(Crossposted from my Facebook feed)
I intend that this post be one that continuously evolves, as I build what I hope are biblical perspectives upon whatever ministry I and others may be called to, especially when it’s a public one. These are not intended to be in any order or priority.
This is going to be a hard one to write. And I expect it will be long. But when the words begin swirling around in my Asperger brain the only way they’ll stop is to write them down.
This is a second draft of a sermon I started working on last month (see the original here).
- Q: Are the gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, &c.) still present and available to Christians today?
- A: Yes, but they sure do get abused an awful lot.
Scripture appears to describe two types of what we call “speaking in tongues”.
The first description is by Luke in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit falls upon the 120 assembled in the upper room, and it says that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).1 In this instance, the text continues,
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
The second form of what we call “speaking in tongues” is described by Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth:
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
(1 Corinthians 12:4–11)
However, Paul describes these “tongues” differently from how they are described in Acts. They are of a different kind and serve a different purpose:
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
(1 Corinthians 14:1–5)
As described by Paul, the form of speaking in tongues is a prayer language between the individual and God, and its purpose is to build up himself alone rather than the whole church, unless there is someone to interpret what the individual is praying. Later in the same chapter, Paul provides guidance on how they should operate.
If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
Apparently the fellowship in Corinth was going pretty wild with these gifts to the point of abuse, and Paul’s purpose is to bring his brethren back into line with the reason they are gathering in the first place, which is to strengthen each other in the faith, concluding, “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order” (vv. 39–40).
Responding to 13:8
There are those who use the following text to suggest that the gifts of the Holy Spirit ended with the passing of the Apostles.
As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
(1 Corinthians 13b:8)
I’m not so sure that’s what Paul says here. First of all, let’s put it back into its context: Paul is writing about love being “the more excellent way,” more than tongues, or prophecy, or asceticism, or even faith itself (vv. 1–3). As such, he is not necessarily discouraging the use of these gifts, but he is establishing some guidelines to prevent the abuse of those gifts as was apparently happening in Corinth, stating that in the end, everything should be done in love for the building up of the church. Things like prophecy, tongues, giving everything away—those are forgotten after a time, but love is timeless just like our God is timeless.
This last point runs contrary to a lot of what is found in today’s pentecostal movement—where it isn’t uncommon to turn on the local Christian TV station and watch a preacher openly go back and forth between off-the-cuff preaching and unintelligible babble, supposedly “speaking in tongues.” And, we haven’t even touched things like “holy laughter” or the “laughing revival”, or turning services into strange dance parties and rooms full of seemingly incoherent babbling. Paul in his writing to Corinth explicitly makes a stand against this—not by denying their existence, but encouraging their proper use, in a way that both builds the believer and draws the unbeliever toward Christ.
When used properly…
I close this by sharing an episode that happened to me in bible college what can happen when the gifts of the Spirit are used properly.
One of my required courses while in bible college was about theology and church mission. One session we had finished a segment on the calling to ministry and mission, and we were supposed to have a quiz that morning on the subject matter. As was usual the class was opened with prayer, but before the instructor was able to begin that day’s lesson plan, a student sitting in the front row gave him pause by saying “I feel that there’s something God wants to say.”
The instructor gave the student the floor. There was a short silence, then the student began exclaiming aloud in another language that I personally knew he did not know (for that matter, neither did I). He did this for about a minute.
There was another short span of silence, and the instructor gave the interpretation. A prayer, acknowledging our inadequecies as a next generation of pastors, missionaries, and church leaders, and crying out for strength and purpose.
What happened next could not be orchestrated by mere mortals. Nearly all of us, myself included, found ourselves out of our chairs and on our faces before God, praying, many (again, myself included) in tears, simply pouring our hearts and lives out to Christ in whatever way we knew how in prayer.
Obviously, the quiz was cancelled. The instructor abandoned his lesson plan and allowed the students to stay in the conference room as long as they felt they needed to in prayer and worship, and left. I continued praying for about another half hour before leaving to prepare for my evening class.
When I came back to campus that afternoon some hours later there were still students on their faces in prayer. I’m pretty certain it lasted a lot longer before they finally had to leave in order to allow the building to be locked up for the night.
Emphasis in scripture quotations is my own. All quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↩
I opened this latest iteration of my blog with a draft sermon. It’s been a long time since I preached anything; and like those times, my process, given my Asperger’s/autism, has been to write a first-draft stream-of-consciousness “brain dump,” which will go through numerous reads, rereads, rewrites, and practice reads before it becomes a concise, direct, and effective message to be delivered. In all likelihood, most of my personal story will end up excised from it because the topic is not something churches like to hear preached from a pulpit. But I posted the original brain-dump so you know my story.
(A draft sermon. The first drafts of sermons when I get the rare opportunity to preach/teach are usually stream-of-consciousness “brain dumps” that are then read, reread, and editied down in several passes until it’s the far more concise, cohesive, and [hopefully] effective sermon that gets shared from a pulpit. I leave this here in its first draft form because it details part of my personal testimony, which on a typical Sunday would likely end up excised by the end of all the editing and rereading passes.) ***
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:23–27)
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35–41)1
The purpose of my sharing with you is twofold: First, to provide us as followers of Christ a toolset that we can apply when life is stormy. Secondly, and perhaps for me more importantly, to share my own story. I preface this study by stating plainly for the record that I do not stand here qualified under 2 Timothy or under Titus to be a pastor or elder or leader—if anything, I stand here as a plain example of how not to live the Christian life. That’s going to become much more clear as I share my story. Mind you, I studied to be such a leader; my degree is in religion with emphasis in pastoral ministry. At this point in my life I had hoped to be in the same kind of role as your pastor for a number of years, but things didn’t work out that way because of my own failure. God has certainly blessed me with a job I enjoy and can earn a good living from, but it’s not where I desired to be when I started out.
I also preface today by stating that some of my story today will not be comfortable to listen to. But it needs to be shared and tackled head-on if the statistics that I discovered as I worked on this subject in my own life are accurate.
So, let me introduce myself. My name is Steven, and I am celebrating almost twenty years of recovery from an addiction to pornography. One that was with me from the moment I became a born-again Christian, that stayed with me as I spent two and a half years of bible college earning that pastoral degree, that continued with me into my first marriage and subsequently destroyed it. What that has to do with this passage from Matthew I’ll share as we go along.
With that out of the way, about our text.
Two of the synoptic Gospels provide us this episode, here in Matthew, and also in Mark chapter 4, which scholars suggest is Peter’s telling as dictated to Mark, and it’s given there with more detail. Matthew has organized his telling into distinct sections, with all of Jesus’ teaching together, all of his miracles together, etc., putting this episode at the end of the miracles section, while Mark puts this as the first miracle after Jesus’ teaching about faith (which ends up being quite relevant).
If we combine these two accounts into one, we discover some things about what should have happened here.
First, we find that the sea mentioned here in verse 24 is the Sea of Galilee. This isn’t a surprise. The way the geography was at that time, the Sea of Galilee is situated in a valley, with hills on each side, such that it was common for the wind to be channeled through that valley and stir up some waves, so this isn’t strange. Also, when Jesus calls his first disciples, where is he? Matthew 4:18—
While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
This tells us two things about these disciples: First, they knew the Sea of Galilee and what it could produce in terms of the weather. Second, they were skilled fishermen on the Sea of Galilee; if this was like any other storm they should be used to they’d have no problem. They’ve seen this before.
But there’s something different about this. They’re having problems with this storm. Ultimately, it’s beyond their ability and skill to handle and the boat is getting swamped. Something else is at work here, and in a second we’ll get to see what it is.
Where’s Jesus in all this? SLEEPING, IN A STORM THAT’S SINKING THE BOAT HE’S SLEEPING IN. HUH? Shouldn’t he be, like, helping bail? The boat’s being thrown around, there are guys leaning over the side puking from seasickness by now. They’re panicking, but Jesus is asleep.
Finally somebody wakes him up and cries “Save us, Lord, for we are perishing!” Mark’s version puts it more bluntly: “Teacher, do you not care that we’re perishing?” (Mk 4:38b).
So here is a group of skilled fishermen, running in every direction, in a flooding boat, bailing out water, trying to manage sails in a boat being tossed around like a bath toy. There’s wind and there’s noise and there’s thunder and terror and yelling and screaming and then Jesus stands up and (my translation of Mark’s version) yells SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN! and !
remain silent here at least a half-minute, maybe check my watch, wait a bit in silence or until somebody starts fidgeting, somebody coughs, whatever…
Silence is weird, isn’t it? I watched you all while I was standing here quiet for the last half-minute. Some of you got visibly uncomfortable after a bit, like “Did he forget what he was going to say? Did he have a stroke?” Think about the disciples here—all this noise and commotion and one moment Jesus is sound asleep and the very next second He is awake front and center and instantly the most powerful person on that boat. And there is total silence. Even the disciples are shocked. “What sort of man is this that even the wind and sea obey him?”
Well, we know having been given the whole story that he was more than just a man.
Okay, so back to my own story, and “rubber side down”. Where’s the application for this? How does this work into how I introduced myself at the beginning of this?
Just to prove that I did indeed pass my homiletics class in bible college I have exactly three points. We all–I, you, even pastors and elders gasp!–have storms in their lives from time to time. Nobody is immune. LET ME REPEAT THAT: NOBODY IS IMMUNE.
First, such a storm in life may be evidence of a higher, or supernatural, origin.
Where do I get that from this text? Look at a particular word used in verse 26—”Then he rose and rebuked the waves and the sea, and there was a great calm.” Hang on to that word rebuked, we’re going to come back to it.
Back on August 6th, Pastor Chris gave us a teaching from Psalm 82 that was called, “When God Judges the Gods.” If you don’t remember, go back on YouTube and look up that sermon and give it a careful listen, because what he says there is of key importance to what happens here in Matthew. He taught us about how there is elohim, God (big “G”) and the “counsel”, smaller gods (small “g”). Now, it’s not totally clear how this works but Chris pointed to some passages that offer us some clues, including the instance in chapter ten of Daniel where the Lord’s messenger is held up in responding to Daniel’s prayers by “the prince of the kingdom of Persia” (Daniel 10:12-13).
Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia
This and other passages in the Old Testament and also multiple extrabiblical sources suggest the reality of territorial gods (small “g”), whom God (big “G”) is rebuking and judging in Psalm 82. I highly recommend going back and watching Chris’ message. He explains it far better in 20 minutes than I can in the few that I have here. But, the fact that we have skilled fisherman, who spent their lives fishing the Sea of Galilee and therefore should have been able to manage a windstorm, for some reason could not handle this one, suggests that there’s more to this just being a windstorm, especially given who is on the boat with them.
Remember I told you to hang on to that word, “rebuked”? According to one scholar I read about Mark’s version (which uses this same word, by the way), it’s the technical language of exorcism. Jesus isn’t just addressing wind and water here. He is addressing something—someone—behind that stormy force and rebuking it and telling it to shut up and sit down (again, my own very loose translation). He uses the same language when casting out demons elsewhere in the Gospels; he orders them to be silent as he is casting them out, notice? The only situation where he allows them to speak that I can remember is the instance where he allows them to possess a herd of swine (right after this passage, in fact, here in Matthew).
What’s that mean for us? It is true that many times the “storms” we may encounter in our lives are because of our own doing, because of our own sin. I lost a marriage, a family, a home, a potential life of ministry and service, because of my own sin. “Lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself.” “Don’t blame the devil for man’s own stupidity.”
That said, however, there are many storms that arise not necessarily because of something we did (or maybe because of something we did that has taken on a life of its own), but because there is a supernatural battle going on, on this earth, for your soul and my soul; and that battle is even more fierce around those who follow Christ. Remember, we are in this world, not of it.
Ephesians 2:1—And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Ephesians 6:12—For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
There will be battles that it seems like we simply can’t overcome, can’t deal with. For many years I was battling an addiction I could not overcome, even after it destroyed everything I had. Why? Because the battle was not intended for me to fight on my own; it is a higher battle that should be fought in higher places, on my knees before God, allowing Jesus to be my defender and shield and letting God’s host fight the battle on my behalf.
Which brings me to the second point.
You notice that while the disciples are trying to battle this storm on their own, Jesus is sleeping? Why? Because he knows something that everybody else on that boat doesn’t but should have given the context that he just got done teaching them about faith in earlier parts of the story. Jesus knows his father. Jesus knows what’s going on. And Jesus knows that as far as religious leaders and Pharisees and Sadducees and anybody else out there (including, as we see here, supernatural forces) who are out to do him in, he’s not going anywhere until he does what he came here to do. Until he lays down his own life on the cross, nothing else can touch him. He’s going out on HIS terms, NOT THEIRS.
Point number two: RELAX! God’s in control.
That’s a hard thing to do in a storm. In a battle. Relax. But if we are followers of Christ, in pursuit of God’s will in our lives, the battle is HIS, NOT OURS. We can relax and do a Carrie Underwood (“Jesus, Take the Wheel”). The battle belongs to the Lord. In the same way that Jesus was untouchable until he accomplished his plan, the follower of Christ is untouchable as long as God’s plan is being accomplished, except by only one thing: ourselves.
Let me repeat: THE ONLY OBSTACLE TO GOD’S PLAN IN MY LIFE IS ME. I learned this the hard way. I can either stay in the way and keep trying to block things (which is why I’m struggling in the first place), or get out of God’s way and let him do his thing. And I can relax knowing HE is in control.
There will also be times where it seems that nothing’s happening. There will be times where you may wonder if God even cares. The disciples here definitely wondered. But it was because they forgot who was in the boat. How many times when struggling on my own did I ask “Jesus do you even care that I’m struggling here? That I’m DYING here?” It was because I forgot who was in the boat with me and I was trying to win on my own.
Point number three: THIS TOO SHALL PASS.
THIS TOO SHALL PASS. IT MIGHT PASS LIKE A KIDNEY STONE. BUT IT WILL PASS.
If we are getting out of God’s way and letting HIM fight those battles, they will end in one of two ways—God defeats the enemy, or God takes us Home. You will not in those options that there is NO scenario where the enemy wins. The serpent may bruise my heel, but Jesus will crush his head.
Second half of my story—a few years after the divorce with my first wife was finalized in the aftermath of my getting caught in my addiction a few years before (we are on good terms, by the way), I remarried the girl who was my crush in jr. high school. We had reconnected after losing track of each other for a long time after the divorce. Because she was Catholic, I went back to my Catholic roots and we did the whole canonical annulment process and spiritual counseling, which took a year or two in total, and we sprung our eventual nuptials as a surprise wedding rite in front of the entire church during a Saturday vigil mass.
There are some things you need to know about her, though. She was bipolar, had PTSD from previous abusive relationships, and she was also in chronic severe pain that often required emergency room visits to be properly treated. She, too, struggled with addiction of a different kind that I was blind to, an addiction to opioid medications. At one point I had to lock up her prescriptions to keep her from abusing them. It was a storm that could resolve in one of two ways, addiction defeated, or God bringing her Home. On a June afternoon, just after we had sent off the final payment on our car loan and we were going to go out to dinner that night to celebrate, she literally, and suddenly, dropped dead. Because there was a wall barrier between the den where I was working and the living room where she had collapsed, I didn’t know what had happened until it was too late to save her. The doctors were able to restart her heart, but she was brain dead. They were able to keep her going long enough for her friends to fly her kids out to say their goodbyes and then we let her go home to her Lord and Savior. She was 42, I was 43. That was __ years ago. I can tell you this, though—she is no longer suffering. She is no longer battling. The storm has been silenced. She is home.
It might pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass.
My being here, moving from Plant City here to become a part of this family, is the start of a new chapter for me.
I have been through the storms. So have you. Are you going to panic? Are you going to try to battle your way through on your own? Or are you going to find a spot next to Jesus to rest and let God fight the battle on your behalf?
I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. If you think that being a Christian is going to be easy and free from suffering, I don’t know what Bible you’re reading. But I can assure you of this: the Bible I’m reading states the ultimate outcome and for the one who follows after Christ, it’s pretty good news.
It does depend, though, on how you’re going to deal. You can keep trying it alone, without Christ, and you may very well score some victories, but in the end you’ll lose the war. Or you can follow Christ, offer yourself to Him, and as long as you continue to seek him, defeat is never an option. Not because of you or anything you’ve done, but because of HIM and what HE HAS ALREADY DONE on the cross. Your choice.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ↩