdom. The natural question for a Jewish person in that day and age would probably have been “well if this is that, where’s the Kingdom of Messiah?”

It’s in answer to that unspoken question that Peter brings in the life and witness of Jesus. He has Messiah’s imprint in terms of being accredited by God in deeds of power and holiness. Though betrayed and handed over to death by fallen, sin-stained human beings, he bears Messiah’s imprint in that God raised Him from the dead – and we’re not making this up; we’re eyewitnesses. We saw it.

I can almost hear the baffled crowd now. “But even if He were raised from the dead, how can He truly be Messiah if He died? He’s the Son of David who will reign on his throne, not die on a cross!”

And so Peter turns once again to Scripture. Beginning at that Messianic title, “Son of David”, he takes David’s own prophetic psalms and brings out of them the full depth of their meaning: that though David died and was buried, he was looking forward when he wrote that to One who would not be abandoned in the grave. This is Jesus, he finishes. You crucified Him – and he makes no bones about laying the blame at the crowd’s feet – but God has made Him both “Lord”, as David said, and Christ, David’s Son and the heir of the Kingdom.

Perhaps one of the important things for us today, especially those of us who are Gentiles, is to recognise that the huge numbers of people added to the Church after this sermon were not added purely by the magical-seeming means of the Holy Spirit overruling their minds by a touch on their hearts. It matters what we say when we speak about who Jesus is. There’s an appeal not just to the emotions but also to reason. Starting from what his Jewish audience already knew about God and Messiah from the Scriptures, Peter reasons with the crowd that Jesus is, in fact, the One that was promised.

Interestingly enough for our own evangelistic efforts, there’s absolutely no appeal here to Jesus meeting felt needs. Peter’s message is uncompromising; it’s “Jesus is the promised Messiah and you crucified Him”. There’s no evidence here of the Jesus who can help us deal with our anger issues or set us free from our poor self-image. He can, but that’s not where Peter focuses his message. This crowd know what Messiah’s supposed to be: He’s the One who will establish God’s Kingdom on earth and really make us into a holy nation and a people of God’s own possession. Peter’s insistence that “you crucified him” isn’t very PC. It’s not even tactful. But it comes to the heart of the issue.

The Jewish nation of the time thought they were pretty special. They had the patriarchs, the Law, the Commandments, the Scriptures. They were God’s own people, whom He loved more than anyone else on the face of the earth.

The fact that God’s own people could so devastatingly miss it as to crucify His Own Son wasn’t in their thinking.

No wonder, when it registered, that they were “cut to the heart”. God must be so angry with us! We’re no better – and quite a bit worse, because we had no excuse – than pagans! What can we possibly do to make it right?

So at the end, it comes down to the forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness of the sins of a crowd that counted themselves “righteous” and “Godly”, and didn’t even know that they had them.

“Repent (turn around, change your mind and your ways) and be baptised (just like a pagan who wanted to join themselves to the Jewish nation and become a worshipper of the true God) for the forgiveness of sins…”

Advertisements

The Work of the Spirit

What is the main ongoing work of the Holy Spirit?

Ask different types of churches and you’ll get different answers. Look at the actual practice of those same churches and you may come to different conclusions yet.

Draw people to Jesus. Regenerate the spirits of those who trust in Him. Enable believers to know that they personally are children of God. Empower the believers for miraculous signs and wonders. Empower the believers to live holy lives. Bring the Word of God to the church through prophetic utterances. Make the Scriptures come alive. Convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.

They’re all good answers, and most of us would probably agree that all of these are the work of the Holy Spirit today, unless you’re cessationist about miraculous signs.

The difference between our churches on this is mostly a matter of what we emphasise in practice.

More traditional, less Pentecostal/Charismatic type churches tend to emphasise the inward work – enlivening the Scriptures, quickening the spirit, enabling holiness of life – while more Pentecostal/Charismatic churches tend to emphasise the outward – demonstrating the Kingdom of God through miraculous signs and the prophetic word. We acknowledge it all as the work of the Holy Spirit, but in practice we tend to major on one or the other.

Most of the more Pentecostal/Charismatic churches have tended to so emphasise the outward at least in part out of a reaction against the cessationist or pseudo-cessationist milieu in which they came to be. It was a recognition that no, the Bible doesn’t actually say that once the canon of Scripture was completed that no-one could expect miracles any more. God is the same God today as the One who gave life to Lazarus, cleansed the lepers and parted the Red Sea. It might be that we don’t see many miracles today for the same reason that Jesus couldn’t perform many miraculous signs in Nazareth: because of unbelief.

But in some cases the pendulum has swung so far to the outward demonstrations of the Holy Spirit’s work that we have no practical place for His more behind-the-scenes work. We acknowledge in theory that the Holy Spirit’s work in us ought to result in changed lives and holy character, but practically speaking we only talk about His demonstrative work of miracles and healings. When we don’t know what to do, sometimes we seek a prophetic “now” word from the Lord rather than implementing the answers He has already given in the Scriptures. We don’t teach people how to study the Bible; we teach them how to hear from the Lord in prayer.

It’s important that we expect God to show up in miraculous ways. It’s important that we expect God to continue to speak to us. It’s important that we train people to listen to His voice. It’s unnatural when we don’t: He’s the same yesterday, today and forever, and He calls Himself “The Word”.

But part of hearing His voice is learning to recognise who is speaking, and if we don’t know what He’s already said in the Scripture how can we identify if this new word is really Him or not? Part of God showing up is that our lives are changed and we don’t act like we once did, not just that we’re breathless with emotion and feel all tingly.

It’s vital that our emotions be involved in our Christianity. We are whole people, and our whole being must praise His name – emotions too.

But we are whole people, and our whole being must praise His name – mind as well. It’s not enough to really feel emotionally that we are His child, as important as that is. We must learn to be like Him and think our Father’s thoughts as well.

What if the answer to our sung “I want to know You” is “There’s a Book in your hand that’s all about Me. Read it!

What if God shows up in our worship service without all the tingly feelings and bangs and noises?

What if His guidance and speaking comes mediated through His indwelling Presence in other believers and a big discussion and debate like the Acts 15 Council of Jerusalem?

What if the demonstration of His Presence is that we are all pouring out onto the streets to tell people about Him rather than that we’re all bouncing around in here practicing using His gifts on one another?

What if the evidence that we’ve really met with God is Jacob’s evidence? He spent all night wrestling with God face to face in bodily form, and he came away from the expecience not with new power for success and victory, but with a new name and a limp.

Not an empowering, but an impediment.  And not a temporary impediment, but a permanent reminder to him of his new-found dependence on the Lord and of God’s trustworthiness to be all that Jacob needed Him to be. If God were to do that in one of our modern Holy Spirit-led worship services, would we even recognise Him?

Sometimes I’m afraid the answer for a lot of us might be “no”.

The GPS Blocker

As I’ve mentioned before, I run a construction GPS unit in my day job. And today, I have a problem.

One of the big trucks being loaded with rock to be hauled offsite has a GPS blocker.

There are a lot of companies which put GPS tracking devices in their company vehicles and monitor them for things like speeding, or whether you are where you say you are, or how long you remain stopped in one location, etc. From the company’s viewpoint, it makes sense. Not only does a GPS tracker give you the ability to track your vehicle if it gets stolen, but it helps make sure that your employees are doing what they are supposed to.

However, there are a lot of employees that resent the lack of trust and invasion of privacy this monitoring represents, and so there’s a market for devices that block GPS signal reception.

I think one of the trucks has one, because when it shows up I start to lose satellite reception.

Interestingly, though, I still pick up the Russian GLONASS satellites, but those by themselves don’t give me the precision that my job requires.

In other words, I’m being hampered in my work by something that blocks my access to input from above.

I started to think. Is this also sometimes the case spiritually?

A channel to heaven is blocked, and I’m not hearing the voice of God. I’ve committed a sin, and my sensitivity to the Spirit is muffled. I’ve chosen to pursue a sin, and now I’m vulnerable to believing any lie that justifies it. There’s demonic interference and I’m not receiving the answer to prayer that the Lord has already spoken.

Does this happen? What does Scripture say?

Well, we can see instances in which it certainly does appear that way. Daniel fasted and prayed for understanding of his vision for an extended period before the angel showed up. But the angel says nothing about “because of your persistence in prayer the Lord has heard you”. On the contrary: “As soon as you began to pray the Lord sent me…” But the angel encountered spiritual resistance from outside.

We in the West sometimes don’t like to think about it very much, but there is a very real and dangerous enemy of our souls, who wants to do everything he can to hinder the work of the Lord. Including delaying or stopping answers to prayer. Just like the truck with the GPS blocker came and parked itself where it was interfering with my signal reception, so our enemy does appear to sometimes have the ability to park himself over us and interfere with the channel between us and the Lord. If as soon as you sit down to pray you are bombarded by a flood of sinful thoughts, you might just be under attack in this way. If God has clearly spoken something and it has been confirmed in multiple ways, and yet you’re not seeing His promise fulfilled, you might be experiencing this sort of attack.

Of course, equally, you might not be. We read at the beginning of the Exodus story of Pharaoh hardening his heart, but then towards the end of the ten plagues we begin to read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He was given numerous chances to turn. He even agrees to do it God’s way in order to get rid of the plague, but then after the plague is lifted he reneges on his promises. But then he seemingly gets to a point of no return, and God deliberately makes his heart hard.

Part of this is the spiritual battle going on behind the scenes. The Exodus is not just a conflict between Pharaoh and Moses, it’s a conflict between the gods of Egypt and the God of Israel.

Each of the ten plagues is a carefully-crafted demonstration of the power of YHWH over a different Egyptian god. The Nile was worshipped as a deity, and called “the blood of the kingdom”, and here it is as actual blood. Frogs were sacred to one of the goddesses and you couldn’t kill them. Yet here they became so prevalent that you couldn’t take a step without killing them. Livestock, especially cattle, were sacred symbols of one of the main gods, and here they were dying in the fields. Personal cleanliness and hygiene were sacred duties to the Egyptians, yet here they all are with boils. The sun-god was another major deity; the light-bringer and one of the main ruling gods. And darkness envelops the land. And the highest of the Egyptian gods at that time was Horus, first-born son of the sun-god and ascendent ruler of the morning, who was also in another guise the god of rebirth known as Osiris. And the first-born of all the Egyptians died. Our God is systematically taking on and destroying the gods of the most powerful nation on earth.

There’s more going on than just Pharaoh. From a certain point of view, it’s almost that God needed a hard-hearted Pharaoh in order to fully display His majesty over the gods of Egypt.

But certainly personal sin has effects. You can’t just keep on sinning and expect to maintain an open line to God. By repeatedly choosing sin you’ve given the devil a foothold, and he’s not enough of a fool as not to take advantage of that. Your conscience gets dulled in a particular area, because your habit of violating it has worn it down.

As Jesus Himself said, you cannot serve two masters. He was talking in that instance about God and Mammon, that is, the power of money, but the Bible equally characterises sin itself as another master. If you’re serving sin, you aren’t serving God, because the two are moving in opposite directions and you cannot move in all directions at once.

But part of me isn’t really comfortable with this idea we sometimes have that if we commit a sin, to that degree we make ourselves unable to hear or discern the voice of God.

If that were invariably true, why does any unbeliever repent?

They have an unregenerate nature that follows an anti-God course. They repeatedly choose sin because it is the path of the natural man. By this theory, they ought to be so unable to hear the voice of God that they will never be able to repent.

Thanks be to God, it is not wholly so. We serve a God who is a Communicator. He spoke the world into being. We call Jesus “The Word”. The Holy Spirit “leads us into all truth”. He is more able to speak than we are unable to hear Him.

And He wants to be found. He’s unwilling that any should perish. He delights when sinful people turn away from their wrongdoing and self-centredness and seek Him. Why would a God like this make Himself unable to be heard by those who most need Him?

So I don’t entirely think that personal sin makes us insensitive to the Spirit and vulnerable to believing any lie that will justify it.

I think it’s the reverse. I think the fact that we are choosing to sin shows that we are believing a lie about God. “God’s holding out on you. He doesn’t want you to have this good (poisonous) thing”. “God can’t be trusted to meet your needs. You’d better do it yourself”. “God thinks you’re worthless”. “God wants you to be in pain”. “God is more concerned with your behaviour than with the state of your heart”.

The lies take many forms. But if we’re believing one of them, it functions as a bent towards certain forms of sinning. This may be part of the reason why so much of Paul’s letters are concerned with theology: if we’re believing the wrong things, it will show up in our actions.

These, then, might be the real GPS blocker. And not so much of a “blocker” as a “skewer”. If we’re believing a lie, it can skew our perceptions, throw us off, make us think we’re where we’re supposed to be when we aren’t.

But God is still able to speak. And we’re still able to hear Him, though perhaps we might be training ourselves to ignore.

Powerless

The construction GPS unit I use for my job is being temperamental at the moment.

It’s not really anyone’s fault. The way the thing works is that in addition to the satellite receiver in a conventional GPS device like a satnav or something, it has a base station set up on a known point to transmit those coordinates. When it’s working, this allows a positional accuracy of about half an inch horizontally and almost an inch vertically, which is plenty close enough for the excavation we do.

My problem comes because the base station I’m using on this job is quite a long way away. Too far for the little antenna on my GPS unit to get a reliable signal.

Until yesterday, we had a repeater unit set up on the temporary job trailer that the General Contractor have been using, but we have “permanent” portacabin jobsite field offices going in, and the General Contractor have pulled the power to the temporary trailer.

It’s a pain, because it makes my job extremely difficult, but it got me thinking about the Holy Spirit’s empowering, and what happens when we try to operate without it.

In my workplace, I have all the equipment and training I need to do my job, but without power it’s useless.

The Holy Spirit is much the same way. Jesus promised the disciples that “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.

Trying to do the job of being a witness to the fact that Jesus is alive without the power that the Spirit gives is fairly futile. We may have all of the God-given talents and skills we need, but without power it’s not really going to get us anywhere.

It’s easy in our humanness and tendency to focus on what is seen rather than what is unseen to miss just how vital the Holy Spirit’s empowering truly is. We think we can do it ourselves, if maybe not quite as well without His help. We have the right equipment in the shape of our gifts and talents – some of them look more directly supernatural than others, but a lot of the gifts even on the I Corinthians 12 list feel a good deal more “ours” than the Spirit’s.

But without power, even the gifts of the Holy Spirit don’t do a thing.

In the modern world it’s difficult to overstate how much we all depend on having power. We surround ourselves with computers and phones and electric lights and kitchen appliances and everything else. Even our screwdrivers are powered as often as not.

It’s a good picture of the spiritual realm. Whether we realise it or not, we are just as dependent on power there as in our everyday lives. When Jesus said “without Me you can do nothing”, He wasn’t using hyperbole. It’s literally true.

Even on a physical level, we and all of the rest of the universe are sustained moment by moment by the Word of His power. And spiritually, the power of God the Holy Spirit not only enables us for ministry but quickens us for the life of the age to come and gives life to our mortal bodies.

It’s an awfully dependent position to be in, and our pride doesn’t like it at all. But guess what? God isn’t really interested in pandering to our pride. It’s yet another example of our needing to get over ourselves and stop thinking we have something of our own.

As the old hymn says, “Nothing in my hand I bring”.

A Mighty Wind

One of the main forms of picture language for the Holy Spirit is wind or breath. The breath of God, blowing upon us. The sound of a mighty wind.

It’s a good metaphor. Like the wind, the Spirit Himself is invisible. You can’t see air, whether it’s still or on the move, but you can see and feel its effects. We can watch clouds go scudding across the sky. A summer breeze refreshes us in the baking heat, even if it’s warm enough to feel like a hair dryer. We can see it turn the blades of a windmill to generate electricity, we can see its power unleashed in tornado and hurricane.

I’ve seen steel beams a foot across twisted like straws by a tornado. We’ve all seen footage of the devastation of hurricanes – winds so powerful we give them names in order to bring them down to size a bit.

All this from air on the move.

Can the Holy Spirit be that destructive?

We don’t like to picture Him that way. Gentle breeze blowing refreshment to our souls is more our speed, and so He is. He’s good, and He’s for us, has our best interests at heart. And through His omniscience He knows far better than we what our real best interests are.

He has another side, though. He will not tolerate sin, will not play nicely with the black heart of our self-worship. Unleashed, He will be as destructive to our fallen old nature as a tornado.

Source: NOAA via Wikipedia

We don’t like to think of the Holy Spirit as a destroyer, even a destroyer of evil, but He is. God is so committed to the destruction of sin that He was prepared to die in the Person of His Son in order to put an end to it. The Holy Spirit is just as committed to our sanctification.

We often want to pussyfoot around our sin. Gain forgiveness from it, but continue to live our lives like we’re still pagans.  Lock it away. Try to tame it; attempt to shackle the black beast. Our religious shackles of behaviour modification, doing what we’re told, obedience to the rules are weak, though, and sooner or later the beast will get free.

The job of the Holy Spirit is not to shackle the beast but to kill it. Our job is to let Him.

As much darkness as I know resides in my unregenerate nature, and yeah, it does take something as destructive as a tornado.

Tornadoes are weird things. They don’t appear to obey rules, and often seem to have minds of their own. They’ll tear the entire roof off a house, yet leave a sheet of paper on the table right where it was. They’ll drive straws through bricks, yet plant a couch with all its cushions delicately by the side of the road a mile away.

The “doesn’t obey rules” and “has a mind of its own” nature of tornadoes is actually a pretty good metaphor for the Spirit, too. One thing I’ve learned is that God will not be boxed. It’s not wise to try to tell the Almighty that He can’t do thus-and-so. Give a woman the gift of pastoral leadership. Heal someone miraculously today. Pick your theological box. In my experience, He tends to like breaking our human boxes; He’s bigger. He will not be contained.

He doesn’t obey our man-made rules. Jesus trampled all over the Pharisees’ rules: healing people on the Sabbath, touching lepers, eating with “sinners”. Yet He was righteous – not the righteousness of keeping all the silly rules we make up, but the righteousness of being completely in tune with God the Father.

The Holy Spirit is His Spirit. It stands to reason that they will be alike.

Time and Eternity

I was thinking about time this last couple of days. Actually, I was thinking that the six-month anniversary of my starting this blog was coming up, but it’s not until September.

We have lots of words in English for time. We have months, years, decades, centuries, millennia, ages, eras, æons, epochs. On the short end we have even more: weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds, moments, a New York minute, three shakes of a lamb’s tail. Not to mention the nebulous whiles and jiffies and half-a-secs.

We treat time as a commodity. We make it, spend it, buy it, keep it, mark it, waste it, kill it. In Western thought, the essential quality of time is running out.

In the Christian liturgical calendar, the long period between the end of Pentecost and the start of Advent is known as “Ordinary Time”. I find that rather appropriate to the seasons of our lives: the long slow march through the seasons, one day following the next, little different from the one before. No high and solemn holy days, no magnificence of spiritual spectacle. Just… Ordinary.

In the Northern hemisphere, it’s summer, the season of growing crops, watering and tending and fending off the pests in order to bring the whole crop around to harvest in the autumn. In the part of the Northern hemisphere where I live (an inhospitable desert known as Texas), it’s hotter than a brick furnace and the sun’s rays actually seem to take on physical weight.

This, then, is Ordinary Time. The life lived between. A hard, hot slog at times, the work of the Lord’s vineyard to prepare the harvest for that day which we know is coming, yet which seems at times no nearer now than at the Spirit’s Coming.

New Testament Greek, of course, has two words for time. There’s Kairos, meaning a specific moment or particular time, and Chronos, meaning days and weeks and months and years. It’s this second that gave the Greeks the name to their counterpart of Saturn and gave us words like “chronological” and “chronometer” and “chronic”. Chronos time is what I’m referring to here by the liturgical term Ordinary Time; the slow, metred progression of days, each one more or less alike.

It’s been said that God’s calendar runs not on Chronos time but on Kairos time. From the perspective of Kairos, it’s irrelevant how many days or weeks or months something takes to occur. It occurs “at the right moment”, “in the twinkling of an eye”, “in the fullness of time”.

Then there’s the next long plunge back into Chronos to await the next Kairos moment.

I think there’s a danger here of concentrating so fully on Kairos that we miss what we’re supposed to be doing with the Chronos we are given.

Ordinary Time is the season of watering and tending the crops. It’s the season when all the work has to be done in order to have something to harvest when that time comes around. Not glamorous or seemingly significant, perhaps, and certainly not having the splendour of Christmas or Easter. But an important time.

In the long years between the first Pentecost and the coming Second Advent of Christ, Ordinary Time might have more than one meaning, too.

Yes, it’s a very long, slow progression of years. But what interests me right now is that this cosmic “Ordinary Time” comes after Pentecost.

The implication is that being filled with the Spirit is normal. Ordinary. What We Should Expect.

I like that.

Living lives characterised by the influence of the Holy Spirit expressed in victory over sin is normal.

Living lives characterised by bold proclamation of the Good News about Jesus is normal.

Living lives characterised by righteousness, peace and joy is normal.

Performing exploits of power that give glory to God and demonstrate His Kingdom is normal.

Sometimes our lives are so subnormal that these things are virtually matters of legend. Victory over sin? To the extent of not sinning? Power of the coming age breaking into our lives?  Amazing, we think.  Amazing, yes, but it shouldn’t be abnormal.

It’s Ordinary Time, between Pentecost and the Second Coming. Life in the power of the Spirit ought to be the rule for followers of Christ, not the exception.

But at the same time, it’s the long patient march of obedience to Him. Getting on with what He’s called us to do – make disciples of all nations. Because when the final Kairos breaks through into cosmic Ordinary Time, it might just be too late.

“God Told Me…”

In certain Christian circles it’s not that unusual, in the process of corporate decision-making, to hear “Well, God told me…” Fill in the blank. We should do it this way. If we do this, it will not be a good thing. You’re the woman for me. The possibilities are nearly endless.

We serve a communicative God. One of the first things we see of Him in the Bible is that He spoke. And because He is the same yesterday, today and forever, we believe that He still speaks today.

However, today as in Biblical times, there are numerous people who claim to speak for God, and not all of them do. How should we discern the voice of God among the other voices?

“God told me” may, in fact, be accurate, but it can (and more often than not does) have the effect of shutting down discussion and manipulating or blackmailing people into following whoever says “God told me”. You’d better do what I say, because I’m speaking on God’s behalf. If you don’t, you’re disobeying God, and you don’t want that, do you?

How should we handle these people who tell us adamantly that “God told me” thus-and-so? We don’t want to reject a genuine leading of God, but at the same time we don’t want to follow a false or mistaken prophet.

It’s also vital that we distinguish these two options. Many of those who tell us “God told me” may be less-mature believers who may be describing a genuine leading of God in more absolute terms than is warranted on this side of Pentecost. There’s a difference between sincerely trying to hear the voice of God and getting it wrong, and deliberately setting out to mislead. Not everyone who gets it wrong is a false prophet.

The Bible gives us several tests which we are enjoined to make of any word or message coming to us. Because while not everyone who gets it wrong is a false prophet, there are those who are. As the Scripture says, “Brothers, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (I John 4:1).

The first test is found in Deuteronomy 13. “If a prophet or one who foretells by dreams appears among you and announces a miraculous sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder takes place, and he says ‘Let us follow other gods’ (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them’, you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer”. Does this word or prophecy line up with what God has already spoken in the Bible? Does following it bring us closer to God or further from Him? Is it obviously contrary to Scripture?

If the answer is that it lines up with the Bible, well and good. If it can’t even pass the first and most basic test, it must be rejected, no matter who it is from. As even St. Paul himself said, “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8).

The second battery of tests is found in Deuteronomy 18:14-22. “The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so. The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him… You may say to yourselves, ‘How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the LORD?’ If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

This is the test of accuracy. If we have established that what is being said does not contradict the Bible (so far as we understand), we are instructed to test and see whether what is being predicted comes true.

Far from cutting off discussion, “God told me” ought to provoke a careful weighing of the message. No-one to whom God has genuinely spoken has anything to fear from such a weighing. The process of weighing simply allows other people to affirm that the Lord has indeed spoken.

Is it true? Is it, in fact, accurate? God has given us the tests for a reason, and He expects us to use them. He’s also given us wisdom, and He expects us to use that as well.

The thing both the one to whom the message has been given and those who are listening should bear in mind is that we are weighing the message, not the individual.

We aren’t under the Old Covenant any more, with its limited outpouring of the Holy Spirit (for prophets, priests and kings) and its draconian punishments for falsely claiming to speak for God. We live on this side of Pentecost, and all of us have the Spirit. As the people of God, we all have the ability and responsibility to hear God. No-one gets to shift the blame for disobedience onto what someone else told them. And equally, no-one gets to set themselves up as sole arbiter of the Will of God. “God told me” may be just a way of expressing your individual certainty in what you have heard, but it’s not that helpful. We still have to test it, and you need to humble yourself for that. “I believe the Lord is saying…” or something similar is far better. We aren’t the One Mediator. We’re imperfect humans, and sometimes even the best and most mature among us get it wrong.

On the other hand, we who are listening need to humble ourselves to the possibility that God may indeed be speaking. We should not reject the word of the Lord just because we don’t like the way it was spoken.

Even if this is a word from the person’s own spirit, it may still have truth to it. We might need to handle the situation carefully, affirming that yes, you have brought up a truth that we need to face up to and deal with, but no, this might not be from God but from you yourself.

Hearing God is not actually that difficult. After all, He wants us to hear and to get it right. But if you’re finding that God’s words line up exactly with your own prejudices and opinions, you may want to re-examine the source. After all, all of us fall short of the glory of Jesus Christ.

There are times when a word isn’t so simple to test. How do you weigh a message about whether or not to purchase a particular property as a church building, for instance? Following this word could conceivably open the door to new avenues of ministry or new capabilities, and thus lead us closer to God, or it might leave us in the shackles of debt and discouragement. While Gideon’s “fleeces” weren’t necessarily as much of a pattern for our behaviour as we might like to think (did he really need repeated “signs” from God after getting the message directly from an angel?), there’s more of an element of truth to it than we sometimes want to believe. Don’t lay fleeces, we’re sometimes told. That’s unbelief. Just get on with obeying God.

That’s all well and good on an individual basis, but sometimes it really isn’t clear what we should be obeying. It’s not unbelief to request confirmation from the Lord, even through something unusual like a sign. It is unbelief to go on asking for signs as an excuse not to obey, but if you genuinely want confirmation or clarification, that’s a different matter.

God knows how much we have invested in this. If we go off on some random escapade, He knows how much of a hole it might put our family into financially. He’s not asking us to do anything unreasonable, or if He is, He’ll make it abundantly clear that that is indeed what we should be doing. That’s why we have the tests – so that we can know He’s in it.

For corporate decision-making, God’s normally going to speak corporately. This may be through one person acting as a messenger, but even then, we all have the Holy Spirit, and He will confirm to those who listen that this is the word of the Lord. Or not. Weighing the message is important. It lets us all get on board with what God is genuinely saying and weed out the false and the well-meaning-but-mistaken. If you fall into the “well-meaning but mistaken” category, that’s ok. We all get it wrong sometimes, occasionally embarrassingly so. Humble yourself, receive grace, and go on with the Lord.

One more thing. If we disagree with someone over a particular thing we believe the Lord has said (either through different beliefs about a “God told me” message or even through differing interpretations of the same difficult passage of Scripture), they may not necessarily be resisting God and rejecting His Word. They may just have a different understanding than you.

They still believe in the same God. They still follow the same Jesus. We’re still the same family of faith. We may come to a parting of the ways over a decision or an interpretation of Scripture, but it need not be an acrimonious one.